Spilling the Spanish Beans

New English Weekly, 29 July and 2 September 1937
Spanish Civil War propaganda poster for the P.O.U.M. (1936)

Spanish Civil War poster for the “Partido Obrero Unificación Marxista” (POUM)

The Spanish war has probably produced a richer crop of lies than any event since the Great War of 1914-18, but I honestly doubt, in spite of all those hecatombs of nuns who have been raped and crucified before the eyes of “Daily Mail” reporters, whether it is the pro-Fascist newspapers that have done the most harm. It is the left-wing papers, the “News Chronicle” and the “Daily Worker”, with their far subtler methods of distortion, that have prevented the British public from grasping the real nature of the struggle.

The fact which these papers have so carefully obscured is that the Spanish Government (including the semi-autonomous Catalan Government) is far more afraid of the revolution than of the Fascists. It is now almost certain that the war will end with some kind of compromise, and there is even reason to doubt whether the Government, which let Bilbao fail without raising a finger, wishes to be too victorious; but there is no doubt whatever about the thoroughness with which it is crushing its own revolutionaries. For some time past a reign of terror — forcible suppression of political parties, a stifling censorship of the press, ceaseless espionage and mass imprisonment without trial — has been in progress. When I left Barcelona in late June the jails were bulging; indeed, the regular jails had long since overflowed and the prisoners were being huddled into empty shops and any other temporary dump that could be found for them. But the point to notice is that the people who are in prison now are not Fascists but revolutionaries; they are there not because their opinions are too much to the Right, but because they are too much to the Left. And the people responsible for putting them there are those dreadful revolutionaries at whose very name Garvin quakes in his galoshes — the Communists.

Meanwhile the war against Franco continues, but, except for the poor devils in the front-line trenches, nobody in Government Spain thinks of it as the real war. The real struggle is between revolution and counter-revolution; between the workers who are vainly trying to hold on to a little of what they won in 1936, and the Liberal-Communist bloc who are so successfully taking it away from them. It is unfortunate that so few people in England have yet caught up with the fact that Communism is now a counter-revolutionary force; that Communists everywhere are in alliance with bourgeois reformism and using the whole of their powerful machinery to crush or discredit any party that shows signs of revolutionary tendencies. Hence the grotesque spectacle of Communists assailed as wicked ‘Reds’ by right-wing intellectuals who are in essential agreement with them. Mr Wyndham Lewis, for instance, ought to love the Communists, at least temporarily. In Spain the Communist-Liberal alliance has been almost completely victorious. Of all that the Spanish workers won for themselves in 1936 nothing solid remains, except for a few collective farms and a certain amount of land seized by the peasants last year; and presumably even the peasants will be sacrificed later, when there is no longer any need to placate them. To see how the present situation arose, one has got to look back to the origins of the civil war.

Franco’s bid for power differed from those of Hitler and Mussolini in that it was a military insurrection, comparable to a foreign invasion, and therefore had not much mass backing, though Franco has since been trying to acquire one. Its chief supporters, apart from certain sections of Big Business, were the land-owning aristocracy and the huge, parasitic Church. Obviously a rising of this kind will array against it various forces which are not in agreement on any other point. The peasant and the worker hate feudalism and clericalism; but so does the ‘liberal’ bourgeois, who is not in the least opposed to a more modern version of Fascism, at least so long as it isn’t called Fascism. The ‘liberal’ bourgeois is genuinely liberal up to the point where his own interests stop. He stands for the degree of progress implied in the phrase ‘la carrière ouverte aux talents’. For clearly he has no chance to develop in a feudal society where the worker and the peasant are too poor to buy goods, where industry is burdened with huge taxes to pay for bishops’ vestments, and where every lucrative job is given as a matter of course to the friend of the catamite of the duke’s illegitimate son. Hence, in the face of such a blatant reactionary as Franco, you get for a while a situation in which the worker and the bourgeois, in reality deadly enemies, are fighting side by side. This uneasy alliance is known as the Popular Front (or, in the Communist press, to give it a spuriously democratic appeal, People’s Front). It is a combination with about as much vitality, and about as much right to exist, as a pig with two heads or some other Barnum and Bailey monstrosity.

