by Stephen Schwartz
New York Sun, 10 June 2003
Just before Christmas 1936, George Orwell, then still generally known by his born name Eric Arthur Blair, left England for Spain, a country caught up in civil war. His experiences in Barcelona and at the front in Aragon would be immortalized in his 1938 Homage to Catalonia. The book is, arguably, the single most important political essay in English in the 20th century. Further, his encounters with Stalinist interference on the Republican side of the Spanish war — with ideological deception, political surveillance, betrayal, and the arrest, murder, and torture of his friends and comrades — were raw material for his two classics of the 1940s: Animal Farm and 1984.
Orwell's Spanish sojourn is a significant episode in both the literary history of the English language and in global intellectual history. His books came to define the attitude of the free world toward Soviet Communism, and it was in Catalonia that he saw the feral face of that murderous phenomenon up close. Orwell served in the ranks of the militia organized by a minority leftist movement, the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification, known by its Spanish initials: P.O.U.M. At the apex of his brief pilgrimage on the road of revolution, war, and counter-revolution were the days in May 1937 when the Moscow controlled police in Barcelona decided to take the revolutionary city back from its workers, who were devoted to the P.O.U.M. and their anarchist allies. Orwell, almost by chance, found himself on the barricades alongside the embattled anti-Stalinists.
Because of his witness to the "May events" of 1937, that clash between radical hopes and cynicism in power came to influence the world more than any other such incident in the panorama of leftist disillusion: more than Kronstadt in 1921, more than Budapest in 1956, more even than the horror of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Those terrible moments may vanish from the horizon of collective memory, but May 1937 comes alive every time "Homage to Catalonia" is read anew.
In the aftermath of the May fighting, Orwell was hunted by Soviet operatives: He was forced into hiding, his wife was interrogated, his possessions were seized. He and Eileen managed to escape across the border, where they were safe, but overcome by depression at the failure of radical idealism.
When Orwell had arrived in Barcelona, the capital of hope, at the end of 1936, he was guided around the town by a 20-year old P.O.U.M. journalist, Pere Pagés. Known more commonly as Víctor Alba, he died in Spain just this year after an extraordinarily fruitful career as a writer and combatant for the democratic, anti-Communist left. In 1988, 50 years after the publication of "Homage to Catalonia," Alba and I brought out the first history of the P.O.U.M. to appear in English, "Spanish Marxism vs. Soviet Communism" (Transaction). Soon after, he was granted full access to the massive Spanish state archive in Madrid, where he located the original files on the persecution of the P.O.U.M. by the Stalinists. Among the papers therein was a sheet of interrogator's notes on Eric and Eileen Blair.
In "Homage," Orwell had himself downplayed the interest the N.K.V.D. had shown in him, writing simply," I was not guilty of any definite act, but I was guilty of 'Trotskyism.' The fact that I had served in the P.O.U.M. militia was quite enough to get me into prison. "In light of the interrogator's notes, this comment seems both an exaggeration and an understatement. Orwell modestly presented himself in "Homage" as a fairly unsophisticated and obscure individual when he went to Spain. In reality, he had been publicly hailed on his arrival there. An unsigned notice on Orwell, headed, "British Author with the Militia," appeared in an English-language P.O.U.M. bulletin, Spanish Revolution, in February 1937, and his photograph, in the company of the party's leaders, was printed elsewhere in the P.O.U.M. press. Such publicity unquestionably made him a major target of the Spanish agents of the Russian secret police. Had Orwell been caught he would very likely have disappeared forever into the darkness of Stalinist repression.
Other historians have made new research discoveries, which have filled out our understanding of the Communist pursuit of Orwell in Barcelona in ways even more disturbing. In "Into the Heart of the Fire," a 1998 study of British volunteers in the Spanish war, James K. Hopkins revealed that a copy of the N.K.V.D. interrogators' notes was found in a Communist Party (not a secret police) archive in Moscow. In an outstanding biography of Orwell that will soon appear in the United States, Gordon Bowker shows who enabled the N.K.V.D. to prepare its notes. A certain David Crook, a British Communist, wrote reports on the most intimate details of Eric and Eileen Blair's lives in Barcelona. The more we learn about Orwell in Spain, the more it seems a miracle that he survived to tell the truth.
As a writer, Orwell had an amazing capacity to pierce, however distant he was from it, the heart of a heartless world, the world of antihuman abstractions. Such capacities have not been as apparent in the commentators and intellectuals who have bandied his actions and writings in the half century since his death. One notable recent exception is Christopher Hitchens, author of last year's "Why Orwell Matters," who summarized the whole matter eloquently in an introduction to Harcourt's new omnibus hardbound reissue of "Animal Farm" and "1984":
"He suffered a good deal in making the discovery, but he has assisted us in realizing that, while the drive to corruption and cruelty and power is certainly latent in human beings, the instinct for liberty is innate as well."
