Ethel MacDonald

Ethel MacDonald

Ethel MacDonald, one of nine children, 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 according to to Daniel Gray, the author of Homage to Caledonia (2008), she was "a working class woman of some erudition, she became local ILP secretary in her teens, and became fluent in French and German".

In 1931 Ethel MacDonald 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 Ethel 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. MacDonald, like other members of the USM, had been deeply influenced by the ideas of William Morris.

Ethel MacDonald and the Spanish Civil War

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 while fighting on the outskirts of the city. Durruti's supporters in the CNT claimed that he had been murdered by members of the Communist Party (PCE).

Over the next few months the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT), the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) and the Worker's Party (POUM) played an important role in running Barcelona. This brought them into conflict with other left-wing groups in the city including the Union General de Trabajadores (UGT), the Catalan Socialist Party (PSUC) and the Communist Party (PCE). MacDonald became involved in this conflict and in January 1937 she began to transmit regular English-language reports on the war on the radio station run by the CNT.

Radio Broadcaster

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."

In one broadcast she argued: "There is no doubt that they magnificent struggle of the Spanish workers challenges the entire theory and historical interpretation of parliamentary socialism. The civil war is a living proof of the futility and worthlessness of parliamentary democracy as a medium for social change."

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.

Anarchism in Spain

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".

Ethel MacDonald and Bob Smillie

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."

Disillusionment with Communism

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."

Ethel MacDonald making a speech in 1937
Ethel MacDonald making a speech in 1937

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."

Ethel MacDonald and the Strickland Press

After her return from Spain, Ethel MacDonald joined forces with Guy Aldred, Jenny Patrick, John Taylor Caldwell to establish The Strickland Press, which published regular issues of the USM organ, The Word. MacDonald considered as the unofficial manager, bookkeeper and printer of the Strickland Press.

Ethel MacDonald was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in February 1958 and lost her ability to speak. Within three years she died in Glasgow's Knightswood Hospital at the age of 51, on 1st December 1960.

Primary Sources

(1) Ethel MacDonald, diary entry (3rd November, 1936)

Tuesday, 3rd November was the most exciting day in both of our lives and I don't think we'll ever forget it. We handed in our papers and after they realised we were comrades, they were terribly nice to us. They asked us if we had money and we told them the truth that we were broke. They took us to a restaurant and we had a wonderful time. Everyone was bright and cheerful and happy. So naturally we were the same. We felt full of enthusiasm. This was revolution.

(2) Ethel MacDonald, The Sunday Mail (5th December, 1936)

In the main square, the Plaza de la Republica, the white walls of the Generalitat, the government offices, glistened in brilliant sunshine. Birds were singing in the trees and the sky was the most beautiful blue that I have ever seen. Civilian soldiers dressed in their inevitable dungarees and little red and black Glengarry bonnets and smoking endless cigarettes, strolled casually in Las Ramblas and the Via Durruti or chatted to the girl soldiers in the Plaza Catalunya. We had difficulty deciding which were young men and which were girls. They were dressed exactly alike, but as we drew nearer we saw that all the girls had beautifully permed hair and were strikingly made up.

(3) Ethel MacDonald, radio broadcast (19th February, 1937)

The 20th of February, 1937, is the date fixed by the Sub-Committee of Non-intervention, sitting in London, for the commencement of the ban on volunteers for Spain. Volunteers to Spain! From where have these volunteers come? Italy has sent, not volunteers, but conscripts. Germany landed in Spanish territory, not volunteers, but conscripts. The army of rebel Franco consists, not of volunteers, but of conscript Moors, conscript Germans, conscript Italians, all bent on making Spain a Fascist colony and Africa a Fascist hell, with the defeat and the retreat of democracy everywhere.

The situation today proves the truth of the words of St. Simon and of Proudhon that parliamentarianism is the road to militarism, that parliamentary democracy is impossible, and that mankind must accept industrial democracy, revolutionary syndicalism. But syndicalism and industrial democracy do not imply trades unionism which is the British idea of organisation and action. If mankind is not prepared to accept this, then the only other alternative is a retreat to barbarism and militarism. An insistence on parliamentary so-called democracy is merely playing with freedom and in effect, retreating to militarism. The progressive conquest of political power under capitalism is a snare and a delusion. The present situation in Germany illustrates this truth very clearly.

