Review of The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion
This review of The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion; Canadian
Participation in the Spanish Civil War, by Victor Hoar (Copp
Clark, Toronto, 1969) was first published in Labor Challenge,
June 5, 1972. It was subsequently published as a pamphlet "in tribute to
Henry Scott Beattie, veteran of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion," by
Forward, the newspaper of the Socialist League.
A Suppressed Page in Canadian History
Canada & the Civil War in Spain
by Ross Dowson
Over the period of 1936-38, some 1,200 Canadians, in defiance of the
Canadian government — Ottawa passed a new Imperial Foreign Enlistment
Act making their act a criminal offence — slipped out of the country for
On July 31, 1937, with all the appearance of neutrality, the same
august neutrality that the King government observed in its refusal to
sell arms both to the Spanish government and to the fascist insurgents
who were being generously supplied by Hitler and Mussolini, Ottawa
applied its Act to enlistment in either Franco’s army, or in the
On August 10, 1937, the government moved to halt the issuance of
passports "except under definite restriction and guarantees." But the
volunteers continued to slip out, even though now their passports bore
the notation "Not Valid in Spain.
By various means they made their way to Paris and thence to the
borders where, after evading French patrols under order of the Popular
Front government headed by "socialist" Leon Blum, they were forced to
scale the Pyrenees to get to their objective. Some attempted to complete
their journey by boat, like the 20 who embarked from Marseilles on the
Ciudad de Barcelona — only to have it sunk from under them by a torpedo
fired by an Italian submarine.
Half of them died in battle.
When those who survived prepared to return to Canada the RCMP
challenged that they should be barred as they "had either committed a
breach of the Foreign Enlistment Act or were engaged, contrary to the
policy of the government, in the Spanish War."
Immigration, however, ruled ironically, that "in most, if not all,
instances, the nature of the absence from Canada would be inconsistent
with an intention of settlement abroad." And after many difficulties
they found their way back to Canada — on the eve of the Second World
A Forgotten Episode
When in Spain they had been part, as the Mackenzie-Papineau
Battalion, of the International Brigades that had been recruited from
across Europe for the fight against the forces of fascist General
Franco. These brigades, largely composed of French, Polish German,
Austrian, Italian, along with American, British and Belgian workers,
were some 35,000 strong.
What type of Canadians were they, what caused them to not only freely
volunteer but to overcome such difficulties as were put in their way at
every turn, and if necessary, lay down their lives in a land that none
of them knew?
Anti-fascists to be sure. But nothing more? Their determination,
their dedication, their heroism is hard to understand from the
explanations of the decaying Communist Party of Canada which attempts to
cloak itself in their neglected glory. According to CP leader Tim Buck
in a 30th anniversary memorial article (1966) "they were in fact the
advance guard of the victorious army that the government did send over
eventually to help defeat the fascist attempt to enslave mankind."
But the government opposed the vanguard! And as for its victorious
army — the Canadian army of World War II — one of its most significant
characteristics was its skepticism of the government’s declared aims,
which Buck continues to slavishly give credence to.
Victor Hoar, in the epilogue of his 240 page study of The
Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion that appeared last year, gives us no
insight on this question. He states that "The fact that these men
sought to delay or even halt the encroachment of totalitarian political
dynasties is lost in the confusion and paradoxes of political
allegiances, of definitions for that matter, which have emerged since
Buck anticipates that the federal government will be compelled "to
recognize the record of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion as an integral
part of the record of Canadian arms."
Vain hope! For the simple truth of the matter is that the volunteers
of the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion were revolutionaries. The
overwhelming majority were members or under the influence of the
Communist Party already no longer revolutionary but completely
Stalinized. Nonetheless they were socialists with arms in hand, out to
avenge the defeat of the German working class, to beat fascism, and to
establish a workers’ Spain.
From the profile or composite portrait established by Hoar from the
existing records that cover 366 of their number, only 2 percent were
under 20 years of age and 61.5 percent were over 30. According to Hoar,
taking into account that many of them were landed immigrants or
naturalized citizens, "The Canadian contingent represented a militant
proletariat .... many were already hardened veterans of radical
movements in Europe..."
The Canadian Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, which numbered among
its sponsors the Reverend Salem G. Bland and CCF leader Graham Spry,
never sought to recruit volunteer combatants — "this activity was the
special charge of the Communist Party of Canada."
According to an interview that Hoar had with Spry, chairman of the
Ontario CCF executive committee, this was an agreed upon division of
labor. Spry took his place as chairman of the Spanish Aid Committee "in
personal response to the horror in Spain, but also in order to safeguard
the interests, political and humanitarian, of the CCF." The CCF
"asserted its belief in humanitarian assistance and to this end was
instrumental in sending Dr. Norman Bethune abroad," writes Hoar.
