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John Newsinger

Orwell and the Spanish Revolution

(Spring 1994)

From International Socialism 2 : 62, Spring 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Although George Orwell is perhaps best known as the author of Animal Farm, a fairytale account of revolution betrayed, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, a satire of modern totalitarianism, he is also the author of one of the most important celebrations of revolution in English literature, Homage to Catalonia. In this account of his experiences with the POUM (United Marxist Workers Party) militia in Spain, he makes clear his commitment to both working class struggle and to socialism, and at the same time his steadfast opposition to Stalinism and its apologists. Such were the conclusions he drew from the Spanish Civil War and they were to inform his political attitudes for the rest of his life. In a later essay, Why I Write, he was to recall the way his Spanish experiences had ‘turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.’ [1] It was in Spain that he first came to fully believe in the possibility of socialist revolution and it was in Spain that he witnessed at first hand the destruction of that possibility at the hands of the Communists.


Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair at Motihari in India in 1903, the son of an Indian civil servant, an agent in the Opium Department. His paternal grandfather had served in the Indian army and his maternal grandfather had been a teak merchant in Burma. In every respect his was a family rooted in the British Raj. He attended a preparatory school in Sussex and then aged 13 was sent to Eton.

Despite his literary interests he did not go on to university, but in 1922 joined the Indian Imperial Police and was stationed in Burma. Given his background this was hardly a surprising decision. As Raymond Williams observes, so far his life had been ‘in all its visible details a training for membership in the administrative middle class of imperialist Britain’. [2] Then in the autumn of 1927, while on leave in England, he decided to resign from the police and become a writer.

According to his own account, Orwell decided after ‘one sniff of English air’ that he ‘was not going back to be part of that evil despotism’. He wanted more than just to escape from his job, however, and provides a clear analysis of his motivation at the time:

For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it had left me with a bad conscience. Innumerable remembered faces faces of prisoners in the dock, of men waiting in the condemned cells, of subordinates I had bullied and aged peasants I had snubbed, of servants and coolies I had hit with my fist in moments of rage (nearly everyone does these things in the East, at any rate occasionally: Orientals can be very provoking) – haunted me intolerably. I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate. I suppose that sounds exaggerated; but if you do for five years a job that you thoroughly disapprove of, you will probably feel the same. I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself. I felt I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants. [3]

This wish to get down among the oppressed and to be on their side against the tyrants culminated with his journey to Catalonia.

The Spanish Revolution

The attempted military coup of 17–18 July 1936 in Spain provoked the very thing it had ostensibly been intended to forestall: revolution. While the Republican government stood by paralysed and helpless, in many towns and cities the working class rose up against the army and after fierce fighting put the insurgency down. What had been envisaged as a straightforward seizure of power, almost as a technical exercise, ended with the army defeated in two thirds of Spain’s national territory and the country plunged into revolution and civil war. A popular uprising had dealt the generals an unprecedented blow that makes the failure of the July coup one of the most heartening events in modern working class history. Only the assistance forthcoming from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany prevented Franco’s cause from speedily collapsing in total disarray. Meanwhile in many Republican areas a social revolution had been unleashed.

The Republican state was effectively crippled, with its armed forces in revolt and power in many towns and cities in the hands of the armed working class. The only obstacle to a socialist revolution in the Republican areas of the country was the caution of the main socialist organisations, in particular the left wing of the Socialist Party, led by Largo Caballero. Caballero determined to sustain the Republic rather than complete its overthrow and replace it with a workers’ state. Nevertheless, in many areas effective control remained in the hands of the working class and Caballero tacitly endorsed this exercise in dual power, promising to complete the transition to socialism once the war with the generals was won. [4]

The development of the social revolution varied widely from area to area: at one extreme the Basque country, a Republican stronghold, was nevertheless virtually untouched by the revolution, whereas, at the other extreme in Catalonia and in particular in Barcelona, the working class were in virtually complete control. Franz Borkenau, a former Comintern official, but by now an independent socialist, who was incidentally to have a considerable influence on Orwell’s thinking, provides one of the best accounts of revolutionary Barcelona in his invaluable book, The Spanish Cockpit:

The first impression: armed workers, rifles on their shoulders, but wearing their civilian clothes. Perhaps 30 percent of the males on the Ramblas were carrying rifles, though there were no police, and no regular military in uniforms ... The fact that all these armed men walked about, marched and drove in their ordinary clothes made the thing only more impressive as a display of the power of the factory workers. The anarchists, recognisable by badges and insignia in red and black, were obviously in overwhelming numbers. And no ‘bourgeoisie’ whatever!

He continues:

The amount of expropriation in the few days since 19 July is almost incredible. The largest hotels, with one or two exceptions, have all been requisitioned by working class organisations (not burnt, as had been reported in many newspapers). So were most of the larger stores. Many of the banks are closed, the others bear inscriptions declaring them under the control of the Generalitat. Practically all the factory-owners we were told, had either fled or been killed, and their factories taken over by the workers. Everywhere large posters at the front of impressive buildings proclaim the fact of expropriation... All the churches had been burnt. [5]

The revolution in Spain had gone far beyond events in Russia in February 1917. In Trotsky’s words, in ‘its political and cultural level, the Spanish proletariat stood on the first day of the revolution, not below, but above the Russian proletariat at the beginning of 1917.’ [6] Whether this revolution should be continued or reversed was to be the great political debate within the Republican camp, a debate finally settled with police, torture chambers and execution squads.

