Speaking the Truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act.
The post “Totaalvoetbal” recounts a memorable episode in my life – an epiphany of sorts. We all have these, where to sense something, which could be of any nature, leaves such a mark that things never again seem quite the same. Although to some it might seem trivial, seeing the Dutch football team in 1974 is an example. And there are others.
When I was at school I abandoned the study of English literature, without even telling my family, and therefore received one less “O” level than my contemporaries. This didn’t seem a big deal at the time, and doesn’t now. However, even in those days I was a prodigious reader, so that decision does come across as a little incongruous even to me. The problem I had was the selection of texts that we had to study, which to me at the time were the dullest bunch of books ever written, and at the discretion (from a set selection) of the particular teacher. I was in the top set, and the class just below got Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm and My Family and Other Animals. All of these, I read in my spare time. But we were expected to study Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, A Tale of Two Cities and the like. I would read them and not remember a thing about them five minutes later. The tipping point came with Silas Marner by George Eliot. Again I read half of it which didn’t register – this was the last straw and I went to the teacher and asked her if I could drop down a set. Her response was no, but I could drop down three sets and just take language only. I agreed to do this. I was now relegated to the company of those of lower expectations. But the teacher, Mr Hawley, was rare in that I responded to him, and the class, in my last year before sixth form, was just about the happiest I was ever in.
I suppose that it was that peculiar Englishness of the novels we were expected to read that I didn’t respond to. They just held no appeal for me. I have made my peace with Jane Austen, though still not being terribly impressed, and this year I finally got through Silas Marner – which I’ve thought for around forty years that I must do. In truth, it is a brilliant and uplifting novel, which tells us more about the human condition than anything by Ayn Rand, for example. My fault for not appreciating that at the time. Next summer I’ll get round to A Tale of Two Cities.
But then, and even more so now, I was an avaricious reader of non-fiction. In particular I was interested in 20th Century history, fascinated and appalled in equal measure in the ways that totalitarianism could get a grip on a population. In particular I was fascinated by the Russian character, and, following on from my historical and biographical studies, read without the problems I had at school many of the novels by Tolstoy, Turgenev and especially Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment remains for me one of the best analyses of humanity ever written. I wish I had time to read it again. The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov were barely less enthralling.
On the other hand, the mundane nature of totalitarianism and consequent suppression of human potential was equally interesting. Metamorphosis and Darkness at Noon were and are particular favourites. Of course, the novel best known for its depiction of such a life is Nineteen Eighty-Four, and unsurprisingly I read that too, following on from Animal Farm. So impressed was I that I determined to read all Of Orwell’s novels, and so I did. Truth be told, Orwell was not the best of novelists, certainly not in my opinion now and apparently not in his own opinion either, as he bequested that A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying never be reprinted. Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn’t capture the meaninglessness of totalitarian life as The Trial or the pointless threat -filled atmosphere of Darkness at Noon, albeit that the perspective from the outside is superior to either of those two novels. But, maintaining my interest in all things Orwellian, I also purchased his documentaries The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and out in Paris and London, and the four-volume Penguin Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. These are veritable mines of great writing, and I’ve no doubt that in my mind that Orwell was a much greater journalist and essayist than he was a novelist. For example, the novel Burmese Days, which draws on Orwell’s experience as a colonial policeman, is a wan shadow of his essays Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging, which dealt with much the same issues. Incidentally, the complete works of Orwell are available here, for free, for anyone interested. Down and Out in Paris and London is incongruously listed as a novel, but that very minor issue apart, it’s a tremendous resource.
