By Fred Weston
IN DEFENCE OF MARXISM
ABOVE IMAGE: White Terror in Vladivostok. Click on images for best resolution.
The barrage of propaganda against Lenin and the Bolsheviks has begun. This year, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, we will see learned critics working to turn public opinion against the Bolsheviks and what they stood for, in an attempt to bury the truth about what the revolution was really about. The same critics conveniently put to one side the long history of brutal suppression of workers’ revolutions carried out by the class they themselves serve.
Marx wrote that “…capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” (Capital, Volume One, Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist). He was describing the ruthless methods used by the rising bourgeoisie to grab resources and accumulate capital, causing terrible suffering and death in the process.
The violent rise of the bourgeoisie
The bourgeoisie also does not like to be reminded that it came to power through bloody revolution, not through gradual reform. When the old ruling classes, the feudal, landed aristocracies, refused to go, revolution was the only way of moving society forward. But then revolution was in the interests of the rising bourgeoisie.
In the historical bourgeois revolutions, the English Civil War, as it is known – in reality the English Revolution of 1642–1651 – or the famous French Revolution of 1789, we see that the bourgeoisie in order to establish its rule resorted to violent revolution with much bloodshed and death involved. Although we may read articles about these events lamenting this “unfortunate” violence, we do not see the same condemnations that are heaped on the Russian Revolution.
Why is that? The answer is very simple. The English and French revolutions brought to power the bourgeoisie, the same class that rules today. They broke the chains of the old feudal system that was holding back the development of capitalism, a system that was in embryonic form, and laid the basis for an enormous development of the productive forces, of science and technique. With this also came new rights, bourgeois rights of course, but nonetheless an advance on what prevailed under feudalism.
In 1989 in France – and internationally – there were lavish celebrations on the 200th anniversary of the French revolution. Of course, the celebrations ignored the real meaning of 1789. That was more to do with the fear of revolution today. Nonetheless, the event was celebrated, in spite of all the violence, death and bloodshed.
Not so when it comes to the Russian Revolution. And the reason is clear: the Russian Revolution put an end to capitalism and landlordism, it removed from power the hated Tsarist regime and began the process of building a workers’ state. That is the reason why they hate it so much – it gave an example to the workers of the world, an example they could look to and emulate, as mass Communist Parties emerged in many countries and revolution reverberated around the world, from the German Revolution of November 1918 right through to the Spanish Revolution of 1931-37.
It is precisely because Lenin and the Bolsheviks demonstrated that a workers’ revolution was possible, that the workers could come to power and begin the process of transforming society, that so much attention is dedicated to distorting historical truth. It has nothing to do with the use of violence. This is merely used to depict an image of a bloodthirsty, crazed Lenin, a picture that can be used as a scarecrow whenever the question of social revolution is raised as a necessary means of achieving real change in society. It is to frighten radicalised youth and workers away from the Communists, the Marxists.
The White Terror
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 was actually a relatively peaceful event, peaceful in the sense of very few deaths occurring. In the main cities, so overwhelming was the support the Bolsheviks had won by then, that the old regime simply crumbled and offered very little organised resistance. The violence came after the revolution, as it was quickly transformed into Civil War because the old exploiters, the Tsarist landed aristocracy and the capitalists refused to accept the will of the people, which involved the expropriation of the landlords and capitalists. Thus they launched a war against Soviet power. The Bolsheviks had to fight back with everything they had to keep alive the fledgling workers’ state.
The truth is that if the October Revolution had not taken place, the revolutionary workers, peasants and soldiers would have been drowned in blood. Towards the end of August and early September 1917, General Kornilov had amassed his troops in the vicinity of Petrograd. He had prepared his so-called “Savage Division”, experienced fighters from the Caucasus, to enter the city and drown the revolution in blood.
His aim was not to defend “democracy” but to establish a military dictatorship to restore the old order. As the historian Mayer states in his book, The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001): “Bent on restoring the old regime and empire, even if stripped of the Romanov dynasty, the latter [tsarist officers] were as hostile to liberal or socialist democracy as they were to proletarian dictatorship.”
According to some historians, Kornilov ordered that no captives should be taken and even the injured should not be rescued from the battlefields. His defeat at the hands of the Petrograd workers, led by the Bolsheviks, saved the Russian masses from a particularly vicious dictatorship, which would have been a Russian version of fascism.
THE RULE OF THE BOURGEOISIE HAS ALWAYS BEEN BRUTAL AND RUTHLESS EVERYWHERE. “Ladies and gentlemen, wearing the latest fashions of the time, eating the best food and drinking the best wine, living in the wealthy quarters of London and other British cities were responsible for the death of a million Irish people…”
The White Terror that ensued during the Civil War led to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children being killed, with summary executions of peasants who supported the Bolsheviks. Mayer reports of Kornilov’s threat, after escaping from prison, “the greater the terror, the greater our victories.” While he was gathering his forces – before the Red Army was formed – for an all-out counter-revolutionary war, he vowed that his goals must be fulfilled even if it meant “to set fire to half the country and shed the blood of three-quarters of all Russians.” Kornilov also promoted anti-Semitic pogroms in an attempt to bring back the old pre-revolutionary filth of the Tsarist regime.
When we say that he wanted the old regime, let us not forget what that regime was. In January 1905 there was the event that went down in history as “Bloody Sunday” [9th January]. A peaceful demonstration of around 140,000 people had gathered outside the Winter Palace to petition the Tsar. The response they received was to be a bitter lesson in the true nature of the Tsar and his regime. Troops opened fire on the unarmed masses, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. That is when the Tsar became known as “Nicholas the Bloody”.
It is this history that explains the hatred of the Russian masses towards the Tsarist regime. And as Lenin wrote from exile in Switzerland at the time, “The working class has received a momentous lesson in civil war: the revolutionary education of the proletariat made more progress in one day than it could have made in months and years of drab, humdrum, wretched existence. The slogan of the heroic St Petersburg proletariat, ‘Death or Freedom!’ is reverberating throughout Russia.”
Had Kornilov been victorious in the Civil War there would have been a far worse “Bloody Sunday”. And what would the bourgeois historians be saying now? No doubt, they would be justifying it as a necessary means of maintaining the established order and little would be said of the “violence and bloodshed”! The reason for that is that it would have been blood spilled in the defence of private property, of the privileges of the elite, of their right to exploit the workers and peasants and to continue the centuries-long suffering of the poor working masses.
Slanderous campaign against Lenin
The Russian Revolution was successful because a party of Marxist cadres had been built beforehand, the Bolshevik Party. Such a party would not have existed if it had not been for Lenin struggling over many years for theoretical clarity, for the basic ideas of Marxism within the young Russian labour movement.
This is not the place to outline the history of the building of the party, but if anyone wishes to deepen their understanding on this question, read Bolshevism – The Road to Revolution by Alan Woods and Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? Lenin struggled all his adult life for the cause of the working class and to put an end to the tyranny of the Tsarist regime. His contribution to Marxism is unquestionable and his writings are a treasure trove of Marxist theory.
