Dolores Ibárruri died 25 years ago today. She was a pro-Soviet communist, Republican leader, and feminist in Spain who agitated to impose communism in her country and who later worked with Stalin's régime in Moscow. Upon her return to Spain, following the death of Franco, democratic politicians loaded her with honours. She is known for the slogan '¡No pasarán!' during the Battle of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War.
Isadora Dolores Ibárruri Gómez was born in a Gallarta, in the Basque Country. Her father was a miner. He was also—and this says much about what he had to contend with—a supporter of Carlism, a traditionalist, legitimist, monarchist, counter-revolutionary movement, which arose in the reaction against the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and which was akin to Joseph de Maistre and the French Reactionaries. Her mother was Castillian. And she was also exasperated by young Dolores, whom, aged ten, she finally took to the Church of San Felicísimo to have her exorcised.
Ibárruri was a wilful and argumentative child, certainly with demonic energy, but also with remarkable qualities. Unfortunately, she was born in a time and place that offered few opportunities to channel them constructively: women of her era and station were housewives or servants or both, who lived in sacrifice and abnegation. Schooling was harsh and religious, with an obtuse and minimal curriculum and lots of Catholicism. Her headmistress recognised she had possibilities, and encouraged Ibárruri to begin training to become a teacher. However, when, due to the family's exiguous means, she was forced to discontinue her education, her prospects reverted to the usual ones: to become a maid, a waitress, or a housewife, provided she could find a husband.
This she did. And she did early. Yet of all the men in the region, the one who got her attention was Julián Ruiz Gabiña (1890 - 1977), a communist miner and ex-convict who had been in and out of prison since the age of 20. She was still in her teens when they met, and it was this rascal who filled her head with Marxist poison. He also got her pregnant, and thus they had a child out of wedlock. At last, he married her, but not without getting her into trouble: in 1917, the young couple, now living in Somorrostro and with a toddler, participated in a general strike, which led to Ruiz's being returned to his proper place: prison. Ibárruri was left to fend by herself, reading Karl Marx and other such literature at the Socialist Worker's library in Somorrostro.
She learnt nothing from the experience. On the contrary, she became more active, and by 1918 was penning her first article of communist propaganda. The latter, an invective against religious hypocrisy, was published in El Minero Vizcaíno. Since the article was to appear during Holy Week, she signed her screed, La Pasionaria (The Passionflower).
Worse was to come. In 1920 she went full communist and joined the Spanish Communist Party (Partido Comunista Español, or PCE), which had just been created. They named her member of the Provincial Committee of the Basque Communist Party. The PCE had been formed out of the youth wing of the Spanish Socialist Worker's Party (PSOE), which still exists, unfortunately, and which had been founded at a bar in Madrid by Pablo Iglesias, whose mother had been reduced to begging. The PCE then merged with the Spanish Communist Workers Party (PCOE) to become the Communist Party of Spain (also PCE). This rabble joined the Third International, and, of course, its Left wing engaged in political violence, though thankfully against other Leftists.
At this time communist parties were flaring up like a rash throughout the world, so the appearance of one in Spain was not in itself remarkable. In fact, it was to be expected, because the democratic politicians had a record of failure that was truly astonishing. Inept, talentless, impotent, and corrupt, their policies, or lack thereof, had left their country economically backward and politically adrift. The railways were antiquated, cars a rare sight, and electricity had yet to reach some rural areas. This in the 1920s; in other countries there were towns that had had electricity since the early 1880s. It was, therefore, a matter of time before someone got tired of the endless parliamentary shenanigans and decided to do something about them. And it was thus that in 1923, the military, headed by Captain General Miguel Primo de Rivera in Barcelona, swept the entire political establishment out of power and established himself as a dictator. The King too had grown fed up with the politicians, and so supported this genuine nationalist by naming him Prime Minister.
Now, while Primo de Rivera thought this clearing-out was needed, he also only intended the dictatorship to be brief—long enough to re-establish order and introduce much-needed reforms. Some of these he did successfully: for example, by the time he stepped down, Spain possessed Europe's best automobile road network, dams and hydroelectrical power plants had been built, remote rural communities had been supplied with electricity, and the railways had been upgraded and modernised. On the other hand, he found himself with quite a task on his hands, and the originally intended 90 days became seven years, by which time the world had entered into a huge economic depression. Moreover, he lacked the political ability to legitimise his régime. As time passed, this weakened his position until, finally, finding that both the King and the army had withdrawn their support, he tendered his resignation. Spain was then thrown once again into political chaos—the ineffectual Second Republic. Unsurprisingly, his son, Jose Antonio, would found the Falagist movement a few years later.