All this is a very roundabout way – even Homer Simpson would be proud – of getting to the point. Apart from Coming up for Air, the last piece of Orwell I read, somehow believing it to be a novel, was his documentary Homage to Catalonia. In it, Orwell describes his experiences during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. Nowadays we see the fight against totalitarianism defined by the Second World War and the cold war and therefore it is difficult for us to appreciate just how important an issue the Spanish Civil War was in the late 1930’s. In his The War of the World, the historian Niall Ferguson makes the point that any idea of there being a clearly defined Second World War, from 1939-45 is a mistake. In fact there was in effect only one war worldwide, which lasted from Sarajevo 1914 to Korea 1953, and arguably until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. In essence the first half of the 20th Century, at least in Europe and the Far East, was a dire struggle for mankind’s political soul, with ideologues and intellectuals pulling the strings while using common people as cannon fodder, as is always the case. As Orwell says:
If you had asked me why I had joined the militia I should have answered: ‘To fight against Fascism,’ and if you had asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: ‘Common decency.’ I had accepted the News Chronicle-New Statesman version of the war as the defence of civilization against a maniacal outbreak by an army of Colonel Blimps in the pay of Hitler. The revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona had attracted me deeply, but I had made no attempt to understand it.
Much more than today (although one might be fooled when considering the state of American politics today), adversarial political systems really mattered in those days. The era known as the Great War, from 1914-18, had ushered in democratic governments all over Europe but by the mid-1930’s most of these had failed, been undermined and replaced. Additionally, the aftermath of the 1914-18 war and the Great Depression of the early 1930’s had led to a general cynicism about the failures of democracy and democratic leadership.
It was in this context that the Spanish Civil War was fought between 1936 and 1939. Losing an empire in the late 19th Century, Spain had managed to keep out of the wider war in Europe in the early part of the century, but had itself been somewhat of a microcosm of general political developments. Additionally, it had suffered economically along with the rest of the developed world. In the 1920’s the government had been replaced by a dictatorial regime supported by the military, the monarchy and the Catholic church. Popular discontent eventually led to elections which established democracy of a sort, forced the monarch into exile, reduced the influence of the military, and in particular, severely constrained the activities of the church. Although a conservative-led government had been in power for some of the time following the fall of the dictatorship, tension continued during this this period, with the government beset by pressure not only from the reactionary military and church, but also by socialist and anarchist groups. In 1936, following elections won by the left-coalition Popular Front, a military coup was staged under General Francisco Franco in reaction to attempted government curbs of the military. The coup was not especially motivated by Fascist or Nazi ideals, being more than anything a call for a return of a class-and-church-based feudalism, although it was not portrayed as much in left-wing media. It was initially not entirely successful and so led to three years of civil war at the end of which the rebel military triumphed and instituted an authoritarian regime which endured for over forty years.
With the Iberian peninsula largely geographically isolated from the rest of world – the exception, Portugal, was itself a military dictatorship and with the rebels initially in control of the areas bordering that country was free to support them – the conflict was no threat to outside powers. With the ideological context these outside powers were free to intervene from a distance. Also many individuals viewed the civil war as an opportunity to further their cause. The importance of this conflict in an ideological sense can’t be overstated, and the Spanish Civil War to a large extent became a proxy one. The rebels were supported ideologically and materially by the Italian Fascists and German Nazis while the government forces got support from the Soviet Union. In the European democracies political parties organised volunteers for both sides. Britain and France officially claimed neutrality. The conflict became one of idealism and sacrifice – a fight between something worth preserving and something worth building.
Orwell had seen at first hand the results of European imperialism and the deplorable and desperate condition of the poor in Western Europe. These experiences had entrenched his socialism and therefore he was on the side of the republic in the civil war. He tried to enlist in the International Brigades as most British left sympathisers did but found his way blocked and ended up being joining the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista), a “left” communist group. He was not particularly sympathetic to the POUM’s Trotskyist politics but they did share an anti-Stalinism and at that point, as recounted, the war for both sides had bigger and more fundamental aims that specific party points. At least that was what many of the people on the front line believed.
