1990s >> 1997 >> no-1113-may-1997

George Orwell, Spain and Anti-fascism

Sixty years ago this month the events began which inspired George Orwell to write Homage to Catalonia. Leftwing militias in the Catalan capital, Barcelona, opposed to the government’s policy of restoring capitalist normality in the territories which had not fallen to Franco, were attacked by Republican paramilitary forces under Communist command.

Orwell witnessed these events while on leave from the front where he was fighting as a member of one of these leftwing militias, that of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista, or Workers Party of Marxist Unification). The POUM was basically a dissident Communist Party which didn’t believe in taking orders from Moscow. It has been called a Trotskyist party (not least by supporters of Stalin) but, although it did contain some Trotskyists, this is inaccurate. Trotsky did try to tell it what to do, but the POUM no more followed orders from Trotsky than it did from Stalin.

Orwell had joined the POUM militia because he wanted to fight Franco not because he agreed with their political views. He knew some people in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and they put him in touch with the POUM with which the ILP had some links. He was not a dissident Communist himself and never had any sympathy with Leninism or Trotskyism. As he pointed out in a book review in January 1939:

“It is probably a good thing for Lenin’s reputation that he died so early. Trotsky, in exile, denounces the Russian dictatorship, but he is probably as much responsible for it as any man now living, and there is no certainty that as a dictator he would be preferable to Stalin, though undoubtedly he has a much more interesting mind. The essential act is the rejection of democracy – that is, of the underlying values of democracy; once you have decided upon that, Stalin – or at any rate someone like Stalin – is already on the way” (from George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters , Vol 1, as are all the quotes in this article).

After May things in Barcelona got worse. In June the POUM was banned. Its leader, Andres Nin, was arrested and later murdered by agents of the GPU, the Russian secret police. Other POUM members were detained and tortured, including non-Spanish members of their militia. Orwell and his wife had to go into hiding and eventually got over the border into France.

Homage to Catalonia describes Orwell’s own experiences in Spain but it also defends the POUM and the anarchists against the lies the Communist Party and their stooges put out about them to the effect that they were in contact with and acting on behalf of Franco’s fascists.

Orwell knew this to be completely untrue and, out of honesty as well as loyalty to his former companions-in-arms, he denounced this. Needless to say, the Communists suggested that he too was a fascist sympathiser and “Trotsky-Fascist”. It left him with an abiding disgust with the Communist Party, its ideology and its methods, which was to inspire his later novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-Four which, rightly, show them no mercy.

Russian Foreign Policy

Orwell had gone to Spain as someone who had vague pro-working class feelings. His experiences there politicised him and he left holding radical leftwing views. What he learned in Spain was, first, a respect for the capacity of ordinary workers to run things on their own and, secondly, that the Communists were bastards: that they were committed, not to furthering the interests of the working class, but to furthering the foreign policy objectives of the Russian state and that, to this end, they were prepared to lie, cheat and kill. Hence his damning, but wholly accurate, description of them: “the more vocal kind of Communist is in effect a Russian publicity agent posing as an international Socialist” (Inside the Whale)

In 1935 the Comintern under Stalin carried out one of its U-turns. When the 1930s began, Social Democratic and Labour parties were still being denounced as “social fascists” and seen as being as bad, if not worse, than the real fascists. With the coming to power of Hitler, however, Germany came to be seen by the Russian rulers as a threat to their interests. Russian foreign policy then changed, from a more or less equal hostility to all the openly capitalist powers to seeking an alliance with capitalist France and Britain against capitalist Germany.

The Communist Parties had their role to play in this strategy: to work for the broadest possible anti-fascist alliance to include openly pro-capitalist elements as long as they were anti-fascist, i.e. in effect anti-German. Everything was to be subordinated to the creation of such a broad anti-fascist front. All talk of “revolution”, “soviets” and the like was dropped; the red flag was replaced by the Union Jack, and patriotism became de rigueur.

Orwell, having experienced first hand the application of this policy in Spain, saw through this, writing in a private letter n September 1937:

“Of course all the Popular Front stuff that is now being pushed by the Communist press and party, Gollancz and his paid hack set etc, etc only boils down to saying that they are in favour of British Fascism (prospective) as against German Fascism. What they are aiming to do is to get British capitalism-imperialism into alliance with the USSR and thence into a war with Germany. Of course they piously pretend that they don’t want the war to come and that a French-British- Russian alliance can prevent it on the old balance of power system. But we know what the balance of power business led to last time, and in any case it is manifest that the nations are arming with the intention of fighting. The Popular Front baloney boils down to this: that when the war comes the Communists, labourites, etc instead of working to stop the war and overthrow the Government, will be on the side of the Government provided that the Government is on the ‘right’ side, i.e. against Germany. But everyone with any imagination can foresee that Fascism, not of course called Fascism, will be imposed on us as soon as the war starts. So you will have Fascism with Communists participating in it and, if we are in alliance with the USSR, taking a leading part in it. This is what has happened in Spain. After what I have seen in Spain I have come to the conclusion that it is futile to be ‘anti-Fascist’ while attempting to preserve capitalism. Fascism after all is only a development of capitalism, and the mildest democracy, so-called, is liable to turn into Fascism when the pinch comes. We like to think of England as a democratic country, but our rule in India, for instance, is just as bad as German Fascism, though outwardly it may be less irritating. I do not see how one can oppose Fascism except by working for the overthrow of capitalism, starting, of course, in one’s one country. If one collaborates with a capitalist- imperialist government in a struggle ‘against’ Fascism, i.e. against a rival imperialism, one is simply letting fascism in by the back door”.