In any serious emergency the contradiction implied in the Popular Front is bound to make itself felt. For even when the worker and the bourgeois are both fighting against Fascism, they are not fighting for the same things; the bourgeois is fighting for bourgeois democracy, i.e. capitalism, the worker, in so far as he understands the issue, for Socialism. And in the early days of the revolution the Spanish workers understood the issue very well. In the areas where Fascism was defeated they did not content themselves with driving the rebellious troops out of the towns; they also took the opportunity of seizing land and factories and setting up the rough beginnings of a workers’ government by means of local committees, workers’ militias, police forces, and so forth. They made the mistake, however (possibly because most of the active revolutionaries were Anarchists with a mistrust of all parliaments), of leaving the Republican Government in nominal control. And, in spite of various changes in personnel, every subsequent Government had been of approximately the same bourgeois-reformist character. At the beginning this seemed not to matter, because the Government, especially in Catalonia, was almost powerless and the bourgeoisie had to lie low or even (this was still happening when I reached Spain in December) to disguise themselves as workers. Later, as power slipped from the hands of the Anarchists into the hands of the Communists and right-wing Socialists, the Government was able to reassert itself, the bourgeoisie came out of hiding and the old division of society into rich and poor reappeared, not much modified. Henceforward every move, except a few dictated by military emergency, was directed towards undoing the work of the first few months of revolution. Out of the many illustrations I could choose, I will cite only one, the breaking-up of the old workers’ militias, which were organized on a genuinely democratic system, with officers and men receiving the same pay and mingling on terms of complete equality, and the substitution of the Popular Army (once again, in Communist jargon, ‘People’s Army’), modelled as far as possible on an ordinary bourgeois army, with a privileged officer-caste, immense differences of pay, etc. etc. Needless to say, this is given out as a military necessity, and almost certainly it does make for military efficiency, at least for a short period. But the undoubted purpose of the change was to strike a blow at equalitarianism. In every department the same policy has been followed, with the result that only a year after the outbreak of war and revolution you get what is in effect an ordinary bourgeois State, with, in addition, a reign of terror to preserve the status quo.

This process would probably have gone less far if the struggle could have taken place without foreign interference. But the military weakness of the Government made this impossible. In the face of France’s foreign mercenaries they were obliged to turn to Russia for help, and though the quantity of arms sup — plied by Russia has been greatly exaggerated (in my first three months in Spain I saw only one Russian weapon, a solitary machine-gun), the mere fact of their arrival brought the Communists into power. To begin with, the Russian aeroplanes and guns, and the good military qualities of the international Brigades (not necessarily Communist but under Communist control), immensely raised the Communist prestige. But, more important, since Russia and Mexico were the only countries openly supplying arms, the Russians were able not only to get money for their weapons, but to extort terms as well. Put in their crudest form, the terms were: ‘Crush the revolution or you get no more arms.’ The reason usually given for the Russian attitude is that if Russia appeared to be abetting the revolution, the Franco-Soviet pact (and the hoped-for alliance with Great Britain) would be imperilled; it may be, also, that the spectacle of a genuine revolution in Spain would rouse unwanted echoes in Russia. The Communists, of course, deny that any direct pressure has been exerted by the Russian Government. But this, even if true, is hardly relevant, for the Communist Parties of all countries can be taken as carrying out Russian policy; and it is certain that the Spanish Communist Party, plus the right-wing Socialists whom they control, plus the Communist press of the whole world, have used all their immense and ever-increasing influence upon the side of counter-revolution.


In the first half of this article I suggested that the real struggle in Spain, on the Government side, has been between revolution and counter-revolution; that the Government, though anxious enough to avoid being beaten by Franco, has been even more anxious to undo the revolutionary changes with which the outbreak of war was accompanied.

