George Orwell: documenting the Spanish civil war

Submitted by Anon on 2 July, 2003 - 9:28 Author: Chris Hickey

Chris Hickey begins a two-part feature about the politics and work of George Orwell. Part two here.

Born 100 years ago and dying in 1950, it is difficult to think of an English writer in the last 100 years who has aroused stronger feelings and been the subject of more political dispute than George Orwell. Yet the fame and controversy that surround Orwell’s name essentially derive from just two books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, produced in the last 6 or 7 years of his life.

It is impossible, however, to understand either Orwell or these two particular works outside of the tumultuous period in which he lived and the fundamental political choices (life and death choices in some regards) that he and others of the period had to face. In his 1947 essay, “Why I Write”, Orwell explained:

“The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it…”

Homage to Catalonia, in which Orwell bore witness to the murder of the Spanish Revolution, was the product of this defining period of Orwell’s life, at least the literary and political equal of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In the February 1936 Spanish elections the Socialist, Communist and bourgeois republican parties, grouped together in a so-called People’s Front, won an outright majority of the Cortes, the Spanish parliament. They formed the Government on a fairly mild programme described in one contemporary Left Book Club account as being “…in no sense revolutionary. In many respects it did not live up to the expectations of the labour signatories” (Harry Gannes and Theodore Repard, ‘Spain in Revolt’, 1936).

Nevertheless, it was still a step too far for the Spanish ruling class. On the 17 July 1936 the Spanish military, under General Franco in Spanish Morocco, rose up against the popular front government.

As Orwell was later to point out, “the one step that could save the immediate situation, the arming of the workers, was only taken unwillingly and in response to violent popular clamour. However, the arms were distributed…” (Homage to Catalonia).

In Barcelona “…the Fascists were defeated by a huge effort, mainly of the Spanish working class, aided by some of the armed forces (Assault Guards, etc.) who had remained loyal. It was the kind of effort that could probably only be made by people who were fighting with a revolutionary intention—i.e., believed they were fighting for something better than the status quo” (Homage…).

In this spirit, the armed resistance began to grow into a revolutionary war: “…the Spanish working class did not…resist Franco in the name of ‘democracy’ and the status quo; their resistance was accompanied by—one might almost say it consisted of—a definite revolutionary outbreak…” (Homage…).

Meanwhile, and throughout the war, the Spanish Government proclaimed that it was simply a fight for “democracy”.

Capturing the pent up feelings of millions, Orwell remarked, “when the fighting broke out on 18 July it is probable that every anti-fascist in Europe felt a thrill of hope. For here at last, apparently, was democracy standing up to Fascism” (Homage…). He resolved to go to Spain, where he learned that it was insufficient to be just an anti-fascist—you had to be for something.

Having been erroneously advised that he would need papers from a left-wing group to cross the frontier into Spain, Orwell arrived in Barcelona in late December 1936 with Independent Labour Party (ILP) papers addressed to its Barcelona representative John McNair. He had obtained these papers only after Harry Pollitt of the Communist Party had turned down an earlier request.

As the ILP was linked to the POUM, Orwell joined the POUM Militia (but not the political party itself). He did so not as an expression of political preference but in accidental consequence of arriving in Barcelona with ILP papers.

The importance of this is that Orwell showed no real signs of appreciating the significant political differences between the POUM, the Anarchists and the Spanish Communists*. Indeed, Orwell admitted to this ignorance, commenting, “…I did not realise that there were serious differences between the political parties…I thought it idiotic that people fighting for their lives should have separate parties; my attitude always was, ‘Why can’t we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?’” (Homage…).

Orwell explained the political differences between the Communists and their right-wing socialist allies on the one hand, and the POUM and anarchists on the other, as “boiling down” to the former arguing “We can’t talk of revolution til we’ve won the war…” and the latter maintaining “we must go forward [with the revolution] or we shall go back” (Homage…).

