Monday, 17 October 2016

(Female) Personalities and Power in Spain 1936-39

80 years on from the Defence of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War, a rediscovered look back at one of its best-known protagonists - and at a lesser-known woman of some importance in the same context.

Dolores Ibárruri and Federica Montseny

From Solidarity National Group Paper (co-ordinated by Oxford Solidarity) [1977], pp. 4-5.
(Slightly amended). Full issue available as pdf at (history)

  The “big names” of history already get a disproportionate amount of attention. Our concern as libertarians will generally be more with the largely unrecorded activities of those whose struggles are too often ignored and forgotten. But it can be useful to have a look at the personalities from time to time, with a view to demystification.
   In the small welter of publications and programmes commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the “Spanish Civil War”, mentions of the part played by women have tended to be few and far between. Hardly surprising, in view of male domination in the media, and the more complete male domination in Spanish society at the time. There are, however, at least two women whose names must crop up in any account seeking to be comprehensive.
  Dolores Ibárruri and Federica Montseny both made their mark on the history they lived through, and there are one or two questions we can pose about their experience. Were their achievements (and failures) personal matters, or did they wider implication for Spanish women in general? Did they have much in common, to enable them to gate-crash the man's world of politics - or were the differences between them more significant?  

  It was as “La Pasionaria” that Dolores Ibárruri became known to the world in the nineteen-thirties, personifying the resistance of the Spanish Republic to Franco’s armies. But symbols, however romantically appealing, can mislead; the extent to which one individual can represent millions is severely limited, and Dolores Ibárruri had her own particular place in the complex political scene. By 1936 she was already established as a Communist deputy in the Cortès (Spanish Parliament), a member of the Party’s Central Committee. For a number of years she had been active as an organiser, especially among women in several “front” organisations, and was a forceful orator and propagandist. Uncompromising and often vehement in her opposition to the rightists – in March 1936 she urged the execution, in the name of the people’s legality, of those responsible for the brutal repression of the Asturias uprising of 1934 – she was imprisoned at least three times under the Republic (i.e. since 1931).
  After the partially successful Nationalist uprising in July 1936, led by Franco and other militarists, she became an even more impassioned advocate for anti-fascism in the name of the legal Republican government. In the areas where the Nationalists were not immediately victorious, including the industrial region around Barcelona, they were fiercely resisted, by the formation of popular militias and also by a large-scale takeover of factories and farms in what amounted to an incipient social revolution. Ibárruri travelled round the “loyalist” areas, speaking to large crowds and appealing for support. She achieved a popularity and celebrity unique among personalities on the government side, and certainly unusual for a Communist leader. 
  In accordance with party policy, her emphasis was on legality, the defence of the constitutional Republic, not on the furthering of social revolution, so that she must have met with some opposition. In fact, when she went to France with a delegation seeking arms and sympathy for the Republican cause, she was held up in Barcelona by anarchists. All the same the battle-cry of opposition to the rebels and invaders was sure to rally a good deal of support, and if her speeches sometimes had more colour than content this no doubt helped the process, in the short term at least.

   With the defence of Madrid later in 1936 she became an international figure. After the government had departed for the comparative safety of Valencia she stayed in the beleaguered capital, using to the full her abilities as orator and organiser. She was credited with the slogans “They Shall Not Pass”, and “It is better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees”, although both had been used before, and was heard constantly on Radio Madrid and over loudspeakers in the streets. Many of her speeches were directed towards women, whom she urged to fight with knives and boiling oil to defend their homes and children, and to join demonstrations encouraging men to go the front.

"Aid the Heroic Defenders of Madrid" 
50 years after the battle: University, Madrid, October 1986:
a peaceful setting for an international conference

Glasgow September 2018
  At the same time, legend has it that there was another side to this fiery, if not bloodthirsty, character: she is said to have saved a number of nuns (from “the anarchists”) and to have risked her reputation by such interventions. There were also rumours of a lover, as is generally the case when any woman achieves a degree of notoriety, although the image of matronly mother-of-five was projected strongly too. 
  In any case, the quasi-mythology and folklore masked a day-to-day political reality. La Pasionaria had her place as a loyal member of the increasingly powerful Communist Party, participating in government intrigues and squabbles, and supporting the suppression of the social revolution. She remained active to the end. When the International Brigades finally withdrew after defeat became inevitable, it was she who, famously, made the farewell speech. It was not until March 1939 that she left for France with other Communist leaders and members of the government. She was given asylum in the USSR, where she fared rather better than some Spanish Republicans, at least surviving to write her memoirs and eventually to return to Spain amid the expected sentimental brouhaha, and to embarrass the new improved Euro-brand Spanish CP of the Seventies with pro-Eastern bloc remarks. 