It is this that the bourgeoisie for the past one hundred years has wanted to bury under a heap of lies and distortions. This kind of propaganda has nothing to do with establishing historical truth and all to do with a struggle between the classes over the future of the society we live in. The kind of propaganda we can expect to see this year is already easily available.
One example is the 1997 Discovery Channel documentary, in which we see Professor Robert Service attempting to analyse the Russian Revolution by psychoanalysing Lenin. He adds a novel idea, that it was Lenin’s fading health that caused him to become impatient and this had direct consequences on how the Russian Revolution unfolded. The ridiculous idea presented here is that Lenin pushed for the party to decide the day of the insurrection, not because it was an objective necessity otherwise the generals would have taken power, but because he was in a hurry “to cram into his revolutionary career as much as possible” so as to see revolution before he died!
We are also told about Lenin’s supposed “violent mood swings”, his putting an end to anything, even listening to music he liked, so that he would not be distracted from revolution. The documentary goes into a lot of personal detail. It is all designed to present Lenin as some kind of psychopath.
However, even this documentary designed to dirty the name of Lenin and the revolution, towards the end cannot avoid showing the immense support that Lenin had among the worker and peasant masses. This is something bourgeois professors cannot relate to, as they are incapable of seeing the world through the eyes of the downtrodden workers and peasants under the Tsarist regime; they cannot understand the immense class hatred that existed in the depths of society.
In another video, Vladimir Lenin documentary – Stunning Documentaries, we have Nina Tumarkin, professor of history at Wellesley College, attempting to analyse Lenin as a child. She describes him as “one of those bossy kids”…, “self-centred…”, but also a “competent and smart child”. The idea, again, is to present an almost inhuman Lenin with the potential to be a “dictator” because he was supposedly a “bossy kid”!
It would require a book to respond to all the slanders against Lenin. We will deal with all this in a series of articles and videos we will publish throughout 2017. Here we will concentrate on the violence of the capitalist class and the brutal methods it has used throughout history to crush worker and peasant revolts.
The Russian Revolution was different from all the other attempted revolutions in one thing: it succeeded where all others failed. And when those revolutions failed, the response of the bourgeoisie was violent to the extreme. When it comes to defending its vital interests, its political system, its profits and privileges, its spheres of influence and its markets, the bourgeoisie is prepared to use any means necessary, as this article will demonstrate.
Churchill determined to use chemical weapons in war against the Bolsheviks
What the mainstream bourgeois historians cannot really admit is that the Russian Revolution succeeded because it had mass support of the workers and peasants. During the civil war that ensued, as the Red Army advanced the land was taken from the landlords and distributed to the peasants. Whenever the White Army took areas, these progressive measures were reversed. That explains why the Red Army advanced in the face of armies that were armed and backed by powerful imperialist countries.
In desperation Churchill ordered the use of chemical weapons against the Bolsheviks. An article that appeared in The Guardian in September 2013, Winston Churchill’s shocking use of chemical weapons, explains what happened in 1919: “As a long-term advocate of chemical warfare, he was determined to use them against the Russian Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1919… Churchill planned and executed a sustained chemical attack on northern Russia.”
A new chemical weapon had been developed, the secret “M Device”, capable of delivering a very toxic gas, diphenylaminechloroarsine. The officer in charge of the project, Major General Charles Foulkes, described it as “the most effective chemical weapon ever devised”. It caused uncontrollable vomiting, the coughing up of blood and collapse of the victims.
Sir Keith Price, head of chemical warfare production, was convinced it would lead very quickly to the collapse of Bolshevik power in the Soviet Union. At the end of August 1919, several Bolshevik-held villages were bombed, but the weapon proved less effective than Churchill had hoped and very soon its use was brought to an end.
But let us just reflect for a moment. Here we have a British political leader – hailed as a democrat by the same historians who are condemning the violence of the Red Army – who was prepared to use chemical weapons indiscriminately on Russian peasant villages. Again, the contrast is stark to the nth degree. Had the Red Army used such methods they would be shouting about it from the rooftops. But of course, they didn’t!
The massacre of the Paris Commune
If any readers are not convinced that the White Terror would have led to a bloody massacre of the revolution, it is worth looking at what happened to the courageous Communards during the short-lived Paris Commune back in 1871. How many school students are ever taught about what happened in Paris in the months of March, April and May of that year? To pose the question is enough to know what the answer will be. At best it is mentioned as a minor detail in the aftermath of the defeat of Emperor Napoleon III in September 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War.
In reality the Paris Commune was the first time in history that workers had consciously attempted to take over the running of society. If anyone wants to read more on this glorious episode in working class history, they can read Marx’s The Civil War in France, Lenin on the Paris Commune, Lessons of the Commune, and for a detailed account of the events there is Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune of 1871.
Once the reactionary troops of the Versailles regime managed to enter Paris, a systematic butchering of Communards began, and according to different sources anything between 18,000 and 20,000 Communards were executed during the Semaine Sanglante (“Bloody Week”), and thousands more were either jailed or went into exile to escape the repression.
Just to give a small idea of what went on in those terrible days for the Parisian working class, it is sufficient to quote one passage from Merriman’s “Massacre: the life and death of the Paris Commune of 1871” (2014):
“Social class could determine life or death. Middle-class Communards were more likely to talk their way out of encounters with Versaillais. Sutter-Laumann survived because he washed carefully, combed his hair, and spoke ‘without a working-class accent in good French’ when stopped by an officer of the Volunteers of the Seine. If those who were stopped spoke the argot of the Parisian street and workplace, execution usually followed. An officer interrogated a man at a barricade on rue Houdon: ‘Who are you?’ ‘A mason’, the man replied. ‘So, now it’s masons who are going to command!’ The officer shot the man dead on the spot. Social stigmatisation led to massacre.”
There are many more passages like this, which show the real face of the French bourgeoisie when faced with the threat of social revolution that could have taken away all their privileges and put an end to their oppressive rule. In their minds such levels of violence were justified. Here again we see that it is not violence per se that is the key element in judging whether it was justified, but the fact that it was used to defend the existing order.
The 1916 Irish Easter Rising
Irish history over the centuries was one of a nation oppressed by British imperialism, with the Irish people treated almost like pack animals, crushed and humiliated by a foreign oppressor propertied class, brutally treated in the name of profit and privilege. The most striking example of this was the Great Famine (1845-52), when around a million poor Irish starved to death and a further million were forced to emigrate. As a result the island lost about one quarter of its population.
We are told in the history books that it was the potato blight, a disease that destroyed the potato crop, that caused this widespread hunger. But this is only a very small part of the truth. The potato blight affected many other countries in the same period across Europe, but it is estimated that only around 100,000 died as a result. So why did so many die in Ireland alone?
One would think that if there was a failure of the potato crop, the Irish peasants could have eaten other crops. In fact, according to many historians, Ireland produced enough other crops and livestock to feed its population. According to Cecil Woodham-Smith, in his work The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849, “Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. But that was a ‘money crop’ and not a ‘food crop’ and could not be interfered with.” [My emphasis] Ireland’s agricultural production at the time could have fed around eighteen million people, double the then population of the country. For every ship loaded with food produce going into Ireland there were six coming out. This extraction of Ireland’s agricultural produce from the island during the famine was ensured by the British army who guarded and suppressed any attempt by the starving Irish masses to get their hands on the “money crop”.
