It is over 80 years since La Pasionaria (the Passionflower), founder member of the Spanish Communist Party and Republican heroine, was elected to the legislature of Spain to represent Asturias. She was undoubtedly a dame, though it is unlikely that she would ever have accepted such a formal accolade from the establishment.
Isidora Dolores Ibarruri was born in 1895, in the Basque country, where her father was a miner. Her fearless and headstrong nature was evident from the start: her mother took her to church to be exorcised when she was only ten.
She left school at 15, as the family finances could not run to paying for the teacher training course she had been preparing for. She worked first as a seamstress, then as a housemaid, and it was while she was working as a waitress that she met Juan Ruiz Gabina, a union activist. They married in 1915. It was during his spell in prison following the General Strike in 1917 that she began to read Marx and other radical thinkers whose books were available in the library of her local Socialist Workers’ Centre.
In 1918 she wrote her first article: a denunciation of religious hypocrisy which, as it was to be published in Holy Week, she signed as La Pasionaria, a soubriquet that never left her.
In 1920 the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) was formed and she devoted the next ten years to grassroots militancy. During this period she also had six children, including a set of triplets. All but two of her children died in infancy – she later recalled that her husband had made a coffin out of a fruit crate.
She moved to Madrid in 1931, where she was put in charge of the PCE’s official publication, Mundo Obrero (Workers’ World). In September 1931 she was arrested for the first time, and persuaded her fellow inmates to go on hunger strike to get political detainees released. In 1932 she again led protest action in prison, inspiring a mass refusal to undertake poorly paid menial labour. In 1933 she founded the anti-war Mujeres Antifascistas, a women’s movement, and travelled to Moscow, which seemed to her ‘the most wonderful city on earth’, where genuine socialism was finally taking shape.
In the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War, she took part in many risky activities in opposition to the authorities: rescuing the children whose parents had been imprisoned following the failed October revolution of 1934; personally releasing the political prisoners from Oviedo prison as soon as she had been elected to Parliament; and standing alongside striking miners and evicted tenants.
The increasing brutality of the Nationalist attacks, including their bombing of Guernica and other cities, drove Ibarruri to accept the need for violence to match theirs, despite her earlier anti-war stance:
‘If our appeal remains a voice crying out in the wilderness, our protests are ignored, our humane conduct, if all these are taken for signs of weakness, then the enemy will have only himself to blame—for we shall give vent to our wrath and destroy him in his lair.’
Infighting among the factions of the left (which Ibarruri saw as orchestrated by anarchists and Trostskyists) and the withdrawal of Soviet support led to the fall of the Republican government in 1939, and Ibarruri fled to Moscow, helped by French Communists. She stayed there for the next 41 years, returning to Spain in 1977, two years after Franco’s death. She immediately began campaigning for re-election, and – at the age of 82 – took up the single seat available in Parliament for the PCE’s share of the vote. Despite illness, she served out her term, but did not stand for re-election in 1979. She died in 1989.
As with most radical activist politicians, her contribution is not without controversy: she was a firm admirer of Stalin; opponents accused her of instigating the murder of monarchist leader José Calvo Sotelo (which she always denied); and she is said to have participated in relentless persecution of Trostkyites, whom she felt had undermined the resistance to fascism.
Yet she maintained the spirit of resistance in Franco’s Spain during her exile through her radio broadcasts from Moscow and she organised the Spanish Communist underground movement from there. Throughout her political career she inspired and supported many vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, she made her mark in a supremely patriarchal society, and no one can deny the power of her oratory. Read her farewell speech to the International Brigades here.