“They shall not pass”         

The Spanish Civil War and the Canadian Left         

A review essay by David Orton                                            

                               Renegades: Canadians In The Spanish Civil War
                               by Michael Petrou, UBC Press, Vancouver, Toronto,
                               2008, 282 pages, paperback, ISBN: 978-0-7748-1418-8.

                            “For all their human faults, and for all the ugly complexities in the war
                            they chose to fight, the Canadians who fought in Spain had the moral
                            clarity to face the rising menace of fascism when most of their
                            countrymen chose to look away. They joined a war of which their
                            government and the RCMP did not approve. It seems they were never
                            quite forgiven.” p. 180

                    This book Renegades: Canadians In The Spanish Civil War, with its strangely negative
                title, started its life as a doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford. The thesis was completed
                in 2006 although the research began in 2002. I found this book scholarly and well
                documented. It has 30 pages of interesting photographs which convey some sense of the
                historical period when the world was focused on Spain. We are told that almost seventeen
                hundred soldier-volunteers from Canada went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, this
                included nine women, and more than four hundred were killed there. This is an astounding
                death rate, which took place under the moving Spanish anti-fascist slogan “No Pasaran”
                (“They shall not pass”).

                    The author, Michael Petrou, acknowledges building on the work of other writers on this
                topic but this historical study we are told, “breaks significant new ground, in part because
                of its extensive use of recently declassified documents from the archives of the Communist
                International in Moscow.” (p. 6) A large part of the book because of this access, and the
                perspective of the author, seems to focus on what might be called “dissension and
                discipline in the ranks.” The overall impact of this focus – protestations notwithstanding as
                in the above quotation – is to undercut the moral stature of those Canadians who fought
                and died in Spain. Michael Petrou says he is trying in this book to counter “a one-
                dimensional and rather unrealistic image of volunteers in the International Brigades as brave
                and selfless anti-fascists fighting in a utopian army untarnished by cruelty and fear.” (p. 136)
                Nothing like setting up a straw person to demolish and to justify one’s own actions. Yet
                much more than this is that the author does not try to understand what it means to “think
                like a communist” and remains a prisoner of the limitations of his own bourgeois culture.
                For him capitalist societies are equated with democratic societies, no questions asked. So
                Petrou’s observations in this book become, unfortunately, often anti-communist and
                predictable. He has no trouble asserting for the reader, right at the beginning of his book,
                that the Soviet Union wanted to “prolong” the Spanish Civil War in order to better prepare
                to eventually fight Nazi Germany and this is why sufficient arms were not provided to the
                Republican side. (See Preface, xvi) I find this an astounding assertion.

                    Petrou is a “senior writer” with Macleans, a mainstream magazine in Canada, which
                seems to have tilted to the Right, perhaps symbolized by the appointment of Andrew
                Coyne as National Editor. This magazine has carried promotional advertising for Renegades
                (May 5th, 2008). There is an enthusiastic endorsement of this book in the advertising by the
                prominent Canadian military historian and Afghan war hawk Jack Granatstein. He tells us
                that this is “The best and most complete account of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War we
                are ever likely to get.” Grants from the Canadian government and financial support from the
                Canadian War Museum, Canada’s “national museum of military history”, helped finance the
                publication of this book by UBC Press. The Museum, which along with UBC Press, is
                prominent in the Macleans' advertising promotion, would be seen by some, including myself,
                as a conservative defender of the ‘official’ meritorious view of Canada’s military history past
                and present
as in Afghanistan.

                    There are three main reasons for writing a review of this book, from my perspective:

                    1) The first reason is that I have always admired those Canadians who, against the
                opposition of their government, went to fight fascism in Spain in the 1930s. I have desired to
                learn more about who they were and what motivated them. I have fantasized that if I had
                been “of age” in the 1930s, would I have found the courage to have gone to Spain? The
                Canadian doctor Norman Bethune has long been a hero of mine, for his mobile blood
                transfusion work during the Civil War in Spain and for his general medical service in
                revolutionary China. I often wondered about what kind of person in Canada would leave
                their country to take up arms in a foreign land, and the power of his or her political
                convictions in the economic deprivation of the 1930s? According to this book, the most
                accurate database of Canadians who fought in Spain contains 1,681 names. (See p. 13)
                I hoped this book would give information on the social backgrounds of the Canadian
Renegades does not disappoint in this regard.

