BARCELONA, SPAIN -- A decade ago, Christopher Hitchens told an audience that his role model, George Orwell, matters in the 21st Century because when confronted with each of the three biggest questions of the last century, Orwell placed himself on the right side each time.
I was thinking about those comments last night as I sat in a one of the innumerable little public squares that make so pleasing the old parts of Barcelona, where I’ve been interviewing residents about the fallout here from the financial crisis for the past 10 days or so. A well-dressed middle-aged woman walked up to me, cigarette in her hand, to ask if I knew that I was sitting in Placa de George Orwell, and I had to tell her that I had in fact noticed the irony just as I sat down to finish my copy of his 1937 masterpiece of reportage Homage to Catalonia.
"Well I just had to tell you, seeing the book," she explained with a large smile. "But you know, we call this plaza something else. Juan, what is the word ... LSD? -- ah yes," she looked back at me. "No one ever calls it Placa George Orwell. We know it as Tripp Placa, because of that strange sculpture over there." (sculpture is pictured below.)
It was a little trippy, and it the place as a whole had a definitely, shall we say, relaxed air to it. It was nearly 10 and a few children were skipping around but mostly it was young people and old finishing dinner over slow drinks and deep sighs. The weather leavened by the breezes off the nearby Mediterranean was cooler than usual for late June, but nevertheless heavenly.
I had just neared the end of the book, and it pleased me to be sitting in a square named in his honor, whether the local tradition called for its use or not. As I finished the book over the next day in a series of cafes, it occurred to me that far from expecting a plaza to be named in his honor one day, Orwell had left Barcelona in 1937 after seven months of fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and just ahead of a shot in the back or a long prison term.
That he slipped out of the country just ahead of the Government he had gone over to fight for was only the most glaring of the vicious ironies that came to the fore in the ugly Spanish Civil War.
It had begun in stages, and then careened out of control almost immediately. In 1931, the Spanish king called for elections to determine the future form of government there. A prime minister he had installed with dictatorial powers was out and pressure was mounting for republicanism. The results of the vote made clear that the king would not have support, and he left the country, ‘suspending’ royal power without abdicating, and the Second Republic was born. It was a government mainly of the middle class and mild socialists.
In July 1936, a group of right-wing generals launched a revolt, and the thus began the terrible Civil War, pitting the fascist Gen. Franco, with his allies in Berlin and Rome, against the democratically elected government. Thousands of foreigners arrived in Spain to take up arms against Franco and defend the government, seeing the struggle as both a front line against fascism, already on the ascendency elsewhere in Europe, and as a way to advance a global Marxist revolution that would put workers, rather than capitalists, in charge of industry.
Orwell wasn’t alone. The pro-government forces essentially broke down into three categories: The anarchists on the far left, the Marxist revolutionaries whom Orwell would support, and the Communist Party, whose ties to Stalin meant money and arms that gave them far more leverage in the coalition than their numbers would otherwise have suggested.
Orwell saw fascism as one of the defining threats to democracy -- one of the three big issues he got right, according to Hitchens -- and hurried to Barcelona, the heart of the left-wing resistance to the rebels, in December 1936. Almost immediately he laid aside his pen and took up a rifle, enlisting in the Marxist revolutionary forces known than as MOUM.
What he saw when he arrived touched him greatly. A product of ‘money-tainted England,” he found the sites in Barcelona as strange as if he had arrived in Tibet from St. John’s Wood 100 years before.
Everywhere in Barcelona, signs of bourgeois comforts and class differences had disappeared. Fancy shops closed and boarded up or repurposed. Prostitution had vanished or found new disguises. Rich and merely well-off had either fled the city or posed as workers. In keeping with the Anarchists’ anticlericalism, churches were torched and priests had either fled or been shot.
Workers were in charge. Above the barber stalls were a sign that said even barbers will no longer be slaves. Tips were forbidden, as mechanism of class superiority. Waiters, he said, looked you straight in the eye.
