George Orwell’s Greatest Book

Posted: August 25, 2014 in Uncategorized

A while ago I came across a horrible facebook page called “Nationalists of the World Unite”. Just to give you an idea of what it is, it called for the “smashing” of “cultural marxists”, tries to prove that humanity did not in fact originate in Africa, and complains about “Zionist Jewish propaganda and multi cultural madness”. It’s an anti-migrant, nationalist page – arguing against the evidence of all human history that nations are like pigeon-holes and things just get hopelessly muddled if we mix things around. 

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To this day, it still has as its profile picture the dust jacket for George Orwell’s Animal Farm. When I first came across it I saw, laughing, that the moderators had also posted a huge status praising George Orwell for exposing the “globalist” agenda with his 1945 novel. I saw with satisfaction that there were a whole load of posts from people with brains in their heads, along the lines of “Orwell was a socialist you idiots! He went to Spain during the Civil War and put his life on the line to fight and kill the likes of you. He was totally opposed to racism, nationalism and fascism.” (Not an actual quote.)

The Contradictions of Orwell

This idiotic social media page, and the reaction to it, get to the heart of Orwell’s contradictions as a writer and the contradictions in his politics. The man who was shot in the neck by fascists while on the frontlines as a member of the militia of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification is today chiefly remembered for Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four. These books are read and spoken of as if they prove once and for all that socialism is evil and that anyone who speaks of equality or freedom is a Stalin-in-waiting or a useful idiot.

The frontlines of the Spanish Civil War, on which Orwell fought in 1937.

The frontlines of the Spanish Civil War, on which Orwell fought in 1937.

In fact these novels were written not as a critique of socialism but of Stalinism, of the oppressive political regime that developed in the Soviet Union, which we have written about several times before. But even though his two most well-known works are so often misunderstood, this contradiction makes Orwell an attractive writer for many: he was a committed socialist who was critical, without mercy, towards the Soviet Union, proving to a generation with zero illusions in Stalinism that Socialism was not tied to that regime and therefore that its time did not pass when the wall came down.

What made me write this blog post is the fact that I have just finished reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, his memoirs of his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. I can say without a doubt that it is the best book Orwell ever wrote. It bridges this contradiction. Nobody can possibly mistake this book for a right-wing anti-communist scare story. It is at the same time searingly critical of Stalinism. 

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Orwell on the Spanish Civil War

Orwell arrived in Barcelona six months after a working-class revolution thwarted Franco and his “stuffy clerico-military reaction.” He writes: “Men and women armed only with sticks of dynamite rushed across open squares and stormed stone buildings held by trained soldiers with machine-guns.” In Barcelona, when Orwell arrived, the working class was “in the saddle”, or appeared to be. There was no more cringing, boot-licking, snobbery or waste.

CNT was the Anarchist-influenced trade union, FAI the Spanish Anarchist organisation

CNT was the Anarchist-influenced trade union, FAI the Spanish Anarchist organisation

While the introduction by Julian Symons repeats time and time again that Orwell was a “romantic”, Orwell never romanticises the revolution. He describes events without any filter for gruesome, absurd and horrible details. But he is utterly inspired by his experiences in spite of the horrors of war, an inspiration that does not wear off but comes out far stronger after months on the front-lines:

“For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of classless society. In that community where no-one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like… The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.”

A column of the POUM militia in which Orwell served

A column of the POUM militia in which Orwell served

Cynicism refuted by experience

An idea floats around and comes to the surface quite often, the idea that cynicism and hopelessness are the result of experience of the “real world” and of “human nature.” Homage to Catalonia refutes that in the development it chronicles within the brain of its author. Orwell, cynical by long habit, is made un-cynical in many ways by going through “beastly” experiences in Barcelona and at the front line. He becomes much more political, not less. 

