The Books: A Collection of Essays, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, by George Orwell

On the essays shelf:

A Collection of Essays, by George Orwell

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia details his personal observations of the Spanish Civil War in the mid to late 1930s. He had gone there to fight for the Republicans against the rebellion of Franco (who, of course, eventually won the battle). The issues of the Spanish Civil War are intricate and complex, and in some contexts it could be seen as one of the most important wars of the 20th century. In it, the Russians and the Nazis practiced their craft, which they would then unleash upon the world in WWII. It was a training ground for the monstrous ideologies which would overrun Europe for the next 40 years. There were many who felt duped by the Spanish Civil War, and writers fought it out in book after book. The Left, who were internationalist in sensibility and philosophy, flocked to Spain to help in the fight. Many of them left completely disillusioned (Orwell was one). He could sense how they were being used. Telling the truth about what went on during the Spanish Civil War made you no friends: it was an ideological battle, and therefore the ideology must be upheld, regardless of the mess and horror on the ground. Reading about the Left in the 1930s in New York and the rest of America, you really get a sense of that time, and how this war ignited the imagination. The Group Theatre organized fund-raisers for the cause, and threw their support behind the Republicans (and they weren’t the only ones). Orwell climbed up the ranks in his division, and stated baldly, in letters and elsewhere, that he was there to fight Fascism. That was why so many were there, helping the Spaniards. Giant superpowers of the time were pulling strings on various sides, trying to get the outcome they wanted: spies were everywhere. Homage to Catalonia is an incredible eyewitness account of this war, written by one of the great political journalists (and essayists, as we have seen) of the 20th century.

It wasn’t just that the outcome didn’t go his way that Orwell found disillusioning. It was the entire experience. It really made him. Without the Spanish Civil War, he would have been just another propagandist for Leftist causes, albeit a very talented one. The Spanish Civil War was a painful crucible: Orwell was forced to flee the Soviets’ NKVD, who were there to “liquidate” the opposition. (Again, with the terrifying use of language by totalitarians. “Liquidate” sounds like such a gentle process, involving fluids and flow.) The devastation, of being hounded out by those you supposedly supported (the Communists, who were united against Fascism as well) was formative for Orwell. It was a disillusion from which he would never recover (and thank God). The purges had begun. Orwell made a narrow escape. These were supposedly his allies (in an internationalist sense). His eyes were opened to the realities of Communism, and they would never be closed again.

He was one of the few on the Left who saw which way the wind was blowing that early. In the mid-30s, Fascism was the enemy, not Communism. The Nazis and Mussolini were the murderers to be feared and fought against. The Soviets, remember, in the mid-30s, were allies to Europe. (This would all change with the non-aggression pact, signed secretly, between Russia and Germany in the summer of 1939. For many, THAT was the eye-opening moment: wait: Russia is … evil? Who knew??) The sense of betrayal can still be felt when you read the current literature of the time. The non-aggression pact was immediately followed by the cynical carving-up of Poland, Germany and Russia sharing the spoils. (Coincidental dovetail with my recent post about the film Katyn, which details that confusing time.)

It is impossible to over-state just how much nobody wanted to hear what Orwell had to say in the mid-30s. It was damaging to the Socialist cause. He was a traitor, an apostate. He was shunned. Arthur Koestler, another “apostate”, had a similar journey. The two of them certainly have the last laugh, in terms of being right, but that was not apparent at the time. Orwell had seen the reality of the new Russia on the ground in Spain, and it terrified and disturbed him. He was also terrified and disturbed by the lies being stated in the press about what was happening in Spain, not to mention the reaction of the British public (he has nothing but contempt for them). Pacifists, many of them, Orwell felt that they had lost their ability to perceive right and wrong. (He goes into that further in his essay on Gandhi). War is horrible, Orwell did not deny that, and he wrote eloquently about the deprivations and terror of war. But there are things more horrible than war, Nazism being one, Fascism being one. If you cannot “get it up” to fight Fascists, if you try to make everything exist on a balanced scale (“yes, it is horrible, but WE have been horrible too”), then you are a coward. If you try to make your ideology fit all situations, you will lose your way morally. (This is what happened to the Left in the 30s, who swallowed the propaganda being fed to them by Stalinist Russia, ignoring eyewitness accounts of those who got out, of those who were skeptical about the official version of the truth.) If you think “War is always wrong” is a one-size-fits-all ideology, you will be overrun by monsters and you will only have yourself to blame. Orwell saw that tendency in the Left which is now pretty much set in stone: The Left wants everything to be Zero Sum (“Yes, what they did to us was horrible, but put it on the scale beside what we did to them, and it comes out equal”), and this then is an excuse to do nothing. There is a satisfaction in doing nothing, a self-righteousness. Christopher Hitchens wrote often about his break with the Left in that particular regard, although he always remained somewhat left of center. But THAT quality in Leftist thinking he had nothing but contempt for. It is so engrained in the philosophy now that it is nearly impossible to even discuss a more nuanced view of history with people who hold these views: they literally cannot perceive another way to think. It has become rigid (and therefore more fragile). It has become dogma, fundamentalist in nature. Look out.