On the other hand, the Communist party, according to Spry, was given
the go-ahead, "though not through the offices of the Committee" to
recruit volunteers as this activity "did not appeal to most CCFers and
which was completely contrary to the pacifist wing represented by party
leader J.S. Woodsworth, to the isolationist wing represented by quite a
number of academics in the CCF and which ran generally against the
non-violent program or attitude of most CCF members." It took the Second
Imperialist World War for the CCF leadership, from the isolationist wing
to the pacifist wing, to overcome the scruples which they so squeamishly
demonstrated over Spain.
What were the conditions for recruitment of volunteers that the
Communist Party laid down to those persons it placed in charge? To be
sure there were many recruited to the Mac-Paps who were not already
members of the CP, although their potential for membership must have had
Trotskyists Screened Out
According to Hoar’s research there were two categories that were
vigorously screened out — "a member of the RCMP or an adherent of the
disgraced Trotsky." Later he quotes entrusted CPer Peter Hunter with
regard to his and YCL leader Paul Phillips’ search "for RCMP officers
and Trotskyites; as Hunter put it ‘we didn’t know which we hated the
They were not too successful in screening out RCMPers. One Mac-Pap
testified to Hoar that a volunteer who died in Spain was either an
active RCMP officer or a former officer. Strange to say Hoar doesn’t
pursue the matter of Trotskyism although the nature of his book, which
contains extensive, researched interviews with volunteers, required him
to do so.
Among "the first five volunteers dispatched from Canada" he lists one
Henry Scott Beattie. Later Hoar notes that Beattie "came back" to
Toronto, while the war raged on, where he states Beattie "apparently
engaged in a public denunciation of the Republican effort and the
assistance from the left that was being organized." Hoar continues; "The
Friends described him as mounting ‘disruptive activities against
Spain.’" The Daily Clarion (which Hoar describes elsewhere as "a
political organ of the left" but which was in reality the press of the
Communist Party) dismissed him as "a Trotskyist."
Hoar too dismissed Beattie. Beattie presented his experiences and
views at some length in an interview with the leading Toronto
Telegram columnist C.B. Pyper, in an extensive letter to the
well-known Canadian Forum in April 1938, which stirred up quite a
controversy in subsequent pages and elsewhere. Hoar also failed to note
the extremely illuminating reminiscences of the now well-established
Canadian novelist Hugh Garner that appeared in the Toronto Star
Weekly Magazine and which are in stark contrast to the some three
pages of atmosphere prose by Garner that he does reproduce. He doesn’t
even mention William Krehm, a Canadian revolutionary socialist who went
to Spain and was imprisoned by the Valencia authorities for 10 weeks
and whose pamphlet Spain; Revolution and Counter-Revolution is in
the Toronto Reference library along with other Mackenzie-Papineau
battalion archives. Overlooked also are the informed articles by the
well-known journalist and author Pierre Van Passen, that appeared in the
Toronto Daily Star over that period.
A Suppressed Chapter
Henry Scott Beattie didn’t "come back," he was brought back. He
explained this in a response to Daily Clarion attacks against him
and an attack by its correspondent Ted Alan who charged that "he must be
mentally unbalanced." Beattie wrote:
"But apparently the Communist party both here and in Spain did
not share his (Alan’s) opinion when they chose me in preference to
all other 700 Canadians as their first propagandist here. Nor would
they have made me honorary vice-president of the much prized Tim
Buck Club or appointed me youth organizer in the east end of the
city if they had considered me mentally unbalanced."
In this letter, not published of course by the Clarion,
Beattie replies to Alan’s smear that he was attacking his former
"I realize the boys I was fighting with in the trenches really
believe that they are assisting the Spanish people and that they are
dying for their ideals. On the other hand I believe that the
Communist party and the (Popular Front) Government are sabotaging
their struggle and are attempting to patch things up with the
Beattie explained his refusal to play the role for which the
Communist party had brought him back to Canada. Among other things he
said he was "coached to make certain statements about the Trotskyists,
for example ‘Trotskyites who stab wounded soldiers on crutches in the
back,’ — and this despite the fact that while I was in Spain I had never
seen or spoken to a Trotskyist." He also said that since his return "I
have had the opportunity for the first time to think over my experiences
and to examine the international press, both labor and bourgeois."
He told Telegram reporter Pyper,
"I am for the workers’ cause in Spain. The victory of Franco
would be a catastrophe ... It is because I want to help the Spanish
working class that I am giving this interview. The truth is
necessary in order to help them combat the reaction which is taking
place behind the lines and which is weakening their struggle against
Beattie revealed that he had been a CP member before going to Spain.
