Remembering Spain's Revolution

— Jane Slaughter

ON THE SECOND page of Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell's memoir of the Spanish Revolution, he writes, “I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I 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.”

Orwell goes on to tell how in 1937 practically every building in Barcelona had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags; “even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black.” (This will mean something to those who’ve traveled in Central America, where hopeful little boys carry their shoeshine kits around with them although most of the tourists are wearing gym shoes.)

Waiters looked you in the face and treated you as an equal….Tipping had been forbidden. …Revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues…In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist….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.

A state of affairs worth fighting for. By describing what he saw —“a sort of microcosm of a classless society” — Orwell helps us understand what we’re fighting for and that human beings are capable of it. “Many of the normal motives of civilized life — snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. — had simply ceased to exist…one had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.”

Orwell’s portrait of revolutionary Spain gives us a glimpse of human beings’ revolutionary and egalitarian potential and their capacity for bravery. That is why, 70 years later, Homage to Catalonia is worth reading for the first time and again. Every time I encounter a servile waiter, I think of Orwell.

Orwell is also instructive about the betrayals of the Communist Party in Spain and elsewhere. He went to Spain sympathetic to Communist policy on the war (“win the war first, then the revolution”) but, because of what he saw with his own eyes, he came to see that “the thing for which the Communists were working was not to postpone the Spanish revolution till a more suitable time but to make sure it never happened.”

Why should we care about this now, when CPs are so weak everywhere? I’ll quote Ken Loach, the director of “Land and Freedom,” a feature film that borrows heavily from Orwell. I interviewed Loach in 1996. He said, “When the possibility of transformative change [revolution] happens, and people start to look around and say, ‘we actually need to take power here,’ then there has to be a political leadership that endorses that. What happened in Spain shows that we can’t say, ‘Hang on, just forget about it for this year, we’ll do it next year.’ When workers take power they have to be supported and they have to follow it through. Because those moments are quite rare and very precious.

“And clearly it will happen again.”

If that moment comes, Orwell and Loach — or really, the thousands of Spanish militia members who fought not just for democracy but for revolution — for land and freedom — remind us not to be stuck in defeatist habits of mind.

In “Land and Freedom,” which in some ways is corny but is still mesmerizing, peasants and militia members discuss for 12 minutes whether to collectivize a rich man’s captured land. It’s an eon in movie time; Loach has trusted the audience to sit still for politics. An American volunteer says no, collectivization might scare off the U.S. and British governments from sending aid.

This was the CP’s policy: in Orwell’s words, “to check every revolutionary tendency and make the war as much like an ordinary war as possible.” Union leaders, politicians and CPs in other countries echoed this line, denying that large-scale collectivizations and factory seizures were going on. Orwell writes, “Outside Spain few people grasped that there was a revolution; inside Spain nobody doubted it.”

Reading Homage to Catalonia will help you recognize a revolutionary moment when you see it. And hunger for one.

I’ve quoted Orwell a great deal because his clean, clear writing is another reason to read this book.  The book is full of gems of description, where Orwell invokes a world in a few words: “There were hardly any bullfights nowadays; for some reason all the best matadors were Fascists.” “Chaff is not bad to sleep in when it is clean, not so good as hay but better than straw” — how’s that for practical advice for a militia fighter?

Or this: “You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire — not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.”

Orwell says what he wants to say directly, with a minimum of fuss, no fancy sentence structures or attempts to impress by writing for writing’s sake. No humbug. Anyone who wants to write about something she cares about could take Homage as a model.

ATC 143, November-December 2009

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