To begin with Orwell preferred the Communists’ line. “The Communists had a definite practical policy…” When “…more politically educated comrades told me that one could not take a purely military attitude towards the war, and that the choice lay between revolution and Fascism, I was inclined to laugh at them” (Homage…).

But to begin with, and despite the scarcities and disrepair, Orwell was immediately and tremendously struck by the almost other worldliness of revolutionary Barcelona: “…when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle” (Homage).

Sent to the Aragon front in early January Orwell was bored and frustrated at the lack of military action, spending much of his time gathering firewood and food, and suffering from lice, dirt, privations and occasional danger (including one very scary attack on the enemy line).

He recalled, “…at the time this period seemed to me to have been one of the most futile of my whole life. I had joined the militia in order to fight against fascism, and as yet I had scarcely fought at all…But now…I can see…those first three or four months…in the line…taught me things that I could not have learned in any other way…The essential point is that I had been isolated…among people who could roughly but not too inaccurately be described as revolutionaries. This was the result of the militia-system…The workers’ militias had the effect of canalising into one place all the most revolutionary sentiment in the country. I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality…There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the of the normal motives of civilised life—snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc—had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as master…hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism…‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not…humbug…One had breathed the air of equality…For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society…one got, perhaps a crude foretaste of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me.” (Homage…).

Orwell was later to write to his friend Cyril Connolly, “I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in socialism, which I never did before.”

Returning to Barcelona on leave in April 1937, Orwell found a city that had gone into reverse. “Once again it was an ordinary city, a little pinched and chipped by war, but with no outward sign of working class predominance…The militia uniform and the blue overall had disappeared…Fat prosperous men, elegant women, and sleek cars were everywhere. (It appeared that there were still no private cars; nevertheless, anyone who was ‘anyone’ seemed able to command a car.) The officers of the new popular army swarmed in surprising numbers…Their relation to the men was not quite the same as in a bourgeois army, but there was a social difference, expressed by the difference in pay and uniform…the people… had lost much of their interest in the war…the normal division of society into rich and poor…was reasserting itself…”

Underneath all this Orwell detected “…an unmistakable and horrible feeling of political rivalry and hatred…It was the antagonism between those who wanted the revolution to go forward and those who wished to check or prevent it…” (Homage…)

On 3 May open fighting broke out in Barcelona when the police/communists attempted to seize control of the Central Telephone Exchange from Anarchist CNT members (with workers striking in their support and the POUM offering their solidarity). Orwell made a remarkable effort to be balanced in his consideration of these events, in which he essentially served as a guard on the POUM offices, but they were to prove decisive in shifting his understanding of what was happening in Spain.

The affair ended with the Government (and thereby the Communists) in full control of Barcelona, having drafted into the city thousands of well armed special police. Orwell was to bitterly observe later, “a government which sends boys of fifteen to the front with rifles forty years old and keeps its biggest men and newest weapons in the rear, is manifestly more afraid of the revolution than of the fascists” (Les Evans, Introduction to Trotsky: The Spanish Revolution).

Echoing the frame-up techniques of the Russian show trials, the Communists presented the May clash as instigated by the POUM—denounced as a “fifth column” fascist organisation—and demanded its pitiless extermination.

It was a claim taken up by the Communist press around the world and, to Orwell’s disgust, repeated in other British papers. In a whole section of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell was to do the necessary historical job of demolishing these libels line by line.

Orwell returned to the Aragon front (where he learned that his fellow POUM militia member Bob Smillie had been arrested). There, along with his fellow poorly armed, allegedly “fascist”, POUM comrades, he continued to hold the line but soon copped a bullet in his “fascist” throat.

Taking his discharge, the wounded Orwell returned to Barcelona on 20 June where he rejoined his wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, only to discover that POUM members and militia were being arrested and that he himself was therefore in danger and must not be seen.

