¿Viva la Insurgencía?: The Spanish Civil War and the Legacy of the Totalitarian International Brigades



[Soviet T-62 Tank in action, Spanish Civil War]

The memory of the Spanish Civil War is shaped by multiple and competing narratives. Was it a civil war or a revolution? A struggle between a fledgling liberal democratic republic and reactionary fascists? Or perhaps a righteous struggle waged by the forces of patriotism, nationalism, and religion against communism? 

In 1931, the Second Republic-a liberal socialist government-was elected to power in Spain. Known colloquially as la niña bonita (the beautiful child), it was the first time in decades that a change in government occurred without intervention by the Spanish military. The government of President Niceto Alcalá Zamora and Prime Minister Manuel Azaña implemented a series of social, land and labor reforms.

However, radical political groups-principally anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-communists-were not satisfied with the government’s reformist efforts and engaged in a series of strikes and failed attempts at insurrection. In a context of rising social, economic, and political expectations, an anarchist-inspired social revolution sparked by land seizures and factory occupations culminated in the implementation of a variety of semi-democratic, self-managed, worker-based, collectivization schemes [1]. 

This produced a social, economic and political situation where the Catholic Church, large land-owners, and other forces of classical conservatism supported a form of nationalism-Falangism-that was an amalgam of a variety of conspiratorial worldviews. Anti-Masonic, anti-Semitic and anti-Communist elements were all found among the Falange and Falangists found ready alliance with the emerging fascist powers of Germany and Italy. 

International Volunteers for Rival Totalitarian Regimes

Onto the global stage stepped the International Volunteers. Self-styled “premature anti-fascists,” the volunteers were a strange paradox in a conflict epitomized by irony [2]. The majority of volunteers from abroad were Stalinists, yet, communists were a small section of the crazy-quilt Spanish political landscape which on the left included anarchists, socialists, liberals, Basque and Catalonian nationalists and a small number of communists. Regardless, the Stalinists soon found themselves in an ideal situation, armed by the Soviet Union-who with Mexico and Czechoslovakia were the only countries supporting the Spanish Republic with arms. The anarchists and some small Marxist groups-most notably the United Marxist Workers’ Party or, better known for its Spanish initials, the POUM-tried to resist the growing hegemony of the Communists but were marginalized, shot, or otherwise forced into submission [3]. 

Liberal democratic governments abandoned or, more accurately, ignored what was occurring in Spain so the conflict eventually evolved into a competition between rival totalitarian regimes with Stalin supporting the republic-with large strings attached-and Hitler and Mussolini supporting Franco and the insurgents. 


Those unfamiliar with the Spanish conflict fail to recognize that both sides in the conflict had international support. True, in the case of the Falange the numbers of international volunteers were small. However, they more than made up for their numbers with war materiel. African ground forces, Italian artillery and the German Luftwaffe supported the insurrection of Franco and the generals. German airplanes airlifted Moorish troops from the Canary Islands to Spain. These multinational forces were collectively known as the insurgents. The insurgents, then, were anti-democratic, indeed fascist, forces.

Transnational Islamists for Jihad

“Fallujah is the Guernica of the Arab World”–Tariq Ali 

Groups on the right and left divergently view the insurgents as reactionaries or an amorphous resistance of the multitude against the forces of empire [4]. It is regarding insurgents and terrorists in Iraq that one hears the most frequent comparisons to the Spanish Civil War. In the minds of some leftist intellectuals, the insurgents are the new International Brigades [5]. The volunteers flocking to Iraq to engage coalition forces are a driven by a transnational Islamist ideology, supported by the sub-rosa donations of Islamic charities and wealthy individuals, often entering through Syria’s porous borders. The international volunteers in Iraq are struggling against a fledgling democratic government. In this respect the insurgents in Iraq are playing a similar role to the insurgents in the Spanish Civil War. They are not supporting a democratically elected government, to the contrary, they desire to destroy it.