  Federica Montseny was another well-known orator, but her sphere of political activity was rather different. She came from an anarchist family tradition, and was by 1936 one of the leading militants of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI). Although the libertarian movement did not of course have “leaders” as such, there was enough of a “star” system for a few prominent figures to emerge as effective spokespersons for the large membership of the CNT-FAI (the CNT being the strong libertarian National Confederation of Labour. Montseny was among those anarchists invited to join the Popular Front government, after the strength of the CNT had been demonstrated in the widespread collectivisation that followed upon 18th July.
  From an anarchist, whose basic principle was the total rejection of the state, such an invitation was not likely to win ready acceptance; nevertheless it was not rejected out of hand, as might have been expected. Overtaken by events, distanced from the mass of CNT members, and already used to taking decisions in a small group, the handful of leading militants agreed to give the government a libertarian seal of approval. Their decision was ratified, in retrospect, by the plenum (full meeting) of the CNT, but remains a subject of controversy in the anarchist movement.
  Federica Montseny was aware that traditional anarchists, such as her father had been, would be horrified at the idea of joining the government. Her first reaction was to refuse, but after 24 hours of heart-searching and argument she accepted nomination as Minister of Health and Social Services, claiming that this step was in the best interests of the social revolution.

Mujeres Libres poster:
"Women! Your family is made up of
 all who struggle for Freedom."
  It was at best a position in which she could help to bring about some reforms. This was done, to some extent, and women were able to benefit. Abortion was legalised, under controlled conditions. Refuges open to all women, including prostitutes, were set up – possibly to be seen as a fore-runner of present-day Women’s Aid centres. Birth control information was spread with the help of community groups such as, most notably, the anarchist Mujeres Libres (Free Women). For Spain in the thirties, and compared with the situation there today, these reforms were not negligible.

  Perhaps it was inevitable that, once in office, the Minister of Health should be preoccupied, like her colleagues, with the cares and responsibilities of the position. It was a far cry from the grass-roots work of the collectives, and there was a strong temptation to identify with one’s fellow rulers in their “difficult task” instead of questioning the basis of their existence. The anarchist Ministers went along with the legalisation and subsequent erosion of the collectivisation, and helped to smooth the path for the Communist Party’s consolidation of power.

   In May 1937 the underlying tendencies came out into the open. The government’s attempt to “disarm the rearguard” was firmly resisted by the workers of Barcelona, a stronghold of CNT influence. After three days of fighting most of the city was in the hands of the CNT and its allies, and the government was getting worried. Troops were withdrawn from the front to send to Barcelona if it proved necessary, and the anarchist “heavies” were called in. When her colleagues, the National Secretary of the CNT and the Minister of Justice (yes, another anarchist) had failed to make much impression, Montseny was sent on behalf of the Valencia government. She first obtained an assurance that troops were not to be used – until she thought they were needed.  

Anarchist 'Friends of Durruti' pamphlet on the May events
  In Barcelona her car was attacked, but her radio broadcasts appealing for calm contributed to the confusion and demoralisation of the “insurgents” (i.e. the people who were trying to hold on to what they had made their own). There were concessions from the CNT side and the government was able to assert its control. Shortly afterwards, the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) was proscribed, and the anti-“Trotskyist” witch-hunt drove the anarchists into opposition. Montseny protested against the turn events were taking, compiling a dossier of evidence to combat the wilder fictions of the CP and demanding a change of government. By then it was too late.
   After the defeat of the Republic she went into exile and continued to be prominent among Spanish libertarians in France. She won praise from commentators such as Burnett Bolloten for her honesty in being prepared to discuss, with a measure of self-criticism, the anarchist participation in government, and is still [1977] to be observed engaging in debate on this topic from time to time, in the libertarian press.

    To each of these women a sort of stereotype can be applied, to fit them into an acceptable slot in male-dominated society; this is how their personalities were projected in a television play last July. Dolores’ is the more feminine part: not the docile little woman, of course, but the passionate earth-mother, heart ruling head, devoted to home, husband and children. It is significant that the role she habitually assigned to women was essentially a supportive one, concerned with backing up the efforts of “their” men rather than struggling alongside them on equal terms. At the same time, she managed to function as an efficient leading member of an extremely hard-headed political party – stereotypes can’t be expected to fit exactly.
    Federica, on the other hand, comes over as the intellectual, the blue-stocking, committed to her cause and therefore, so the assumptions go, a bit sexless – although she too was a wife and mother. This is how male society has long dealt with women who step out of their appointed place. They can participate in the masculine sphere but will be regarded as not quite fully female. Perhaps it doesn’t matter very much and will cease altogether when women are everywhere so integrally involved that their presence is no longer remarkable.
  In any case, there is little sign that Federica Montseny was affected by it. She remained aware at least of some of the specific interests of women and did something about them, without trading on her own femininity or conjuring up any romantic female role to fulfil. She recognised throughout that her political actions were what mattered, and whatever our criticisms of those actions, she can be respected on that account.

  It is in political terms, in a wide sense which includes their womanhood without over-emphasising it, that we have to assess the careers of both those personalities in power at a crucial stage of Spanish history.

Glasgow commemorates 'La Pasionaria' (but not Federica M.)
Added Notes
1. On the backgound context generally, see "Online pamphlet" on Spain and the World looking at many aspects of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, 1936-39, on the Radical History Network of North-East London blogThe sequence starts with Spain and the World... (Preface) 15/6/11 and includes:-
  • Spain and the World: Aspects of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (1) The View from the East End. (Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto) 15/6/11
  • Spain and the World: Aspects of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (3) Health Service Spain 1936-39, 15/6/11
  • Spain and the World: Aspects of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (on Workers' Control) 16/6/11
2. On Mujeres Libres, see Free Women of Spain by Martha A. Ackelsberg: review on libcom,org
3. On the role of women in this context: 

1 comment:

  1. Related News, October 2016: [may not be immediately accessible due to bandwidth limit].
    See also