‘Land and Freedom’ – Trotskyism squared

18 July this year marks the 72nd anniversary of the start of the Civil War in Spain. The fascists in Spain, led by General Franco, rose in rebellion against the Spanish Republic. The Francoites were supported by the armed forces of Mussolini’s fascists and German Nazis, while the Spanish Republic was denied the right to defend themselves by the ‘democratic’ imperialists of the US, Britain and France. To the heroic anti-fascist struggle, organised by the Communist Party of Spain, the Soviet Union alone rendered fraternal material, political and moral support. The Spanish Republic was defeated through a combination of the external imperialist support given to the Franco forces and the internal disruption caused by the Trotskyists and Anarchists. And yet the Spanish Republic, the Communist Party of Spain, the Communist International, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its undisputed leader, Stalin, have been, and continue to be, the targets of the campaign of vilification and calumny of imperialism and its ‘left-wing’ flunkeys – the Trotskyists, revisionists and social democrats. Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom, is in this nefarious tradition. By way of our tribute to the anti-fascist fighters of Spain and their supporters all around the world, we publish below a brilliant review of Loach’s counter-revolutionary film written by a comrade of the CPGB-ML (Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist)).


Ken Loach’s film set in the Spanish Civil War is a piece of shameless bourgeois propaganda.

Ken Loach’s film depicting the activities of the Trotskyist POUM in the Spanish civil war is at once a masterpiece of propagandist filmmaking, and a succession of anti-communist slanders and distortions.

One needs to be a professor of working-class history to untangle the threads woven into this tapestry of lies, for in this film we have Trotskyism squared, or perhaps raised to the third power: Land and Freedom is Loach’s modern-day Trotskyist dramatisation of Homage to Catalonia, the anti-communist novel by George Orwell, itself a heavily-spun account of the POUM’s actual Trotskyist activities in Spain.

The film begins at the end. An elderly man suffers a fatal heart attack as he is rushed to hospital by ambulance from his run-down council flat in Liverpool. His granddaughter sorts through his possessions prior to his funeral and discovers letters, addressed to his wife, written from the front in Spain in 1936, revealing an entirely new dimension of his life and struggle.

These letters narrate the film’s unfolding drama, and we are transported in time to a 1930s meeting of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in which the main protagonist – a young British worker from Liverpool called David – is moved by the suffering of the Spanish republicans, workers and peasants at the hands of Franco’s fascist forces. There and then, he makes the momentous and heroic decision to join the International Brigades, and go to the defence of the Spanish Republic. This is his struggle – our struggle.

So far, so good. The film is well crafted and sucks us in, giving us a tangible link to past events. Here in this dusty council flat is to be found the history of the tumultuous working class struggle of the 20th century. But events depicted beyond this point rapidly degenerate into such a travesty of historical fact that it is necessary to equip ourselves with some background knowledge before continuing.

The situation in Spain

Spain in the early 1930s was characterised by antiquated, feudal relations of production. The capitalist class, wanting to develop modern industry and compete on the world market, was hampered by these relations and began a political struggle to cast them off. The 1934 election, however, brought a deeply reactionary right-wing minority government to power, whose attempts to roll back democratic concessions precipitated a general strike, which was particularly militant among the miners of Asturias.

“On October 5, 1934, over 70,000 highly unionized, communist-oriented miners in Asturias (north-western Spain) rose in revolt, occupying the city of Oviedo and taking control of much of the area within a few hours.” (onwar.com)

The Spanish army – with a significant corps of foreign legion colonial troops, once again furnishing vivid proof that “no nation which enslaves another can itself be free” – was led to Asturias by General Franco, who put down the strike in the most brutal manner over the following bloody fortnight. Three thousand workers were killed and 35,000 imprisoned indefinitely, subjected to torture and judicial persecution.

Rise of the popular front

In the wake of these events, the communists, social democrats and left republicans formed a popular front to contest the February 1936 general elections in order to depose the reactionary elements. Radicalised by the general strike, the population handed the republican forces a resounding electoral victory, but, on 18 July 1936, the army generals under Franco rose from Morocco in a coup d’état.

As Franco’s rebellion erupted, communists immediately called for the people to be armed. Although this call was opposed by the ‘socialist’ republicans, the communists were successful, and, where the people were armed, putsches were put down. The communist-led Fifth Regiment, with its solid military discipline and training, proved highly effective in defeating Franco’s forces.

