The war that made Orwell

In 1937, George Orwell found himself in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. What he saw changed him forever

Published January 11, 2014 3:00PM (EST)

George Orwell       (AP)
George Orwell (AP)

Excerpted from "George Orwell: English Rebel"

Spain was to prove the fundamental political experience of George Orwell’s life. It was here that he witnessed cold-blooded murder and terror. On a couple of occasions, the blood and terror was his own.

He arrived in Barcelona on Boxing Day 1936 in order to offer his services to the second Spanish Republic. After delivering the manuscript of The Road to Wigan Pier to his agent in London, he looked up Henry Miller in Paris. He did not get much encouragement from the American about going for a soldier, except a warm corduroy jacket which was maybe encouragement enough, but at least he kept his tryst with a writer who had helped him feel his way in the world. Then he took the train south to a country in turmoil.

With a letter of introduction from the British Independent Labour Party (ILP), Orwell made his way to the militia barracks of the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista, otherwise known as the POUM, a party of the far left. There, and without fuss, he signed on as ‘Eric Blair, grocer’. Grocer. How unheroic can you get? He was not really a grocer. He could have signed on as ‘Author’ with far more justification, or bookshop assistant, or even schoolmaster. He was renting a Hertfordshire cottage that used to be a grocer’s and he and his wife had kept the shop going as a sideline, making a little money selling mostly sweets to kids in half-penny packets. But when it came to signing on to fight in a socialist revolution, being one of the ‘we of the sinking middle class’ suited him best. He was a grocer now and, naturally enough, first cue was yet another encounter with heroes he could believe in:

In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers’ table. He was a tough-looking youth of twenty five or six, with reddish yellow hair and powerful shoulders. His peaked leather cap was pulled fiercely over one eye. He was standing in profile to me, his chin on his breast, gazing with a puzzled frown at a map which one of the officers had open on the table. Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend—the kind of face you would expect in an Anarchist, though as likely as not he was a Communist. There was both candour and ferocity in it . . .

‘Italiano? ’
I answered in my bad Spanish: ‘No, Ingles. Y tu? ’

As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him. But I knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.

Orwell would write a poem in this man’s memory. After the bad days of Comstockery, the quality of his poetry was improving with the quality of his encounters:

The Italian soldier shook my hand

Beside the guard room table;

The strong hand and the subtle hand

Whose palms are only able

To meet within the sound of guns,

But oh! what peace I knew then

In gazing on his battered face

Purer than any woman’s!

Eric Blair, grocer, spent six months in Spain, mainly on the Aragon front with the eighty men and assorted dogs and uniforms of an under-strength centura of the Lenin Division of the POUM militia. He was prepared to die with these men, and for them if necessary. Not everything was to his liking. Military training was useless, modern weapons were rare, the barracks was filthy, standards were low. Even the buglers couldn’t play properly. The usual adjectives came out and did duty: ‘frightful’, ‘disgraceful’, ‘wasteful’, and so on. So did the smells: this time, the horse-piss and rotten oats of a former cavalry barracks. He noted in passing how some magnificent chargers had been captured and handed over to the militia, who were busy riding them to death. This was not a free society nor even an attractive one, nor could it be, but in those first few days Orwell was convinced that it was the most equal society he had known. Just as he saw the English miners as "genuine working men," so he saw the Spanish militias as ‘genuine revolution- aries’, ‘microcosms of a classless society’. At the front he reckoned complete equality, or something not far from it, had been achieved. ‘Snobbishness, money grubbing, fear of the boss etc.’ had ceased; class prejudice had gone; comradeship was real and unaffected. Above all, he was struck by the ‘essential decency . . . straightforwardness and generosity’ of the Catalans.

In other words, he thought he had found what he had been looking for in Part Two of Wigan Pier: a socialism that did not need its ‘sleek little professors’ to tell it what it was. He intuited the same instincts in the Spanish working class which he had found in the English. In Lancashire and Yorkshire he believed he had found the real England in a class of men whose loyalty was not to something abstract, as it tended to be with intellectuals; or to something he could hardly comprehend, as it was with the Burmese; or to something unknowable, as it was with the tramps—but a loyalty to each other, face to face, here and now, without question, whatever the odds. And so it was with the Catalans, except they were not only loyal, they were armed and loyal. The English miners were a class in themselves. The Spanish militias, on the other hand, were a class for themselves. Having saved the Republic from ‘Black’ Spain, the land of colonels, priests, and landowners, they now seemed ready to establish Red Spain, a land fit for workers and peasants. Here began Orwell’s first lesson in Revolution:

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. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even unceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Senor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift boy. There were no private motor cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist.