Any Communist would reject this suggestion as mistaken or wilfully dishonest. He would tell you that it is nonsense to talk of the Spanish Government crushing the revolution, because the revolution never happened; and that our job at present is to defeat Fascism and defend democracy. And in this connexion it is most important to see just how the Communist anti-revolutionary propaganda works. It is a mistake to think that this has no relevance in England, where the Communist Party is small and comparatively weak. We shall see its relevance quickly enough if England enters into an alliance with the U.S.S.R.; or perhaps even earlier, for the influence of the Communist Party is bound to increase — visibly is increasing — as more and more of the capitalist class realize that latter-day Communism is playing their game.

Broadly speaking, Communist propaganda depends upon terrifying people with the (quite real) horrors of Fascism. It also involves pretending — not in so many words, but by implication — that Fascism has nothing to do with capitalism. Fascism is just a kind of meaningless wickedness, an aberration, ‘mass sadism’, the sort of thing that would happen if you suddenly let loose an asylumful of homicidal maniacs. Present Fascism in this form, and you can mobilize public opinion against it, at any rate for a while, without provoking any revolutionary movement. You can oppose Fascism by bourgeois ‘democracy, meaning capitalism. But meanwhile you have got to get rid of the troublesome person who points out that Fascism and bourgeois ‘democracy’ are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. You do it at the beginning by calling him an impracticable visionary. You tell him that he is confusing the issue, that he is splitting the anti-Fascist forces, that this is not the moment for revolutionary phrase-mongering, that for the moment we have got to fight against Fascism without inquiring too closely what we are fighting for. Later, if he still refuses to shut up, you change your tune and call him a traitor. More exactly, you call him a Trotskyist.

And what is a Trotskyist? This terrible word — in Spain at this moment you can be thrown into jail and kept there indefinitely, without trial, on the mere rumour that you are a Trotskyist — is only beginning to be bandied to and fro in England. We shall be hearing more of it later. The word ‘Trotskyist’ (or ‘Trotsky-Fascist’) is generally used to mean a disguised Fascist who poses as an ultra-revolutionary in order to split the left-wing forces. But it derives its peculiar power from the fact that it means three separate things. It can mean one who, like Trotsky, wished for world revolution; or a member of the actual organization of which Trotsky is head (the only legitimate use of the word); or the disguised Fascist already mentioned. The three meanings can be telescoped one into the other at will. Meaning No. I may or may not carry with it meaning No. 2, and meaning No. 2 almost invariably carries with it meaning No. 3. Thus: ‘XY has been heard to speak favourably of world revolution; therefore he is a Trotskyist; therefore he is a Fascist.’ In Spain, to some extent even in England, anyone professing revolutionary Socialism (i.e. professing the things the Communist Party professed until a few years ago) is under suspicion of being a Trotskyist in the pay of Franco or Hitler.

The accusation is a very subtle one, because in any given case, unless one happened to know the contrary, it might be true. A Fascist spy probably would disguise himself as a revolutionary. In Spain, everyone whose opinions are to the Left of those of the Communist Party is sooner or later discovered to be a Trotskyist or, at least, a traitor. At the beginning of the war the POUM, an opposition Communist party roughly corresponding to the English ILP., was an accepted party and supplied a minister to the Catalan Government, later it was expelled from the Government; then it was denounced as Trotskyist; then it was suppressed, every member that the police could lay their hands on being flung into jail.

