When Left-Wing Idealism Met Communist Squalor – George Orwell In Spain

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2022/11/10/when-left-wing-idealism-met-communist-squalor-george-orwell-in-spain/

Homage to Catalonia
By George Orwell


Some weeks ago, my wife and I took a brief trip to Barcelona and Valencia. Although we had visited Spain several times in earlier decades, it was our first trip to these two cities on the Mediterranean coast. We found Barcelona to be a world-class city and Valencia to be a delightful large beach town.

We also learned that these two cities were at the very center of the so-called Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, which began in July 1936 and ended in April 1939 with Francisco Franco’s capture of Madrid. In fact, at one point, Valencia became the capital of the Republican government.

Having studied the Spanish Civil War in some depth over the years, I decided to read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, much of which takes place in Barcelona and neighboring regions during the first year of the Civil War. Most Americans are well acquainted with Orwell’s two masterpieces – Animal Farm, written in 1944 and finally published, after being rejected by several publishers, in 1945, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949 just six months before his death at the age of forty-six.

But few have read Homage to Catalonia. And perhaps for good reason. It is Orwell’s account of his experiences as a volunteer soldier on the Republican side of the Civil War. It describes in often tedious detail his days in the trenches along the front lines, facing Franco’s Nationalists, and the incredible mélange of political parties and factions struggling to gain the upper hand within the so-called Republican leadership. When published in 1938, it sold only 700 copies, and there was not another edition printed until after Orwell’s death.

I refer to the “so-called Republican” side because the Republican forces were anything but republican. Orwell spends a whole chapter of twenty-five pages in Homage to Catalonia describing the unions, political parties, foreign powers, and factions on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. It is a mind-numbing exercise to try to understand how all the pieces fit together. And it is clear from Homage to Catalonia that Orwell had no idea what kind of toxic brew he was getting into when he arrived in Barcelona.

Orwell was an idealist and a democratic socialist when he traveled from England to Spain around Christmas 1936 to fight for, as he called it, “common decency,” and for democracy against fascism. Orwell was associated with the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was a radical version of the much larger Labour Party in the United Kingdom, when he arrived in Barcelona.

The Republican forces were made up of a kaleidoscope of parties and units, among which were the Anarchists, the Trotskyites, the socialists, the communists, and foreign volunteers like Orwell. The foreigners were mostly idealists, who had little notion that they were to be involved in a political nightmare rather than a conventional war against fascism.

Orwell’s ILP affiliation was with the POUM, which stands in English for the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (or, in Spanish, Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista). A rival outfit was the PSUC — the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia(or, in Spanish, Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya). The PSUC was the Catalan branch of the communist party of Spain and a full member of Comintern, the Soviet Union-controlled organization whose mission was to spread communism throughout the world. Another major force in 1936, especially in Barcelona and Valencia, were the Anarchists, whose main mission was to bring low the Catholic Church.

On our trip, we saw evidence of religious figures and statues in various churches and religious sites that were defaced by the Anarchists during this period. During the Spanish Civil War, close to 7,000 Catholic priests, nuns, monks, and laymen were murdered by Republican forces.

This toxic mélange of parties was called “Republican” by the popular press, because they fought against the Nationalists, ultimately led by General Franco, a monarchist and staunch supporter of the Catholic Church, who sought to overthrow the Popular Front government, which was democratically elected in 1936.

Then, to complicate matters further, Nazi Germany supported the Nationalists with men and equipment – including fighter planes and bombers manned by German pilots. Many Americans know Pablo Picasso’s famous 1937 paintingrepresenting the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by Nazi Germany planes. On the other side, the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin supported the so-called Republican forces and poured in large amounts of military equipment, including tanks. Even more important, the Comintern and the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) took over the leadership of the Republican government.

The Spanish Civil War was a essentially political war, not a military one, and the Republican side lost the war largely because of the deadly internecine fights that destroyed the cohesion and unity of the Republican government. It was the communists, controlled by the Soviet Union, who ultimately turned against and destroyed the POUM – a key member of the Republican coalition.

Orwell’s ILP papers led him to join the POUM militia upon arriving in Spain, and he was shipped to the front lines in short order. The great majority of Homage to Catalonia takes place in trenches on the front lines against the Nationalist forces. Orwell describes life with his ill-equipped unit, where conditions were primitive. While there were occasional stray bullets fired at his unit, as well as small skirmishes and minor firefights, his main enemies were the cold, the lack of proper sanitation, insufficient food and water, the poor armament and equipment, and the lice. He was involved in no major actions, but the book does contain vivid descriptions of night combat in the hills and mountains of the Aragon region of Spain.

While in the trenches on the front line near Huesca, Orwell stuck his head above the parapet at dawn and was struck in the throat by a bullet from the Nationalist lines. He describes with great clarity his thoughts and feelings in being wounded, and he was blessed that the bullet not only went clean through his neck but also missed his vertebrae by several millimeters. When Orwell got back from the front lines to the hospital for proper medical attention, the doctors were amazed that he was alive.

Recuperating in Barcelona in May 1937, Orwell began to realize that the communists had turned against both the Anarchists and the POUM. And the reason for the communist decision to eliminate these two parties lay in Moscow – in Stalin’s ferocious moves against so-called Trotskyites and any other powerful factions and individuals both in Russia and abroad who he believed were a threat to his absolute power. Because the POUM and the Anarchists were not controlled by the communist party in Spain, which was under the thumb of the Comintern and NKVD secret police, orders from Stalin caused the communists and some trade unions to turn decisively against these allies on the Republican side. In Barcelona and Valencia, this meant jail or death for members of the POUM party and their militia.

Orwell’s wife was living in a hotel in Barcelona at this time, and when Orwell went to visit her, she whispered to him “Get out.” His life was in danger because the POUMs were supposedly Trotskyites and targeted for elimination. Hotel staff members also warned him that the political authorities and police were looking to arrest him. They had already ransacked his room. And they had already imprisoned several other Brits, who, like Orwell, had come to Spain to fight against the fascists.

Orwell and his wife ran for their lives. They still had their passports, and Orwell had military discharge papers because of his wounds. They got on a train and crossed the French border, returning to England shortly thereafter. Orwell, the revolutionary, describes in the last page of Homage to Catalonia how wonderful it was to be back in southern England where life went on in such a peaceful manner.

Given Orwell’s political leanings when he arrived in Spain, and the fact that one of his biographers called him, as he planned to go to Spain, “in favor of revolution but not a revolutionary,” it is astounding that ten years later, the same man could have written two masterpieces with such powerful narratives and symbols of the mortal danger of the totalitarian and authoritarian state. Without question, it was his experiences in the Spanish Civil War which caused him to come to this conclusion.

In Homage to Catalonia, there is no concluding chapter that chronicles his intellectual transformation caused by his near-arrest and perhaps near-death at the hands of communist authorities. No, the conclusions came in the superb books that followed – Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $5.5 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.


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