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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Dolores Ibárruri on the defeat of Republican Spain

Spanish Civil War Communist and anti-fascist leader Dolores Ibárruri -- popularly known as "La Pasionaria" --was born on December 9, 1895. The daughter of a miner and one of 11 children she joined the Spanish Communist Party when it was formed in 1921.

Ibarruri became famous for her stirring speeches in defense of the republic during the civil war. She was General Secretary of the party from 1942 - 1960 while in exile after Franco's victory and lived to return to the country after the fall of fascism to be elected to parliament again in 1977. She was the party's honorary president until her death in 1989.

In December, 1966, American Communist Joseph North wrote a review of her autobiography They Shall Not Pass and here we republish a long excerpt from it about the rise and fall of the Popular Front and Republican Spain. This remains very interesting given the context of our times.

Her Fighting Slogan–No Pasaran!

Pasionaria first became known to the world as the fiery tribune who was author of a slogan that is still the password of patriots everywhere. But to pronounce that slogan required a lifetime of experience such as she describes. It does not come ex-temporaneously. I speak of that here, for I believe it has much to teach the American young who may not have heard her name to this day.

Monarchist Spain became a Republic in 1931 when King Alfonso fled the awakened turbulence of his people goaded into rebellion by centuries of a hard, poverty-stricken and enchained life. The Republic came into existence, led by middle-class statesmen, but its enemies had not passed into limbo. They were accorded all too much latitude. They were arrogantly there, did not give up, and they promptly entered into conspiracies to bring back new versions of the past. Throughout the course of its career, the Republican government made many mistakes, for it lacked the necessary ideas and ballast of genuine representation from the major segments of the land -- the workingclass, coming of age in experience and in numbers, the vast, land starved peasantry, and the leftward moving middle classes. It became

painfully clear that the Republican government ( it allied itself with Rightist leaders of the Socialist Party) was at a loss in finding solutions to the questions a bourgeois revolution set them–and in Spain then agrarian reform was the central one.

To telescope, necessarily, a great deal of history during the fitful years from 1931 to 1936, the conspiracy matured among the grandees–the big landowners, and the oligarchs of the industrial classes. Behind them were agents of Hitler Germany and Mussolini Italy. On

the evening of July 18, 1936, Spain’s “African generals who had brought neither glory nor benefit to Spain” rose against the Republic. ( There is little question then as well as now, that despite all the weaknesses of the Republican government, the revolt would soon have been

crushed were it not for the intervention of the Nazi and the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy. )

The MadrId government then made a series of astonishing mistakes. “In a delirium of irresponsibility” it named General Mola commander of the armed forces in Pamplona. He paved the way for a coup in medieval Navarre, one of the most benighted of all Spain’s

regions. (Mola went over to Franco swiftly. ) The appointment of Mola gave the Franco rebellion “the combat strength of the Requetes, that fanatic fighting force of medieval reaction and clericalism, and without whose devil-ridden soldiers” (I interviewed them and they spoke of Satan standing before them) “it would have been very difficult for Franco to keep the battle going.” The Republican government continued an inexplicable over-confidence. It still believed it could “control events.” Meanwhile workers crowded the halls of

their organizations awaiting instructions and arms.

The Popular Front (I shall comment on it later) asked the government to supply the workers arms. Casares Quiroga, the premier, said he didn’t think that was necessary inasmuch as the government was strong enough to control events. But the bad news piled up. The fascists advanced on many fronts; unrest was evident in the military commands in Madrid and Barcelona. Burgos, Avila and the province of Galicia had already fallen. The government finally admitted the situation was out of hand. Casares Quiroga resigned. The workers got arms. Madrid went into a frenzy of activities. “Trucks, buses, taxis and cars went through the city at breakneck speed carrying arms to the workers who were leaving their jobs to take up rifles.” The fascists continued their advances. On the evening of July 18, 1936. Pasionaria went to the radio of the Ministry of the Interior. She spoke for her party.

“It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” she cried. “No pasaran!” They shall not pass! That slogan became the battle-cry of the Republican militias, and the Army, the people as a whole. And soon, of all the world that resists slavery.