Until a few months ago the Anarcho-Syndicalists were described as ‘working loyally’ beside the Communists. Then the Anarcho-Syndicalists were levered out of the Government; then it appeared that they were not working so loyally; now they are in the process of becoming traitors. After that will come the turn of the left-wing Socialists. Caballero, the left-wing Socialist ex-premier, until May 1937 the idol of the Communist press, is already in outer darkness, a Trotskyist and ‘enemy of the people’. And so the game continues. The logical end is a régime in which every opposition party and newspaper is suppressed and every dissentient of any importance is in jail. Of course, such a régime will be Fascism. It will not be the same as the fascism Franco would impose, it will even be better than Franco’s fascism to the extent of being worth fighting for, but it will be Fascism. Only, being operated by Communists and Liberals, it will be called something different.

Meanwhile, can the war be won? The Communist influence has been against revolutionary chaos and has therefore, apart from the Russian aid, tended to produce greater military efficiency. If the Anarchists saved the Government from August to October 1936, the Communists have saved it from October onwards. But in organizing the defence they have succeeded in killing enthusiasm (inside Spain, not outside). They made a militarized conscript army possible, but they also made it necessary. It is significant that as early as January of this year voluntary recruiting had practically ceased. A revolutionary army can sometimes win by enthusiasm, but a conscript army has got to win with weapons, and it is unlikely that the Government will ever have a large preponderance of arms unless France intervenes or unless Germany and Italy decide to make off with the Spanish colonies and leave Franco in the lurch. On the whole, a deadlock seems the likeliest thing.

And does the Government seriously intend to win? It does not intend to lose, that is certain. On the other hand, an outright victory, with Franco in flight and the Germans and Italians driven into the sea, would raise difficult problems, some of them too obvious to need mentioning. There is no real evidence and one can only judge by the event, but I suspect that what the Government is playing for is a compromise that would leave the war situation essentially in being. All prophecies are wrong, therefore this one will be wrong, but I will take a chance and say that though the war may end quite soon or may drag on for years, it will end with Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economic zones. Of course, such a compromise might be claimed as a victory by either side, or by both.

All that I have said in this article would seem entirely commonplace in Spain, or even in France. Yet in England, in spite of the intense interest the Spanish war has aroused, there are very few people who have even heard of the enormous struggle that is going on behind the Government lines. Of course, this is no accident. There has been a quite deliberate conspiracy (I could give detailed instances) to prevent the Spanish situation from being understood. People who ought to know better have lent themselves to the deception on the ground that if you tell the truth about Spain it will be used as Fascist propaganda.

It is easy to see where such cowardice leads. If the British public had been given a truthful account of the Spanish war they would have had an opportunity of learning what Fascism is and how it can be combated. As it is, the “News Chronicle” version of Fascism as a kind of homicidal mania peculiar to Colonel Blimps bombinating in the economic void has been established more firmly than ever. And thus we are one step nearer to the great war ‘against Fascism’ (cf. 1914, ‘against militarism’) which will allow Fascism, British variety, to be slipped over our necks during the first week.

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  1. J. L. Garvin was the right-wing editor of The Observer, 1908—42.
  2. Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) was a painter, author, satirist, and critic. He supported Franco and flirted with Nazism, recanting in 1939. In Orwell’s words, ‘Lewis attacked everyone in turn; indeed, his reputation as a writer rests largely on these attacks’.

Source: CW11-378

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One Response to Spilling the Spanish Beans

  1. Tim F. on March 4, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Barcelona travel guide
    George Orwell’s Barcelona – The revolution that a city forgot

    February 13, 2011

    George Orwell wouldn’t recognise his Catalonia, writes Nicholas Whitlam, who marvels at the ability of Barcelona to move on.

    “PALIMPSEST” is a word most of us learnt when Gore Vidal published his elegant memoir; he told us it meant a paper or parchment that was capable of being written on and wiped out again with a new text. Such is Barcelona.

    For my part, while I knew Barcelona had many layers of history – from Roman times through the Middle Ages – when my wife and I made our first visit in 2010, I wanted to see the shrines of the civil war. George Orwell, arguably the greatest writer of the 20th century, recorded the incredible scenes of 1936 and 1937 in Homage to Catalonia, his contemporaneous account of the workers’ takeover of Barcelona.