Throughout this entire period, from 1920 to 1930, Ibárruri threw herself onto grassroots militancy. She had six children, but four died quickly. Her marriage broke down and she took a lover—a toyboy 17 years her junior, Fernando Antón, a railway worker who was also a militant communist. Never mind, because by the end of it, she was appointed to the PCE's Central Committee. Power at last! She used her influence to have her lover promoted within the party.
With the installation of the Second Republic in 1931, Ibárruri moved to Madrid, where she became editor of Mundo Obrero, an agitprop rag funded by the PCE. Within months she was arrested, needless to say, and jailed with common criminals (weren't communists criminals anyway?), but this proved no deterrent. During her first spell in prison, this arrogant woman organised a hunger strike in order to get her chums freed. During her second spell, not long after, she had the inmates signing 'The Internationale' in the visiting room and even convinced them that they were above menial work in the prison yard. (Note that these were all convicted criminals, who were there to be punished.) Not content with that, she wrote two articles for PCE rags.
At this stage, the government should have thrown away the key, but instead released her so she could do even more harm.
In 1933, and in conjunction with the PCE, she founded Mujeres Antifascistas (Anti-Fascist Women), a feminist group with a heavy political slant. That same year she made her pilgrimage to the USSR. One would have thought that, upon witnessing the workers' paradise, particularly under Joseph Stalin, any intelligent person would have then been given pause. Even after Stalin it was sufficiently repulsive to jolt committed communists. Such was the case with Leszek Kołakowski. Not so with Ibárruri. Indeed, she was thrilled with Stalinism. About her sighting of Moscow, she would later write in her autobiography:
To me, who saw it through the eyes of the soul it was the most wonderful city on earth. The construction of socialism was being managed from it. In it were taking shape the earthly dreams of freedom of generations of slaves, outcasts, serfs, proletarians. From it one could take in and perceive the march of humanity toward communism.
By this time, Soviet Russia had already been through the Red Terror and the Cheka, and the Terror-Famine in Ukraine was just ending, leaving up to 7.5 million dead. So much for the march of humanity. Yet she liked it so much there that she stayed until the following year.
Next she went to Paris to attend an anti-war and anti-fascist women's meeting. And then, towards the end of 1934, she did what many Leftists do: she put her politics ahead of her own children's welfare. Following a recent election, in which the Confederación Española de la Derecha Autónoma (CEDA), a coalition of conservative and Right-wing parties, had won, resulting in the appointment of three CEDA ministers, a mob of communist thugs went on a rampage in the northern city of Oviedo: they killed officials, murdered clergymen, arsoned theatres, and burnt down the university. General Franco crushed the uprising with brutal force, and rightly so. The thugs were switfly convicted, leaving their wives and children to survive as best they could. Within months they were starving—what a surprise—and Ibárruri went up north in a risky rescue mission, in hopes of bringing 100 of her comrades' children to Madrid. Though she accomplished her goal, alas, once again she was jailed. Her young boy and girl, having endured enough anguish already, needed a more conscientious mother, so in 1935 Ibárruri had the bright idea of sending them to the Soviet Union—home of Stalin, the NKVD, and the Gulags!
Now a truly liberated woman, Ibárruri returned to Russia in the Summer of 1935 to attend the 7th World Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow. There it was resolved to tone down the Marxist dogma in favour of expediency: fascism had to be fought at all costs, they thought. Ibárruri loved it, returning to Spain starry-eyed and full of hope, this having long been a PCE policy. What she didn't expect is that this would lead soon after to a Non-Intervention Agreement (signed by France, Britain, Russia, and numerous others), which would later leave the Republicans in the lurch during the Spanish Civil War, since Stalin's policy prioritised collective security against German National Socialism, and the idea of the agreement was to prevent a proxy war that could escalate into a pan-European war.
While in Moscow, Ibárruri was elected deputy member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). This made her the second top communist in Spain after the secretary-general of the PCE.
Ibárruri was arrested yet again in 1936, but was, stupidly, freed in time to campaign in Asturias during the general election campaign then unfolding. It was only because voters were allowed to choose up to 13 candidates simultaneously at the ballot box—'one man, anything up to thirteen votes' was the rule—that the PCE managed to get a seat in the Cortes (the Spanish parliament). So, besides a top communist, democracy had now made Ibárruri an elected official as well. As if Spain didn't have enough problems already.