                    2) The second reason for reviewing this book is that I wondered whether or not an
                academic author today, after the passing of the official Cold War (more realistically
                viewed as a Western response going back to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia
                than just post Second World War), could handle this topic of the Spanish Civil War
                without reflecting the anti-communist prejudices of Canadian and, more generally,
                Western societies. Such prejudices have generally been reflected in studies of what are
                seen as the Communist “other.” Al Gore reminded us, if we needed a reminder, in his
                1993 book Earth in the Balance: “Opposition to communism was the principle
                underlying almost all of the geopolitical strategies and social policies designed by the
                West after World War II.” (p. 271) Frances Stonor Saunders in her 1999 book
                The CIA And The World Of Arts And Letters
, a work of quite impressive research,
                shows the involvement of the CIA in shaping Western culture in an anti-communist
                direction. The Agency used major writers, poets, musicians and painters, who let their
                talents be mobilized, for US foreign policy goals under the banner of “artistic freedom”,
                as opposed to the “party line” of communists inside and outside of the Soviet Union.
                I myself, as reviewer, write as someone whose background does include having been
                a member of a Marxist-Leninist organization in Canada in the late 1960s and early
                1970s. (According to the 1978 book by Lorne and Caroline Brown, An Unauthorized
                History of the RCMP
, pp. 122-123, the RCMP tried unsuccessfully to enlist the
                co-operation of Regina university authorities in preparing a case against myself for
                “sedition,” based on remarks I had made at a university seminar in November 1969
                on the topic “Revolt vs. the Status Quo.”)

                    3) The third reason has to do with contemporary eco-politics. This is an ongoing
                exploration by myself and others, of what it means to be part of the ecological or
                ecocentric Left today within the overall philosophy of deep ecology, and in an ecosystem
                being rapidly undermined by industrial capitalism. What is an inclusive Left? More
                particularly, what constitutes the “left” part of the theoretical tendency left biocentrism,
                has become of some urgency to resolve. This given that a number of ecocentric activists
                and writers are aligning with this tendency and are sometimes having trouble leaving
                behind “left” conflicts and internal battles from the past with which they have previously
                identified. We cannot afford the luxury of a “take-no-prisoners” attitude in intellectual
                exchanges among those who claim to be ecocentric and also on the Left.

                    Reading this book had an unintended consequence for me which was to show the strong
                influence of the Canadian Communist party in our country at the time of the Spanish Civil
                War. It was this party, according to Michael Petrou, which was responsible for organizing
                the sending of 1700 Canadian volunteers to Spain. This was no mean feat, when the
                government of the day (and its security arm the RCMP) was hostile to such endeavours.
                Recently Gerald Caplan, one of the ideologues for social democracy – or what he also calls
                “democratic socialism” or the “democratic left” in Canada – wrote an essay in The Globe
                and Mail
(July 19, 2008) marking the “75th Anniversary Of Socialism In Canada.” There
                was no mention in the essay by Caplan of the Spanish Civil War, but there was mention
                and celebration of The Regina Manifesto, adopted at the founding convention of the
                Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1933. The CCF much later was to
                become the New Democratic Party (NDP). The CCF seems to have had minimal influence
                in sending volunteers to Spain, and it is perhaps significant that Caplan in his article describes
                the CCF as a “left-wing anti-communist movement.”
Renegades serves to remind us of the
                radical working class influence of the Canadian Communist Party in the 1930s compared to
                its social democratic opponent, the CCF.

                Chronology of events
                    Renegades provides a useful two-page chronology of dates and events in Spain from April
                1931 to April 1939.  In  April 1931, the Second Spanish Republic came into being following
                the abdication of the then king. In February of 1936, the Popular Front (the anti-fascist and
                Left side) won a general election by a slender majority of the votes that were cast. (According
                to The Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas, the general election results meant the Popular
                Front elected 263 deputies with 34.3 percent of the popular vote, the National Front elected
                133 deputies with 33.2 percent, and the Centre , which included Basque nationalists, elected
                77 deputies with 5.4 per cent [p. 156].)  In July of 1936 the Spanish Civil War began.
                During the civil war, the two contending sides were usually called the Nationalists and the
                Republicans. The chronology lists key dates from a Canadian perspective, for example January
                of 1937 when the first Canadian volunteers enlist in the International Brigades, and the dates
                of various battles and retreats where Canadians were involved. (Norman Bethune was in Spain
                by November 1936.) In September of 1938 the International Brigades were withdrawn from
                the battle lines. In January of 1939 large numbers of Canadians began leaving Spain. In March,
                the Nationalists entered the capital Madrid, and in April of 1939 General Franco declared the
                civil war as over.

                    The Spanish struggle was clearly a precursor to the Second World War, which commenced
                a few months after April 1939, when General Franco claimed total military victory. It was
                always a bit of a puzzle to me how in the 1930s countries like Canada, the United States,
                England and France declared a non-intervention policy on the Spanish Civil War and
                consequent arms embargo. Yet I know from my reading and observations of history, that
                if there is an ultimate “choice” for any capitalist society, between supporting fascism or
                communism, fascism will normally win out. (Unless it is a matter of national survival as
                in the Second World War, when temporary alliances between the late Soviet Union and
                the West were in order.)