    “It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle … Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised …”

    We are lucky to have Orwell’s book because, while most of the buildings are still there, today’s Barcelona is flash and unapologetically capitalist and there is little record of those amazing times. The locals have largely moved on. Barcelona is a palimpsest; the parchment has a new text.

    Everyone’s first point of call is the Ramblas, the exotic street bazaar that runs from the Placa de Catalunya to the waterfront. Motor traffic crawls on either side of a central pedestrian section, which is peopled 24 hours a day by tourists, touts, locals vending food and drink, human statues, some further detritus and the occasional pickpocket. Along its kilometre or so, the Ramblas also accommodates the rebuilt Liceu opera house, with its ugly and bland 21st-century annex, and Barcelona’s famous food market, the Boqueria.

    The topography is much the same but in December 1936: “Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and from, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.”

    And, when the fighting broke out between revolutionary factions, in May 1937: “Not a vehicle was stirring in the streets; here and there along the Ramblas the trams stood motionless where their drivers had jumped out of them when the fighting started.”

    Orwell had just returned from the Aragon front. Being part of the British Independent Labour Party push, he had joined the wonderfully acronymed neo-Trotskyist POUM (which translates to Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). Its headquarters at Ramblas 128 was under attack from Stalinist-led police in the Cafe Moka next door. His wife was up the road at Ramblas 138 in the Hotel Continental but he daren’t try to reach her. As a result, Orwell was camped for several days with his armed POUM colleagues at the top of the Poliorama theatre across the road at No. 115, protecting the POUM base.

    If you check the scene out today, all is changed. There are no trams running down the centre. That’s where the 24/7 street bazaar runs its course. No one in today’s Hotel Rivoli at Ramblas 128 knows anything about Orwell or the POUM or the civil war: “You could ask the management,” suggested the Polish doorman.

    Some bullet marks are on the wall of a very vulgarly refurbished Cafe Moka. If you try very hard, you can find next door a plaque to POUM leader Andres Nin, who was tortured to death by Stalinist agents. The original family once again owns the Hotel Continental but the references to Orwell on its publicity are not to the civil war but to Orwell’s 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

    The Poliorama is still a fully functioning theatre, its major event for 2010 being an odd but entertaining and highly successful hybrid of flamenco dancing and opera arias.

    Up at the Placa de Catalunya, city tour buses deal with endless queues of tourists and the surrounding buildings are more or less the same shape and size as in the civil war. The scene, however, is transformed. There is a new text from December 1936, when Orwell recorded: “Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists …”

    In the glorious days of 1936 and beyond, the old Hotel Colon had been requisitioned by the Communist Party and featured huge portraits of Marx and Stalin. Workers camped in the square and every revolutionary had his photo taken in front of the hotel; my favourite is that of a group of Australian nurses, members of the International Brigades, who are kitted out in their Sunday best.

    Today, the square, like the rest of Barcelona, flies the occasional Spanish and Catalonian flag. Of course, these days are not revolutionary; there is no Franco to revolt against (and even defeat, as the Barcelona workers did in their July 1936 counter-rebellion). So, it’s no surprise no revolutionaries are evident and the only slogans are those for commercial enterprises; there is nothing that records the civil war.

    The old Hotel Colon – there is a new one near the cathedral – glossily proclaims itself part of the Banco Espanol de Credito; the telegraph office still shows some bullet marks but has no memorial plaque or notice giving the story of where the 1937 troubles started. It is the nearby Hard Rock Cafe that attracts most interest.

    The 1992 Olympics transformed much of Barcelona. The commercial docks were moved from downtown and the roadway separating the old city from the waterfront was put underground. You can now walk from the Ramblas to the beach, past fancy boats and restaurants of all varieties.