Ladies and gentlemen, wearing the latest fashions of the time, eating the best food and drinking the best wine, living in the wealthy quarters of London and other British cities were responsible for the death of a million Irish people. They allowed all this to happen rather than renounce on some of their profits. It was cold blooded murder, but we see no analysis of bloodthirsty psychopaths here, no condemnation, no big media campaigns to expose this historical crime. Of course not, as the people responsible for this crime against humanity were the forebears of today’s ruling class, who continue to defend the system that is capable of such inhumane behaviour.
The death of so many left a mark on the consciousness of the Irish, who had already many times before shown signs of a brewing rebellion deep down in the oppressed layers of society. This was eventually to lead to the armed rebellion of the Easter Rising of 1916 and independence from the yoke of British imperialism, after the War of Independence of 1919-21. This is not the place to go into the reasons as to why Ireland did not achieve full independence and why British imperialism managed to hold on to the six counties in the north. (For a detailed analysis see Alan Woods’ Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution.) For the purposes of this article it is worth simply concentrating on how the leaders of the Easter Rising were dealt with by the British.
The casualties involved in the Rising were close to 500 with over 2600 wounded, mostly civilians. The British forces during the rebellion used artillery, incendiary shells and heavy machine guns in built-up areas, putting at risk the lives of the local population. At the same time they revealed an “inability to discern rebels from civilians”. One Royal Irish Regiment officer recalled, “they regarded, not unreasonably, everyone they saw as an enemy, and fired at anything that moved”.
The Easter Rising was a courageous stand, but in the given circumstances it was doomed to failure. However, it was to shake the consciousness of the Irish masses, who within a few years would rise against British imperialism. The savagery of the British in dealing with the leaders played a big role in this.
After a farcical trial, sixteen leaders were condemned to death by firing squad. Every day for a few days the executions were carried out. The case of James Connolly stands out, for he was badly wounded and could not stand. He had shrapnel in his chest and his ankle had been shattered. He was carried on a stretcher from the ambulance to the courtyard where he was to be shot. According to some witnesses he attempted to stand, defiant to the very end, but slumped and overbalanced. So they strapped him to a stretcher and placed him in a reclining position tied to a chair in order to shoot him.
This was how the British bourgeoisie dealt with the leaders of the easter Rising who had dared to challenge their right to rule over Ireland, their “first colony”. There was no humanitarian liberalism here; just cold-blooded revenge, with the aim of “giving the Irish a lesson”.
The rise of Italian Fascism
While Russia was in full revolution, there were other movements that threatened the power of the ruling classes in other countries. One of these was in Italy, where in Turin in August 1917 bread riots led by working class women erupted that quickly grew into generalised working class anti-war protests with armed conflicts between workers and state forces. The movement was eventually put down violently, with many workers killed. According to bourgeois sources at least 50 were killed and 200 were wounded, and 822 workers were arrested. Other sources say the deaths could have been as much as 500, as the bodies were very quickly carted away as the authorities attempted to stop news of the event from spreading.
This was merely a harbinger of what was to come. But it was not the first time that the Italian state authorities had fired on and killed protesting workers. There was a long history of violent state repression of worker protests. One of the most famous took place back in 1898 the “Bava-Beccaris massacre”, named after the General who ordered the shootings of workers during widespread food riots in Milan. On May 7, 1898, 60,000 striking workers started marching towards the centre of Milan. General Bava-Beccaris positioned his troops in Piazza del Duomo, the main central square of Milan. As the workers advanced, the General issued the order to fire on the demonstrators, including the use of artillery. Eighty demonstrators were killed and 450 were wounded, according to official statements.
In the aftermath of the First World War in Italy there was a huge wave of worker and peasant struggles. Land occupations were widespread in the south, while in the industrial centres, mainly in the north but not only, the movement culminated in the famous Factory Occupations of September 1920. (See Italy September 1920: The Occupation of the Factories: The Lost Revolution).
This was the Italian Revolution – the culmination of a process that went back decades – and it had put the fear of God into the capitalists and landlords. Once the immediate threat of revolution had passed, the bourgeoisie hit back with a vengeance. Not satisfied with having defeated the movement – see article quoted above for the reasons of this defeat – they backed and financed Mussolini’s Fascists, using them as shock troops against the revolutionary workers.
Mussolini had founded his Fascist Party in 1919, and initially he had only small forces gathered around him. But the defeat of the working class in 1920 prepared the ground for his rise. Suddenly money from wealthy capitalists started raining on Mussolini’s party while the state repressive apparatus turned a blind eye and even supported logistically the raids by fascist death squads against trade unions and socialist organisations and socialist led local authorities. At the peak of this terrorist offensive, in 1922 he organised the famous “march on Rome” when the King appointed him as Prime Minister. The dictatorship was declared later, in 1926.
What fascism meant for the working class
In April 1926 the trade unions were replaced by the Fascist “corporations” under the direct control of the regime. The right to strike was abolished. This was the answer to the revolutionary movement of 1918-20 during which the workers had won important wage increases and the eight hour day. In May 1927 a 10 percent wage cut was imposed followed in October of the same year by further cut, leading to an overall annual reduction in wages of 20 percent. In 1930 the bosses’ association, Confindustria, requested a further lowering of labour costs and the regime imposed another 8 percent cut in wages, and another in 1934. And although, faced with high inflation in the mid to late 1930s, the regime was forced to grant some wage increases, the overall cut in real wages for workers between 1922 and 1943 was 25 percent.
In the process of consolidating their grip on power, the Fascist death squads organised a systematic campaign of burning Communist Party, Socialist Party and Trade Union offices, attacking labour movement meetings and assassinating key worker and peasant leaders. According to Gaetano Salvemini, in his book “Le origini del fascismo in Italia” [The Origins of Fascism in Italy, Feltrinelli, 1979] “About three thousand people lost their lives at the hands of fascists during the two years of civil war”.
The most famous case was that of Giacomo Matteotti, a Socialist Party MP who publicly denounced the 1924 elections as a sham, accusing the government of vote-rigging and fraud. He was assassinated on 10 June of that year. The assassins acted on the direct orders of Mussolini himself, who was by then already the prime minister.
According to Giorgio Candeloro in his classic History of Modern Italy, in the first six months of 1921, overall there were 726 cases of Fascist squads ransacking and destroying offices, party branches and printing presses, including 119 Trade Union headquarters and 141 Communist and Socialist Party branches.
The treatment of Antonio Gramsci
The Communists – together with the Socialists – were in fact those who the regime was particularly interested in crushing. In November 1926 Mussolini moved to destroy the last vestiges of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. On November 8, Antonio Gramsci, the leader of the Italian Communist Party and a Member of Parliament, was arrested. He was eventually put on “trial” in May 1928. During the proceedings the Prosecutor made it very clear why Gramsci was in prison when he said, “We must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years.” In fact, he was given a twenty year prison sentence!
