A reply to Ken Loach on Land and Freedom

Post date: 07/01/2021

IBMT member Tom Sibley has sent in this response to Ken Loach’s exclusive article in ¡No Pasarán! 3-2020, which was a retrospective on his award-winning Spanish Civil War film 25 years on. 

Loach’s piece featured alongside a review of the film by the late John Dunlop, a British Battalion veteran, along with a commentary by IBMT Chair Jim Jump. ¡No Pasarán! 3-2020 is available to read online, along with previous issues, here.


It is good to see (‘Mixed verdicts on Loach’s masterpiece’, ¡No Pasarán! 3-2020) that Ken Loach has recently acknowledged that if he were to make Land and Freedom again he would condemn the failure of the major imperialist powers, particularly Britain and France, to supply the elected Republican government with the military hardware and diplomatic support necessary to defend the Spanish people against the fascist onslaught led by Franco, Hitler and Mussolini.

Unfortunately this welcome concession to the film’s critics, not least by many ex-Brigaders, does not deal with the scathing criticism of Scottish Brigader John Dunlop and of Bill Alexander, commander of the British Battalion at Teruel, in a review (Morning Star, 7 October 1995) in which Alexander points out that the film presents the International Brigaders as Stalin’s stooges.

Fortunately the opening of previously unavailable archives throws new light on this conflict. This challenges and counters most of the premises on which the film is based. For example, the leading Spanish historian Ángel Viñas has shown that the Moscow Archives conclusively prove that the Soviet Union had no intention of imposing a socialist system in Spain. Viñas also produces indisputable evidence that Barcelona’s anarchists had been stockpiling substantial quantities of arms, arms which should have gone to the anti-Franco front but were used to confront the Popular Front government and the communists. He also shows that the anti-Soviet POUM had been publicly campaigning to overthrow the Popular Front government in Catalonia since the beginning of 1937. And it was the anarchists who opened fire on government forces attempting to take back into public hands Barcelona’s telephone exchange in order that this important communication centre could be used to further the war efforts rather than as a means of promoting anarchist propaganda against the elected government.

In his article (‘Necessary lessons for the left from the Republic’s infighting’, ¡No Pasarán! 3-2020) Ken suggests that the suppression of the POUM was part of the communist campaign to stamp out Trotskyism. But it should be remembered that all sections of the Popular Front, including the anarchist leaders at national level, saw the anarchist-led and POUM-supported actions in May 1937 as an attack on the Popular Front government, which played into the hands of the fascist rebels. It was for these actions, which bordered on treachery, that the socialist-led Popular Front government, which included all sections of the left except the POUM, acted to protect the Republic.

Prime Minister Juan Negrín’s initiative in banning the POUM marked a key turning point in the war. Thenceforth the Republican Army was quickly transformed into an effective fighting force following a year of humiliating defeats. Now the army could concentrate all its resources, which incorporated the anarchist militia into a centralised and unified command structure. No longer did the People’s Army have to protect its back against insurrectionary forces behind its lines.

Land and Freedom projected Orwell’s pro-POUM political views, formed in 1938 but quietly dropped by him three years later. Both the film’s main scriptwriter and its research director came to the project with strong anti-communist views, which echoed Orwell’s views. We now need, as Jim Jump suggests, a film with a much wider focus than the narrow positions presented in Land and Freedom. The memory of the International Brigaders deserves nothing less.


Posted on 7 January 2020.

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