    There has always been an anarchic side to Barcelona, it seems, and some beach denizens are today given to total abandon. This has required the designation of exactly where the beach ends and the city starts. I can only assume the boardwalk in front of the expensive restaurants on the Barceloneta are “beach” because, as

    I innocently inspected the Olympic improvements, I was confronted by a very tanned gentleman who at first seemed to be wearing flesh-coloured shorts. As he got closer, it became apparent he was naked except for what I took to be an enormous vulgar prosthesis. I was wrong, I learnt, because locals assure me that the item so proudly on display is in fact an integral part of a (justifiably famous) sexagenarian Belgian.

    Of more enduring interest is the Olympic Stadium. Built for the 1929 International Exhibition, it was totally refurbished for the 1992 Olympics. This is somewhat ironic because these official Olympics, promoted as they were by Franco’s former henchman in Barcelona, the late oleaginous Juan Antonio Samaranch, were not the first “Olympics” to be planned for the stadium. In 1936, the stadium was to be the principal venue for the Olimpiada Popular, a protest against fascism and Hitler’s Germany. These “People’s Olympics” were to run from July 19-26 and were scheduled to be finished six days before the official Berlin Games. Many athletes had planned to compete at both. Six thousand athletes from around the world turned up and at least 20,000 tourists were there as spectators.

    A test run of the opening ceremony took place on July 18 and many athletes slept that night in the stadium itself. By the next day, however, all was abandoned when news became widespread that Franco’s fascist rebels had started the civil war. Many foreign athletes joined in the fighting on July 19, alongside the workers, and at least 200 of them remained in Spain and signed up to workers’ militias (and subsequently the International Brigades) to defend the republican government.

    On July 18, 1936, Pablo Casals had been rehearsing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the Palau Musica when the news came through. It was suggested the musicians should make for home immediately. They had completed the first three movements and Casals asked the orchestra if they wished to finish it. They did. Casals never performed in Barcelona again. Today, the Palau’s wonderfully garish interior is unchanged and a new entrance and rehearsal hall has been built on the site of a redundant church.

    Which brings me to the Sagrada Familia. Barcelona already had an excellent cathedral when the religious ascetic Antoni Gaudi took it upon himself to get backing for his “masterpiece”. Still unfinished after more than 100 years, computer-assisted design and modern building techniques are helping its early completion. Pope Benedict XVI has at last consecrated it as a church; it was the least he could do given the Vatican harvests half the tens of millions of euros that visitors pay to inspect it.

    For my part, I guess, the new yet-unadorned parts of the interior were OK. Otherwise, though, I thought Orwell’s 1937 review was right on the button: “… One of the most hideous buildings in the world. It had four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles. Unlike most of the churches in Barcelona it was not damaged during the revolution – it was spared because of its ‘artistic value’, people said. I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance …”

    Orwell was a romantic puritan but he wasn’t naive. The republic was “worth fighting for” because, if it survived, “Whatever faults [the republican government] might have, Franco’s regime would certainly be worse … [the government] would at any rate be anti-clerical and anti-feudal.”

    After the May 1937 events, he went back to the front and was almost instantly shot in the neck. I knew he had spent part of his rehabilitation in a POUM hospital on Tibidabo, the strange-shaped mountain that overlooks Barcelona, and I convinced myself the Gran Hotel la Florida might be it. The hotel’s history talks of it being a hospital during World War II and as Spain had remained technically neutral during that conflict – notwithstanding the soldiers, material and air power Hitler and Mussolini had given Franco’s rebels – I hoped the reference might be to that POUM civil war hospital.

    I feared that if it was a hospital during the civil war, it supported the wrong side. Either way, the hotel is marvellous. All the public rooms overlook the city, the outside space cascades down a few levels with intimate spaces for dining and drinking. The spa is famous and the silver indoor-outdoor lap pool must be 40 metres long. Orwell would be appalled with this example of the new Barcelona. I loved it.

    But Orwell has left his mark on Barcelona. There is a small square in the old city, not far from the Ramblas, which carries his name – and, in shades of Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was the site of Barcelona’s first 24-hour CCTV camera.


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