                    In the 1930s Spain there was the contrast between the Popular Front (which came to include
                communists in government – a first for Western countries) and the “National Front” (which
                included fascists). It was ultimately a no-brainer for the West in whom to politically support.
                The political stance of an alleged neutrality clearly favoured the insurrectionist fascist
                “Nationalist” forces led by Franco and supported militarily by Germany and Italy. Apparently,
                according to the author, the Army of Africa, led by Franco had the services of Hitler’s air
                force to ferry them to the Spanish mainland. (p.6) This was a crucial intervention for the side
                of the fascists right at the beginning of the Civil War. The military insurrection was launched
                against an electorally legitimate Popular Front Republican government, which was eventually
                supported militarily by the Soviet Union. The Popular Front government was elected with a
                majority of votes cast in February 1936, in the last elections held before the military uprising
                of July 1936. The basic close divisions in Spanish society shown in the election results
                provided a social base for the term “Fifth Column” which was born in Spain among the
                citizenry. This term remains today as descriptive of those citizens who conceal their political
                allegiances, only contributing perhaps non personally detectable sabotage, until the time is
                seen as ripe to declare oneself, to what is seen as an eventual winning side in a civil war

                    This book has a number of progressive aspects which expands our knowledge, as this
                review tries to bring out, particularly in the social portrait of those Canadians who went to
                Spain. The question of enhancing our “understanding” of the Spanish Civil War, Jack
                Granatstein’s endorsement notwithstanding, is another matter. Some ambivalence in the
                moral certainty on the part of the author did became apparent, as in the following
                “moment of truth” when Petrou interviews Maurice Constant – a communist dying in a
                palliative care bed in a Canadian hospital. The author was pressing Constant:
                “To tell me more about the role of the Communist Party in the International Brigades
                and his relationship with the party. It is an important issue, but for decades Franco
                apologists dismissed foreign volunteers in Spain as Stalin’s dupes, and Constant was
                clearly getting sick of discussing the topic.” (p. 187)

                    Petrou goes on to say, on reflecting about this interview, that he was “accusatory”
                towards Maurice Constant and not “reassuring.” He admits that he came to later
                regret this and that he did not tell Constant “that what he did was brave and good.”
                (p. 187) But, notwithstanding this instance of self-critical moral reassessment, the
                author never really gives the positive argument from the communist side in this book.
                This example is the closest that the author comes to calling his own taken-for-granted
                values into question. I found the account of this interview an extremely revealing

                    The author has some progressive anti-fascist sentiment which peaks through from
                time to time, but overall this is subordinated to an anti-communist agenda. So Petrou
                looks for that which will discredit the communist cause at the time of the Spanish
                Civil War. He brings to this task the basic assumptions of bourgeois society about
                itself – for example a capitalist society equals a democratic society, and basic
                anti-communist assumptions, about what I have called the communist “other”.
                Petrou proves incapable of giving the argument from the communist point of view.
                His claim to present the negative side of Canadian involvement in Spain, particularly
                though access to newly accessible Comintern records, in order to present a more
                balanced historical picture, falls flat, because he seems to have little understanding
                of why communists and their supporters conducted themselves in certain ways. So
                the many stupidities from the communist side which are presented, and the tales of
                desertions and requests to go home for the Canadians and other international
                fighters have no real political context.

                Social Composition of Canadians
                        “In 1928, Number 1 Northern, Canada’s highest grade of spring wheat,
                        sold for $1.03 a bushel. Four years later the price per bushel had dropped
                        to 29 cents.” (p. 29)

                    In the 1930s Canada was in economic depression. The quote above about the drop
                in the price of spring wheat is one revealing indicator of the miserable state of the
                economy, with massive unemployment in Canada and desperate workers on the move
                all over the country seeking non existing self-sustaining work. A fifty-page Appendix in
                this book lists the Canadian Volunteers who went to Spain by alphabetical name, home,
                ethnicity, date of birth, occupation and final status. The work in this Appendix is a
                major contribution to our understanding of the Canadians who went to Spain. The
                majority of Canadian who fought were part of the International Brigades. Eventually
                a Canadian contingent was organized called the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion. The
                point is made that the military and political leadership of the Mac-Paps “‘was
                overwhelmingly American.’” (p. 109) These Brigades first appeared in Spain in
                November of 1936. The fascist side in the Civil War often shot captured members of
                the International Brigades.

                    Petrou shows that 78 percent of the almost 1700 Canadian volunteers in Spain were
                immigrants to Canada and the vast majority were workers. The two most dominant
                occupations were miners (136) and lumberjacks (111). The author says that 56 of the
                volunteers were French Canadian, mainly from Quebec. From the data presented it
                seems that only two of the volunteers were aboriginals. Apparently only 32 of the
                volunteers were known to have had some form of higher education and  these
                volunteers were often Jewish. The author makes the point that the British and US
                contingents to Spain had a considerable more “educated” component than the
                Canadians. Communists made up 76 percent of the Canadian contingent in Spain,
                this included full party membership or membership in the youth wing. Apparently
                this party membership was quite similar to the US, French and British volunteers
                who went to Spain on the side of the Republic. The youngest volunteer from
                Canada was sixteen and the oldest fifty-seven while the average age was thirty-two.
                In the 1960s we are told the CBC did dozens of interviews of veterans of the
                Spanish Civil war but they were never broadcast. For the author these interviews
                “are an excellent resource” but he does not question why these interviews remained
                in the archives and were not made known to the Canadian public. (p. 7)