He saw action twice. First in early April as part of a wider Republican drive—as reported in the New Leader at the beginning of this book. Orwell’s own account of the action is in chapter 7 of Homage to Catalonia and is a masterpiece. If the attack was part of the revolution, he is saying, no politician could possibly comprehend it because we who made the attack could not comprehend it either. Their rifles jam, their bombs stick, they crawl on their bellies sick with fear there, and they crawl on their bellies sick with fear back, and they achieve nothing in between but casualties. None of this was predictable before the attack. None of it made sense after. Orwell gets back to his lines, quite incongruously remembering only ‘the bare misery of the Fascist dug outs’. They are told by their superiors that the attack was a great success, but he hardly believes it. They always said such things.

He never made of the war more than a matter of being there. When he looked back, what mattered most was ‘first of all the physical memories, the sounds, the smells, and the surfaces of things’. The rest was a question of getting through it with all the experience, instinct, and common sense you could cup in your hands. If you have no heavy weaponry and face an enemy who has machine-guns, there are only three things you can do. You can dig in at 400 yards. You can advance and get mown down. Or you can make pointless small-scale night-attacks of the sort described. The common-sense alternative to all this, and what matters most, apart from a weapon that doesn’t jam, was firewood, food, tobacco, candles, warm blankets, good boots, and a daily alternative to the boredom and the vermin. Always drawn to the little platoons and the little platoons to him, his comrades made him their corporal. After 115 days away, Eileen remembered him back from the front. ‘He arrived completely ragged, almost bare-foot, a little lousy, dark brown and looking really well. For the previous 12 hours he had been in trains consuming anis, muscatel out of anis bottles, sardines and chocolate.’

No sooner was Orwell back in Barcelona than he was in action again. This time, however, he found himself fighting his own side. After months of left factionalism in government circles, a new Republican army was on the streets of Barcelona while the old Caballero regime was falling apart in Valencia. By the middle of May, after perhaps 500 had died in what Orwell later referred to as a ‘dust up’ between the army and the militias, Juan Negrin was in, Caballero was out, and the POUM was on its way out.

Internecine struggles had been simmering all winter. They boiled over on 25 April, after Caballero dismissed the Communist-controlled defence committee of Madrid and fighting broke out between Anarchists and Communists in the Catalan border town of Puigcerda, and Roldan Cortada, a well-known Communist, was assassinated in Barcelona. When Orwell arrived back on the 26th mass rallies were taking place in memory of Cortada, while Anarchist suspects were being rounded up. Orwell was due to return to the front in a matter of days, but opted to stay put while the POUM militia—officially subordinate to the mass Catalan Anarchist trade union the CNT, but fiercely independent too—stood its ground and refused to surrender its weapons. Fighting broke out in and around the Telephone Exchange on 3 May, after police tried to dislodge telephone workers who had been carrying out their duties in a conscientious Anarchist fashion.

He looked on amazed at the sudden turn of events. While the POUM was fighting Fascists at the front, the Republic was fighting, or at any rate hassling, the POUM in its own backyard. ‘Anti-Fascism’ was a Communist concept subject to an array of Soviet interpretations, but this was ridiculous. Loyal to his comrades, and loyal to the anti-Fascist cause as he saw it, Orwell took his rifle, an old Mauser, up onto a cinema roof overlooking the Ramblas and loitered there looking for a kill. In so doing, as a well-educated man at the heart of a revolution, he mused that he should feel part of history. But he never did. ‘At such times the physical details always outweighed 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 the boredom of sitting day and night on that intolerable roof, and the hunger...If this was history it did not feel like it.

Orwell had not come to Spain to fight a left-wing government. After his initial infatuation with a classless society, he knew by now how perplexing Spain could be, and how squalid, but he had warmed to his comrades and was shocked and distressed at the lies that were being told, slandering them as Fascists and fifth-columnists. At the same time, he knew the military limitations of the militias, was never going to be convinced by his own side’s incipient Leninism, and remained a supporter of the Republic. He still wanted to join its army once he had stopped resisting it. Just before the street-fighting broke out on 3 May he told a Comintern representative that he hoped his connections with the POUM would not count against his application to join the International Brigade, then fighting in defence of Madrid. Subsequently he applied for a discharge from the POUM and did not report to their Barcelona barracks as instructed. He only wanted to get to Madrid and do some hard fighting, and probably some hard reporting too. Up to this point Orwell had inclined to the Republican and Communist-party ‘fight-the-war’ line over the POUM’s ‘fight-the-war-and-the-revolution’ line. But equally, he never had any illusions about growing Soviet influence on the Republic, and could not help noticing how capable Republican security forces looked compared to his own tattered comrades in the militia. After a few days street-fighting and stand-off, the shooting died down and a deal was struck. Assault guards came in from Valencia to patrol the streets, carrying their new Russian automatics with pride. At the front, the POUM’s ancient rifles exploded on their shoulders.

