On the morning of June 23rd 1937, George Orwell boarded a train at Barcelona station with his wife, Eileen, and two companions, John McNair and Stafford Cottman. The train was bound for the French border and Orwell (or Eric Blair – he had yet to adopt his now famous nom de plume) was posing as a wealthy English businessman travelling with his wife and associates. In reality, they were fugitives, hunted not only by the fascist forces they’d come to Spain to fight, but also by the communists. McNair was leader of a contingent of fighters organised by the Independent Labour Party (ILP) who had left England to try and stem the rising fascist tide. This small group of revolutionaries and idealists – one among many such groups from all over the world –included Orwell. Prior to boarding the train that morning he had spent much of the previous six months in the trenches until a sniper’s bullet pierced his throat. By the time he’d sufficiently recovered to leave hospital, the internal divisions within the anti-fascist forces had shattered whatever slim chances they’d had of defeating Franco and his allies.
When Orwell arrived in Spain at the end of December 1936 Franco’s forces were already receiving support from the Nazi Condor Legion. Hitler saw the Spanish Civil War as the ideal testing ground for his new equipment and tactics and the grim results were encouraging for the Nazis. Despite this, the Republican side was holding firm in many areas of the country. In Catalonia, in the northeast, the opposition was composed of three primary factions: the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM – Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), the anarcho-syndicalist National Confederation of Labour (CNT – Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) and the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC – Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), a wing of the Spanish Communist Party supported by the Soviet Union.
Orwell’s ILP was affiliated with POUM, and upon his arrival in Barcelona he contacted John McNair, introducing himself with the words “I’ve come to fight against Fascism”. In his remarkable book, Homage to Catalonia, which must surely rate as one of the definitive pieces of wartime journalism, Orwell recounts – with a mixture of amazement, admiration and near-disbelief – his initial impression of Barcelona and the surrounding countryside. Largely controlled by the anarchist CNT, the farmland surrounding the city had been collectivised as had all of the buildings and businesses within Barcelona itself. Simultaneously the institutions of oppression (including the church) were being torn down.
McNair assigned Orwell to a unit commanded by Georges Koop on the Aragón Front where he noted how the CNT had radically transformed Spanish society.
I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragón one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilised life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. – had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master.
Sadly, the success of the anarcho-syndicalist experiment in Catalonia would be short lived. Squeezed between the brutality of the fascists and the incoherent intolerance of Soviet state communism, it hardly stood a chance. This “perfect equality” being enjoyed by the Spanish peasants was all very well, but didn’t they realise – to steal a line from one of Orwell’s later works – that some were more equal than others? However much they might have denied it, the Soviet-backed communists would no more tolerate freedom, equality and a refusal to bow to a hierarchy than would Franco’s fascists. And so the internal power-struggle within the Republican forces became almost as bitter as the Civil War itself with the Masxist POUM (along with the affiliated ILP) soon targeted by the communists.
At first, stuck out on the Aragón Front in mid-winter, Orwell had little knowledge of this in-fighting. The area where he was initially stationed saw little action and he sat freezing in trenches simultaneously lamenting the terrible stories he’d hear of fascist atrocities and at the same time enjoying a comradeship that can only be engendered by such circumstances. After several months anxiously awaiting an onslaught that did not come, Orwell returned to Barcelona in the hope of being assigned to the International Brigades fighting near Madrid. However, his timing wasn’t good and he wandered into the infamous Barcelona May Days when the rivalry between the factions in the Republican forces spilled over into street-fighting, irrevocably splitting the anti-fascist movement.
The communists, better armed and financed thanks to Soviet support, decided to impose their authority on the region. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with the anarchists. POUM, although a Marxist organisation, sided with the anarchists. As a result they were demonised by the communists who printed posters and leaflets denouncing POUM and accusing them of collaboration with the fascists. Later, after he’d escaped Spain, Orwell would note with anger and dismay how these accusations had become The Truth in the European press. The “memory hole” of Nineteen Eighty-Four was born during those terrible Barcelona May Days.
Disheartened by the disunity and disarray within the anti-fascist forces, Orwell returned to the Aragón Front in order to “point my gun at the real enemy”. The fighting had become more intense in Aragón and it was then that a bullet from a fascist rifle struck him in the throat, missing his main artery by less than half an inch. Rushed to a hospital a few miles from the front line, a blood-covered Orwell was operated on and transported back to Barcelona. We have the skill of the POUM field-surgeons to thank for the incredible body of work produced by Orwell after the Spanish Civil War.
