The last volunteer
In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
James Hopkins’ new work follows three earlier books on the role and experiences of British volunteers in Spain, all of which, as Hopkins argues, have been determined to portray the British Battalion, and the Communist Party, in a positive light. The ex-Daily Worker journalist Bill Rust and the ex-volunteers Frank Ryan and Bill Alexander are thus “keepers of the story by which they wanted the battalion to be remembered”. Hopkins attempts to redress some of the oversights and biases of these earlier accounts of the British volunteers, a task considerably eased by the opening up of the large archive in Moscow, on which his work draws heavily.
Hopkins divides his work into two main sections: the first examines the social, political and cultural climate of Britain in the 1930s in which the volunteers motivations can be set; the second assesses the experiences of the volunteers in Spain. Part one is itself divided into two sections: the first looking at middle-class ‘thinkers’, the second at ‘proletarian intellectuals’. The former is an area that has been well studied: how ‘writers took sides’ and the role of British middle class intellectuals such as Orwell and Spender has been written about in great detail. Hopkins argues that despite the influx of middle-class intellectuals into the Communist Party during the 1930s, they were to some extent seen as outsiders; that the alliance between working-class and middle-class communists was somewhat uneasy, at best.
Part two provides much more of fresh interest. Hopkins here presents a detailed examination of working-class intellectual culture in the 1930s, explaining the development and dissemination of left-wing political ideology that led to more than two thousand volunteering for a war in a country ‘of which they knew little’. Hopkins suggests it found three main forms. First, newspapers, in particular the Communist Daily Worker; second literature, not just Marx and Engels, but also the works of Robert Blatchford, Robert Tresswell and Jack London, and third, the oral tradition of street orators: many of the speakers, and many of their audience, ended up in Spain. Hopkins also cites other influences: the influence of religious non-conformism, the alternative ‘English historical tradition’ of Wat Tyler, Thomas Paine and the Chartist movement, the influence of the Lenin School (though only the elite such as Will Paynter and Bob Cooney were sent to Moscow) and, finally, a tradition of internationalism, which Hopkins traces back to the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign of 1917. To Hopkins, the crucial factor that differentiated the British working-class volunteers from their contemporaries was that they were ‘thinkers’, products of ‘an influential working class political culture’. Thus the much-derided view of the conflict as ‘the poets’ war’, has been represented by Hopkins instead as ‘the intellectuals’ war’.
How representative his view is of the battalion as a whole is not clear. Hopkins cites a number of volunteers, but they are only a small proportion of the volunteers. His examples all tend to be Communists, so this ‘plebeian intellectualism’ may be more typical of the Communist volunteers rather than the non-Communists who, by Hopkins’ own estimate, number at least half of the British volunteers. And, as he admits, “for the most part, the British volunteers were not Marxist revolutionaries. Rather, they were men of the left who saw themselves as “the standard-bearers of British Democracy in Spain.””
The second part of the book centres on a trenchant critique of the Communist Party’s role in Spain. Hopkins claims that the only route to promotion in the British Battalion was through the CP and it is the (by definition mainly communist) leadership, at battalion level and higher, that comes in for particular criticism. Hopkins supports Jason Gurney’s criticisms of the role of the political commissars, claiming their propaganda was misguided and they often ill-advisedly drifted into military, rather than political, affairs. He also accuses senior members of the British Battalion of complicity in the suppression of the POUM. Hopkins conclusion is that the leadership of the party, both at national and international level, cynically used the International Brigades to further the aims of the Communist Party, which were inextricably intertwined with the foreign policy of the USSR. Thus the accusation that appeared in the contemporary press that the volunteers were ‘dupes’ returns.
Having argued how he believes the leadership ‘sold out’ the rank and file, Hopkins goes on to claim that the party deliberately covered up the level of discontent by maintaining that deserters had been wounded, and that political ‘unreliables’ were at best imprisoned, and at worst deliberately sent into hazardous areas where there was a high likelihood of being killed. Hopkins completes his attack on the role of the Communist party by examining the ‘true believers’ in Spain, the advocates of ‘revolutionary expediency’. Hopkins believes that there was extensive NKVD and SIM (the Spanish military police) interference in the running of the battalion and that on several occasions, CP representatives of lowly rank appear to have held more influence than the battalion leaders. Here Hopkins’ summary is explicit in its criticism: “If the men on the battlefield sought to live their political ideals on the battlefields of Spain, they were betrayed by the party that made it possible for them to be there.
Few volunteers agree with Hopkins’ conclusions. As Fred Thomas, who fought with the Anti-Tank Battery (and who, sadly, died recently) has pointed out, Hopkins sometimes places too much reliance on volunteers’ testimonies, which as he himself would admit, are often somewhat subjective and impressionistic. For example, Hopkins readiness to accept Fred Copeman’s claim that he created an anti-tank battery composed of “good looking students” to keep the middle and working class Communists separated in a kind of apartheid, seems ill judged. Likewise, the reliability of the testimony of Bill Griffiths, on which Hopkins draws heavily, has also been questioned by ex-volunteers. However, despite these and other criticisms, the value of Hopkins’ work is without doubt. His extensive research, particularly his careful analysis of the Moscow files, ensures that this is a major work which adds substantially to the knowledge and understanding of the experiences of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.
This review first appeared in The Journal of Contemporary Iberian History, 13:2, 2000, pp.125-127.