The insurgents of the 1930s and those of today bear other similarities as well. Driven by a paranoid totalitarian ideology with an even greater anti-Semitism than that of the Falange, the Jihadis are guided by a conspiratorial and teleological view of politics and history. The radical left, unaware or unwilling to address this, is supporting actions, individuals and organizations that are explicitly reactionary. The Islamic International Brigade or, more properly, brigades, operating in Iraq and elsewhere are so doing with the full knowledge and more than rhetorical support of foreign governments. Under the umbrella of the Armed Islamic Movement, also known as “the International Brigade/Legion of Islam” and variously referred to as the Islamic Peacekeeping Brigade (Chechnya), Hezbollah (Lebanon), and Hizb-ul Mujahideen (Kashmir), the logistical and material support for these reactionary forces comes from the Islamist government of Iran, the Baathists in Syria, Islamists from the feudal state of Saudi Arabia, and allies in the Pakistani intelligence services [6]. 

A Crucial Moment of Choice for the Free World

As in the Spanish case, liberal democracies much make a choice, and quickly. Do European countries and others who opposed the war on principle–and in the case of France and Russia out of material interest–join the coalition forces to prevent a fracturing of the country. Or are they going to sit on the sidelines and watch another authoritarian movement rise to power, just as they did with Spain in the 1930s? The Italian fascists used Spain as a testing ground for their ground troops, the Nazis for training the Luftwaffe, and both were subsequently used against the Allies in World War II. Today, in Iraq, Islamist totalitarians and other forces of the insurgency are hoping for a coalition defeat. They too are developing their tactics and learning new warfare methodologies. If the coalition forces are defeated, Iraq, like Iran, will be another base of global Islamist terrorism. This will be an unmitigated disaster and tragedy for Iraq, the region, and the free world.

 [1] While presented by anarchists as a non-violent counter example to Soviet collectivization–i.e. forced collectivization–some historical evidence proves otherwise. See Michael Seidman’s Republic of Egos: A Social History of the Spanish Civil War. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002. Antoni Castells Duran disagrees, finding the collectives “supported by most workers.” See”Revolutions and collectivizations in Civil War Barcelona, 1936-1939,” in Angel Smith, Red Barcelona: Social Protest and Labour Mobilization in the Twentieth Century. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

[2] Historian John Earl Haynes argues that this appellation was given to the volunteers not by the United States government, as they claim, but by themselves. See “The Myth of ‘Premature Antifascism’,” co-authored with Harvey Klehr, New Criterion 21, no. 1 (September 2002). 

3] George Orwell writes of his experiences on the Spanish front with the POUM, including being shot in the neck by Communists, in Homage to Catalonia. London: Secker and Warburg, 1938.

[4] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. Penguin Press, New York, 2004 is not novel in this respect. In regard to leftist support for Palestinian “insurgency,” more properly known as terrorism, see Mark Schneider’s, Live from Palestine: International and Palestinian Direct Action Against the Occupation. Boston: South End Press, 2003. An abridged version of Schneider’s argument may be found in, “International Direct Action: From the Spanish Revolution to the Palestinian Intifada.” Counterpunch, September 26, 2003.

[5] See “Tariq Ali on Iraqi Resistance,” Socialist Worker. March 17, 2005.

[6] House Republican Research Committee (Chairman: Bill McCollum, Florida), Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare. The New Islamist International. Congressional Reports on Intelligence and Security, 1993.

6 responses »

  1. Pingback: Does Anti-Imperialism Trump Anti-Authoritarianism? « The New Centrist

  2. Pingback: Another Oldie: ¿Viva la Insurgencía?: The Spanish Civil War and the Legacy of the Totalitarian International Brigades « The New Centrist

  3. Pingback: Poumerouma « Poumista

  4. Pingback: Jews versus Stalinists in the Spanish Civil War « Poumista

  5. Pingback: So-called left wing unity and the Spanish Civil War « Raincoat Optimism

  6. Pingback: So-called left wing unity and the Spanish Civil War « Though Cowards Flinch

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