Orwell, in this essay about the Spanish Civil War, written in 1943 ( right in the thick of WWII, when the horror had been unleashed upon the world), is angry: angry at the press filled with lies, angry at those back home who either believed the lies (because it suited them to), or disbelieved the lies (because it suited them to). He saw that everything had to do with political bias: you believed what “your” newspaper that reflected your worldview said, even if it was shoveling lies and propaganda down your throat. Critical thinking was dead. And when that dies, you are unable to perceive reality. Orwell writes about that too.

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.

He writes about the camaraderie of war, and how it changes people. How certain gestures and behavior, completely inappropriate to normal civilian life, become the norm during war (good and bad). His perspective is that living in safety, as those “back home” were, can soften you, can over-sensitize you, can turn molehills into mountains. But war has a way of clarifying and simplifying. He gives examples.

One of the effects of safe and civilised life is an immense oversensitiveness which makes all the primary emotions seem somewhat disgusting. Generosity is as painful as meanness, gratitude as hateful as ingratitude. But in Spain in 1936 we were not living in a normal time. It was a time when generous feelings and gestures were easier than they ordinarily are.

Orwell does not pull punches. The Left was used in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell, who was a True Believer, did not like being used. He was angry about it. It was a betrayal. But at least now he knew the truth and nothing, not even the scorn and contempt of his colleagues and fellow Leftists, could stop him from seeing that truth.

Homage to Catalonia is a very important book about this very important (and almost forgotten) war, and the essay I excerpt below is another fascinating examination of that war. It was a dress-rehearsal for 1939 and onward. Orwell, in his brilliance, perceived that, although he could not see the future. He could sense what was coming. He named it.

On to the excerpt:

A Collection of Essays, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, by George Orwell

The backbone of the resistance against Franco was the Spanish working class, especially the urban trade union members. In the long run — it is important to remember that it is only in the long run — the working class remains the most reliable enemy of Fascism, simply because the working-class stands to gain most by a decent reconstruction of society. Unlike other classes or categories, it can’t be permanently bribed.

To say this is not to idealize the working class. In the long struggle that has followed the Russian Revolution it is the manual workers who have been defeated, and it is impossible not to feel that it was their own fault. Time after time, in country after country, the organized working-class movements have been crushed by open, illegal violence, and their comrades abroad, linked to themin theoretical solidarity, have simply looked on and done nothing; and underneath this, secret cause of many betrayals, has lain the fact that between white and coloured workers there is not even lip-service to solidarity. Who can believe in the class-conscious international proletariat after the events of the past ten years? To the British working class the massacre of their comrades in Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, or wherever it might be seemed less interesting and less important than yesterday’s football match. Yet this does not alter the fact that the working class will go on struggling against Fascism after the others have caved in. One feature of the Nazi conquest of France was the astonishing defections among the intelligentsia, including some of the left-wing political intelligentsia. The intelligentsia are the people who squeal loudest against Fascism, and yet a respectable proportion of them collapse into defeatism when the pinch comes. They are far-sighted enough to see the odds against them, and moreoever they can be bribed — for it is evident that the Nazis think it worth while to bribe intellectuals. With the working class it is the other way about. Too ignorant to see through the trick that is being played on them, they easily swallow the promises of Fascism, yet sooner or later they always take up the struggle again. They must do so, because in their own bodies they always discover that the promises of Fascism cannot be fulfilled. To win over the working class permanently, the Fascists would have to raise the general standard of living, which they are unable and probably unwilling to do. The struggle of the working class is like the growth of a plant. The plant is blind and stupid, but it knows enough to keep pushing upwards towards the light, and it will do this in the face of endless discouragements. What are the workers struggling for? Simply for the decent life which they are more and more aware is now technically possible. Their consciousness of this aim ebbs and flows. In Spain, for a while, people were acting consciously, moving towards a goal which they wanted to reach and believed they could reach. It accounted for the curiously buoyant feeling that life in Government Spain had during the early months of the war. The common people knew in their bones that the Republic was their friend and Franco was their enemy. They knew that they were in the right, because they were fighting for something which the world owed them and was able to give them.