Then it was back to the front on 10 May. Later in May, however, he was in Barcelona again, just out of the military field hospital at Lerida. Contrary to his claim that enemy snipers couldn’t hit a bull in a passage, Orwell had caught an early morning hola right through the throat: a high-velocity 7 mm-calibre bullet between the trachea and carotid artery. This time the war finally hit home. It was not long since he had described shooting an elephant in Burma. Now he was describing being shot himself in Spain. We should not be surprised that the sensations for Orwell and his elephant were the same. The writing always comes first:

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick—one never does when a shot goes home . . . In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down...he sagged to his knees. (‘Shooting an Elephant’, New Writing, 1936)

Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all around me, and I felt a tremendous shock—no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shrivelled up to nothing. The sand bags in front of me receded into immense distance...The next moment my knees crumpled up and I was falling. (Homage to Catalonia, 1938)

He was lucky to survive. As he said, Spanish marksmanship saved his life a few times. It took eight days to move him down the line from field stations to hospitals to a sanatorium in Barcelona where, after two weeks’ convalescence, he was released. Released, but as a soldier not discharged, and by no means at liberty. For its part in resisting the May demilitarization the POUM was being accused of treason in the press, and on 16 June, the day after a sick and heavily bandaged Orwell set out back to the front to secure his discharge papers, the government finally declared it an illegal organization, raiding its offices and closing its newspaper, La Batalla. Security police and others were making arrests. POUM’s leader, Andres Nin, was taken on the same day, and held in a Communist private prison, or checa, where he was tortured, possibly with some government knowledge (though it was still early for the Negrin government which had only been in power three days). Other comrades, including Georges Kopp, formerly commandant of the Lenin division, and Bob Smillie, from Orwell’s old platoon, had also been arrested, Kopp on 20 June.

It took no time for Republican security forces to identify Orwell and his wife as spies. On 18 June, the same day her husband was issued with a medical discharge and safe passage by the 29th Army Division, security men raided Eileen’s room at the hotel. She stayed in bed, concealing their ILP papers. When Orwell got back from the front on the 20th the Blairs expected to be arrested at any minute. Because Eileen was clearly the bait, she stayed at the hotel while Orwell slept rough. They pestered the British Consulate for visas and looked for a way out, while at considerable risk to themselves they also went to see Kopp in jail, where they lobbied on his behalf. To no avail. Kopp spent eighteen months in prison. Bob Smillie was already dead—murdered, or allowed to die in custody, whichever way it was.

On 23 June, along with Stafford Cottman, another British volunteer from Orwell’s old platoon, and the ILP official John McNair, the Blairs left Barcelona by train, posing as war tourists. If they had been caught they would most certainly have been arrested. Three weeks after crossing over into France a full indictment was published against them for High Treason and Espionage: ‘One must consider them ILP agents of the POUM.’ ‘Eric Blair took part in the events of May.’ It seems they had been spied upon by men they took to be their comrades. Here ended Orwell’s second lesson in Revolution.

Man to man

Orwell claimed later that he had gone to Spain knowing nothing of Spanish politics and with no idea what kind of war he was joining. He saw it as a war against Fascism and that was that. But this was not quite true. The Road to Wigan Pier is not exactly politically innocent, and there are strong similarities in the stance he took against left-wing intellectuals in that book and the stance he took against them in Homage to Catalonia. In other words, he was keen to write a book about Spain just as he had written one about England, and just as he drew powerful conclusions from his English experience, so he drew them from his Spanish, with exactly the same reversals of expectation. He goes to Wigan with grave doubts about capitalism, and leaves it with grave doubts about socialism. He goes to Spain an out-and-out anti-Fascist, and leaves it an out-and-out anti-Communist. Orwell’s politics was developing now as a matter of truth to action. The miners had shown him a better England and made him a better man. The Spanish people had saved the Republic and shown him a new Spain. Twice he had seen the truth for himself. Now he was going to act on it.

