Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Voices from Spain
My grandmother died in 1936, one week after giving birth to her fourth child, she had lost a son who had died as an infant a year earlier. She was twenty seven years old. Poverty and malnourishment were certainly factors in these tragedies. My granddad had been out of work for four years. He was a fitter in the steelworks in Scunthorpe, and had been sacked for refusing to shake the hand of an aristocrat being shown round the works.
It was an act of immature ultra-leftism, but the left had been driven a bit crazy after the defeat in the general strike in 1926. My granddad used to tell me how the strike in Scunthorpe had been completely solid, but when they were sent back to work by the TUC and their own union’s leaderships (The AEU in his case) the bosses were standing at the gates, and known militants and CP members were not let back into the plant. They were tapped on the shoulder, and told: “Not you, lad”.
Unemployment in the 1930s meant appalling poverty, and means test inspectors. The family subsisted largely on vegetables grown on my granddad’s allotment. (My mother has recently been widowed, and was means tested for her pension credit, which she found deeply shocking – it shows how few roots New Labour have in the history and traditions of our movement that they don’t understand the disgust her generation have for means testing). My grandparents stayed politically active, and my mum tells me that one of her earliest memories was the family sitting round the table making a detailed budget of their meagre pennies so that they could send as much money as possible to the Weekly Worker’s (now the Morning Star) fighting fund.
For class conscious workers the nineteen thirties brought tragedy after tragedy. In 1931 the Labour Party imploded, with prime minister Ramsey Macdonald and chancellor Phillip Snowden leading the parliamentary party into a national government with the Tories to cut unemployment benefit. In the ensuing election the unions effectively refounded the Labour Party by backing those candidates who refused to support the national government, but these real Labour candidates were decimated at the polls.
In 1933 the biggest and most organised working class movement in the world was utterly defeated by the Nazis coming to power in Germany. In 1934 fascists came to power in Austria, but there was a chink of light as workers in Vienna rose up and fought. Of course the full horror of Nazi rule was still in the future, but everyone still knew that these were parties that would crush dissent with an iron heel, and were prepared to return to the full scale carnage of war, still a recent memory.
So in 1936, when there was an attempted fascist coup in Spain, my granddad decided enough was enough and he would go to Spain to fight. The rise of fascism would have to be halted. He was not a well educated man, or a party cadre who followed the twists and turns of Palme Dutt's theories, but he knew in his heart that fascism had to be stopped, and that it would not be stopped by the “democracies” of Britain and France, it would only be stopped by working men and women like him taking up arms.
From the hindsight of the twenty first century it seems bizarre that he would consider leaving his pregnant wife and two children, but he had made arrangements that they would be supported by his family. Attitudes were different, and he was a man of his time.
But then, a few weeks before his intended departure, his wife died. Not only was he distraught with grief, but he had a new baby to look after: so he never went to Spain.
It is not a very remarkable story perhaps. But it is a story that illustrates the type of men who gave up everything and went to Spain, principled working men. The International brigaders were typically not George Orwells or Ernest Hemingways, they were trade unionists, engineers, clerks, shop workers, posties and railwaymen.
A lot of divisive commentary is written about the Spanish civil war on the left. The divisions and debates on the left at the time about how the war should have been fought belong to an earlier age, and we will never swim in that river again. Despite the self-assurance of those who follow Trotsky’s writings on Spain, we don’t know that there would have been a victory had his advice been followed (and certainly virtually no one was listening to him in Spain at the time). But we can be pretty sure that without Russian tanks and aircraft, and the heroism of the Russian volunteers who flew them, that Madrid would have fallen to the fascists in November 1936 and the war would have been over.
The important thing is to commemorate and celebrate the whole memory of those who fought, those who died and those who survived, which ever tradition they came from. These are the heroes of our class, who put their lives on the line to stop fascism.
It is therefore really valuable to listen to their own voices, which we can do through the book “poems of Spain” published by Lawrence and Wishart, and available from Philosophy Football for £10.99
What happened to my granddad? Well, rearmament meant he got his job back, and during the second world war he worked 12 hour shifts, six days per week helping to keep the steel mills working. The steel used to build the tanks, planes and bombs that won the war against fascism. He was a lifelong communist, and a member of the Labour Party (which seems a bizarre anachronism these days, but was not at all unusual in the past, which just underlines the transformation that Kinnock and Blair have achieved)