REPORTER IN SPAIN by Frank Pitcairn (Claud Cockburn). A Stalinist reporter’s account of the SCW. eBook £1.50/€2.00 (see eBookshelf)


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In 1936, Harry Pollitt, the then General Secretary of the Communist Party, asked CPGB member CLAUD COCKBURN (1904-1981) to cover the Spanish Civil War for the Daily Worker. In Spain, under the assumed name of Frank Pitcairn and endorsed by the CPGB, he joined the Quinto Regimiento/Fifth Regiment (formed by the Communist-led Antifascist Worker and Peasant Militias — Milicias Antifascistas Obreras y Campesinas — commanded by Enrique Castro Delgado) to report on the war as an ordinary soldier. The result, Reporter in Spain, was published in October 1936 by the Communist Party of Great Britain’s then preferred commercial publishing house, Lawrence & Wishart. In Homage to Catalonia (April 1938) George Orwell attacked Cockburn’s Daily Worker reports from Spain, accusing him of serving the ideological and geopolitical interests of the Soviet Union — particularly with regard to his partisan account of the Barcelona May Days of 1937, views that were reflected in his Soviet sponsored newsletter, ‘The Week’ (1933-1941).

Claud Cockburn, The Daily Worker (11th May, 1937):

by Eric Hands, modern bromide print from an original negative, mid 1970s
Claude Cockburn by Eric Hands (mid 1970s)

“Thousands of loudspeakers, set up in every public place in the towns and villages of Republican Spain, in the trenches all along the battlefront of the Republic, brought the message of the Communist Party at this fateful hour, straight to the soldiers and the struggling people of this hard-pressed hard-fighting Republic.

“The speakers were Valdes, former Councillor of Public Works in the Catalan government, Uribe, Minister of Agriculture in the government of Spain, Diaz, Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain, Pasionaria, and Hernández, Minister of Education.

“Then, as now, in the forefront of everything stand the Fascist menace to Bilbao and Catalonia.

“There is a specially dangerous feature about the situation in Catalonia. We know now that the German and Italian agents, who poured into Barcelona ostensibly in order to “prepare” the notorious ‘Congress of the Fourth International’, had one big task. It was this:

“They were — in co-operation with the local Trotskyists — to prepare a situation of disorder and bloodshed, in which it would be possible for the Germans and Italians to declare that they were “unable to exercise naval control on the Catalan coasts effectively” because of “the disorder prevailing in Barcelona”, and were, therefore, “unable to do otherwise” than land forces in Barcelona.

“In other words, what was being prepared was a situation in which the Italian and German governments could land troops or marines quite openly on the Catalan coasts, declaring that they were doing so “in order to preserve order”.

“That was the aim. Probably that is still the aim. The instrument for all this lay ready to hand for the Germans and Italians in the shape of the Trotskyist organisation known as the POUM.

“The POUM, acting in cooperation with well-known criminal elements, and with certain other deluded persons in the anarchist organisations, planned, organised and led the attack in the rearguard, accurately timed to coincide with the attack on the front at Bilbao.

“In the past, the leaders of the POUM have frequently sought to deny their complicity as agents of a Fascist cause against the People’s Front. This time they are convicted out of their own mouths as clearly as their allies, operating in the Soviet Union, who confessed to the crimes of espionage, sabotage, and attempted murder against the government of the Soviet Union.

“Copies of La Batalla, issued on and after 2 May, and the leaflets issued by the POUM before and during the killings in Barcelona, set down the position in cold print.

“In the plainest terms the POUM declares it is the enemy of the People’s Government. In the plainest terms it calls upon its followers to turn their arms in the same direction as the Fascists, namely, against the government of the People’s Front and the anti-fascist fighters.

“900 dead and 2,500 wounded is the figure officially given by Diaz as the total in terms of human slaughter of the POUM attack in Barcelona.

“It was not, by any means, Diaz pointed out, the first of such attacks. Why was it, for instance, that at the moment of the big Italian drive at Guadalajara, the Trotskyists and their deluded anarchist friends attempted a similar rising in another district? Why was it that the same thing happened two months before at the time of the heavy Fascist attack at Jarama, when, while Spaniards and Englishmen, and honest anti-fascists of every nation in Europe, were being killed holding Arganda Bridge the Trotskyist swine suddenly produced their arms 200 kilometres from the front, and attacked in the rear?”

 Claud Cockburn, The Daily Worker (17th May, 1937)

“Tomorrow the antifascist forces of the Republic will start rounding up all those scores of concealed weapons which ought to be at the front and are not.

“The decree ordering this action affects the whole of the Republic. It is, however, in Catalonia that its effects are likely to be the most interesting and important.

“With it, the struggle to “put Catalonia on a war footing”, which has been going on for months and was resisted with open violence by the POUM and its friends in the first week of May, enters a new phase.

“This weekend may well be a turning-point. If the decree is successfully carried out it means:

“First: That the groups led by the POUM who rose against the government last week will lose their main source of strength, namely, their arms.

“Second: That, as a result of this, their ability to hamper by terrorism the efforts of the antifascist workers to get the war factories on to a satisfactory basis will be sharply reduced.

“Third: That the arms at present hidden will be available for use on the front, where they are badly needed.

“Fourth: That in future those who steal arms from the front or steal arms in transit to the front will be liable to immediate arrest and trial as ally of the fascist enemy.