Her first act was to release her criminal cronies from the prison in Oviedo. In her own words:
As soon as the victory of the Popular Front in the elections became known I, already an elect member of Parliament, showed up at the prison of Oviedo the next morning, went to the office of the Director, who had fled in a mad panic because he had behaved like a genuine criminal toward the Asturian prisoners interned after the revolution of October 1934, and there I found the Administrator to whom I said, 'Give me the keys because the prisoners must be released this very day'. He replied, 'I have not received any orders', and I answered, "I am a member of the Republic's Parliament, and I demand that you hand over the keys immediately to set the prisoners free.' He handed them over and I assure you that it was the most thrilling day of my activist life, opening the cells and shouting, 'Comrades, everyone get out!' Truly thrilling. I did not wait for Parliament to sit or for the release order to be given. I reasoned, 'We have run on the promise of freedom for the prisoners of the revolution of 1934—we won—today the prisoners go free.'
Well played, Dolores, well played.
What motivated this odious virago? Federico García Lorca, the poet, seems to have seen right through the caparace: while chatting over coffee at a Madrid coffee house, he said, 'Dolores, you are a woman of grief, of sorrows . . . I'm going to write you a poem'. He never did.
When the Civil War erupted, as was inevitable given the never-ending political chaos, Ibárruri took to speechifying on the radio. Her supporters describe her as a good orator, and she could certainly extemporate and her declamatory delivery may have roused her comrades, but in large part her orations were of the 'up with the comrades, down with the fascists!' type. Heroic posturing, mixed with conspiracy theory, mixed with unrelenting negativity about enemies and traitors. Nothing truly inspiring, except to a communist. And clearly no Jonathan Bowden either, in terms of intellectual content.
Thanks to Stalin's deft and secret manoeuvrings, the Trotskyists and the anarchists fell out of favour, and the unwitting Ibárruri turned against them. Little did she know that Stalin simply wanted to deprive the fleeing Trotsky, his political enemy, of a Spanish haven, desiring to make him run and keep him running. Stalin had Ibárruri convinced that Trotsky and the anarchists were the 'fascist enemy within', all in a plot with Hitler and Franco to smash the Republicans.
And, without question, the Left was divided, because the Trotskyists saw the PCE as authoritarian. Which they were—after all, they were aligned with Stalin and the NKVD.
Accordingly, the Trotskyists and the anarchists were eradicated, with Ibárruri pushing for the most extreme and violent measures. She took the view that
[i]f there is an adage which says that in normal times it is preferable to acquit a hundred guilty ones than to punish a single innocent one, when the life of a people is in danger it is better to convict a hundred innocent ones than to acquit a single guilty one.
In other words: don't even hint of getting in her way!
By 1938, Stalin had formally forsaken the Spanish Republic, having entered into an alliance with France and Britain. By May the following year, the Nationalists had wiped the floor with the Republicans, and Franco was firmly in power. Ibárruri had seen the writing on the wall, however, and must have realised that Franco would be no amiable soft dictator (like Primo de Rivera) for she had already flown from Spain two months earlier. For once she was right: Franco was icy and methodical, had proven ruthless against communism, and soon demonstrated his political ability by reconfiguring the entire power structure so that it would be completely dependent on him. It remained so for nearly forty years.
Ibárruri went first to Algeria, then French territory, and subsequently to France, where she was reunited with her children. From there, at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, they, along with other Spanish communists, emigrated to the Soviet Union.
She left her lover Antón behind. He would eventually be captured by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp. Ibárruri, who was chummy with Stalin, had the latter mediate in his release. Antón went to Moscow, but finally got tired of Ibárruri and broke up the relationship. He replaced his matronly girlfriend, by then approaching 50, with a younger girl, with whom he had a daughter, who was born with Down Syndrome. But if he thought he'd heard the last of Ibárruri, he had another thing coming, because hell hath no fury, and she was not one to be scorned. After the defeat of the communist guerrillas and the failure of Operación Reconquista de España (which was crushed by Franco in 1944), he found himself targeted by La Pasionaria, who blamed him for defeat and, dubbing him a traitor to communism, had embarked on a radical purge of the PCE in France. Antón's few supporters, afraid of seeing their own heads roll, eventually deserted him, and he was forced to go Warsaw, along with his new lover and disabled daughter, and take up a low-paid factory job with long hours and Dickensian conditions. It would be many years and penuries before the PCE rehabilitated him. When it finally did, he came face to face with Ibárruri; their encounters were frosty and ruled by protocol. She never forgave him.