                    Today in Canada the Communist Party is quite marginalized and has little influence
                on the political affairs of this country. But this was certainly not the situation in the
                1930s and this book serves to remind those who do not know of this fact. Every
                volunteer who went to Spain was funded and organized by the Canadian party.
                Why did the volunteers ally with the party?
                        “They gravitated to the Communist party because no other organization
                        campaigned so aggressively on behalf of the down-and-out or appeared to
                        be willing to stand up to fascism.” (p. 48)

                    I believe the contribution of
Renegades is to bring together a good picture from
                various sources of the social composition of the Canadians who went to Spain and
                to present the documentation for this. Any reader with some social sensitivity and
                knowledge of the terrible economic conditions of the depression, can only admire
                those who had so little and yet were prepared to fight and if necessary to die to
                try and stop the spread of fascism in Spain. I do think there should have been more
                face to face interviews with the remaining veterans from Spain in preparing this book.
                The author speaks of 12 veterans that he spoke to, and some of these only seem to
                have been telephone interviews.

                Dissension and Ideological Constraints
                    I find the title of this book quite inexplicable although it certainly conveys moral
                ambivalence and serves perhaps to indicate this about the author’s stance towards
                his subject matter. Are those who went to Spain in the 1930s, to fight for the Republic
                “renegades” to the existing bourgeois society, which most of them had no economic
                stake in? Why are they not anti-fascist heroes and role models? Is this puzzling name
                an example of the objectivity which the author Michael Petrou tries to claim for
                himself in writing this book and of presenting a fuller picture, warts-and-all, of the
                Canadians who fought in Spain?

                    While the author has to acknowledge the positive work done by the Canadian
                Communist Party in the 1930s in order to explain why Canadians went to Spain, much
                of this book (about one quarter of the written text) unfortunately fits a “discredit
                communism” agenda accompanied by disparaging language. This is unveiled in the two
                chapters of Part 3 of the book “Discipline in the International Brigades”; and in two of
                the three chapters in Part 4 of the book entitled “Renegades” dealing with William
                Krehm, a Trotskyist, called “The Idealist” by the author; and in the chapter on Norman
                Bethune, where disparaging material on Bethune and on his then Swedish girlfriend is
                presented. Bethune we are told was in Spain for less than six months. (p. 166) Krehm,
                who met up with George Orwell in Barcelona cafes, worked with POUM in Spain, the
                Trotskyist-inclined Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista. Although it was part of the
                Republican side, this was a party “that fiercely opposed the brand of communism
                espoused by Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union.” (p. 71) Krehm is described by the
                author as part of the “radical anti-Stalinist left in Canada” (p.148). In Spain, he was
                eventually arrested and jailed by the security forces of the Republic for espionage.
                But for Michael Petrou, Krehm was “unjustly accused. (pp.6-7) After he returned
                from Spain, Krehm went on speaking tours of Canada and the United States about
                his experiences in Spain, sponsored by “anti-communist groups.” (p. 157) In a
                recorded CBC interview quoted by Petrou, William Krehm’s politics are made
                quite clear:
                        “‘Of course, one is for the defeat of Franco,’ Krehm said in 1965. ‘But one
                        is also against having the worse aspects of the Franco regime painted red
                        and established in Spain.’” (p. 149)

                    This shows that it was not only groundless paranoia that it was difficult for
                communists seeking popular front unity in Spain to unite with Trotskyists.

                    I believe that it is necessary to have a look at some of the unacknowledged
                ideological constraints or taken-for-granted assumptions of the author in assessing
                the communist “other” which have influenced the analysis in this book.

                Trotskyism and Stalinism
                    Perhaps it is necessary to say something about Trotskyism and Stalinism in order
                to understand the internal politics within the Republican side as it concerned “popular
                front unity” and the communist contingent. This unity did not include the acceptance
                of Trotskyism or Trotskyists by communists who followed the leadership of Stalin
                or the acceptance by followers of Trotsky of those who aligned with the Soviet Union
                led by Stalin. The author does not explain this hostility but clearly sides with
                Trotskyists in the Spanish Civil War.

                    Trotsky, despite his considerable theoretical contributions, did call for a new
                “revolution” in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and set up the Fourth International in
                1938, in opposition to the Communist 3rd International. These positions must have
                found favour with capitalist societies, terrified by the emergence of a Soviet Union.
                Also, Trotsky called for international proletarian revolutions – a worldwide
                permanent revolution –  thus directly opposing the “socialism in one country” of the
                Soviet Union. Traditional Marxist theory would have had the communist revolution
                first appearing in the most ‘advanced’ capitalist countries with the largest concentration
                of workers, disciplined and organized by Capital into large concentrations in urban
                settings. Russia did not meet this theoretical expectation being predominantly rural
                and peasant based.

