The International Brigades and Proletarian Internationalism

Raúl Martínez. Member of the PB of the PCTE.

Stay, since the trees, the plains, the minimum

Particles of light that revive a single feeling

That the sea is shaking thus want it: Brothers!

Madrid gets larger and lightened with your name

Rafael Alberti. To the International Brigades

On the Centenary of the Communist International

One century has elapsed since the establishment of the International, and eighty years since the last volunteers for liberty left our country while protecting the withdrawal of the hundreds of thousands of refugees towards the French border. The International Brigades appear before us as one of the most brilliant examples of proletarian internationalism History has ever witnessed.

Many brigadists were already in Spain, they had arrived to participate in the People's Olympiad, convened in Barcelona by the Red Sport International and the Socialist Workers' Sport International, and took up arms from the beginning to face the fascist coup d'état. Others arrived gradually. Most of them arrived to Spain since October 14, 1936 after being recruited by the Communist Parties, which fulfilled the agreement adopted by the Secretariat of the Executive Committee of the International on September 18-19, to form the International Brigades.

The difficulties to exactly measure the number of brigadists who participated in the National-Revolutionary War, their nationalities or the number of fallen volunteers in the struggle against fascism in Spain are many. In many of the brigadists' countries of origin, fascist forces had prevailed. In other cases, aided by the non-intervention policy, the bourgeois governments adopted measures to prevent the recruitment of volunteers. Underground conditions were imposed: war names, document falsification and so on.

Nevertheless there is no doubt on the important role played by the International Brigades in our National-Revolutionary War. A struggle which would soon afterwards continue on the World War II battlefields. Those were days when proletarian internationalism was embodied by tens of thousands of comrades from 52 countries who, armed with the learnings of Marxism-Leninism and under the leadership of the Communist International, became soldiers for a same world working class.

In this work, we will not approach the experience of the International Brigades from an exclusively historic point of view. We are convinced that what is essential for the International Communist Movement is to extract conclusions with a political-ideological nature, at the same time that we claim our heroic history against any manipulation and the decisive role of the Communist International in such a key moment for class struggle like the Spanish war, which was rightfully characterized as the first battle in the war of the peoples against Nazi-fascism.

The Communist Party of the Workers of Spain has undertaken the study of the History of the communist movement in our country and, in that study, the activity of the Communist International in Spain, which the International Brigades were a result of, plays a decisive role.

With these humble lines, the Central Committee of the PCTE pays a heartfelt tribute to the men and women of the International Brigades and all those who contributed in one way or another to the recruitment, to secure the routes of access, the underground apparatus of falsifications, the delivery of food, clothes, weapons and ammunitions... The volunteers for liberty keep on nurturing our ranks, keep on coming along with us in every struggle for the interests of the working class by calling us to move forward. To all of them, honor and glory. We will not allow their name to be erased from History.

A Living Example of Proletarian Internationalism

We begin our analysis by drawing from the premise that a severe exercise of counterfeit and propaganda was made up in the bourgeois historiography, which lasts until our days, on the role played by the Communist International and the Soviet Union in the National-Revolutionary War in Spain and, by extension, on the International Brigades themselves.

Apart from the Francoist and Nazi-fascist propaganda, addressed both to exaggerate the number of brigadists and their role in the main battles of the war and to hide the support received by the Francoist side even before the July 18, 1936 coup d'état until the end of war, several manifestations of anti-communism came up soon: from social-democratic propaganda, which tried to conceal the disastrous role of its international organizations involved in the criminal non-intervention policy, to Trotskyist propaganda which had unleashed its wrath against the Communist International and the Soviet Union.

Neither the historic counterfeit from ones nor the diversionism from others were able to tarnish a series of objective facts which our analysis draws from:

  • The experience of the International Brigades was possible thanks to the action of the Communist International, which displayed even before the outbreak of war a severe and multifaceted activity headed to prevent the fascist victory in Spain. The role of the International was indispensable and the organization and deployment of the International Brigades to Spain is owed to it.
  • The Soviet Union was the only country to decisively support the Spanish Republic in an exercise of proletarian internationalism unmatched in History, which came from the idea quite clearly expressed by I. V. Stalin: “The liberation of Spain from the fascist reactionary oppression is not a private affair of Spaniards, but the cause of all the advanced and progressive humanity”.

The above-mentioned does not hinder to self-critically analyze the mistakes made by the International and the Communist Party of Spain itself as well. It neither hinders the objective assessment of the USSR foreign policy in such a complex historic moment. But the truth is that the deployment of the International Brigades was preceded by a previous analysis of the Politbureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) which, in its plenary session on August 28, 1936, estimated to convey to the International the advisability of deploying an international force composed of volunteers to Spain. With this precedent, the Secretariat of the Executive Committee of the International agrees in its sessions on September 18-19, 1936 to form the International Brigades.