International fascist intervention

There Franco’s story might have ended, but for the intervention of fascist Germany and Italy, both of which came to Franco’s aid. They sent troops and munitions, and, famously, the Luftwaffe’s first major campaign was to destroy the Basque republican stronghold of Guernica (prompting Picasso to paint one of his best-known works by way of protest).

Struggle for a united army

This unholy alliance of international fascism confronting the republic demanded maximum efficiency and discipline among republican forces if they were to survive. The Spanish communists campaigned for a regular people’s army to be formed, under a unified command structure composed of proven officers who had distinguished themselves in the civil war. This was no time for playing – the military struggle must be won, or all hope of progress would be swept away by ensuing fascist reaction.

Yet, nonsensically, these demands were opposed by the left socialists and Trotskyites of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unidad Marxista – the entirely misnamed Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity), who coined the demagogic slogan “We don’t want our army handed over to professional militarists”. In other words, oppose Hitler, Mussolini and Franco with anarchistic disorganisation and amateurishness. All of which begged the question: whose side were they on?

Economic questions

Of great importance was providing adequate food and supplies to the people and armies of the republic. Therefore, the communists called for key industries to be placed under state control and geared to war production, while opposing confiscation of small shops and workshops by the working class. The Spanish masses were, after all, predominantly small peasants and artisans (petty businessmen). To attack them was to undermine mass support for the republic and push them into the arms (and armies) of Franco.

Meanwhile, many factories were being run by trade unions, producing for profit in sublime disregard for the exigencies of the war. In Barcelona, these factories were making baths and children’s prams, harmless in themselves, but a deadly economic indulgence when the Aragon front was short of munitions.

The POUM advocated entrusting factories to individual workers’ collectives, acting independently of each other and of the republican government, claiming it only trusted their “revolutionary initiative”. The anarchy that resulted scarcely requires further explanation, and entirely failed to organise production to support the anti-fascist war. Meanwhile, in the countryside, despite serious food shortages, the POUM advocated and tried to organise collectivisation – with all the (temporary, but immediate and far reaching) dislocation in social relations and productive capacity that it entailed.

Attacks on the Church

In the concrete situation they then faced, the Spanish communists were opposed both to collectivisation and to attacks on churches and priests. Spanish workers had anarchist and anti-church traditions, and were apt to attack both church and priesthood, but among large sections of the peasantry – who were highly religious – it was considered an affront, and one that was likely, again, to push the peasants into the arms of the fascists.

In the specific context of a civil war, the communists understood that this was not the time to be making new enemies. That the fascists understood well the correctness of the communist policy is highlighted by their tactic of sending agent provocateurs, posing as communists, to orchestrate attacks on priests and to burn churches, all in order to tarnish the image of the republican forces.

Trotskyite opposition to the Comintern

How is the contradiction between the Trotskyite position in Spain and Russia to be explained?

In Spain, they advocated even forced collectivisation, before the democratic tasks of the revolution were complete, and at a time of national crisis and war. Yet in Russia, voluntary collectivisation was vehemently opposed by Trotsky and his followers, even after the democratic tasks of the revolution were complete and the Soviet government had a firm alliance with the poor and middle peasantry, held large accumulated reserves of grain, and had concentrated key elements of production into their hands.

The only consistent thing here is the counterrevolutionary nature of the Trotskyite policy.

In fact, the POUM systematically opposed every single policy of the republican government aimed at winning the war, and was ultimately excluded, as a disruptive and disorganising element, from government. POUM’s response was not to carry on fighting regardless against the common fascist enemy, but to withdraw its fighters from the Aragon front to Barcelona.

Finally, on 3 May 1937, POUM rose in armed rebellion, not against the fascists, but against the republican government. The attempted putsch was rightly crushed. It would be more appropriate to criticise the republic for tolerating the POUM’s activities for too long – but such was the nature of the popular front government.

The communist forces emerged much strengthened ideologically from these battles, but militarily such adventures were incredibly destructive and made a decisive contribution to ultimate fascist victory in the civil war.

The Communist International and the Popular Front

The Communist International (CI) had always had a policy of exposing European social democracy, of showing it to be compromising and, in the last analysis, a force of the imperialist bourgeoisie. In the face of the rising fascist threat, however, it was considered possible – under certain conditions – to form a united proletarian front with social democracy, or even a popular inter-class alliance against fascism.