But a school of Orwell studies has risen up, and scholars and public intellectuals use him as a pretext for preening about the clichés of the moment. Self-regarding leftists assail him as a renegade and alleged "snitch" because he denounced Stalinists. Revisionist historians of the Spanish Civil War, seeking to burnish the reputation of the Stalinists in that conflict, have made him their chief object of hatred. Certain diehard leftists, on the other hand, insist that had he lived Orwell would have remained faithful to socialism, not to capitalist democracy. Feminists use him as a target for their obsessions, projecting on him, decades back in time, their insistence that nobody of traditional masculine habits and prejudices can be considered worthy of respect.
In a development the shy Orwell would doubtless have found awful, a conference on his centenary was recently held at Wellesley College, titled "An Exploration of His Work and Legacy." (Full disclosure here: I did not attend and gathered what I know of the conference from the public prints.) Here all the tattered banners of theory were waved and a host of biases exposed.
For example, Matthew Price reported in the Boston Globe that a certain "Jonathan Rose, a professor of history at Drew University," described "1984" as "a kind of manifesto for gay liberation." As Mr. Price very correctly pointed out, this was "a surprising contention, given Orwell's ill-tempered remarks about homosexuals in his journalism." Yet it seems even more bizarre when one considers that homosexuality makes no appearance whatever in the book.
Mr. Rose offered, as if it were some immense revelation, the comment, "Long before Foucault, and without reading Wilhelm Reich, Orwell seems to have grasped that sexual repression was the foundation — and not merely a byproduct of — totalitarianism."Well, yes,"1984" includes a Junior Anti-Sex League as a feature of control in Big Brother's omniscient state, and describes encounters between the repressed Winston Smith and the highly sexed Julia, who views lovemaking as a form of rebellion. But this vitalism was not original to Orwell, and he did not need Reich to teach it to him. The same theme appears in Evgeny Zamyatin's dystopian classic "We," which was among Orwell's most important influences.
In another contribution to the Wellesley Conference (again following the Boston Globe account), University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor Daphne Patai, a feminist, scorned Orwell for not being a man of the present, who might, one supposes, have been less of a "misogynist" had he lived 50 years later — although one can hardly imagine Orwell at 70, in the full bloom of the women's lib era, being any less "cranky," as Ms. Patai herself crankily described him.
Many respectable figures attended the conference, of course. Orwell's excellent biographer Michael Shelden — a man who fully comprehends the importance of Orwell's legacy — was there and movingly noted: "As for Orwell's sacrifices finishing his last book ["1984"], 'He made them for us.' "But perhaps the most important aspect of Orwell was that alluded to by a Russian-born academic, Vladimir Shlapentokh. Orwell, according to Shlapentokh, became "Russia's Tocqueville," providing a detailed and authentic picture of life under Communism — without ever setting foot on Russian soil, or, as far as we know, ever learning a word of Russian. Orwell saw Stalinism in Spain, not in Moscow, and immediately grasped its nature. He did so because his own essential decency and humanity were secure and incorruptible.
Orwell did not live to enjoy his reward: the congratulations and appreciation of those who, living in the belly of the beast, embrace the faraway observer who has come to understand the oppression with which they contend. John Rodden, a leading Orwell scholar, has produced a new book, "Scenes From an Afterlife" (ISI Books), that, perhaps a bit too elaborately and personally, details how this legacy played itself out. He discusses the end of "the Orwell century" and chronicles the flowering of "Orwellian" concepts, for example "Big Brother" as the symbol of totalitarian surveillance, in popular culture. He also describes the author's fate at the hands of biographers, academics, and "rival" writers like the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, who found him wanting. As Mr. Rodden points out, "Kundera begins with art, Orwell with politics."
Mr. Rodden's book disappoints, however, especially in its focus on how Orwell came to be viewed in depressed places like ex-Communist East Germany. That the orphans of Sovietism caught in history's backwater rejected the vision of liberty Orwell offered says nothing whatever about him, except perhaps that even he could not predict the total spiritual wasteland that Communism left behind after its collapse. Orwell was uniquely insightful in the horrors of Communism's rise and temporary, illusory success. But it would take an equally gifted mind to comprehend the full agony of its end.
But above all, as Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz wrote, in the early 1950s, "Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life." A Russian dissident, Victoria Chalikova, recalls, "The book and life reflected one another, as if they were in a mirror!" A mirror of truth, crafted of insight and intuition: How many other writers have created such wonder? How much would we have lost had the wretched Barcelona Stalinists grabbed him off the street, as they did so many others?
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