The 1930’s

(Ralph) Bates was one of the most gifted, interesting, and politically influential Englishmen in Spain during the early part of the Civil war.

                                                                                                                                                        James K. Hopkins {1}


On Saturday, 31st May, 1930, Ralph Bates attended a Colonial Conference of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which was held at the Bricklayers Hall, Blackfriars Road, London, SE.  Also at the meeting were members of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, who followed Ralph to an address at 29, York Street, London, W1. {2}

In a subsequent report to the Security Service, dated 10.6.30, the police said that Ralph, an unemployed engineer, occupied one room on the top floor of the address. His wife, Winifred, was also living there. The report also says that Ralph was from Swindon, “where he is believed to have taken a leading part in the activities of the Communist Party of that area”. It adds that he was fluent in French, Spanish and Italian and that he receives “a good deal” of foreign correspondence at his address. There is also mention of the fact that Ralph and Winifred were planning to move to Spain in the near future.

Ralph did leave England, arriving in Dieppe on 10.7.30, and returned, again via Dieppe, on 16.8.30.

A follow-up Special Branch report, dated 12.9.30, stated that Ralph and Winifred had moved to 29, Harcourt Street, London, W1, where they rented an unfurnished room. Ralph was still unemployed, but Winifred had, by then, obtained a teaching job. They were still receiving a considerable amount of foreign mail, much of it apparently coming from Russia. And we are told that Ralph addressed two communist meetings at Rifle Place, Notting Hill, on the 2nd and the 29th of June, 1930.

The Special Branch continued to keep tabs on Ralph and Winifred and, on 12th march, 1931, reported that Ralph had left England for Spain in November, 1930, and Ralph’s passport does include an entry stamp for the Spanish port of Barcelona which is dated 19.2.31. Winifred continued to live at the Harcourt Street address, but was expected to leave for Spain as soon as Ralph had found somewhere to live.

In May, 1932, the Security Service believed that Ralph had returned to England and was living at 23, Crescent Grove, London, SW. (His passport stamp shows that he left Dieppe on 29.9.31). Special Branch were again asked to look into the matter and, in June, reported that Ralph had returned from Spain and was writing a book on his Spanish experiences. He was living, they said, at 15, Durham Road, East Finchley, London, N2. Another report, this time dated 7.11.32, states that Ralph left the Finchley address and had moved to “Sabadell”, Beaulieu Close, Colindale, Middlesex. (Sabadell is also the name of a town a few miles to the north of Barcelona where Ralph is believed to have once lived.) He was, apparently, spending most of his time at home, although another passport stamp shows that he had again been to France (or Spain) and had returned to England from Dieppe on 28.12. 32. Ralph had also become interested in an organisation known as The National Unemployed Worker’s Movement (NUWM) and had attended some of their meetings. “There is little doubt”, said Special Branch, “that (Ralph Bates) is active in a quiet way in the inner council of the movement in Hendon”. The Special Branch report fails to explain that the NUWM had been founded in 1921 by members of the CPGB, who organised a number of protests on behalf of the unemployed. In October, 1932 the NUWM members organised a “National Hunger March” in London, which resulted in clashes with the police. At least seventy-five marchers were badly injured and there was a public outcry against police brutality. This later led to the foundation of the National Council for Civil Liberties.
 
At some time in the early 1930’s Ralph Bates was living in Tossa de Mar, to the north of Barcelona. “My memory idealizes Tossa de Mar because it was the most beautiful village in all Spain and because I wrote a novel there, and lived like a lord on a dollar a day, wine included.”{3} According to Ralph:
 
 Some nights I used to hang a hurricane lamp over the roof balustrade of the Canal’s  house in the fourteenth century half of Tossa de Mar; and seeing the light, André  Masson, fat Pappa Zugel, and the other painters sitting beneath the plane trees of  the beach café, would come barging into our fourteenth century kitchen and help me  haul a small barrel of wine up to my flat roof. There we would sit, under a sky  rocketed full of quicksilver, overlooking the Mediterranean, the new-moon bay, the  dragon-backed island and the baroque half of our village that lay beyond the Gothic  walls. And there, on my roof, on parlait peinture as one emptied the barrel or one  recounted the fishermen’s scandal, or some new exploit of the village priest,  nicknamed the Organ Boy, as merry a little thief as ever stole tubes of paint for his  astounding seascapes. {4}

Ralph Bates continued to travel to the Continent in 1934. He arrived at Dieppe on 27.7.34 and returned from there on 26.8.34. In November, 1934 Ralph and Winifred moved into 16, Handel Mansions, Handel Street, London, WC1, having
previously been living at 118, Belgrave Road, London, SW1. Also living at 16, Handel Mansions was Rosaleen Stella Smyth (b. 12.5.1909), who was then working as a shorthand typist for Monsanto Chemicals Ltd., of Victoria, London, SW1. This is the same “Rosaleen” who is mentioned in the dedication “To Winifred and Rosaleen” that Ralph included in his first book, Sierra, which was published in August, 1933. The Special Branch believed that Ralph and Winifred had known Rosaleen for a number of years and that he had recruited her into the Communist Party.
 
In 1934 Ralph's first full-length novel, Lean Men, was published. The title may have been influenced by these two lines from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:
 
    Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
    He thinks too much.: such men are dangerous.

In January, 1935, the Security Service discovered that Ralph had been invited to join a CPGB delegation to Bulgaria. Ralph agreed to join the delegation and obtained a new passport, number 74582, sometime in the same month. On 5.2.35 Ralph did obtain visas for Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, but there is nothing in the passport to suggest that he ever visited these countries. We do, however, know that in April, 1935, Ralph signed a circular against celebrating that years King’s Jubilee. According to part of the circular, “It is the opinion of those who sign this paper that the events of this period have been of a character which forbids rejoicing”.

On 3.4.35 Ralph again arrived at Dieppe and travelled on to Barcelona, arriving there on 4.4.35. He left Spain on 17.4.35, but was back in Dieppe on 5.9.35. He returned to England from Dieppe on 26.12.35, but returned to Dieppe four days later, on 30.12.35.