Gramsci was of a weak constitution, with many health problems. He was sent to serve his sentence in a prison in Turi, near Bari in the South. The journey took twelve gruelling days, with Gramsci tied in chains. He arrived ill, as a fellow prisoner described his condition, “his digestive system was completely upset, he was breathing with great difficulty, and unable to walk more than a step at a time without leaning on someone.” The doctor provided by the regime told Gramsci that “as a good fascist” he would like nothing better than to see him dead. In prison Gramsci’s health deteriorated rapidly. He started coughing up blood and was in effect slowly dying. His only chance of survival would have been to be released from prison and to live in better conditions. Eventually, after years of ordeal, he was allowed to move to a clinic south of Rome, but under heavy police surveillance. But the move was too late and on 27 April 1937 he died. Mussolini had achieved his goal, not just silencing Gramsci for twenty years but forever.
After the initial phase of the consolidation of the Fascist regime, after having killing 3000 socialist and communist workers, the regime resorted to a relatively small number of executions. According to figures provided by ANPI (National Association of Italian Partisans), 42 dissidents were shot after being sentenced by the Fascist Special Tribunal after 1926. In this period, the regime used prison and internal exile against the anti-fascists, affecting thousands of people and dislocating the structures of the anti-fascist parties. A total of 28,000 years of imprisonment was meted out to anti-fascist dissidents.
It was in 1938, with the introduction of the Racial Laws in November of that year, that mass killings took off once more. These laws were introduced specifically against Jews as a gesture to Hitler. Thus began the internment and deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps on a large scale. 45,000 were deported to Germany to the concentration camps, 15,000 of whom never returned, mostly Jews, but also political oppositionists.
After the military coup that deposed Mussolini, the Fascist regime was reconstituted under German occupation, known as the “Repubblica di Salo’”. This regime, in collaboration with the Nazis, carried out terrible torture and killings in its war against the anti-fascist partisan movement that emerged in that period. WE should not forget the courageous 110,000 men and women who died fighting in the anti-fascist Partisan units. To all this should also be added the 640,000 Italian soldiers who were interned by the Nazis after Italy surrendered in 1943, of which 40,000 died.
Fascism took its toll also outside of Italy. Mussolini’s vainglorious attempt to build an Italian Empire claimed the lives of 80,000 Libyans and 700,000 Ethiopians who were killed when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936, many dying atrociously killed by nerve gas.
This is what the Italian bourgeoisie was prepared to support in order to destroy the Italian labour movement, wading through the blood of thousands of people, to maintain their power and privileges.
Churchill, American Ambassador, the Pope… all supported Mussolini
What was the reaction of the “democratic West” to all this? Winston Churchill, who was later to be presented as a “champion of democracy and freedom” during the Second World War, said the following to Mussolini in a press conference in Rome in January 1927: “If I had been an Italian, I am sure I would have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” (quoted in Churchill: A Life, 1992, by Martin Gilbert).
The fact that Churchill later came into conflict with Mussolini was not about the struggle for democracy at all. It was due to the fact that Italy eventually sided with Hitler and threatened Britain’s vital interests. But in his crushing of the Italian working class, Churchill fully backed Mussolini.
That was the approach of a leading British bourgeois politician, but what was the view of the US leaders? In 1928 an English translation of Mussolini’s autobiography was published in New York. The Foreword to the book was written by the former US ambassador to Italy (from May 1921 to February 1924), Richard Washburn Child. It makes interesting reading. It was written long before Mussolini decided to throw his lot in with Hitler in the Second World War.
The following sentences taken from the Foreword suffice to indicate where the Ambassador of the “democratic” United States stood:
“…I knew well the man who now, at last, has written characteristically, directly and simply of that self for which I have a deep affection… In our time it may be shrewdly forecast that no man will exhibit dimensions of permanent greatness equal to those of Mussolini… I knew him before the world at large, outside of Italy, had ever heard of him… The first time I ever saw him he came to my residence sometime before the march on Rome… the Duce is now the greatest figure of this sphere and time.”
In Richard Washburn Child’s memoir A Diplomat looks at Europe (1925), there is a chapter on Mussolini which is full of praise for the Fascists, and he clearly sees them as saviours of Italy and a bulwark against the threat of Communism.
And what about the Catholic Church? Pius XI was viscerally anti-Communist. “We have many interests to protect,” the Pope declared, soon after Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922. Mussolini leaned on the Pope to consolidate his power and achieve his political goals. A mythology was later built up by the official Catholic hierarchy about the Church having combatted Fascism. While it is true that there were some local priests who sided with the common people, the Vatican under Pius XI played an important role in helping Mussolini tighten his grip on power. Mussolini showed his gratitude when he restored many of the privileges the Church had lost when he signed the Lateran Pacts in 1929.
Thus we see how a bourgeois “democratic” member of the “mother of all parliaments”, a US diplomat and the leader of the Catholic Church had no qualms in supporting a bloody regime, responsible for the deaths of so many, simply because this was in their material interests. The same people attacked the Bolsheviks for their violence, again, not for the violence per se, but because it was revolutionary violence carried out in the defence of workers and peasants who were removing capitalists and landlords from power. We see how these people use and condone violence when it is in defence of private property. Thus barbarism is transformed into an idyllic crusade.
The 1927 massacre of Chinese Communists
The 1925-27 Chinese revolution was another moment in history when workers attempted to take their destiny into their own hands. The reasons for its failure were analysed in detail by Leon Trotsky, (See Leon Trotsky’s Collected Writings On China). The defeat of the revolution, again, led to a terrible bloodbath with tens of thousands of communist workers being killed.
Throughout 1927 and 1928 a series of massacres took place, the first in Shanghai in March/April 1927. Thousands of activists were massacred. In May the Kuomintang carried out another massacre in Changsha, when some 10,000 communists were killed. Between April and December 1927, it is estimated that 38,000 people were executed and many more were imprisoned. Between January and August 1928, over 27,000 were sentenced to death. By 1930, the Chinese Communist Party had estimated that around 140,000 had been murdered or had died while in prison. And in 1931, a further 38,000 were executed.
In his “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution”, written in 1938, Harold R. Isaacs gives the following information on the numbers killed:
“No one knows how many have died under the scourge of Kuomintang terror. No one knows how many men and women, boys and girls, have been mutilated, tortured, imprisoned, and killed during the past decade of Kuomintang rule. It is known only that there have been thousands, scores of thousands, slaughtered and maimed during mass butcheries in the countryside and in the cities, in addition to the victims of the day-to-day manhunts carried on unremittingly, year after year. No one has ever known exactly how many political prisoners choked in stinking jails from one end of the land to the other, or how many of them died of disease or on the rack.