At the risk of considerable oversimplification, it is possible to distinguish three positions within this debate. At least initially, the dominant position was that the revolutionary process had to be temporarily suspended and the bourgeois state maintained in order to maximise unity in the war against the fascists and to avoid the international isolation of the Republic. Once the military were crushed, however, the revolution would continue. To ensure this there was an acceptance of elements of dual power, of the need for the working class to maintain powerful independent bastions of power and control both in the militia and in production. This was the position of Largo Caballero and the Socialist Left and increasingly of the anarchist FAI and of their trade union confederation, the CNT, that broke with all of their previous traditions to participate in the government. [7]

Against this, there were those who argued that the only way to win the war was by actually completing the revolution, by overthrowing the bourgeois state altogether and completing the process of expropriation. Only in this way could revolutionary enthusiasm be maintained and unrest and rebellion be stirred up behind the fascist lines and, perhaps most crucially, in Morocco. This was the position of the small independent revolutionary party, the POUM, although it was to be savagely criticised by Trotsky for inconsistency and equivocation. There were also many anarchists holding similar views. [8]

Lastly, there were those who believed that the revolutionary process had to be put into reverse and that the revolutionary gains of July 1936 had to be liquidated. Far from either establishing, or preparing the way for the establishment of, a workers’ state, the bourgeois state had to be re-established and all working class encroachments upon its prerogatives had to be eliminated. Predictably, this was the policy of the Republican middle class, but, somewhat less predictably, it was also the position of the Spanish Communist Party and of the military-political apparatus that the Russians eventually established in the country. Although the Communists made anti-fascism their watchword and vigorously advocated a more disciplined, centralised war effort, they were also determined to destroy the revolution and to eliminate the various bastions of workers’ power that had been established. Revolutionary Barcelona was to be an important target. The Spanish Revolution was to be ruthlessly sacrificed in the interests of Russian foreign policy, of securing an alliance with Britain and France. [9]

Orwell himself, as we shall see, was to initially regard the POUM’s position with some scepticism and had considerable sympathy with the Communists’ avowed aim of building a more disciplined army in order to defeat Franco. What he was to find totally unacceptable was their ruthless determination to eliminate the revolutionary gains that the working class had won in Barcelona, and the methods of slander, wholesale arrests of their rivals on the left, and murder that they used to accomplish this. He only narrowly escaped death at their hands himself.

Homage To Catalonia

Orwell begins his account of his Spanish experiences by describing an incident that in many ways captured the meaning that the revolution had for him personally. The curse of class difference that had confronted him like a wall of stone in England, that prevented a middle class socialist like himself from becoming one with the working class, was overthrown in revolutionary Barcelona. At the Lenin Barracks a semi-literate Italian militiaman ‘stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard ... It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy ... One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain’. The idea of equality that was always to be at the core of his notion of socialism had actually triumphed in Barcelona and he could at last meet the working class on equal terms. That Italian militiaman ‘typifies for me the special atmosphere of that time. He is bound up with all my memories of that period of the war’. [10] So important was this that he was to make this unknown comrade the enduring symbol of revolutionary working class solidarity in a later essay, Looking Back on the Spanish War, published in 1942.

Orwell left England for Spain a few days before Christmas 1936, having just sent off the completed manuscript of The Road to Wigan Pier to his agent. He arrived in Barcelona at a time when the revolution was already coming under increasing pressure. To someone who had been there since July ‘it probably seemed ... that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming.’ His description of the city as he first saw it is justly famous:

It was the first time that 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; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal ... There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black ... Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist ... Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ state and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the workers’ side; I did not realise that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being. [11]

Orwell volunteered to fight and enrolled in the POUM militia along with a contingent from the Independent Labour Party. As he later admitted, he was to be involved in little fighting on the Aragon front which remained quiet while the two sides concentrated all their efforts around Madrid: ‘No aeroplane ever dropped a bomb anywhere near me, I do not think a shell exploded within 50 yards of me, and I was only in hand-to-hand fighting once (once is once too often I may say).’ Instead, his account emphasised ‘the mingled boredom and discomfort of stationary warfare’ and he wrote of his life being ‘as uneventful as a city clerk’s, and almost as regular’. The most important things in this sort of desultory trench warfare were firewood, food, tobacco, candles, and only lastly, the enemy. Firewood especially dominated his life, such was the cold, and men risked their lives to collect what they could of it: ‘there is probably no entry in my diary that does not mention firewood.’ [12] As a literary exercise his account is a classic of war literature, but for Orwell his writing had more than literary intentions and was directed towards explicit political ends. He was concerned first of all to defend the militia against their Communist and fellow travelling detractors and secondly to celebrate the democratic and egalitarian spirit that they embodied and which meant so much to him.

