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BOOK REVIEW: "Orwell in Spain" by George Orwell

Penguin Classics
"Orwell in Spain" includes George Orwell's 1938 book "Homage to Catalonia."
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BOOK REVIEW: Orwell in Spain by George Orwell (Penguin Classics) 2001/1998/1938

In Christopher Hitchens’ 2002 book Why Orwell Matters, he notes that the brilliant English writer – born Eric Blair – “was conditioned to keep his eyes in Spain” when he went to that nation to volunteer and fight, ultimately, with the Marxist POUM militia against Franco and the Fascists.

“A striking fact about Orwell, a tribute to his ‘power of facing,’ is that he never went through a Stalinoid phase,” unlike many of his revolutionary and intellectual peers in England and other parts of Europe. Hitchens notes that Orwell “never had to be cured or purged by sudden ‘disillusionment.’”

And reading Orwell’s engaging and entirely readable accounts of fighting in the Spanish Civil War – and being shot through the throat and surviving – the single-volume Orwell in Spain, which includes his own Homage to Catalonia, it is clear that while he was a socialist, he was not one to “fall in line,” as it were behind the demands of the Communist Party and orders from Joseph Stalin.

But many others did. In fact, Leon Trotsky, in the January 1938 issue of Socialist Appeal, in an article titled “The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning,” Bolshevik and hero of the Russian Revolution Leon Trotsky notes that while the POUM (the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification), of which Orwell fought with, “tried, to be sure, to base itself on the formula of permanent revolution (as Trotsky long prescribed, much to the chagrin of the Stalinists) … but went on to form its “own militia,” “own trade unions, etc.

“By isolating the revolutionary vanguard from the class, the POUM rendered the vanguard impotent and left the class without leadership,” added Trotsky.

No doubt Orwell would likely agree, although he acknowledges in Orwell in Spain that “Reds” who align with non-Stalinist Communist parties are accused  – wrongly – of being “Trotsky-Fascists.” This smear tactic did work and by the time the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, the fractured parties fighting Franco had failed to return the Spanish Republic to what it had been before.

Both Orwell and Trotsky had something in common beyond socialism and being dissidents – they both were seen as “I-told-you-so’s” who, as Hitchens notes, reeked of “superiority.” And this superior sense rubbed certain, powerful people the wrong way – namely Stalin and/or Stalinists. That was a big part of why Stalin sent one of his agents to Mexico to murder Trotsky in the year after the end of the Spanish Civil War. The bureaucracy in Moscow wanted to annihilate all of the Marxist workers and intellectuals who – like Trotsky – made the 1917 October Revolution possible.

And while Orwell was in Spain, holding a rifle or writing letters to his wife and/or friends and followers back in England, about how “Franco is an anachronism,” he never lost sight of the importance of the battles he was fighting - one for a better Spain and a better world. 

“There was the question of the international prestige of Fascism, which for a year or two past had been haunting me like a nightmare,” writes Orwell in the Homage to Catalonia portion of the book. “Since 1930 the Fascists had won all the victories; it was time they got a beating, it hardly mattered from whom. If we could drive Franco and his foreign mercenaries into the sea it might make an immense improvement in the world situation, even if Spain itself emerged with a  stifling dictatorship and all its best men in jail. For that alone the war would have been worth winning.”

Orwell saw plenty of action in 1936-37, spent many, lousy, cold nights enduring the hardships that war brings. Men who got with a woman caused jealousy and Orwell notes, “There was a certain amount of sodomy among the younger Spaniards.” His keen observations, war-reportage style and principled, non-doctinaire views are refreshing, even all these years later when many have forgotten about the significance of the Spanish Civil War and how it was a prelude to the violence of World War II and, later, the Cold War. 

One wonders what George Orwell would think of today's world situation when Fascists are on the march again in places like Ukraine. His writings and insights are incredibly important and appreciated. Three cheers for George Orwell!

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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