Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2


The Spanish Civil War and
the British Labour Movement

Tom Buchanan,
The Spanish Civil War and the British Labour Movement,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, pp250, £30.00

DO we need yet another book on the British labour movement’s response to the Spanish Civil War? Buchanan justifies his study by arguing that previous books have concentrated on the response of its political wing, the Labour Party, despite the fact that the trade unions were the dominant part of the alliance in the 1930s. His access to the previously unavailable TUC archives provides him with a wealth of new material, so, far from being a rehash of a familiar story, this study is valuable for both information and interpretation.

Overall, the story is terribly bleak. The trade union bureaucracy saw the revolution and civil war as a horrible embarrassment. Providing assistance to the Spanish working class was never one of their priorities, and the defeat of the Republic came as a great relief, allowing ‘business as usual’ to be continued.

Contrary to the myth which was later cultivated, the union leaders supported the British government’s non-intervention policy which deprived the Spanish Republic of arms, whilst Franco’s forces were supplied by Germany and Italy. The response of ordinary trade unionists was much better, but the advocates of aid to the Spanish workers were almost completely ineffective. At the 1936 Labour Party conference, the trade union block vote lined up behind the leadership’s support for non-intervention, although the delegates rallied to the appeals of the Spanish fraternal delegates. Non-intervention was not rejected until 1937, when the war had been raging for a year.

Eden, the Foreign Secretary, was very appreciative of the support which the TUC and the Daily Herald gave to the government. The union leaders, in turn, were anxious that the government should issue statements which would give them some cover from rank and file criticisms. Both Bevin and Citrine lied systematically about their activities to give the impression that they were helping Spanish workers in ways that it would be indiscreet to mention. The National Union of Seamen actively scabbed, and persecuted its members who refused to sail to Franco-held territory, whilst Bevin sabotaged the attempts of Scandinavian seamen to black such cargoes.

Even the collection of money for humanitarian purposes (undertaken as a diversion from solidarity activity) was botched. The International Federation of Trade Unions originally wanted to hang on to the money which was raised until the war was over! The TUC found anti-Communism a useful weapon in justifying its inactivity. Any kind of support for Spain would play into the hands of the Reds. Yet the labour movement leaders’ attitude to the Communists was essentially pragmatic. In the early stages of the war, they were happy to ally with the Communists against Caballero and the Anarchists.

The Communist Party appears les impressive in this book than in acounts written by its supporters. The formation of the International Brigade is given full credit, but the party’s alternative to the official line, the Popular Front, would have dissolved the labour movement into bourgeois formations. As workers’ organisations in Britain were not divided on religious or ideological grounds, as they were in France and Spain, the claims of the Popular Front to contribute to workers’ unity were never plausible. The party’s support for the Stalinist reign of terror in Catalonia alienated the best militants, notably in the Independent Labour Party.

Could the response of the official labour movement to Spain have been different? Buchanan seems to think not. Support for an insurgent working class would have implied a different attitude to the class struggle in Britain, and a strong movement of solidarity with Spanish workers would have created intolerable strains for the bureaucracy. It is chillingly clear that the labour leaders were only tangentially concerned with Spain. From their point of view, their handling of the issue was a success, as they emerged with their control of the trade union machinery intact from the challenge of both militant tendencies and the Communist Party’s attempt to return to Lib-Lab politics. The bright spots in an otherwise bleak picture are the descriptions of mainly local rank and file initiatives, but these never seriously threatened official control.

The TUC’s collaboration with the Conservative government on Spain was a step on the road to ever closer involvement with successive governments, which after 1945 was to lead it to collaborate in imperialist efforts to combat trade unionism within the colonies. Whilst pleas for solidarity with the Spanish workers could be avoided by claiming that events there must not distract attention from real trade union issues in Britain, there were no such reservations when British governments asked for help in dealing with colonial workers. Buchanan’s remarks on the reasons for the bureaucracy’s victory over the militants are relevant to issues other than Spain. Today, after more than two generations of further degeneration, the trade union bureaucracy retains its power, whilst most of the left tries either to infiltrate it or bypass it.

John Sullivan

Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011