“For the record there are only partial estimates and incomplete figures culled from official announcements and from the daily Press. From April to December, 1927, according to one investigation, there were 37,985 known dead and 32,316 known political prisoners. Between January and August, 1928, 27,699 were formally condemned to death and more than 17,000 were imprisoned. At the end of 1930 the Chinese Red Aid estimated that a total of 140,000 had been killed or died in prison. In 1931 a study of available figures for cities of six provinces established that 38,778 had been executed as enemies of the regime. From 1932 to 1936 the thousands who were killed or filled the prisons were mainly those who in one way or another challenged the contemptible capitulation of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang to Japanese imperialism, or who tried to organize resistance to the imperialist invasion of Chinese territory, the seizure of Manchuria and a part of North China. Chiang Kai-shek adopted a policy of “non-resistance” to the imperialist invasion while he conducted a merciless war of extermination against insurgent peasants in Central China, killing thousands and laying waste villages and fields in the provinces south of the Yangtze.” (Chapter XVIII. Fruits of Defeat)
What methods did Chiang’s forces use in crushing the Communists? The French writer André Malraux wrote his novel, Man’s Estate (La condition humaine), based on his knowledge of the Chinese Revolution and the bloody aftermath in 1927. In the final part of the book he describes a scene where Communists have been gathered ready for execution:
“In the great hall of the prison… two hundred wounded Communists waited for someone to come and finish them off… They all lay flat on the floor. Many groaned, and there was an extraordinary regularity about their groaning.”
Two of the main characters in the book, Communists, Katow, a Russian, and Kyo, a Chinese, end up in the prison only to discover that this is where they keep the prisoners before torturing them and one of the other prisoners informs Katow that, “They don’t shoot them, they fling them alive into the furnace of the locomotive… Then that’s that – they blow the whistle…”
The prisoners are left there awaiting their fate, watching as groups of prisoners are taken out and shortly afterwards they hear the whistle. Although this is a novel, it portrays graphically the brutality of Chiang’s forces.
All this was done with the backing of all the imperialist powers, from the US to the British to the French. Again, both the western imperialist and the local landlords and bourgeois saw all this killing as a necessity to maintain their rule over the Chinese masses.
The role of Stalin
The defeat of the Chinese Revolution was made even worse by the confusion generated among the Chinese communists because of the mistakes and betrayals of the Communist International leadership under the rising influence of Stalin. It is worth noting here what the position of Stalin had been towards Chiang Kai Shek. Chiang’s party, the Kuomintang was accepted as a sympathising section of the Communist International early in 1926 – barely one year before Chiang would organise a bloodbath of Chinese communists – and this decision was later approved by the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The sole dissenting voice was that of Leon Trotsky who voted against. The Kuomintang was even allowed to send “fraternal delegates” to meetings of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI).
This explains why even in 1927 just prior to the beginning of the massacres, the workers of Shanghai were told that the entry of Chiang’s armed forces marked the hour of liberation! Welcoming parties were even organised for the Kuomintang forces. This was also reflected in the press of various Communist Parties. This is how Harold R. Isaacs describes the situation:
“A few days before the insurrection Rote Fahne, central organ of the German Communist Party, featured a photo of Chiang Kai-shek, describing him as the heroic leader of the ‘revolutionary war council’ of the Kuomintang. (Rote Fahne, Berlin, March 17, 1927.) A similar photo appeared in L’Humanité, French Communist daily, on March 23, with a report of a great mass meeting at which Chiang’s entry into Shanghai was greeted as the inauguration of ‘the Chinese Commune,’ opening ‘a new stage in world revolution.’ An editorial spoke of the Cantonese victory as the ‘liberation of Shanghai,’ which meant ‘the beginning of liberation for the workers of the world.’ (L’Humanité, March 23, 1927)”
Thus, in the killings that followed the defeat of the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution, the Stalinists hold heavy responsibility, as they unwittingly created the illusion that Chiang was a “saviour” [or a possible tactical ally] thus politically disarming the Chinese workers and leaving them unprepared for what was about to happen.
Japan invades but Chiang’s priority is to destroy the Communists
Much has been said about the millions that died in the fighting over many years in China, but the responsibility for this lies with the Chinese capitalists and landlords and the imperialists whose interests they served. They were not prepared to give up their land and their profits. The Chinese bourgeois considered it more important to fight the Communists than the invading Japanese. This was shown repeatedly during the Japanese invasion. This is not the first time in history that we have seen a ruling class having more in common with the enemy invaders than with their own people!
After consolidating his grip on power in 1927, Chiang concentrated his attention on exterminating the Communists. This marked the origin of what was later to be known as the Long March, as the Communists fled the cities and reorganised as a guerrilla army in remote areas. Within a few years, in 1931, the Japanese invaded China, taking Manchuria, and then deployed troops in Central China in the province close to Beijing. Instead of concentrating his forces against the Japanese, Chiang positioned the bulk of his forces near Yenan, as his main objective was to destroy the Communist forces.
In his book “Tea That Burns: A Family Memoir of Chinatown”, Bruce Hall points out the brutal methods used by the advancing Japanese forces:
“In July of 1937, the Japanese invade and occupy Peking, Shanghai and Tianjin, while in Nanking they engage in an orgy of violence that shocks the entire world. In a period of only six to eight weeks some 300,000 of Nanking’s civilian residents are slaughtered by methods of appalling cruelty. Japanese soldiers stage beheading contests, people are flayed alive. Others are hanged by their tongues, and children are tortured to death with needles. In addition, an estimated 20,000 women are raped—many by their own fathers or sons at the point of Japanese bayonets—before the entire families are murdered and their bodies mutilated. And all this without a ﬁght from Chiang Kai-shek’s army. Which he mysteriously deems too ill-equipped even to attempt to stop his Japanese foe.” (page 215) [My emphasis]
As we can see, there was a de facto alliance between Chiang and the Japanese imperialists, for the propertied class that Chiang represented had more in common with the Japanese capitalists than with Chinese workers and peasants.
The rise of Hitler
For a full account and analysis of the events that unfolded in Germany in this period see Germany: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution by Rob Sewell. Here we will deal with the counter-revolutionary violence used to crush the German working class.
The counter-revolutionary reaction to the 1918 German revolution was ruthless. In response to the famous Spartacist Uprising of January 1919 an offensive was launched, known as the “White Terror”. In Berlin in January, in putting down the Spartacist resistance, according to official figures, 156 workers were killed and hundreds more were wounded. In the process the two outstanding revolutionary leaders of the German working class, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, were arrested by Freikorps officers. Liebknecht was summarily shot and Rosa Luxemburg’s head was smashed in by an officer’s rifle butt and her body was thrown into a canal.
This was just the beginning. The class struggle in Germany was not over and the working class moved repeatedly, but eventually succumbed to the Nazi counter-revolution. Smashing the power of the organised working class became the key aim of the German ruling class. As in Italy, the German bourgeoisie abandoned any pretence of bourgeois democracy and eventually handed power to the madmen of Hitler.
The consequence of all this are known to all, with the holocaust during which over six million people perished. The bulk of these were Jews but there were also disabled people, homosexuals and lesbians, gypsies and others. However, the fact that the German Communists were among the first to end up in the concentration camps is often skipped over.
In 1933 the Chief of Police of Munich issued a press statement announcing the opening of the first official concentration camp in Dachau which could hold 5,000 people. The statement made it clear that “All Communists and—where necessary—Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated here…” In fact, most of the early victims were communists!
When the Nazis occupied other countries, as they advanced, communists, socialists and anarchists were among the first to be arrested and many were summarily executed. This was the case with Spanish Republicans who had escaped to France from Franco’s bloody counter-revolution. When France was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940, around 7,000 Spaniards who had fought bravely in the Civil War were rounded up and later died in the Nazi concentration camps.