Referring to his fellow volunteers he said "we had enlisted with the
understanding we were to fight not simply against Franco but for a
socialist revolution in Spain."
"When I first came to Spain," Beattie wrote in the Canadian
Forum, "we volunteers from the Americas were welcomed and
identified with the real revolutionary spirit which was strong and
vibrant in the country .... By June, however, when I was wounded and
invalided through various hospitals to Albacete, things had greatly
altered. In the first place I found that International Brigadiers
were so unpopular with the average Spaniard that a (Communist) Party
functionary ordered me in the train to remove my badges; in
restaurants or parks when I tried to begin conversations with
civilians with the explanation that I was ‘a Communist’ I was
greeted with black looks and prompt isolation.
"My party had gained in membership, certainly, but it was a gain
among the business classes on the Loyalist side, and at the expense
of the common people. In Murcia and elsewhere I saw that our
placards and leaflets appealed for shopkeepers’ membership with the
promise of absolute support of private property. Gradually I learned
that this was no mere trick of propaganda. Anyone inside or outside
our party who was openly against the protection of private capital
was in danger of arrest by our own secret police!"
"Despite the censorship, rumours reached us too that our Party
leaders were supporting the Government in depriving anarchist
peasants of their land cooperatives, turning the farms back into
state or even private capital. Then after May, there was talk of a
joint attack by our Party and (Spanish Premier) Caballero’s own
troops upon rival workers’ parties in Barcelona. Officially we were
told that ‘Trotskyites’ had tried a coup for Franco there; but the
unofficial story was that the POUM (semi-Trotskyite -H.B.) and the
Anarchists had been attacked, their leaders assassinated, or jailed,
and hundreds killed in the streets, in a forcible restoration of
factories from workers’ control into private capital again.
"In the trenches you couldn’t find out which story was true; if
you showed too much interest you were arrested. But in hospital I
met three survivors of the Garibaldi Battalion. They told me that
their battalion had been kept in the trenches for three months
without leave, because they had heard these rumors too and had
refused, when ordered to march against their comrades in
C.P. Betrayed Revolution
"I left Spain convinced that our Spanish policy was nothing less
than a betrayal. Caballero was given Communist Party support to crush
the mass parties of the Spanish workers and farmers, in order that
the war against Franco might be made respectable and Spanish
capitalism preserved. When Caballero proved too mild, the CP threw
him out and put in that openly-confessed defender of private
property Negrin. The jails of Loyalist Spain overflow with loyal
fighters of fascism who are not also loyal fighters for capitalism.
The masses know it; they never had faith in the Popular Front
government and they have hatred now. It was not the Government
which stopped Franco in the first place, but the self-armed,
rank-and-file socialists, anarchists, and POUM-ites; they halted the
fascists, after the Popular [Front] army and air force walked over
to Franco, with the arms that they had stored for a future socialist
revolution. The Communist Party has helped to push that day even
farther into the future.
"I left Spain with one illusion — that the Communist
international was unaware of the betrayals of its Spanish section.
Arrived in Canada, I found here too, that I was required to
disseminate lying endorsations of the counterrevolutionary role of
the Spanish Communist Party."
It is Hoar’s lack of a class analysis, his petty bourgeois concept of
the whole Spanish civil war, that allows him to present an essentially
Stalinist version but at the same time lard onto it such completely
unintegrated and thereby quite incomprehensible though accurate comments
— "the Soviet leaders knew that fierce revolutionary interests in the
Spanish Republic might, in the course of the war, or as a consequence of
victory, attempt a proletarian dictatorship. Such a revolt could only
embarrass Moscow for it would immediately turn away the moderates who
would assume that the only alternative to Spanish fascism was communist
revolution; and the Russians weren’t willing to support a revolution in
Europe at this time." And another observation with regard to the
political commissars in the International Brigades — that "the ideology
they advocated was, however, not so much Marxist as liberal-social.
Everyone knew that the commissars were expected to be party members, but
the ‘education’ these men passed on was not hard-line Marxism so much as
the moderate politics of the Spanish Republic. (Remember that the
Comintern did not seek to provoke proletarian revolution in Spain at
this time.) "
If he had come to grips with Beattie’s evidence and that of Garner,
Krehm and Van Passen, Hoar might have solved this monstrous
contradiction in his book. And he might have besides rendered the
service of providing all the essential facts and not just a partial and
quite unbalanced record for what is yet to be written — the definitive
history of Canadian participation in the Spanish civil war.