If George Orwell was the most famous of those who volunteered with the Independent Labour Party (ILP) to go and fight in Spain, he was not the only one. John McNair for example ran the ILP’s office out in Barcelona, until the suppression of the POUM, when like Orwell he returned to Britain. In April 1938, McNair spoke about his experiences in Spain at an ILP meeting in Hastings.
The socialist novelist Ethel Mannin and her partner, the anti-imperialist writer Reginald Reynolds also spoke at the meeting in Hastings. Mannin had thrown herself into rallying solidarity from her base in Britain during the Spanish Civil War from 1937 onwards with the return to UK from Emma Goldman, while Reginald Reynolds had helped Basque children refugees settle in Britain after 4000 arrived in Southampton, getting them housed at Stoneham. Mannin alongside the American anarchist Emma Goldman worked closely with Solidaridad Internacional Antifascista to try and build support in Britain for the POUM and the Spanish anarchists who they felt were bearing the brunt of Stalinist repression in Spain. Mannin spoke alongside Reginald Reynolds at many public meetings with Emma Goldman in this period and also met George Orwell after his return from fighting with the POUM, and contributed to collections such as Spain and Us (with J.B. Priestley, Rebecca West, Stephen Spender, Francis Meynell, Louis Golding, T. F. Powys, J. Langdon-Davies, Catherine Carswell) (1936) and Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War (1937).
On Wednesday 27 April 1938, the Eastbourne Gazette reported the following meeting that took place at the ‘Red House’ pub in Hastings on Sunday 24 April 1938:
‘Women and Fascism: Miss Ethel Mannin at Red House’
Eastbourne Gazette, 27 April 1938.
‘Disclaiming any ability as a speaker, Miss Ethel Mannin, the famous novelist, was content to occupy the chair at an Independent Labour Party meeting which was held at the Red House on Sunday evening.
In simple language she gave her reasons for urging women to take a keener interest in politics. Stressing the lessons to be learnt from events in Europe Miss Mannin declared that if Fascism came to England in any form it would be the end of whatever liberty we enjoyed today.
‘For instance’ she said ‘women today please themselves how many children they have. Under Fascism they would have to bear as many children as the State required. English mothers today complain of the amount of militarism in schools, but under Fascism the teaching of militarism to the children would be intensified.’
To combat the threat of fascism it was not enough for women to link up with feminist movements. It was necessary for them to ally themselves with the whole working class movement, and fight alongside their husbands, sweethearts and brothers for liberty.
Urging women to carry political thinking to its logical conclusion, Miss Mannin pressed the case of the Independent Labour Party, which she described as the only surviving revolutionary Socialist party.
The principal speaker at the meeting was Mr John McNair, who has had first hand experience of the war in Spain. On this subject he spoke of the indescribable horror of the air raids on Madrid and Barcelona. He said that the damage done by the aerial torpedoes far surpassed in death and destruction the bombs dropped by Zeppelins on London during the Great War. One of these torpedoes was sufficient to reduce a seven or eight storey block of flats to a shambles of bricks and mortar, in which would be found mangled fragments of women and children who had thus been murdered in their beds.
The problem that faced us today, the speaker declared, was how to save what remained of civilisation. The civilisations of Greece and Rome perished, and there was the possibility that Western civilisation would follow suit, with a reversion to barbarism. The ancient civilisations decayed because they were built on the backs of slaves, and in all essentials, the workers today were slaves today because it was impossible for them to live unless they accepted the conditions laid down by the governing classes. This form of slavery would persist until the workers were economically free.
He went onto describe how in the past five years a wind of violence, passion and brutality had swept across Europe, destroying all the decent things in life. He denied that there was any inherent difference between our form of democratic capitalism and Fascism, and that wherever capitalism was threatened the owning classes set up a dictator to defend and perpetuate the capitalistic system. British capitalism had not yet needed Fascism, but if it were needed – and the portents indicated that the time might not be remote – they would not hesitate to institute some form of Fascism in this country.
Mr Reginald Reynolds, who also spoke, declared that Parliamentary democracy in this country had always been a farce because it was controlled by the ruling class.