“Included in the weapons which have to be turned in are rifles, carbines, machine-guns, machine-pistols, trench mortars, field guns, armoured cars, hand-grenades, and all other sorts of bombs.

“The list gives you an idea of the sort of armaments accumulated by the Fascist conspirators and brought into the open for the first time last week.”

Comintern agents Vittorio Vidali (aka ‘Carlos Contreras’), left, and Claud Cockburn (aka ‘Frank Pitcairn’), right).

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)

“A tremendous dust was kicked up in the foreign antifascist press, but, as usual only one side of the case has had anything like a hearing. As a result the Barcelona fighting has been represented as an insurrection by disloyal Anarchists and Trotskyists who were “stabbing the Spanish Government in the back” and so forth. The issue was not quite so simple as that. Undoubtedly when you are at war with a deadly enemy it is better not to begin fighting among yourselves – but it is worth remembering that it takes two to make a quarrel and that people do not begin building barricades unless they have received samething that they regard as a provocation.

“In the Communist and pro-Communist press the entire blame for the Barcelona fighting was laid upon the P.O.U.M. The affair was represented not as a spontaneous outbreak, but as a deliberate, planned insurrection against the Government, engineered solely by the P.O.U.M. with the aid of a few misguided ‘uncontrollables’. More than this, it was definitely a Fascist plot, carried out under Fascist orders with the idea of starting civil war in the rear and thus paralysing the Government. The P.O.U.M. was ‘Franco’s Fifth Column’ — a ‘Trotskyist’ organization working in league with the Fascists.”


Ralph Bates

RALPH BATES (1899- 2000): railway worker, army officer, CPGB member from 1923 when he emigrated to live in Spain; his first novel, ‘Lean Men’, was published in 1934 and his best known work, ‘The Olive Field’, in 1937. As a Spanish army officer and Comintern agent he played an important part in founding the International Brigades, in which he served as a political commissar; he also launched its newspaper ‘The Volunteer for Liberty’. Albert Meltzer reviewed Lean Men in The Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review (2, 1977) as an example of how ‘the case against anarchism’ is manufactured.

LEAN MEN by Ralph Bates was written in July 1934 and is now long out of print (it was a two-volume Penguin in 1938 and is now quite rare). The book deals with workers in Barcelona in the last days of the monarchy. Inevitably, it deals largely with “the fierce internicine struggle between the workers adhering to the CNT, the revolutionary syndicalist movement in which the dominating philosophy was Anarchism, and the minority belonging to the UGT, the constitutional socialist organisation of trade-unions whose principal strength was in Madrid and the Biscayan provinces.

“The UGT was “forever pleading for co-operation with the employers…and had even entered the Council of State set up by the dictatorship” The CNT though was “ceaselessly and with magnificent spirit battling against their employers” That is the setting of the book. But there is one snag. The hero, yes, hero! of the book is a Comintern agent , sent to intervene in the struggle, create a Communist Party out of nothing, and to destroy the main workers organisation. The author, Ralph Bates, glamourises and clearly identifies with the (English) hero — there are some parallels with his life.

“In this well-written, but deceitful book there are to be found most of the lies that were levelled against the CNT up to this day, interspersed with some historic facts little known here then, or now. The patience and level-headedness of the fictional Comintern agent makes sad reading when one recalls George Orwell’s account of how these same agents came to fruition in this same setting.

“The main argument used by Mr. Charing (the Comintern agent) and clearly underlined by Ralph Bates, is the pacifist one also used by the social democrats and apparently by the Stalinists too when it suited their purpose. The anarchists are responsible for the fights between police and workers (as if the Spanish police ever needed an excuse, for repression), and the “guilt rests upon the consciences of those evil teachers who deluded the workers with impossible doctrines” They “fastened their hold” upon the syndicates (which the CP would never do!) “and drew the pistol in the struggle…if we strike back against the State we demean ourselves, we become anarchists.. we give excuse for fresh opposition…” (Difficult to see, then, how they differed from the UGT. But it barely existed in Barcelona).

“This theme, that the anarchists are violent men and provoke oppression by the police, is reiterated; and, though the socialists are condemned for their collaboration, it is emphasised that the militancy of the anarchists is harmful to the best interests of the workers. The Moscow cell tries to control and to smash the unions: “an attack was projected in an editorial appointment on Solidarid Obrera, the anarcho-syndicalist daily, shortly to emerge from compulsory retirement. It really appeared as if the tempo of the movement was getting too fast, it might even have to be retarded a little” (plus ca change..!) “It was good Bolshevism never to let enthusiasm outrun practical necessity. Everything should be held back until it was vitally necessary or perfectly opportune”

“How did anarchism”this sad business” begin? Here we have the Comintern agent’s explanation:

— The workers, desperate in their misery, accepted the first doctrine of revolt that came their way, seizing upon it, believing it, thinking it, dreaming it, in sorrow and anguish, pining for a nobler order of society. That doctrine was anarchism. `Let us destroy all law for it is weighted against us. Let us raze the State to the ground for it is the servant of kings and priests and capitalists. Let us acknowledge no man master, no bonds, no moralities, for no man is good enough to be master, nor do the workers need bonds.’ This was the dream.

The dream had to be destroyed for clearly this could not apply to the law and order of the omnipotent State with its new masters, its new bonds and moralities — that was the aim that kept the Comintern man going! Ralph Bates portrays him as an idealist and an altruist. Then read Homage to Catalonia or Victor Serge and see him in reality!” — Albert Meltzer, CPAR 2, 1977