John Cornford and the Fight for the Spanish Republic

Seventy years ago this week General Franco launched his attack on the Spanish Republic, backed by Hitler, Mussolini and, tacitly, by the US and other Western powers. Across the next days and weeks we will be publishing articles on this pivotal struggle. We launched the July 18 anniversary with a overview by Vicente Navarro of the enduring significance of the Fascist onslaught and the malign tenacity of Franco’s admirers to this day in burying his crimes while seeking to renew his objectives. Here now is British Member of Parliament GEORGE GALLOWAY on one Englishman who gave his life for the Republic. We thank London-based CounterPuncher Omar Waraich for his initiative in helping set up this series.  AC / JSC.


No men ever entered earth more honorably than those who died in Spain

— Ernest Hemingway, 1939

But for a bullet in the brain on the Ebro, Rupert John Cornford might have loomed as large as George Orwell in the British left-wing lexicon. Orwell would probably have informed on him to his bosses in British Intelligence. For Cornford was a Communist. Not just a Communist, but a potential leading figure of the party, then rising towards the zenith of its power as the potential nemesis of Fascism, as well as a war poet as brilliant as he is now obscure. Not bad for a man who was killed doing his internationalist duty on his 21st birthday.

John Cornford was the grandson of Charles Darwin, son of the Victorian poet Frances Cornford, and part of the golden generation of the British left who went to fight fascism in Spain. That their memory has been sullied by Orwell’s slanders, unfortunately reinforced by Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom, and now lies largely forgotten on the Iberian peninsula by the progressives of the 21st century is the main reason why I am working on an historical novel, Heart of the heartless World at the centre of which is the tall handsome figure of John Cornford.

Recruited, as one of the brightest and the best, at Cambridge University by the same party talent spotters who sent his classmates Philby, Burgess and MacLean underground in the service of the USSR. Cornford was just too good to be used as a mere mole. Athletic, an orator, an organizer, poet and propagandist, the best student of his generation, a heart-throb to boot — Cornford was a socialist-realist poster-boy.

Yet he was sacrificed for the cause on the scorched earth of the Spanish Civil War in the International Brigade, in which the C.P was the driving force and which wrote the most glorious page in the history of the British left — a left which thanks to Orwell and the passage of time has either forgotten, never known or now misunderstands its importance.

The International Brigade was the working class (and their other class allies) answer to the policy of non-intervention by the British and French governments towards the bestial murder of the Spanish Republic by the Fascist hordes of Franco and his friends Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The British Section, organized as the Saklatvala Batallion, sent 2100 to fight in Spain. Five hundred of them came back in boxes, hundreds more of them on crutches and stretchers. The war effort was supported by a huge movement throughout the British left and the trades unions. Aid to Spain was a rallying cry which resounded throughout the world. Some of the greatest writers, journalists and photographers — Ernest Hemingway, Claud Cockburn, Robert Capa, Laurie Lee and Orwell himself — amplified the cry through newspapers pamphlets Left Book Club tomes, newsreels, and at huge public meetings throughout the country.

Most of the martyrs — and the vast majority of the heroes — were coal miners, carpenters and boiler-makers, shop stewards and industrial militants. But others were brilliant academics like the mathematician David Haden-Guest, or writers like Ralph Fox and Christopher Caudwell. One of these was John Cornford. Some of his poetry reflected the socialist realism style of the times and has little potential popularity today (though, who knows, it may yet come back into fashion). His writings from the front line however match the very best of Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves or Siegfried Sassoon. And his piece de resistance Heart of the Heartless World, written to his great love Margot Heinemann (who became a great Communist luminary herself writing such agitational work as Wages Front and the Case for Coal — she worked closely throughout her life with the National Union of Mineworkers — and who eventually married J.D. Bernal the crystallographer, the only scientist to win both the Nobel prize and the Stalin prize for science) was both his last and greatest work.

Too late for Cornford, the mobilization of the flower of the movement to Spain, where many were cut down, was discontinued. Harry Pollitt the party’s legendary general secretary observing, brutally perhaps but rationally, that the Communists had plenty of Welsh miners but not as many great intellectuals.

Until now the knowledge of the meteor that was John Cornford has been buried under the sands of time and prejudice. He flared briefly but brilliantly and burnt out in the flash of a Fascist musket in a now largely forgotten battle. It is a duty, for me, to see his name and those of his comrades are inscribed in a properly glorious firmament of the British section of the greatest internationalist movement of its, or any, time.

GEORGE GALLOWAY is a Member of the British Parliament, representing the  Respect coalition .   He is the author of,   Mr. Galloway Goes to Washington (New Press),   I’m Not the Only One (Penguin UK),  and the upcoming  Fidel Castro Handbook(MQ Publications).  GallowayG@parliament.uk




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