Hope and betrayal: Spain 1936

Danny Hammill reviews 'Land and Freedom', directed by Ken Loach (general release)

THE LATEST film by leftwing director Ken Loach is a brave attempt to convey the tragedy of the Spanish civil war, which saw the brutal destruction of a revolution and the triumph of fascist counterrevolution. Given the uncompromising nature of the film, and the fact that its subject matter is still a virtual taboo area, it is to be welcomed by all genuine partisans of the working class.

The film centres round David - who is portrayed with great conviction by Ian Hart - a young, unemployed Communist Party of Great Britain member from Liverpool. Inspired by a cinefilm of the revolutionary struggle in Spain, David makes his own way to Spain in order to fight for the elected republican government against the fascist insurrection of the army generals. By sheer chance he ends up joining a detachment of the militia of POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) rather than CPGB-organised International Brigades, which had the blessings of the Spanish government.

The courage and dedication of the POUM militia fighters is vividly outlined, as is the confusion and terror of the battlefront. The battle scenes are realistic and unromantic, without resorting to the voyeuristic ‘blood and gore’ realism favoured by so many directors nowadays. In particular, a scene in which a fascist-supporting priest is summarily executed by POUM fighters is shocking - yet Loach is not trying to evoke a stock ‘all violence is wrong’ pacifistic response from the audience. Quite the contrary. We are compelled to understand and sympathise with this action by being shown the victims of fascist murder, who are scattered about the churchyard. This level of maturity and sophistication is extremely rare in mainstream Western cinema.

The real meat of the film comes when David leaves the POUM in order to go to Barcelona and join one of the International Brigades, who were systematically integrated into the regular Popular Front government army. Inevitably the International Brigade volunteers ended up defending the republican government, whom Leon Trotsky described succinctly as the “shadow bourgeoisie”, rather than defending the actual revolution itself - let alone extending the gains of the revolution.

Loach demonstrates how the re-introduction of a regular standing army and a conventional police force signalled the death of the revolution. We see the government police arresting revolutionaries and “subversives”. The police chief of Barcelona was a senior member of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE). Through the mouth of David’s lover, a POUM member, we hear that the Soviet secret police (GPU) have ‘infiltrated’ the republican government apparatus: revolutionaries, whether they be POUMists or anarchists, are being tortured and killed by the GPU.

We witness David’s gradual disillusionment with the Brigades, the Popular Front government and the PCE leadership. This leads up to one of the most powerful scenes in the film, when David tears up his cherished Communist Party membership card. This pivotal act is highlighted by a camera close-up, which graphically illustrates David’s trauma. This is no casual act or a cheap piece of anti-communism on Loach’s part. We are made to feel David’s agony, to feel that the Communist Party has betrayed the ‘ideals’ of the revolution and of socialism itself. David has not deserted the Communist Party, the Communist Party has deserted him. Surely any genuine communist who saw the ‘official’ CPGB liquidate itself in 1991 will understand David’s dilemma?

Apparently not. The Labourite/‘official communist’ rag, the Morning Star, has accused Ken Loach of resorting to “crude anti-communism” and denounced Land and Freedom for presenting a “scurrilous distortion of history” (August 4). Why does the Morning Star believe that Loach’s film consists of “calumnies” and “lies born of Trotskyite dogma”?

Frankly, it is the Morning Star’s overt hostility to social revolution and its worship of  bourgeois democracy - ie, the state - which is on display here, not to mention its uncritical pro-Sovietism. Showing its conservative contempt for revolutionaries, it mockingly describes the POUM as “a super-duper leftist group that believed that Spain was the fulcrum of world revolution, providing the spark that would lead to world socialism.”

The ‘communist’ Morning Star also states in horror that the POUM “believed that the only victory worth winning over the fascists was to mobilise the masses for a socialist revolution, even if this meant attacking the republican government”. Unsurprisingly, the Morning Star brands with Stalinite loyalty such a course of action as “traitorous”. Then again, it labels anybody who opposes the Labour Party from the left as “ultra-leftist”...

With typical dishonesty, it even has the cheek to quote from Leon Trotsky’s The Lesson of Spain in defence of its anti-revolutionism: “The POUM proved to be, in the final analysis, the chief obstacle on the road to the creation of a revolutionary party” (Lanka Samasmaja Publication 1956, p14).

‘Comrades’ from the Morning Star - Trotsky was condemning the POUMleadership for joining the Popular Front Catalan government, not for attacking it! The leader of the POUM, Andres Nin, actually became the minister of justice. No wonder the POUM could not act as a genuinely revolutionary vehicle.

Then again, the ‘supporters’ of Land and Freedom are not entirely trust-worthy either. The avowedly Trotskyist Workers Press has heaped eulogy after eulogy upon Ken Loach, quoting him as saying: “After all, there is now a similar war going on in former Yugoslavia to defend what remains of multi-ethnic society in Bosnia” (June 10).

In other words the fanatically ‘anti-Stalinist’ Workers Press, which never loses any opportunity to lambast 1930s popular frontism, believes that Land and Freedom can become part of its campaign to enlist as much support as possible for the bourgeois Bosnian regime - ie, popular frontism.

It should be clear that the tragic fate of the Spanish revolution was the product of a failure of political leadership and political programme - on all sides. The malign agenda of the Soviet bureaucracy and JV Stalin, aided and abetted by the PCE and the Popular Front government, only made that failure certain.

If Ken Loach’s film forces us to ruthlessly re-examine, and ruthlessly criticise, the defeated Spanish revolutionary movement of the 1930s, then it will have made a valuable contribution to the working class struggle. Land and Freedom might not be the film on the Spanish civil war, but it is a great film. Let us hope others will follow his example.

Danny Hammill