By Jim Jump
The International Brigades and the fight against fascism in Spain were controversially invoked during the House of Commons debate on 2 December that ended with a vote in favour of bombing Syria.
In their justification for supporting RAF attacks in Syria, two Labour MPs, including Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, linked military action against ISIS/Daesh with the efforts of those who fought Franco and fascism in the 1930s.
Benn’s words were: “What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated and it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists were just one part of the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco.”
Meanwhile Ruth Smeeth (Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove) referred to the plaque in Stoke-on-Trent town hall commemorating the International Brigades. “The men and women of that movement risked their lives for their commitment to internationalism and solidarity, standing against an ideology that posed an existential threat to our way of life. Daesh poses no less a threat.”
Though Benn’s speech was praised in most of the mainstream media, his reference to the International Brigades provoked a storm of online protest on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.
“A cheap bit of rhetoric”, was how one person described it. The general gist was: While ISIS is a deplorable and barbaric movement, how can RAF Tornadoes dropping bombs from 30,000 feet be likened to the courage and sacrifice of those volunteers who defied their own governments to go to Spain and fight Franco, Hitler and Mussolini?
This is far from being the first time that the Spanish Civil War has been used in arguments supporting one side or other in wars in the Middle East and Maghreb.
The parallels drawn are always at best spurious and at times completely wrong or dishonest. We’ve had newspaper columnists saying young Britons joining anti-government jihadist groups in Syria are just like the International Brigades. In 2011 the then Labour leader Ed Miliband said failure to bomb Libya would be like non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War.
While the IBMT is carefully neutral on all contemporary political matters that have nothing to do with our stated aims and objectives, it’s instructive, if not flattering, that, nearly 80 years after the event, the example of the International Brigades and the lessons of the Spanish Civil War are still being used, however inaccurately and irresponsibly, as moral and political benchmarks by which to judge our actions today.
Finally it’s worth noting that a third Labour MP, Ivan Lewis (Bury South), also cited the International Brigades during the Commons debate in December. His speech, however, was in opposition to British military intervention in Syria.
It would be “rewriting history”, he said, to equate being on the left with always opposing military action. “I feel this more than most, as my grandfather fought in Spain for the International Brigade against Franco’s fascists.”