So, in a small footnote to the history of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell returned to London to defend the actions of the POUM and to sever his links, such as they were, with Communist and Communist-influenced sections of the British intelligentsia. He was not alone in this. The ILP and the Glasgow POUM Defence Committee both launched campaigns to defend their arrested Spanish comrades. More important, during the summer and autumn of 1937, goaded by letters from Kopp about the squalor and brutality of life inside a Republican prison, Orwell forged an aggressive, unrelenting essay style that would come to be his trademark: establish the truth of the encounter; show its wider political significance; challenge the reader’s moral integrity. This style had started surprisingly well in 1931, in ‘The Spike’ and ‘A Hanging’, but had deteriorated somewhat in Down and Out in Paris and London, only to languish in the novels but stay alive in the book reviews, to show new life in Burmese Days, and look promising again with The Road to Wigan Pier. Unlike that work, however, which simply bolted his politics onto his experience, Homage to Catalonia, as Richard Keeble shows, blended them together in ways that mixed into a single, absorbing story.

Homage to Catalonia is told in the first person. It rarely speculates beyond that, but equally there is hardly a sentence which does not carry some wider nuance. Consider how his description of the attempt to save Georges Kopp turns from a matter of first-person fact into the wider significance of why it matters at all. The narrative starts, ‘My wife and I visited Kopp that afternoon’. They try to retrieve from the police documents that had been taken from Kopp and might serve to save his life. An army officer helps. He is entirely sympathetic, if entirely proper, in his response to Major Kopp. The police, by contrast, are corrupt. Having retrieved the army documents but having failed, nevertheless, to obtain Kopp’s release, Orwell and the army officer accept the situation, bow slightly to each other, ‘and then there happened a strange and moving thing, the little officer hesitated a moment, then stepped across, and shook hands with me’. Orwell says he records this encounter because, ‘trivial though it may sound . . . it is somehow typical of Spain’.

Note the ‘somehow’. As in Orwell’s exchange with the militiaman at the start of the book, the passage may be rooted in chance encounters and quicksilver reporting, but it is also reaching out with a wider meaning, a meaning which in a lesser writer or a lazier journalist would look tendentious. Encounters like this are repeated all through; they are his homage. Orwell is feeling his way not only towards an anti-politics politics, but also towards an anti-literary literariness that ultimately becomes his house style. I have not got the time to make the story into literature, he seems to be saying. But he only seems to be saying it. In Orwell, the writer always beats the journalist to the story.

Rather than identify ‘Orwell’ as like them, we do better to identify a coming generation of journalists as like him. Always a better essayist than a novelist, in Homage to Catalonia he is a book-length essayist trying to capture the intimacy of the first-person novelist. Jenni Calder has called this ‘the necessity of action’ in his writing. The style was not entirely original. Documentary film-makers had been trying to do first person for ten years or more. Social investigators had been taking readers into London slum life for well over fifty, and a few before that. Modern war reporting had relied on personal witness for even longer. Orwell’s notebooks bulged with cuttings and pamphlets and duplicates. He had always been an immediate, there-and-then kind of guy; keen to know, find out, explain, move on. His nieces and nephews remembered him that way. So did the Peters brothers—‘A walk was a mixture of energy, adventure and matters of fact. The world, we felt, was just like this.’ So did the boys he taught at prep school. He was a good teacher. His flatmates, schoolfriends, and Spanish comrades too, all remembered him as someone who ‘always reacted to situations’, was ‘awfully personal’, and who wanted to get involved and understand people. ‘He was not, I repeat, not a snob.’

You might say, therefore, that even though he hardly ever worked to deadlines from the front, there was something of the journalist in him. But you might also say that a man who went in search of the truth was bound to react strongly when his own side told lies, not only against himself but against his wife and comrades too, as a matter of course. Orwell felt trashed by Republican Spain. Fascism could never have hurt him like this, because he had no interest in Fascists. It was as if in Barcelona his taste for life and his taste for art and politics came together, once at the outset to be exalted, once at the end to be disgusted. In defence of the Revolution and against those who had betrayed it, Orwell found his voice. No English journalist, with the possible exception of Hazlitt or Cobbett, had been so personally driven or self-possessed.