According to Orwell, the egalitarian nature of the militia system was often blamed for faults that were in fact caused by lack of training and of weapons. If a newly raised draft of militia looked like an undisciplined mob it was because raw troops are always an undisciplined mob, not because the officers were called ‘comrade’. In fact revolutionary discipline based on class loyalty was surprisingly effective. Orwell was for a short while an acting lieutenant in command of about 30 men, English and Spanish, and although they had been at the front for months he never once had any difficulty getting an order obeyed or in getting men to volunteer for dangerous jobs. Revolutionary discipline was a matter of political consciousness and while this might take time to inculcate so did turning a man into an automaton on the barrack square. Whatever the deficiencies of the militia, if they had not held the line in the most difficult circumstances then Franco would have won. The training and equipping of the Republic’s Popular Army was only possible because the militia were in place.

More than that, however, Orwell championed the militia system as a social experiment,as ‘a sort of temporary working model of the classless society’. There was complete equality between officers and men. Everyone got the same pay, ate the same food and wore the same clothes. Although orders had to be given and obeyed, it was understood that ‘when you gave an order you gave it as comrade to comrade and not as superior to inferior.’ He argues quite passionately that:

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 ... to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society ... The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before. [13]

Not only was this ‘experiment’ to be ended by the incorporation of the militia into the Popular Army, but the militia system was also to be systematically maligned and denigrated and the sufferings and sacrifices of its officers and men were to be disparaged and treated as of no account. Orwell’s account of his experiences on the Aragon front was intended at least in part to counter this.

At this point it is worth considering one of the most substantial of the recent critiques of Orwell: Daphne Patai’s The Orwell Mystique. Orwell has been the subject of attack from Communist sources since the late 1930s and at different times various socialist commentators have also provided critical evaluations of his work. Patai, however, breaks new ground with what amounts to a full scale assault on the whole body of Orwell’s work from a feminist perspective. She argues that throughout his writings he cultivates ‘a traditional notion of masculinity, complemented by a generalised misogyny’ and displays an ‘insistent adherence to a gender polarisation that assumes male centrality and superiority’. Her painstaking elaboration of the ‘masculine discourse’ that runs through Orwell’s work will certainly have to be taken account of in any future discussions of Orwell.

Two criticisms can be made of her argument however. First of all she considers Orwell in too great isolation so that he appears to stand almost alone as the champion of traditional notions of masculinity in the 1930s. This reduces her critique almost to the level of a moral objection to him personally, whereas, of course, it needs to be expanded into a critique of the whole masculine culture to which Orwell belonged and which he never seems to have questioned. His attitudes and prejudices on this question were widely held. Once this is realised it is possible to see that Orwell’s importance does not lie so much in this aspect of his work, which he shared with many if not most writers, but in those elements of his thinking that marked him out in the late 1930s – his anti-imperialism, his revolutionary socialism and, of course, his anti-Stalinism.

This becomes clearer if we consider the second criticism which arises from her discussion of Homage to Catalonia. Here she argues that Orwell’s conversion to socialism was brought about by its association with the ‘archetypal masculine moment: war’. Instead of being soft and pacific, values which Orwell rejected as threats to his masculine identity, socialism was shown to be hard, tough and courageous in Spain, so that he could adopt it without risk. Certainly she establishes Orwell’s attitude towards war as being informed by notions of a masculine challenge and also his idealisation of the brotherhood of the trenches, but this does not explain his conversion to socialism. Indeed, if his traditional notion of masculinity and assumption of male superiority had been the deciding factors in determining his political allegiance then one would really expect him to have been a staunch conservative and imperialist, or even a fascist. That Orwell was aware of the attractions fascism might hold for someone with his class background he made clear in The Road to Wigan Pier. Instead he became a socialist because of his opposition to oppression and exploitation, to inequality and privilege, to authoritarianism and dictatorship, but his socialism never led him to question the notions of masculinity and of male superiority that had been bred into him. What makes this weakness so surprising is precisely the way in which it contradicts his championing of the cause of the oppressed and his conversion to socialism. Once again, however, he was not alone in this. [14]

May 1937

Up to May Orwell, by his own account, had little understanding of the differences that existed between the various political groupings in Spain and certainly considered that winning the war overrode any political considerations. On the whole, he found the Communist Party’s argument that the completion of the revolution would have to be postponed until after military victory had been achieved a convincing one and argued as much with his comrades in the militia. The Communists, as far as he could see, ‘were getting on with the war while we and the Anarchists were standing still’. Consequently ‘the revolutionary purism of the POUM, though I saw its logic, seemed to me rather futile ... the one thing that mattered was to win the war.’ Despite his association with the POUM, he could see no problem in the idea of transferring into the Communist controlled International Brigades that were fighting on the crucial Madrid front. That was where the fighting was fiercest and that was where he increasingly felt he could make a more effective contribution to the struggle. Consequently, when, after three and a half months at the front, he was granted leave, he returned to Barcelona with every intention of joining the International Brigades. [15]

His political education began the day he arrived back in the city: ‘the revolutionary atmosphere had vanished ... the tide had rolled back. Once again it was an ordinary city, a little punched and chipped by war, but with no outward sign of working class predominance.’ The smart restaurants and hotels were full of the rich eating expensive meals while in the working class districts the queues for bread, olive oil and other foodstuffs were hundreds of yards long. Whereas before there had been a striking absence of beggars, now the city swarmed with them. ‘This open contrast of wealth and poverty would have been impossible a few months earlier.’ The atmosphere in the city was ‘scarcely less alien and hostile to us and our kind than if this had been Paris or London.’

