They Shall Not Pass
By Abel Markos Salas
September 1991; page 13; Volume 3, No. 1
Dolores Ibarruri's autobiography, They Shall Not Pass (original title in Spanish -El Unico Camino) is the moving first hand account of a little known and largely misunderstood period in Spanish history: the brief and tragic experience with social democracy and political pluralism between the fall of monarchy and the bloody civil war that brought General Franco to power in 1939.
Legendary for her committment to the peasant and working class people to whom she was born, "La Pasionaria" (literally "the passion flower") rises Phoenix-like from the ashes of Republican resistance to Franco's fascist war machine. In her simple and honest recollection of historical events, we again understand how lies and distortion serve those in power. In the case of Spain, Franco's ruthless dictatorship tried desperately to erase the bitter truth in order to justify his German and Italian sponsored victory over an international effort to make Spain a democracy.
Translated in 1966, They Shall Not Pass was reissued in a commemorative paperback edition for Ibarruri's 80th birthday in 1976. A second printing occured in 1984. While these dates may appear irrelevant, it is precisely now, during the so-called democratization of Eastern Europe, that La Pasionaria's urgent plea for social, legal, political, and economic justice returns to haunt us with its sad and tender honesty.
Born to a Basque mining family in 1895, Dolores Ibarruri witnessed the brutal repression of workers who slaved 16-18 hours a day deep in the iron mines under horrifying workloads. As a young adult with an increasing political consciousness, she understood that Spain's mineral wealth was being bled and extracted from the Basque mountainside to fuel the growing needs of England and Belgium. She watched with disgust and justifiable anger as the much-touted industrial era launched wage labor slavery as the dominant form of capitalist exploitation.
Her political conversion/birth came quickly and easily. Married to a miner at 20, the wretchedness and abject squalor she confronted on a daily basis served merely to fortify her monumental courage. She understood that she would have to sacrifice her entire life in the fight for freedom and universal human dignity.
An impassionated speaker, Ibarruri became a Communist Party organizer and spokesperson for the Spanish working class while still very young. Her life story, unassumingly yet eloquently told, carries the wisdom and hindsight that follows half a century of political struggle.
When the first Spanish Republic was declared in 1931, Ibarruri, who by then had become a threat to the wealthy oligarchies and international industrial interests, was sent to Madrid to edit Mundo Obrero (Worker's World). There she endured frequent arrests and imprisonment during her efforts to forge alliances between communists, socialists, and anarchists, all of which held verifiable constituencies among the Spanish working class. Her efforts were founded on the dangerously real possibility that reactionary forces (under the guise of Catholicism) would thwart the tiny gains being made by democracy. The old oligarchies and aristocracy were decidedly against the absolution of their power, wealth, and privilege. Their fear of democracy inspired a collusion with foreign capitalists and the sacking of what little mineral wealth was still left in Spain.
It is against this historical backdrop that Ibarruri writes, chronicling with deadly accuracy the intricate political posturing of inept and obsequious Republican leadership which eventually led to the defeat of the Republican alliances and the Government of National Unity during the Spanish Civil War. Let the record stand corrected. La Pasionaria has no agenda other than the clarifications of the "official history" written by the Franco regime. She stands firm in her convictions and makes no attempt to glorify the significant role she held in shaping the political process in the few years just before the rise of fascism.
Ibarruri lauds the International Brigades which rushed to the aid of Republican Spain. She thanked them for their unselfish bravery and ultimately futile defense of Spain's fledgling democracy. She also unmasks British and French efforts to keep the Republican forces from acquiring the arms they needed to beat back the fascist monster. It comes as no surprise that U.S. oil companies supplied Franco with virtually all of his wartime production needs. As students of history, we can look beyond the direct military intervention of Germany and Italy and see that democratic Spain was vanquished because the developed nations also had a vested interest in keeping it an industrially backward country.
Now, on the eve of free-market hegemony across the Eastern Bloc, U.S. taxpayers are bailing out a corrupt savings and loan industry that has managed to mortgage the future for our children. Multinational corporations anxiously seek new markets to bolster slagging profits. The "Africanization" (institutionalization of poverty) of Latin America makes it increasingly impossible to turn a buck there.
Here at home, inner-cities are rife with decay. The reactionary right calls for more police and prisons, but these cost money, so ... cut social programs and further exacerbate the root causes of crime and violence. Who cares if the Black, Latino, and the poor white working class in the United States go to hell? The prospect of the Communist Bloc opening up its doors for "investment opportunity" has CEO's across the globe drooling in Keynesian anticipation of broad new markets, while the people at home have less and less to spend, fewer and fewer jobs.
Read La Pasionaria's autobiography against a present day set for a dose of shock reality. Learn how thousands from all over the world who left home to fight for Spanish democracy died defending the nascent Spanish Republic. Join Dolores Ibarruri in her indictment of political charlatans who used Socialist and Republican rhetoric for personal gain as they quietly and cowardly handed Spain over to the fascists.
They Shall Not Pass is a must read for those who would like to consider themselves politically correct. Be warned, however. Recycling and participation in Save Barton Creek rallies do not make a revolutionary. I'm willing to hedge my bets that the contemporary champions of multiculturalism, the environment, Central America, women's and gay rights are all unprepared to make the kind of committed sacrifices made by the simple peasants and miners in defending their rights as human beings.
Dolores Ibarruri speaks to and for us all if we are only willing to listen.
They Shall Not Pass is available at Resistencia Bookstore [defunct address and phone number redacted].