On 24.1.36, the Security Service intercepted a memo from the CPGB to an address in Moscow. The memo concerned a CPGB sponsored “Delegation of Enquiry” to Brazil and was to comprise Viscountess Hastings, Lady Muriel (or Marion) Campbell and Ralph Bates (“who speaks Spanish and has been in Brazil before”). The group’s secretary was to be “reliable Party member Freeman”. It was intended that the delegation was to produce a book about working conditions of the poor in that country. I have seen nothing to suggest that Ralph Bates had previously visited Brazil and, in fact, he pulled out from the delegation at the last minute, stating that the trip would prevent him from fulfilling a publishing contract. At last one Security Service memo suggests that the publisher Victor Gollancz had put pressure on Ralph to leave the proposed delegation so that the “reliable party member” Freeman could take his place.

Ralph Bates was in London during the period June 19th – 23rd 1936, when he attended a meeting of the International Association of Writers for the Defence of Culture, held at Friends House. Three days later, on 26.6.36, Ralph spoke at a Maxim Gorki Memorial meeting organised by the Friends of the Soviet Union at Conway Hall, London. According to Special Branch, “Bates…spoke and reviewed Gorki’s work from a purely literary point of view”.


Ralph’s best-known novel, The Olive Field, had been published in London in March, 1936. He had already published a collection of short stories, Sierra, the novel Lean Men and a biography of the composer Franz Schubert. Ralph’s fame was beginning to spread and he was soon mixing with other authors.

I shall not forget how, one morning in June of 1936, a group of us sat together discussing the role of the artist in the crisis that was then oppressing Europe and was soon to burst into violence in Spain. It was a strange gathering. André Malraux sat upon Mrs (Virginia) Woolf’s left; Ralph Fox, soon to be killed in Spain, was upon my right. Ernst Toller was there, himself to meet Virginia Woolf’s own terrible end. In one way or another almost all of that gathering were to be borne away, not by the glacier of life (her own image) but by its lava flood. For most of the time (Virginia) sat silent, yet watching her one could see that, unprotected by, the carapace of dogmatism which many of us possessed, she was listening with profound anxiety to every word and recounted experience out of that Europe from which England still seemed removed. And when she spoke one could no longer feel that England was in different case. More than most writers she knew the spiritual predicament of England, which was soon to be visited by catastrophe. To a spirit so sensitive, that catastrophe must have seemed finally to answer the question which she had put into the mind of Septimus in “Mrs. Dalloway”

“It might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.” {5}

Ralph returned to Spain after the Maxim Gorki meeting and was there when General Franco arrived on 17th July, 1936, starting what was to become the Spanish Civil War. Ralph and Winifred offered their services to the Republican Government and, prior to joining the International Brigade, Ralph held the effective rank of a subcabinet officer in the Spanish government. {6} Ralph was, “A whirlwind of energy, florid in complexion, and with a neat shock of blond hair and a carefully maintained mustache, he possessed an evangelical temperament and a natural fluency of expression that made him a powerful advocate for the Republic in virtually any milieu.” {7} It also helped that Ralph was, by then, capable of speaking in several Iberian languages with idiomatic fluency.

At one point, Ralph explained how the events in mid-1936 had brought about what he called “a miracle”.

 The Doubting Thomases of politics demand a miracle. I have witnessed a miracle,  and, greatest good fortune that ever befell a man, have taken part in it. I have seen  order and precision emerge from chaos, an army crystallize out of a heroic rabble.  And this is the only thing that matters, it is the theme at which all of us who have  lived through this war arrive by irresistible gravitation. Malraux told me in Madrid  during the Writer’s Congress in July that his new novel had just this theme. {8}
 
At one point Ralph Bates worked as a guide, helping volunteers cross the Pyrenees into Spain. William Rust gives this account of a crossing, written by an unnamed volunteer, in his book Britons in Spain (2007):
 
We were a group of workers, intellectuals, mechanics, etc., riding into the gloom of the night. Then the time came for us to start walking. Further onm our trip we came across an irrigation ditch seven feet wide. In the darkness we jumped across it. I took a running leap into the dark, and landed with both my shins against the rocky bank. Luckily two comrades grabbed my arms and prevented me from falling into the stream. No lights or cigarettes were to be used, so as not to attrract attention. We travelled up a steep mountain and for every hour we climbed we rested a few minutes, but the pace was rapid as we had to cross the border before daybreak. To delay meant defeat and arrest. Tired and panting we struggled upward. The strain proved too much for one of our group who collapsed. Some pof the stronger fellows took turns carrying him through the winding mountain paths. We thought that he would recuperate in time for the most didfficult part of the climb. He did not. When we got to a point where it was impossible and fool-hardy to attempt to scale the mountain with a sick man, without ropes, lights or anything, we flound a place where he could rest and remain concealed until he completely recovered. The night grew cold, and the peak did not seem any closer. Slipping, cursing, bruised and footsore, we continued. Blackness! A strong wind had begun to blow. Thousands of feet above sea-level we followed the guide, walking through deep snow drifts. It was more than physical stamina that carried us on, it was the determination to defend to the utmost the democratic People's Government of Spain.
We had walked for hours, when suddenly the peak loomed before us. The wind had reached the proportion of a gale, and the clothes were almost torn from our bodies. At one time the wind had grown so strong that we had to hug the ground for fifteen minutes until it had abated, and our guide considered it safe enough to continue. We tramped across the peak, and about one kilometre away was another smaller peak which we were to cross before getting into Spain. With renewed hope and vigour, we struggled on to our destination. We arrived a daybreak. Everything seemed beautiful! We could see for many kilometres ahead the land that lay before us. The sun rose slowly. We approached a hugh white house from which the Catalonian border patrol rushed out to meet us. Walking to the house, we sang the 'International' with one mighty voice. The sun rose in all its glory.