Over a period of months the revolution in Barcelona had been first undermined and then dismantled, mainly through the efforts of the Catalan Communists, the PSUC. It had been done, in Orwell’s words ‘by a series of small moves – a policy of pin pricks, as somebody called it – and on the whole very cleverly’. There had taken place the ‘deliberate destruction of the equalitarian spirit of the first few months of the revolution’. It happened so swiftly ‘that people making successive visits to Spain at intervals of a few months have declared that they scarcely seemed to be visiting the same country’. What had been to all appearances a workers’ state had changed ‘before one’s eyes into an ordinary bourgeois republic with the normal division between rich and poor’. As Orwell recalled, he had grasped that the Communists had ‘set their faces against allowing the revolution to go forward,’ but only now was he to realise ‘that they might be capable of swinging it back’. This is a crucial point for understanding the development of his political ideas. Orwell accepted much of the argument in favour of postponing the completion of the revolutionary process, but what he found in practice was that the Communists were actually engaged in reversing it in dismantling the bastions of working class power and in handing back to the bourgeoisie the revolutionary gains that the working class had already won. He was completely opposed to this. It was not the Communists’ refusal to complete the revolution during the war that alienated him, it was the effective counter-revolution that they carried out behind the Republican lines. [16]

The accuracy of Orwell’s account written so soon after the events themselves cannot be seriously disputed. Burnett Bulloten’s important study of Communist policy and practice, The Spanish Revolution, makes it quite clear that they were engaged in the systematic elimination of all independent centres of working class power and in re-establishing the power and authority of the bourgeois state. At the same time they were busy entrenching themselves inside the reconstituted state machine, especially in the Popular Army and the police, so as to ensure their continued ascendancy. This operation was closely controlled by the Comintern’s agents in Spain, most notably Palmiro Togliatti and in Catalonia the Hungarian, Erno Gero. These men were the ‘real’ leadership of the Spanish Communist Party and they made sure that it faithfully adapted itself to the requirements of Russian foreign policy, regardless of the interests of the Spanish working class and the Spanish Revolution. [17]

When Orwell arrived back in Barcelona the situation was approaching crisis point. Communist pressure was provoking increasing conflict and it was only a matter of time before it erupted into open fighting. Tension was so great that all May Day parades and demonstrations were cancelled in order to avoid the inevitable clashes between Anarchists and Communists. Then at 3pm on Monday 3 May came the provocation that finally did the trick. Heavily armed police occupied the CNT controlled telephone exchange. There was a spontaneous response from working class Barcelona as a general strike quickly gripped the city, hundreds of barricades were erected and armed CNT members took to the streets. The spirit of July had been resurrected.

That evening the POUM executive met in secret with the regional committees of the CNT and of the FAI to consider how to respond to the uprising. The POUM leader Julian Gorkin later described how he and his comrades had argued that now was the last opportunity they would have to settle accounts with the Communists and their bourgeois allies:

Neither of us has urged the masses of Barcelona to take this action. This is a spontaneous response to a Stalinist provocation. This is the decisive moment for the Revolution. Either we place ourselves at the head of the movement in order to destroy the internal enemy or else the movement will collapse and the enemy will destroy us. We must make our choice; revolution or counter-revolution.

Gorkin’s assessment of the alternatives was to be fully vindicated in the following weeks but the Anarchist leadership refused to acknowledge their predicament. They were still committed to supporting the Catalan government, the Generalitat, where their representatives still sat as ministers alongside the PSUC and the representatives of the Catalan bourgeoisie. These problems, they argued, could all be settled by discussion and negotiation. They absolutely refused to have anything to do with the uprising and instead called for a ceasefire, the dismantling of the barricades and a return to work. [18]

This forced the POUM leadership onto the defensive. Their support and influence were only small compared to that of the Anarchists who still dominated the working class movement in Catalonia. If the Anarchists refused to give a lead to the uprising and, indeed, called for its actual surrender then the situation seemed altogether hopeless. Without leadership the uprising was doomed to defeat and the POUM believed that they were too weak to provide that leadership. The party seems to have lapsed into passivity, to have gone on the defensive in the hope of preserving what it could in the coming catastrophe. [19]

Orwell had no difficulty in deciding where he stood in the conflict. ‘The issue was clear enough. On one side the CNT, on the other side the police ... when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.’ His involvement amounted to helping guard POUM buildings in case of attack. There was no offensive action. [20]

Without leadership and under a constant barrage of demands from the CNT to restore normality, the morale of the insurgents was inevitably undermined. By Thursday 6 May the barricades began to come down and people began returning to work. The crisis had been resolved, they were promised, their grievances would be remedied and now unity against the fascists had to be restored. Over 900 people had been killed and some 4,000 had been wounded in the fighting. What would be the outcome? [21]

The first contingents of assault guards began to arrive in the city on 7 May and within a few days were 12,000 strong. They took effective control of the city and began eliminating the remnants of working class power. The revolutionary committees were dispersed, the revolutionary police, controlled by the CNT, were disarmed and many activists were arrested and some were killed out of hand. Bourgeois order prevailed. The Anarchist ministers had participated in their own defeat and, once their organisations had been destroyed, their services were dispensed with – at the end of June the Catalan government was reorganised without them. The main weight of Communists’ vengeance was to fall on the POUM however.