                    “Trotskyism” seems to have had great appeal for intellectuals around universities,
                was much looser organizationally, and placed less demands in a collective sense upon
                its participants. Trotskyists have a reputation for splitting into various ideological factions.
                Also, Trotskyists never had political power in any country where they could implement
                their ideas. So, in a communist sense, this allowed for full reign to hold forth “sideline”
                commentaries which continue to this day among those strongly influenced by Trotsky.
                Upholding “Stalinism” as a pejorative term, as Trotskyists do, seems to override
                anything which could be considered positive in the former Soviet Union. This is a position
                which fits an anti-communist agenda and, more importantly fits a basic position of
                maintaining the dominance of Capitalism. This helps agitate against the need for the
                fundamental social redistribution of human-created wealth, a central appeal of    
                communism and something which will be needed in a post capitalist ecocentric and
                socially just society.

                    The term “Trotskyist”, meaning a follower of Trotsky, is not normally seen as having
                negative connotations, but “Stalinist”, a follower of Stalin, becomes a pejorative term in
                the West, particularly by present or former Trotskyists.

                    For some Marxists in the West, the use of  “Stalinism” as a supposed descriptive
                category – meaning all the real and imagined evils associated with the “actually existing
                socialism” in the former Soviet Union and former countries under its influence could be
                opposed, yet a basic support or sympathy for dialectical materialism and Marxism could
                still be maintained as a theoretical position.

                        “I believe that anarchism should be part of the "left" in left biocentrism.
                        Anarchists can be left biocentrists and deep ecology supporters. But it
                        would be wrong to say the future society will definitely be ecoanarchist
                        in organization, and that an ecocentric consciousness requires this. It
                        should remain as an open question. In this way, anarchists and non-
                        anarchists can join socialists, non-socialists and others, in helping define
                        what a deep and pluralistic left biocentrism should be for our times, and
                        creatively respond to the unfolding future.” Orton, “Deep Ecology and
                        Anarchism”, Green Web Bulletin #72, March 2001.

                    I am sympathetic to much of anarchism but do not consider myself an anarchist.
                Anarchism was very influential in the Spanish Civil War, particularly in the early stage.
                A number of people who consider themselves left biocentrists would also self-describe
                as anarchists. There was a bitter “internal” dispute in Spain between anarchists and
                communists. As I have written elsewhere (Green Web 2001 Bulletin #72,
                “Deep Ecology and Anarchism”), the fundamental conflict between anarchists and
                communists in Spain, were differences over whether to immediately implement the
                anarchist social revolution or, to postpone this in the interest of building a disciplined
                army and the widest coalition possible, and, to defeat Franco and the generals who
                were in revolt against the Republican government. Notwithstanding George Orwell’s
                Homage To Catalonia, my own allegiance in this dispute, based on past reading
                about Spain, would have been with the communist side. In Civil War Spain, unless
                Franco was defeated, there could not be the social revolution desired by the anarchists.
                (Orwell’s eventual move to the Right and his betrayal of past progressive credentials
                is best symbolized for me by the 35-person list of “suspected fellow travellers” he
                gave to the British intelligence service which included names like Kingsley Martin,
                Paul Robeson, J. B. Priestly and Michael Redgrave, see Frances Stonor Saunders,
                The Cultural Cold War: The CIA And The World Of Arts And Letters
, pp.
                298-299.) Today many greens and environmentalists would describe themselves as
                anarchists. Very few greens in my experience speak of being influenced by Trotskyism
                or of themselves as followers of Trotsky.

                    As the Soviet Union became the overwhelming weapons’ supplier to the Republicans,
                with Germany and Italy supplying the Nationalist fascists in Spain, plus the alleged
                'neutrality' of the bourgeois democracies, communist influence grew rapidly, as in the
                military defense of Madrid, and anarchist support declined. Forces outside of Spain,
                and the approaching Second World War, clearly severely impacted the struggle within

                Proletarian Internationalism
                    The slogan that “the working class or proletariat has no country” brings up perhaps
                the primary loyalty for a communist and how “national” concerns could come to play
                second fiddle. The fact that about 40,000 international volunteers went to Spain to
                fight on the side of the Republic, the majority of whom were communists, is an
                example of proletarian internationalism in practice. These volunteers were not paid
                to go to Spain. For national communist parties, like the Canadian party, the Soviet
                Union was seen as the center of the coming world proletarian revolution, whereas
                for bourgeois societies it became the focal point for attacks to undermine communism –
                for example, the interventions by various capitalist societies at the time of the Bolshevik
                revolution on the side of the counter-revolution. (The RCMP even sent a contingent to
                Russia to oppose the Bolshevik revolution.) The defense of the Soviet Union, from a
                communist perspective, could seem to make it necessary in situations of conflicting
                interests to subordinate the interests of national communist parties to those interests
                seen as crucial for the survival of the Soviet Union. But for Petrou, the Canadian
                Communist Party’s actions at the outbreak of the Second World War showed “its
                subservience to Moscow.” (p. 174) Yet it is also clear that national communist parties
                could fairly easily become “lackey” parties of the Soviet Union, unless this balancing
act of competing interests was properly addressed. Understanding “proletarian
                internationalism” makes it easier to understand those communists who became so-called
                spies or traitors to their own national governments for ideological not financial reasons.
                When the author of
Renegades states “Up to ten American veterans of the Spanish Civil
                War later spied on the United States for the Soviets,” (p. 41)  this is presented as
                treachery, not as coming out of ideological commitment.