Coming across the array of parties and initials – CNT, FAI, POUM, PSUC, UGT, etc – Orwell was initially “puzzled”:

“…my attitude always was, ‘can’t we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?’ This of course was the correct ‘anti-Fascist’ attitude which had been carefully disseminated by the English newspapers… But in Spain, especially in Catalonia, it was an attitude that no-one could keep up indefinitely. Everyone, no matter how unwillingly, took sides sooner or later.For even if one cared nothing for the political parties and their conflicting ‘lines’, it was too obvious that one’s own destiny was involved. As a militiaman one was a soldier against Franco, but one was also a pawn an enormous struggle that was being fought out between two political theories.”

A war within a war

This struggle is laid out very clearly in Homage to Catalonia and is worth outlining here. The war began in July 1936 with a working-class uprising against Franco’s coup. Orwell makes it clear that these workers, like him, were fighting not simply for “democracy” but for improvements in their everyday lives, for control over the land and the factories, for a socialist society. Within the anti-Franco camp there was a struggle, at first hidden, then suddenly open. On one side were the liberals, the Stalinist Communist Party and the social democrat/labour party equivalents, who wanted to prevent any revolution taking place and defeat Franco in the name of “democracy”. On the other side there were the Anarchists and the POUM, and with them huge sections of the working class, who saw the revolution and the winning of the war as one and the same task.

Orwell at first inclines toward the Stalinist-liberal side. But as time goes on and he sees the struggle explode into open fighting on the streets of Barcelona in May 1937, he comes around very strongly to the other side. First, by making the war a war for socialism rather than an abstract “war for democracy” (abstract because the Republican side had instituted a military dictatorship against all forces to the left of the Stalinists), the anti-Franco forces might mobilise the support of workers in other European countries, much as the Bolsheviks did during the Russian revolution.

Barricades in Barcelona, May 1937. Fighting erupted behind Republican lines when the  "liberal" government, with Stalinist support, moved against the anarchists

Barricades in Barcelona, May 1937. Fighting erupted behind Republican lines when the “liberal” government, with Stalinist support, moved against the anarchists

 

Secondly, by declaring Moroccan independence, the Republic could open up a whole new front in Franco’s rear – but it did not do this for fear of threatening the investments of European millionaires in Morocco. “The best strategic opportunity of the war was flung away in the hopes of placating French and British capitalism,” writes Orwell. 

Thirdly, the attempts to suppress the Anarchists and left-wing socialists were harming the war effort, not helping it; Orwell describes police patrolling in Barcelona with supplies the militias on the front are bitterly starved of and completely denied. “I suspect it is the same in all wars – always the same contrast between the sleek police in the rear and the ragged soldiers in the line.”

Immaculately-dressed, well-armed Spanish "Assault Guards" kept order behind the lines while militiamen suffered on the frontlines with poor weapons and low ammunition.

Immaculately-dressed, well-armed Spanish “Assault Guards” kept order behind the lines while militiamen suffered on the frontlines with poor weapons and low ammunition.

When this conflict came to a head, it took the form of a “reign of terror” against the Anarchists and left-socialists. Orwell tells tales of betrayal, imprisonment, disappearance, paranoia, lies and murder that give 1984 a run for its money, and are completely true. 

The last note on the political lessons of the book: the Spanish Stalinist leadership, the Spanish liberal capitalist class and the USSR collaborated in this reign of terror. This much is made damn clear. These crimes did not happen because of “human nature” and Orwell leaves no room for the assumption that they happened because the Stalinists were “too extreme” or “too left-wing”. The best arm of the anti-Franco forces was broken without mercy and by the most disgusting methods, the ground was laid for a fascist victory, and this was all done in defence of “liberal democracy”.

Another contradiction

Orwell’s insight and honesty did not win him friends in the literary world. Gollancz refused to publish Homage to Catalonia because of its criticism of the Stalinists. When it was published, by Secker & Warburg, only 1500 copies were printed. By the time Homage to Catalonia was reprinted in 1951, not all of this tiny number of copies had been sold. 

Of course, by 1951, the late George Orwell had won worldwide fame as the author of Animal Farm and 1984. It is doubtful that this second printing would have been made if these two novels had not drummed up a market for everything with Orwell’s name on it. So, while I’m here arguing that Homage to Catalonia is by far his best book, I’m well aware that without those two other books, which I have serious reservations about, I most likely never would have read a word of it. Another glorious contradiction.