The rise of Hitler, of course, prepared the ground for the Second World War in which over 55 million people lost their lives globally, of which around 27 million in the Soviet Union alone. This last figure highlights the fact that the Nazi regime came to power not just to destroy the German labour movement, with its trade union and political organisations, but also to strike at the Soviet Union and the state-owned, planned economy.
Such was the crisis of world capitalism, which expressed itself in an acute manner in Germany, that socialist revolution became a concrete possibility, as the history of that period shows. Faced with the threat of being overthrown by the German workers, in the end the ruling class was prepared to unleash the barbarism of the Nazis. The reason for this was that they needed a tool that could smash the millions strong labour movement. That was the essence of Nazism.
Attitude of the British ruling class towards Hitler
Today, all the “democratic” bourgeois politicians, the mainstream media, the education system, the very Establishment itself, express horror at the mere mention of what happened in Germany. And any ordinary person – except for the tiny minority of today’s fascists – is naturally horrified at what happened. But what was the position at the time Hitler came to power?
So long as Hitler did not threaten the vital interests of British imperialism, it is clear that the British ruling class saw the rise of the Nazi regime as preferable to the German working class coming to power. There was sympathy towards the Nazis – at least up to the mid-1930s – among important sections of the British establishment, even within the Royal family itself.
As Frank McDonough, in his book, The Gestapo: The Myth and Reality of Hitler’s Secret Police published in 2015, said in an interview with The Royalist: “The British ‘Establishment’, including key figures in the aristocracy, the press were keen supporters of Hitler up until the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Few were supporters of Nazism, but they admired Hitler and felt he offered the best means of preventing the spread of communism.They tended to turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism and the attacks Hitler made on communists, socialists, and other internal opponents.” [My emphasis]
Viscount Rothermere was an example of Establishment figures who admired Hitler. At that time he owned both the Mail and the Mirror. In January 1934, he had articles published in the two papers. In the Mail the headline of the article was “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”, while in the Mirror it was “Give the Blackshirts a helping hand.” Here he was backing Mosley’s attempt to replicate the Nazi party in Britain, which he later had to drop. Nonetheless, he went far further than many other establishment figures, meeting and corresponding directly with Hitler, even congratulating him when he annexed Czechoslovakia.
When Neville Henderson was made ambassador to Germany in May 1937, he wrote in The Times, “far too many people have an erroneous conception of what the National Socialist regime really stands for. Otherwise they would lay less stress on Nazi dictatorship and much more emphasis on the great social experiment which is being tried out.”
Lord Halifax as a representative of the British government visited Hitler in November 1937 and told him that people in Britain who criticised the Nazis, such as the leaders of the Labour Party, “were not fully informed’ of the “great services” that Hitler had done… “by preventing the entry of communism” into Germany, as this blocked its [communism’s] “passage further west.”
This last quote puts the position of the British capitalist class in a nutshell. It was preferable to unleash the madmen of Hitler on the German working class than to see Communism spreading westwards. Had the revolution spread to Germany, the isolation of the Soviet Union would have been broken and with the aid of the German working class, the Soviet workers could have …moved towards a genuine, democratic, workers’ state and the revolution would have spread throughout Europe. The fate of the Spanish revolution would have been very different.
In essence it would have meant the beginning of worldwide revolution and the downfall of capitalism globally. That is why the British elite looked with sympathy on Hitler and the Nazis in the early days of the regime. The only true anti-fascists in Britain were to be found on the left, in the trade unions, in the Independent Labour Party, Labour Party and other left forces. (This was confirmed later when many of them volunteered to go to Spain and help in the fighting against Franco.)
Those same bourgeois who looked with pleasure on the “great social experiment” of the Nazis, i.e. the butchering of hundreds of thousands, would dedicate volumes to expressing their “horror” at the violence of the Bolsheviks. Their horror was not at the violence, but at the expropriation of the capitalists and landlords!
Spanish Civil War
In the revolutions that erupted between 1917 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the Spanish Revolution stands out as the last stand of the European working class in its attempt to roll back the wave of counter-revolution that had begun with the defeat of the Italian working class in 1922. For a succinct analysis of the tumultuous events that unfolded in Spain in the 1930s read Ted Grant’s The Spanish Revolution 1931-37 and for a lengthier analysis read Trotsky’s Collected Writings on The Spanish Revolution.
In the Spanish Revolution we saw once again the nefarious role of the reformism of social democracy and Stalinism, which in the name of its two-stage theory and Popular Frontism contributed to the derailing of the revolution. [Editor’s Note: We disagree with this interpretation of Stalin’s role in history, but is par for the course in all Trotskyist influenced writings.} For a few years, however, the Spanish proletariat put up a heroic fight as it desperately tried to find the road to successful revolution.
While the Spanish workers and peasants were being fed the line of the need to form an alliance with the so-called “progressive bourgeoisie”, Leon Trotsky had warned right from the beginning of the consequences of such a policy and in 1939 he commented:
“One of the most tragic chapters of modern history is now drawing to its conclusion in Spain. On Franco’s side there is neither a staunch army nor popular support. There is only the greed of proprietors ready to drown in blood three-fourths of the population if only to maintain their rule over the remaining one-fourth. However, this cannibalistic ferocity is not enough to win a victory over the heroic Spanish proletariat. Franco needed help from the opposite side of the battlefront. And he obtained this aid. His chief assistant was and still is Stalin, the gravedigger of the Bolshevik Party and the proletarian revolution. The fall of the great proletarian capital, Barcelona, comes as direct retribution for the massacre of the uprising of the Barcelona proletariat in May 1937.
“Insignificant as Franco himself is, however miserable his clique of adventurists, without honour, without conscience, and without military talents, Franco’s great superiority lies in this, that he has a clear and definite programme: to safeguard and stabilize capitalist property, the rule of the exploiters, and the domination of the church; and to restore the monarchy.
“The possessing classes of all capitalist countries – whether fascist or democratic – proved, in the nature of things, to be on Franco’s side. The Spanish bourgeoisie has gone completely over to Franco’s camp.” (Leon Trotsky, The Tragedy of Spain, January 1939)
The final act of the Spanish Civil War took place at the end of March to early April 1939. On 28 March the Nationalists took Madrid and the Civil War finally came to an end on 1 April, with Franco victorious. Up to half a million people are estimated to have died. After Franco’s victory something between 250,000 and 500,000 Republican refugees fled the country and went into exile abroad. Martial law was declared and remained in effect until 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Republicans were imprisoned. And in the years 1939-43 nearly 200,000 were summarily executed or killed.
In his Time to exorcise the ghost of Franco, Jorge Martin outlines the extent of the repression:
“The exact figures are disputed, but it is calculated that between 80 and 100,000 people were killed by the fascists during the war in a campaign of systematic repression town by town, city by city, and a further 50,000 were executed by firing squads in the immediate aftermath. Up to half a million were detained in concentration camps after the end of the war in 1939. Tens of thousands of them were used as forced labour both in public works projects as well as in private companies and in the estates of landowners.
