George Orwell wrote two of the most influential books of the 20th century, Animal Farm and 1984. He had different opinions of them. He was proud of Animal Farm because he believed that for the first time he succeeded in fusing “political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” 1984 he pretended to believe was “a ghastly mess … a good idea ruined.”
He knew better.
This book was tranformed Orwell
As significant as these masterpieces were, the book that transformed him politically and intellectually was the portrayal of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia. A failure when it first appeared: of a print run of 1,500 books, only 900 were sold and the book remained out of print until 1952 two years after Orwell’s death.
When General Franco launched his attack on the Spanish Republic in July 1936, Orwell was writing The Road to Wigan Pier, his part memoir, part investigative report on conditions among the poor and unemployed in the North of England. Commissioned by Victor Gollancz’s left wing publishing firm. The Road to Wigan Pier was published in March 1937 — they turned books around quickly in those days — and adopted as part of the Gollancz’s Left Book Club. It sold 44,000 copies, by far Orwell’s most successful book but angered Gollancz with its attacks on Communism and the elitism of British intellectuals.
Orwell was following events in Spain closely and determined when he completed Wigan Pier to go to Spain, to see for himself what was happening, perhaps to write about the war or most likely take part in it.
On Boxing Day, Dec. 26, 1936 Orwell and wife Eileen left for Spain, supposedly paying for the trip by hocking the family silver. Originally Orwell sought to join the International Brigades but his links to the anti-Stalinist Independent Labor party and his criticisms of communism made securing an endorsement for the communist dominated Brigade impossible. His ILP contacts led him to join with a small radical, anarchist group with Trotskyist connections, POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification).
Orwell on war: Dirt, lice, cold, boredom
Orwell spent five months with the POUM including 115 days at the front. His portrait of the war has none of the Hemingway braggadocio. It was all dirt, lice, cold, and boredom mixed with intermittent bouts of fighting. The book has several Orwell touches: the Italian soldier he met in the Lenin barracks of the POUM who greeted him with a warm handshake, the fascist soldier who Orwell could not shoot because a man with his pants down relieving himself was not a fascist but another human being.
Orwell was in Barcelona and took part in the fighting when the Communists attacked the POUM on the grounds that it was secretly supporting Franco, something he knew was a lie. The POUM was outlawed, its leaders rounded up and its spokesman Andres Nin, a man Orwell admired, was arrested, tortured and murdered by Russian agents.
After taking part in the fighting in Barcelona, Orwell returned to the front and was shot in the throat, the bullet missing his carotid artery by a millimeter, leaving him with a raspy voice for the rest of his life. While recovering from his wound, he was informed that he and his wife, who had worked as a secretary for POUM, were in danger of being arrested. Documents discovered in recent years indicated that they were to be shot. They fled Spain and returned to England in June 1937.
British Press misrepresented war
Orwell was eager to tell his story of what he had seen and was shocked to discover that the war and especially its political dimension was being misrepresented throughout the British press. He offered an essay to Kingsley Martin, the editor of the leading leftwing journal, The New Statesman recounting what he saw during the suppression of the POUM in Barcelona, especially the role played by the communists, only to have it rejected on the grounds that it contradicted the Popular Front party line of ‘no enemies on the left.’ Orwell was outraged and began a campaign to get what he knew was truth out to the public. He never forgave Martin. Years later Orwell was having lunch with Malcolm Muggeridge and asked him to change seats. When Muggeridge inquired why, Orwell said that Martin was sitting across from him and he couldn’t abide looking at his corrupt face. Orwell did not forgive easily.
Orwell’s struggle to tell his story was the transforming event of his life, one that turned him into a bitter enemy of communism and especially its worshippers of Stalin. Unlike many of his fellow leftists, he never went through a Stalinoid phase as many British leftists did -- a point noted by Christopher Hitchens.
Orwell began writing his version of what he knew was happening in Spain, entitled Homage to Catalonia in a fit of anger. He argued that what he saw in Barcelona, the comradeship of the people -- genuine equality -- was destroyed by the Communists in order to gain control of the Revolution. He had to tell the truth of what happened even if it damaged the Republican cause, for otherwise no good would come of the Revolution. The way the war was presented in Britain disturbed him. “I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed … I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various party lines.”
Objective truth disappearing
His experiences in Spain foreshadowed the grim world of 1984 for Spain taught him the that the very concept of objective truth was disappearing.
Orwell noted that in Spain, contrary to the view in liberal circles in the West, Communism had become a counter-revolutionary force, more interested in gaining control of the Revolution than seeing a victory over Franco. Unlike most of his fellow leftists Orwell rejected the view that totalitarianism and political brutality was a monopoly of the Right. Failure to tell the truth and cover up for the Communists, he wrote in bitter terms was to “adopt the mentality of a whore.”
These comments enraged some on the Left. Herbert Matthews reported on the war in Spain and who gave a dishonest reading of the conflict for the New York Times. Twenty years later, he would match that with a fawning report on Castro’s Cuba. And he attacked Orwell for political naivete. In writing Homage to Catalonia, Orwell was doing more “to blacken the loyalist cause than any work written by enemies of the Republic.” In certain left-wing circles, especially in the work of writers like Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, Orwell was never to be trusted again and a campaign of vilification began in the late 1930’s that continues today.
The Spanish Civil War changed Orwell forever: “thereafter I knew where I stood.” The war began the process where Orwell developed his idiosyncratic brand of what he called "democratic socialism"-- he always placed the emphasis on the first word, "democratic." Despite the dreadful events he witnessed in Spain, Orwell was not depressed. He wrote that the war taught him several things: not to trust Communism; that he was a Socialist after all; and that truth had to be protected against modern ideological lies and distortions. “Curiously enough,” he told one of his closest friends, “the whole experience has left me with not less, but more belief in the decency of human beings.”
Homage to Catalonia, despite its poor sales, enhanced Orwell’s reputation in literary and intellectual circles in England. He was developing a unique view of politics, one expressed in the strong, vivid prose that first had appeared in his ground-breaking essays, “A Hanging,” and “Shooting an Elephant.”
Homage to Catalonia is the book that links to Orwell’s concept developed in Animal Farm and 1984 of the flaws inherent in Revolutions and the potential growing power of the state. It is worth reading as one of the best examples of Orwell’s uncanny way at unearthing the truth in complex questions.