Jacqueline Mulhallen selects a triumph of twentieth-century reportage
In 1960 I was a 19-year-old badly-paid typist, and I spent my evenings in the Battersea Public Library (still a working-class area then). The previous year, I had bought a copy of the Communist Manifesto which made perfect sense to me, but I was assured that it was ‘all very well in theory, but in practice communism meant a totalitarian state, like the USSR’. I had no answer to this, until I read Homage to Catalonia, which gave me all the answers.
George Orwell, an English left-wing writer, arrives in Barcelona where he finds that ‘the working class is in the saddle’, as shown by revolutionary posters and songs, collectivised taxis, destroyed churches, and everyone in similar clothes. The most important sign, however, was the egalitarian and confident attitude of the people. (I remembered this when I visited Poland, then on the verge of Solidarity, in 1979,).
The workers were armed, big pro-Fascist landed estates had been seized by the peasants and industry and transport collectivised, while workers’ patrols had replaced police and workers' militias were based on trade unions.
Orwell joined the Trotskyist POUM (Workers' Party of Marxist Unification) militia. He was sent to the front, a bleak, freezing mountainside where they were short of firewood, tobacco, candles, warm clothes and blankets, had useless weapons and were very badly trained, but officers and privates drew the same pay, wore the same clothes, ate the same food and called each other ‘comrade’.
They could see but not reach their enemy on another mountain and instead of firing at them shouted at them to desert - which many did. Orwell did not realise that it was not the same elsewhere in Spain, and he took the communist view that the war should be won before continuing the revolution, but, on returning on leave to Barcelona in April he found that many of the revolutionary achievements had been reversed.
‘Key industries which had been under the control of the trade unions were taken over by the government’. Orwell was involved in the battle to prevent the CNT union-run telephone exchange being seized before returning to the front where he was wounded.
When next in Barcelona, he found that the workers’ militias were being dissolved and obliged to join the government-run army, and then that the POUM, described as Trotsky-Fascists, were being arrested and thrown into prison, where many died. Stalin’s USSR had come in on the side of the Spanish government and insisted on this measure, and that lies about the POUM should be repeated by both bourgeois and communist press.
After attempting to help imprisoned comrades, Orwell left Spain, realising that the Communists were working ‘to make sure [the Spanish revolution] never happened’; that ‘bourgeois democracy is only another name for capitalism’ and that ‘the only real alternative to fascism is workers control’. The USSR and the governments of Western Europe, as much as Germany and Italy, preferred Fascism in Spain to a workers’ state.
Orwell’s experience in Spain taught him something of what a workers’ state could be like, and convinced him that it was worth fighting for, and Homage to Catalonia gave me an insight into the difference between the USSR and what it really meant when workers were ‘in the saddle’.
Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). Her books include The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015). Her plays include 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends’.
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