Franco was happy to see her go, but Stalin was delighted to have her join the ranks. Ibárruti was installed near the Kremlin, where she worked in the Secretariat of the ECCI at the Comintern headquarters. Her work involved constant monitoring and discussion of the spread of communism beyond the Soviet Union, and discussions in the PCE central committee. The PCE and the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) were in complete agreement on everything, and would remain thus until 1968. Stalin's policies—the famines, the Great Terror, the Gulags—enjoyed Ibárruti's dithyrambic approval. In January 1940 she wrote:
To speak about the triumph of socialism over one-sixth of the earth, to write about the lush development of agriculture in the Soviet Union, a development unequalled by any other country, to admire the astonishing growth of socialist industry and the impetuous gains of the workers, to marvel at the unprecedented accomplishments of the mighty Soviet air force, at the mighty beefing up of the Soviet navy, to describe the glorious exploits of the Red Army liberator of peoples, to study the wonderful framework of the huge socialist state with its multiple nationalities united by unbreakable bonds of fraternal friendship, to observe the progress of science, art and of the culture of all Soviet peoples, the joyous life of their children, women, workers, peasants and intellectuals, the abiding security of everyone and their faith in the future, to know the daily life of socialism and the heroic actions of the Soviet people means to see Stalin, to cite Stalin, to encounter Stalin.
An example of the disconnect between perception and reality in the communist mind, if yet another was needed. One wonders what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would have made of that.
A year later she was asked to set up a radio station to broadcast communist propaganda into Spain. Around the same time, her fellow Spanish refugees, clearly not tired of blood or death, volunteered to fight in the war. Ibárruti was only too happy to see her compatriots die for the Kremlin. However, the Germans were closing in, and the ECCI was forced to up sticks and hunker down in Bashkortostan, between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains.
A few months later, the PCE's secretary-general committed suicide— probably the only good thing he ever did. Ibárruri inherited his post.
In the period beginning in 1939 and until her retirement from active politics in 1960, Ibárruri finally did some good, for she pursued the persecution inside the party with vigour. Assassination became a routine management tool, besides arrests and ratting out comrades fleeing into Spain to the fascist authorities. Under her leadership, there was nothing to which the PCE wouldn't stoop, but the up side is that this meant a weaker party and fewer communists.
Upon her retirement, she turned to writing her memoirs. The first of two volumes was published in 1962, with the somewhat sadistic title El Único Camino (The Only Way). Meanwhile, Moscow State University awarded her an honorary doctorate, deeming she had contributed to the advancement of Marxist theory. This was obviously political back-slapping, because Ibárruri, who had only a secondary school education. was no Lenin and wrote no theoretical texts.
In fact, she achieved almost nothing of note thereafter, spending her time wining and dining at conferences and visits with communists leaders across Europe, including Josip Broz Tito (whom she had formerly traduced) and Nicolae Ceausescu. She did, however, chair the editorial committee that oversaw the production of Guerra y Revolución en España, 1936 - 1939, pure communist propaganda in four volumes, purporting to be a history of the Spanish Civil War. This waste of paper was published between 1966 and 1971.
Franco died in 1975. Initially hobbled by the devastation of the Civil War and by ideologically motivated sanctions and boycotts from Western democracies, it took until the 1950s before Spain was able to regain its pre-war production highs. During this time, Franco's régime built the modern motorway system, modernised and expanded the Port of Barcelona, and opened the a mass car manufacturer, SEAT, which proved hugely successful. (Indeed, when I visited Spain in the 1970s, the iconic SEAT 600—a slightly larger version of the Fiat 500—was everywhere, and from there the country became one of the largest car markets in Europe.) In the late 1950s, Franco had replaced the old Falangist guard with technocrats. This had led to heavy development of infrastructure, the growth of a healthy middle class, and the opening up of Spain as a popular tourist destination. By the mid 1970s, the economy had grown six times larger, electricity production nearly 30 times larger, and construction had begun for a network of nuclear power plants. This came to be known as the 'Spanish miracle'.
And it was to this stabilised and prosperous Spain, now with a restored democracy, that Ibárruri returned in 1977, having had no hand in its development. Except by staying away, that is, but then Franco hadn't given her a choice. Adolfo Suárez, then liberal Prime Minister, had legalised the CPE a few months earlier, so when Ibárruri landed at Barajas Airport, in Madrid, a handful of her fans—among whom was not her estranged husband—were able to greet her openly. She would have been turned away by the police at the border had she landed two days earlier, because even the liberal government didn't want to grant her a visa; indeed, her initial application was denied. In the end, however, they relented and allowed her in. She was 82 years of age, after all.