If parliamentary socialism had any worth whatever, this could never have taken place. Germany could have given the world the example that would have set alight the fires of world revolution. But Germany failed because of this paralysing belief in parliamentarianism and this disbelief in the power and initiative of the working class. It has been left to Spain, with its Anarcho-syndicalism, to do what Germany should have done. And this paralysis extends to other countries that still believe in the power of parliament as an emancipating weapon of the proletariat. It should act as such but that is beyond its power. Belief in parliament does not lead to freedom, but leads to the emancipation of a few selected persons at the expense of the whole of the working class.

What are the actions of the parliamentary parties with regard to support of the Spanish struggle? They talk, they discuss, they speak with bated breath of the horrors that are taking place in Spain. They gesticulate, they proclaim to the world their determination to assist Spain and to see that Fascism is halted; and that is all they do. Talk of what they will do. This would not matter if it were not for the fact that the workers, through a disbelief in their own power to do something definite, collaborate with them in this playing with words.

Comrades, fellow-workers, of what use are your meetings that pass pious resolutions, that exhibit Soldiers of the International Column, provide entertainment, make collections and achieve nothing? This is not the time for sympathy and charity. This is the time for action. Do you not understand that every week, every day and every hour counts. Each hour that passes means the death of more Spanish men and women, and yet you advertise meetings, talk, arrange to talk and fail to take any action. Your leaders ask questions in parliament, in the senate, collect in small committees and make arrangements to send clothes and food to the poor people of Spain who are menaced by this horrible monster of Fascism, and in the end, do nothing.

We welcome every man that comes to Spain to offer his life in the cause of freedom. But of what use are these volunteers if we have no arms to give them? We want arms, ammunition, aeroplanes, all kinds of war material. Your brothers who come to us to fight and have no arms to fight with are also being made a jest of by your inaction. We want the freedom of the Mediterranean. We want our rights, the rights that are being taken from us by the combined efforts of international capitalism. You have permitted Franco to have soldiers and arms and aeroplanes and ammunition. Your government, in the name of democracy, have starved the government and workers of Spain, and now they have decided to ban arms, ban volunteers, to the government of the Spanish workers. Your government, workers of the world, are assisting in the development of Fascism. They are conniving at the defeat of the workers' cause, and you tamely accept this or merely idly protest against it. Workers, your socialism and your communism are worthless. Your democracy is a sham, and that sham is fertilising the fields of Spain with the blood of the Spanish people. Your sham democracy is making the men, women and children of Spain the sod of Fascism. The workers of Spain bid you cry, "Halt!" The workers of Spain bid you act!

I, myself, was in Scotland when sanctions were proposed on behalf of Ethiopia. The Labour Party there threatened war. The Trades Unions threatened war. The Communist Party threatened war. The threats wore off, and Italy seized the land of Ethiopia, and despite the continued protests from various persons, Italy has commenced the exploitation of Abyssinia. Ethiopia is now the colony of Italy.

But Abyssinia is not Spain. Despite its history, Abyssinia is a wild and undeveloped country and may, indeed, in some parts, be semi-savage. But Spain is a land of culture and more important, a land of proletarian development, and it is menaced by the hireling Franco because it possesses proletarian culture. And Franco is assisted by Hitler and Mussolini and all the hordes of international capitalism because of the wealth contained within its territory, and to gain possession of that wealth for purposes of further exploiting the working class and for their own personal aggrandisement, they are prepared to massacre the whole of the Spanish working class. For what are the lives of the workers to them? Labour is cheap, and is easily replaceable.

And you, parliamentarians, you so-called socialists, talk and talk, and know not how to act. Nor when to act. For Spain, you are not even prepared to threaten war. Non-intervention, as a slogan, is an improvement on sanctions. It is even more radically hypocritical. It is more thorough and deliberate lying, for Non-intervention means the connived advance of Fascism. This cannot be disputed. Under the cloak of Non-intervention, Hitler and Mussolini are being assisted in their wanton destruction of Spain. Non-intervention gives them the excuse to do nothing, and behind the scenes to supply these European maniacs with all that they require. Your governments are not for non-intervention. They stand quite definitely for intervention, intervention on behalf of their friends and allies, Hitler and Mussolini. Your governments and your leaders have many points in common with these two scoundrels. All of them lack decency, human understanding, and intelligence. They are virtually the scum of the earth, the dregs that must be destroyed.

