Every now and then in the course of history ordinary people have emerged from under various forms of oppression to break their chains and seek a dignified life, free of illegitimate power structures. Such genuine revolution was in progress in Barcelona when Ethel Macdonald and her friend Jenny Patrick arrived there in November 1936. Macdonald was a young Scottish woman of libertarian instincts. People who knew her told Chris Dolan that she was an instinctive rebel. She relished the atmosphere of camaraderie and solidarity. She met famous international anarchists like Emma Goldman and Augustin Souchy.
Macdonald worked in Barcelona as a radical correspondent for Scottish newspapers. In her reports she conveyed the incredible enthusiasm and energy of people who felt that they had arrived at a new era, a new kind of life and society. People were liberating themselves from old prejudices, whether they had to do with work, marriage, gender, sex or other aspects of everyday life. Noam Chomsky tells Dolan that the Spanish revolution was "maybe the most successful case of people taking their lives into their own hands." (p. 106)
For Macdonald this all was an experience of a life time. She completely sympathized with the anarchists’ line that only the expansion of the revolution could help to win the war against Franco’s rebel forces. This clashed with the attitudes of those Republicans, and especially the communists, who thought that the revolution weakened the war effort and thus had to be held back. Macdonald sensed that this was not only a question of tactics but reflected the communists’ dislike of a grassroots movement which cannot be controlled from above. She also decided that the Soviet Union was using the Spanish Civil War for its own power political purposes.
Macdonald’s lack of Spanish language had been a handicap in her movements around Barcelona. Then suddenly her English became an important weapon for anarchist propaganda. At the age of 28 she became the international voice of anarchist Barcelona. Her radio broadcasts found listeners in the English speaking countries. The Americans seemed especially to have liked her Scottish accent. In her broadcasts Macdonald used emotionally strong language. She condemned the non-intervention policies of British and French governments whilst the fascist powers were busy arming and helping Franco’s forces. Behind the non-intervention policy she saw a fear of revolution which was greater than fear of fascism in Spain.
Macdonald’s broadcasts were extremely successful but also dangerous. Dolan writes: "Ethel Macdonald was no longer just one of many volunteers, writers and activists in the Catalan capital but a recognised figure. In the worsening atmosphere of Barcelona an anarchist speaker with the potential to move and inspire was putting herself in a perilous position." (p. 129)
The communists were gaining power in Barcelona and started to attack anarchist and POUM activists and facilities (the latter being a revolutionary socialist organization, inaccurately described by Dolan as Trotskyist). The atmosphere was turning ugly. Skirmishes between communists and anarchists were becoming more and more frequent. There were assassinations by both sides, although Macdonald assured her readers that the anarchists were still advocating unity between the two camps. There was also tension inside the anarchist side because many grassroots activists were more radical than their leaders.
After the confrontations had peaked during the May Days conflict any reconciliation became impossible. Having sided with the anarchists Macdonald was in danger of arrest. Instead of making herself invisible, she visited her comrades in prison. Dolan writes: "Ethel begged, stole, or borrowed clothes and had them ready for any released prisoners." (p. 152) Then one night there was a thunderous knocking on her door.
As a prisoner Macdonald was as defiant as ever. All her suspicisions of the communists were confirmed: "Given the least little power they answer the arguments of their opponents with force." (p. 162) She was sure that the POUM leader, Andreu Nin, was murdered by Stalinist agents. Indeed, we now know that the assassins were members of the Soviet secret police. Dolan quotes Professor María Dolors Genovés: "Stalinist purges were being exported to Barcelona." (p. 156)
After her release she confronted the authorities demanding the return of all her belongings. One Russian interrogater shouted to her that she was a fascist and ought to be shot. "I told him not to be absurd." (p. 181) She summed everything up in her typically strident way: "Spain has been allowed to degenerate under the control of this Cheka directed by Moscow. Until the workers in all lands chase the CP and its connections from the earth, there will never again be a real working-class movement." (p. 182)
In one of her articles after her experiences, Macdonald wrote: "Had the Spanish people been supplied by other countries, as was their right, with war material, it is no exaggeration to state that the rebels would have been defeated within a very short time. But the victory of the Spanish people would not have meant a return to the status quo. Already the workers had seized control in Spain and were inaugurating a free society. Capitalism recognized the quality of the system that was being built in Spain. And this could not be tolerated." (p. 197)