George Orwell was lucky to make it out of Spain alive. By a mad irony only conceivable amidst the paranoia of war, the pro-revolutionary line of the organisation for which he had been fighting - the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM: ‘The Workers Party of Marxist Unification’) - led to it being labelled as a fascist spying group: ‘Franco’s Fifth Column’. POUM’s slogan - ‘the war and revolution are inseparable’ - was not endorsed by Spain’s Socialist government, nor the Communists, both of whose primary aim was to win the war against Franco by any means possible. The government’s twisted reasoning led to the conclusion that revolutionary POUM was a fascist creation designed to cause division and conflict among the anti-Fascists. Increasingly paranoid, the government outlawed the organisation in June 1937.
The ensuing witch-hunt for political ‘traitors’ was, by definition, utterly indiscriminate, and ensured that many of Orwell’s comrades were in prison or dead when he returned to England in summer 1937, only narrowly avoiding capture himself. But unlike Laurie Lee, Orwell was not rendered either personally or politically cynical by his experiences as a volunteer in the Spanish civil war. This was probably because he saw, in the revolutionary laboratory of late 1936 Barcelona, a brief but exhilarating realisation of his political ideal. Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s account of his seven months’ service in POUM, is a homage to the glimpsed possibility of a truly classless city, ruled by and for the workers.
Anyone looking for a handle on the labyrinthine political complexities of the civil war’s anti-fascist side will find this book rich in insight; indeed, Orwell brilliantly leads you to the realisation that a ‘Republican vs Fascist’ characterisation of the conflict is almost laughably simplistic. But, politically motivated as he was, Orwell was not interested in that side of things when he first arrived in Spain in December 1936.
“Deeply attracted” by the “revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona”, his motivation was simply to fight against fascism in the name of “common decency”. He joined POUM solely because he was carrying papers from the British Independent Labour Party (ILP), to which the organisation was linked. “As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names - PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT - they merely exasperated me.”
That would change, but in late 1936 Orwell was too excited by his first sight of Barcelona to study the fraught infighting of the anti-fascists.
For here was a city, unlike any other he had ever seen, “where the working class was in the saddle”. Orwell saw the then Anarchist-controlled Catalonian capital as the model of a society to strive for: “Waiters and shop workers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes… I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
These were heady days for POUM and the Anarchists, and Orwell was deeply moved by the example of Barcelona, particularly by the collectivisation of language: “tu” and “camarada” had replaced “Usted” and “Señor”. But the revolutionary idyll was to be short-lived. In January Orwell was sent to fight at Alcubierre, behind the line fronting Zaragoza.
The Anarchist and POUM positions, both militarily and ideologically speaking, took a severe hammering in the first few months of 1937, from two quarters: Franco’s superior armies, and an increasingly Right wing, anti-revolution, USSR-influenced government. When he returned to Barcelona on leave in April, exhausted and frustrated at having seen hardly any action, Orwell was dismayed at what he found: “[T]he revolutionary atmosphere had vanished. Once again it was an ordinary city, a little pinched and chipped by war, but with no outward sign of working-class predominance.”
Orwell soon found himself embroiled in the pivotal fighting triggered on May 3rd, when the government’s Assault Guards attacked the Anarchist-held Telephone Exchange tower. He returned to the front only to be shot in the throat by a sniper on May 20th. After treatment, he was discharged from POUM - “declared useless” - just before the government illegalised the movement and started murdering and incarcerating members.
Travelling back to London through France, Orwell had plenty of time for reflection on what awaited him back home. Invigorated by his time in troubled Spain, he was suddenly infuriated by what now struck him as the slumbering isolation of England: “Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, ‘The New Statesman’ will come out on Friday.” This was what he so memorably called “the deep, deep sleep of England”. Orwell wanted to be back in Spain, in the thick of the drama and the action, fighting for what, in the last few weeks of 1936, Barcelona had briefly but gloriously represented.