The Spanish Civil war and The Labour Party: A thought experiment

The Spanish Civil War divided a nation in half. It is hard to imagine a country defaulting to a civil war between those on the political Right versus political Left, particularly one in Europe. In fact even today, Spain is divided by the legacy of the Civil War. Whilst there are no major Falangist parties in the mainstream, there is a Fascist fringe in Spain. The Spanish Civil War, fought from 1936 to 1939 is not merely a history lesson about the distant past but about a country that struggled to enter the modern era. The book The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge, by Paul Preston which I have read recently marked the antecedents to the Spanish Civil War, included 100 years of political instability, failed liberal reforms, an asymmetrical extraction based economy and slow industrialisation, led Spain towards the conditions that made a civil war more likely. What ignited a civil war in Spain was divided election in 1936, which allowed the formation of a Left-wing coalition. The Right did not allow this government to succeed, so the coup that followed the election sparked the civil war in Spain, between the Nationalists and the Republicans.

Foreign intervention in the Spanish Civil War. The intervention of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany on the side of the Nationalists proved critical as it allowed the Nationalists to get the support they needed. The Italians supplied soldiers and various armoured brigades to fight for the Nationalists. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, was critical in first airlifting Franco’s Army of Africa into Spain and then providing air support in Spain. However, the Republic of Spain did not have any kind of support from the democratic countries of France or the United Kingdom at the time. This was largely due to the political conservative political elites did not want to help the Communists in Spain but also according to page 139 of The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge, the British had commercial interests in Spain, which meant they did not want to harm their economic interests by backing the Communists. There was also a genuine fear of creating a war from the civil war, as Chamberlain desperately wanted appeasement.

If the British had intervened, perhaps in the form of naval blockade or an early no-fly-zone in Spain, these interventions would have put off the Fascist intervention in the war, particularly from Italy who was fearful of the UK power in the Mediterranean and possibly may have led into Germany backing down from interfering with the Spanish. It could, of course, had led to an early military intervention from Germany.   There is a clear parallel between the Labour stance to the early war and Labour’s view on foreign intervention from the leadership now, that is a non-intervention stance. The question that could be asked to modern day Labour supporters is this: Was it wrong for Labour to have a non-intervention stance in the Spanish Civil War? If Labour had power, should Labour intervene in the war to help the Republic?

This question has significance today. Whilst the Spanish Civil War started over 80 years ago, it’s significance cannot go understated. Left-wingers regularly cite their support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. If the Left believes so strongly in support for the Republicans in Spanish Civil War, given it is 80 years ago, was it wrong for Labour to have adopted a non-intervention stance for the Spanish Republican faction? If so, would they support an intervention from the British? Why is this so pertinent? Because the Left today rejects foreign interventionism. The current Labour cabinet are opposed to war and interventionism, which means that they would not have helped the Spanish Republicans in the Civil War. Given this, it is no surprise that Corbyn voted twice against air-strikes in Syria, against another dictator. The Left likes to look to the struggles against Fascists and think they would have opposed them and yet in the present day, the Left does little in the form of foreign intervention against tyrants or despots. Whether the Left would have intervened if they had the chance in the Spanish Civil War is a question that Left-wing supporters should ask themselves, given if they were unwilling to support military interventionism today, are they sure they would have fought against Fascists in the 1930s and 40s?

Photograph by The Local Spain

Article by Dan Clemence

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