Moscow’s fight against Trotskyism in Spain

Submitted by Matthew on 15 June, 2016 - 12:07 Author: Andrew Coates

Andrew Coates reviews Lions Led By Jackals, Stalinism in the International Brigades by Dale Street.


During Franco’s dictatorship “the defeated in Spain has no public right to historical memory” observed Paul Preston in The Spanish Holocaust (2012). The movement to recover these memories, beginning in the new millennium, continues to expose this past.

The defeated side in the Spanish civil war, and those who fell during and after the Caudillo’s victory in the 1939, are honoured across the world as fighters against fascism. As Preston states, Franco’s war against the “Jewish-Bolshevik-Masonic’ Republic brought the murder of hundreds of thousands in its wake. Those who escaped prison, death or slave labour faced systematic persecution well into the 1950s. Many exiles passed by Bayonne to France, some joining the French army to fight the German invasion. Amongst the refugees were those who ended up in the invaders’ hands, portrayed in Spanish exile Jorge Semprum’s Le Grand Voyage (1963). Spanish republicans perished in the extermination camps. Around 60% of these died in Mauthausen.

Dale Street is concerned with one of the saddest aspects of the Spanish tragedy: the role of Stalin’s Comintern in the International Brigades. Lions led by Jackals underlines the political and organisational hold of the Comintern after it took the decision to form the Brigades in September 1935.

André Marty, the leader of the “Black Sea Mutiny”, who joined the CP on his release from prison in 1923, and became secretary of the Comintern in the 1930s, was the Brigades’ effective “commander in chief”. Marty emphasised the Popular Front politics of the Spanish government. The International Brigade had been formed to offer military support to that government against the Franco-army rebellion. Street states that many volunteers “found the idea of Popular Frontism incomprehensible.
From their point of view, they were in Spain not just to ‘fight fascism’ but also to fight for socialism and working-class revolution.” The Stalinists, he writes, confused such people with this talk of a “bourgeois democratic revolution”.

As he points out, had they — and no doubt those Spaniards who elected the Popular Front and fought for it — read Trotsky, they would have known that this was “Menshevism” and “utter disregard for the ABC of Leninism.”

Socialists will be familiar with George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) and Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom. (1995). Orwell inspires his readers with his account of Spain’s “foretaste of socialism” where one “had breathed the air of equality.” Loach puts these moments on screen.

Orwell was to experience first hand the other side of Comintern influence: its war on “Franco’s Fifth Column” — the “Trotskyist traitors”. The POUM, (Partido Obrero de Unifición Marxista), a fusion between two small anti-Stalin groups, backed the Popular Front and their leader, Andreu Nin (who had indeed originally been close to Trotsky), entered the Catalan government. They believed that socialist objectives tallied with the front against fascism, war and revolution went together.

Trotsky himself accused Nin of having rallied to the defence of property. He advocated that the small group should be opposed to all other Popular Front parties, and teach radical forces, notably within the powerful anarchists and syndicalists of the FAI and CNT, to form soviets.

Trotsky’s strategy barely belongs even to the realm of historical might-have-beens. Nin was drawn into practical politics, in a Spain where it is hard to see how a sharp “Bolshevik” vanguard party could be made out of disparate republican, socialist, and anarchist movements, let alone supplant a Communist Party funded by the only international power offering the Republic serious military aid.

Along with that help went a propaganda campaign against the POUM, its banning, and the dissolution of its militia. After the 1937 Barcelona May Days of anarchist and POUM resistance it was tracked down and “liquidated”. On Russian orders, and with NKVD direct participation, their leaders were arrested. Nin was taken from his house and shot. Fabricated documents pointed to POUM co-operation with Franco’s Falange.

Lions led by Jackals describes the way into which those in charge of the International Brigades were infected by this Moscow-driven hunt for “Trotskyists”, “wreckers” and “saboteurs”. Their training material included the instruction that “As in all other counties, so too here in Spain, the Trotskyists are the conscious enemies of the freedom of the people”.

To Marty, Trotskyists formed just one part of “multiple networks”, “the Gestapo, OVRA (Italian secret police), the Polish police, the Caballero group, anarchist, socialist and above all the Deuxieme Bureau (French secret service.” Articles intended for Brigaders asserted “the POUM was working in favour of Fascism”.

The Independent Labour Party, linked to the POUM through the International Revolutionary Marxist Centre (the non-Trotskyist anti-Stalinist left international grouping, founded in 1932, known as the London Bureau), and whose own volunteers took part in their militia, was singled out. Any dissent, which could include the most minor disagreements, was noted with suspicion. Street breaks new ground by indicating the details of these politics, and, more strikingly, in the endless, petty and spiteful reports on all Brigaders by the Political Commissars.

Real issues of national frictions, personal problems and tensions, are overshadowed by the documents known as “Characterisations”. Often exaggerated concerns about possible infiltration by enemy agents and discipline aside, “thumbnail assessments” range through people’s sexuality, drinking habits, and temperament. Categories such as Cadre, Very Good, Fair, Bad and Very Bad, were used. With this licence to the small-minded, it is not surprising that along with allegation about somebody’s alleged Trotskyist” or “criticisms of the Soviet Union”, the sexual activity of some women volunteers was noted.

Stalinism, Street concludes, had “absolute political and organisational control”. On the most prominent Comintern representative, André Marty, Lions Led by Jackals, states that his “paranoid incompetence and general buffoonery guaranteed his failure, even in his own terms, as commander-in-chief of the Intentional Brigades.”

The paranoiac and murderous cadres who exported the purges and efforts to duplicate the Moscow trials to Spain, should nevertheless not be allowed to diminish the courage and sacrifice of the Brigaders, including Communists. As for Marty, he was portrayed under that name in Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), as a suspicious thug with a “mania for shooting people”. These killings earned him the sobriquet of the Butcher of Albacete. 1943 found him the representative of the French Communists in the de Gaulle led Resistance based in Algiers. There was an ascension to become the “Number 3” in the Parti Communiste Français (PCF). Following the “Marty-Tillon Affair” which included accusations that Marty was a police agent, he was expelled from the Party in 1952.

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