The first seven chapters of the book recount Orwell’s personal history of the fighting and its preparation – from exasperation at the particularly unprofessional habits of his fellow “soldiers” to the boredom and rank squalor of trench life. In itself this portion of the book portrays a fascinating account of mid-twentieth century warfare, its relation to political purpose and thought and, most fascinating of all, the place of the individual man within the scale of all this – in one memorable episode (actually recounted in the essay Looking Back on the Spanish War), Orwell has an enemy combatant in his sights, but doesn’t shoot because he notices him running for cover while at the same time attempting with both hands to pull up his trousers. Orwell concludes “I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists’; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist’, he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.” So much could be said but sadly this is neither the time nor the place.
But one incident presages the rest of the book more than any other. In February 1937 the Spanish city of Malaga fell to rebel forces. Orwell’s fellow-soldiers on hearing the news first dismiss it as fabricated, then take credence of atrocity stories of Fascist Italian mercenaries slaughtering innocent civilians for fun, and eventually conclude that the only way that Malaga could have fallen was by an act of treachery by republicans from another party. The cracks were certainly appearing in any facade of togetherness, if any such thing existed in the first place. As Orwell noticed, it’s not too hard for truth to take a back seat – indeed, things don’t have to be true to be seen as truth. Elsewhere Orwell makes the observation that all sides have their atrocity and betrayal stories, whether true or not, and their function as much as anything is to reinforce already-existing belief.
In chapter 8 Orwell is given leave and returns to Barcelona. Only three months since he left, he is astonished by the changes that greet him.
During the next few days I discovered by innumerable signs that my first impression had not been wrong. A deep change had come over the town. There were two facts that were the keynote of all else. One was that the people–the civil population–had lost much of their interest in the war; the other was that the normal division of society into rich and poor, upper class and lower class, was reasserting itself.
Instead of a feeling of respect, togetherness and common purpose, the republican movement has degenerated into factions with mutual suspicion and distrust and separate, divergent, agendas, quite apart from any social changes described. Again, there is no reluctance among the factions to allow truth to dictate their policies – instead the policies are allowed to dictate the truth. Eventually the rivalries despondingly fell into full-scale street-fighting.
Whatever the causes, rights or wrongs of the Barcelona conflict which Orwell personally witnessed, the result was the triumph of the Soviet-backed Republican government. Those political parties, activists and militias not directly connected with the government were effectively outlawed, their leaders and sympathisers arrested, tortured, killed or forced to be fugitives. As Orwell said: “No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues, and prowling gangs of armed men.”
Worse than that to some extent, history was cynically rewritten. The people now dead, on the run, or in gaol had always been in the service of the Fascists, it was said – including the preparation of beachheads in Catalonia for the landing of German and Italian troops. This became the “official” story and was published by left-wing sympathisers worldwide. Orwell effectively de-constructs this version of events in chapter 11.
He actually went back to the front line, soon afterwards being wounded and eventually sent to hospital. No longer a combatant, he returned to Barcelona to find that his supposed political affiliation had made him a wanted man, and the Soviet-baked forces in charge of the government were intensifying their purges. Realising it was no longer safe to stay in Spain, he escaped to France with his wife, free to write the book.
In itself, Homage to Catalonia is a gloriously well-written documentary of a particular period of time in a particular place within a particular political and ideological atmosphere. I challenge anyone that picks it up to read it to put it down again before it’s finished. But the message of the book tells us much more. It is that truth is worth pursuing for its own sake. Orwell is at pains at the end of the book to emphasise its subjective nature, and that he might have many details wrong. But subjectivity and objectivity are not necessarily opposites, of course. The question might reasonably be asked “how can Orwell imply that reports of atrocities at Malaga be fabricated while expecting people to believe his account?” But that isn’t the point. Whether or not he was accurate it remains the case that, the truth remains the truth and cannot contradict the truth whatever one’s beliefs or interests. It does seem, in any case, that Orwell was right. According to Christopher Hitchens in his book Why Orwell Matters, since the fall of the USSR Soviet archives confirm that a full-scale putsch was intended. The history of the Soviet Union in the 1930’s leaves us in no doubt that officially-sponsored lying and propaganda was deliberate Soviet policy.
