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power to create a new Spain by curtailing the reactionary influence of the church and
the army, breaking up the great estates or latifundios, and granting the demands for
autonomy of Basque and Catalan regionalists. These hopes, and the atmosphere of
popular fiesta that had greeted the coming of the Republic, were soon blunted by the
strength of the old order’s defences.

Social and economic power—ownership of the land, the banks and industry, as well
as of the principal newspapers and radio stations—remained unchanged. Those who
held that power were united with the church and the army in being determined to
prevent any attacks on property, religion or national unity. Their repertoire of defence
was rich and varied. Propaganda, through the right’s powerful press networks and from
the pulpit of every parish church, denounced the efforts to carry out reform by the pro-
gressive leaders of the Republic as the subversive work of Moscow.

New political parties were founded and lavishly funded to mount a legalist defence
of the interests of the most powerful sections of society. Conspiracies were hatched to
overthrow the new regime. Government and trade union officials who sought to imple-
ment the Republic’s timid agrarian reform were terrorised by thugs in the pay of the
big owners. Rural and industrial lock-outs became a regular response to legislation
aimed at protecting worker interests.

So successful were the obstacles erected to reform that, by 1933, the Republican-
Socialist coalition began to break up. In an electoral system that heavily favoured coali-
tions, the decision of the Socialists to go it alone in the elections of November 1933
was a tragic error. It gave power to a right-wing determined to dismantle the Republic’s
social reforms. Employers and landowners clebrated the victory by cutting wages,
sacking workers, evicting tenants and raising rents.

The largest party, the Catholic CEDA, wasn’t offered power because the Republican
president suspected its leader, José María Gil Robles, of harbouring fascist ambitions
to establish an authoritarian, corporative state. Thus, the conservative Radical Party
ruled. Dependent on CEDA votes, the Radicals were to be Gil Robles’ puppets. Social
legislation was dismantled and, one after another, the principal unions were weakened
as strikes were provoked and crushed.

It was widely believed on the left that Gil Robles was trying to destroy the Republic
piecemeal. There was an atmosphere of great tension. The left saw fascism in every
action of the right; the right smelt revolution in every left-wing move. The Socialists
began to threaten a revolutionary rising in the hope of forestalling the destruction of the
Republic. Gil Robles seized the opportunity to insist on CEDA joining the government
on 6 October 1934, knowing that it would provoke a leftist response.

The Socialist trade union, the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), called a
general strike which, in most parts of Spain was a failure, largely because of the swift
declaration of martial law and the hesitation of Socialist leaders who had not expected
their bluff to be called.

In Barcelona, an independent state of Catalonia “within the Federal Republic of
Spain” was short-lived. However, in the mining valleys of Asturias, spontaneous rank-
and-file militancy impelled the local Socialist leaders to go along with a revolutionary
movement organised jointly by the UGT, the anarcho-syndicalist CNT and, belatedly,
the Communists, united in the Alianza Obrera (workers’ alliance). For three weeks, a
revolutionary commune held out against forces coordinated by General Franco until,
finally, the miners were reduced to submission by heavy artillery attacks and bombing
raids. The savage repression that followed their defeat was to be the background in
which the Popular Front was born—although its ambitions were to be anything but rev-

It was the brainchild of two men, Manuel Azaña, leader of the Left Republican
party, and Indalecio Prieto, centrist leader of the Socialist Party. Both moderate prag-

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matists, they were determined to ensure that the divisions which led to the 1933 elec-
toral defeat would not be repeated. Azaña worked hard to reunite the various tiny
Republican parties, while Prieto, from exile in Belgium, concentrated on countering the
revolutionary extremism of the Socialist left under Francisco Largo Caballero.

In the second half of 1935, Azaña addressed a series of gigantic open-air mass
meetings at Bilbao, Valencia and Madrid. The solid enthusiasm for left-wing unity
shown by the hundreds of thousands who attended helped to convince Largo Caballero
to abandon his opposition to a revival of the 1931 Republican-Socialist electoral coali-
tion, which eventually became known as the Popular Front. At the same time, the
small Spanish Communist Party, prompted by Moscow’s anxiety for an understanding
with the democracies against the aggressive ambitions of the Third Reich, used its
influence with Largo in favour of the Popular Front. It knew that, in order to give it the
more proletarian flavour that he wanted, Largo Caballero would insist on the CP’s pres-
ence. In this way, the Communists found a place in an electoral front which, contrary
to rightist propaganda, was not, in Spain, a Comintern creation, although it did take the
title of Popular Front coined at the VII Congress of the Comintern in August 1935. The
left and centre left closed ranks on the basis of a programme of amnesty for prisoners,
of basic social and educational reform and trade union freedom.