Her Early Years

It might be profitable here to dwell further on the genesis of this leader whose slogan (summarizing her work and ideas ) epitomized the will of a people...Her life is a case-history of the concept that the working class, the proletariat due to the objective realities of the life the workers live, becomes the most important, the decisive class that will (with its allies ) change the world from one that is based on “man’s inhumanity to man" .to one of universal brotherhood. The opponents to change, to progress, challenge that concept continually. Let us take a look at the biography afforded us here.

Dolores Ibarruri was born into a miner’s family in the north of Spain. She was the eighth of twelve children born to Antonio the Gunner, as he was nicknamed, because of the nature of his job in the mines. All her relatives were miners. Her mother worked in the mines until she was married. Her brothers were miners; her husband was a miner. Nothing in the life of mining people, she wrote, is strange to me, neither their sorrows nor their desires nor their language nor their roughness. I've not forgotten anything.”

She was a bright student, avid to learn. Her good grades enabled her to go to normal school for two years, but poverty forced her out at seventeen and she worked three years as a domestic. All the time she engaged in demonstrations and picketlines, distributed leaflets, faced strikebreakers, soldiers, the Civil Guard, and always there was hunger. She married at 20 a miner. From her own experiences she learned the truth of the old Spanish maxim: “Mother? What is this thing, marriage? Daughter, marriage is weaving, giving birth, weeping.” In this time, alter her first child, she began to read Marxist literature regularly; “it was a window opening on my life.” She quotes Peter Usakov the 18th-centtuy Russian revolutionist: “In order to have a happy life it is necessary to have a firm conviction. And in order to die fearlessly it is equally necessary to have a firm conviction.” Socialism gave her that conviction. Further, the study of its precepts, its methods and methodology, helped shape her mind, her thinking, aided her to learn to generalize, that basis for scientific thought. Without Marxism she could have remained a plain and simple trade unionist.

The Spanish Communist Party came into being in 1920 She was elected to the first Provincial Committee of the Basque Communist Party, and later as a delegate to the first congress of that party. She analyzes the strength and the defects of the new organization. The faults, at the outset, were those of a hard-bound sectarianism, one, she says, that “might well have served as a model for the kind of errors Lenin described in "'Left-wing’ Communism, an Infantile Disorder". It was a party capable of making any sacrifice, “but in spite of its capacity for struggle and sacrifice” its sectarianism rendered its good qualities sterile and ineffectual, isolated it from the masses and reduced its influence to the most militant groups of the working class. Meanwhile the majority of the working class remained under Anarchist

and Socialist influence.

It was rough, between 1921 and 1931, when the monarchy fell. Every variety of experience came her way. She was dogged by poverty and hounded by the police. Four of her six children died. But, as the phrase has it, she, and her comrades, her party, “were steeled

in struggle.” That included a body of experience which brought it out of sterile sectarianism into the dynamic force which persuaded other anti-fascist parties in Spain to forge the Popular Front...remember, the French Communist Party was going through the same experience. It too was faced by a fascist conspiracy; Gallic-style stormtroopers marched through the streets of Paris. The times demanded new approaches. Remember that George Dimitrov, the revolutionary genius who had stood up to Goering personally in the famous

Leipzig trial had given the lead in his writings on fascism and the way to circumvent it. Speaking at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International, he urged the peoples beleaguered by fascism to defend every inch of bourgeois democratic rights, to fight for them,

never to surrender them. He suggested the tactics and strategy. His advice made a big dent everywhere.

The Threat to Republican Spain

The problems of anti-fascist Spain were many, diverse, and harrowing. As mentioned earlier, the new Republican government proved incapable of instituting the reforms the country needed. The Republican-Socialist coalition heading the country failed the people. Although

the need for agrarian reform was the very essence of the democratic revolution, President Manuel Azana declared that "The Republic of Workers of All Classes" -- a grandiose and misleading title -- could not grant land to workers of the countryside–that most dispossessed of all classes. Pasionaria regards this failure (it was corrected, in considerable degree, later on through the pressures of the Communists in the forthcoming Popular Front government) of the Republican Government as “the root of their historic responsibility for the war unleashed in 1936 by the fascists and reactionaries against the Republic and the people.”