This was not a change in principle, but one of tactics, reflecting the changed world realities: the bourgeoisie had switched its backing from social democracy to fascism, and therefore it was possible to form such alliance. The communist objective – to win the class struggle – remained constant.

Thus, the resolution of the Seventh Congress of the CI (1935) read: “if in the face of a rise in the movement of the masses, it should be possible and necessary, in the interests of the proletariat, to form a government of the united proletarian front, or of the popular anti-fascist front, which will not yet be a government of proletarian dictatorship, but will undertake to carry out decisive measures against fascism, and the reaction, the communist party must procure the formation of such a government.”

Conditions necessary for formation of such a front were carefully formulated:

·       “When the bourgeois state apparatus is so far paralysed that the bourgeoisie is not in a position to prevent the formation of such a government.

·       “When the broadest working class masses are launching themselves massively against fascism and reaction without yet being ready to fight for Soviet Power.

·       “When a considerable part of the organisations of social democracy and other parties which form part of the united front are demanding the application of relentless measures against the fascists and other reactionary elements and is ready to fight in conjunction with the communists to carry out these measures.”

Barely a year later, Spain fulfilled these criteria, and accordingly the Soviet Union and the communist parties of Europe sent men and weapons to assist the Spanish republic. This was an epic and pivotal struggle in its own right, and simultaneously one of the first skirmishes of the looming world war. Stakes were high.

Eulogising POUM, disorganisation and defeat

On the human level, Ken Loach is a good filmmaker, who knows how to personalise events and touch people’s emotions. But from the moment we hit the ground in Spain, Loach skews the entire context of the Spanish struggle and artificially contrives to place the POUM at the centre of events.

The principal protagonist, David, is a working-class communist and CPGB member from Liverpool, who makes the decision to go to Spain in the course of a rousing CPGB meeting; yet in the very next scene (as his narrated letter complains of their being “no organisation to get into Spain”), he’s sitting in a train rattling into Spain, apparently as a lone individual, unattached to any organising party. By sheer chance he happens to bump into some POUM guys who share cigarettes with him – and that’s it, he joins up with the POUM!

No doubt there were times when the organisation worked less than perfectly, but cursory acquaintance with the International Brigaders, or their writings, clearly reveals that the CPGB directed volunteers to contacts in Paris, from where they would rendezvous with couriers to get them across the Pyrenees, and so on. It was all done clandestinely, because under the treacherous policy of the ‘non-interventionist’ strangulation and blockade of the Spanish republic by French, British and US imperialism (which turned a blind eye to the international support given to Franco by Italian and German fascism), the really heroic act of going to defend the Spanish republic and fight in the International Brigades (IB) on the first international front against fascism was declared illegal and actively prevented by the British and French bourgeoisie, which viewed independent working-class mobilisation as a threat and Bolshevism as its principle enemy.

Without the communists’ organisation, international volunteers simply wouldn’t have got to Spain. See, for example, Harry Haywood’s autobiography, Black Bolshevik.

At times, Land and Freedom is moving in its depiction of individual POUM cadres as good hearted and honest, prepared to make great sacrifices for the defeat of fascism. But the film – and the POUM it depicts – goes well beyond that in its defence of POUM policy generally. In reality, Trotskyism diverted many good-hearted, genuinely-motivated workers from serving the movement, rendering their actions not only useless but positively harmful. The POUM ended up fighting objectively to aid the cause of fascism.

This fact is entirely obscured (even glorified) by the film – and is just one more example of why the fight against opportunism is so absolutely essential. This is not an abstraction, or intellectualist hair splitting; the capitalists’ greatest weapon is diverting the revolutionary fervour of the masses against the revolution itself.

The film is deeply idealist (as opposed to materialist), in that it depicts a little band of soldiers wandering around in isolation with no broader context. We hear little of the overall strategic necessities that decided the great debates and course of the struggle, and see little of the main parties constituting the republican government. To the extent they are referred to, they are depicted as dogmatic, brutish and dictatorial – and as agents of the capitalists. The communists never fight at the front, we are told – it is left to Trots and anarchists to do the real fighting!

A professional army

“In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation”, said Lenin. Can anyone really believe that a little band of fellow travellers can ever be really effective without linking up in some way with other units or a common command?

David describes the POUM militia as “Socialism in action”; “No salutes, we elect the officers and everyone gets the same pay.” So according to the Trotskyites, it’s impossible to have socialism in a single country – the USSR – but perfectly possible to have it in a single military unit!