 
I mentioned in the Biography that when Ralph returned to England, on the 29th September, 1936, he was stopped by Special Branch at the port of Newhaven at the behest of the Security Service. {9} The short report, prepared by one Police Constable Copping, could not have been that useful to the Security Service. Mention is made of a manuscript for the book Rainbow Fish (published in 1937) that Ralph was carrying, and also of a French language book in Ralph’s possession. This was a copy of Le Rouge et le Noir. Perhaps PC Copping, seeing the word rouge and knowing that it meant red, thought that this was a tract on communism, rather than a copy of Stendhal’s 1830 classic novel!  At least the Newhaven police were on the ball on 12.10.36 when they noted Ralph’s departure to Dieppe.

Four months later, on 20.2.37, the Security Service noted that the photographs for a “Spanish  exhibition” held at 36, Ludgate Hill, London, EC4, had been taken by Ralph Bates, “assisted by a Spaniard named Sert”. It could well be that the unidentified Sert was, in fact, Josep Lluís Sert (1902 – 1983), a Catalan architect who left Spain for the USA, following the end of the Spanish Civil War. He is remembered for building the Spanish pavilion for the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris, the building in which Pablo Picasso’s monumental painting Guernica, based on the carnage brought about by the Nationalist bombing of the Basque town of that name, was first exhibited.

On 11.4.37 Ralph Bates left Croydon Airport en route for Paris. His passport indicated that he had been in Barcelona on 8.12.36, two months after he had left Newhaven on 12.10.36. We know that Ralph was back in Spain on 14th May, 1937, because he delivered a lecture, titled “Disorders in Catalonia”, to some International Brigade troops on that day. One person who attended the lecture was Ralph Cantor, a young volunteer from Manchester who was later to die on the Jarama front aged only 21 years. Cantor kept a diary whist in Spain and he recorded that Ralph had explained that the “disorder” had been engineered by the “P.O.U.M., Trotskyists and spies”. A week later Ralph Bates again addressed the troops, saying that the Republican Government had the situation in control. Cantor was, however, sceptical. “It is clear that, despite bates(‘) denials, that the Government problem (in Calalonia) is still unsettled.” Nevertheless, Cantor added that it was a “very able speech.” {10}

Spies were a very real threat during the Spanish Civil War. Ralph Bates mentions one such person that he “knew on the Aragon front”.

 This man would stroll up to the villages of the front, drink heavily for a day or two,  then spend entire days lolling sleepily against cars of the Divisional HQ or the door  posts of the Popular Front committee rooms, a cigarette burning in his slack mouth,  blood-shot eyes screwed up against the smoke. Out of a half stupor he would ask  questions fidgeting and disturbing to one who knew, but sottishly incomprehensible  to others. He would sneer almost openly at an evasive reply as if hinting that he knew  the truth, and then turn away to fumble for the bottle of anis, of which he stank.  Question to the reader, would you have arrested him? Remember that in those days  the word “spy” was a terrible one, sufficient to destroy a man against whom it was  breathed. Well, I did not arrest him. But he was caught with a plan and contents list  of our ammunition dumps in his possession. The list was lying on the café table  before him and had been handled by two other unsuspecting drinkers during the hour  preceding his arrest. {11}
 
On 27th September, 1937, Ralph Bates arrived in the USA. I have recently obtained a press photograph taken on his arrival. He is wearing full military uniform. The following typed, and unattributed, note is attached to the back of the photograph:
 
Arrives on furlough from Spanish war Ralph Bates, English subject, and heroic Assistant Brigadier Adjutant Commissar in the International Brigade of the Spanish Loyalist Government forces. He arrived in New York, on extended furlough from the front, to write a novel on the war. He arrived in New York September 27th, on the Queen Mary, with two grips and a powerful story to tell of the war. Bates praised an American attached to the Lincoln Battalion, Stephen Nelson, of Pennsylvania, a former coal miner, who, according to Bates, has never conceded defeat, and who was to a great extent responsible for the stand off battle waged by the Loyalists on Valencia Rd., Villa Nueva.
 
Stephen Nelson (1903 - 1993), born Stjepan Mesaros in Croatia, became a Political Commissar of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He was later a leading member of the Communist Party of the USA. It is believed that, during the Second World War, he helped pass information about the Atomic Bomb to the Russians. In the 1950's nhe was convicted of "conspiring to overthrow the State and Federal Government of the USA" and sentenced to a lengthy period in jail. However, at a second trial the Government withdrew all of the charges and Nelson was released. I am not too certain if Ralph Bates's rank of "Assistant Brigadier Adjutant Commissar " is technically correct.

On 4th March, 1938, an American journalist, D. M. Miller, produced a broadcast about the Spanish Civil War for American Public Service radio. Miller had interviewed Ralph Bates for the program and said that, “What was startling upon meeting Bates was that his manner of speech and gestures are all the more suitable for the British countryside, than the Catalonian coast, or the central plain of Castile. Miller also added that, “Bates did not feel it necessary to emphasize or exaggerate his working-class background. He looked and spoke like an intelligent and cultured man, which, indeed, he was.” {12} It is, perhaps, of interest to note that several American volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade commented that Ralph sounded “British upper class” when in conversation.
 
According to one source, Ralph Bates was attatched to the 15th Battalion of the International Brigade on 12.04.1938 (rifle number 104544).

In 1938 an article appeared in the American magazine Workers Age (16.4.38 issue) stating that two people in Spain were planning to assassinate Leon Trotsky, who was then resident in Mexico. The article said that other “agents” had already travelled to Mexico. The tone of the article was very sympathetic to Trotsky and very anti “Stalin’s skulking gunmen”. The article also mentions Ralph Bates, “a well-known Stalinist spokesman”, who had come to Mexico from Spain, “where he fought the Spanish Civil War from a comfortable hotel room in Barcelona”. It is not, however, clear if Ralph is suspected of being one of Trotsky’s would-be assassins. {13}
 