This roughly was the picture when the “African generals” revolted. It must be accented that the governments of the Western world–with the exception of Mexico under Lazaro Cardenas–refused to support this people’s regime against the fascists, even refused to sell Spain arms. Franklin D. Roosevelt said later he felt that one of his own greatest mistakes was the failure to lift the arms embargo against Republican Spain. Mexico, alone of the Western world, helped as much as it could, but its resources were, as one knows, extremely limited. The Soviet Union was Republican Spain’s other friend ( Joseph Stalin said that the cause of Spain was the cause of all progressive mankind ). Despite the handicap of distance and the hostility of intervening nations, the famous defensive aircraft–the chasers which the Spanish called “chatos” and “moscas”–“snubnoses” and “flies”–because they were so small ( I saw them, you could hide one under an olive tree ), they were able to confront the flotilla of Nazi Junkers, Condors, Fokkers, shot many of them out of the sky when the flying fascists made their duly appointed death-rounds three times a day. Tanks, and other materiel, too, came from the Soviet Union.

Moral and political aid of the peoples of the world–passionately sympathetic despite their governments–was crystallized in the International Brigades. They have become legendary as instances of international solidarity.

She pays heartfelt tribute to them, and quotes many then-current poems in their honor, including one by Langston Hughes. I offer a stanza from it:

I came.

In the luminous frontiers of tomorrow

I put the strength and wisdom

Of my years,

Not much,

Since I am young.

( I should have said, was young, Because I’m dead. )

I’ve given what I wanted to

and what I had to give

So that others would live...

Three thousand came from our country. Fifteen hundred sleep in Spanish soil, as Hemingway said.

Birth of the Popular Front

I mentioned the creation of the Popular Front a few paragraphs back. This was the key to the resistance, to the possibility of holding out and of winning. If may be well to supply some further details on this. Obviously reaction and fascism were helped, enormously by the failure of the various working-class and anti-fascist parties to unite their forces. Many Republican leaders held to their “senseless positions” and resisted any alliance among democratic forces. The Republicans and the Socialists, in early 1935, were engaging in mutual recriminations for the defeats the anti-fascists were sustaining. Both relied on the “spontaneous, natural activities of the masses."

But the Communists had gained a vast experience from 1931 on and drew apt lessons. The fierce struggles in Astulias, in 1934 had demonstrated to them that unity was decisive in the conflict against reaction. October 1935 was a date history will always put in bold-faced letters. that day–in the midst of a governmental crisis–the Communist Party sent a letter to the socialist newspaper Claridad. The letter contained a series of proposals: to unite the labor unions ; to promote a policy of alliances; to create a Popular Anti-fascist Front which would be directed by the working-class; to strive for the organic unity of the Communist and Socialist Parties. Many sectors of the Socialist Party responded favorably.

By the end of 1935 the current republican government had lost face with the people. Public opinion won its demand for a new election; it was to be held February 1936...Here Pasionaria writes: “The Spanish Communists’ theory had been confirmed.” The people in action and by the degree of unity already attained, destroyed the plans of reaction to take power immediately. The people had forced new elections. Possibilities existed for "restoring a democratic situation by pacific, electoral means.” There was a distinct opportunity to create a firm bloc of workers and democrats. Many Republicans, Socialists and Communists “directed their efforts to these ends.”

Protagonists for the Popular Front labored day and night. Mountains of labor went into it, hopefully not to produce a mouse. Infinite negotiations went on, “stalled by the conservatism of some Republican leaders.” Finally, a pact of unity was signed, January 1936, by the middle-class Republican parties, the Socialist and the Communist parties.

The Popular Front was born.

Millions of men and women came over to the democratic camp, Yet the coalition “was not exactly what the Communists would have wished.” Flaws it had aplenty, not the least of which was its ambiguous stand on agrarian reform. Yet it was a great beginning, with all its shortcomings. The elections of 1936 saw a historic victory for Spain’s people.

