Dale Street: Lions Led by Jackals – Stalinism in the International Brigades

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Dale Street:

Lions Led by Jackals – Stalinism in the International Brigades

Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, January 2016, no ISBN]

This 40-page A4 pamphlet published by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty traces the history of the International Brigades by way of sifting through the trove of documents from the Communist International’s archives of the International Brigades, which have recently been made available online. These offer interesting insights into the structure of the Brigades as well as the histories and motivations of those who joined them.

The International Brigades (IB) were troops set up by the Communist International who fought in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) on the side of the Republican forces against the fascist military coup led by General Franco and supported by Italy and Germany. The primary motivation of many members was to “fight fascism”, which showed a high level of individual and collective courage. Many certainly thought that they were, while fighting against fascism, also fighting for communism. They were about to be disappointed. As Street writes, “The goal of the Popular Front [Republican] government, which included representatives of the Spanish Communist Party, was not working-class revolution, but defense of bourgeois power and property relations” […] “Confronted with the greatest working-class insurrection in Europe since the October Revolution, Stalinism sought to demobilise and confine that insurrection to the limits of a “bourgeois-democratic revolution’”. The International Brigades were disbanded by the Republican government in 1938.

Many of the fighters were inexperienced and badly equipped. The number of casualties was appalling.

The documents contain many questionnaires filled out by Brigadists, including members of various communist parties who had to apply for membership to the Spanish Communist Party. Other documents were “assessments” of the fighters by the political commissars of the IB – cadres of the Stalinised Communist International. Some fighters were categorised as “lumpen elements”, “repeatedly drunk and disorderly” or “absolutely rotten”. Others were suspect because of their political leanings which didn’t always follow the party line for “Anarcho-Trotskyite views which make [them] a disruptive element” and similar pigeonholing. These members were to be excluded from the fighting ranks, as were women in general.

Street details how the Stalinists dealt with the revolutionary currents, the Anarchists (who were a veritable mass movement at the time), and the non-aligned revolutionary communists. The latter were usually labeled “Trotskyites”, although only a small number of them were actual followers of Leon Trotsky. These “Trotskyites” were maliciously accused of being fascist agents, or at least of trying to “discredit the heroic antifascist struggle of the Popular Front for democracy and for the independence of Spain”. This slander had a grain of truth in it, as the goal of the revolutionaries was a working class revolution and not the defense of bourgeois political and economic relations. Particularly singled out for slander and denunciation were the cadres and members of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), a Marxist party that tried to unite the revolutionary communist adversaries of Stalinism. Also under attack from the Stalinists was the British Independent Labour Party (ILP).
The weapons the Stalinists used against the revolutionary left were lies, fake news and conspiracy theories, as well as bullying and physical violence, even to the point of torture and assassination.
The support Stalin gave to the Spanish Republic against the fascists, and the embarrassing failure of the French leftwing government to do the same has been used by countless historians and myth makers to portray the Soviet Union in a “progressive” light. One must not forget, however, that the events of the Spanish Civil War took place around the same time as the Moscow Trials, where the old guard of the Bolshevik revolution were tried and executed, signaling the peak and completion of the Stalinist counter-revolution.

One of the enduring myths of the Stalinist involvement in the Spanish Civil War is the iconification of Dolores Ibarruri, aka “La Pasionaria”, most famous for the anti-fascist slogan ¡No Pasarán!. Street writes: “Ibarruri’s politics embodied everything rotten in Spanish and international Stalinism. She was a cheerleader for the Popular Frontism which stifled working-class struggle […] She was a champion of the ‘bourgeois-democratic-revolution’ which demanded the crushing of the proletarian revolution […] And she was a frenzied advocate of the physical liquidation of POUMists and Trotskyists”. Street illustrates this with sufficiently nasty quotes from Ibarruri’s mouth. The pamphlet also mentions the statue in Glasgow depicting Ibarruri (originally from 1974), which was repaired and rededicated as recently as 2010.

While Street’s pamphlet doesn’t necessarily add to the macro-history of the Spanish revolution, it makes good use of the material of the Comintern archives which became available online only in 2015. And it is a timely reminder of the wretched counterrevolutionary history and nature of Stalinism.

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