This whole idea of ‘military democracy’ to the point that people can say “no fighting today – today we’re going to have a good time” is a farcical way to conduct a struggle against a ruthless and determined fascist imperialist enemy. Trotskyism at certain level merges into anarchism.

The POUM thesis that Loach pushes in his film, that ‘if we have a well-organised and disciplined, hierarchical army structure – the revolutionary spirit will be crushed’ is a fallacy. The history of the second world war shows that the spirit of revolution was much enhanced by a disciplined army that could fight as one under a single command with a unified tactical and strategic plan.

That was the experience of the Red Army’s fight against fascism, and that was the experience of the Chinese, Vietnamese and North Koreans. If everyone had said “I’m sorry, I don’t want to fight – who is Kim Il Sung to give the orders?” North Korea would certainly have failed to defeat US imperialism!

The complete indiscipline advocated by Trotskyites, and eulogised by both Loach and Orwell, is in stark contrast to the militarisation of the unions and the imposition of military discipline upon the whole Soviet working class which Trotsky advocated (unsuccessfully) in the 1920s! And the same Trotsky, for the limited time he held positions of power in the Soviet military, was the staunchest advocate of bringing in Tsarist officers to command the Red Army!

This totally incoherent and contradictory line of argument is a good example of how ‘nailing down the political positions of Trotsky is like trying to nail jelly to the wall’. The only discernable consistency is anti-communism and incorrect policy!

Collectivisation debate

Half way through the film, the POUM militia travel to the rear, where we see them engaging in a debate with the peasants of an Aragon village, advancing arguments in favour of collectivisation. This is a pivotal point in the film, and here an interesting (and dishonest) device is employed by Loach: an International Brigade comrade with a heavy US accent, clearly designated ‘the evil personification of Stalinism’, is given the task of speaking for the republic.

Actually, with the exception of the rather absurd statement that he’s tailoring his ideas to the interests of foreign capitalists, everything this ‘evil communist’ says is correct and logically explained from a common sense point of view. As, for instance, when he quite correctly questions the policy of confiscating the land and property of those who are supporting the government.

This policy of the communists to take on one enemy at a time when forming a popular front, can be compared to the change in policy of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the 1930s toward the Kuomintang.

In the early 1930s, while fighting a revolutionary (civil) war against the nationalist forces of the Kuomintang, the Chinese communists confiscated the land of all the landlords and rich peasants and redivided it among the poor and middle peasants. When imperialist Japan launched its massive military invasion to subject China to its colonial occupation, the CPC changed its position to confiscating only the land of the pro-Japanese elements. This had the effect of galvanising the national forces to struggle against Japanese fascism in China, and ultimately resulted in the alliance of the Kuomintang with the CPC in the popular front against Japan.

This same policy, pursued by the Spanish republic, was particularly correct and far sighted in the case of Spain. Spain was not in the midst of a socialist revolution; it was in the midst of a struggle to defend a national republic against fascist aggression. To try and carry out the socialist revolution in the midst of that life-and-death struggle, however favourably presented in the film, is objectively counterrevolutionary, since it leads to a split in the anti-fascist forces and, ultimately, defeat.

‘Collective decision making’ is seductively presented in the film as the masses ‘needing no leaders’. However, especially in time of great struggle, the masses have great need of revolutionary leadership to find the correct path – for which a Leninist party is invaluable. Of course, you cannot simply issue the people with orders, but without a trusted structure and command, the reactionary elements will always be able to take advantage of spontaneity to divert struggle from the correct and successful path.

To recognise the principal enemy at each moment, at each stage in the revolution (the feudal imperial forces of Franco in this instance), and to unite the maximum social forces against the principal enemy, is a cardinal Leninist principle; the Trotskyite fondness for ‘jumping stages’ results in what Lenin characterised as “playing with revolution”.

Disarming of the POUM

In Loach’s film, unlike in life, arguments are not resolved by any comparison to reality. Rather, the debate is ‘resolved’ in the final scene: the disarming of the POUM. Why is the POUM being disarmed? No mention is made of their treacherous and murderous attempted putsch – in the strange ‘reality’ created by Land and Freedom, Loach’s little band of tragi-comical POUM fighters are ‘treacherously’ disarmed even as they are ‘fighting the fascists at the front’ – an extraordinary historical falsification, since in reality they were fighting in an anti-government putsch and disorganising the rear!

