Working Class Movement Library

A blog from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford

Miners against fascism – book review

Posted by wcmlibrary on August 22, 2012

Miners against fascism – Wales and the Spanish civil war by Hwyel Francis. Lawrence & Wishart, 2012. ISBN 978-1-907103-51-3

Lawrence and Wishart have reprinted this book, first published in 1984 with a second edition in 2004. It is a work that gives great insight into the effects of the General Strike of 1926 on the mining community in South Wales and it combines this with accounts of experiences of the Welsh Volunteers, and others, in Spain during the conflict there in 1936 when the election of a popular front government was the signal for an invasion by right-wing army units based in North Africa. Once General Franco and his force had been transported across the Mediterranean, with the help of the Italian navy, a “fifth column” of his supporters took to the streets in support.

The first section of the book is based on Francis’s Ph.D. thesis of 1977. It contains a mass of well-documented information on the multifarious organisations that operated in South Wales in the 1920s and 1930s.

There can be no question that the prolonged lockout of miners, following the General Strike of nine days, was a turning point in industrial relations as well as a turning point in British politics. Consequences of the defeat of the miners included victimisation of workers, widescale unemployment, and a deliberate policy of immiseration of the working class in those areas which had shown Leftist tendencies in the years following the revolution in Russia. Any upward trend in living conditions was halted, even reversed, with some suffering more than others.

Francis has dealt with the crisis objectively. There is no attempt to dramatise the extent of misery at that time as a result of which the mining communities in South Wales became politically radicalised. As Francis himself puts it “A political ‘community’ consciousness (was) forged in 1926 during the General Strike and miners’ lock-out ”.  He credits the South Wales Miners Federation and the Communist Party with being the driving forces in this direction. Defending the lawfully elected government in Spain was just one way of expressing abhorrence of the growing trend towards Fascism in Europe.

Francis points out that the line taken by the British and French governments at the time was reprehensible. Their declaration of non-involvement was hypocritical. They did not stand idly by. Instead they went to extremes in their efforts to prevent voluntary aid of any sort reaching the Republican side. No effort was spared to hinder the Republican government as much as possible while giving a free hand to the other side. An Act of 1871 was resurrected to threaten the Volunteers with prison if they tried to leave the country. “Better dead than red” became a slogan of the Right and that says much more about contemporary official philosophy than does a policy of appeasement. Only when driven to the wall, following the “Phoney War” of 1940, were the Fascist aggressors opposed and even then others remained aloof.  Yet the Soviet Union was prepared to incur the ire of Hitler and Mussolini by offering official support.

The second part of the book relates some of the experiences of the men who went off to Spain and ends with an examination of their legacy. To date Francis has been able to trace 206 Volunteers. He is still searching for anyone whose name was omitted from the original number of 174 identified for his thesis. Fatalities amounted to 33, a casualty rate of about 20% indicating the heavy losses suffered by the International Brigade. That was a consequence of non-intervention. The Fascists were well provided for in terms of arms from outside while the “neutral” states imposed an arms embargo on the Republicans.

The conflict in Spain was just one source of discontent in the country. After 1926 increasing unemployment meant a consequent increase in welfare expenditure. Naturally this was unacceptable to government and there was a constant effort to restrict benefits. Matters reached a climax in the mid-1930s with the passing of the Unemployment Insurance Act. This, combined with the continuation of the Means Test, “unified the whole South Wales mining community, and was fully expressed in the greatest volcano of socio-political protest ever experienced in the region”.

The legacy of the struggle had more than one aspect partly because the Volunteers were on the losing side. Some who returned lapsed back to inactivity; some returned to pacifism only to be victimised again; perhaps surprisingly one became a Catholic. Others looked on the World War as a continuation of the struggle. The vast majority continued with their efforts to present the arguments of the neglected side in ways such as lecturing and creating memorials to those who had given their lives.

It is a sobering experience to read this work today when a similar depression has again gripped the country along with all the familiar trappings of wage freezes, reduction in real wages this time caused by high inflation, increasing unemployment, attempts to reduce welfare payments etc.

Those who have read previous editions will undoubtedly seek this one out with its additional material. New readers will find plenty of food for thought.

by Kevin McPhillips, WCML volunteer

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