George Orwell was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. On the hundredth anniversary of his birth we examine the controversy around his work and his legacy for today. Andy Durgan describes the impact of revolutionary Spain on Orwell.
'I had dropped into the only community of any size in western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.' So wrote George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia on the six months he was to spend in revolutionary Spain.
Witness to revolution
When Orwell reached Barcelona in December 1936, the revolution that had taken over the city five months before was already on the wane. The creation of a unified Popular Army to replace the workers' militias, the undermining of collectivised industry and the campaign of lies against the revolutionary left were all under way. Yet the revolution was still very visible, thus leaving an indelible mark on Orwell: 'It was the first time that I had 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 flags of the anarchists.'
He goes on to describe how, to a backdrop of broadcasts of revolutionary music and slogans, churches were being demolished and every shop and cafe, and even the bootblacks, had signs stating that they had been collectivised; how there appeared only to be 'workers' on the streets - the rich and middle classes having disappeared or having disguised themselves as 'proletarians'.
In Britain Orwell had contacted the ILP about going to Spain as a volunteer, after having been turned down as being politically unreliable by the Communist Party. Through the ILP he would join the militias of the revolutionary socialist POUM. After a few days 'training', Orwell was sent to join the party's militia on the Aragon front. He was soon disappointed both by the lack of activity at the front and the militia's chronic lack of resources. He would learn later that this was the result of the authorities' deliberate withholding of arms and munitions from the revolutionary forces which dominated this front.
Orwell's frustration was tempered by his growing realisation of the significance of the militia as an example of how socialism itself could be organised. Its democratic nature and its members' high level of political consciousness and self imposed discipline were a revelation for someone from a traditional military background such as Orwell. 'Here', he would write later, 'I became a real socialist.'
Stabbed in the back
At the front Orwell had disagreed with his fellow POUM fighters that the war and the revolution were inseparable. Instead he had favoured the Communist Party line that the war had to be won first and the revolution 'postponed'. In late April 1937 he returned on leave to Barcelona, with the intention of transferring to the Communist-controlled International Brigades, only to find himself in the middle of an armed conflict that would decide the fate of the revolution.
The Stalinists counterposed the defence of democracy to the revolution so as to not to upset the USSR's attempt to win an alliance with western governments. But they also opposed the revolution because it was led not by themselves but by the anarchists and the POUM. The Spanish Communists had benefited greatly from the, albeit conditional, support given to the Republic by the USSR, and had grown massively since the beginning of the war, particularly among those sectors in the Republican zone most opposed to the revolution.
The first thing Orwell noticed when he returned to Barcelona was how the atmosphere had changed. The 'bourgeoisie' was again visible on the streets. There were queues for food and protests over shortages. Gone was the revolutionary enthusiasm of five months previously. He was also immediately aware of the barrage of slander in the Stalinist press against the revolutionaries, and in particular the POUM which was constantly denounced as 'fascist'.
On 3 May police forces under Communist control tried to take over the Barcelona telephone exchange, a symbol of workers' power in the city. This led to several days of bloody fighting between government and Stalinist forces and the revolutionary organisations. The latter would be defeated when their leaders agreed to a ceasefire rather than endanger anti-fascist unity. The POUM was outlawed and its leaders imprisoned or murdered. The anarchist organisations also found themselves on the defensive. It proved a decisive defeat for the revolution.
On 23 June 1937 Orwell finally left Spain, a fugitive with the secret police on his trail. Such was Stalinist influence that in Britain Orwell found that the left wing publisher Victor Gollancz refused to publish Homage to Catalonia without even having read the text. Although it was published elsewhere, only after his later success would the book begin to get the recognition it deserved.
Spain changed Orwell's politics forever. In 1942, he would recall meeting an Italian militiaman in the POUM's barracks, an incident which opens Homage to Catalonia. He symbolised for Orwell 'the flower of the European working class, harried by the police of all countries, the people who fill the mass graves of the Spanish battlefields and are now, to the tune of several million, rotting in forced labour camps. The question is very simple. Shall people like that Italian soldier be allowed the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable? That was the real issue of the Spanish war.'