Within two or three weeks of being shot, Orwell was forced out of his hospital bed and into hiding. The communists had gained the upper hand in Barcelona and on June 16th outlawed POUM, declaring all members to be fascist sympathisers and Trotskyists. This odd contradiction didn’t seem to concern the mainstream media which printed the accusations as though they were statements of fact. Orwell’s commander at Aragón, Georges Koop, was arrested and imprisoned by the communists and it became apparent to the ILP members of POUM that it was time to leave Spain.
With his wife recently arrived in Barcelona, Orwell spent the next couple of weeks living an odd double-life. By day they would frequent the cafés of the city posing as a “respectable English couple”, while by night he would sleep rough with his ILP comrades, plotting the liberation of Georges Koop. In the end, despite a daring attempt, they were unable to free him from the communist jail and were forced to flee Spain before they too landed in the cells.
In the end we crossed the frontier without incident. The train had a first class and a dining-car, the first I had seen in Spain. Until recently there had been only one class on the trains in Catalonia. Two detectives came round the train taking the names of foreigners, but when they saw us in the dining-car they seemed satisfied that we were respectable. It was queer how everything had changed. Only six months ago, when the Anarchists still reigned, it was looking like a proletarian that made you respectable. On the way down from Perpignan to Cerberes a French commercial traveller in my carriage had said to me in all solemnity: “You mustn’t go into Spain looking like that. Take off that collar and tie. They’ll tear them off you in Barcelona.” He was exaggerating, but it showed how Catalonia was regarded. And at the frontier the Anarchist guards had turned back a smartly dressed Frenchman and his wife, solely – I think – because they looked too bourgeois. Now it was the other way about; to look bourgeois was the one salvation.
There’s no question that much of Orwell’s later work – beyond the obvious Homage to Catalonia – was heavily coloured by his experiences in Spain. Many of his wonderful essays, along with his two great novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, bear the blood, sweat and tears of those six and a half months fighting fascism in Spain and watching as a glorious social experiment was crushed by the twin steel-tipped boots of Franco and Stalin.
Ultimately, just as it did for Orwell, the Spanish Civil War provides us with both a warning and an inspiration. Today we face a more subtle crisis than that posed by fascism, but one that’s no less dangerous. Indeed, despite the inevitable criticism one invites by daring to suggest that humanity’s darkest days may not be behind us, safely bound in the pages of history books and yellowing newspapers, but in fact face us even now; it seems to me that now – more than ever – we need the inspiration of POUM, of the CNT and of the International Brigades. As free-market consumer-capitalism drives us to the abyss of ecological catastrophe and towards suffering on a scale undreamt-of by the fascists of yesteryear, we must ask ourselves whether the spirit of the international brigades still lurks within us. Are we capable of looking beyond our petty individual desires and uniting against a common foe? Dare we set sail towards an uncertain horizon to take up arms against the forces that threaten us? Or shall we remain content to await the oncoming tide? Or worse yet, will we succumb to in-fighting and factionalism as catastrophe overwhelms us?
[Written by Jim Bliss]
Great piece (as ever), Jim, on such a pivotal moment in the 20th century through the eyes of one of our great literary heroes. Interesting to note that the brilliant Homage to Catalonia was such a commercial flop… after its initial year in print, for the next two decades, it would sell on average 50 copies annually. And for blowing the whistle on Stalin’s communists – outing them as betrayers of the working class – Orwell endured scathing criticism from armchair intellectual leftists who at the time could not fathom such a seemingly implausible truth, even from such a credible front-line witness as Orwell.
Thank you for this inspiring piece – I read Homage to Catalonia at the age of 16 and it is not over dramatic to say it changed my life.
One other thing that particularly impresses me about Orwell is that he managed to articulate a specifically English vision of socialism – and I don’t mean that in any nationalistic sense. As an answer to those who say it could ‘never happen here’, have a look at ‘The Lion & The Unicorn’.
A beautiful piece Dorian, and a standing ovation for Jim!.The final paragraph is inspired.
Great article, and I like the final paragraph too. I heard recently from a friend living in Barcelona about the excitement in the city around the recent occupations, and the huge melting pot on the streets all trying to work together….new inspiring times perhaps.
As an aside, I took a civil war themed tour of Barcelona when I was there earlier in the year. The guide was a really knowledgable and enthusiastic man who showed us many things, including the tower where Goerge Orwell had been stationed guarding the Poum headquarters, and it seems that ‘George Orwell’ square pictured above was the first square in the old part of town to get cctv cameras…..sounds poetic urban myth but funny if it’s true.
Eric Blair later repaid the Spanish sacrifices by providing British intelligence with names of BBC coworkers he suspected of being Communist sympathizers.