So, in his urge to tell it like it was whatever the cost, Orwell had a lot of the journalist in him. But the theory was that the modern press had learned not only to invent ‘the masses’, but to comfort and deceive them too. The first British instance was generally thought to be the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), a literary war with Kipling taking special briefings from the generals while Edgar Wallace (Daily Mail ), Henry Nevinson (Daily Chronicle), Winston Churchill (Morning Post), and J. A. Hobson (Manchester Guardian) reported back from the action. South Africa was a unique war in British history. For the first time, a tight relationship between pressmen and politicians was apparent. In the United States, Walter Lippman talked in 1922 of ‘the manufacture of consent’ out of newspaper stereotypes and fictions, while Norman Angell talked in 1914 and again in 1926 of the newspaper industry’s daily drive for ‘the quickest reaction from the very largest number’. In Great Britain, Harold Lasswell warned in 1927 against too much emotion in the press— though not without admiration for newspapermen’s ‘terse, vivid’ style and rapid storytelling. Orwell’s first published pieces, as we have seen, followed these sociological lines by addressing the twin problem of state censorship in Britain and mass commercialization of the press in France. The view from the left was that in the capitalist news kingdoms of the world—pioneered by Northcliffe in England and Hearst in the United States—everything was bland and mass-manipulated. This view was endorsed by the press lords themselves. But there were countervailing developments too, in particular a growing personal and professional commitment among journalists to getting as close to what was happening as possible, and telling it in their own name, whatever the cost. Long before Orwell, therefore, and in a way which suited his dissent from the orthodoxies of both the right (mass news is popular opinion) and left (mass news is manipulation), ‘being there’ in order to tell the truth had grown to be part of the journalist’s trade. By the time he was thinking of going to Spain, ‘with some notion of writing newspaper articles’, the greatest living practitioner of the trade was Ernest Hemingway.

Like Priestley and Chesterton, Hemingway was one of those writers whom Orwell never gave his full attention but with whom he had a lot in common. Both men had lived in the same area of Paris in the 1920s; both were anti-Fascist and anti-Communist, not party men but pro-Republican and pro the masculine virtues too, not only in their lives but in their prose. When they speak, you listen. When you listen, it is in that man-to-man, democratic way that so impressed Thomas Paine in revolutionary America in 1776 and Orwell in revolutionary Spain in 1937. That said, while Orwell served in a trench on twopence a day, Hemingway was in and out of Spain (five times), staying at the Hotel Florida courtesy of the North American Newspaper Alliance on a dollar rate of $500 a cable. He even had a chauffeur (in Madrid he had four), and his girlfriend Martha Gellhorn had a direct line to the White House. All the same, man (and girlfriend) could really write. Although Orwell affected disdain for Hemingway’s tough-guy prose, it is hard to believe he did not learn from it. Years later, when they were both serving as newspaper war correspondents, they met briefly in Paris at the Hotel Scribe, an incident that the American felt obliged to inflate as time went by.

Orwell also had much in common with two other great left-wing American writer-reporters—Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck. He, like them, never saw himself as anything more than a jobbing writer and shared something of their ‘ordinary Joe’ prose style. Steinbeck would come to be seen as ‘uniquely American’, just as Orwell would come to be seen as uniquely English. More than Hemingway perhaps, and along with two other belly-to-earth Americans, Miller and Faulkner, Sinclair, Steinbeck, and Orwell were committed to trying to tell the truth about ordinary lives. Miller’s Avenue Clichy, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Sinclair’s Packingtown, Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley, and Orwell’s Aragon Front all came out of being there and getting it right. Orwell never could and never did write a novel as good as The Grapes of Wrath, but Steinbeck’s taste for ‘the shock of first hand observation’ and ‘complex, self-contained, imaginative worlds’ matched Orwell’s politics, and Sinclair’s Chicago Union stockyards prefigured twentieth-century totalitarian genocides not a world away from "Nineteen Eighty-Four." All these writers knew how very small worlds could contain very big ones. Orwell got out of Spain believing that it was just a rehearsal for the next big war to come. Along with civilian bombing, mass mobilization, and the inexorable shift towards total government and a new kind of politics, he was convinced that another key feature of war would be how intellectuals would seek to deceive the masses. Not for the first time, he was taking his arguments, as well as picking his fights, from the left, on the left. Determined to tell the truth about Spain, at the same time he was sympathetic to the Left Book Club line that in the age of the masses the truth was impossible:

In the last quarter of a century the whole picture has changed. Political propaganda has become the chief internal weapon of governments, and it is employed not only to persuade a sufficient number of people that a particular course of action is expedient or right, but to keep whole populations in a complete, and it is apparently hoped, a perpetual emotional subjection.

He increasingly adopted Julien Benda’s argument that, as they were drawn into politics, intellectuals would find that if they told the truth they would not be able to go on being political, and if they went on being political they would not be able to tell the truth. Culpable if they did, and culpable if they did not, Orwell argued that in an age of opinion, these trends were clear for all to see across Europe’s intelligentsias: evidently so in the capitalist news and advertising industries, and flagrantly so in the one-party states—whether of the right or the left or the Vatican—where ambitious, rootless party intellectuals were in power through lies and deception. Orwell raged against them, starting with Gordon Comstock (an intellectual and victim of intellectuals) in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and going on right to the end with Winston Smith (the same) in "Nineteen Eighty-Four."

