Land and Freedom – a distortion of history

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no.128 December 1995/January 1996

land and freedom 

With its subject, the Spanish revolution and civil war of 1936-1939, and its radical socialist director Ken Loach, the urge was to welcome Land and Freedom* and even overlook its weaknesses. After all, in this period of reaction and cynicism, a work of art with a potential mass audience that claims to openly uphold the ideals of socialism is akin to a miracle. But against all wishful expectations, Land and Freedom is an artistic and a political disaster. EDDIE ABRAHAMS argues that it fails to recreate an authentic, living picture of the revolution with its awesome political conflicts and its moving human dramas. It is no tribute to those who fought and died for a noble cause. Nor is it the stuff for a serious discussion of the future of socialism.

Loach’s aim is to offer an interpretation of the revolution which places responsibility for its failure at the foot of the Communist Party of Spain and the Soviet Union. The argument unfolds through an account of the experience of David, a young, working-class Communist Party member from Liverpool who goes to Spain to fight Franco. There he joins up with a unit of the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification). As the plot develops, Loach treats us to an interpretation of the clashes between the POUM and the Spanish Communist Party which drive David to tear up his Party card in disgust at the Communists’ apparently anti-democratic and anti-socialist politics.

To placate the ‘democratic’ capitalist powers – Britain and France – and the Spanish ‘democratic capitalists’, the Communist Party opposes the collectivisation of the land, eliminates the democratic, popular order generated by the revolution, forces women out of the trenches back into the kitchen, reintroduces a bourgeois hierarchy in the army and monopolises all political power. Thus the Communists destroy the living forces of the revolution and therefore the revolution itself. This at any rate is Loach’s story, a story that alas does not go beyond the dogmatic sloganising one was familiar with in Trotskyist pamphlets of the 1970s.

As a ‘film from the Spanish Revolution’ Land and Freedom is from the outset distorted by its focus on the POUM, a relatively minor force. It was the Anarchists, massively influential, who were the Communist Party’s main opponents and they hardly feature. One cannot object if Ken Loach wants to argue the culpability of the Spanish Communist Party. Communist Party supporters can argue back. But not to acknowledge and honour the thousands of rank-and-file members of the Communist Party who remained faithful to their party and died in the cause of the revolution is an uncalled-for insult to their memory.

With a predetermined, a priori and forced political message it is hardly surprising that the result is artistically flawed. The characters and the plot are one-dimensional and life-less – mere messengers for Loach’s one-sided political argument against ‘Stalinism’. The ‘good’ are good without qualification, while the ‘evil’ are evil beyond any redemption. Neither life nor good art can be so simple. For good measure but bad art, the leader of the ‘Stalinists’ happens to speak with a broad and arrogant US accent. In between the good and the evil is a patronising English middle-class invention – a rather confused and intellectually simple British working-class militant.

The POUM activists, few of whom appear to be Spanish, seem not to suffer the ravages of civil war and revolution. Despite winter in the trenches, their bright and colourful clothes are neither tattered nor worn. They are all young and healthy and remain so. War and revolution ages and wears one down. But not our POUM militants who are fresh-faced and beautiful to the bitter end. It looks as if they never missed a meal. They are rarely touched by the harshness, the hunger, the weariness or the maiming of war. The titanic human endeavour of the Spanish revolution leads to no personal, intellectual, psychological or emotional development. A flat, wooden, stilted depiction of historical and social truth.

In a work of art, the roots of the passions and the hatreds of life, the roots of suffering and harshness must emerge from the actual development of the plot. If they are tagged on as assertions they cease to be genuine and fail to inspire thought, feeling or reaction. Such is the case with this film. Besides some text at the opening of the film, it has no living historical or political context. The peasantry’s appalling poverty is not shown. It is asserted, but only in dialogue between healthy looking POUM militants. One gets no feeling of the violent exploitation and savage poverty which drove the peasants and small village populations to violent revolution.

The film depicts scenes of violent anti-clericalism but does not suggest its causes. The Church’s enormous wealth while preaching poverty and its integral bond with the hated landlords is not even hinted at. Victorious POUM forces execute the local priest who collaborated with fascist defenders of a small village. But why the peasants, instead of taking over the Church, set about destroying it and desecrating statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary is left inexplicable.

Having emptied the revolution of real life, the politics of the revolution is reduced to an exchange of slogans. Natural language is replaced by wooden didacticism. A central scene in the film is the political debate on the question of land collectivisation. The POUM are presented as eager supporters, whilst the Communist Party opposes collectivisation – so as not to alienate the revolution’s bourgeois supporters. In this debate conducted in the hackneyed language of British Trotskyist pamphlets – the POUM is seen targeting not the great local landlords, the Church or the big peasantry but a genial, gentle local smallholder who doesn’t want to form part of a collective. Serious socialist debate about land and political power would not categorically oppose collectivisation to non-collectivisation. It would take into account the need for an alliance with the small, impoverished peasants who don’t want collectivisation, the relation of forces in different regions of the country at different times and the tactical alliances necessary for defeating the main enemy – the bourgeoisie and their imperialist allies. The film’s ‘discussion’ of collectivisation touches on none of these issues.

