Image courtesy: Penguin Group
Homage to Catalonia
Penguin re-issued Orwell's popular book earlier this year.
George Orwell came to Spain in November 1936 with the intention of reporting on the Spanish Civil War, which had erupted the previous July. Just 18 months later, in April 1938, Homage to Catalonia appeared. Although it has now become essential reading for anyone interested in the Civil War, its controversial content meant that Orwell’s usual editor refused to publish the book; and by the time of the writer’s death in 1950, less than 1,000 copies had been sold.
When Orwell, then impoverished and relatively unknown, arrived in Barcelona with his wife Eileen, he was immediately swept up in the revolutionary atmosphere of the city, a stronghold of Anarchists, Communists and Socialists shored up on the side of the Republicans. Despite a privileged background (born in Burma and educated at Eton, Orwell had worked as an imperial policeman), he resolved to fight for Republican Spain, believing that the war was the front line against the rising menace of Fascism across Europe. “If you had asked me why I had joined the militia,” he explained, “I should have answered: ‘To fight against Fascism’, and if you had asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: ‘Common decency’.”
Orwell enlisted as a volunteer soldier with the militia of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista or Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification), one of several hastily cobbled together by the Spanish trade unions at the start of the war. The POUM, a revolutionary Socialist and anti-Stalinist party, was the foremost workers’ political party in Catalunya at the time, with Orwell estimating that there were 10,000 members when he joined. He had no idea, as Christopher Hitchens points out in his Introduction to Orwell in Spain (Penguin Classics, 2001, ed. Peter Davison), that just two months prior, Aleksandr Orlov, the top liaison in Spain for the NKVD, the Soviet espionage agency, had assured his headquarters in Stalinist Russia that the POUM was a “Trotskyist” organisation that would be easy to “liquidate”.
Orwell served roughly five months on the Aragon front before the Communist-led witch hunt to suppress the POUM forced him to flee. “I greatly hope I come out of this alive if only to write a book about it,” he wrote in a letter to his editor, Victor Gollancz, in May 1937, just a few weeks before he was shot in the throat. On June 23rd, Orwell and Eileen, along with the leader of Britain’s Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Spain, John McNair, and another soldier, Stafford Cottman, ensconced themselves among tourists in the restaurant car of a Barcelona train that spirited them without incident to France. Once back in Britain, Orwell, still recuperating from his injury, commenced the arduous task of chronicling his Spanish experience.
Homage to Catalonia, this year celebrating its 75th anniversary, had a first run of 1,500 copies. However, because Orwell’s blistering attacks against Communism were out of step with conventional wisdom in leftist circles, he initially ran into difficulties in getting the book published. Victor Gollancz, a Communist sympathiser still smarting from a dispute over Orwell’s previous book, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), declined to publish Homage, citing that it might “harm the fight against Fascism”. The day after Gollancz’s refusal, Roger Senhouse of the anti-Communist and anti-Fascist publishing firm Secker & Warburg stepped up to the task, enthusing to Orwell that “a book from you would not only be of great interest but of considerable political importance.”
Orwell’s towering legacy as the great 20th-century foe and whistleblower of Stalinism, and of the perfidious lies, cover-ups and illusions that permeate politics, stretches back to his celebrated chronicle of fighting in Spain’s war, a period which also laid the groundwork for his chilling satires on Communism, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
“When I came to Spain and for some time afterwards,” confesses Orwell, “I was not only uninterested in the political situation but unaware of it.” Joining the POUM militia had been an accident owing to the fact that his introductory papers had come from members of the ILP, which was affiliated with the POUM. He had idealistically assumed that the Popular Front (Frente Popular), the motley patchwork of political parties and workers’ organisations united against Fascism, was in favour of the proletariat revolution simmering in Catalunya. “It was the first time 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.”
The revolutionary mood persisted on the battlefield, despite the fact that the war was unfolding like “a bloody pantomime.” When Orwell returned to Barcelona on leave in April 1937, however, any hint of a revolution had been nixed. It dawned on him that his initial days in the city had been “mainly a mixture of hope and camouflage”. He realised that a fearful bourgeoisie, just as horrified by workers’ control as by Franco, had been masquerading as revolutionary workers. Meanwhile, the actual Spanish working classes, primarily the Anarchists and the POUM, had fomented a revolution that was now being suppressed by the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), which was under Stalin’s spell. “For under the surface-aspect of the town… there was an unmistakable and horrible feeling of political rivalry and hatred… It was the antagonism between those who wished the revolution to go forward and those who wished to check or prevent it— ultimately between Anarchists and Communists.” Grasping the vast discrepancies between the “bourgeois democracy” being promoted by the PCE and the interests of the working classes, Orwell came to realise the fundamentally divisive nature of the Popular Front.
For Russia, the chief ally of Republican Spain, revolution would have been bad for business. It had political interests to protect with Britain and France, neither of which wanted a Spanish revolution. Russia was the major supplier of arms, equipment and military strategists to the Republicans, which explained why none of it ever reached the POUM, the most revolutionary swathe of the Spanish working class. This Republican dependence on Stalin, and the significant foreign capital invested in Spain, gave the Republicans little choice but to adopt the Communist line. “The Spanish Government (including the semi-autonomous Catalan Government) is far more afraid of the revolution than of the Fascists,” Orwell deduced.
The Communists churned out blatant lies and propaganda aimed at making the POUM out to be, writes Orwell, “no more than a gang of disguised Fascists, in the pay of Franco and Hitler.” The deliberate obfuscation of the truth surrounding the May 1937 Barcelona riots, during which Orwell held down the rooftop of the POUM headquarters in Plaça Catalunya as the Anarchists fended off an attack by government forces at the Telephone Exchange, set the stage for the abolition of the POUM. The POUM, the Communists maintained, had abandoned the front in order to spearhead an insurrection with the Anarchists. This lie, along with a host of others cited by Orwell, was taken for truth inside and outside of Spain. As Orwell writes in his 1943 essay, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War’: “I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.”
The sinister tactics of the Communists eventually ran Orwell out of Spain. “The most terrible things were happening even when I left,” he later wrote. “Wholesale arrests, wounded men dragged out of hospitals and thrown into jail, people crammed together in filthy dens where they have hardly room to lie down, prisoners beaten and half starved.”
The POUM, accused of collaborating with the Fascists, was declared illegal in June 1937. Its offices and newspapers were shut down and, on NKVD orders, POUM leader Andreu Nin was arrested and murdered.
Ultimately, Orwell’s illumination of the truth about the suffering of the Spanish people, and of the Stalinist repression happening inside Spain, was too stark an examination for its own time. However, his narrative shot to iconic climes during the Cold War, when fears about Communism reached a crescendo; it is now widely regarded as one of the most valuable eye-witness accounts of the Spanish Civil War, as well as an indispensible disquisition on 20th-century politics. Lionel Trilling eulogises in his Foreword to the first US edition of the book, from 1951: “At a time when most intellectuals still thought of politics as a nightmare abstraction, pointing to the fearfulness of the nightmare as evidence of their sense of reality, Orwell was using the imagination of a man whose hands and eyes and whole body were part of his thinking apparatus.”