Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Orwell on historical truth

George Orwell is celebrated for his recognition of the role of political lies in the conflicts of his time. For example: "Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Part of his awareness of self-serving lies about history by states and political partisans developed through his experience in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Events that he himself had observed and participated in -- for example, the street fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 -- were grossly misrepresented by the Communists. Ultimately his own faction, the POUM, was accused by the Communists of having engaged in conspiracy and having fomented the street violence that occurred during these weeks. Orwell was a participant, and he knew first-hand that this was untrue. It is instructive to read Homage to Catalonia from the lens of "historical truth".

So what were the facts about Barcelona in spring 1937?

IT will never be possible to get a completely accurate and unbiased account of the Barcelona fighting, because the necessary records do not exist. Future historians will have nothing to go upon except a mass of accusations and party propaganda. I myself have little data beyond what I saw with my own eyes and what I have learned from other eyewitnesses whom I believe to be reliable. I can, however, contradict some of the more flagrant lies and help to get the affair into some kind of perspective. (70)

In what follows Orwell offers a judicious account of the events and pronouncements that preceded and followed the beginning of street fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 -- first between the anarchists (CNT) and the Guardia Civil, then with several parties of the left joining with the CNT on the barricades. He makes an effort to recover documents and contemporary news articles to piece together the sequence of events that culminated in the suppression of the POUM. And he finds that reportage in the press was almost invariably incorrect, whether purposefully or not. The Communist line was consistently antagonistic to the anarchists and the Trotskyists (POUM). 

A tremendous dust was kicked up in the foreign anti-Fascist press, but, as usual, only one side of the case has had anything like a hearing. As a result the Barcelona fighting has been represented as an insurrection by disloyal Anarchists and Trotskyists who were ‘stabbing the Spanish Government in the back’, and so forth. The issue was not quite so simple as that. Undoubtedly when you are at war with a deadly enemy it is better not to begin fighting among yourselves; but it is worth remembering that it takes two to make a quarrel and that people do not begin building barricades unless they have received something that they regard as a provocation. (73)

In particular, the Communists were active in constructing a propaganda platform against both POUM and the anarchists.

Since the beginning of the war the Spanish Communist Party had grown enormously in numbers and captured most of the political power, and there had come into Spain thousands of foreign Communists, many of whom were openly expressing their intention of ‘liquidating’ Anarchism as soon as the war against Franco was won. In the circumstances one could hardly expect the Anarchists to hand over the weapons which they had got possession of in the summer of 1936. (73-74)

Orwell explicitly considers his own position and potential bias in constructing the narrative that he offers. He credibly offers a commitment of his own intention to report honestly what he has observed.

I have tried to write objectively about the Barcelona fighting, though, obviously, no one can be completely objective on a question of this kind. One is practically obliged to take sides, and it must be clear enough which side I am on. Again, I must inevitably have made mistakes of fact, not only here but in other parts of this narrative. It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest. But it will be seen that the account I have given is completely different from that which appeared in the foreign and especially the Communist press. It is necessary to examine the Communist version, because it was published all over the world, has been supplemented at short intervals ever since, and is probably the most widely accepted one. ... In the Communist and pro-Communist press the entire blame for the Barcelona fighting was laid upon the P.O.U.M. The affair was represented not as a spontaneous outbreak, but as a deliberate, planned insurrection against the Government, engineered solely by the P.O.U.M. with the aid of a few misguided ‘uncontrollables’. More than this, it was definitely a Fascist plot, carried out under Fascist orders with the idea of starting civil war in the rear and thus paralysing the Government. The P.O.U.M. was ‘Franco’s Fifth Column’ —a ‘Trotskyist’ organization working in league with the Fascists. (74)

Throughout he establishes the ideological and propagandist "line" taken by the Communists, and he demonstrates its deliberate mendacity.

In a moment I will give some more extracts from the accounts that appeared in the Communist press; it will be seen that they are so self-contradictory as to be completely worthless. But before doing so it is worth pointing to several a priori reasons why this version of the May fighting as a Fascist rising engineered by the P.O.U.M. is next door to incredible. (75)


The alleged Fascist plot rests on bare assertion and all the evidence points in the other direction. We are told that the plan was for the German and Italian Governments to land troops in Catalonia; but no German or Italian troopships approached the coast. As to the ‘Congress of the Fourth International’ and the ‘German and Italian agents’, they are pure myth. So far as I know there had not even been any talk of a Congress of the Fourth International. There were vague plans for a Congress of the P.O.U.M. and its brother-parties (English I.L.P., German S.A.P., etc., etc.); this had been tentatively fixed for some time in July—two months later—and not a single delegate had yet arrived. The ‘German and Italian agents’ have no existence outside the pages of the Daily Worker. Anyone who crossed the frontier at that time knows that it was not so easy to ‘pour’ into Spain, or out of it, for that matter. (65-776_

And Orwell proceeds with a point-by-point refutation of the anti-Anarchist propaganda narrative offered by the Communists.

It is impossible to read through the reports in the Communist Press without realizing that they are consciously aimed at a public ignorant of the facts and have no other purpose than to work up prejudice. Hence, for instance, such statements as Mr Pitcairn’s in the Daily Worker of 11 May that the ‘rising’ was suppressed by the Popular Army. The idea here is to give outsiders the impression that all Catalonia was solid against the ‘Trotskyists’. But the Popular Army remained neutral throughout the fighting; everyone in Barcelona knew this, and it is difficult to believe that Mr Pitcairn did not know it too. (78)

By contrast with the organized and coordinated Communist narrative, Orwell's account of the street fighting in Barcelona in 1937 has the authenticity of an honest participant who offers his own account of events in which he participated. It is plain that he had sympathies -- for example, he refused the invitation to leave POUM and join the Communist International Brigade because he was not willing to risk being ordered to fire his rifle against Spanish workers (anarchists). But his sympathies do not appear to have interfered with his critical eye and his willingness to tell his story unflinchingly and honestly.

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