For a few brief months in Catalonia in 1936, history’s only anarchist experiment flourished. This was a completely different kind of revolution because it emerged from people’s hard work and efforts. It was a young woman, Ethel MacDonald, from the far side of Europe that would report its rise, and final defeat to the world.
An Anarchist’s Story Ethel MacDonald
Ethel MacDonald was born in Bellshill, near Glasgow, in 1910. A free-spirited daughter of a large working-class family. She was an extraordinary woman caught up in extraordinary times in a distant part of Europe, where revolution was moving fast.
First of all, Ethel was nineteen and Scotland was in the grip of The Great Depression. Jobs were scarce and the few that were available paid a pittance. Increasingly disillusioned with her prospects and working-class life in general.
However, she went to an advice centre in Glasgow, run by a well-known political campaigner, Guy Aldred. It was soon evident that Guy and Ethel were kindred spirits.
Furthermore, Guy Aldred was a very influential figure, he was the editor of the anarchist newspaper Freedom. Born in London on 5th November 1886, he learned his trade as a political speaker and provocateur in the turbulent London politics of the 1910’s and 20’s.
Guy Aldred became known as the Knickerbocker rebel, the guy they all dread. He gave impassioned speeches on Glasgow Green, in law courts, and on every street corner, defending the rights of the working man.
The Spanish Civil War
First of all, Mussolini had become Europe’s first totalitarian dictator, And Hitler had become Chancellor in Germany. In Britain, Oswald Mosley organised the British Union of Fascists. For democrats and radicals alike, the spectre of fascism was a terrifying prospect.
Catholic Spain had been dominated for years by dictatorships and backward-looking monarchs. By 1931 the old monarchy had been overthrown and a new republic declared.
Oviedo the capital of the mining province of Asturias was where the next crucial event was about to take place. Miners fought with government forces for control of the town.
However, news from Oviedo spread like wildfire and radical thinkers, like Ethel MacDonald, now 29 with eight years of anarchist activism behind her, quickly picked up on the importance of what was happening in Spain.
Because in Northern Spain, miners have been united by the workers alliance, with socialists, anarchists and communists participating. They determined resolutely to end the system of exploitation and armed themselves.
In October 1934, a general strike was called. They came in their thousands to attack. And, overwhelmed Spanish Government forces. The workers flag flew over Oviedo and the town became a worker’s commune.
The right-wing, Spanish royalists, traditional Catholics and conservatives realised where the Asturian rebellion might lead. They didn’t hesitate in brutally putting it down. The miner’s strike was crushed, but the flame of revolution had been lit.
The Spanish Democratic Republic was caught between two opposing forces. The army and the monarchists were losing patience, the socialists and the anarchists were gaining confidence.
Between the 18th and 20th July, the Spanish military rebelled against the republican government. Generals, including Franco, struck at all the major centres simultaneously.
While Seville and Grenada fell. Cities like Oviedo fought back but were defeated. But, in Barcelona and Madrid, the rebel generals were repelled. Hitler and Mussolini supported the rebels with military aid. Britain and France adopted a policy of non-intervention.
However, Spain was now a divided country. About half the country under the right-wing army’s control. The rest loyal to the republic. The people of Barcelona took to the streets and built barricades, knowing they would need to defend their city.
Radical thinkers and activists, the world over, were galvanised into action. Spain was the arena for the showdown between left and right. For Ethel MacDonald this meant doing what she could locally, writing, editing, and distributing news sheets and calls to action.
Activists all over Europe organised street meetings to inform people of the events in Spain. In almost every major city there were stalls and tables. In shopping centres, collecting money and getting people to sign petitions. And, in some cases, recruiting people for the International Brigades.
Andre Prudhommeaux was a leading French anarchist. He wrote to Guy Aldred from Barcelona requesting an English speaking journalist. He wanted to inform the world of Catalonia’s revolution. With her writing and propaganda skills, Ethel MacDonald was the obvious choice.
Glasgow anarchists managed to raise sufficient funds to get Ethel MacDonald and her comrade, Jenny Patrick, to Paris. Ethel remembers “From Paris, sympathiser’s generosity got us to Perpignan. From there we walked, hitch-hiked, and nearly starved our way to Barcelona.”
Because the right-wing rebels had not yet reached Barcelona. And, for ten extraordinary months in 1836 and 1937. This region of Catalonia became the centre of one of the most radical revolutions in world history.
Also around 3 million men, women and children were becoming involved. In the countryside surrounding Barcelona, peasants formed communes on land confiscated from the old ruling elite.
The revolution advanced when the workers took control of their factories. And civilian defence forces replaced the police.
In Catalonia three quarters of the economy was under anarchist control.
The collective took control of hotels, shops and restaurants. This greatly improved efficiency.
The motto “FROM EACH ACCORDING TO HIS ABILITIES, TO EACH ACCORDING TO HIS NEEDS” was put into practice.
Money was entirely replace in some of the communes. Money was replace with voucher and bartering schemes. This experimental action affected every facet of life.
Ethel MacDonald wrote about everything. The progress of the front-line. The tensions between the factions. And the work done in collectivised villages and factories. Living in a city on edge, waiting for attack at any moment, was a rich source of material.
Because Ethel had great journalistic and propaganda skills. This gained her recognition as the right voice for Barcelona’s radio station.
Furthermore, Radio was the new and compelling medium of the day and fast becoming an important weapon in Spain’s ideological struggle.
Around the world, the radio brought living news of the momentous happenings in Spain. Broadcasts reached as far afield as the USA.
As the fascist insurgency gained strength, tensions began to rise amongst those defending the republic.
Ethel MacDonald Call to Action
Ethel MacDonald’s impassioned broadcasts called for volunteers to come to action. And, poured scorn on the British and French governments. Accusing them of aiding the fascists of Portugal, Italy and Germany with their non-interventionist policies.
The relative peace that had allowed the Catalonian experiment, that Ethel had found so fascinating, was nearing it’s end. The attack, in May 1937, on the anarchist’s stronghold, the telephone exchange, came not from the fascists but from the communist-backed government.
In the midst of the street-fighting, Ethel MacDonald managed to get one last despatch from Barcelona. She sent it to Aldred who published it in the Barcelona Bulletin on the 15th of May.
There then ensued four days of fighting. This led to the arrest of the most radical of the revolutionaries. Imprisonment, torture or even death faced these unfortunate individuals.
Ethel MacDonald Arrest
For consorting with the rebels. She spent several days in prison.
MacDonald now faced three criminal charges:
- 1. Found in possession of foreign money.
- 2. Being a fascist, because files found in her possession had formerly belonged to a fascist.
- 3. Associating with prisoners and conspiring with them in a foreign tongue.
Fenner Brockway was a leading member of the British Labour Party. He managed to have all of the charges against MacDonald lifted.
However, Ethel didn’t leave the country immediately after her release. She felt there was still work for her to do in Barcelona, helping anarchist comrades to escape. The republican reporter now found herself working against the republic’s oppression.
February 1939, Britain and France recognised Franco’s regime even before the final victory. By March, Hitler and Mussolini had laid down their foundations for their infamous pact of steel. By April the 1st, the rebels had proclaimed victory.
Furthermore, Ethel MacDonald finally fled the country. After Britain had managed to arrange a neutral zone south of the harbour. She embarked on a speaking tour. The French, surrounded by fascist states, were keen to hear what the anarchist journalist had to say.
Not all noteworthy women are Scottish Freedom Fighters. The controversy surrounding the flying legend Amelia Earhart has raged for many years after her accomplishments.
Ethel MacDonald the Motherwell born anarchist – Wikipedia Page