“The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians”
George Orwell was not only a writer whom I fell in love with in my late teens and early twenties, but was also a man with qualities, as shown in his writing and his life, that seemed to me heroic.
What struck me about Orwell and his writing was always the humanity of the man, and the honesty to test himself and his beliefs. He knew, it seemed, what he was, and was aware of the prejudices which class, sex, and culture impose (on all of us). He was also someone who could examine his beliefs and was not afraid to admit he was wrong
Nowhere does this show itself so clearly as in two of his great autobiographical, journalistic writings, Down and Out In Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938. This book recounts Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Like many on the left Orwell went to Spain to fight Fascism. Which in Spain took a different form from Germany and Italy. The democratically elected government in Spain was left leaning. An alliance of various right wing groupings (supported by the arms from Germany and Italy) attempted to overthrow that government. Although there were several right wing groups with their own agenda, they were more united against the left than the multiplicity of left wing groupings were in their prime focus against their common enemy, the right. Primarily, though Russia supported the left, what the Communist Party was supporting was State Capitalism. Some of the other leftist groups, notably the ‘Trotskyist’ Marxist P.O.U.M (the militia Orwell fought alongside when he first went to Spain) and the Anarchists, were fighting for a bottom-up workers’ revolution.
Initially trying to get papers to go to Spain to fight for the Republic, Orwell did approach Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. (Those Britons intending to fight for the Republic needed supporting documents from a British left organisation. Pollitt however did not consider Orwell ‘sound’. This meant Orwell got his papers from the ILP, the Independent Labour Party. Practically, this meant that he was assigned to a militia which was predominantly P.O.U.M . Had the CP given him papers, he would have entered the war with P.S.U.C , the ‘official’ Communist Party (Stalinist) line. And his experience would have been a vastly different one. An ‘official’ CP line was put out, and widely reported in the Press, that the P.O.U.M were fifth columnists, and were in fact a front for the Fascists. P.O.U.M and the more left wing trades union groupings (F.A.I; C.N.T – Anarchists) were of course nothing of the sort, but were interested in winning a revolution, as well as a war.
Except for the small revolutionary groups which exist in all countries, the whole world was determined upon preventing revolution in Spain. In particular the Communist Party, with Soviet Russia behind it, had thrown its whole weight against the revolution. It was the Communist thesis that revolution at this stage would be fatal and that what was to be aimed at in Spain was not workers’ control, but bourgeois democracy. It hardly needs pointing out why ‘liberal’ capitalist opinion took the same line.
The experience of the P.O.U.M. militia, and later, in Barcelona, were for Orwell a transforming experience. The contrast between a top down imposed line, and a bottom up without-hierarchy, though at times frustratingly inefficient, seemed to connect with Orwell’s own desire to seek the truthful, human encounter, rather than the party line.
To be perfectly honest, the complexities of that war, some 80 years ago, still seem difficult to understand, and it is very clear (as Orwell suggests) that information and misinformation was deliberately put out on all sides. Ancient ideological enmities between particular left groupings do seem to get stuck in fighting each other.
Where I like and trust Orwell is that he wrote this book from his direct experience. A small corner of that war, and from within an organisation which was fairly quickly made illegal. Orwell’s relationship is always with the people he is alongside, not with official lines.
This is at times a remarkably confusing account of warfare. That is not to criticise Orwell – because that is the nature of war, from within the battlezones, minute by minute. Add to that the fact that the Spanish Civil War, and interpretations of what was happening still leads to shouting between different factions and believers on the left, and between different scholarly accounts and interpretations.
Orwell was fighting on a front line, near Huesca, where very little was happening as the lines were quite far apart. Paradoxically, it was when he was in Barcelona for a few days leave, looking forward to getting away from the cold and the rats and the lice, that everything kicked off, and the workers,-united,-will-never-be-defeated, broke down because the various Republican faction’s pressing differences opened out into naked conflict
I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan
Orwell reminds us that we are ALL partisan and have agendas. Perhaps that is something which is refreshing about him – he describes what he sees, he also applies his investigative, journalistic look to the stories that were told by others with more obvious agendas and party lines to promote.
I went back to my post on the roof with a feeling of concentrated disgust and fury. When you are taking part in events like these you are, I suppose, in a small way, making history, and you ought by rights to feel like a historical character. But you never do, because at such times the physical details always outweigh everything else. Throughout the fighting, I never made the correct ‘analysis’ of the situation that was so glibly made by journalists hundreds of miles away. What I was chiefly thinking about was not the rights and wrongs of this miserable internecine scrap, but simply the discomfort and boredom of sitting day and night on that intolerable rood, and the hunger which was growing worse and worse – for none of us had had a proper meal since Monday
In a way, it is Orwell’s ‘inability to make the correct analysis’ which seems a deal more honest than black and white analyses
That view which I formed when I read this first, has only been reinforced. And underlined by a very apposite quote, found in a Wiki article about Homage to Catalonia
The Spanish Civil war produced a spate of bad literature. Homage to Catalonia is one of the few exceptions and the reason is simple. Orwell was determined to set down the truth as he saw it. This was something that many writers of the Left in 1936–39 could not bring themselves to do. Orwell comes back time and time again in his writings on Spain to those political conditions in the late thirties which fostered intellectual dishonesty: the subservience of the intellectuals of the European Left to the Communist ‘line’, especially in the case of the Popular Front in Spain where, in his view, the party line could not conceivably be supported by an honest man. Only a few strong souls, Victor Serge and Orwell among them, could summon up the courage to fight the whole tone of the literary establishment and the influence of Communists within it. Arthur Koestler quoted to an audience of Communist sympathizers. Thomas Mann’s phrase, ‘In the long run a harmful truth is better than a useful lie’. The non-Communists applauded; the Communists and their sympathizers remained icily silent … It is precisely the immediacy of Orwell’s reaction that gives the early sections of Homage its value for the historian. Kaminski, Borkenau, Koestler came with a fixed framework, the ready-made contacts of journalist intellectuals. Orwell came with his eyes alone.
Raymond Carr, “Orwell and the Spanish war”, essay in the World of George Orwell, 1971
My battered old version of the book also has a later essay by Orwell, “Looking Back on The Spanish Civil War”, which was published in 1953, and gives a clear analysis of the highly complex threads, the unlikely ideological bedfellows, in both countries and political and ideological groupings, from a vantage point 15 years later.
There is also a very clear Wiki article, including a timeline of Spanish history where the seeds of the conflict can be traced, specifically on the Spanish Civil War.
Pablo Picasso – Guernica, 1937
(Guernica was bombed at the request of the Spanish Nationalists (Falangists) by German and Italian planes)
It illustrates, yet again, how deeply tangled and complex the seeds of our ability to self-destruct are. Sometimes the fact that we are a self-conscious species, and our ability to self-reflect, – and self-deceive, as well as deceive others, seems a dreadful evolutionary aberration.
I was delighted (though churned up and deeply saddened) to be sprung into re-reading this account of ‘this pitiful and muddled war’ by Karen’s 1938 reading challenge She has done a remarkably clear review of Homage to Catalonia