Barcelona barricade, 1937
Spanish Civil War poster (UC San Diego Library)
It is very interesting to reread George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) after a gap of about forty years or more. I remember reading the book in the 1970s with a sense of great admiration for Orwell’s moral and personal commitment to the Republican and anti-fascist cause. I read it primarily as an anti-fascist book, by a writer who eventually gained fame for novels about totalitarianism. Like several thousands of American leftists who volunteered to fight against fascism in Spain in the Abraham Lincoln brigades, Orwell made the choice to travel to Spain and to join a POUM militia unit near Barcelona. I did not pay a lot of attention to Orwell’s detailed descriptions of the “political lines” taken by the various factions of anarchists, socialists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, and syndicalists whose militias constituted the primary opposition to Franco’s forces — POUM, CNT, … But now those passages seem perhaps more interesting than the description of day-to-day life on the line in Catalonia and street fighting in Barcelona. And they are interesting in part because they demonstrate a more “revolutionary” Orwell than we have generally come to expect.
The issue dividing the factions was what to do about social revolution in Spain. The anarchists, syndicalists, and Trotskyists believed that the struggle must involve war against the fascist opposition and consolidation of revolution in Spain. The Communists (Stalinists) held for a common front with many groups in Spain — including the bourgeoisie and liberal landed classes. They advocated for a united front, and attempted to restrain or roll back revolutionary actions like land seizures and collectivized factories, and flew the flag of “War against Fascism first, revolution later”.
What comes across from Orwell’s comments about the Communists, the anarchists, and the POUM activists is that Orwell is more radical than expected. He appears to believe — along with the Spanish anarchists — that fundamental social revolution is necessary in Spain, and that any other outcome will be one form or another of class dictatorship. He faults the Soviet-backed Spanish Communists for many things, but most fundamentally for their willingness to compromise with landlords and the bourgeoisie against dispossessed peasants and workers.
Orwell had joined a militia group affiliated with POUM; but he had no special allegiance to POUM. “I had only joined the P.O.U.M. militia rather than any other because I happened to arrive in Barcelona with I.L.P. papers, but I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties” (kl 698). The Spanish civil war might have been perceived abroad as an anti-fascist struggle between defenders of the republic and a rogue fascist general; but Orwell perceived it as a revolutionary struggle between peasants and workers, on the one hand, and the landlords and owners of wealth who dominated them, on the other. The Church, as defender of the system of property that constituted this system of domination, was the natural antagonist of the peasants and workers.
The Spanish working class did not, as we might conceivably do in England, 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. (kl 719)
The men and women who rose up in anarchist militias to fight Franco’s troops did not do so on behalf of “liberal capitalist democracy,” but on behalf of revolution. The Spanish Communist Party’s “United Front” strategy (foisted upon them by the Soviet Communist Party and the military assistance offered by the USSR) was antithetical to the project of consolidating and furthering the gains that peasants and workers had already achieved through land seizures, workers’ control of factories, and parallel military and police systems. “Outside Spain few people grasped that there was a revolution; inside Spain nobody doubted it. Even the P.S.U.C. newspapers, Communist-controlled and more or less committed to an anti-revolutionary policy, talked about ‘our glorious revolution’.” (kl 762)
The Spanish Communists and their Soviet masters strove to eliminate their rivals, including the major anarchist parties (and their arms) and the POUM. POUM was denounced as a Trotskyist organization and a pro-fascist “fifth-column” seeking to undermine the defense of the Spanish state against Franco’s uprising. Orwell goes into great and convincing detail about the mendacity of the Communist press during those struggles, including especially the lies told during the May 1937 street fighting in Barcelona. Meanwhile, the revolutionary goals of the anarchists’ struggles were extinguished:
A general ‘bourgeoisification’, a deliberate destruction of the equalitarian spirit of the first few months of the revolution, was taking place. All happened so swiftly that people making successive visits to Spain at intervals of a few months have declared that they seemed scarcely to be visiting the same country; what had seemed on the surface and for a brief instant to be a workers’ State was changing before one’s eyes into an ordinary bourgeois republic with the normal division into rich and poor. (kl 821)
Here is how Orwell encapsulated the POUM “line” on revolution, for which he plainly had deep sympathy:
‘It is nonsense to talk of opposing Fascism by bourgeois “democracy”. Bourgeois “democracy” is only another name for capitalism, and so is Fascism; 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. The only real alternative to Fascism is workers’ control. If you set up any less goal than this, you will either hand the victory to Franco, or, at best, let in Fascism by the back door. Meanwhile the workers must cling to every scrap of what they have won; if they yield anything to the semi — bourgeois Government they can depend upon being cheated. The workers’ militias and police-forces must be preserved in their present form and every effort to “bourgeoisify” them must be resisted. If the workers do not control the armed forces, the armed forces will control the workers. The war and the revolution are inseparable.’ (kl 895)
This is what I mean above that Orwell is more of a revolutionary at this period in his life than he is normally thought to be: he appears to believe that this assessment of the social situation in Spain is largely correct, and that retreating on these convictions means subordinating Spain’s peasants and workers once again to the chains of property, poverty, and repression that they have suffered for centuries. True, he also concedes the point that the Communist United Front line was a more practical way of pursuing the war against Franco; but he seems to believe that the result will be some form of class-based dictatorship. Orwell’s disgust with Communism seems to derive most deeply from its profound dishonesty and willingness to lie and murder in pursuit of Stalin’s wishes rather than its revolutionary or anti-democratic “line”. In this respect it is difficult to classify Orwell as a kind of democratic socialist.