Therefore the works of recruitment and organization of the Brigades, where the sections of the International in each country play a decisive role, begin. It is an especially complex work that tests every communist party, as it is made in many cases under underground conditions or under the threat of the different bourgeois governments which embrace the Non-Intervention policy boosted by Great Britain and France with the participation of social-democracy. This heavy work promptly carried out by the sections of the International does not limit itself to recruitment. Quite a work of fund-raising, preparation of travel routes, organization of border-crossing apparatus, preparation of false documents and so on is required.

After this huge work, the main bulk of the International Brigades arrives to our country since October 14, 1936. In that moment, it has become an evidence that Spain was the victim of a large-scaled foreign armed intervention, that the war unleashed by fascism had reached an obvious international scale. As Enrique Líster pointed out then: “The presence of the “Volunteers for Liberty” in the battlefields in Spain said to all the Spanish fighters that they were not alone in the unequal fight; it said to all our people that the “International Brigades” represented a living example of fighting unity of the working class with the rest of democratic and patriotic forces of the world against the common enemy of all of them: fascism”.[1]

From the analysis of the existing sources and quite specially from the contributions made by different communist parties for the book the PCTE is preparing on the International Brigades and which will be published in the next months, two essential conclusions are extracted:

  • The main core of the International Brigades was made of workers from different countries, joined by peasants, employees and intellectuals.
  • Among them, a large majority were communist militants or supporters, joined by socialists, anarchists and anti-fascists with no political allegiance.

Thus the indispensable role of the International and its sections was proved in our land's battlefields. They knew how to overcome incredible difficulties, they met facts with words and they left us one of the most wonderful examples of proletarian internationalist practice ever known until today.

Although the first groups of volunteers – who had arrived to Barcelona to participate in the People's Olympiad – fought since the first days against the fascist uprising in Barcelona and in the Aragón, Irún and Madrid fronts, framed in the People's Militias, it will be on October 22, 1936 when the Government of the Republic officially agrees to the formation of the International Brigades, based in Albacete, and their formal inclusion in the People's Army, starting the organization of the different brigades and their military training.

The International Brigades had their baptism of fire in the harsh days of the defense of Madrid. On November 8, the 11th Brigade engaged in combat in the hard clashes in Casa de Campo and during the following days the 12th Brigade would do the same in the sector of Cerro de los Ángeles. Their appearance and engagement in combat in Resistance's Madrid meant a decisive moral revulsive for all the people's fighters. In War and Revolution in Spain 1936-39, this moment is described as it goes:

In the most dramatic moments of the fight, the streets of Madrid witnessed the passage of a tight, disciplined, well-equipped and well-armed column, in which men from all the ages and nationalities were lined up. They did not speak Spanish. They greeted with the already historic “No pasarán”. The echo of well- known revolutionary songs vibrated in the air: The International, The Young Guard, La Marseillaise.[2]

Since then and until their withdrawal in October 1938, there was no important battle where the International Brigades were not present. Following what was written by Enrique Líster[3], their composition and order of organization and engagement in combat of the seven International Brigades was the following one:

  • 11th Brigade: composed of the “Edgar André”, “Commune de Paris”, and “Dabrowski” Battalions. Formed by the end of October 1936 and engaged in combat for the first time that year on November 8.
  • 12th Brigade: composed of a French-Belgian and the “Garibaldi” and “Thälmann” Battalions apart from a 77 Battery. Formed in the first days of November 1936 and engaged in combat on November 13.[4]
  • 13th Brigade: composed of the “Chapaev”, “Mickiewicz”, and “Henri Guellemin” Battalions. Formed between December 1936 and January 1937 and engaged in combat after that last date.
  • 14th Brigade: composed of the “Henry Barbuse”, “Domingo Germinal”, a French-British, and the “Number 9” - composed by Spaniards – Battalions. Formed in the same period than the previous one.
  • 15th Brigade: composed of another French-Belgian, an English, a Spanish, and the “Lincoln” and “Dimitrov” Battalions. Formed in the same period than the two afore-mentioned.
  • 129th Brigade: composed of the “Dimitrov”, “Massaryk”, and “Djakiquiek” Battalions. Formed by the end of 1937.
  • 150th Brigade: made of three battalions. Formed between June and July 1937.
  • There was besides an international battalion in the 86th Spanish Brigade

The solidarity unleashed in all the corners of the world by the International and mainly the arrival of the International Brigades and the Soviet assistance meant quite an important help for the growth, development and authority the Communist Party of Spain.

Some Lessons for History

The Spanish National-Revolutionary War had a tremendous relevance in the development of the subsequent events. It was confirmed that, just as the Communist International analyzed, world capitalism moved towards a new overall inter-imperialist war, towards a new sharing of the world among the big capitalist powers.