All those previously arguing against collectivisation, and for a united command, now appear as the republican army, dressed in uniforms striking in their similarity to those worn by the fascists. This artifice goes to the length of using the same actor for the commanding republican officer (wearing the same steely heartless expression) that had played a captured fascist officer in an earlier scene. The subliminal message is clear: the Spanish revolution is being ‘betrayed’ by the Comintern and Stalin; ‘communism (Stalinism) = fascism!’

This message is roundly reinforced by the POUM ‘comrades’, who fall about dramatically declaiming “The Stalinists are betraying the revolution”, “There is an explanation – it’s called Stalinism”, “The party stinks! Its evil! It’s corrupt!”, It’s practising torture!”, “Stalin is just using the working class!”, etc. Stalin’s name is no longer employed in any kind of meaningful way, but simply as a word of abuse.

The POUM ironically conclude by shouting to the republican soldiers: “Don’t fight us, fight fascism!” This is rich, considering that in reality it was the POUM which decided that the fascists and republicans were ‘as bad as each other’ and so set out on the path of military conflict with the republicans. In fact, since the POUM had degenerated to the level of a ‘fifth column’ for the fascists, the republicans had no option but to fight them too, however difficult it was to spare the necessary forces.

Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’

And so we come full circle. Having struggled and sacrificed, the inevitable conclusion of hopelessness and despair is reached: the climax of the entire film, its highest purpose, is for the chief protagonist to tear up his party card!

The lasting message of the film is not the steeling and liberating heroism of the workers who struggled against fascism, but the importance of the struggle against ‘Stalinism’, and the ultimate futility of workers’ struggle, which will always be subverted by ‘Stalinist’ betrayers from its pure (Trotskyite) purpose. We could not hope for a more direct illustration of how Trotskyism – even today – is actually employing its arguments in the service of fascism, in the service of the bourgeoisie, in the service of imperialism. It is one of the chief anti-communist propaganda planks of the aggressive monopoly-capitalist class.

Loach idealises ‘the cult of the heroic failure’. Success is not important, but idealism and self-indulgent ultra-sincerity (to one’s own beliefs, rather than to the wider cause of the working class) is the over-riding principle. Perennial failure is then crowned with the statement “I don’t regret any of it: if we’d have succeeded – we’d have changed the world!

This is what the Trotskyites always say: IF! Cruel fate! And therefore, in their own eyes, they are blameless. It never really matters that they don’t achieve anything. They wash their hands of their own failures – usually blaming them on the betrayals of Stalinism (the communist movement) – and remain ‘pure’ and aloof from the real struggle to build the new society in the real world.

It is the communist movement that really wants to change the world for the material benefit of working people and has a history of engaging seriously – and successfully – with that struggle.

The Spanish POUM cannot simply be explained as ‘good people going astray’, though a good number of its cadres were undoubtedly sincere; POUM’s overriding service to the fascists was the theoretical confusion they imparted.

The situation arrived at in Spain by the POUM is very much a continuation of the theory of ‘permanent revolution’ (PR). The question is, at heart, one of theory, and where putting an incorrect theory into practice will lead the masses.

The purpose of theory is either to inform people of the true situation and serve as a guide to action, or alternatively, to misinform and mislead them into living in a completely different world. The theory of PR ultimately results in a departure from reality: it says ‘socialism cannot be built’; therefore its followers must oppose the building of socialism. And, transferred to the international arena, PR means permanent opposition to all policies of the USSR and the Comintern, as by definition these must go against the theory of PR (this disproven theory being given higher importance than the reality that contradicts it).

Where collectivisation is not possible or expedient (as in Spain during the anti-fascist war), the slogan of the Trotskyites is “Collectivise!” On the other hand, where collectivisation is the order of the day (as in the USSR in the early 1930s), the Trotskyites are bound to oppose collectivisation!

Trotskyism takes young people full of fire and enthusiasm and spits them out bitter and disillusioned with what they assume is ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’. The only remaining option, which the film’s anti-hero himself adopts, is to give up the struggle, accept that history is ‘over’, and crawl home quietly to grow old, suffer and die.

Role of revolutionary theory

And so the conclusion for communists must be that we must reinvigorate our fight for correct theory. This is the role of party schools and Marxist-Leninist study sessions of all kinds; to ensure that our comrades are enlightened by correct theory in all their endeavours. Theory alone does no good – theory must be combined with practice; but practice, as Stalin said, will always grope in the dark if its path is not illumined by revolutionary theory.