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Sunday, 6 December 2009

Ethel MacDonald and Bob Smillie

Ethel MacDonald is one of those important people who rarely is found in history books. One of nine children, she was born in Bellshill on 24th February 1909. She left home at sixteen and did a variety of jobs over the next couple of years. MacDonald joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and in 1931 she met Guy Aldred in Glasgow. Impressed by her revolutionary zeal he appointed her secretary of the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation (APCF), an organization formed by Aldred in 1921. The APCF was breakaway group from the Communist Party of Great Britain.

In June 1934 MacDonald and Aldred and were both involved in the formation of the United Socialist Movement (USM), an anarcho-communist political organisation based in Scotland. Several members of the Independent Labour Party who had lost their belief in the parliamentary road to socialism joined the party.

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War she travelled with Jenny Patrick, Aldred's wife, to Barcelona as a representative of the USM. Soon afterwards she was employed by the CNT-FAI's foreign language information centre. Later she gave nightly English-language political broadcasts on Radio Barcelona.

On 14th November, 1936 Buenaventura Durruti arrived in Madrid from Aragón with his Anarchist Brigade. Six days later Durruti was killed. Ethel MacDonald claimed that Durruti had been killed by a member of the Communist Party (PCE). MacDonald did what she could do investigate the killing.

MacDonald soon had a strong following for her radio broadcasts. The Glasgow Herald reported: "A prominent news editor in Hollywood says that he has received hundred of letters concerning Ethel MacDonald, stating that the writers, in all parts of the USA and Canada, enjoyed her announcements and talks from Barcelona radio, not because they agreed with what she said, but because they thought she had the finest radio speaking voice they had ever heard."

On the 3rd May 1937, Rodriguez Salas, the Chief of Police, ordered the Civil Guard and the Assault Guard to take over the Telephone Exchange, which had been operated by the CNT since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Members of the CNT in the Telephone Exchange were armed and refused to give up the building. Members of the CNT, FAI and POUM became convinced that this was the start of an attack on them by the UGT, PSUC and the PCE and that night barricades were built all over the city.

Fighting broke out on the 4th May. Later that day the anarchist ministers, Federica Montseny and Juan Garcia Oliver, arrived in Barcelona and attempted to negotiate a cease-fire. When this proved to be unsuccessful, Juan Negrin, Vicente Uribe and Jesus Hernández called on Francisco Largo Caballero to use government troops to takeover the city. Largo Caballero also came under pressure from Luis Companys, the leader of the PSUC, not to take this action, fearing that this would breach Catalan autonomy.

On 6th May death squads assassinated a number of prominent anarchists in their homes. The following day over 6,000 Assault Guards arrived from Valencia and gradually took control of Barcelona. It is estimated that about 400 people were killed during what became known as the May Riots. During this crackdown MacDonald assisted the escape of anarchists wanted by the Communist secret police. As a result she became known as the "Scots Scarlet Pimpernel".

On 12th June, 1937, Bob Smillie, a member of the Independent Labour Party, who had been fighting with the POUM forces, died while being held by the Valencia police. He officially died from peritonitis. However, rumours began to circulate that he had died following a beating in his prison cell. MacDonald now began writing newspaper articles and making radio broadcasts claiming that Smillie had been executed by the secret police.

Eventually she herself was arrested by the authorities. She later told the Glasgow Evening Times: "My arrest was typical of the attitude of the Communist Party... Assault Guards and officials of the Public Order entered the house in which I lived late one night. Without any explanation they commenced to go through thoroughly every room and every cupboard in the house. After having discovered that which to them was sufficient to hang me - revolutionary literature etc."

Fenner Brockway of the Independent Labour Party worked behind the scenes to obtain MacDonald's release. He argued "she is an anarchist and has no connection with our party". On 8th July 1937, Ethel MacDonald was released in prison. However, within a few days she was rearrested again and spent another 12 days in captivity. When she was freed she went into hiding in Barcelona. She wrote to Guy Aldred and told him: "I am still here and unable to leave the country legally. I am in hiding... I cannot get a visa. If I apply I shall be arrested."

Ethel MacDonald's mother received a letter from Helen Lennox saying that her daughter's was in danger because of what she knew about the Bob Smillie case: "The Secret Service operating today in Spain comes by night and its victims are never seen again. Bob Smillie they didn't dare to bump off openly, but he may have suffered more because of that. Your Ethel certainly believes his death was intended. She prophesied it before his death took place, and said he would not be allowed out of the country with the knowledge he had. What worries me more than anything is that Ethel has already been ill and would be easy prey for anyone trying to make her death appear natural."

In September 1937 MacDonald managed to escape from Spain. After leaving the country she made speeches on the way the Communist Party (PCE) had been acting in during the Spanish Civil War in Paris and Amsterdam. She returned to Glasgow in November, 1937 and in a speech to 300 people at Central Station she said: "I went to Spain full of hopes and dreams. It promised to be utopia realised. I return full of sadness, dulled by the tragedy I have seen. I have lived through scenes and events that belong to the French revolution."

MacDonald also argued that Bob Smillie had been killed by the officials of the Communist Party (PCE). According to Daniel Gray, the author of Homage to Caledonia (2008): "she did her utmost to convince the public that Bob Smillie had been murdered, alleging that the secret police had assassinated him in cold blood."

David Murray, the Independent Labour Party representative in Spain, denied this and he wrote to John McNair saying: "Ethel MacDonald has been quite a trouble and my tactics are to choke her off. Murray's story was accepted until George Orwell arrived back in London. In his book, Homage to Catalonia (1938), Orwell argued that Smillie had died "an evil and meaningless death".

Alex Smillie, Bob's father, became convinced that his son had been murdered. David Murray wrote to him arguing: "I am convinced, and this I can affirm on oath, that Bob died a natural death. All my observations and impressions lead me to this conclusion. Judgement is a human thing and liable to error, but in spite of every curious and mysterious circumstance, I am convinced that Bob was never ill-treated nor was he done to death."

Georges Kopp, Smillie's commander in Spain, also argued that Smillie had been murdered: "The doctor states that Bob Smillie had the skin and the flesh of his skin perforated by a powerful kick delivered by a foot shod in the nailed boot; the intestines were partly hanging outside. Another blow had severed the left side connection between the jaw and the skull and the former was merely hanging on the right side. Bob died about 30 minutes after reaching the hospital."

It seems that the ILP joined forces with the Communist Party to cover-up the death of Bob Smillie. The argument being that if it became widely known that the communists were killing anarchists and the followers of Trotsky, this would only help Franco and the fascists. It is time the truth was told.

You can find a video about Ethel MacDonald here:

A full discussion of the Bob Smillie death can be found here:

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