Under these conditions, the huge task made by the International in organizing its national sections (Communist Parties) and in their bolshevization had a special significance in Spain. The PCE, born over a complex process carried out between 1920 and 1921, with the support of the Communist International and the cadres sent to Spain, was able to correct its deviations and acquire an increasing influence within the working class and the people, until it became, once the war had already started, the main political party of the Republic.

Nazi-fascism unleashed in Spain the first battle of World War II. 300.000 foreigners fought along with Francoists, who counted with the direct support of Germany, Italy and Portugal and the indirect support of the main capitalist powers that, under the excuse of Non Intervention, blocked the legitimate government of the Republic while lending a multifaceted support to Francoist rebels. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy turned the Spanish land into a test field where they perfected their weaponry and tried the military practices that they would use at a massive scale during World War II.

But, at the same time, its antagonist would be also forged in the worker's and people's side. Under the organization and leadership of the International, the Communist Parties acquired a large experience in the struggle against Nazi-fascism. Within the International Brigades and the People's Army, tens of thousands of men engaged in combat and acquired a precious political and military experience, paying a very high price for it. In the Spanish battlefronts, a fighting core with large military experience was forged. It would later reach an essential importance in the new struggles that were looming.

The Spanish people did not only face the direct intervention of the Nazi-fascist countries. All the imperialist powers of the time intervened to some extent with the Republican Spain. The United States assumed a stance of false neutrality. While they said to refrain from every interference, it refused every sourcing to the Republic and provided oil and other supplies to the putschists, including bombs used by the Francoist air forces. At the same time, it actively supported the Non-Intervention Policy hypocritically supported by Great Britain and France. In the neighbor country, the Government of socialist Blum, supported by the Popular Front, capitulated against the British imperialism. The monstrous Non-Intervention Agreement placed the legitimate Government of the Republic and the fascist putschists on the same level. While ones were sent massive international support, without which fascism could have never won, the bourgeois democracies blocked the Republic. As pointed out in War and Revolution in Spain, “When two bandits rob a passerby, one of them hits him straight ahead to knock him down (that was the role of Germany and Italy). The other one holds his arms from behind so he cannot fight back (this was the role of France, England and U.S.A.). But both bandits take action in the crime.

The Government of the Republic agreed to withdraw the International Brigades in October 1938, which meant a very hard blow against the fight morale of the ensemble of the People's Army. The working class and the best of the people had defended inch by inch our land and had fought side by side together with their international siblings in a death struggle against fascism.

On September 21, 1938, the Government of the Republic expressed before the Assembly of the League of Nations its decision to proceed to the withdrawal of all the foreign fighters recruited after the July 18 coup d'état. Thus it mistakenly pretended to evidence the foreign intervention of the fascist powers in front of the international community. Actually, the reactionary powers kept on intervening in Spain, even with more strength, until the end of the war and, at the same time, the Francoist forces counted with the increasingly open collaboration and increasingly explicit acknowledgement of the bourgeois democracies.

On October 16, the International Commission formed by the League of Nations arrived to Spain, aiming to verify the withdrawal of the International Brigades from the fronts, their regrouping in the withdrawal and the beginning of their exit out of Spain. According to the report presented by the International Commission to the Assembly of Geneva, published in La Vanguardia journal on January 18, 1939, the census of International Brigadists then was the following one: there were 9,843 in Catalonia and 2,830 in Center-South Spain, a total of 12,673 brigadists were still in Spain in the beginnings of 1939 out of the roughly 35,000 men and women who arrived to Spain since the beginning of war.

On November 2, 1938, they started to leave Spain across the French border with an uncertain destination, due to the underground conditions, prison sentences and other penalties that were waiting for them in their countries of origin. And again the apparatus of the International had to be set to try to secure the safety of those who had watered the lands of Spain with their blood. The example of the request filed by André Marty – the chief of the International Brigades – is enough: he addresses on behalf of the Communist International to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Mexico on January 6, 1939, requesting for the organization of the conditions to host 1.600 German, Polish, Italian, Austrian, Czech and Jugoslav fighters as well as from other countries where the advance of fascism made their return impossible. Our people has a high debt with the Mexican working class and its Communist Party, which was able not only to force the Mexican Government to adopt a position of support to the Spanish Republic and send some assistance, but it sent its own brigadists and squandered solidarity first by hosting the international fighters and later by lending all kind of assistance to the Republican exile. It is fair to acknowledge the heroic effort of all the communist parties that, by answering to the call of the International, plunged into the struggle in solidarity with our people even if they were living under terrible repressive conditions in their own countries, where they were struggling fully underground.