1984

Weaknesses of 1984

Another little bit of explanation is necessary. I hear some of ye ask, who am I to question the brilliance of 1984 and Animal Farm, in favour of some obscure recollections of Spain that would have never survived without those two great works, among the greatest of the whole twentieth century? Besides, ye may well say, they aren’t even anti-socialist at all, they are anti-Stalinist: didn’t Orwell explicitly write “My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism”?

Sure, sure. But I will cast the first shadow of doubt over the 1945-1949 period in which he wrote those books by relating the fact that, in amid those years, Orwell provided a list of people he suspected of being communist sympathisers to British intelligence. I don’t know too much about the details, but whatever they might be, this act of proto-McCarthyism by someone who calls himself a revolutionary socialist would come out looking pretty disgusting. Another way of looking at it is that this apparent champion of individual liberty collaborated with a paranoid surveillance state. It makes us at the very least wonder what his state of mind was like in these years, what kind of political roads he was travelling down, and in what ways he might have changed since the 1930s. I will leave that to the experts and simply say that it makes you wonder. 

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A clue to the next point of criticism is that those works have been so consistently misunderstood by so many millions of people as an attack on socialist ideas. Let’s face it: they were wide open to misunderstanding. Look at 1984. The oppression of the USSR is magnified tenfold and stretched over the whole wide world. There is no explanation of how this came to pass. The “book within a book” by Goldstein doesn’t really provide any explanation beyond a kind of fatalism. I have argued elsewhere on this blog that the poverty, backwardness and isolation of Russia, along with its nine years of total war, laid the basis for Stalinism. How else can we explain how things fell apart so badly?

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Orwell gives us no real explanation of why the whole world came to be covered in totalitarian darkness. Why must a boot stamp on a human face for eternity? 1984  is a brutally exaggerated portrayal of the spineless lying, toadying and arse-kissing that went with Stalinism, of which Homage to Catalonia gives a real-life example. It is not a prediction of the future. It is rather a portrayal of some horrible aspects of modern, 20th-century life, a life in which the individual lives under the ominous shadow of huge apparatuses of state and capital. I remember reading a bit of Anthony Burgess’ 1984 Revisited. Burgess, a total right-winger, puts forward a very insightful argument. This is that 1984  is basically about Britain during World War Two. All the elements of the story were part of everyday life during the war, though in a less acute form. 

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1984 has given us all the vocabulary we need to denounce today’s NSA surveillance, and any kind of oppression, bullshit or hack-ism. In that sense it’s very valuable. I agree that it’s brilliant and deserves its reputation as a classic. Same with Animal Farm. The two are satires on authoritarianism in general and Stalinism in particular. But there are several important things that they are not.

They are not a serious analyses of Stalinism – of why it arose, what it constituted, why it collapsed, and how we prevent it happening again.

They are not a refutation of socialism. Their author was a socialist, and even if he wasn’t, they wouldn’t stand as such.

They are not true stories. I know it seems absurd to point this out. The thing is, I have often found when researching the actual means of oppression used by real-life Stalinist regimes that a preconceived schema derived from Orwell has hindered my understanding. 

They were not intended to be any of the above by Orwell himself. 

last of all, they are not Orwell’s best work. That award belongs to Homage to Catalonia, which finds Orwell in the thick of revolutionary events, fired up by them, able to observe the greatest heroism and the worst treachery with his own eyes and portray  them in his uniquely evocative way. Scenes, characters and atmospheres are recreated brilliantly. The author makes a journey from a facile black-and-white impression of the war to a profound political insight and understanding of the interplay of factions and revolutionary dynamics. At the end of the heart-rending tragedy of Spain, he emerges stronger. “Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.” As a historical document, as a literary work and as a political argument, Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s finest work. 

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Comments
  1. UncleBob says:

    On the picture in the barrack, Orwell is the tall guy in the last rank.

  2. Andrés Sánchez says:

    Deep thinking here!
    Homage to Catalonia is the key to understand spanih civil war.
    Here in Spain, theatre of tragedy, only a few know about it.
    IT is a pity!

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