Episode 10: Orwell Betrayed

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

If you attended high school in the US, you are almost certainly familiar with George Owell’s two classic novels about the dangers of totalitarianism, Animal Farm & 1984.  Because they are so abstract, people of all political stripes like to claim that these depict what would happen if their opponents gained control.    But did you know that they were partially inspired by Orwell’s short real-life experiences living under Communist rule, in revolutionary Spain in the 1930s?   Despite Orwell’s fame, fans of socialism in our media and education industries have largely buried Orwell’s classic memoir of this period, Homage to Catalonia.    By the way, George Orwell was a pen name, but for the sake of consistency we’ll refer to him by that name throughout this episode.  

The Homage describes Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.  This war involved a number of different groups, but was primarily a conflict between the fragile Soviet-sponsored socialist Government of Spain against the fascist military rebellion led by Francisco Franco.   Realizing they were outgunned, the Government, aided by Stalin’s Communist International, called for foreign volunteers to help defend it— and thousands poured into Spain from around the world.   It’s pretty amazing if you thing about it:  young, idealistic socialists & Communists from Western countries believed so strongly that they put their jobs, homes, and families on hold to risk their lives fighting for this cause.   Among these was a young George Orwell.    When he first arrived, the people of the Spanish Republic really did seem to have taken their socialist ideals of equality seriously:

Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.… There were no private motor cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black….

In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

[Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia (pp. 3-4). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition. ]

A large part of the memoir is taken up by a vivid, harrowing description of what life was like on the front lines of the conflict, from the point of view of an undersuppled, underfed footsoldier in a woefully inexperienced and untrained army.   It’s a classic depiction of life in wartime, which I would highly recommend if you’re interested in such topics.   Today we’re going to gloss over that aspect of the book, though, since the point of this podcast is the politics.    After several months on the front lines, Orwell was wounded, and given leave to spend some time recuperating in Barcelona, where political issues once more came into focus.   When he arrived, he noticed that there had been some unfortunate changes in the ideal “classless society” while he was gone:

Fat prosperous men, elegant women, and sleek cars were everywhere. (It appeared that there were still no private cars; nevertheless, anyone who ‘was anyone’ seemed able to command a car.) The officers of the new Popular Army, a type that had scarcely existed when I left Barcelona, swarmed in surprising numbers… the majority were young men who had gone to the School of War in preference to joining the militia….  all of them had automatic pistols strapped to their belts; we, at the front, could not get pistols for love or money…

A deep change had come over the town. There were two facts that were the keynote of all else. One was that the people—the civil population—had lost much of their interest in the war; the other was that the normal division of society into rich and poor, upper class and lower class, was reasserting itself.  [p. 94-95]

Even worse, the various factions involved in the Government coalition had become increasingly suspicious of each other.   The Soviet-sponsored Communists of the Popular Army wanted to ensure their control, so they began to issue continuous propaganda against the militias of the other factions in their coalition— including the POUM, the smaller socialist party to which Orwell belonged.     Here we can also see some of the origin of Orwell’s concept of “doublespeak” from his novel 1984:

Meanwhile there was going on a systematic propaganda against the party militias and in favor of the Popular Army…over the radio and in the Communist Press there was a ceaseless and sometimes very malignant jibing against the militias, who were described as ill-trained, undisciplined, etc. etc.; the Popular Army was always described as ‘heroic’. 

From much of this propaganda you would have derived the impression that there was something disgraceful in having gone to the front voluntarily… The fact that the militia troops were also, on paper, Popular Army troops, was skillfully used in the Press propaganda. Any credit that happened to be going was automatically handed to the Popular Army, while all blame was reserved for the militias. It sometimes happened that the same troops were praised in one capacity and blamed in the other.   [p.96-98]

It reached the level where some minor street fighting actually broke out in the city.   Orwell was disgusted that his comrades were fighting each other rather than working towards their great cause, but had no choice but to join in on the side of his faction, helping to defend a building.    Eventually the  Popular Army took control of the city and ended the factional fighting, and Orwell returned to the front.   Once more, however, he was wounded, and after a difficult recovery in some horribly supplied and understaffed medical facilities, he returned to Barcelona.   But now his POUM membership put him in real danger, as he learned when drying to visit his wife’s hotel.   Luckily she had been expecting him, and intercepted him by the entrance.