The withdrawal of the International Brigades did not achieve the goals pursued by the Government of the Republic, then led by socialist Juan Negrín, as it was predictable just by seeing the experience collected in the international arena for more than two years of struggle. On the contrary, in the last moments of the Battle of the Ebro, the withdrawal of the Brigades meant a mortal blow to the fight morale of the troops within the People's Army and the working people, who somehow sensed that this decision drew up the end of war and the fascist victory.

Even if the bulk of the internationalist forces was brought back in the above-mentioned dates, not all of them managed to reach the grouping zones and cross the Spanish border before the last fascist offensive. Many of them stayed as prisoners in concentration camps and Francoist prisons. Others, due to the split of the Republican zone, were killed or made prisoners. Many protected the withdrawal of the already diminished troops of the People's Army and defended hundreds of thousands of refugees who crossed the Pyrenees after the fall of Catalonia. Most of these last men shared the luck of the Spanish fighters and of those who went on exile through the French border, who ended up in the concentration camps in Gurs, Argelès-sur-Mer, Saint-Cyprien and Barcarès, Septfonds, Rivesaltes or Vernet d'Ariège.

Nazi-fascism prevailed in the Spanish land. But the heroic struggle of the International Brigades was not in vain, and the experience acquired would have significance in the World War II battlefields:

  • The Republican Spain, with the main support of the Soviet Union and the action of the Communist International, prevented with almost three years of resistance the decisive addition of fascist Spain to the Nazi-fascist axis in World War II – after the end of conventional war the guerrilla struggle started – and allowed the Soviet Union to get ready for the imperialist war which was coming up, in which the Soviet people and the Red Army were the decisive factor in the Great Anti-Fascist Victory of the Peoples.
  • In the Spanish National-Revolutionary War, a large number of fighters was forged in weapon handling and got used to the war techniques the Nazi-fascist axis would put into practice during World War II. Those brigadists, along with the exiled Spanish fighters, would fight in the front line at all the fronts of the anti-fascist war, playing a key role in all the countries where the resistance took action. Many of them also fought from inside the Nazi concentration camps. Others would play an important role in the organization of people's armies in those countries where the working class seized power after the end of war.

The conclusions shown have a major importance when facing the slanders spread on the role of the International, the Brigades and the USSR in the Spanish National-Revolutionary War.

Under a Single Banner

As we have pointed out, the experience of the International Brigades was one of the most beautiful and rich examples of proletarian internationalism. The support received by the Spanish working class and the people, an outcome mainly from the action of the Communist International and the Soviet Union, became an important force in World War II battlefields and also in the strengthening of the anti-fascist struggle in those countries where the confrontation did not reach an international nature. Likewise, the Spanish exile, which thousands of communist militants belonged to, contributed to the development of the communist parties in the hosting countries. The Marxist principle on the fact that the revolution is national in its form, but not in its content, was confirmed by practice. Struggles were waged under the conscience of belonging to a same international working class.

The Communist International, whose experience we pay tribute to in its centenary, played a key role in the anti-fascist struggle clearly appreciated in the Spanish case:

  • The International was decisive in the creation, development and bolshevization of the Communist Party of Spain, the main force in the anti-fascist struggle. Some cadres from the International worked on-site, acted as organizers and leaders, helped to correctly analyze the situation and to overcome the mistakes made. Many of the communist cadres who played a notable role in both the political and military struggles were trained in the International School, in Moscow. The International therefore became a first-class organizing center.
  • The International was an indispensable leading center in the action of its international sections. Most of the communist parties were formed, grew up and matured thanks to the existence of a leading center able to foresee the main developments of class struggle at an international level and in each country, thus preparing and mobilizing working-class forces, pinpointing positions, opening the path towards the defeat of Nazi-fascism and the consolidation of workers' power in the Soviet Union and the rest of socialist countries.

The legacy of the Communist International acquires a huge importance nowadays, when the inter-imperialist contradictions are getting larger and the risk of an overall war is increasingly more present. For the PCTE, a decisive importance is given to the study of the experience of the International, the collective analysis of its different Congresses, its inner discussions, the thesis that were checked in practice and those that were not.

That theoretical effort turns out to be decisive in the overcome of the crisis the International Communist Movement is still going through. It has become an urgency to be able to extract conclusions from our history through a scientific discussion that, together with the learnings of the current practice, will allow us to define, slowly but surely, the united strategy the working class needs.

Workers of the world, unite!

[1] Enrique Líster. Our War. Memories of a Fighter. Ediciones Silente, 2007. Pages 319-320.

[2] War and Revolution in Spain 1936-39. Volume II, page 168. Work made by a Commission of the CC of the PCE presided by Dolores Ibárruri.

[3] Enrique Líster. Our War. Memories of a Fighter. Ediciones Silente, 2007. Page 314.

[4] Other sources point out that the 12th Brigade entered into combat on November 9, 1936.