In England he had known that all was not well on the metropolitan left long before Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman and Nation refused to publish his review of Franz Borkenau’s The Spanish Cockpit in July 1937. Comstock had shown a worrying propensity for self-deception—first sign of mass deception—and Wigan Pier had been intensely critical of left intellectuals for much the same reason. But what Orwell found pathetic in Comstock and repulsive in Kingsley Martin, he found murderous in Barcelona. His ‘Eye Witness in Barcelona’ (Controversy, 1: 11, August 1937) set the tone, and a good example of his desire to set the record straight can be found in his clinical, point-by-point sectional removal of F. A. Frankford’s charge of POUM treachery as published in the Daily Worker on 21 August 1937. At least Frankford had been to Spain. For those who had not been there and seen for themselves, Orwell took the opportunity to administer careful beatings. Stalinist duchesses were particularly welcome.


Orwell’s reflections on the revolution in Spain, as told in chapter 5 of the first edition of Homage to Catalonia, are straightforward. In the summer of 1936 Spanish workers had taken up arms and aligned with loyal Republican forces in order to prevent a Fascist takeover by units of the professional army and police. In Catalonia these actions were accompanied by the spontaneous collectivization of farms, businesses, and local government. What had begun as the prevention of an army coup d’état therefore, turned into a full-blown revolution, a revolution made conscious by the myriad anarchist, socialist, and trade-union organizations—the PSUC, UGT, CNT, FAI, PCE, POUM, and so on—who steered it. A ‘plague of initials’, Orwell called them. Then, within a year of these momentous events, the USSR was trying to run the show according to its own ends, which were not (necessarily) those of the Republic or the revolution. Which is to say, according to Orwell at any rate, all that had been won in 1936 was being lost in 1937. His specific charge was that, under the new dispensation, the Republic was actively suppressing revolutionary groups and dismantling revolutionary achievements in order to reconstitute a bourgeois ‘popular front’ able to defend itself from Franco on the one hand while attending to its own (and Soviet) worries about the prospect of an extreme-left popular government on the other. Because this involved disarming and imprisoning men he had fought alongside, in Orwell’s eyes the government, and especially the Communists who were increasingly influencing the government, were little better than the enemy. ‘The point to notice is that the people who are in prison now are not Fascists but revolutionaries . . . and the people responsible for putting them there are . . . the Communists.’

According to Orwell, then, militias such as the POUM and the CNT who had resisted being disarmed on the streets of Barcelona in May 1937 were clear defenders of the revolution, while those who had tried to disarm them were its enemies. To him, these were grand facts— heavy beasts roaming an otherwise vague and indeterminate political landscape. Counter-revolutionary moves by a Communist-backed government had led to his comrades-in-arms being traduced, arrested, and imprisoned, their leader murdered, their offices closed, and their party declared ‘Trotsky-Fascist’. In response, in a flurry of essays and reviews, most notably ‘Spilling the Spanish Beans’ (New English Weekly, 29 July and 2 September 1937) and ‘Eye Witness in Barcelona’ (Controversy, August 1937), followed by Homage to Catalonia in April 1938, Orwell told against those on the ideological left in Britain who had sold the revolution short by shutting their eyes to what was really happening.

What was really happening? Orwell stuck to what his eyes did see and to the POUM position—though not necessarily in that order. Sometimes he went beyond what he could actually have seen. Often what he actually did see was viewed in the light of the POUM position. He hardly considered Labour party policy on Spain as policy at all, vacillating as it did between supporting ‘democracy’ on the one hand and the ‘Republic’ on the other: both positions entirely rhetorical. And in a moment of high revolutionary ardour that would stay with him for the next three years, Orwell pronounced all Popular Front governments like Negrin’s freaks (bourgeois head, workers’ body), threw the charge that the POUM was Fascist back in Negrin’s face (‘the present government has more points of resemblance to Fascism than points of difference’), and insisted that even in time of war—especially in time of war—the revolution must come first. If you do not free the people, he argued, you will not win the war; and if you do not win the war, you will surely not free the people. All opposing views he dismissed as lies, or contrary to how the people on the ground actually saw things, which was in accord with how he saw things, which was usually in accord with his moment of ideology:

My reading of the situation, derived from what people were actually doing and saying at the time, is this—

The workers came into the streets in a spontaneous defensive movement, and they only consciously wanted two things: the handing-back of the Telephone Exchange and the disarming of the hated Civil Guards. In addition there was the resentment caused by the growing poverty in Barcelona and the luxurious life lived by the bourgeoisie.