In the Biography I mentioned some comments made by the poet Stephen Spender about Ralph Bates. According to Spender, Ralph had said that he had, "sent politically unreliable men into a section of the fighting in which (they were) certain to be killed". These comments have led to a short, but fascinating, debate on the subject by Professors H. Gustav Klaus and John Sutherland, which was published in the form of two letters in the Times Literary Supplement (14.2.2008 & 28.2.2008). It is also, I believe, worthwhile considering what Professor James K. Hopkins has had to say on this matter. "After four hours of conversation (with Ralph Bates), I repeated Spender's remark. He answered that having discussed the (Spanish Civil) war and his role in it with me at length, as well as the values that led to his active and significant participation in the war, he would leave me to make my own decision about the accuracy of Spender's comment. For what it is worth, the man I talked to could not have been the paradox - personally attractive, gifted, yet, morally execrable - that Spender believed him to be. As any reader of Bates's books would conclude, his politics were, if anything, extremely sympathetic to the anarchists of Catalonia, although he deplored their indisicipline. There is no question, however, concerning his intimate association with communists and his condemnation of the POUM, even though he energetically denies ever having joined the Communist party. In fact, according to Bates, the  (communist) Manifesto was the only work of Marx he took the time to read. His interest, he insisted, was exclusively in defending the Republic and defeating France." {14}

Ralph Bates was in New York during the period 2nd – 4th June, 1939. He delivered a speech at the League of American Writers’ Third American Writers’ Congress. Other speakers included Thomas Mann, Langston Hughes and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Founded in 1935, by the Communist Party of the USA, the League had been vocal in its support for the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War.
 
But the Civil War was over. According to Ralph, it had been a "Spanish tragedy". But his hopes, here expressed in an article written in 1936, were not achieved:
 
This, then, is how I see the Spanish tragedy. A nation whose character itself disposes it to alternate between violent rebellion and despairing submission, and which exists in embittering poverty, has been provided with an authoritarian Church, which has allied itself with reaction. The result is that the revolutionary masses fly apart under the action of centrifugal force; the future is never born... What is the hope for the future? It depends on this one-sided war, of course; nevertheless we shall win that in the end, despite international fascism. The communism of the party will need sympathetic tempering if it is to suit this nation, and the increasing readiness of the best syndicalist elements to work with other parties may help that. If only some revolutionary appeasement could be made, Spain might gain time for the steadyness of her nerves and temper. There must be some material anchor for the plunging ship. It may be said that this is a stupendous hope, an impossibility. I know that it is not half so stupendous an effort of belief as to believe that the Spanish Church, the Spanish Army, the landowners and their politicians, the corrupt and spiritually miserable cliques of Spanish reaction will ever succeed in genuinely tranquillizing this agonized land. {15}
 
I am indebted to John Mitchell, Honorary Treasurer of the Peter Warlock Society, who has sent me a copy of his article Peter Warlock and 'Robert Durand', which was originally printed in the Peter Warlock Society Newsletter No 86, Spring 2010. Members of the Society had noticed a similarity between aspects of Warlock's life and 'Robert Durand', the central character in Ralph Bates's novella Dead End of the Sky, a story which is included in Bates's book Rainbow Fish, and Mr Mitchell's article examines this similarity. In 1963 Peter Warlock Society member Ian Copley wrote to Ralph Bates about this and a letter, dated 19th August, 1963, from Ralph Bates is attached to the article.
 
In the letter, which was written in New York, Ralph Bates says that he based 'Robert Durand' on the character of two composers, Peter Warlock (1894 - 1930) and Rutland Boughton (1878 - 1960), and on himself. Ralph adds that he never met Warlock, although he did correspond with Boughton, who he describes as "if not a communist, at least a sympathiser". Boughton had probably won Ralph Bates's support when, during the miner's lockout and general strike of 1926, he produced a version of his opera Bethelem (written in 1915) at Church House, Westminster, London, in which Jesus was born in a poor miner's home and Herod was portrayed as a top-hatted capitalist who was supported by soldiers and the police. According to Ralph, the novella was "An effort in self-analysis. In (Warlock) and Boughton I thought I saw forces and influences at work that I all too painfully felt within myself." Ralph Bates also adds that the character of the painter Pierre Voisson was based on his "dear friend" André  Masson, who is mentioned above. I do wonder if the surname 'Durand' was taken from the name of the well-known French music publishing company of that name. Ralph Bates, a musician and lover of classical music, would, I am sure, have been aware of the company's Editions Durand.
 
Ralph ends the letter by saying that two weeks previously he had been in Wiltshire, standing near Four-Mile Clump behind Barbary Castle (an Iron Age hill-fort) and that he had visited churches, possibly at Collingbourne Ducis and at Clyffe Pypard. "I am sure that my love of medieval studies does indeed derive from a nostalgia for the Anglo-Catholic faith of my early years. Those studies were a way of walking among still-loved things without thorough-submission to them. At great cost."
 
1. James K. Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire – The British in the Spanish Civil War, Stanford, California,  1998, p. 235.
2. Information regarding Security Service and Special Branch monitoring of Ralph Bates can be found in  the National Archives, Kew, under reference KV2/2175.
3. The Saturday Review of Literature. Volume XXII, Number 3. Saturday, May 11th 1940, p. 6.
4. Ibid. The French painter André Masson lived in Spain during the period 1934 – 36. This suggests that  Ralph Bates was in Tossa de Mar during this period. I am unable to identify either Papa Zugel or the  light-fingered artistic priest.
5. “Virginia Woolf’s Complex Art”, The New York Times Book Review, vol. L, no. 39 (September 30th,  1945), p. 26.
6. James K. Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire – The British in the Spanish Civil War, Stanford,  California, 1998, p. 237.
7. ibid.
8. Review of Counter-Attack in Spain by Ramon J. Sender, in The Saturday Review, Volume xvii, Number  3, November 13, 1937, p. 10.
9. See James Smith’s British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930 – 1960 Cambridge University  Press, 2012.
10. James K. Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire – The British in the Spanish Civil War, Stanford,  California, 1998, pp. 236 - 7.
11. Review of Counter-Attack in Spain by Ramon J. Sender, in The Saturday Review, Volume xvii, Number  3, November 13, 1937, p. 10.
12. ibid, p. 67.
13. The comment about fighting the war “from a comfortable hotel room” is both unfair and untrue.  Ralph Bates impressed many Republican fighters with his courage in the battle of Brunete. He was  also at Jarama during the latter part of the fighting there.
14. James K. Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire – The British in the Spanish Civil War, Stanford,  California, 1998, p. 412.
15.  "Spanish Improvisation" in The London Mercury, volume 35, part 205 (November, 1936), pp. 28 & 29.
 
