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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 Spain.

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 Republican army.

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 War.

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 that time."

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 considerable weight.

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 most’."

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 comrades.

"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 fascists."

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 Franco."

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 Barcelona....

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.

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