In late 1935, the Radical Party collapsed under a welter of corruption accusations
and pressure from Gil Robles for ever more rightist policies. Elections were called for
mid-February 1936. The right enjoyed enormous financial advantages in mounting a
campaign aimed at frightening the middle classes. The elections were presented as a
life-or-death fight between good and evil, survival and destruction. The Popular Front
based its campaign on the threat of fascism, the dangers facing the Republic and the
need for an amnesty for the prisoners of October 1934. The elections held on 16 Feb-
ruary resulted in a narrow victory for the left in terms of votes, but a massive triumph
in terms of seats in the Cortes.

The rising of October 1934 and the Popular Front victory in 1936 shattered right-
wing hopes of being able to impose an authoritarian, corporative state without a civil
war. Having predicted that left-wing electoral success would be the prelude to the most
spine-chilling social disasters, Gil Robles did nothing to stop the younger members of
CEDA from being recruited into the fascist Falange Española. At the same time, he
and other right-wing leaders played up social unrest, both in parliamentary speeches
and in the press, to create the atmosphere that made a military rising appear to the
middle classes as the only alternative to catastrophe. At the same time, two years of
aggressive rightist government had left the working masses, especially in the country-
side, in a vengeful mood. Having been blocked once in its reforming ambitions, the left
was now determined, at a local level at least, to proceed rapidly with meaningful agrar-
ian reform.

However, the central factor in the spring of 1936 was the fatal weakness of the
Popular Front government. While Prieto was convinced that the situation demanded
Socialist collaboration in government, Largo Caballero, fearful of a rank-and-file drift to
the anarcho-syndicalist CNT, insisted that the liberal Republicans govern alone. He
fondly believed that the Republicans would carry out the Popular Front electoral pro-
gramme, and then, having reached their bourgeois limitations, would make way for an
all-Socialist government. He was confident that if their reforms provoked a fascist
and/or military uprising, it would be defeated by the revolutionary action of the masses.
Thus, by using his power to prevent Prieto forming a government, Largo Caballero
ensured that there would be no real Popular Front.

A cabinet of Republicans was simply not representative of the great electoral coali-
tion that had defeated the right in February. That popular aspirations could not be sat-

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isfied by the Republican government was demonstrated by a wave of land seizures in
the south. Incapable of satisfying mass hunger for reform, and too weak to put a stop
to preparations for a military uprising, it watched feebly as the fascist Falange orches-
trated a strategy of tension, its terrorism provoking left-wing reprisals and an impres-
sion of a break-down of law and order.

The uprising of army commanders prompted by discontent at the increasing socialist
and anticlerical tendencies of the Republican government took place on the evening of
17 July in Spain’s Moroccan colony and in the peninsula itself on the morning of 18
July. The plotters were confident it would be over in a few days. Had they just had
the Republican government to contend with, their predictions might have come true. In
fact, Spain divided in terms of the electoral geography of February—the coup was suc-
cessful in the Catholic small-holding areas that voted for CEDA. However, in the left-
wing strongholds of industrial Spain and the great estates of the deep south, the upris-
ing was defeated by the spontaneous action of the working-class organisations. Within
days, the country was split into two war zones and there was every reason to suppose
that the Republic would be able to crush the rising.

While power in the streets lay with the workers and their militia organisations, there
was still a bourgeois Republican government that had legitimacy in the international
arena, and control of the nation’s gold and currency reserves and virtually all of
Spain’s industrial capacity. There was not that much to chose between the armed
forces of either side. What the working-class militias lacked in training, they made up
for in an enthusiasm that could not be matched by the conscripts of the rebel army.

There would, however, be two big factors that would eventually make all the differ-
ence between the two sides—the ferocious African army and the help of the fascist
powers. At first, the colonial army under Franco was blockaded in Morocco by the
fleet. However, while the Republican government in Madrid met only hesitation from its
sister Popular Front government in Paris, and covert hostility from London, Franco was
quickly able to persuade the local representatives of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy
that he was the man to back. By the end of July, Junkers 52 and Savoia-Marchetti
transport aircraft were arriving to permit the airlift of the bloodthirsty Foreign Legion
across the Strait of Gibraltar. That crucial early aid was soon followed by a regular
stream of high-technology assistance. In contrast to the state-of-the-art equipment arriv-
ing from Germany and Italy, complete with technicians, spare parts and the correct
workshop manuals, the Republic, shunned by the democracies, had to make do with
overpriced and obsolete equipment from private arms dealers.