 

ADDENDUM

 

In December, 1939, Ralph Bates published a lengthy, and important, article explaining why he was no longer supporting Russia and its Communist Party. Ralph had supported the Communist cause for some twenty years and the article explains at length just how his disillusionment came about. The article was published in a hard-to-find American weekly magazine and is reprinted here for the first time.

Seventy-five years have now elapsed since Ralph wrote this polemic and it may be that some of the people and organisations mentioned are no longer everyday names. Accordingly, I have added some notes at the end of the article which, I hope, will be of use to readers. I have also changed the occasional American word-spelling into its English form.

 

Disaster in Finland

Reprinted from The New Republic, December 13th, 1939.

A

 spectre is haunting world, the spectre of a revolution that is dead. However, in these days we are not so frightened of ghosts, and we have moreover, the duty of understanding how the Russian crime against Finland came to be perpetrated. Only in that way shall we, free liberals and radicals, learn what we have to do. There is no time for prelude, only the bare bones of a revaluation of the last years can be given here.

Democrats, liberals, radicals and revolutionaries have given support or sympathy to the Soviet Union, because in one degree or another, her policy has seemed to be right, particularly in the last few years. But it may happen that a defence of the Soviet Union becomes an offence against everything rational reformers, radicals and revolutionaries desire. It has happened. Those who not only do not condemn, but fulsomely praise, the Russian barbarism in Finland, are serving reaction in this country. The word “peace” is apt to become suspect when a Communist cries a halt to the war between the Allies and Germany and applauds the invasion of Finland. The Communist who demands that Mr. Roosevelt mediate in the major struggle, but declares him a warmonger for offering to mediate in the Finnish case seems to me as futile as a lady who, damned for murder, might boast of her virginity in hell. And if Stalin desires to unite the capitalist powers, democratic and fascist, against him, then he has chosen an excellent device to that effect. And if a Communist desired to make Britain’s war appear to be a Holy War he might approve of the Russian technique in Finland, which is identical with that of Germany in Czecho-Slovakia and Poland. Indeed, the Communist Party is making a great, though unconscious, effort toward creating a war psychology in this country.

                RUSSIO-GERMAN TECHNIQUE

The Russian and German techniques in the carrying out of their present foreign policies are identical. They are the classic attributes of the Realpolitik that has uniformly produced disaster throughout all history. When Frederick the Second of Prussia invaded the Austrian Empire (then supposedly as weak as Finland, because governed by a woman) he wrote the following in a letter to its sovereign, Maria Theresa:

Nothing could grieve me more than the knowledge that you have misunderstood my motives which have actuated the occupation of the Silesian provinces by my armies. The danger to which the menacing attitude of two of your neighbours exposed your crown lands impelled me to occupy a strategic position from which their movements can be controlled and their offensive purposes frustrated. My heart is for you, even though my arms must be against you, but believe me…the stability and future of your successful reign could be best vouchsafed by the move which I had to undertake and which, history will show, was solely motivated by my desire to be of service to you.

History, of course, records that Frederick never gave back Silesia, long after Maria Theresa was safe. The whole thing has a contemporary flavour. Finland, we are told, at one stage of the sickening process, was unable to defend herself. The present invasion is for the good of the Finnish people.

Compare the Russian devices with the tactics used in Hitler’s conquest of Austria, Czecho-Slovakia and Poland.

Austria, we know, was doomed, by reason of her smallness, because her governments relied on Italian Realpolitik for support, and by reason of the suicidal policies of her semi-fascist dictators, Siepel, Dollfus and Schuschnigg

Schuschnigg, like Tanner, was called to the enemy’s stronghold and rejected every reasonable compromise. Seventy-five percent of the Russian demands (unnecessary demands, as I shall show) were conceded by Tanner. Seventy-five percent was not enough. It was all or nothing, just as it had been with Schuschnigg, who was told that Hitler had intended to march on February 26. Hitler demanded that a Nazi, Seyss-Inquart, be admitted to the Austrian Cabinet. Moscow sets up a dummy Finish government in a small fishing town near the border, recognises it and concludes a treaty with it. Japan had done the same in the Far East. A group of obscure leftists, headed by a Comintern functionary, becomes the Finnish People’s Government, and, over a non-existent radio, gives out a provisional program, the very punctuation of which reeks of Manuilsky.

Seyss-Inquart delivered his country to Hitler, without plebiscite. The Terijoki junta has not even asked for a plebiscite, nor has Moscow; it will probably be taken when once the Red Army occupies all Finland. The junta, as a device, is intended to be an imitation of a valid phenomenon that has often occurred; that of a people setting up a real government against an unrepresentative clique. There is not an atom of evidence that the Finnish people were ready to overthrow their government, or that they were even dissatisfied with it. Errko obtained his parliamentary vote of confidence, and, like Benes, resigned when he thought that his personality was objectionable to the great lover of the Finnish people in Moscow. To no avail, in both cases.

It is well to remember that the taking of Austria was a strategic move, necessary for the attack on Czecho-Slovakia, and useful in keeping Hitler’s friend and potential enemy, Mussolini, in a state of affectionate subservience. Therefore, and at once, the German dictator assured Prague that he had no designs on Czecho-Slovakia. Molotov, while the batteries were rolling into position, assured Helsinki that he also was innocent of designs on her liberty. The lie was deliberate, cynical, and transparent in both cases. What next does Russia want in the Baltic now she is taking her Austria?

Consider the Goebbels propaganda concerning Czecho-Slovakia. There were countless massacres of Sudeten Germans, it was said; there were border incidents that were magnified beyond all credibility. There was a Polish submarine which got out of an Estonian harbour and threatened to blow up Leningrad. When Estonia yielded, we heard no more of that submarine, which is still at large in the depths of Stalin’s imagination, ready, one suspects, to come up as a Finnish gunboat in a Swedish harbour.  There were border incidents on the Finnish frontier, according to the Russian press. Nobody, not even the most ardent Communist, believed the story. Had it been true it would never have justified what is occurring.