The Communists launched a barrage of slander against the POUM, denouncing them as fascists and claiming that they had instigated the May uprising as part of a fascist plot. This campaign of lies and distortion had a dramatic effect on Orwell. Once the fighting was over, he was approached by a Communist friend who asked if he still intended transferring to the International Brigades. Orwell expressed surprise that they should still want him because according to the Communist press he was a fascist. He made it clear that he could no longer consider joining a Communist controlled unit because, as the last weeks had shown, ‘it might mean sooner or later being used against the Spanish working class’ and in any such conflict he intended to use his rifle ‘on the side of the working class and not against them’. [22] He returned to the front to serve with the POUM militia.

On 20 May, only just after his return, Orwell was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper. After convalescing from the wound he set about getting his papers in order so that he could be invalided home to Britain. Events once again overtook him. On 16 June the POUM was banned, its headquarters were occupied, its leadership was arrested and the police began a general round up of its members. Among those arrested were a number of foreign volunteers serving in the POUM militia, including Bob Smillie, the grandson of the Scottish miners’ leader, and Georges Kopp, a close friend Orwell had made at the front. Orwell, together with his wife, Eileen, went on the run and eventually, on 23 June, succeeded in crossing the border into France.

That Orwell was himself in danger of arrest has been established beyond any doubt by the discovery in 1989 in the National Historical Archives in Madrid of a security police report to the Tribunal for Espionage and High Treason. This described Eric Blair and his wife Eileen Blair, as ‘known Trotskyists’ and as ‘linking agents of the ILP and the POUM’. [23] There can be little doubt that if he had been arrested he would have died in prison. His health was poor (indeed in March the following year he fell ill with a tubercular lesion in one lung and spent six months recovering in a sanatorium) and he was still recovering from a serious wound. Conditions in the Spanish prisons were appalling and the many Socialist political prisoners were given no special treatment. Bob Smillie died in prison from what Orwell and many others believed to be deliberate medical neglect, while Georges Kopp, when after 18 months of incarceration he was finally released, had lost seven stone in weight. Such treatment would have killed Orwell. Many others were actually murdered by the Communist secret police who were a law unto themselves; among them Kurt Landau, an Austrian Left Socialist and Erwin Wolf, a Czech Trotskyist. The POUM general secretary Andres Nin was kidnapped by Communist agents, held in a secret prison and tortured in an attempt to secure a confession that he and his comrades were fascist agents. This would certainly have signed the death warrants of the rest of the POUM leadership who were still awaiting trial. He died under torture, according to one recent account, having been flayed alive. [24] Despite Communist demands for the death penalty, the POUM leadership were eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison for insurrection in October 1938.

Spilling the beans

Back in England, Orwell was outraged by the extent to which developments in Spain were being lied about and distorted on the left, and by the difficulty in getting any alternative viewpoint heard. The suppression of working class power and the repression of the revolutionary left were completely ignored amidst the general celebration of the Popular Front, and the POUM was routinely libelled as either a fascist organisation or an organisation manipulated by fascists. He saw the hand of the Communist Party and its many fellow travellers at work in this and set about contesting their version of events with a fury that was to make him many enemies on the left.

His important article, Spilling the Spanish Beans, written almost immediately after his return from Barcelona, was rejected by the New Statesman, that was unwilling to rock to the Popular Front boat, but accepted by the New English Weekly. By way of a consolation it seems, the Statesman sent him Franz Borkenau’s The Spanish Cockpit to review, only to reject his review when it finally arrived. Orwell had no doubts as to why and later made clear that he could no longer write for the journal as he had ‘to stand by my friends’. [25]

He completed Homage to Catalonia in January 1938, only to have it rejected unseen by his publisher, Victor Gollancz. This is all the more surprising when one considers that his previous book, The Road to Wigan Pier, had been a great success. His association with the POUM and his hostility to the Communists made him unacceptable to many on the left. This was a serious blow because there can be little doubt that if Gollancz had published the book, it would have made considerably more impact than it did. Gollancz effectively controlled the Left Book Club, which at its height had over 50,000 members, and had immense prestige as the publisher of the left. He was, however, wholly committed to the Popular Front and at this time gave his uncritical support to the British Communist Party and to the Soviet Union. [26]

While he rejected Homage to Catalonia, it is worth briefly considering some of the books that Gollancz did see fit to publish. One of the more restrained was Frank Jellinek’s The Civil War in Spain. He at least acknowledged that the POUM was not a Trotskyist organisation, but ‘it was objectively helping Trotskyism – and, by extension, fascism’. As for the May events themselves: ‘Documents found in two leading hotels proved conclusively that Franco’s agents had been actively at work to foment the rising’ and that there had been ‘a plan for a large-scale rebel landing on the Catalan coast in April, aided surreptitiously by German and Italian ships’. The outbreak had fortunately been ‘badly mistimed’. [27] Less restrained was J.R. Campbell’s Soviet Policy and its Critics. This enthusiastic endorsement of the Russian purges included various asides on Spain: the POUM ‘have spied for Franco and stabbed the People’s Army in the back’, while the fascist agent, Nin, was unfortunately ‘rescued by fascists disguised in military uniforms, who took this measure in the hope of preventing the Spanish authorities securing new and fuller proofs of their crimes’. [28] Most remarkable, however, is Reuben Osborn’s The Psychology of Reaction. This attempted psychological analysis of the fascist personality includes an inevitable chapter on Trotskyism: ‘a knowledge of the psychology of fascist leaders is, at the same time, a knowledge of the psychology of the Trotskyists.’ Osborn goes on to warn, somewhat ominously, that ‘there are concealed within all revolutionary movements individuals who are still unavowed Trotskyists, who mask with their Socialist ideology the psychology of the fascist.’ [29] These and other similar volumes were all published by Gollancz and distributed by the Left Book Club. They were part of a barrage of abuse and slander that effectively denied Orwell and other critics of so much as a hearing from much of the left.

