In his 1947 essay, “Why I Write”, George 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 a Government on a fairly mild programme.
It was still a step too far for the Spanish ruling class. On 17 July 1936 the Spanish military rose against the Popular Front government.
As Orwell would relate in Homage: “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…”
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”.
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…”.
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”. He resolved to go to Spain, where he learned that just being anti-fascist was insufficient — you had to be for something.
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. As yet Orwell “did not realise that there were serious differences between the political parties”.
And at first he preferred the Stalinist 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”.
Yet “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”. Perhaps the talk of revolution was practical after all.
Sent to the Aragon front in early January Orwell was bored and frustrated at the lack of military action. He spent much of his time gathering firewood and food, and suffering from lice, dirt, privations and occasional danger.
“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…
“‘Comrade’ stood for comradeship and not… humbug… 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.”
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… The normal division of society into rich and poor…was reasserting itself…”
Underneath all this was “… 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…”
On 3 May open fighting broke out in Barcelona when the police and the Communist Party 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 served as a guard on the POUM offices.
The affair ended with the Government (in fact, the Communist Party) 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”.
Echoing the frame-up techniques of the Russian show trials, the Communist Party 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 Homage to Catalonia, Orwell demolished these libels line by line.
Orwell returned to the Aragon front, was wounded, returned to Barcelona on 20 June, and found that POUM members and militia were being arrested.
It is now known that a memorandum of the NKVD (Russian secret police), dated 13 July 1937, described Orwell and his wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy as “pronounced Trotskyites operating with clandestine credentials and maintaining contact with opposition circles” (Hitchens, Orwell’s Victory).
Orwell and O’Shaughnessy evaded the police and left the country. Many of their friends and comrades were not so fortunate.
Orwell concluded 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”.
In Homage to Catalonia Orwell argued the need to rally the support of the workers and peasants to the rear of the forces of the fascist leader Franco; to appeal to the Moroccans Franco had fighting for him by offering independence to Morocco (then a colony of Spain); 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 people.
And 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”.