The initial reaction of the Soviet Union had been one of deep embarrassment. The
Kremlin did not want events in Spain to undermine its delicately laid plans for an alli-
ance with France. However, by mid-August, it was apparent that an even greater
disaster would befall those plans if the Spanish Republic fell. That would severely alter
the European balance of power, leaving France with three fascist states on her
borders. Eventually, it was reluctantly decided to send help.

The tanks and planes that arrived in the autumn were, together with the arrival of
the International Brigades, to save Madrid in November 1936. However, they were also
to be used to justify the intervention of Hitler and Mussolini. The motivation of both
was principally to undermine the Anglo-French hegemony of international relations, but
they were sure of a sympathetic ear in London when they claimed to be fighting bol-

Accordingly, the Spanish Republic was fighting not only Franco and his armies, but
also, to an ever greater degree, the military and economic might of Mussolini and
Hitler. Besieged from outside, the Republic also had massive internal problems
unknown in Franco’s brutally militarised zone. The crumpling of the bourgeois state in

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the first days of the war saw the rapid emergence of revolutionary organs of parallel
power. A massive popular collectivisation of agriculture and industry took place. Exhila-
rating to participants and observers like George Orwell and Franz Borkenau, the great
collectivist experiments of the autumn of 1936 did little to create a war machine. That
would lie at the heart of the undeclared civil war that would rage within the Republican
zone until mid-1937.

Socialist leaders like Prieto and Juan Negrin were convinced that a conventional
state, with central control of the economy and the institutional instruments of mass
mobilisation, was essential if there was to be an efficacious war effort. The Commu-
nists and the Soviet advisers agreed—not only was this common sense, but the
playing down of the revolutionary activities of Trotskyists and anarchists was necessary
to reassure the bourgeois democracies with which the Soviets sought understanding.
Henceforth, there would be a struggle to establish a Popular Front government that ful-
filled the expectations of the architects of the Popular Front electoral coalition of Febru-
ary 1936.

That was eventually established under the premiership of Negrín from May 1937.
Despite having crushed the revolution, incorporating the working-class militias into the
regular forces and dismantling the collectives, it still did not achieve victory—not
because the policies were wrong, but because of the strength of the international
forces arrayed against the Republic.

In this context, Loach’s Land and Liberty has to be seen as marginal, if not per-
verse, as an explanation for the 1990s of the Spanish civil war. The film’s opening—
the death of the old Liverpudlian left-winger David Carr in a shabby flat in a wind-
swept towerblock—and its emotional ending at his funeral encase the central action in
which his granddaughter pieces together the story of his heroic past during the
Spanish civil war in a multinational unit of the militia of the quasi-Trotskyist Partido
Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM). The message of that part of the film at least
is clear: the selfless heroism of this man has come to an end in the despair of post-
Thatcherite Britain.

Otherwise, according to various interviews given by Ken Loach, the film’s purpose
is to recapture for a young audience something of the emotional purity of the “last
great cause”. That is a laudable aim and partially achieved in a number of emotionally
charged moments. There are also scenes of didactic efficacy in which some of the
great issues of the Spanish civil war are laid out naturally and in all their complexity.

Elsewhere, however, the line between cinematic licence and distortion is breached.
It is easy to see why International Brigaders who faced death daily on the Madrid front
feel diminished by the political and personal self-indulgence on the minor Aragón front
of the attractive boys and girls of the POUM unit. Ultimately, the problem lies in the
fact that Loach’s position is virtually identical to that of George Orwell. Orwell’s
Homage to Catalonia is a brilliant and painfully honest book but it is not a “true” book.
That is to say, it is not true if it is taken, as it is by most readers, as an overview of
the Spanish civil war, when, in reality, it is a narrow and partisan account of one rela-
tively marginal issue within the war.

As it is, in both Orwell’s book and Loach’s film, as much less innocently in the his-
toriography of the Spanish civil war sponsored by the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural
Freedom, a minor episode is allowed to dwarf the wider issues of the war. With the
Spanish Republic abandoned by the western powers and opposed by Franco, Hitler
and Mussolini, only the Soviet Union came to its aid. Of course, Stalin did not do so
out of sentiment. Rather the case was that, threatened by expansionist Germany, he
was hoping to limit the threat by seeking an encircling alliance with France. He feared,
rightly, that if Franco won the war with the help of Hitler, France would crumble.

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