Rejected by Gollancz, Homage to Catalonia was published by Frederic Warburg. His was an embattled firm that was slowly having the life squeezed out of it by the Communists for publishing books by the dissident left, by socialists hostile to Communism. He published C.L.R. James’s World Revolution, Reg Groves’s We Shall Rise Again, Boris Souvarine’s Stalin, and André Gide’s Back From the USSR as well as Homage to Catalonia. [30] When it did finally appear in April 1938 Orwell’s book made virtually no impact whatsoever and by the outbreak of war with Germany had sold only 900 copies.

Interestingly, the Communist vendetta against the book and its author still continues today. In 1984 Lawrence and Wishart, the then Communist Party’s publishing house, brought out a collection of essays, Inside the Myth, bringing together a variety of standpoints hostile to Orwell in an obvious attempt to do as much damage to his reputation as possible. Two of the essays deal with Spain, one by Bill Alexander, who fought in Spain himself and for a while commanded the British battalion of the International Brigades, and the other by Robert Stradling, a historian. Together they make the most ferocious of recent attempts to discredit Homage to Catalonia and consequently deserve some comment.

Stradling is concerned to call into question Orwell’s reliability as a witness to events in Spain. He puts forward as the crux of his argument the remarkable discovery that Orwell had such a minimal grasp of Spanish as to call into question his ability to follow what was going on around him. Consequently his book is ‘of questionable value’ as history. ‘Not only did its author fail to carry out basic research’, but we are told, ‘he was not qualified to perform it in the first place.’ He was ‘an emphatically non-academic writer’ and ‘a self-confessed propagandist’ and his charges against the Communists were ‘no less (if no more) absurd than those forwarded by the Cominternists against the POUM’. Stradling likens him to the Daily Worker’s notoriously dishonest correspondent in Spain, Frank Pitcairn (Claud Cockburn). Moreover in the period leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War, Orwell’s confused efforts to understand the political situation reveal him to be either ‘schizoid or perhaps a simple charlatan’. [31]

This is a quite disgraceful exercise. Stradling’s method is to construct a mosaic of Orwell, putting together a variety of separate pieces taken out of context and rearranged so as to look nothing like him. On the question of Orwell’s lack of Spanish, Stradling’s key ‘fact’, there is unfortunately evidence to the contrary that he seems to have overlooked when preparing his case. Some years before the Spanish War broke out (26 April 1932), Orwell wrote to his agent asking if he could get him any French ... or Spanish books to translate into English. Orwell might well lie to his readers, but surely not to his agent. [32] As for the attempt to suggest that Orwell’s criticisms of the Communists were no different from the Communists’ criticisms of the POUM, the suggestion is a travesty. No amount of assumed academic detachment can get away from the fact that what Orwell said about the Communists was true, whereas what the Communists said about the POUM was lies, and moreover part of an unprecedented international campaign of slander against ‘Trotskyism’ and in support of the Moscow Show Trials. In Spain the Communists’ lies were used to justify the repression of the revolutionary left and the torture and murder of men like Nin. It is positively grotesque to suggest that Orwell’s ‘propaganda’ exposing their lies and their ‘propaganda’ telling those lies were somehow equivalents. As for Orwell’s difficulties with regard to the Second World War, they were an honest attempt to adapt his socialist politics to the situation and surely compare favourably with the problems that the Hitler-Stalin Pact caused for British Communists. Stradling is probably on surer ground with the criticism that Orwell did not carry out ‘basic research’ – he was too busy in the trenches, getting shot in the throat and evading the police.

Bill Alexander adopts a somewhat different approach when dealing with Orwell’s criticisms of the Communists. He ignores them and instead launches into a sustained attack on Orwell for, among other things, his class background, his lack of any deep feelings about politics and, incredibly, because his attitude in Spain was ‘almost one of neutrality’! Of course, it is an improvement that he is now only considered neutral, whereas at the time he was considered a Trotskyist fascist dupe, but not that much of an improvement. Orwell, according to Alexander, saw the war as a game and was only there to collect material for his ‘bestseller’ which the establishment made eager use of ‘to obscure and denigrate the real issues in the struggle against fascism’. [33] Both these contributions are clearly more interesting for what they are, rather than for anything they have to say.