The Polish invasion by Hitler was described by the German press as “counter-attack and pursuit.” The Russian invasion is “resistance to Finnish aggression.” It is the macabre gibberish of a political “Finnegan’s Wake.” Czecho-Slovakia, the Germans were told, was an outpost of Bolshevism. That country was to be used by Russia, and by Britain and France, to throttle the German people. Airposts existed all over Czecho-Slovakia for the purpose of bombing Germany. The Finns had built too many airports also, Moscow declares. Benes was being urged on by Stalin, Chamberlain and Daladier, lied Goebels. Finland was being primed for the imperialist war on Russia. Who believes it? What person with an elementary knowledge of geography and of military matters, or of the nature of probability, ever credited the story for a moment? What powers are behind Finland? The United States of America, The Daily Worker says. They do not add Germany, for Germany is “a victim of aggression” (of the non-Finnish type) and therefore not so very guilty just now. Yet Germany is the only country which could have used Finland as a base for attack on the Soviet Union. And that has become impossible since the Russian diplomatic capture of Estonia and the other submissive countries of the Baltic. Those countries, by the way, had governments as conservative or more, and societies as “feudal,” as that of Finland. We did not learn the fact from the Communist press, because those governments submitted, and became Good.

Then it was Britain and France who were urging Finland on to war. What any Finnish statesman was doing accepting the promises and suggestions of Mr. Chamberlain after the Polish débâcle we are not told. Nor are we told why Mr. Chamberlain, who had refused £5,000,000 subvention to his Polish ally, should offer support to a useless enterprise against a country his speeches had shown he was trying to placate and to keep out of the arms of Germany. There was no possible threat to Leningrad except from German submarines, and they have other tasks just now. There was no necessity for the acquisition of Finnish territory. Should the Finnish government at any time permit a foreign power to base an attack on Russia from Finnish soil, Moscow would have a perfect case for entry into Finland. Such an attack would necessarily be so insignificant that the Russians could deal with it with ease.

The Russian propaganda makes point counterpoint with Berlin’s. The similarity goes further than I have as yet indicated. Goebbels is not always allowed to tell his listeners what is happening in foreign affairs. It was many hours before the Russian people knew that they were at war, and they still do not know (Saturday, December 2) that Helsinki has been ruthlessly bombed. So it may be that Mr. Molotov himself does not know, for he sarcastically informed the exterior world that Mr. Roosevelt’s plea that cities should not be bombed was irrelevant, because the Socialist State had not bombed cities and did not intend to do so. About that time the airplanes were above Helsinki; however, the pilots were probably Trotskyite saboteurs seeking to discredit the regime, and as those gentlemen are quite capable of doing such a thing, my suggestion for a good propaganda lie may be taken seriously by Pravda. The fascist device of not declaring war was also used, not so much, because of Russian discourtesy, but in order that the fiction of being at peace might be maintained. Belligerent countries and aggressive countries in particular, suffer certain disabilities in commerce. There is identity, too, in the attitude of both the German and Russian governments towards their subjects. It is a tragedy that after all these years of Socialist Education, the Kremlin should obviously judge that Russian public intelligence is about on the level of the German, and somewhat lower than the British and French.

It is The Daily Worker’s estimate of its readers also. In the issue of Friday there was no mention of the bombing of Helsinki, unless it was hidden in an obscure corner. The bad faith, and the shame, of the Communists is evident. The only press in the world that approves of the Russian invasion of Finland, other than the Communist press, is the Boersen Zeitung and the Voelkischer Beobachter and the rest of the Nazi organs. There the whole Russian case is accepted, approved and adumbrated with theory. In fact, says the Boersen Zeitung, the defeat of Nazi Germany is desired by Britain so that “the capitalist powers could hurl themselves on the Soviets.”  It is a sign of medievalism to wage relentless war against Nazism, says Mr. Molotov, taking his cue from berlin, or to believe that ideologies can be crushed by force. The Finnish aggression is to be blamed on Britain, which as a capitalist country desires the destruction of the Soviet system, says the Boersen Zeitung, echoing Pravda. The acoustical properties of the Finnish war make me suspicious.

Nevertheless, I am far from supporting the view that there is no essential difference between the interior politics of Germany and the Soviet, just as I reject the idea that the two countries have become military allies. There are similarities between the regimes, in substance and in claim. But the German government did not give land to the peasantry in Czecho-Slovakia, for instance and that the Terijoki junta promises to do. Land will doubtless be given to the Finnish peasantry, and aid to the small bourgeoisie. But what happens when the truth is just exhibited to a people in the blinding spotlight of a thermite bomb? They are apt to blink their eyes at the truth, or even to retreat into the cellar of feudal darkness, in which they become bombproof against the impact of ideas in themselves good.

It is not a socialist way of spreading socialism. And, as the Terijoki junta announces, at least for foreign reading, no more than a reformist program, one must point out the disharmony of means and end. It is not a liberal way of spreading liberalism and, I venture to think, it is not a true communist way of spreading communism. It is just plain fascism.

                THE CAUSE OF THE CHANGE

There has been a change in the Communist technique. For example, throughout the Spanish war the Communist Party of Spain persistently, and with perfect justice, opposed every proposal to bomb the cities of Franco’s rearguard. To understand the change one must examine the origin of the Popular Front policy.

The arrival of Hitler in power and the emergence of the new fascist imperialism made it even more important for Moscow, which had been a patient force for peace, to obtain war allies. The Soviet government could not feel secure, for it was obvious that before long the tactic of German imperialism, in particular, would provoke war. That government also feared, with considerable reason, that the policy of the British government was to neutralize two dangers by turning Germany against the Soviet Union. The Kremlin, therefore, proposed to profit by the hostilities between the other powers, and by allying itself with the strategic group whose ideological hostilities towards Moscow were thought to be the weaker (i.e., Britain and France) to maintain peace, or guarantee her own security should war break out.