In the militia, recruits and generals drew the same pay. No order given, it seemed, was free of questioning from a teenaged private or middle-aged butcher-turned-infantryman who felt it was his duty to ask for an explanation.
"I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. … It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Senor' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' and 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos dias'. Tipping was forbidden by law. … There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for."
And fight he did.
Orwell went the front and on his second tour there was shot through the throat by a Fascist sniper. He narrowly managed to not die. He did not lose his sense of humor.
No one I met at this time--doctors, nurses, practicantes, or fellow-patients--failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all.
After he convalesced he returned to Barcelona only to find the increasingly fractious relationship between the Marxist revolutionary elements and the Communists had deteriorated far more badly than had been apparent at the front where they all remained comrades in arms. The government, desperate for Moscow’s money and arms, had allowed the Communists to outlaw the party Orwell had been fighting under. His friends were imprisoned and he made it out of the country by a hair's breadth.
He left terribly disillusioned. The Communist Party had betrayed its fellow anti-fascists at every turn, it turned out. Stalin had decreed that relationships with capitalist / bourgeois countries like France were more important than seeing the defense of the Spanish government trigger a worldwide revolution. The feeling was that the nations of banks, such as Britain and France, would never tolerate a worker revolution.
As a result, thousands who had fought the fascists were imprisoned right during the war, while Franco, supported by the rich, by Hitler, by Mussolini and by the Catholic Church, waged his rebellion.
Orwell got out and while still in France cabled his editor at the New Statesman, a leading publication of the left. Would they accept a piece on his seven months in the war? Of course! He sent them the piece and the top editor Kingsley Martin rejected it, launching a feud between the two men that ended only with Orwell's untimely death The editor, a looming figure then in Britain, would tell his biographer that he had refused Orwell’s attack on the Communist party because it would have driven many in Britain to support the fascists.
“To me, this was THE war," Martin later told his biographer years later. " . . . I was very much alone, fighting the republicans’ battle in a very lonely way; and I didn’t see it as my function to play the other side’s game.”
The article found a home in a less prestigious magazine and later that year Orwell found a publisher for the book, Homage to Catalonia. He died poor and famous of TB at 1950, never in those 13 years did the work sell out its initial publication of 1,500 copies. The left loathed it and the right scorned his powerful empathy for the workers.
But many now regard the work as more important than the novels that would go on to become staples of Cold War syllabuses everywhere, Animal Farm and 1984.
I just finished it here today, sitting in a very pretty and undeniably bourgeois cafe in financial-crisis-ridden but still dazzlingly beautiful Barcelona.
One must admire his courage in dropping his pen in favor of a rifle, but it pleases me to note that by picking up his pen after the fact, he has done the world much more service than his brave yet ultimately ineffective service in the trenches.
The book is rarely poetic. It's sometimes humorous but always written with clarity and honesty. It knows where its blind spots are and says so. Its closing pages, however, have an eerie prophetic aspect that moves me, all these years after the war was over.
As for that, Franco of course won the war, and went on to rule as a fascist dictator long after his sponsors in Berlin and Rome were rotting in their ignoble tombs. He died in 1975, and the grandson of King Alfonso stepped in and played a role in transitioning the country to real democracy.
The problems in today's Barcelona are real, and as in other countries the bankers played no small part in the collapse of the economy here. But there is little talk of revolution. Mostly, people here talk about the lack of jobs. Leaving aside all the college students -- and students flock here from Latin America and Europe -- more than 1 out of every 2 young people in Spain have no job at all, and no prospects for one.
The wealthy women who asked me about Orwell as I was reading invited me to her table with her husband Juan. Both their adult daughters were back at home, out of work despite significant educations. Juan, though more than comfortable, was put out of work as financier three and a half years ago, despite a Wharton education and a lifetime of success as an economist. No one in the family has had any income from employment for years. "Unlike most of the people in this country and others," Juan told me with a wry kind of pride in having made good investments and saved well, "I am spending my money rather than losing it."
His wife, Laura, is quick to point out that there situation is unique, as her husband comes from a wealthy family originally from Madrid. "This crisis is really hurting people," she tells me. "There is simply no work. No money. Grown children are moving back home with their parents. Who can blame them? And of course any parent will take your child back in your house. This is Spain. It's what we do. Family is everything. But many of the parents themselves don't have income. They risk losing their own houses in trying to help their children. It's a terrible crisis."
These people out of work, those without large savings that is, are the same people Orwell had sympathized with. Before heading to Spain, he had traipsed through England and France as a vagrant and wrote one of the pieces of New Journalism, decades before the term was invented, called Down and Out in Paris and London about life among the poor houses and work gangs in Britain and life in the brutal kitchens of France. When he died in 1950, a leading obituary called him "the wintry conscience of a generation which in the thirties had heeded the call to rasher assumptions of political faith." With so many people out of work here in Europe and back in America, too, are there new listeners to any such calls? And if so who will be their conscience, ready to scold the excesses on his or her own side?
But all of that, and all of everything I've been seeing this past week, lay ahead of Orwell as he slowly made his way back to his native country in 1937, worn out from the continuing war and heart-sick over the people he left behind.
I'll share the final three paragraphs with you:
I think we stayed three days in Banyuls. It was a strangely restless time. In this quiet fishing-town, remote from bombs, machine-guns, food-queues, propaganda, and intrigue, we ought to have felt profoundly relieved and thankful. We felt nothing of the kind. The things we had seen in Spain did not recede and fall into proportion now that we were away from them; instead they rushed back upon us and were far more vivid than before. We thought, talked, dreamed incessantly of Spain. For months past we had been telling ourselves that 'when we get out of Spain' we would go somewhere beside the Mediterranean and be quiet for a little while and perhaps do a little fishing, but now that we were here it was merely a bore and a disappointment. It was chilly weather, a persistent wind blew off the sea, the water was dull and choppy, round the harbour's edge a scum of ashes, corks, and fish-guts bobbed against the stones. It sounds like lunacy, but the thing that both of us wanted was to be back in Spain. Though it could have done no good to anybody, might indeed have done serious harm, both of us wished that we had stayed to be imprisoned along with the others. I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain meant to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with. It is all mixed up with sights, smells, and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing: the smell of the trenches, the mountain dawns stretching away into inconceivable distances, the frosty crackle of bullets, the roar and glare of bombs; the clear cold light of the Barcelona mornings, and the stamp of boots in the barrack yard, back in December when people still believed in the revolution; and the food-queues and the red and black flags and the faces of Spanish militiamen; above all the faces of militiamen--men whom I knew in the line and who are now scattered Lord knows where, some killed in battle, some maimed, some in prison--most of them, I hope, still safe and sound. Good luck to them all; I hope they win their war and drive all the foreigners out of Spain, Germans, Russians, and Italians alike. This war, in which I played so ineffectual a part, has left me with memories that are mostly evil, and yet I do not wish that I had missed it. When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this--and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering--the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings. And I hope the account I have given is not too misleading. I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan. In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.
Because of the feeling that we ought to be doing something, though actually there was nothing we could do, we left Banyuls earlier than we had intended. With every mile that you went northward France grew greener and softer. Away from the mountain and the vine, back to the meadow and the elm. When I had passed through Paris on my way to Spain it had seemed to me decayed and gloomy, very different from the Paris I had known eight years earlier, when living was cheap and Hitler was not heard of. Half the cafes I used to know were shut for lack of custom, and everyone was obsessed with the high cost of living and the fear of war. Now, after poor Spain, even Paris seemed gay and prosperous. And the Exhibition was in full swing, though we managed to avoid visiting it.
And then England--southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don't worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth's surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen--all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
(Despite his bitter feud with its editor, Orwell wrote a few dozen essays for New Statesman, and you can [find some of them here.)