At the same time as doing his utmost to challenge the Communist inspired version of events in Spain, Orwell also developed a critique of the Popular Front that was for the time being at least the mainstay of Communist strategy. Influenced increasingly by debates inside the Independent Labour Party, which he actually joined in June 1938, he put forward a coherent critique of Popular Front politics, not from an academic or reformist but from a revolutionary standpoint. In Spilling the Spanish Beans, Orwell pointed out that the central contradiction at the heart of the Popular Front would always make itself felt in the end. While the working class and the bourgeoisie were both fighting against fascism, they were also at the same time fighting for very different things: the bourgeoisie fought for capitalism and the working class for socialism. This had been shown in Spain where the workers ‘took the opportunity of seizing land and factories and setting up the rough beginnings of a workers’ government by means of local committees, workers’ militia, police forces and so forth’. He went on to make it clear that he now accepted the POUM position that the revolution had to be completed if the war were to be won: they made the mistake ‘of leaving the Republican Government in nominal control’. Subsequently the working class had been defeated and the revolutionary left crushed by ... the Communists ‘It is unfortunate’, he wrote, ‘that so few people in England have yet caught up with the fact that Communism is now a counter-revolutionary force; that Communists everywhere are in alliance with bourgeois reformism and using the whole of their powerful machinery to crush or discredit any party that shows sign of revolutionary tendencies’. [34]

Elsewhere, in a review of Fenner Brockway’s Workers Front, he endorsed his argument that the Popular Front ‘is simply an alliance of enemies and must always, in the long run, have the effect of fixing the capitalist class more firmly in the saddle’. The Popular Front was just a polite name for ‘class collaboration’, for ‘an unholy alliance between the robbers and the robbed’. Although it was still only a proposal in Britain, it had already ‘produced the nauseous spectacle of bishops, Communists, cocoa magnates, publishers, duchesses and Labour MPs marching arm in arm to the tune of Rule Britannia.’ [35]

Orwell’s opposition to the Popular Front embraced opposition to what he regarded as the coming war with Germany. He saw the Popular Front as a means whereby the working class could be rallied in support of a war that was not really against fascism but was actually for British imperialism. Such a war, he believed, would inevitably be accompanied by the same repression of the revolutionary left in Britain as he had seen in Spain. He was determined to oppose it and for a while was even urging preparations for going underground. This intransigent revolutionary stance was often accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, that all was lost, and on occasions he seemed to advocate an almost quietest response to the impending catastrophe. [36] Once war with Germany broke out, however, he quickly abandoned his opposition and in a remarkable about turn took up a position of what can be best described as ‘revolutionary patriotism’. He argued that the war could only be won if Britain became socialist, adapting what was essentially the POUM position during the Spanish War to British circumstances. Eventually his politics moderated into what Bernard Crick has somewhat misleadingly characterised as ‘Tribune Socialism’ [37], the belief that a Labour government was the most that could be achieved in Britain, at least for the foreseeable future, but as late as the autumn of 1942 in his Looking Back on the Spanish War he could still link the experience of the two wars. He remembered ‘the Italian militiaman, who shook my hand in the guardroom, the day I joined the militia’. This man’s face:

which I saw only for a minute or two, remains with me as a sort of visual reminder of what the war was really about. He symbolises for me 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 millions, rotting in forced-labour camps ... The question is very simple. Shall people like that Italian soldier be allowed to live the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable, or shan’t they? Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not? I myself believe, perhaps on insufficient grounds, that the common man will win his fight sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later – some time within the next hundred years, say and not some time within the next ten thousand. That was the real issue of the Spanish war, and of the present war, and perhaps of other wars yet to come. [38]


All references to Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (CEJL) are to the Penguin 1971 four volume edition.

1. CEJL 1, p. 28.

2. R. Williams, Orwell (London 1984), pp. 7–8.

3. G. Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London 1986), pp. 129–130. For an important account of Orwell’s political development see P. Sedgwick, George Orwell, International Socialist, International Socialism 37, first series (June–July 1969).

4. See P. Broué and E. Temime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (London 1972), pp. 102–118.

5. F. Borkenau, The Spanish Cockpit (London 1986), pp. 70–71.

6. L. Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (New York 1973), p. 322.

7. For Largo Caballero and the Socialist Left see A. Durgan, Largo Cabellero and Spanish Socialism, International Socialism 18 (Winter 1983).

8. For the POUM see in particular V. Alba and S. Schwartz, Spanish Marxism versus Soviet Communism (New Brunswick 1988). This very sympathetic account of the POUM is one of the handful of indispensable books on the Spanish Revolution. See also A. Durgan, The Spanish Trotskyists and the Foundation of the POUM, in The Spanish Civil War: The View from the Left (London 1992) and R. Alexander, International Trotskyism (Durham, NJ 1992), pp. 678–710.

9. The best account of Communist policy and practice is B. Bulloten, The Spanish Revolution (Chapel Hill 1979), another indispensable book since revised in a new 1991 edition. See also V. Alba, The Communist Party in Spain (New Brunswick 1983). There was, of course, no necessary correlation between an effective war effort and counter-revolution as some historians sympathetic to the Republic seem to assume: see for example, P. Preston, Revolution and War in Spain (London 1984), p. 7. So much had clearly been demonstrated by Trotsky and the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. Preston’s understanding is limited, in this regard, by his failure to grasp the enormity of Stalinism, the extent to which it was a counter-revolution.

10. G. Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (London 1985), pp. 7, 8.

11. Ibid., pp. 8, 9.

12. Ibid., pp. 25, 31. For an account of the ILP contingent serving with the POUM militia see P. Thwaites, The Independent Labour Party Contingent in the Spanish Civil War, Imperial War Museum Review 2 (1987) and for Orwell in Spain see B. Crick, George Orwell: A Life (London 1992) and P. Stansky and W. Abrahams, Orwell: The Transformation (London 1979), pp. 199–238.