It is also apparent from the book that Orwell was deeply affected by the ordinary men and women (as well as children) whom he met in Catalonia who were throwing everything in their lives into the flames of civil war in order to better their lives and support their revolutionary gains. His sympathies throughout his life were in favor of equality and for the ordinary men and women who must make do in a class-ordered society, and he had great contempt for the “bosses” and elites who profited from the exploitation of these ordinary people and exercised unconstrained power over them.
The dramatic end of Orwell’s time in Spain and the Civil War comes quickly. Within days of his return to the front lines with his militia unit after leave in Barcelona during the street-fighting in May 1937, he was shot through the throat by a sniper’s bullet, a wound that was thought to be inevitably fatal. He survived and spent weeks recuperating in hospitals, eventually making his way back to Barcelona in June 1937. During June the government, under the direction of the Soviet Communists, undertook a major repression of the POUM and its militia and supporters, with arrests throughout the city and the arrest and execution of its leader, Andreu Nin Pérez. Orwell himself was under danger of arrest and returned to England only hours ahead of Spanish secret police intent upon arresting him as a POUM spy. Orwell regarded the repression of POUM leaders and ordinary followers that subsequently occurred in Catalonia as a continuation of the purge trials that were underway in the Soviet Union itself. Here are an evocative few sentences by Orwell about the atmosphere in Barcelona in June 1937:
It is not easy to convey the nightmare atmosphere of that time — the peculiar uneasiness produced by rumours that were always changing, by censored newspapers, and the constant presence of armed men. It is not easy to convey it because, at the moment, the thing essential to such an atmosphere does not exist in England. In England political intolerance is not yet taken for granted. There is political persecution in a petty way; if I were a coal-miner I would not care to be known to the boss as a Communist; but the ‘good party man’, the gangster-gramophone of continental politics, is still a rarity, and the notion of ‘liquidating’ or ‘eliminating’ everyone who happens to disagree with you does not yet seem natural. It seemed only too natural in Barcelona. The ‘Stalinists’ were in the saddle, and therefore it was a matter of course that every ‘Trotskyist’ was in danger. The thing everyone feared was a thing which, after all, did not happen — a fresh outbreak of street-fighting, which, as before, would be blamed on the P.O.U.M. and the Anarchists. There were times when I caught my ears listening for the first shots. It was as though some huge evil intelligence were brooding over the town. Everyone noticed it and remarked upon it. And it was queer how everyone expressed it in almost the same words: ‘The atmosphere of this place — it’s horrible. Like being in a lunatic asylum.’ But perhaps I ought not to say everyone. Some of the English visitors who flitted briefly through Spain, from hotel to hotel, seem not to have noticed that there was anything wrong with the general atmosphere. The Duchess of Atholl writes, I notice (Sunday Express, 17 October 1937): “I was in Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona . . . perfect order prevailed in all three towns without any display of force. All the hotels in which I stayed were not only ‘normal’ and ‘decent’, but extremely comfortable, in spite of the shortage of butter and coffee.” It is a peculiarity of English travellers that they do not really believe in the existence of anything outside the smart hotels. I hope they found some butter for the Duchess of Atholl. (kl 2800)
The worst of being wanted by the police in a town like Barcelona is that everything opens so late. When you sleep out of doors you always wake about dawn, and none of the Barcelona cafes opens much before nine. It was hours before I could get a cup of coffee or a shave. It seemed queer, in the barber’s shop, to see the Anarchist notice still on the wall, explaining that tips were prohibited. ‘The Revolution has struck off our chains,’ the notice said. I felt like telling the barbers that their chains would soon be back again if they didn’t look out. I wandered back to the centre of the town. Over the P.O.U.M. buildings the red flags had been torn down, Republican flags were floating in their place, and knots of armed Civil Guards were lounging in the doorways. At the Red Aid centre on the corner of the Plaza de Gataluna the police had amused themselves by smashing most of the windows. The P.O.U.M. book-stalls had been emptied of books and the notice-board farther down the Ramblas had been plastered with an anti-P.O.U.M. cartoon — the one representing the mask and the Fascist face beneath. Down at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the quay, I came upon a queer sight; a row of militiamen, still ragged and muddy from the front, sprawling exhaustedly on the chairs placed there for the bootblacks. I knew who they were — indeed, I recognized one of them. They were P.O.U.M. militiamen who had come down the line on the previous day to find that the P.O.U.M. had been suppressed, and had had to spend the night in the streets because their homes had been raided. Any P.O.U.M. militiaman who returned to Barcelona at this time had the choice of going straight into hiding or into jail — not a pleasant reception after three or four months in the line. It was a queer situation that we were in. At night one was a hunted fugitive, but in the daytime one could live an almost normal life. (kl 3019)
It seems evident that much of Orwell’s understanding of — and loathing of — the methods of totalitarianism, with its lies, violence, and betrayal, was much deepened by his experiences in Spain and especially in Barcelona in May and June 1937. Orwell died in 1950 at the age of 46.