This was the POUM line at least, and although Orwell started out sceptical in the end he came down in favour of it, not so much because he believed the line but because believed in the men who believed the line.56 What mattered to him in Catalonia and Aragon was the same as what mattered to him in Yorkshire and Lancashire: not so much the politics as the people—the unbeliever who came to believe, the uncommitted who came to commit, the man who was blind who came to see. In this extract, note the withering away of what Orwell reasons to be the case and the slow, incipient growth of what he knows to be the case simply by his commitment to it:

On the surface the quarrel between the Communists and the POUM was one of tactics. The POUM was for immediate revolution, the Communists not. So far so good; there was much to be said on both sides...But here the peculiarity of Communist tactics came in. Tentatively at first, then more loudly, they began to assert that the POUM was splitting the Government forces not by bad judgement but by deliberate design. The POUM was declared to be no more than a gang of disguised Fascists, in the pay of Franco and Hitler, who were pressing a pseudo-revolutionary policy as a way of aiding the Fascist cause. The POUM was a ‘Trotskyist’ organization and ‘Franco’s Fifth Column’. This implied that scores of thousands of working-class people, including eight or ten thousand soldiers who were freezing in the front-line trenches and hundreds of foreigners who had come to Spain to fight against Fascism, often sacrificing their livelihood and their nationality by doing so, were simply traitors...It is not a nice thing to see a Spanish boy of fifteen carried down the line on a stretcher, with a dazed white face looking out from the blankets, and to think of the sleek persons in London and Paris who are writing pamphlets to prove that this boy is a Fascist in disguise...all the usual war-stuff, the tub-thumping, the heroics, the vilification of the enemy—all these were done, as usual, by people who were not fighting and who in many cases would have run a hundred miles sooner than fight. [In this regard] one of the dreariest effects of this war has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right.

This is highly charged writing, but the truth is that Orwell might have spent a little less time responding to his own experience and a little more time thinking carefully about the art of the politically possible. To begin with, not all Communists at home or abroad shared his sense of urgency. They thought that ‘The Revolution’ (an almost mystical act of transmutation that would solve the problem of class) could wait on the forces of History (capital ‘H’ and inevitably moving in the direction of Communism). In the meantime, the Communist International had a regional struggle to pursue and trusted Russia’s big battalions to help them pursue it. If that involved Popular Front policies, so be it. If it involved ‘all the usual war-stuff ’, so be it.

Moreover, in Spain the situation was more complicated than Orwell allowed. The Spanish Communist Party had assumed a key role in government, but it would be wrong to suppose that all Spanish Communists were intellectuals, or bureaucrats, or that the PCE was the only party in the history of the Spanish left to declare its rivals traitors. Even if the International Brigades were Communist-controlled, their soldiers were there like Orwell was there, to fight the enemy, not each other. International Brigade Communists had been street-fighting Franco in Madrid while Orwell had been safely tucked up in his grocery. The British battalion of the XV Brigade, formed in January 1937 (which Orwell tried to join), took hammerings at every battle it fought—at Jarama in February 1937, at Brunette in July 1937, at Aragon in August 1937, and at Ebro in July 1938. And long before Spanish Communists got their way (May–June 1937) the Second Republic had been born in sectarian conflict not only between left and right, but between left and left—between regionalists and centralists, syndicalists and socialists, liberals and Leninists, and all varieties of Leninist, including the two factions which had clashed at the heart of Orwell’s politics—the pro-Anarquista POUM and the pro-Moscovita PCE.

These rivalries had frequently been violent in word and deed. The POUM and Catalan and Spanish Communists had been at each other’s throats since at least December 1936, and government agencies in Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia had been trying to disarm the militias and normalize due process since before that. At times the Republic could look like a war of all on all. That it saw far fewer extra-judicial killings than the Nationalist territories was only because Franco and his friends were better at it. Not only that, there had been clashes between left republican governments and those they saw as their natural supporters, the workers, almost from the beginning of the Second Republic—at Castiblanco in 1931, at Arnedo in 1932, at Llobregat in 1932, and in the sickening burnings and shootings of the ‘Casas Viejas’ incident of 8 January 1933, which led to the withdrawal of Anarchist support for the government and the return to government of the right. When a right-wing government used a colonial army to trample the Asturias in 1934, they were only improving upon an incipient republican taste for rising and repression amply played out two years later.