13. Ibid., pp. 28–29.

14. D. Patai, The Orwell Mystique (Amherst 1984), pp. 15, 158. For a discussion of feminist critiques of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four see my Nineteen Eighty-Four Since the Collapse of Communism, Foundation 56, Autumn 1992.

15. Homage to Catalonia, op. cit., p. 101.

16. Ibid., pp. 106–111.

17. Bulloten, op. cit., p. 133. For Soviet policy during the Spanish Revolution see D. Smyth, “We Are With You”: Solidarity and Self-interest Towards Republican Spain 1936–1939 from P. Corish (ed.) Radicals, Rebels and Establishments (Belfast 1985). Togliatti, the man who carried out Stalin’s counter-revolution in Spain went on to become the post-war leader of the Italian Communist Party and the darling of the Eurocommunists while Erno Gero was the Communist leader in Hungary in 1956.

18. Bulloten, op. cit., p. 407.

19. The POUM strategy was not to build their party as the revolutionary leadership of the Spanish working class, something they did not believe possible in the particular circumstances of Spanish working class politics, but to persuade, pressure and influence the Anarchists, the decisive force in Catalonia, into completing the revolution. It was this refusal to try and build an independent revolutionary leadership that caused the breaking of relations between Trotsky and the great majority of Spanish Trotskyists who had helped establish the POUM in September 1935. The POUM’s efforts to move the CNT in a revolutionary direction led to it participating in the Popular Front electoral pact and briefly joining the Catalan government, the Generalitat. Trotsky quite correctly condemned these two decisions. More debatable is whether the ferocity of Trotsky’s denunciation of the POUM’s ‘betrayal’ cut him off from the largest grouping of revolutionaries in Spain during the most important revolutionary outbreak in Europe between the German Revolution of the 1918–23 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. He certainly succeeded in alienating many of his supporters throughout Europe and in Spain his advice was only heeded by the tiny handful of Trotskyists in the Bolshevik-Leninist Section of Spain. For a contemporary Trotskyist critique of the POUM’s conduct see F. Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain (London 1963), pp. 86–113 and for more sympathetic accounts see V. Alba and S. Schwartz, op. cit., pp. 186–206 and R Alexander, op. cit., pp. 701–710.

20. Homage to Catalonia, op. cit., p. 119.

21. V. Alba, Catalonia, p. 140.

22. Homage to Catalonia, op. cit., p. 140.

23. M. Shelden, Orwell: The Authorised Biography (London 1991), p. 295.

24. P. Preston, The Spanish Civil War (London 1986). For contemporary accounts of Communist repression of the left see J. McNair, Terror in Spain (London 1937) and F. Brockway, The Truth about Barcelona (London 1937).

25. CEJL 1, p. 338.

26. For Victor Gollancz see R. Dudley Edwards, Victor Gollancz (London 1987) and for the Left Book Club see J. Lewis, The Left Book Club (London 1970).

27. F. Jellinek, The Civil War in Spain (London 1938), pp. 339, 555.

28. J.R. Campbell, Soviet Policy and its Critics (London 1939), pp. 315, 370.

29. R. Osborn, The Psychology of Reaction (London 1938), p. 279.

30. F. Warburg, An Occupation for Gentlemen (London 1959), pp. 202, 250. He describes how he was approached by Communist Party emissaries who explained ‘how all good men should rally to the service of the Party. The temptation was strong, the flattery subtle, the mailed fist daintily concealed beneath a velvet glove. If I played ball with the Party, they told me, they could turn my untried publishing house into a success overnight. They had connexions in every literary magazine in London. Wouldn’t a spate of good reviews be a help to a firm as precariously placed as mine?’ When he refused to co-operate he was dismissed as ‘a Trotskyist reptile’ and ‘a crypto-fascist’ and the Communist Party began ‘crushing the strength out of the political half of my list. It was advising those who would listen not to offer their books to so dastardly a character as myself. Given a little more time it would have destroyed us’. He was saved by the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

31. R. Stradling, Orwell and the Spanish Civil War: A Historical Critique from C. Norris, Inside the Myth (London 1984), pp. 107–108, 109, 120. Lawrence and Wishart actually republished a collection of Claud Cockburn’s reports from Spain, including his attacks on ‘the Trotskyist swine’ as part of their commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the conflict, J. Pettifor (ed.), Cockburn in Spain (London 1986), p. 184.

32. CEJL 1, p. 302.

33. B. Alexander, George Orwell and Spain, (ed.) Norris, Inside the Myth, op. cit., pp. 89–90, 96–97.

34. CEJL 1, pp. 302, 304.

35. CEJL 1, p. 339.

36. See M. Smith, George Orwell, War and Politics in the 1930s, Literature and History 6, 2 (Autumn 1980).

37. B. Crick, Introduction to George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Oxford 1984), p. 114. See also P. O’Flinn, Orwell and Tribune, Literature and History 6, 2 (Autumn 1982).

38. CEJL 2, p. 303. Here he declares his faith in the working class and at the same time finally rejects the ‘thesis that the war could have been won if the revolution had not been sabotaged’. This in no way lessened his opposition to the Communists for what they had done in Spain and elsewhere.

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