This position put Orwell far, far to the left of the Communist Party and in June 1938 he joined the ILP. The ILP, which had been one of the original founding elements of the Labour Party, had broken away from Labour in 1932 and was a home for all sorts of leftwing critics of Labour’s short-sighted reformism. At different times, both the Communists and the Trotskyists tried to take it over, but without success. While some of its members had notions of socialism, generally speaking it was a confused organisation which was unclear both as to what socialism was and as to how to get it, and was itself reformist in the sense that it campaigned for reforms of capitalism.

Orwell was not out of place in the ILP since he, too, only had a vague notion of socialism. For him it was the general idea of a decent society without private ownership of the means of production or a privileged class and where ordinary people would run things democratically in their own interest. Orwell, however, was clear on one thing: Russia was not socialist or anything like it.

In a book review in June 1938 he asked of Russia: “is it Socialism, or is it a peculiarly vicious form of state capitalism?” His answer was that, whatever it was, it wasn’t socialism. Later he embraced the theory that Russia was a new exploiting, class society best described as “oligarchical collectivism” where a self-appointed and self-perpetuating oligarchy ruled through a one-party dictatorship on the basis of the state (collective class) ownership of the means of production. For although Orwell was primarily interested in literary matters he also followed very closely the arguments that went on in Trotskyist, ex-Trotskyist and ex-Communist circles on the nature of Russian society, a knowledge he was able to put to later use when writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Capitalism and War

In one of his letters Orwell mentions that he had written an anti-war pamphlet. This has not been found, but it is not difficult to work out from his other letters and articles what it would have said. Its basic premise would have been what Orwell set out in book review he did in August 1937:

“1. That war against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it.

2. That every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defence against a homicidal maniac (’militarist’ Germany in 1914, ’Fascist’ Germany next year or the year after).

The essential job is to get people to recognize war propaganda when they see it, especially when it is disguised as peace propaganda”.

Orwell, as we have seen, regarded the campaign for an anti-fascist “people’s front” as just such war propaganda disguised as a peace campaign. It merely opposed one type of capitalism by another type of capitalism, in the interest of one particular alliance of capitalist-imperialist powers. So his anti-war pamphlet can be expected to have denounced mere anti-fascism as a means of preparing workers ideologically to support Britain, France and Russia in the coming war against Germany and Italy

But if mere anti-fascism was not a genuine alternative to fascism, what, in Orwell’s eyes, was? Orwell looked to the emergence of a mass democratic revolutionary movement that would be anti-capitalist as well as anti-fascist. Reviewing Franz Borkenau’s The Communist International (which should be read by anyone wanting to learn about the various turns the Comintern effected in the 1920s and 1930s) in September 1938, he wrote:

“Where I part company from him is where he says that for the western democracies the choice lies between Fascism and an orderly reconstruction through the cooperation of all classes. I do not believe in the second possibility, because I do not believe that a man with £50,000 a year and a man with fifteen shillings a week either can, or will, co-operate. The nature of their relationship is quite simply, that the one is robbing the other, and there is no reason to think that the robber will suddenly turn over a new leaf. It would seem, therefore, that if the problems of western capitalism are to be solved, it will have to be through a third alternative, a movement which is genuinely revolutionary, i.e. willing to make drastic changes and to use violence if necessary, but which does not lose touch, as Communism and Fascism have done, with the essential values of democracy. Such a thing is by no means unthinkable. The germs of such a movement exist in numerous countries, and they are capable of growing. At any rate, if they don’t, there is no real exit from the pigsty we are in”.

Unfortunately, no such movement did emerge and in September 1939 the widely predicted war broke out. Although previously he had envisaged going underground to oppose the war (in January 1939 Orwell had written to Herbert Read, the anarchist art-world figure, “I believe it is vitally necessary for those of us who intend to oppose the coming war to start organising for illegal anti-war activities”), when the war did break out he not only didn’t go underground but he actively supported it – and not just on anti-fascist but on old-fashioned patriotic grounds.

He tried to enlist to go and kill German workers himself but was turned down because he had signs of TB. Instead, he spent the war churning out patriotic propaganda (some of it nasty stuff: he referred to pacifists as “fascifists” and denounced conscientious objectors as “pro-Nazis”) aimed at getting British workers to go and kill German workers and Indian workers to kill Japanese workers.

It was a betrayal, an unpardonable one from a socialist point of view, of the working-class internationalism he had initially adopted as a result of his experiences in Spain.

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