                Discipline and Democracy
                        “Most volunteers who went to Spain were brave and were committed to fighting
                        fascism. They were also human. Some were simply unsuited to fighting a war,
                        or at least taking orders. Some drank. Poorly trained, poorly armed, and all too
                        often sent on suicidal attacks by military incompetents, many deserted or asked
                        to go home... These deserters were not the adventurers, criminals, and cowards
                        described by the brigade’s commissars.” (p. 136)

                    The author lists the following descriptions of Canadians returning from Spain, taken
                from the files of the Comintern (Communist International), to which he had access:
                        “The evaluations of returning Canadians are filled with phrases such as ‘anti-party
                        element,’ ‘politically confused,’ ‘politically weak,’ ‘disruptive,’ ‘shows Trotskyist
                        tendencies,’ ‘treacherous,’ and ‘potential fascist,’ (p. 118)

                    Petrou starts from a position that communist party influence or control is anathema.
                For the author communist thinking equates to “Communist Party dogma.” (p. 45)  He
                criticizes – without having a clue –  of what it would mean to be a communist party
                member and to fight in Spain, with all the battlefield suffering and fear that this would
                have involved. I do not want to white wash past stupidities, of which there were plenty
                of examples. But in this book there is no attempt to explain the necessity of political
                discipline from a communist perspective within the International Brigades, particularly
                in a chaotic war situation, where peoples lives are continually on the line and those who
                support fascism are sometimes just a couple of trenches away. The fact that 117
                Canadian volunteers out of 1700 who went to Spain “deserted or were accused of
                desertion”, and that this figure could be much higher if all records could be accessed
                (p. 120) is seen as very significant by this writer. Yet battlefield realities could severely
                test anyone’s political convictions. Interestingly a footnote (p. 257, footnote 51), gives
                270 British volunteers as having deserted.

                    Communist organizations are structured according to what is called “democratic
                centralism”, usually on a party-cell basis. In any capitalist society, particularly in the
                1930s, anyone who joined a party organization had to be highly self-motivated. There
                were few material rewards for joining such organizations and often considerable grief
                because one came to the attention of the security agencies of the state who could make
                life quite unpleasant. This was still true in the late 1960s and 1970s in Canada as I can
                testify from personal experience. The RCMP security forces come off very lightly in
                this book. There is even an acknowledgment for assistance to the RCMP who
                “verified” the many details pertaining to this police force in this book. It seems that,
                for Petrou, the secret police of capitalist societies have a quite different nature to those
                of societies where communists were in control of the state, as in Soviet Russia, or very
                influential, as in Republican Spain. In Spain, Petrou writes of “The Republic’s feared,
                communist-infiltrated secret police.” (p. 114)

                    Within communist organizations, party loyalty and discipline is stressed and this can
                easily come to undermine the “democracy” part of “democratic centralism” so that
                centralism from the leadership becomes over emphasized. In a war situation, the stress
                would be particularly on discipline. Even an anti-communist book like that by the
                British historian Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, acknowledged the leading
                fighting role of communists: “The most tenacious advocates of the policy of resistance
                remained the communists.” (p. 846) The Fifth Regiment, organized by the Spanish
                Communist Party, became famous for its fighting abilities, as for example in the
                defense of Madrid, where Franco’s army was held at bay. Those who have paid some
                attention to the Second World War saw the military price paid by Hitler’s armies, as
                they attempted to conquer the Soviet Union.

                    Yet without the stress of contending ideas within any organization, intellectual dry
                rot can set in, no matter the apparent ‘discipline’, and empty formalism or sloganeering
                becomes dominant in the internal life of the communist organization. Those who do
                not rock the intellectual/ideological boat and who reflect the existing leadership positions,
                tend to advance within such an organization. Much of what then passes for intellectual
                exchange can become without much thought content and when directed against
                dissenting views, basically punitive in intent. But all of this criticism does not negate the
                necessity for political education in an anti-fascist army, and the Communist Party in
                Civil War Spain saw this.

                Ecological Considerations
                    There is nothing about ecology or ecological sustainability in this book, but in this
                present time period, when ecocide not fascism is the central problem the world faces,
                there are some lessons from reading
Renegades that can be updated for the biocentric
                left. Most of the books I have read concerning the Spanish Civil War, including

, highlight the deadly problems of disunity among the left in Spain as a
                major factor in the defeat of the Republican side. This is still very relevant today. We
                need a principled unity on our side. As someone who has been working with others
                since the mid 1980s, to try and outline the left biocentric theoretical tendency within
                deep ecology, what constitutes the “left” within left biocentrism has become of some
                urgency to resolve in recent times. A number of ecocentric activists and writers are
                aligning with this ecocentric tendency and are sometimes having trouble leaving
                behind “left” conflicts and internal battles from the past – which could have meant
                being previously identified as Trotskyist, as Anarchist, or as Democratic Socialist, or,
                if non-Left, with a residual anti-communism which seems part of socialization in
                North America.

