Ralph Bates

Ralph Bates

Ralph Bates was born in Swindon on 3rd November, 1899. After leaving secondary school he worked at the Great Western Railway factory, which manufactured locomotives and passenger carriages. He was an apprentice ''fitter, turner and erector''.

In 1917 Bates attempted to join the Royal Flying Corps. He thought he was officer material but later recalled: "I was not intelligent enough to know that no working man would ever get a commission."

Eventually he served as a lance corporal in the in 16th Queen’s Royal West Surreys. According to Douglas Martin he "taught soldiers how to deal with poison-gas attacks" during the First World War. In 1918 he was arrested for attending in uniform a political lecture given by two Americans who had just returned from witnessing the Russian Revolution. The authorities sentenced him to two weeks on the parade ground, marching in battle order for six hours a day. He later recalled that this incident had a long-term impact on his thinking: "I decided then and there that my judgment of the officer class was just. I had met only one or two decent men, or at least who decently employed their power."

After leaving the armed forces he went to Paris where he found work as a street cleaner. On his return to London he met and married the schoolteacher, Winifred Sandford. Both became members of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1923.

The couple spent the next few years travelling around Europe. He did a variety of different jobs, including seaman, electrician and a repairer of church organs, but his main ambition was to become a full-time writer. In 1930 they spent much of their time in the Pyrenees. He published his first work, Sierra, a collection of short stories, in 1933. This was followed by the novels, Lean Men: An Episode in a Life (1934), Franz Schubert (1935) and his best known work, The Olive Field (1936).

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Bates enlisted with the government forces and helped to organize the International Brigades whereas Winifred Bates worked in Barcelona as a journalist and broadcaster for the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC) . Later she became the personnel officer for the British Medical Aid Unit in Spain.

An American journalist, D. M. Miller reported that: "Bates knows the middle class of Spain. He has helped to organize its workers. He has been in close contact with its peasants. And when the war broke out, he fought side by side with his Spanish comrades in the common struggle against fascism". Steve Nelson remembered that he "gave the impression that he knew everything that was going on in the world."

Bates spied on members of the International Brigades on behalf of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He even sent a critical report in 1936 on Tom Wintringham, the commander of the British Battalion, to Harry Pollitt about his relationship with Kitty Bowler. "Everyone here was very disappointed with Comrade Wintringham. He showed levity in taking a non-Party woman in whom neither the PSUC nor the CPGB comrades have any confidence to the Aragon front. We understand this person was entrusted with verbal messages to the Party in London. We are asked to send messages to Wintringham through this person rather than the Party headquarters here. The Party has punished members for far less serious examples of levity than this."

Bates confessed to Stephen Spender that he sent man who was considered politically unreliable "into a sector of the fighting in which he was certain to be killed". Spender added that Bates was "an example of a good writer and a good man whom the Communist Party turned into a killer."

Ralph Bates novel The Olive Field was published in the United States. It obtained good reviews and The New York Times stated: ''Had author and publisher consulted the stars, or their own prophetic souls, they could hardly have hit upon a book better calculated to arouse interest. Not for 40 years have Spanish affairs loomed so large in this country.'' It was decided to send Bates to America to raise funds for the Popular Front government. In an interview with The New York Times, he told of the Francisco Franco forces routinely bombing buildings and tents that bore the Red Cross insignia. After making a speech in Manhattan he met Eve Salzman, who would later become his second wife.

Bates was arrested for arms smuggling when traveling through France back to Spain in February 1937. He was eventually released and he moved to Madrid and founded the International Brigade's newspaper, The Volunteer for Liberty.

Ralph and Winifred Sandford remained in the country until the International Brigades were withdrawn at the end of 1938. The couple initially moved to Mexico but eventually settled in the United States. He broke with the Communist Party after the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in 1939. After the Soviet invasion of Finland in November, 1939, Bates publicly condemned the Communists in an article for The New Republic.

In 1948 Ralph Bates was appointed Professor of Literature at New York University. He refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and was a major critic of McCarthyism.

Bates published his last book, The Dolphin in the Wood, in 1950. He continued to write but it was said that he never considered them to be finished. His new wife, Eve Salzman, claimed that: "There were many things that silenced him in terms of writing and being a public figure. His disillusion with the political scene was complete.''

Ralph Bates died aged 101 in Manhatten on 26th November, 2000.

