May 5, 2013


Homage to Orwell : Revisiting George Orwell's classic account of the Spanish Civil War, 75 years on. (Mick Hume, spiked Review of Books)

Most of those from Britain and Europe who went to write about and fight in the Spanish Civil War took a similarly one-eyed view and followed the pro-Soviet line. What was unique about Orwell was that he hated fascism, but also stood apart from the official Stalinist-dominated left of his time. The radical maverick wrote about what he saw in Spain, rather than simply what he was told was true - although he also warned his readers to 'beware my partisanship' when seeking an objective account. He questioned the 'official' Stalinist-dictated account of events in Barcelona and elsewhere that was accepted around the world. This heresy made him the subject of a hate campaign when Homage to Catalonia was finally published in 1938, a campaign which continued well into the 1980s.

Orwell concedes that when he arrived in Barcelona in December 1936, months after General Franco's fascist rebellion down south and the working-class revolt it had sparked in the Catalan capital, he was politically naive about the situation in Spain. He wanted to join the International Brigades to fight fascism, but the Communist Party of Great Britain would not endorse his application. So, almost by accident via his links with the Independent Labour Party over here, Orwell ended up at the Lenin Barracks of the workers' militia attached to the POUM - the anti-Stalinist Workers Party of Marxist Unification. Orwell confessed he was initially exasperated by the 'kaleidoscope' of different parties, trade unions and factions vying for influence on the left 'with their tiresome names -  PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT... as if Spain were suffering from a plague of initials'. The significance of those divisions on the left would become clear soon enough.

Orwell gives an account of one corner of the Spanish Civil War from the perspective of an isolated and frustrated English volunteer. He depicts the militia he fought with as a poorly trained, barely armed 'rabble', capturing the frontline atmosphere of cold and boredom and squalor and shortages. The 'characteristic smell of war' he describes as one 'of excrement and decaying food', and notes with some sang-froid that, 'If there is one thing I hate more than another it is a rat running over me in the darkness. However, I had the satisfaction of catching one of them a good punch that sent him flying.' Orwell's militia unit generally seemed to have less success landing a meaningful blow in their somewhat fitful exchanges with the fascist foe.

Yet amid the vermin and the organised chaos, Orwell was obviously deeply touched by the decency and heroism of the ordinary Spaniards and foreigners fighting for freedom by his side. Isolated on the frontline with the workers' militia, he recalls: 'One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word "comrade" stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.'

Like others, Orwell had gone to Spain in the spirit of anti-fascist idealism. The International Brigades were themselves partly a symptom of the defeat of the European left in the era of fascism and Stalinism. Those who could see no prospect of socialism at home grabbed at the chance to make a stand in Spain. When the Civil War broke out there in 1936, wrote Orwell, 'every anti-fascist in Europe felt a thrill of hope'. Those hopes were to be dashed as they discovered that the Stalinist apparatchiks who had overseen the demise of the Russian Revolution were determined to make sure there was no boat-rocking proletarian revolution in Spain.

Posted by at May 5, 2013 8:50 AM

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