                    All the above human-centered categorizations have nothing to do with the ecological
                problems which engulf us today. An ecocentric revolutionary and united Left must
                include not only socially progressive humans committed to social justice for all (and not
                determined in its thinking by various past political flavours), but it must be a Left which
                has learned the lessons of deep ecology and thus includes most importantly, the interests
                of species other than humans and the planet itself. I do not believe an ecocentric left
                should be anti-communist, as some of  those who are influenced by Trotsky today, along
                with democratic socialists, would have us believe. (See an early discussion about the
                sweeping negativity of Trotskyism and the fixation on ‘Stalinism’ in my New Catalyst
                review in April 1989, of Werner Hulsberg’s book, The German Greens.)

                    From my perspective, the ecocentric left is non-communist but open, where appropriate,
                to learning from societies like the former Soviet Union, China or Cuba. The biocentric or
                ecocentric left has to see itself as a being a revolutionary left, as the late Australian deep
                ecologist Richard Sylvan urged in his 1996 book, The Greening of Ethics: From Human
                Chauvinism to Deep-Green Theory
: “Deep environmental groups should begin to
                prepare, carefully and thoroughly, for revolutionary action.” (p. 220) I personally think it
                quite necessary to retain the word "revolution" because it conveys the enormity of the social
                changes that are needed to move to an ecocentric society. Social tinkering will not cut it
                when we are facing planetary ecocide and a culture of extinction. From working with
                environmentalists and electoral greens over many years I have seen that there is major
                resistance to describing the nature of the massive social changes that are necessary to
                exit the ecocide of industrial society. This is the self-inflicted timorous curse taken on by
                electoral Greens in Canada. It undermines the impact of electoral politics where apparent
                fear of “frightening” the voters makes Greens continually bite their tongues. Before one
                can have major social change, a base has to be built in the society, and organizers have
                to call it as it is, as preparation for building support. Anti-communism fits a basic position
                of maintaining the dominance of Capital. This is why it has no place in my own view of
                the basic tenets for a viable left biocentrism. Furthermore, the fundamental redistribution
                of human-created wealth globally, a central appeal of communism, is something which is
                absolutely needed for a post capitalist sustainable, ecocentric and socially just society. So
                the disunities of Civil War Spain on the Republican side must be left behind and not
                brought into contemporary eco-politics. Reading Michael Petrou’s Renegades: Canadians
                In The Spanish Civil War
helps us see this.           

                July 2008


                The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion: Canadian Participation in the Spanish Civil War
                by Victor Hoar, with research associate Mac Reynolds, The Copp Clark Publishing Company,
                1969, 285 pages, paperback.

                    I only became aware of this book by Victor Hoar from a reference in
Renegades. I
                obtained a second-hand copy of Hoar’s book, because it is out of print. After reading it,
                I felt the need for a supplement to my review of Michael Petrou’s book, because of what
                Hoar had to say, as contrasted to the views of the author of Renegades. I also believe
                Hoar helps support some of  my critique of Petrou. At the time this book was written,
                seems to have been an academic at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, but
                unfortunately there is no personal information given about him in the book itself.

                    The reference in the index of Renegades says this about Hoar’s book:

                “This is only the fourth book to be written about Canadians in the Spanish Civil War. The
                first, The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion by Victor Hoar, was not published until 1969.
                Hoar’s study was hampered by his inability to access key archives in the Soviet Union.
                But he assembled an impressive collection of material and recollections from surviving
                veterans; his book is still essential reading for anyone interested in the topic.”
                (Renegades, p. 6)

                    The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion is far better than Petrou’s book, for giving a real
                feeling of what it was like to be a Canadian fighting in Spain on the anti-fascist side. It is a
                blood- and guts- searing account of the various battles where Canadians were involved. It
                is also far more politically sophisticated than Renegades. Hoar comes through as
                non-communist but, unlike Petrou, he is not anti-communist. This is quite a distinction for
                someone writing about the Spanish Civil War from a hindsight perspective. Victor Hoar
                does not try to score anti-communist points.

                    The book has 16 pages of photos and an eight-page listing of those Canadians killed or
                missing and presumed dead, which is noted as being incomplete, pending further
                information becoming available. This author is thus not so “up to date” on the exact
                numbers of Canadians who went to Spain as Michael Petrou, who had the benefit of
                access to new sources of data, such as the records concerning the Spanish Civil War
                from the former Soviet Union.

