Orwell’s War in Spain
George Orwell gives a close up view of the attempt to set up anarchist and socialist governments during the 1930’s in civil war-torn Spain
Fragmentation of the Left in the Spanish Civil War
“The danger was quite simple and intelligible. It was the antagonism between those who wished the revolution to go forward and those who wished to check or prevent it – ultimately, between Anarchists and Communists….
Given this alignment of forces there was bound to be trouble.” Such is Orwell’s succinct analysis of the problems facing those who would resist Franco’s right wing coup in Spain in 1936.
Opposed to the Franco-led Fascists (supported by Germany and Italy) was the Popular Front, “in essential an alliance of enemies“. Further complicating the mix was the emerging fact that in Spain, “on the Government [ie, anti-fascist] side the Communists stood not upon the extreme Left, but upon the extreme Right. ” Orwell justifies this counter-intuitive claim with a detailed discussion, summarized by noting that the International Communist movement at this time had forsaken the goal of world revolution to chase the chimera of the completion of a revolution in the USSR. This Stalinist position (including alliances with capitalist democracies at the expense of workers and unions) caused Trotsky and others to seek other venues. Recently, the formerly Maoist (nee ‘Trotskyite’) rulers of China similarly shifted from totalitarian extreme left to authoritarian right (socialist ideals sacrificed to entrepreneurial capitalism, without significant political liberty.) [Compare similar ideas presented in China Wakes -The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power – Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn]
Why the Communists dominated
The Communists focused on winning the war no matter what –without collectivization that would alienate the peasants, or worker control of industry that would push the middle classes into Franco’s arms. Their stated goal was parliamentary
democracy, with strong central government, and a fully militarized government under central, unified command. The POUM position was that such talk was just another name for capitalism, and ultimately the same as fascism. Their alternative was worker control, with workers militias and police forces “If the workers do not control the armed forces, the armed forces will control the workers”. The Anarchists (actually a multitude of parties) had comprised in even considering this alliance, but insisted on direct `control over industry by workers, “government by local committees and resistance to all forms of centralized authoritarianism” Orwell’s summary of this bewildering political situation is “Communist emphasis is always on centralism and efficiency, the Anarchist’s on liberty and equality”. Combining forces seemed like a reasonable solution for the duration, “But in the early period, when the revolutionary parties seemed to have the game in their hands, this was impossible. Between the Anarchists and the Socialists there were ancient jealousies, the POUM, as Marxists, were sceptical of Anarchism, while from the pure Anarchist standpoint, the ‘Trotskyism’ of the POUM was not much preferable to the ‘Stalinism’ of the Communists.”
One example of how these rivalries frustrated an effective opposition to the Fascists:
“.. the Russian arms were supplied via the Communist Party, and the parties allied to them, who saw to it that as few as possible got to their political opponents. …by proclaiming a non-revolutionary policy the Communists were able to gather in all those whom the extremists h ad scared. It was easy, for instance, to rally the wealthier peasants against the collectivization policy of the Anarchists. … The war was essentially a triangular struggle. The fight against Franco had to continue, but the simultaneous aim of the Government was to recover such power as remained in the hands of the trade unions. It was done by .. a policy of pin pricks…There was no general and obvious counterrevolutionary move.. The workers could always be brought to heel by an argument that is almost too obvious to need stating: ‘Unless you do this, that and the other we shall lose the war’.”
Spanish Civil War & the Cold War
Modern parallels, from the arguments made during the cold war to modern appeals by the Democratic party to its leftward elements and other progressives– ‘work with us or get something worse’. Or, in his descriptions of the Communist crack down on the other Leftist factions after the 1937 Barcelona street fighting, a comparison of the broad and unchecked abuses of a police force which has no worries about habeas corpus — why worry about producing evidence at a trial when it can merely arrest or ‘disappear’ opponents without any legal representation or outside communication.
But this book is also a very personal one, written less than a year after these events took place, Orwell paints indelible images of life in the muddy trenches, and even the moment when he is shot in the throat:
“Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all round me, and I felt a tremendous shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shrivelled up to nothing. The sand-bags in front of me receded into the immense distance… I knew immediately that I was hit, but because of the seeming bang and flash I thought it was a rifle nearby that had gone off accidentally and shot me. All this happened in a space much less than a second. The next moment my knees crumpled up and I was falling, my head hitting the ground with a violent bang, which, to my relief, did not hurt. I had a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense.”