Still, elderly as she was, and still having learnt nothing in her excessively long life, despite having had the examples of not only the USSR, but also China, Cambodia, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba, this woman returned to active political activity. She attended small rallies, where both recalcitrant geriatric communists and naïve young ones, neither of whom knew anything about true communism, adulated in one big happy party. There were enough of these dunces to install her back in the Cortes—but only just, because she alone represented a quarter of the PCE's seats in the chamber. And it seems the democratic politicians were as clueless as the handful who voted for her, because the embarrassing spectacle of their treating her to a standing ovation—for a whole minute—followed her entrance. This would be the first item in a catalogue of political idiocies, because since then Spaniards have had to endure the transformation, by their politicians and academics, of old communists into heroes. Such is their state of ignorance that this has been allowed to pass with only the meekest of protests, if any at all, and certainly without controversy. Today, Izquierda Unida, of which the PCE is now a part, grants awards with her name, with complete impunity, and of the ten different urban features in Europe named after her, half are in Spain.
By this time, Ibárruri's health was in decline, but this did not stop her from travelling to Moscow, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the October Revolution, presided over by Leonid Brezhnev—a man who expanded the Soviet military while stagnating the Soviet economy, collecting 100 medals in the process. The remainder of her days were a concatenation of feminist and political rallies and PCE and PCSU congresses. Her Summer holidays she spent in the Soviet Union, thus effectively using Spanish tax-payers' money to fund Soviet oppression.
By 1987, Ibárruri was begging the government for money. Having never contributed to Spain's social security, the hag had no pension. This posed no obstacle for the PSOE, which had finally managed to get themselves elected into office five years earlier: Felipe González's government, which would sink years later amid endless corruption scandals, granted her a generous monthly perquisite. She lasted another two years, before pneumonia finally removed her from the Earth.
It is fortunate that Ibárruri was contained by events before she could inflict worse. Had her criminal gang been successful during the Spanish Civil War, there would have been authoritarianism, without a doubt, but sans the economic growth and with more death, persecution, and police state. Spain would have shared the same fate as the now former Soviet republics, only it would have fared even worse, then and afterwards, because in relation to the rest of Europe the country had fallen well behind economically and infrastructurally during its post-imperial decline. Even Germany, Europe's most robust and productive economy, a country with Europe's top human capital, has yet fully to recover from the fourty-four years its Eastern part spent behind the Iron Curtain. Certainly, Franco's dictatorship had its minuses, not to mention its own negative consequences, no one would dispute it, but between him or José Díaz in power, the choice is clear.
More importantly, though some—Judge Baltasar Garzón comes to mind—have tried (and not without political motivations) to advance their careers by dredging up Franco's harsh methods against subversive communists (despite a 1977 amnesty), one must point out that there is a reason why his Falagist movement was described as 'reactionary'; yes, the fascists were harsh, but theirs were proportional reactions to those employed by their enemies—and probably not even proportional, because where communists came to power, their crimes were even worse and on a vastly grander scale, to the point that the numbers become so large as to be rendered meaningless.
It could have all been avoided if the democratic politicians had done what they were supposed to do—what they really needed to do—at the beginning of the century, or even during the previous century. They didn't, so a mild dictatorship followed. And when they were given a second chance, they squandered that as well. So a war and a more vigorous dictatorship was the result.
But Ibárruri's story didn't end well anyway. The Spanish media portray this murderous harridan as a heroine and a grandmotherly figure. The younger generations, who have grown up in peace and prosperity, miseducated by Marxist academics, are adrift, living exclusively, it seems, for the botellón, without a suitable point of reference or inspiring ideals. The revised historical narrative now paints the fascists as devils and the communists as saints. The socialists and the liberals who have ping-ponged political office since the restoration of democracy have flooded Spain with immigrants, mostly from Latin America and North Africa (visible across the Gibraltar strait from the Southern coast), justifying this the same way their counterparts have done throughout the Western world. No doubt, the economically illiterate Ibárruri would still complain about capitalism, convinced, as she was, that people 'live[d] very well' without it in communist countries, but—if somewhat indirectly— in the end the witch has had the final cackle.
 Juan Cruz, 'Ha Fallecido en Baracaldo Julián Ruiz, Marido de 'Pasionaria', El Pais, 5 August 1977.
 Dolores Ibárruri, María Carmen García-Nieto París, María José Capellín Corrada. El único camino. Madrid: Editorial Castalia, 1992.
 Dolores Ibárruri quoted by Mariano Muniesa in: "Emocionado Recuerdo a una Mujer del Pueblo: La Camarada, Compañera y Hermana Dolores Ibárruri." La Comuna. 13 November 2009.