The obtaining of allies, however, was sure to be difficult if the Communist Parties were allowed to continue their attitude of intransigence towards every other type of progressive political thought. Thus the policy of the Comintern was changed; in the search for capitalist allies a concession was made towards those parties which had been described as the servants of capitalism, that is to say, the Socialist, Radical, Liberal and non-Fascist Conservative Parties.

The effort failed. Therefore, since Realpolitik was the basis of the Kremlin policy, the attempt was made to placate the other group of capitalist powers, i.e., Germany.

Just as Russia and the Communist Parties moved toward what they had always called “bourgeois” policies and methods in the first period, so now they are being forced more and more into the arms of Germany, with consequent approximation in thought and tactic. Fascist reliance on force and total indifference to world opinion (when that opinion is not an immediate threat) will increasingly become the characteristics of Russian policy.

The above thesis requires great qualification but in essence I believe it to be true. That I am correct is suggested by the behaviour of the French Communist Party immediately after the signing of the Franco-Soviet treaty. That party’s resistance to certain recruiting practices current in France was immediately dropped. The French army, hitherto a danger, had become an allied force. The politics had to change, and it changed in a direction which after 1935 became universal.

Now, I consider that the Popular Front policy was a perfectly legitimate and sound policy, viewed from whatever angle. It failed, at least in its international aspect of collective security, and it is necessary to determine what were the causes and whose the blame, for its failure. In the first place I do not think that the Comintern can be charged with cynicism, or betrayal of its own essential philosophy, in having changed its strategy and tactics in 1935. All sympathizers with the Soviet Union, from the Left to the Centre, have until recently thought that the defence of the Soviet Union was a defence of their own political proposals. The Comintern was entitled to think that a defence of Russia was tantamount to protection for the revolution, both in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. Nor were liberals, who disapproved of many aspects of Russian interior policy, being dishonest in accepting the collective-security or Popular Front policies. The maintenance of peace, or the winning of a war by the democratic powers, should Hitler take up arms, seemed to them important. And the Russian proposals did offer hope of preventing an outbreak of the particular war that loomed on the near horizon, or of winning it. Many of us thought that if Chamberlain, for instance, could be forced to rectify his foreign policy, beneficial changes in his interior policy would follow. We thought, in effect, that the forces for social reform in every country would be strengthened by a policy of resistance to fascism abroad. We never dreamed that the whole policy would be ditched at a moment’s notice and a complete face-about accomplished by the very country that had in reality originated that policy.

Communists now wonder why they are accused of treachery. I will tell them. It was the collective-security and the Popular Front policies that actually created vast bodies of liberalism and anti-fascism. It was the anti-fascist campaign of the Communist Parties and those who were willing to work with them which created the mood which Mr. Chamberlain and M. Daladier must needs now utilize in their resistance to Germany, whatever may be their real reasons for that opposition. In effect, the Communists pointed at Hitler and said, “There is your enemy, fight him.” Now they declare, “This is an imperialist war, turn against your own governments.” That is why I, and many others, resent the charge and cannot believe in the honesty of it.

I will put a question to Communists.

It is said that the present war is an imperial war undertaken by Britain and France to serve their empire. It is such a war; I do not doubt. But had war broken out over the Czecho-Slovakian crisis, would that not also have been an imperialist war? The British and French governments would have been fighting to preserve their empires. (In fact, Czecho-Slovakia was created for precisely that purpose.) Communists appealed to conservatives in Britain and France, and America, with exactly that argument. They said, “Your policy of yielding to Hitler (i.e., German imperialism) is endangering your national security.” English conservatives were rebuked, again, for their policy toward Spain, because it endangered the British life-line in the Mediterranean. At that time there was no talk of “imperialist was” because the Soviet Union had not then changed sides. Now a surrender is demanded of Britain and France, so that the German and Russian conquest of territory may go unamended. Those conquests have made the Soviet Union much safer from aggression by Germany, or the other capitalist powers. But the forces of progress, whether of reform or of revolution, and the forces for peace have been immeasurably weakened and, to a large extent, discredited, by the reproach of having worked for agreement with a country which has now taken over, bag and baggage, the whole technique and morality of its new friend.

The change was not dictated by revolutionary theory, nor by any creditable theory, but by the exigencies of Realpolitik.

                THE ERROR IN THE CALCULATION

The Popular Front and collective-security policies failed for the following reasons:

                1. The calculation concerning the probability of the democracies of capitalist type uniting with the Soviet Union against fascist capitalism was in error. The contradiction was too great. I do not think any heavy blame can be placed on the Comintern’s shoulders for this.

                2.  The liberal parties, and the parties of the Second International, in critical instances failed to do their duty to their own precepts. In particular the refusal of the British Labour Party to make any working alliance with the Liberals made effective opposition to Mr. Chamberlain impossible.

                3.  The Communist Parties all too frequently sought to use Popular Front organisations for party aggrandizement. This helped to keep alive fear and distrust of the Soviet Union among people who were not particularly clear in their thinking, and who rejected the Popular Front and collective-security for the insufficient reason that its only object was the defence of the Soviet Union. An example of this was the Spanish Communist Party’s ill-advised campaign for the fusion of the Spanish Socialist Party with it. Lest I be thought to be unfairly critical of the Spanish Communist Party, let me say that that party throughout the civil war exercised marvellous patience, showed great wisdom, demonstrated its magnificent courage and worked with an exhausting intensity in the service of the Spanish cause. The Communists of the world, in their degrees, did the same. The tragedy in Spain was that the effective fighting forces were more or less limited to the Communist regiments. The theological bitterness of the Communist Party, however, could be seen in its attitude toward the POUM party. That Party’s policies would have been disastrous had they been put into effect. That indisputable truth was made the basis for the utterly unscrupulous charge that the POUM was in actual contact with Franco, and was working exclusively and consciously in the interests of the fascists. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the Spanish government was never Communist and that the party was committed to the holding of elections after the war. In those elections the Communist Party could not hope to emerge as a majority force.