                    In The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, we are told that ‘about’ 1250 Canadians
                went to Spain. Yet the author carried out far more personal interviews with Canadian
                veterans of Spain than did Petrou. A list of “Taped Interviews And Memoirs” indicates
                that 33 personal interviews were conducted – plus the accessing of previously taped
                CBC interviews, like Michael Petrou did. (Hoar, pp. 278-279) It is the range and
                number of such personal interviews with veterans, plus the attitude Victor Hoar brings
                to his work, which make his book superior to that by Michael Petrou. Hoar’s book
                was written as a “history” of the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion. Mac Reynolds, the
                research associate, says in the Preface about this book ”that I hope and predict will
                satisfy the men” of the battalion. (Preface, p. x) Apparently Canada was the leading
                foreign country in providing volunteers for Spain, proportional to its then population
                of about 12 million people. (p. 1)

                    Apart from the differences mentioned above between the books by Hoar and
                Petrou, there are two additional points to be made:

                    - The earlier book has a far more appreciative awareness of the importance of
                political commissars in the international brigades. We can see this in the following

                “The most sensitive position in each company, battalion and brigade was that held
                by the political commissar whose chief function it was to unite the military and the
                political commitments of the soldiers. So crucial was this function that the
                commissar shared equivalent rank and authority with the military leader of the unit,
                though in battle he was subordinate to the latter.” (Hoar, p. 120)

                    But Victor Hoar is no apologist and goes on to say:

                “The great majority of the survivors of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion describe
                these political officers in the most favourable terms: brave, loyal men whose
                position in battle was always in the vanguard. There are a few dissenting opinions,
                however, that should be noted. It is charged that some of the commissars took
                advantage of their rank and power to secure creature comforts. It is also charged
                that, as the war moved to a climax, the discipline effected by these men became
                excessively harsh. One Canadian reports that he was sentenced to execution for
                alleged anti-Semitism, and was only saved by the intervention, paradoxically, of
                another commissar.” (Ibid, pp. 121-122)

                    - Another area where Hoar’s political awareness and academic objectivity was
                shown would be his assessment of the Left in the Civil War. He also had no
                romantic view of the followers of Trotsky, unlike Petrou. The long quotation which
                follows, indicates the disunity of the Left for the Republican side:

                “From the outset it was apparent that the Second republic would be jeopardized
                not only by its obvious opponents on the Right... but by the often eccentric position
                of the left-wing movements, the Anarcho-Syndicalist Confederación Nacional de
                Trabajo (CNT), the Trotskyist Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM),
                the Anarchist Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI), and the Socialist Unión General
                de Trabajadores (UGT).

                “If the CNT and the UGT were agreed on the objectives of a commonwealth of
                the proletariat, they disagreed on tactics. The UGT sought an orderly process, the
                CNT favoured general strikes. The Anarchists meanwhile declared for the
                overthrow of any centralized government and the return of authority to local
                communes. Numerically superior in the district of Catalonia, they added fuel to
                that region’s aspirations for autonomy. The POUM was openly anti-communist
                and would exhaust itself during the next six years in fighting the rise of the Spanish
                Communist Party. The latter, which was to have such a profound influence on the
                subsequent wartime history of the Republic, numbered only three thousand
                members in 1933.” (Ibid, pp. 2-3)

                    The differences on the Left were not only theoretical but led to actual fighting
                between factions in Barcelona:

                “Anarchists and members of the POUM, a predominantly Trotskyist organization,
                fought with government troops. The issue was Catalonian sovereignty and the
                consequences: over four hundred dead...” (Ibid, p. 89)

                    Victor Hoar does not call the Spanish Civil War volunteers from Canada
                “renegades,” but he does note, “The Canadian volunteers have, over the years,
                been treated as scoundrels... when they have been noticed at all.” (Ibid, pp.
                239-240) The designation of “scoundrel” or “renegade” does not apply to this
                author’s perspective, as he treats the veterans sympathetically but without loss
                of critical awareness. Hoar several times refers to Maurice Constant (personally
                interviewed), who is seen as having played an important military role in Spain,
                as “chief of brigade scouts” (p. 161). (It will be remembered that Michael
                Petrou’s moral certainty was shaken when he interviewed Constant on his death
                bed.) Constant, after returning to Canada, “was appointed secretary of an editorial
                commission which would compile information and personal experiences for a
                volume on the Canadian expedition to Spain.” (p. 238)

                    I believe that Hoar presents a picture of the need for an inclusive Left, which is
                non-communist but not anti-communist, and with which I can identify. He also
                shows and confirms that the CCF (the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation)
                played no major role in getting Canadians to Spain, although individual members
                did help out with accessing passports or in fundraising.

                    There is only one criticism I have of this book, which overall I feel extremely
                positive about. This criticism concerns the use of the term “totalitarian.” Hoar
                speaks of the intervention of the “three totalitarian powers” in the Spanish Civil
                War. (Ibid, p. 6) I associate this term with the Cold War in the West, used to
                describe “them” as opposed to “us.” Or, what I called in the Renegades review,
                the Communist “other.” Here the use of “totalitarianism” as a term fits the
                equating of fascism and communism, which I have always felt resonates with an
                anti-communist agenda. This is quite out of character with the even-handedness,
                depth of understanding, and absence of anti-communism shown in The
                Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion
                August 23, 2008

                                To obtain any of the Green Web publications,  write to us at:

Green Web, R.R. #3, Saltsprings, Nova Scotia, Canada, BOK 1PO
E-mail us at: greenweb@ca.inter.net

               Back to                                                      
               The Green Web
               A Taste of Green Web Writings and Left Biocentrism

                Last updated: August 23, 2008