Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 December 2001

The death last week at the age of 86 of Vernon Richards, who edited the anarchist paper Freedom for what seemed like aeons, brings an era to an end.

Of course, there are plenty of people still around who played a part with Richards in the myriad adventures with which he and Freedom were associated from 1945 onwards. There are even a few survivors from what you might call the “George Orwell left” of the 1940s, that strange marginal milieu of anarchists and democratic socialists – including Tribune – that kept the critical libertarian impulses of the British left alive at a time when most self-proclaimed socialists were singing the praises of technocratic social democracy or totalitarian communism. Richards first became a minor public figure in 1945 when, with two anarchist comrades, he was imprisoned for incitement to disaffection of the armed forces. Orwell and Tribune, although disagreeing with their view of the war, backed them to the hilt on civil libertarian grounds.

But now Richards has gone, there is no one left, as far as I’m aware, who actively participated with Orwell and others in an earlier defining moment: the libertarian left’s struggle in the late 1930s to publicise Stalinist treachery in the Spanish civil war.

The son of an Italian anarchist exile, Richards responded to the social revolution in Spain in 1936 by resurrecting Freedom, then moribund, and renaming it Spain and the World. Its purpose was unashamedly propagandist – to highlight the revolutionary achievements of the Spanish anarchists. But, along with the similarly small-circulation press of the Independent Labour Party and the Trotskyists, it was exceptional among left publications in Britain in telling the truth about the attempt by the Soviet Union, through its proxies in Spain, to hijack the Republican war against Franco’s Nationalist uprising, destroy the revolution and create a pliant puppet state – a course of action that did as much to ensure Franco’s eventual victory as the refusal of France and Britain to support the Republic.

(Anyone in any doubt about that this is what happened should read the documentation from the Soviet archives published this year in the marvellous Yale University Press Annals of Communism series, Spain Betrayed, which makes an incontrovertible case against Moscow.)

At the time, most of the left in Britain – as elsewhere – simply looked away, preferring to see the struggle in Spain as a simple one between democracy and fascism, with the Soviet Union and the Spanish communists on the side of good against evil. Victor Gollancz turned down Orwell’s offer of the book that became Homage to Catalonia, which blew the gaffe on the whole story; Kingsley Martin at the New Statesman refused to publish a review by Orwell that denounced the communists as a counter-revolutionary force. At Tribune, set up by Stafford Cripps and others as part of a campaign to unify the Labour Party, the Communist Party and the ILP, the thorny question was dealt with by the simple expedient of not referring to it in print – much to the consternation of the ILP.

The wilful refusal of the British left to face up to what the Soviet Union was doing in Spain, combined with its simultaneous failure protest against the show trials and the Great Terror in the Soviet Union itself, remains perhaps its most shameful episode – as many left-wingers came to realise after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact.

Yet the refusal still stubbornly endures: in the current exhibition on the Spanish civil war at the Imperial War Museum, to take just one example, Moscow’s perfidy barely warrants a mention. One reason, undoubtedly, is the fact that so many Britons, most of them working-class communists, died fighting for the Republic in the International Brigades: 526 of the 2,400 who volunteered. Faced with their sacrifice – and with the conviction of their surviving comrades that theirs was an uncomplicatedly good fight – many on the left still think it indecent to point out that the anti-fascist struggle was sabotaged from within by the Soviet Union’s machinations.

Here, however, Richards was unsentimental. Throughout his life, he argued that the idealism and bravery of the Brigadiers should not be an excuse for evading the truth about Spain. And however much you might disagree with everything else he stood for – Richards was an inveterate critic of parliamentary reformism and much else that is at the core of Tribune’s democratic socialism – on that he was surely right. The left could have done with a few more like him.

  • Spain Betrayed : The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov, is published by Yale at £27.50
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