“The most glaring example is the huge fascist monument of the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), in El Escorial, marking those fallen in Franco’s “Glorious Crusade”, presided over by an enormous 150 metre tall cross. This was built mostly by forced labour, with many dying in the process. The monument still stands today, without the slightest modification of its meaning and symbology. Both Francisco Franco and founder of the Spanish Falange fascist party Primo de Rivera are buried here.
“Hundreds of thousands left the country as exiles and refugees during and after the war, probably up to half a million. Many of them were confined in camps in the South of France with about 12,000 being later sent to Nazi concentration camps.
“About 30,000 children were taken into custody by the Franco regime, some from Republican mothers who were jailed and others whose parents had died in the war or been executed afterwards. Many were given in adoption to Franco supporting families.”
The slaughter of the 4000 at Badajoz
An example of the brutality of Franco’s forces is provided by the Chicago Tribune in an article that appeared in the August 30, 1936 edition. The original is available here and a more easily accessible text version is available here: “Slaughter of 4,000 at Badajoz, ‘City of Horrors,’ Is Told by Tribune Man”. In introducing his article, the author writes:
“I have come from Badajoz, several miles away in Spain. I have been up on the roof to look back. There was a fire. They are burning bodies. Four thousand men and women have died at Badajoz since Gen. Francisco Franco’s rebel Foreign Legionnaires and Moors climbed over the bodies of their own dead through its many times blood drenched walls. (…) I tried to sleep. But you can’t sleep on a soiled and lumpy bed in a room at the temperature of a Turkish bath, with mosquitoes and bedbugs tormenting you, and with memories of what you have seen tormenting you, with the smell of blood in your very hair, and with a woman sobbing in the room next door.”
He explains that, “thousands of republican, socialist, and communist militiamen were butchered after the fall of Badajoz for the crime of defending their republic against the onslaught of the generals and the landowners.”
This took place in the Badajoz Bullring, and the author continues:
“They were young, mostly peasants in blue blouses, mechanics in jumpers, ‘The Reds.’ They are still being rounded up. At 4 o’clock in the morning they were out into the ring through the gate by which the initial parade of the bullfight enters. There machine guns awaited them.
“After the first night the blood was supposed to be palm deep on the far side of the ring. I don’t doubt it. Eighteen hundred men – there were women, too – were mowed down there in some 12 hours. There is more blood than you would think in 1,800 bodies.”
The numbers killed could be anything between 2000 and 4000. The exact number is not known as bodies were hurriedly taken in trucks to the local cemetery and burned, but something like 10% of the town’s population was killed!
The Málaga-Almería Massacre
What happened in Malaga in February 1937 is yet another example of the ruthless butchery carried out by the forces of Franco, this time involving some of the troops sent by Mussolini to aid in crushing the revolution, and German and Italian warplanes. There are many accounts of this event, but I will provide one here, which I quote fully, “The Crime on the Road Malaga-Almeira”, written by a Canadian doctor, Norman Bethune, who, with a team of medical staff, came to the aid of the fleeing refugees in an ambulance. Excuse the length of the quote, but it would not do justice to the text to take only one fragment.
This is what doctor Bethune wrote in 1937:
“The evacuation en masse of the civilian population of Malaga started on Sunday Feb. 7. Twenty-five thousand German, Italian and Moorish troops entered the town on Monday morning the eighth. Tanks, submarines, warships, airplanes combined to smash the defenses of the city held by a small heroic band of Spanish troops without tanks, airplanes or support. The so-called Nationalists entered, as they have entered every captured village and city in Spain, what was practically a deserted town.
“Now imagine one hundred and fifty thousand men women and children setting out for safety to the town situated over a hundred miles away. There is only one road they can take. There is no other way of escape. This road, bordered on one side by the high Sierra Nevada mountains and on the other by the sea, is cut into the side of the cliffs and climbs up and down from sea-level to over 500 feet. The city they must reach is Almeria, and it is over two hundred kilometers away. A strong, healthy young man can walk on foot forty or fifty kilometers a day. The journey these women children and old people must face will take five days and five nights at least. There will be no food to be found in the villages, no trains, no buses to transport them. They must walk and as they walked they staggered and stumbled with cut, bruised feet along that flint, white road the fascists bombed them from the air and fired at them from their ships at sea.
“Now, what I want to tell you is what I saw myself of this forced march — the largest, most terrible evacuation of a city in modern times. We had arrived in Almeria at five o’clock on Wednesday the tenth with a refrigeration truckload of preserved blood from Barcelona. Our intention was to proceed to Malaga to give blood transfusions to wounded. In Almeria we heard for the first time that the town had fallen and were warned to go no farther as no one knew where the frontline now was but everyone was sure that the town of Motril had also fallen. We thought it important to proceed and discover how the evacuation of the wounded was proceeding. We set out at six o’clock in the evening along the Malaga road and a few miles on we met the head of the piteous procession. Here were the strong with all their goods on donkeys, mules and horses. We passed them, and the farther we went the more pitiful the sights became. Thousands of children, we counted five thousand under ten years of age, and at least one thousand of them barefoot and many of them clad only in a single garment. They were slung over their mother’s shoulders or clung to her hands. Here a father staggered along with two children of one and two years of age on his back in addition to carrying pots and pans or some treasured possession. The incessant stream of people became so dense we could barely force the car through them. At eighty eight kilometers from Almeria they beseeched us to go no farther, that the fascists were just behind. By this time we had passed so many distressed women and children that we thought it best to turn back and start transporting the worst cases to safety. It was difficult to choose which to take. Our car was besieged by a mob of frantic mothers and fathers who with tired outstretched arms held up to us their children, their eyes and faces swollen and congested by four days of sun and dust.
“’Take this one.’ ‘See this child.’ ‘This one is wounded.’ Children with bloodstained rags wrapped around their arms and legs, children without shoes, their feet swollen to twice their size crying helplessly from pain, hunger and fatigue. Two hundred kilometers of misery. Imagine four days and four nights, hiding by day in the hills as the fascist barbarians pursued them by plane, walking by night packed in a solid stream men, women, children, mules, donkeys, goats, crying out the names of their separated relatives, lost in the mob. How could we chose between taking a child dying of dysentery or a mother silently watching us with great sunken eyes carrying against her open breast her child born on the road two days ago. She had stopped walking for ten hours only. Here was a woman of sixty unable to stagger another step, her gigantic swollen legs with their open varicose ulcers bleeding into her cut linen sandals. Many old people simply gave up the struggle, lay down by the side of the road and waited for death.
“We first decided to take only children and mothers. Then the separation between father and child, husband and wife became too cruel to bear. We finished by transporting families with the largest number of young children and the solitary children of which there were hundreds without parents. We carried thirty to forty people a trip for the next three days and nights back to Almeria to the hospital of the Socorro Rojo Internacional where they received medical attention, food and clothing. The tireless devotion of Hazen Sise and Thomas Worsley, drivers of the truck, saved many lives. In turn they drove back and forth day and night sleeping out on the open road between shifts with no food except dry bread and oranges.