Ultimately, despite Loach’s intentions, Land and Freedom serves an anti-socialist and anti-communist purpose. The POUM is used merely as a vehicle to expose the great evil – Stalinism. The POUM’s identity and character as a self-proclaimed revolutionary Marxist organisation dedicated to the destruction of capitalism leaves no imprint. Its militants emerge as no more than a group of young idealists dedicated to a socialism and democracy so vaguely defined that even the Blairite Labour Party can applaud. Opposed to the POUM are the totalitarian, anti-democratic, brutal and nasty Communists whose Marxism is not concealed. In one of the last scenes of the film, Communist military forces, headed by the US accent, are ranged on a hilltop, in almost Nazi-like formation, looking down, guns at the ready, at the helpless young things of the POUM.

No political force was innocent of errors in the Spanish revolution. The Communist Party, given its dominant position, must clearly bear central responsibility for the fate of the revolution. But not to acknowledge its role in sustaining the war against Franco is puerile sectarianism. It was guilty of serious political errors which demand historical study. But this film isn’t a contribution to this task. Furthermore, to overlook the Anarchists in favour of the marginal POUM and also ignore the POUM’s own large bag of political and military stupidities and gross errors is plainly ridiculous.

The film makes no mention of the perfidious role of European Social Democracy. As effectively as the German and Italian fascists aided Franco, and the ‘democratic’ capitalists isolated the Republicans, European Social Democracy displayed a studied indifference to the fate of the revolution and indeed collaborated with imperialism. Meanwhile the Soviet Union did actually send weapons to Spain. None of this is touched on, leaving the film both artistically and politically remote from real life.

Film goers wanting to see a good film which deals with the question of Stalin and the problems of socialism should go and see Burnt by the Sun, a Russian, post-Soviet, film directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Infinitely superior and more satisfying than Land and Freedom.

*Land and Freedom — ‘a film from the Spanish revolution’ directed by Ken Loch

A British communist remembers

Rene Waller, now 82, was a young Communist Party militant during the 1930s. Here she gives her own assessment of Land and Freedom.

When reviewing a film about the Spanish Civil War and discussing who was responsible for the defeat of the Spanish republic, the overall international situation must never be forgotten.

The Spanish government was democratically elected, and entitled to be recognised as legitimate. It should therefore have been able to trade normally with other governments and buy arms for its defence. Not only was this right denied, but the fascist powers in Germany and Italy were left free to support General Franco, and did so, incidentally taking the chance to test their bombers and other weapons in readiness for the wider world conflict so clearly coming.

Despite all the odds and the disunity in the republican ranks, plus the treachery of the social democrats throughout Europe, the Spanish republican government withstood the fascist onslaught for three years, affording anti-fascists in Britain a chance to organise and mobilise. We in Britain should be particularly grateful, for I can personally testify that in 1936 there was no organised anti-fascist movement here, and the Communist Party was but a tiny sectarian group discussing Marxism in an academic way, and more interested in staying ‘pure’ than recruiting. All that changed quickly and dramatically when the urgent need to support Spain was perceived. Young people were soon looking for ways to show their support.

Like the young people later on, on the City Group Anti-Apartheid picket, we had a serious objective, but the fascist brutality made us angry rather than sad. Despite official bans, the movement became more and more united and finally a number both from the rank-and-file and leadership joined the International Brigade and slipped across the frontiers to continue the struggle by force of arms. In some circles, it is now alleged that Communist Party members did not do so with the approval of their party. I’m sure this is a libel: there couldn’t be recruiting calls in the Daily Worker, but no one doubted whom to approach.

Well, the Spanish people were defeated and paid a terrible price, but their resistance enabled the anti-fascist forces to get together. However, were we wrong to seek allies and strive to isolate the most openly reactionary forces? Should we have done better to say splits in the ruling class are unimportant and we do not want any temporary and unreliable allies? Well, it would certainly simplify our tactics, but would it help us to get socialism? Lenin ridiculed the idea that the working class would not be capable of understanding the need for tactics and frankly, how can It be sensible not to take advantage of the constant rivalries that lead capitalists to shoot each other?

I believe the Communist Party of Spain was correct to see this. The failure was not due to its effort to maintain unity but to the failure of the movement outside Spain to prevent open racist intervention and to secure for the republican government its normal rights.


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