                THE COMINTERN’S BLUNDER

After Munich it was obvious that the Popular Front and collective-security idea was failing. That it had failed. Had the Comintern changed its line then, it could have pleaded justification. There would have been time for it to have worked out a policy which might have been credible, and creditable, for those who accept the revolutionary philosophy. It might have been able to find some other way of preserving peace. The line was not changed when, on the basis of the usual Marxist assumptions, it should have been changed. Though the French Popular Front had broken down and its constituent parties were in a state of irreconcilable belligerence, though the British Labour Party was clearly not going to enter a Popular Front, though the Spanish Popular Front government was doomed to defeat by Munich, the Comintern continued to follow that policy. Why? Because the tardy expression of popular opinion on Britain (for which tardiness the Labour Party has the ultimate responsibility) had succeeded in forcing Mr. Chamberlain to make overtures to the Soviet Union. They were probably insincere overtures, forced out of him against the frozen immobility of his prejudices, which were those of his class. For the sake of the possibility of a doubtful alliance the Comintern sacrificed whatever theoretical integrity it possessed.

The British government had concluded a treaty with Poland without the necessary step of coming to an agreement with the Kremlin. That does not suggest that Mr. Chamberlain was very earnest in his approach to the Soviet Union, nor does it permit one to think that the Comintern was very thorough in its analysis or sincere in its resolution to continue with policies invalid by Munich and its immediate consequences. There was, at the Eighteenth Congress of the Russian Party, a very real difference between the content of Manuilsky’s analysis of the situation (for the Comintern) and Stalin’s. The great insight of Stalin in matters of Realpolitik had enabled him to grasp some of the significance of Munich. Stalin’s mind, however, is of the either-or variety, and when at last he determined to effect a change, he could see no alternative to the old line but to approach berlin. From the standpoint of Realpolitik his policy has been a great success; for [progress, and for peace, it has been a disaster.

Here, for the time being, I must finish. I am going to ask The New republic to allow me to analyse, in detail, the history of the last few months. Liberals and radicals alike must think hard to work out new projects for the defence and improvement of democracy. It is hard to lose the affection and respect of so many friends whose bravery and devotion I admire. Nevertheless, I am getting off the train. It will have to be a flying jump, and no doubt the passengers in the compartments behind will shoot at me as they clatter by. I had thought the train was bound for a fertile place in the sun; but I have found out that it is rushing toward the Artic north, where it will be buried beneath vast drifts of snow and be forever more silent.

                                                                                                                                RALPH BATES

 

NOTES concerning people and organisations mentioned in the above text:                                                                                                                       

Beneš, Edvard (1884 – 1948) was a leader of the Czechoslovak independence movement, Minister of Foreign Affairs and the second President of Czechoslovakia from 1935 to 1938 and again from 1940 to 1948. Daladier, Édouard (1884 – 1970) was a French Radical politician and was the Prime Minister of France at the start of the Second World War. Dollfus, Engelbert (1892 – 1934) was an Austrian Christian Social and Patriotic Front statesman. Having served as Minister for Forests and Agriculture, he ascended to Federal Chancellor in 1932 in the midst of a crisis for the conservative government. In early 1933, he shut down parliament, banned the Austrian Nazi Party and assumed dictatorial powers. Dollfuss was assassinated as part of a failed coup attempt by Nazi agents in 1934. His successor Kurt Schuschnigg maintained his regime until Hitler’s annexing of Austria in 1938. Erkko, Juho Eljas (not Errko as spelt by Ralph Bates) (1895 – 1965) was a Finnish politician and journalist who, as Foreign Minister (1938 – 39), negotiated with the Soviet Union prior to the Russian invasion of Finland. He refused to make concessions and was removed from his post. Manuilsky, Dmitriy (or Dmytro Zakharovych Manuilsky) (1883 – 1959), the son of an Orthodox priest from the Ukraine, was an early Bolshevik and theoretician for the Comintern. Molotov, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich (1890 – 1986) was a Soviet politician and diplomat. A protégé of Joseph Stalin, he rose to power as Minister of Foreign Affairs (1939 – 49 & 1953 – 56). Molotov was the principal Soviet signatory of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939. POUM - The Workers' Party of Marxist Unification, formed during the Second Spanish Republic and active in the Spanish Civil War. It was formed by the joining of the Trotskyist “Communist Left of Spain” and the “Workers and Peasants Bloc”. The writer George Orwell served with the party and witnessed the Stalinist repression of the movement, which Ralph Bates mentions in his article above. Schuschnigg, Kurt Alois Josef Johann (1897  - 1977) was the 15th Chancellor of Austria. He was in office between the assassination of his predecessor, Englebert Dollfuss (see above) in 1934, and the annexation of Austria in 1938. He survived the war as a prisoner. After the war, he took US citizenship, and became a professor for state law in the United States. In 1968, he returned to Austria, where he died in 1977. The Second International (1889–1916). The original Socialist International was an organization of socialist and Labour parties formed in Paris on July 14, 1889. At the Paris meeting delegations from 20 countries participated. It continued the work of the dissolved First International, though excluding the still-powerful anarcho-syndicalist movement and unions, and was in existence until 1916. Seyss-Inquart, Arthur. (22 July 1892 – 16 October 1946). Austrian Nazi who served the Nazi cause in Poland and the Netherlands during the war. He was sentenced to death at Nurenberg. Siepel, Ignaz (1876 – 1932) was an Austrian prelate and politician of the Christian Social Party, who served as Federal Chancellor twice during the 1920’s. Tanner, Väinö (1881 – 1966). Finnish politician. Tanner served as Prime Minister (1926–1927), Minister of Finance (1937–1939), Foreign Minister (1939–1940), and after the Soviet invasion, Minister of Trade (1940–1942). The Terijoki junta. After the Soviet invasion of Finland, Stalin set up a puppet regime in Terijoki, hoping that Finnish workers would join and assist the Soviet invasion. Led by a communist, Otto Wille Kuusinen, the terijoki Government received no sympathy from the Finnish labour movement.

                                                                                                                                Mike Yates

 
 

 
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