“And now comes the final barbarism. Not content with bombing and shelling this procession of unarmed peasants on this long road, but on the evening of the 12th when the little seaport of Almeria was completely filled with refugees, its population swollen to double its size, when forty thousand exhausted people had reached a haven of what they thought was safety, we were heavily bombed by German and Italian fascist airplanes. The siren alarm sounded thirty seconds before the first bomb fell. These planes made no effort to hit the government battleship in the harbor or bomb the barracks. They deliberately dropped ten great bombs in the very center of the town where on the main street were sleeping huddled together on the pavement so closely that a car could pass only with difficulty, the exhausted refugees. After the planes had passed I picked up in my arms three dead children from the pavement in front of the Provincial Committee for the Evacuation of Refugees where they had been standing in a great queue waiting for a cupful of preserved milk and a handful of dry bread, the only food some of them had for days. The street was a shambles of the dead and dying, lit only by the orange glare of burning buildings. In the darkness the moans of the wounded children, shrieks of agonized mothers, the curses of the men rose in a massed cry higher and higher to a pitch of intolerable intensity. One’s body felt as heavy as the dead themselves, but empty and hollow, and in one’s brain burned a bright flame of hate. That night were murdered fifty civilians and an additional fifty were wounded. There were two soldiers killed.
“Now, what was the crime that these unarmed civilians had committed to be murdered in this bloody manner? Their only crime was that they had voted to elect a government of the people, committed to the most moderate alleviation of the crushing burden of centuries of the greed of capitalism. The question has been raised: why did they not stay in Malaga and await the entrance of the fascists? They knew what would happen to them. They knew what would happen to their men and women as had happened so many times before in other captured towns. Every male between the age of 15 and 60 who could not prove that he had not by force been made to assist the government would immediately be shot. And it is this knowledge that has concentrated two-thirds of the entire population of Spain in one half the country and that still, held by the republic.” (The crime on the road Malaga-Almeria)
[For anyone who wants to read further on this event, eyewitness accounts of the same events are available in Spanish at La voz de la desbandá: los supervivientes de la Carretera Málaga-Almería. Another account, with photos and videos, in Spanish, is available at 80 aniversario: La carretera Málaga-Almería, la masacre silenciada de la Guerra Civil. In English, Dialogue with Death – The Journal of a Prisoner of the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War available from The University of Chicago Press, also gives an insight into the situation in Malaga after it was taken by Franco’s’ troops.]
According to Professors at the University of Malaga “over 5,000 people died on the road, based on oral histories collected, plus burial records in Salamanca, and Málaga archives.”
Catholic Church on the side of the butchers
In the face of such mass scale butchery, what was the position of the Catholic Church? To begin with, as early as August 1938 the Vatican officially recognised Franco’s regime, even before the Republic had been totally crushed. Throughout the Civil War the Catholic hierarchy had de facto backed Franco.
For example, the Bishop of Pamplona declared the war a “religious crusade” on 15 August 1936, identifying Franco’s forces as “crusaders”. The following month, in September 1936, the Archbishop Enrique Pla y Deniel, declared the war to be a crusade “for the defence of Christian civilisation”. A couple of months later, Cardinal Isidro Gomá, again declared the war to be a religious crusade in defence of Catholicism.
“Even before the war ended the repressive nature of Franco’s regime was becoming apparent; and yet the bishops, through their silence, legitimized the brutal retaliations carried out against the enemies of the Crusade. There was no protest at the mass executions of supporters of the Republic, or of the degrading treatment meted out to their female relatives.
“Cardinal Gomá, in a report to the Vatican Secretary of State as early as August 1936, acknowledged that perhaps some reproach should be made to the Falange for the severity of the reprisals, but no such reproach was ever made. (…)
“On 29 May 1939, Franco presented his sword to Cardinal Gomá in the Church of Santa Bárbara, Madrid; a symbolic representation of the victory shared by State and Church.” [My emphasis] [Source]
The “Non-Intervention Committee”
It is significant that while Mussolini and Hitler helped Franco by sending soldiers and weapons, the support of the “bourgeois democracies” for the Republic was far less concrete. They in fact promoted a so-called “Non-Intervention Committee”, signed by 27 countries including Britain, France, the Soviet Union, Germany, and Italy, whose sole purpose was to stop aid reaching the Republic – while the Nazis and Fascists ignored the agreement and went ahead with military intervention.
Mussolini, during the first three months of the Non-Intervention Agreement sent 90 Italian aircraft to help Franco. To this was added 2,500 tons of bombs, 500 cannons, 700 mortars, 12,000 machine-guns, 50 whippet tanks and 3,800 motor vehicles, and around 50,000 regular troops and 30,000 fascist militiamen.
Hitler provided the infamous Condor Legion, placed under the direct command of Franco himself, with up to 12,000 men, backed by bomber planes that were used during the Civil War. The famous painting by Pablo Picasso, “Guernica”, in response to the bombing by German and Italian warplanes of Guernica, a village in the Basque Country, is a reminder of what really happened.
Writing on the outbreak of civil war in Spain in the Evening Standard on 10 August 1936, Churchill stated the following: “It is of the utmost consequence that France and Britain should act together in observing the strictest neutrality themselves and endeavouring to induce it in others. Even if Russian money is thrown in on the one side, or Italian and German encouragement is given to the other, the safety of France and England requires absolute neutrality and non-intervention by them.”
The League of Nations – the precursor to today’s United Nations and equally impotent – condemned the intervention of Germany and Italy, but continued to put forward non-intervention and “mediation”. The reason for this is clear: all the main bourgeois powers saw in the possible victory of the Republic the rise of the revolutionary working class of Spain. Objectively speaking, they all had an interest in the crushing of the Spanish Revolution.
In the face of the butchery carried out by Franco, the “democracies”, i.e. the ruling classes of Europe, together with the Church, did not lift a finger, for to do so would mean facilitating the task of the Spanish working class, which was the overthrow of capitalism. Thus, for the ladies and gentlemen sitting in comfort and luxury in Paris, London and other capitals of Europe, the regime of terror unleashed by Franco was preferable to any government under which the workers could have taken power, for had this happened, the wave of revolution that had been blocked by the rise of Hitler in 1933, could once again have swept across Europe.
With the Spanish Revolution clearly defeated, on 27th February 1939, the British government had no problem in recognising Franco as the new ruler of Spain. The defeat of the Spanish Revolution, however, was not a defeat for the Spanish workers alone. It was a defeat for the workers of the world, as once the last bastion of workers’ struggles had been snuffed out, the national ruling classes of Europe could turn to more pressing business, a war to decide who dominated the world markets, the Second World War.
The Second World War ended with the collapse of the Nazi regime, but Franco did not forget the friends that had helped in his hour of need. Under Franco, Spain was to provide asylum for thousands of Nazis fleeing arrest and trial.
Compare this behaviour to what the capitalist powers did after the Russian Revolution. There was no “Non-Intervention Committee” then! On the contrary, armies attacked the Soviet Union from all directions. Here we see the priorities of the capitalist class. In the Soviet Union they intervened because their vital material interests were at risk, whereas in Spain their vital interests were better served by not intervening and allowing Franco to come to power, even if this meant hundreds of thousands butchered.
[To be continued…]
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