One has to remember this to see the Spanish war in its true perspective. When one thinks of the cruelty, squalor, and futility of War — and in this particular case of the intrigues, the persecutions, the lies and the misunderstandings — there is always the temptation to say: ‘One side is as bad as the other. I am neutral’. In practice, however, one cannot be neutral, and there is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins. Nearly always one stands more or less for progress, the other side more or less for reaction. The hatred which the Spanish Republic excited in millionaires, dukes, cardinals, play-boys, Blimps, and what-not would in itself be enough to show one how the land lay. In essence it was a class war. If it had been won, the cause of the common people everywhere would have been strengthened. It was lost, and the dividend-drawers all over the world rubbed their hands. That was the real issue; all else was froth on its surface.

This entry was posted in Books and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Books: A Collection of Essays, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, by George Orwell

  1. Dg says:

    And thank god indeed. The more we read Orwell the more we realize how not much has changed. I can’t tell you how stoked I was when the Arab spring broke out across the Middle East some months ago. I was following the movements on social media and thinking if I didn’t have all of my obligations here I would have loved to have gone to Tahrir Square in Cairo and protest until Mubarek left. How disillusioning it must be for those brave ones to have overthrown the government and are now stuck with The Muslim Brotherhood and the new boss acting just like the old boss. Egypt thinks that’s her choice… A dictator for life or a religious majority. Neither seem to equal freedom of speech. Orwell(and Hitchens form that matter) would have been all over it. Strange how our own press-and perhaps ournown population-seemed very blasé about the end result.

  2. Dg says:

    And the latrines…. Oy. Everytime we have a cold spell in New York I find myself walking up and down Greenwich Street thinking about those poor guys in the forest at the Battle of the Bulge. No supplies, no cover, no relief from the frigid weather, and oh yea getting shelled. Then I think where did those poor suckers go to relieve themselves? Brutal stuff.

    • sheila says:

      I know! I’m not sure if you were around for my expose (not really) of the giant Charmin bathroom facility in the middle of Times Square. It’s not there anymore. But it was basically a huge psychedelic public bathroom sponsored by Charmin. Everyone made fun of it but everyone sure as hell used it – because you’re wandering around New York – what if there isn’t a Starbucks nearby? what if there’s a line in Starbucks for the bathroom and it’s an emergency?

      I think of these human elements too when I read about historical events. Everybody Poops, so the book says … and how does humanity handle it? It’s one of the reasons why war = epidemical diseases. It’s frightening.

  3. Dg says:

    Somehow I missed the expose. True story though, a friend of mine is a gear head(as well as having some anger issues but don’t we all)and a few years ago NASCAR did some event in times square where some well known drivers did laps around a few blocks. So this dude took the morning off of work to go check it out. It was a chilly morning and he was on the crowd drinking a cup of coffee and of course he gets that rumbling in his stomach. The closest thing he sees is a McDonalds so he hightails it in there only to stopped by a security guard. “Restroom is for customers only”. So gets on line and orders a bottle of water for a dollar. Then proceeds to the restroom but as he passes the security guard he can’t help himself he SLAMS the unopened bottle into the garbage can and goes into the restroom. Something right out of Larry David.

  4. Dg says:

    Oh my god Sheila…I felt like I was stoned while I was reading that. You must have felt like you were stuck in a Fellinni movie and couldn’t get out. So strange but very funny thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *