HOMAGE TO CATALONIA, GEORGE ORWELL, HARCOURT BRACE JOVANOVICH, NEW YORK, 1952

AS WE APPROACH THE 70TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BEGINNING OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR MILITANTS NEED TO DRAW THE LESSONS FOR THE DEFEAT OF THAT REVOLUTION.

I have been interested, as a pro-Republican partisan, in the Spanish Civil War since I was a teenager. Underlying my interests has always been a nagging question of how that struggle could have been won by the working class. The Spanish proletariat certainly was capable of both heroic action and the ability to create organizations that reflected its own class interests i.e. the worker militias and factory committees. Of all modern working class revolutions after the Russian revolution Spain showed the most promise of success. Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky noted that the political class consciousness of the Spanish proletariat was higher than that of the Russian proletariat in 1917. George Orwell’s book gives some eyewitness insights into the causes of that defeat from the perspective of a political rank and file militant who fought in the trenches in a Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) militia unit during the key year 1937.Leon Trotsky in his polemical article ‘The Lessons of Spain-Last Warning’, collected in The Spanish Revolution, 1931-39 (reviewed elsewhere in this space), his definitive assessment of the Spanish situation in the wake of the defeat of the Barcelona uprising in May 1937, while asserting that the POUM was the most honest revolutionary party in Spain, stated that in the final analysis the approaching defeat of the revolution could be laid to the policies of the POUM. Orwell’s book parallels that argument on the ground in Spain although he certainly was not a follower of Trotsky’s.

Let us be clear here- we are not talking about the Orwell who later lost his political moorings and decided that the road to human progress passed through the nefarious intelligence agencies of British imperialism. Unfortunately, many militants have traveled that road. Nor are we talking about the later author of Animal Farm and 1984 who warmed the hearts of Western Cold Warriors. We are talking about the militant George Orwell who fought as a volunteer against fascism in Spain in 1937 when it counted. That Orwell has something to say to militants. We need to listen to him if we are to make sense of the disaster in Spain.

While Homage to Catalonia is in part a journal of Orwell’s personal experiences as a militiaman under the stress of war that part is less useful to militants today. The parts that are important are the political chapters. One should discount Orwell’s self-proclaimed blasé attitude toward politics. Here is an intensely political man. Orwell draws two important conclusions from his experiences. First, the war against Franco could not be won without a simultaneous extension of the revolution to the creation of a workers state. The workers and peasants of Spain could not be persuaded to and would not and fight to the finish merely for ‘democracy’. This premise runs counter to the objective policies pursued by all the pro-Republican parties. Orwell describes very vividly the changes that occurred in working class morale in Barcelona, the Petrograd of Spain, during his stay.

The second conclusion Orwell draws is that the role of the Spanish Communist Party and its sponsor, the Soviet Union was not just momentarily anti-revolutionary in the interests of defeating Franco but counterrevolutionary. The Soviet Union had no interest in creating a second workers state. In the final analysis, despite providing weapons, the Soviet Union was more interested in finding allies among the European imperialist than in revolution. In long-range hindsight that seems clear but at the time it was far from obvious to militants on the ground, especially the militants of the Spanish Communist party who got caught up in the Stalinist security apparatus. Of course, this extreme shift to the right dovetailed with interests of the liberal Republicans. However, in the end they all had to flee.

This writer notes that at the time many European militants, like Victor Serge, and organizations , like the Independent Labor party in England, covered for the erroneous policies of the POUM based on their position as the most coherent, organized and militant ostensibly revolutionary organization in Spain. That support was at the time was the subject of intense debate on the extreme left. Fair enough. What does not make sense is that since 1991 or so under the impact of the so-called ‘death of communism’ a virtual cottage industry has developed, centered on the British journal Revolutionary History, seeking today to justify the positions of the POUM. Jesus, can’t these people learn something after all this time.

And what was the POUM. That party, partially created by cadre formerly associated with Trotsky in the Spanish Left Opposition, failed on virtually every count. They made every mistake in the revolutionary book. Those conscious mistakes from its inception included, but were not limited to, the creation of an unprincipled bloc between the former Left Oppositionists and the former Right Oppositionists (Bukharinites) of Maurin to form the POUM in 1935; political support to the Popular Front including entry into the government coalition by its leader, Nin; creation of its own small trade union federation instead of entry in the massive anarchist led-CNT to fight for the perspective of a workers state; a willful failure to seriously expand the organization outside of Catalonia; creation of its own militia units and other institutions reflecting a hands-off attitude toward political struggle with other parties; and, fatally, an at best equivocal role in the Barcelona uprising of 1937. In short, at best, the POUM pursued left social democratic policies in a situation that required Bolshevik policies. Read 1937 Orwell for other insights into the POUM.


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