Our Fathers Fought Franco: an extract

Our Fathers Fought Franco (Luath Press, £12.99) by Lisa Croft, Willy Maley, Jennie Renton and Tam Watters is a resonant piece of working-class history that contextualises and goes beyond the Spanish Civil War experiences of International Brigade volunteers James Maley, Donald Renton, Geordie Watters and AC Williams. 

Condensed from ‘Not made with rosewater’ by Jennie Renton from Our Fathers Fought Franco.

Born on 30 March 1912, my father Don grew up in a tiny flat in Bridge Street, Portobello, with six brothers and two sisters. His mother, Julia, had been a land worker in East Lothian. His father died when he was 14 and he left school to go out to work and contribute to the meagre family income. An apprenticeship as a painter and decorator (his father’s trade) came to an abrupt end when he was fired for using company paint for daubing pavements with political slogans. He was blacklisted for militancy. 

Don became well-known in the Portobello area as a political activist, involved in campaigns relating to the local environment, housing and (un)employment. A few years ago, an elderly man came into my bookshop on a mission to tell me that he had been brought up opposite my granny’s flat in Mount Lodge Place. He remembers being woken up one evening by the sound of someone singing ‘The Internationale’ in the street. His mother, less than pleased at her little boy arising prematurely from his slumbers, told him that it was just Donald Renton giving it laldy, and to get back to sleep.  

By the age of 17 Don was a convinced communist. He was inspired by radical speakers he heard at the foot of The Mound – where right up to the 1970s people of every ideological stripe took to their soapboxes. In the early 1930s, he founded the Portobello Branch of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), taking up the cudgels on behalf of people attempting to appeal against the heartless rulings of the Means Test introduced by the ‘National’ Government of Ramsay MacDonald in 1931, a time of mass unemployment. The Means Test might have been dreamt up by Torquemada. Under the guise of fiscal probity, it was more a means of tormenting those who had hit rock bottom. Possession of a radio was deemed sufficient reason to cut off benefit and throw families into deeper crisis and despair. 

He was also involved in campaigns to provide amenities for tenants in Edinburgh’s new council housing areas of Lochend and Niddrie, and to prevent evictions. In what became known as ‘The Siege of Gardners’ Crescent’, he barricaded himself into a first floor flat with a family that had fallen into rent arrears. After holding off the bailiffs for four days, Don was arrested and appeared in court on a charge of breach of the peace. Asked if he had anything to say, he responded: ‘A communist never whines for mercy from the puppets who administer justice.’ He was sentenced to 30 days. 

In 1935, as election agent for Willie Gallacher, Don was at the heart of the brilliantly successful campaign which saw the communist candidate become MP for West Fife. He chaired two packed meetings at the Usher Hall, for Willie Gallacher and Harry Pollitt respectively.  

As an organiser of the hunger marches from Scotland to London, in 1934 and 1936, when he was leader and quartermaster of the Edinburgh contingent, Don threw himself into the fight for work and ‘full maintenance for all whom capitalism had denied the right to work’. He was destined to become one of the leaders of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, closely associated with Wal Hannington and Harry McShane in the pre-war demonstrations against what were effectively government starvation policies. 

After the 1936 Hunger March to London, Don volunteered to join the International Brigade: ‘We regarded the defence of democracy in Spain as being inseparable from the defence of our own homeland against Hitler’s drive to subjugate all the peoples of Europe.’ 

Donald Renton was captured in February 1937 on the second day of the Battle of Jarama along with other members of the XVth International Brigade. After three brutal months in prison, he was repatriated.  As NUWM organiser in the East End of London until the outbreak of the Second World War, he planned numerous direct actions, using tactics more recently associated with Trident Ploughshares, Pollok Free State and Extinction Rebellion. 






Comments (3)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to understand the internationalism of the International Brigades in the context of European colonialism. At the time of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, I gather Republican Spain was still an active Empire (like the British one remains to this day). Democracy of sorts at home, tyranny and terror in the colonies. It has been a while since I read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and he had some anti-colonial things to say in other works. Of course, there were many varieties of Republicanism.

    From other histories, I gather that some British subjects of European birth took part in anti-colonial struggles in places such as India, but I suppose that was a long way to travel and a much bigger scale. Was there a recognition that destabilising parts of the British Empire at that point could weaken its response to German, Italian and Japanese imperialism? What kinds of geo-political calculations were made at the time?

    1. Paddy Farrington says:

      Why not read what Jennie Renton writes about her father: ‘We regarded the defence of democracy in Spain as being inseparable from the defence of our own homeland against Hitler’s drive to subjugate all the peoples of Europe.’

      That seems to me to describe in pretty simple terms the motivation of those who joined the international brigades. No doubt it was amplified by the policy of non-intervention from France and the United Kingdom, and the fact that Franco (a general in Spain’s Africa army) used the remnants of Spain’s colonies in North Africa to launch his civil war.

      Reactionaries dreaming of recreating an empire launch an unprovoked attack against a democratically elected republic: sounds familiar? Perhaps we could do with more of Donald Renton’s clarity of thought today.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Paddy Farrington, I am not clear what you mean. The author’s statement about defending democracy was what prompted my comment. Some historians regard the first and second world wars as essentially the same conflict of empires with a hiatus in between, though that seems a little simplistic. While Hitler was subjugating Europeans, those Europeans were subjugating non-Europeans. At the end of World War 2, the British even helped its fellow European Empires re-subjugate colonies which they failed to defend against the Japanese.

        Here, I think, is the relevant statement from Wikipedia (Spanish Morocco is not a history I’m familar with):
        “The Communist Party of Spain and Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), advocated anti-colonial policies, and pressured the Republican government to support the independence of Spanish Morocco, intending to create a rebellion at Franco’s back and cause disaffection among his Moroccan troops. The government – then led by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) — rejected that course of action as it would have likely resulted in conflict with France, the colonial ruler of the other portion of Morocco.”

        My understanding is that those volunteering for the International Brigades may have attached to different factions (communist and anarchist, chiefly, which I would assume were anti-colonial), but under the overall command of the Republican government, which remained colonial. Indeed, I have to wonder what would have happened if the Republican government had conceded independence to Spanish Morocco before 1936. No Army of Africa for Franco?

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