Primary Sources

(1) James Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire (1998)

The influences, then, that turned Bates into a self-professed revolutionary were the result of witnessing the soul-destroying effects of class oppression both in England and Spain. In the beginning, at least, his views had nothing to do with the young British Communist party. But Bates' attitudes began to take on a political character after he arrived in Spain: "I didn't think about theory," he said. What the writer wanted was to live in a society in which the kind of abuse of authority he had known in the British army did not exist. He worked on the docks in Barcelona and irregularly engaged in political organizing. His maturing philosophy, though powerfully felt, did not yet have a center. His belief was that human rights and the dignity of man were inherent and immutable. They could "not be conceded by these people." Moreover, he believed that any society that ignored or abused these rights was to be condemned and fought against, whether in England or Spain. In his own view, the vital power of these convictions "was much more revolutionary than the Communists." In that sense his political stance was "completely anti-ideological," wholly a product of his own experiences and the conclusions he drew from them, although he would hew to the party line during the Spanish war, which included condemning the anti-Stalinist POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista) in which Orwell fought.

At first, even with Bates' fluent command of the language, and the work he shared with his Spanish comrades, which included tinsmithing, harvesting olives, and participation in strikes that frequently had the character of a "freeforall," he still found himself not fully taken into their confidence. The issue that crystallized these differences was his friends' refusal to ask him to make a contribution to the needy, perhaps a workman who had caught an arm in a loom or an indigent widow. Although he always volunteered to contribute, it was never requested, which made him feel acutely a sense of a fundamental separateness between himself and his friends and workmates. When he became confident enough to challenge them, they at first offered distracting compliments, but then conceded, "We can't get it out of our heads that you are free and you can go when you want. We can't-we're here." There was a difference between them, and Bates saw it.

(2) Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, Very Little Luggage (2009)

We had to get to Barcelona when this inspection was over. She would see to it that we were put up in comfort. The visitation when it came had dual leadership. First there was Ralph Bates, author of the "Olive Tree", whose wife Winifrid was to be immensely helpful to us later. He was wearing a uniform of a deep burgundy colour which displayed no badges or rank-markings. In reply to my enquiry, he said that it was the uniform of a Political Commissar and that his rank was such that it could not be expressed in gold braid. He certainly wore his rank lightly, as he took no part whatsoever in the subsequent proceedings.

(3) Ralph Bates, quoted in Reporter in Spain by Claude Cockburn (1936)

My memory goes back to the dictatorship of Primo, Berenguer, of Alonso. Just before the monarchy fell (April 14, 1931) I walked month after month, throughout a year, twelve hundred miles, through the immense, almost unknown, the "lost" Cordilleras of Spain, to find how Spaniards live. I dare to say that I know more about the life and work of Spanish shepherds, olive workers, ploughmen, peasants, than these Englishmen whom I find talking of a "glorious Spanish tradition" and its fascist champions. I believe I know the real tradition, the way olives are grown, wine made, cork gathered, what songs are sung for the picking of figs, or the herding of cattle. I know, because I have followed them, by what immemorial tracks the sheep flocks go tip in summer from the red choking plains to the hills.

(4) Douglas Martin, The New York Times (4th December, 2000)

Ralph Bates, who fell in love with the idea of Spain as a working-class youth in Britain and went on to write evocative novels about the real Spain in the years before the Spanish Civil War, died on Nov. 26 at his home in Manhattan. He was 101.

Almost 60 years ago he was considered by some to be one of the best writers on Spain. ''He stands out as perhaps the best informed -- not even excepting Andre Malraux or Ernest Hemingway - of the chroniclers of the preceding disturbed decade in Spain,'' said 20th-Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature, published in 1942.

But by that time Mr. Bates had reached the height of his fame, which dwindled as he almost ceased publishing and withdrew, disappointed, from the very public role he played when the civil war was a leading liberal cause.

For decades he brought nearly as much passion to politics as he did to literature. He joined the British Communist Party in 1923, became a labor organizer in Spain and then fought in one of the militias set up by leftist parties and trade unions during the civil war. He broke with the Communist Party after Stalin's pact with Hitler in 1939. During the investigations of those suspected of being Communists in the 1950's, when he was living in New York, he refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

He was a highly touted literary figure in the 1930's, receiving streams of favorable reviews for a considerable body of work. His fame was enhanced when Spain's leftist government assigned him to tour the United States to recruit men and money for its fight against the nationalist insurgents led by Gen. Francisco Franco. His pace then slowed dramatically: a novel he wrote in 1950 ended a 10-year publishing drought, and after that he never published again.