Also interesting in this context is Franz Borkenau’s The Spanish Cockpit (1937), which was published a year earlier than Homage to Catalonia. Orwell had read The Spanish Cockpit before completing Homage to Catalonia and describes it as “the ablest book that has yet appeared on the Spanish war”. Borkenau himself is an interesting leftist intellectual of the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Austria and educated in Leipzig, Borkenau became a member of the German Communist Party in 1921 and worked as a Comintern agent through 1929. He left the party in 1929 out of disgust for the activities of Soviet secret police. He was a tireless anti-Nazi and also anti-Stalinist, and he was a vigorous critic of various intellectuals of the left whom he regarded as apologists for the Soviet regime, including Isaac Deutscher. In many respects his evolution and political position resembled that of Arthur Koestler, though Koestler’s disillusionment with Soviet Communism came a decade later. Borkenau visited Spain for several months, beginning in September 1936 and again in 1937, and wrote a penetrating analysis of the politics and revolutionary struggles that were underway in Spain at that time. One of the more interesting aspects of The Spanish Cockpit is Borkenau’s effort to explain the social and ideational basis of the power of anarchist ideas in Spain rather than Britain, France, or Germany. He attributes this willingness of Spanish peasants and workers to accept the political theories of anarchism to their clear and unmistakeable recognition of the need for a revolution in the relations of power and property that governed their lives. “Bakunin, for his part, regarded social revolution and socialism as the result of the revolutionary action of people prompted by the moral conviction of the immorality, the hideousness, the human inacceptability of the capitalist world.” Marxist socialism, by arguing for the slow historical inevitability of capitalist development, counseled patience in waiting for the crises that would allow the radical working class to seize power. Borkenau argues that the appeal of anarchism is its voluntarism: “The [anarchists] saw socialism as possible at any moment, provided there was revolutionary conviction and decision. But this conviction and decision, according to Bakunin’s idea, could not be put at the disposal of the masses simply by a small group of professional revolutionaries; they must emerge from a revolutionary spirit in the people itself.”
Revolutionaries by heart and instinct, according to Bakunin, were first and foremost those nations who did not admire the blessings of civilization; who were not in love with material progress; where the masses were not yet imbued with religious respect for the property of the individual bourgeois; revolutionary were the countries where the people held freedom higher than wealth, where they were not yet imbued with the capitalist spirit; and particularly his own people, the Russians, and, to a still higher degree, the Spaniards.
Here is how Borkenau describes the political power of the Communists with Republican Spain in 1936 and 1937:
Communist influence [in Spain], after all, works neither through a dominating organization nor through dominating personalities, but through a policy which is welcome to the republicans and the Right-wing socialists and which has the backing of such supremely important factors as the international brigades, the command of General Kleber in Madrid, and Russian help in general. Neither the republicans nor the Right-wing socialists are strong political forces in themselves. In fine, increasing communist influence today is a symptom of the shifting of the movement from the political to the military and from the social to the organizational factor. It is military and organizing, not political, influence which gives the communists their strength, and indirectly makes them the politically dominant factor. (kl 3718)
Borkenau himself was arrested and jailed by Communist-backed secret police in Valencia for the thought-crime of being critical of communist policies and of suspected Trotskyist sympathies.
The inferences from which they drew this conclusion were twofold: first, I had been highly critical of the type of bureaucratic tyranny towards which the communists are driving in Spain, and have achieved in Russia, as others have achieved it in Germany and Italy. Second, among many friends and acquaintances, I had some who were Trotskyist. What else but a Trotskyist could a man be, if he is opposed to the totalitarian state and talks to Trotskyists? (kl 4469)
Once again — Borkenau’s account provides a clear portrayal of a Stalinist police state as it was manifest in Spain in 1937.
The parties and militias
FAI Federación Anarquista Ibérica (anarchist party)
CNT Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (anarcho-syndicalist trade union)
POUM Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification)
UGT Unión General de Trabajadores (General Union of Workers) i
JCI Juventud Comunista Ibérica (Iberian Communist Youth) (youth wing of POUM
JSU Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas (Unified Socialist Youth)
AIT Asociación Internacional de Trabajadores (International Laborers’ Association)
PSUC Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia
PCE Partido Comunista de España (Communist Party of Spain)
PSOE Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party)
(Philip Bounds has written a very interesting book, Orwell and Marxism: The Political and Cultural Thinking of George Orwell, on Orwell’s relationship to English Marxism. Bounds is primarily interested in the question of cultural studies, but he offers a great deal of information about the English Communist intellectuals whom Orwell studied and with whom he sometimes interacted in print.)