The essay Looking Back on the Spanish War was included as an appendix to my Penguin edition of Homage to Catalonia. Therefore I always viewed it as part-and-parcel of the book itself despite being dated four years later. Indeed, it the most important part because of the element of reflection. Orwell reiterates the role of propaganda in the Spanish Civil War:
…believe nothing, or next to nothing, of what you read about internal affairs on the Government side. It is all, from whatever source, party propaganda–that is to say, lies…I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1936’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.
The subversion of truth became Orwell’s main theme in his novels for his few remaining years. Both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are based around that theme. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, possibly the worst aspect of the regime in which in which Winston Smith finds himself is the subversion of language such that thinking for oneself becomes impossible. And Orwell saw this happening in Spain.
It’s been many years since I read Homage to Catalonia. At the time I was already convinced of the idea that the truth is, firstly, objective, and secondly, it matters. But what the book taught me was the implications of it not mattering any more. I’m sure that if one was to ask anyone they would agree. But just an ephemeral look around shows that it’s not just totalitarian regimes that deliberately subvert truth for their own purposes. One only has to think of the claims made about Iraq in 2002-03 in both the US and the UK. Personally I supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 but for different reasons than the official ones, which anyone with any intelligence would reasonably treat very sceptically. The White House has subsequently admitted that evidence of the purchase of components for nuclear weapons was largely invented, and there has never been any credible reason to suggest that the Iraqi regime was associated with al-Qaeda. In a nutshell, the citizens of the Western allies were lied to for the purposes of usefulness. As Nietzsche said (to paraphrase), the truth might be good but why not take untruth instead if it gets you where you want to go?
I reject the notion that truth be subservient to any relativist, pragmatic or coherence theory without the essential quality of correspondence. And although I couldn’t put it in so many words all those years ago, reading Homage to Catalonia taught me this.
I wouldn’t like anyone to think that I agreed with Orwell on everything. He took an irrational view of homosexuality, for example, and thought (more reasonably at the time), that people could be happy living atop one another in monstrous blocks. Although at one time I would have described myself as left-leaning, it’s been shown beyond any doubt that socialism is no more likely to produce an ideal society than libertarianism. But readers of Orwell would very likely come to the same conclusions even if he himself didn’t. Homage to Catalonia explains as much as anything why I have no affiliations, either political or religious.
I don’t think it’s the best book I ever read – because I’m not sure of the criteria to be employed – but if anyone asked for one which meant more than any other that is the one I would give. Orwell matters, and this is the reason why.
As a bit of a postscript, in 1998 the Barcelona civic authorities renamed a square in Orwell’s honour. The Plaça George Orwell can be found only 130 metres from the Sagrada Família. Early this year I finally lost my status as the only Englishman never to set foot in Spain and had a weekend in Barcelona, and a wondrous city it is. Nothing suggests that it was once riven by civil war and factionalism. I knew nothing of the memorial – had I known I was that close I could have had my own homage to Catalonia.
As mentioned above the complete works of George Orwell are available free, online here. The archives include Homage to Catalonia, Looking Back on the Spanish War, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. If there was one single recommendation I could make it would be his collection of essays.
Orwell stipulated that no biography of him be written. Happily this has been ignored – despite his second wife’s resistance – for many years and we are now awash with them. I haven’t read them all but recommend the first (unofficial) attempt – George Orwell: A Life by Bernard Crick and the first authorised biography – Orwell, by Michael Sheldon.
Orwell’s book is a personal memoir and is not intended to be an overview of the Spanish Civil War for which there are also several histories available. All seem to be strong on some aspects and weak on others, if the reviews are to be believed. For brief and concise overviews, I recommend Helen Graham’s The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction and Reaction, Revolution and Revenge by Paul Preston.