George Orwell lived just 46 years, always ill, always poor. Always it appeared, under criticism and suspicion. Yet in his brief lifetime he managed - almost uniquely amongst those of his time - to deconstruct the newspeak of imperialism. Stalinism. And fascism.
But more than this, Orwell’s criticisms of the role of the intellectual left, the forces of Fascism in Spain and the blind adherence to party policy amongst Stalinist supporters, has a relevance and bearing for us even today, over 65 years later - as Spain reels from pillar to post - from EU policy cuts, to self-imposed austerity measures, like a headless corpse on the battlefield of the Ebro.
No one today seems clear why we travel the roads we do any more, no-one seems any longer clear if the journey is worth the effort. For many look and see a failed and bankrupt system before their eyes.
Mini Orwell Slide-show
When George Orwell set out for Barcelona at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil war he did so as a simple reporter. Yet when he arrived, he found himself to be a soldier.
He spent just seven days training in Barcelona, before moving to the Aragón front, from December 1936 until June 1937. There, Orwell found himself in the trenches alongside the militia known as the POUM: Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista.
“Owing partly to an accident I joined them instead of the International Brigade” he later admitted.
THE POUM was a small party, with not much influence outside Catalonia, but it contained a high proportion of politically conscious members.
Over the next 115 days Orwell would experience rather than just report on the tragedy of war. Unlike other correspondents he would become politicised not though theory but through action. Yet his reports were largely ignored by the English Press, and would remain so for most of his life.
His writings reveal an often “devastatingly perceptive eye… wrote John Mortimer of the Evening Standard. "Orwell," he said "Was a man who looked at his world with wonder and wrote down exactly what he saw, in admirable prose."
Orwell was eventually shot in the throat and it was during his recuperation that he found himself away from the battle lines and in Barcelona as the Stalinist led Communist party provoked an all out assault on the POUM headquarters, arresting its leaders, holding show trials against those that had given their lives and their last breath to aiding the Spanish Republican Government.
On 13 July 1937 a deposition was presented to the Tribunal for Espionage & High Treason, Valencia, charging Orwell and his wife with 'rabid Trotskyism' and being agents of the POUM. An order went our for their arrest.
Such a betryal by the left against the left was only possible in Orwells view because of the nature of what he called “the ‘folded’ lies - lies that clever people would tell themselves to safeguard their points of view.
His work thereafter would be to try and dismantle the Folded lies of the the Stalinist left. His experience of watching a party one day be firing alongside you, and the next day be firing at you, left him bitter memories, but fuelled his writings and finally was to feature strongly in his later work. One day the POUM is your ally, the next your enemy. Truth is whatever the authorities say it is. 'Blackwhite was the term Orwell would later use: the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.'
This tendency was reinforced by his observation of the left wing press in England to create battles that had never existed, create heroes from soldiers that had never fought and create fictional victims - to justify an attitude or short term lie. These Folded Lies would find their way into his later work of Animal Farm and 1984.
Orwell - a committed socialist - wrote:
“One of the dreariest effects of this war has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right”
He was therefore to dedicate the rest of his life to exposing the “intellectual dishonesty of the left” in 3 majorly important fields: Imperialism, Fascism and Stalinism. Christopher Hitchens in his essay on why Orwell Matters, wrote
“We live today in the wreckage of these 3 great experiments…
And so if Orwell matters today it was because he - almost alone - saw through the short-comings and failings of these 3 great experiments .
Orwell matters today because he alone amongst the commentators on the civil war - through circumstance and honesty - witnessed the underlying struggles that defeated the Spanish revolution. Not the Civil war, nor the defence of a fragile democracy, but the Spanish revolution. Men will fight without arms and without resources for a cause that they carry in their hearts. But if they are called to merely defend the privileges of the existing classes, they will soon lose spirt and hope.
Listen to the Whole Podcast or download it here....
HOMAGE TO CATALONIA
Orwells account of this Revolutionary energy at the beginning of the civil war in Barcelona and its ultimate Betrayal are depicted in precise detail in Homage to catalonia and despite its global popularity today…only 1500 copies were printed in his lifetime, of which perhaps only about 900 sold before he died. It was a book condemned by the intellectual dishonesty of the time. The slavery to Stalinism and the hostility of the left wing press to criticism from another left perspective - traits that still plight the democratic left - effectively banished the book for decades.
Victor Gollancz, who had published Orwell’s first five books, rejected Homage to Catalonia, believing, as did many people on the Left, that 'everything should be sacrificed in order to preserve a common front against the rise of Fascism.'
The book was finally published on 25 April 1938 but sales were poor. A second edition was printed for the Uniform Edition in February 1951. But it would not be published in the United States until February 1952.”
You can Get a free copy of Homage to Catalonia from the links below, but for a fuller picture, my advice is to read the Peter Davison edition that includes the classic Introduction by Cristopher Hitchens.
Why do I suggest getting this edition? Well For 3 reasons:
1. Orwell requested a re-edit of the original book before he died, and this is a close as we can get to that requested edit.
2. The addition of his letters and book reviews after his return from Spain, contextualise and thereby explain Homage to Catalonia in a way that book alone can never do. It gives us an insight, an account of the man who went believing one thing, only later to return believing in something else altogether.
3. Finally, the combination of text and letters follows his thoughts as they mature from criticism into insight and their appearance as the seeds of his work with Animal Farm and 1984.
“I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting…Wrote Orwell on his reading of the English press coverage in Spain…..I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors…and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened…for all practical purposes the lie… become truth.....The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past - If he should say that two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs"
But what of Spain, what had Orwell to say of the country he fought for, the country he had to flee from and the country he had to witness fall beneath the boot of fascism.
“The Spaniards are good at many things, but not at making war. All foreigners alike are appalled by their inefficiency, above all their maddening unpunctuality”
It is a laughable stereotype were it not for the grave circumstances in which it arose. But Orwell was not just an observer of people, he befreiended many and was touched by those he fought alongside…
“I have the most evil memories of Spain, - he said - but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself. They have, there is no doubt, a generosity, a species of nobility, that do not really belong to the twentieth century”
His writing will be remembered for this persepective, this honesty whereby his devotion to truth was too important to put aside, even under the pressure of war.
It has been often quoted that - 'In the long run a harmful truth is better than a useful lie'. - Perhaps the Spain we live in today would do well to remember this as exposures of corruption and lies clash with the claims of honesty and transparency by political leaders.
Orwell's chosen weapons were principle, patience and persistence. His commitment to what he saw as truth and the cause of democratic socialism continued until his end, and it is with these weapons that his ideas still remain valid today as we attempt to decipher the 'double talk', the 'newspeak' and the voices that claim from the 'Ministry of Plenty' that 2 plus two is indeed 5.
But lets remember that Orwell fought with rifles as well as words. He didn't simply observe and comment. He - 'participated' - that great Mediterranean characteristic, that divorced him from so many of the other reporters . This participation enabled him to witness for a moment a true revolution on the streets of Barcelona, and later its failure, and ultimately the establishment of a totalitarian state in Spain. But he did not give up hope: He said: “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”
Orwell died on Jan 21st 1950… a little over 63 yrs ago….I’d like to think that his belief in the destiny of common man may yet still come true.
8 Further Resources for Georgie Boy.....
1. Orwell in Spain: Homage to catalonia and Orwell’s letters. Peter Davidson version with Christopher Hitchens Intro. ( See link above in text).
2. Links to Homage To Catalonia Free. Epub or txt
3. Watch: Land and Freedom
Ken Loaches film inspired by Homage to Catalonia
4. Hitchens PDF essay on why Orwell Matters