‘Listen! You mustn’t come in here. Get out quickly and hide yourself before they ring up the police.’ And behold! at the bottom of the stairs one of the hotel staff, who was a POUM member (unknown to the management, I fancy), slipped furtively out of the lift and told me in broken English to get out. Even now I did not grasp what had happened. ‘What the devil is all this about?’ I said as soon as we were on the pavement. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ ‘No. Heard what? I’ve heard nothing.’ ‘The POUM’s been suppressed. They’ve seized all the buildings. Practically everyone’s in prison. And they say they’re shooting people already.’…

On 15 June the police had suddenly arrested Andrés Nin in his office, and the same evening had raided the Hotel Falcón and arrested all the people in it, mostly militiamen on leave. The place was converted immediately into a prison, and in a very little while it was filled to the brim with prisoners of all kinds. Next day the POUM was declared an illegal organization and all its offices, bookstalls, sanatoria, Red Aid centres and so forth were seized. Meanwhile the police were arresting everyone they could lay hands on who was known to have any connection with the POUM… In some cases the police had even gone to the length of dragging wounded militiamen out of the hospitals…

Apparently the suppression of the POUM had a retrospective effect; the POUM was now illegal, and therefore one was breaking the law by having previously belonged to it. As usual, none of the arrested people had been charged. Meanwhile, however, the Valencia Communist papers were flaming with the story of a huge ‘Fascist plot’,   [p.166-167]

The Communists had decided to blame the POUM for the recent street fighting, and label them as fascist agents.    POUM members, or anyone whose loyalty to the Communist Party was not proven, could now be arrested on sight.    The upbeat, revolutionary spirit that Orwell had observed in the people a few months before seemed to have been frittered away, though some of the true believers who hadn’t been immediately targeted still managed to hold on to their idealistic convictions.

And it was queer how everyone expressed it in almost the same words: ‘The atmosphere of this place—it’s horrible. Like being in a lunatic asylum.’ But perhaps I ought not to say everyone. Some of the English visitors who flitted briefly through Spain, from hotel to hotel, seem not to have noticed that there was anything wrong with the general atmosphere…  [p.156-159]

Orwell then had to spend some time essentially in hiding— he could blend in with the crowds during the day, but did not dare to sleep at his wife’s hotel room or appear in places where he was known, or he would be arrested.   Even more cruelly, he found out that the Government was attempting to keep the POUM’s suppression a secret from the front lines, so its soldiers would continue to risk their lives without knowing that, as soon as they returned home, they would be arrested or executed.

In the whole business the detail that most sticks in my throat, though perhaps it is not of great importance, is that all news of what was happening was kept from the troops at the front. As you will have seen, neither I nor anyone else at the front had heard anything about the suppression of the POUM. …about 100 miles from Barcelona, no one had heard what was happening. All word of it was kept out of the Barcelona papers ..

This kind of thing is a little difficult to forgive. I know it was the usual policy to keep bad news from the troops, and perhaps as a rule that is justified. But it is a different matter to send men into battle and not even tell them that behind their backs their party is being suppressed, their leaders accused of treachery, and their friends and relatives thrown into prison.  [pp.169-170]

Orwell was also horrified that despite the mass arrest of POUM members, there was no real legal process for them to follow once arrested.   They were generally thrown in crowded, dirty jails and left there to eventually die, or at best be arbitrarily released years later with lasting effects on their physical and mental health.    He wrote about several idealistic friends of his who had given up everything at home to come fight for the cause, only to find themselves confined without trial or executed by their supposed comrades.   One example is Orwell’s young friend Bob Smiile:

Smillie’s death is not a thing I can easily forgive. Here was this brave and gifted boy, who had thrown up his career at Glasgow University in order to come and fight against Fascism, and who, as I saw for myself, had done his job at the front with faultless courage and willingness; and all they could find to do with him was to fling him into jail and let him die like a neglected animal. 

I know that in the middle of a huge and bloody war it is no use making too much fuss over an individual death. One aeroplane bomb in a crowded street causes more suffering than quite a lot of political persecution. But what angers one about a death like this is its utter pointlessness. To be killed in battle—yes, that is what one expects; but to be flung into jail, not even for any imaginary offence, but simply owing to dull blind spite, and then left to die in solitude—that is a different matter.   [pp. 179-180]

While still on the run, Orwell and his wife attempted to use their small amount of influence and contacts to help another of their friends, Georges Kopp, who was still imprisoned.   Their efforts proved essentially futile, however, and they realized that their only reasonable course of action was to flee the country before being forced to join him.   In the end, Orwell and his wife managed to escape from Spain and head back to England, where he resumed his literary career and eventually produced his well-known classics.  

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

Anyway, Orwell’s time in Spain had been relatively brief, but he had directly experienced many of the worst failures of socialist and Communist governments:   government doublespeak and propaganda, the fundamental inability to sufficiently supply and feed their people, the emergence of new classes based on government loyalty, purges and unjustified mass arrests, and the total arbitrariness of the judicial and legal processes.    Knowing about these experiences definitely provides some new insights when trying to interpret 1984 and Animal Farm.

And this concludes your Story of Communism for today.