The Popular Front elected a parliament which included 158 Republicans, 88 Socialists, 17 Communists, and some other deputies from small parties. They outnumbered, by a considerable majority, the number of seats–205–the Right won. The victory reverberated throughout the world. I well remember the jubilation here in New York, in our newspaper The Daily Worker, and in many other democratic quarters.

Then national and international fascism decided to strike. They struck–and with the collusion of the passivity, and worse, of the Western bourgeois governments.

The Virus of Anti-Communism

The war tested every shrew of moral, material and political strength the Spanish people had. But it is clear from the record that had unity prevailed–had the Western governments not abetted the fascists by permitting them to ship illimitable materiel and troops to Franco while nothing in the way of arms or materiel aid came from the West to the Spanish democracy–the anti-fascist coalition would have triumphed.

But the difficulties of maintaining unity were enormous. The Anarchists played their go-it-alone policy throughout, cooperating marginally and then in a small and begrudging way. Their policies opposed a unified army, opposed anti-fascist unity in all spheres, and permitted the Trotskyist POUM to mount a stab-in-the-back uprising against the Popular Front Government May 3, 1937. Their forces at the front dragged their feet, rejecting a coordinated command and united action. The one gifted general from their ranks, Durutti, was assassinated by the terrorist anarchist FAI–the notorious Federacion Anarchista lberica. And this despite the undoubted heroism and genuine anti-fascist sentiment and will of the rank-and-file majority. The Socialist Party displayed fatal weaknesses as well, especially during the “moments of truth,” moments of crisis. Early in the war the leading Socialist, Largo Caballero–described by Pasionaria as a genuine anti-fascist and a man of personal rectitude, displayed an unreasoning jealousy and fear of Communist influence. Hls policies led to such a crisis that a feIlow-Socialist, Prieto, said: “There cannot be a Government without the Communists.” Unfortunately Prieto himself later succumbed to his own style of anti-Communism.

Pasionaria quotes a telling comment made by the Catholic journalist, Henry Buckley ( who happened to be a friend of mine during my stay there ). Buckley said. in his book, Life and Death of the Spanish Republic ( London, 1940): “If Largo had been more flexible in his ideas, he could have taken the inevitable in his stride and made a pact with the Communists. In an alliance of the two parties, led by Largo, the Socialist Party could have conserved all of its sober judgment, and taken advantage of the new ideas and useful methods of organization supplied by the younger Communist Party. Instead of this, he chose to fight them.” This observation could stand, in one way or another, as the epitaph to the efforts of most of the socialist leaders.

The difficulties and crises in the Popular Front continued, yet the Communists found it possible to work with the other groups, acting always as a unifying force within the Popular Front and in the frontlines. Thus the republic was able to hold out as long as it did.

Always there was the debilitating specter of anti-Communism hovering over the anti-fascist partners. This prevailed over their opposition to fascism and made traitors of them. As Art Shields points out, a prime example was Julian Besteiro, the Right-wing Socialist who said, "Without the participation of Communists there is no possibility of winning the war, but if the war is won Spain would be Communist.” This unreasoning, animal-fear led him to betrayal. He became the deputy head of the Fifth Column Junta which opened the gates of Madrid to Franco in 1939. This senseless hostility persisted despite the Communist program of absolute loyalty to the tenets of the Popular Front and to Spanish democracy. It was fatal then, this anti-Communism the nature of that ailment has not changed with the passage of thirty years.

Pasionaria points this out: “The unity of the Popular Front was not solid. It was not based upon the unity of the working class. The Popular Front comprised different classes, different sectors, different interests and different political groups. For this reason, the Republic was beset by contradictions and conflicts with every step it took, all the more because the Basque nationalists and the Anarchists who were in the anti-Franco camp were not members of the Popular Front."

Pasionaria says, too, that the Communists, at times, failed to display “the necessary flexibility in the face of positions which we considered harmful to the resistance.” Other errors included failures to criticize, or to assess properly, defeatist attitudes, But, she concludes, “not for one moment, then or now, have we underestimated the historic and revolutionary importance of the participation of the democratic bourgeoisie in the popular resistance to fascism.”

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