In fact, it is now known that a memorandum of the NKVD (the then Russian secret police), dated 13 July 1937, described Orwell and O’Shaughnessy as “pronounced Trotskyites operating with clandestine credentials and maintaining contact with opposition circles” (Christopher Hitchens, Orwell’s Victory). This would have pretty much amounted to an NKVD death warrant if Orwell had been picked up.

O’Shaughnessy told Orwell that the leader of the POUM, Andres Nin, had been arrested on 15 June (he was subsequently tortured and murdered and his body hidden) and that apparently about 400 people had been arrested in Barcelona alone (Orwell came to the conclusion that the figure was far higher). Meanwhile, the most outrageous libels continued to pour over the heads of his POUM comrades—giving military secrets to Franco, being in contact with the Nazis (as ‘Trotsky-Fascists’).

Orwell and O’Shaughnessy evaded the police and left the country but many friends and comrades, including Georges Kopp and Bob Smillie (who was to die in a ‘People’s Front’ prison) were not so fortunate.

The Barcelona frame-up of his friends, and the patent insincerity of the communist leadership, forced Orwell to reconsider his view of the war, coming to the view that the “POUM were right, or at any rate righter than the Communists, [but] it was not altogether upon a point of theory. On paper the Communist case was a good one; the trouble was that their actual behaviour made it difficult to believe that they were advancing it in good faith. The oft-repeated slogan: ‘The war first and the revolution afterwards’, though honestly believed in by the average PSUC [Catalonian communist] militiaman…was eyewash. The thing for which the Communists were working was not to postpone the Spanish Revolution til a more suitable time, but to make sure it never happened. This became more and more obvious as time went on, as power was twisted more and more out of working class hands, and as more and more revolutionaries of every shade were flung into jail” (Homage..).

In Homage to Catalonia Orwell set out the case for a revolutionary perspective on the war—the need to rally the support of the workers and peasants to the rear of Franco’s forces; to appeal to the Moors by offering Morocco independence; to rouse up the workers’ in the democratic countries with the cry for a “revolutionary” rather than simply a democratic Spain; to oppose the denial of weapons to revolutionary militia elements and the failure to use those elements properly lest they press home the revolution; the need of the Spanish working class for more than a return to the old inequalities if they were to stay mobilised, especially given the sheer difficulty of winning “…an ordinary, non-revolutionary war—requiring limitless weapons—when Franco was being aided by Germany and Italy.

Describing the Popular [People’s] front as “…an alliance of enemies, and it seems probable that it must always end by one partner swallowing the other”, Orwell went on to say: “The only unexpected feature in the Spanish situation—and outside Spain it has caused an immense amount of misunderstanding—is that among the parties on the Government side the Communists stood…upon the extreme Right” (Homage…)

If anything, Orwell quickly hardened his position. In the 1937 article, ‘Spilling the Spanish Beans’, he stated, “The real struggle is between revolution and counter-revolution; between the workers who are vainly trying to hold onto a little of what they won in 1936 and the Liberal-Communist bloc who are so successfully taking it away from them…communism is now a counter-revolutionary force… in alliance with bourgeois reformism…using…their powerful machinery to crush or discredit any party that shows signs of revolutionary tendencies…This uneasy alliance [of worker and bourgeois]…is a combination with about as much vitality, and…right to exist, as a pig with two heads…in the early days of the revolution the Spanish workers understood the issues very well…they did not content themselves with driving the rebellious troops out of the towns; they also took the opportunity of seizing the land and factories and setting up the rough beginnings of a workers’ government by means of local committees, workers’ militias, police forces, and so forth. They made the mistake, however…of leaving the Republican Government in nominal control…”

Orwell’s political position, in these respects at least, was now that of or approaching a revolutionary socialist. In a letter to Geoffrey Gorer he drew out wider lessons from his Spanish experience which his biographer, Bernard Crick, described as “…virtually the Trotskyist theory of international relations”: “The popular front baloney boils down to this: that when the war comes the Communists, labourites etc, instead of working to stop the war and overthrow the government, will be on the side of the Government, provided that the Government is on the ‘right’ side, i.e., against Germany…” (Crick, George Orwell).