The Second Republic had never been able to keep its house in order. That it included ‘at least twelve different leftist and liberal revolutionary or reform projects’ shows the scale of its problems. The wonder was not that it handled these projects badly but that it dared handle them at all. Given that, and given that in May 1937 it was surrendering territory and losing the war, it was not unreasonable for Negrin’s new government to want to try again to assert its authority, disarm the militias, and build a new army. The Communist 5th Regiment’s motto, ‘Discipline, Hierarchy, Organization’, may have been a touch excessive, but we get the point. From Negrin’s point of view doing away with private revolutionary patrols, crossings, checkpoints, holding centres, safe houses, paseos, persons missing, persons dead, paramilitaries, all that, was not only worth a try, it was ‘crucial to the constitutional credibility of the government’ and the winning of the war. Violations of the democratic state, after all, were the actions of the right. The intimidation of civil society, after all, was how Franco’s Africanistas did it. That Communist politicians pressed for order and discipline in order to scatter rivals in their way was clearly dangerous for Anarchists and Trotskyists, particularly in view of what was going on in the Soviet Union, but it could not have been unexpected. The Soviet Union was the only country actively supporting the Republic in men and arms, and it had been their battle tanks, not militia rifles, which had stopped Franco in his tracks outside Madrid in November 1936. After that, the Republic’s few victories—at Jarama in February and at Guadalajara in March 1937—could not have been won without Soviet armour. Franco had plenty of German materiel and a hefty Italian army of occupation on his side, and before he ran into the Russians his colonial army had swept up from the south in less than four weeks. While the British, French, and Americans stood aside, the Republic took what it could and paid for it in gold and in the channelling of Soviet aid through the PCE. Against this, the POUM strategy of continuing to look to the militias and incontrolats while fighting an increasingly capable enemy at the front and an increasingly complicated workers’ revolution to the rear looked like so much wishful thinking. According to one historian at least, it ‘would have brought disaster’.

Orwell was unrealistic about the Spanish revolution, and it took him too long to work out why. And because he was unrealistic on the revolution, he was unrealistic on the politics. That he came back from Spain to join the ILP (and by association its absurd global posturing) is surprising for a man who had written Part Two of The Road to Wigan Pier. Yet not for the first time—and nor would it be for the last—he took a far left line only to use it to pick a fight with the left. ‘Bourgeois democracy is only another name for capitalism,’ he declared. ‘And so is Fascism.’ And so, out of this dismal equation, came the dismal deduction: ‘to fight against Fascism on behalf of democracy is to fight against one form of capitalism on behalf of a second which is liable to turn into the first at any moment.’ This put Orwell out of step not only with most of the Labour party, but with Labour’s very reason for existence. On the other hand, although they wrote very different books on the subject, and although Orwell did not trust him, he shared John Strachey’s essential point that in a fight with Fascism it was a wager whether the British political class would turn Fascist before the British working class would turn revolutionary—a point of view shared by Stafford Cripps on Labour’s hard left, and held by Orwell for the next three years.

In its fight against Fascism, Orwell seemed to believe that the Republic was turning Fascist. He joined the ILP in 1938, he said, because never again would he ‘be led up the garden path in the name of capitalist democracy’.

Someone less instinctively drawn to the little platoons might have made more sense of the situation. The new man in charge of the army, General Vicente Rojo, was a talented soldier and a genuine republican. Time and again his army would prove its worth against the odds. Juan Negrin was another man of talent. While Orwell was accusing his government of behaviour tantamount to Fascism (that is, accusing it of Fascism), the hapless Prime Minister—‘a man of the grande bourgeoisie’ according to Hugh Thomas—was deploying his considerable linguistic and diplomatic skills trying, unsuccessfully one has to admit, to raise French and British assistance to fight Fascists. In almost impossible circumstances Roja got the army moving again and Negrin got the government moving again, succeeding to some extent in his efforts to re-establish cabinet responsibility, build an effective administration, discipline dissidents, accommodate the church, restore the justice system, and pay off or otherwise diminish what he owed his Soviet creditors. Special courts were opened to deal quickly and, it has been estimated, not unfairly with minor cases. Trained judges replaced popular tribunals. Priests were released. The police was restored to normal duties. The Red Cross was allowed full access to prisoners, including enemy prisoners. There were to be no Moscow show trials in Spain. Helen Graham tell us that when the POUM leaders were (finally) brought to trial in October 1938, charged with supporting the illegal rebellion of May 1937, the trial was fair, ‘in spite of the PCE’s best efforts’ and a horrendous collapse in the Republic’s military capacity after defeat at the battle of the River Ebro. Negrin was unable to prevent the Soviet secret police’s persecution of foreign Trotskyists in the militias and the International Brigades, which went on all through 1937 and which, as we have seen, nearly swept up the Blairs. Andres Nin was arrested by police-chief Burillo on 16 June 1937, and shot and dumped in the road by Soviet agents on the 22nd. On the 23rd Orwell and Eileen fled the country.

Excerpted from "George Orwell: English Rebel," by Robert Colls, with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright 2013 Robert Colls. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

By Robert Colls

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