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Mac-Pap: Memoir of a Canadian in the Spanish Civil War

By Ronald Liversedge, edited by David Yorke

Review By Todd McCallum

June 19, 2014

BC Studies no. 185 Spring 2015  | p. 220

I first read Mac-Pap: Memoir of a Canadian in the Spanish Civil War in manuscript form thanks to the invaluable labour-related holdings of the Special Collections Division at UBC Library. While I don’t think it is of the same quality of Liversedge’s earlier Recollections of the On to Ottawa Trek (Montreal: 1973), I remain haunted by a sentence in its conclusion:  “I am equally certain that each [Mac-Pap] thought of the experience as the one really clean and noble thing in his life” (159).

The significance of this volume lies in several registers. Worthy of first mention is the truly impressive contextual material provided by editor David Yorke and New Star Books. Most of the Mac-Paps – members of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion who fought on the anti-fascist Republican side in the Spanish Civil War — and their supporters took part in numerous political and labour struggles during the 1930s; Yorke provides biographical information for almost every named person, Canadian or otherwise, in the manuscript. The introductory essay details Liversedge’s difficulties finding a publisher for his account, which he completed in 1966. The Communist Party of Canada reversed a decision to publish it after a short selection had appeared in Marxist Quarterly in the same year. Liversedge turned to Vancouver historian Irene Howard, who added material drawn from interviews with him, before be became unhappy with the process; he died in 1974 without seeing it in print.

The Spanish Civil War was Liversedge’s second in Europe, and he rarely romanticizes the day-to-day fighting experience. Their boat being bombed en route, some comrades didn’t even make it to Spanish shores. In seeing the Canadian survivors of the Battle of Brunete (July 1937), Liversedge “could not remember seeing men quite so drained of all vitality in France in the First World War” (77). “Our friends who made it through Belchite [August-September 1937] troubled us,” he writes. “All were changed; even their facial expressions were changed….War is an obscene atrocity, and no man comes out of it the same as before” (83-84). While detailing organizational conflicts with Americans and others, Liversedge remains silent on the Stalinist brutal subversion of the war effort.

Liversedge’s book belongs to a wider formation of leftist historical writing of the Cold War era, one largely untouched by New Left and New Communist ideas. Thanks to the works of (old) Communists such as Steve Brodie and McEwan, CCFers such as Stanley Hutcheson and Dorothy Steeves, and almost unknown figures like Alf Bingham of the Common Good Cooperative Association, we have an abundance of histories of the leftist activism of the 1930s. It is a small shelf, true, but one larger than survives for many provinces. In recognizing Liversedge and his compatriots, we recognize the centrality of the subjects associated with the Great Depression to the emergence of a vibrant social history on the left coast and elsewhere.

Mac-Pap: Memoir of a Canadian in the Spanish Civil War
Ronald Liversedge, edited by David Yorke
Vancouver: New Star, 2013. 224 pp. $19.00 paper