Spain transformed Orwell’s understanding of Socialism—giving it flesh and blood as it were and a revolutionary aspect (at least for a period). It was also decisive for shaping his attitude to Stalinism and for his opposition to what he saw as totalitarianism. This is critical for understanding both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, with key elements of both being prefigured in Orwell’s Spanish experiences and in his reading and writings on Spain. The latter works will be the subject of the second part of this article.

* The Anarchists were the largest political force in the Spanish working class.

The POUM was a small, largely Catalan based party created by the fusion of former adherents, led by Andres Nin, to Trotsky’s Fourth International and the members of the Workers’ and Peasants Bloc. Trotsky was sharply critical of the POUM and Nin in particular.

The Communists were, at the outset of the war, a small force but their star was rising with the Soviet Government being the sole supplier of arms to the Republican side.

Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided weapons and forces to Franco while Chamberlain’s Britain and France—likewise under a so-called People’s Government!—stayed neutral, refusing to even sell arms to the elected government of Spain.

The value to us of Orwell’s writings on Spain

Orwell had gone to Spain with the intention of writing as well as fighting and as a result this man who just wanted to ‘get on with winning the war’ wrote a book that:

  • Helps us to picture what a socialist revolution might look like, at least, in its opening stages and in its human relationships – an incredibly important thing in ‘normal’ times, when life seems to go on as it seemingly always has;
  • Bears testament to the fact of the Spanish Revolution, its character and fate;
  • Commemorates the bravery and vitality of all those who honestly fought to stop Franco and, in many cases, for a radically different Spain, at a time when the western powers turned away and allowed Hitler and Mussolini to practise warfare on the Spanish working class;
  • Is a permanent witness for all those who were libelled, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by what was supposed to be their own side;
  • Helps us to understand the role of the Communist Parties – in wider policy and in the persecution of its political opponents on the Left - and thereby helps us to understand not only what was happening in Spain but also what was happening in Russia and in the labour movements around the world;
  • Helps us understand what became of our movement, why we are where we now are and how socialist ideas, language, and the very sense of socialist identity and purpose became so corrupted (when one looks at some of the shifty rubbish that has been written about Orwell’s account of this period these lessons really come home);
  • Educates us today — unlike the various 1930s’ Stalinist tracts about ‘Trotsky-fascist fifth columns’ (although there seem still to be a few Stalinists who prefer the latter).
  • Is an object lesson in telling the truth or saying what you believe when so many on the Left do no want to know the truth or know it but prefer for ‘diplomatic reasons’ that you shut up and will libel you if you insist on telling it. Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War was in fact considerably out of step with much of the Left of his day. His Stalinist fellow travelling publisher, Victor Gollancz, refused to publish Homage to Catalonia without even seeing it, thereby barring the book from the large network of socialist and left-wing readers who had joined the Left Book Club. (The book was published by the small, struggling, book company ‘Warburg and Secker’ but it only sold 600 copies in the first 12 years after publication). Orwell’s articles on Spain were in part attempts to defend and rally support for the imprisoned POUM members, anarchists and others. Yet, on two occasions they were rejected explicitly on political grounds by the popular front supporting editor of the New Statesman Kingsley Martin, who thereby rendered himself complicit with the murder of the Spanish revolution.
  • Finally, and not least, Homage to Catalonia is a very good book, generous to the POUM and anarchists, but written from the perspective of all who want to remake the world we live in. Orwell’s picture of a Spain in revolutionary transition, and his part in it, is incredibly physical, with a life and vividness that more ideologically informed or more academic accounts of revolutionary history often lack. There is a constant sense of sight, taste, smell, touch, revulsion, fear, and even the odd touch of humour. To give just two examples: “The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look lie daubs of mud”; “up the naked hill to the right of us a string of fascists are climbing like ants”.

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