Monday, March 9, 2009

Big Brother 2

As should be evident from my post on the Spanish civil war, there was a profound difference between the official Communist line, supposedly bent on compromise in order to gain as large a following as possible among both left and center proponents of the Republic, and the position of the group Orwell was aligned with, the P. O. U. M., which had a far more revolutionary, uncompromising line, insisting above all else on the establishment of a radically socialist "worker's state." Initially, Orwell leaned more strongly toward the Communist position, because it seemed more practical, but also because he regarded the heavy handed P. O. U. M. and anarchist propaganda (see my previous Big Brother post) as "unspeakably bad." Nevertheless, his sympathies clearly remained with P. O. U. M., and the more radical, uncompromising type of socialism it was seeking to achieve. And as the war of words continued, Orwell found himself increasingly alarmed and even outraged at the behavior of the Communist press:
This, then, was what they were saying about us: we were Trotskyists, Fascists, traitors, murderers, cowards, spies, and so forth. I admit it was not
pleasant, especially when one thought of some of the people who were responsible for it. It is not a nice thing to see a Spanish boy of fifteen carried down the line on a stretcher, with a dazed white face looking out from among the blankets, and to think of the sleek persons in London and Paris who are writing pamphlets to prove that this boy is a Fascist in disguise. One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting. The P.S.U.C. militiamen whom I knew in the line, the Communists from the International Brigade whom I met from time to time, never called me a Trotskyist or a traitor; they left that kind of thing to the journalists in the rear. . . .
When later on I decided that the P.O.U.M. were right, or at any rate righter than the Communists, it was not altogether upon a point of theory. On paper the Communist case was a good one; the trouble was that their actual behaviour made it difficult to believe that they were advancing it in good faith. . . The thing for which the Communists were working was not to postpone the Spanish revolution till a more suitable time, but to make sure that it never happened. This became more and more obvious as time went on, as power was twisted more and more out of working-class hands, and as more and more revolutionaries of every shade were flung into jail. Every move was made in the name of military necessity, because this pretext was, so to speak, ready-made, but the effect was to drive the workers back from an advantageous position and into a position in which, when the war was over, they would find it impossible to resist the reintroduction of capitalism.
As the conflict wore on, the situation deteriorated dramatically, and the Communists, who eventually became the dominant force in the Republic, turned on P. O. U. M. and the anarchists in a dramatic, and completely unexpected manner:
'Haven't you heard?' 'No. Heard what? I've heard nothing.' 'The P.O.U.M.'S been suppressed. They've seized all the buildings. Practically everyone's in prison. And they say they're shooting people already.' . . . On 15 June the police had suddenly arrested Andres Nin in his office, and the
same evening had raided the Hotel Falcon and arrested all the people in it,
mostly militiamen on leave. The place was converted immediately into a prison, and in a very little while it was filled to the brim with prisoners of all kinds. Next day the P.O.U.M. was declared an illegal organization and all its offices, book-stalls, sanatoria, Red Aid centres, and so forth were seized.
Meanwhile the police were arresting everyone they could lay hands on who was known to have any connexion with the P.O.U.M. Within a day or two all or almost all of the forty members of the Executive Committee were in prison.
The remainder of the book is the story of how Orwell and his wife barely escaped being arrested themselves, while vainly attempting to assist one of the P. O. U. M. leaders, a man named George Kopp, arrested in the midst of an important military mission. Kopp was one of Orwell's heroes:
He was my personal friend, I had served under him for months, I had been under fire with him, and I knew his history. He was a man who had sacrificed everything--family, nationality, livelihood--simply to come to Spain and fight against Fascism. By leaving Belgium without permission and joining a foreign army while he was on the Belgian Army reserve, and, earlier, by helping to manufacture munitions illegally for the Spanish Government, he had piled up years of imprisonment for himself if he should ever return to his own country. He had been in the line since October 1936, had worked his way up from militiaman to major, had been in action I do not know how many times, and had been wounded once. During the May trouble, as I had seen for myself, he had prevented fighting locally and probably saved ten or twenty lives. And all they could do in return was to fling him into jail.
Orwell's efforts to convince the authorities that Kopp should be freed and allowed to resume his mission were in vain. He vanished into the Spanish prison system and was never seen again.

So much for Orwell's experiences in the Spanish civil war. Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938, was clearly the touchstone of his entire career as a writer, activist and political philosopher. This is what he wrote in his essay "Why I Write," published in 1946, while working on what was to be his last novel, 1984: "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it."

Clearly Orwell was a socialist very early on and remained a socialist from his time in Spain to the time he wrote his most famous novel. And not only a socialist, but a radical socialist, a staunch supporter of the socialist worker's state formed in Barcelona at the time he arrived there, ready to lay down his life for what he "recognized . . . immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for." Big Brother was not the product of his experiences with socialism, but, on the contrary, his experiences with the betrayal of socialism by a ruthless and doctrinaire communist faction controlled from Moscow by Joseph Stalin. Big Brother reflected these feelings of betrayal, which were to be confirmed as he followed the course of Stalin's career, from the Moscow trials onward, to the establishment of the notorious Gulag Archipelago, chronicled so thoroughly by Solzhenitsyn. 1984 and Big Brother are warnings about totalitarianism, which can arise in the context of any politico/economic system, including a capitalist one, if due diligence is not performed by everyone in a position to make a difference.

According to his biographer, John Newsinger,
[a] crucial dimension to Orwell's socialism was his recognition that the Soviet Union was not socialist. Unlike many on the left, instead of abandoning socialism once he discovered the full horror of Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union, Orwell abandoned the Soviet Union and instead remained a socialist--indeed he became more committed to the socialist cause than ever.

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