“In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles, and the enemy. In winter on the Saragossa Front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last.”
Thus begins a chapter in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. This paragraph is typically “Orwellian” – in the sense of the word not related to dystopia – and exemplifies the irony, humour and unfailing honesty of the author.
This description of the Front Line of the Spanish Civil War perfectly captures two striking things about Orwell’s record from Spain. The first is that his time during the war, and in particular his time at the Front, is characterised less by excitement and righteousness than by futility and fatigue. It would be easy even for a man of decent integrity to exaggerate his part in such an historic event. Fortunately, Orwell was no such man.
The second is that, despite the often tedious reality, Orwell still, in my opinion, plays down the significance of a brave commitment – voluntarily in his case and for most international participants – to the cause of democracy and freedom against the tyranny of Fascism.
In his memoir, Hitch-22, the late Christopher Hitchens said that in sending a Nazi warship to the bottom of the North Sea, his father had done a better day’s work than he ever would. It’s hard not to feel the same way about Orwell. How many of us can say we have taken a Fascist sniper bullet to the throat for the cause of freedom and of liberty? One can hope someday to do a better day’s work than that, but I’m not holding my breath.
But Homage isn’t simply a strong denunciation of Fascism. In fact, Orwell almost never specifically condemns Fascism or its supporters, in Homage or indeed in any other of his works. It’s obvious from his writings – and his being in Spain in the first place – that Orwell just considered the fight against Fascism to be a natural response. He despised this coalition of imperialism, racism and stupidity with his entire being, and was never in any doubt that it needed defeating. He was so clear on this point that he didn’t even think of writing it down.
No, the important lesson that Orwell learnt in Spain, and the one that would motivate in particular his last and greatest novels – Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – was that the political Left was just as capable as the Right of authoritarianism and totalitarianism.
In Catalonia, Orwell witnessed sectarian battles erupt between those fighting for the Republic. As Orwell noted, this was always a shaky coalition: held together more by a mutual desire to see the end of Franco than by internal ideological consistency. Soon enough the Communist Party, in collaboration with far-right social nationalists, and with direction from the USSR, seized control of the government and consolidated power. The revolutionary spirit that had motivated and sustained the resistance was replaced with an atmosphere of treachery, rumours and fear. Orwell started to recognise and understand the cynicism at play, and only with the ever-reliable assistance of his wife is he able to escape arrest (and certain death) for the crime of being associated with the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), the faction who by now had drawn the unfortunate straw of becoming the official scapegoat.
Later, when he tried to secure the release of one of his comrades, another international volunteer from Belgium by the name of Georges Kopp, Orwell received a handshake from a police official whom he is certain is about to arrest him. Orwell was profoundly moved by this gesture. As he recalled: “You have got to realise what was the feeling of the time – the horrible atmosphere of suspicion and hatred, the lies and rumours circulating everywhere, the posters screaming from the hoardings that I and everyone like me was a Fascist spy.”
If Orwell had never been in Spain, had never seen first-hand the deterioration of the revolutionary cause into censorship, oppression and murder, and if he hadn’t survived and managed to escape home just ahead of the police, he would never have been able to offer us the insight that he, uniquely, was able to achieve.
He saw before anyone else the potential for the extreme Left to become ugly. In Spain, Orwell saw the ugly side of both ends of the political spectrum, and he would spend the rest of his life fighting it. It cost friends, money and influence, especially in intellectual circles. But now, from the vantage point of the 21st century, Orwell seems right in his diagnosis. When one negotiates with history, a little bravery and integrity can go a long way.
At the end of The Plague, written after the worst of Fascism had been rolled out across the globe, Albert Camus wrote: “… [the plague] never dies or vanishes entirely…it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”
With his commitment to honesty in the face of lies and treachery; with his moral and intellectual integrity in the face of cynicism and euphemism; and with his willingness to face down bullies of all stripes, Orwell bequeaths to us in his writings the tools we could well do with ourselves.