Comrades, workers, Malaga has fallen. Malaga was betrayed and you too were betrayed, for you have witnessed not merely the fall of Malaga but the fall of a key defence of world democracy, of workers' struggle, of world liberty, of world emancipation. Malaga fell; you, the world proletariat, were invaded: and you talk. Talk and lament and sigh and fear to act! Tomorrow, Madrid may be bombed once more. Barcelona may be attacked. Valencia may be attacked, and still you talk! When will this talking cease? Will you never act?

To go back to Germany. At the Second Congress of the Third International, Moscow, a comrade who is with us now in Spain, answering Zinoviev, urged faith in the syndicalist movement in Germany and the end of parliamentary communism. He was ridiculed. Parliamentarianism, communist parliamentarianism, but still parliamentarianism would save Germany. And it did. You know this. You know the conditions in that famous land today. Yes, parliamentarianism saved Germany. Saved it from Socialism. Saved it for Fascism. Parliamentary social democracy and parliamentary communism have destroyed the socialist hope of Europe, has made a carnage of human liberty. In Britain, parliamentarianism saved the workers from Socialism, gave them a Socialist leader of a National Government, and has prepared the workers for the holocaust of a new war. All this has parliamentarianism done. Have you not had enough of this huge deception? Are you still prepared to continue in the same old way, along the same old lines, talking and talking and doing nothing?

Spain, syndicalist Spain, the Spanish workers' republic would save you. Yes, save you with the hunger and blood and struggle of its magnificent people. And you pause and hesitate to gave your solidarity, and pause in your manhood and democracy of action until it is too late.

The crisis is here. The hour of struggle is here. Now is the decisive moment. By all your traditions of liberty and struggle, by all the brave martyrs of old, in the name of the heroic Spanish men and women, I bid you act. Act on behalf of Spain through living, immediate Committees of Action in Britain, in America, throughout the whole world. Let your cry be not non-intervention, but "Hands off Spain", and from that slogan let your action come. In your trade union branches, in your political party hall, make that your cry: "All Hands off Spain". What will your action be? The General Strike. Your message? "Starve Fascism, end the war on Spanish Labour, or - the Strike, the strike and on to Revolution".

The British Government says: "You shall not serve in Spain." Good! Then to the British Workers we say make this your reply. "We will serve Spain and the workers in Spain and ourselves in Britain. We strike." Down tools! There is one flag of labour today. Spain's Red and Black Flag of Freedom, of Syndicalism and Courage!

(4) Ethel MacDonald, The Barcelona Bulletin (5th May, 1937)

The trouble broke out on Monday afternoon. The civil guards seized the telephone building by force. As the move was quite unexpected, they succeeded in disarming the militiamen in charge there, and so gaining control. All during the night there was firing in the street, and we had a good view from the hotel windows. As the day (Tuesday) wore on the firing became terrific: the police were firing from their building further up the street, and from nearby houses, and the CNT were replying from their HQ, from the balconies and from the roof. The noise is terrible, and already there have been many killed and wounded.

(5) Ethel MacDonald, interview that appeared in the Glasgow Evening Times (1937)

My arrest was typical of the attitude of the Communist Party. In Scotland the group to which I am attached has always been in complete opposition to the Communist Party. In opposing their propaganda we have always had to face and deal with their fundamental ignorance and brutality. In Spain, their approach is the same. 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. - they demanded to see my passport. On this being shown they informed me that I was in Spain illegally, although I entered Spain quite legally.

(6) Ethel MacDonald, interview that appeared in The Sunday Mail (1937)

The spirit of the comrades in prison is good. Persecution and imprisonment of revolutionists is not something new to Spain. Even persecution by so-called Communists is not new. The treatment meted out to the revolutionists in Russia today beggars description. That can be expected from the present regime in the Socialist fatherland. But that in Spain, whilst their comrades and brothers are struggling at the fronts against the fascist enemy, revolutionists should be arrested on such a scale is a scandal that brings discredit on all those who permit such to take place without making protest. Revolution should mean the end of prisons, not the changing of the guard.

(7) Helen Lennox, letter to Ethel MacDonald's mother (July 1937)

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.