THEODORE DALRYMPLE: Orwell’s Arresting Ambiguities.

Occasionally [Orwell biographer D.J Taylor], whose own judgment is pretty good, misses something important. For example, he describes the effect that Orwell’s time in Spain had on him:

Spain, it is safe to say, politicised Orwell in a way that his exposure to homegrown socialism in the previous five years had not. To begin with, it offered him a vision of how an alternative world, founded on the principles of freedom and equality, might work.

Orwell told the general litterateur, Cyril Connolly, who had been with him at Eton, that he had seen “wonderful things” in Barcelona, then a revolutionary city in the control of the Trotskyist POUM. Taylor continues:

It was, he declared, “the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle.” Churches were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Shops and cafes bore inscriptions saying that they had been collectivised. Tipping was forbidden by law, all private motor cars had been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis had been painted in the anarchist colours of red and black. “In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist.”

Everyone dressed the same too, in drab overalls, Maoist avant la lettre.

Barcelona, then, was a Catalonian Pyongyang: and it is important to recall that Orwell approved of it. At this stage of his development, he was an enthusiastic totalitarian, and the shallowness of his belief that such uniformity was a triumph for freedom and equality is rather startling in a man who, a very few years later, was to be the greatest literary scourge of totalitarianism in the world.

In his 2000 essay, “In the Land of the Rococo Marxist,” Tom Wolfe wrote that the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the subsequent publication of the Venona transcripts “made it damned hard to express your skepticism, your cynicism, your contempt, in Marxist terms… Not to mention the Spanish Civil War—archives! Turns out the Loyalists secretly called in the Soviets at the very outset of hostilities—and if they’d won, Spain would have been the first Soviet puppet state!”

In “Orwell’s Bad Republicans,” a 2007 book review at the American Spectator, Hal G.P. Colebatch noted:

When the heroics of the Spanish Civil War come up — Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Hemingway’s fictions or the effusions of various poets — there is a very large and usually unremarked elephant in the room: Orwell, who actually fought, and Hemingway who wrote about fighting, were on the wrong side.

The strategic point is simple: had the Stalinists won war, then during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact from 1939 to mid-1941, they would have allowed Hitler to cross Spain and seize Gibraltar. Had this happened, the British forces in the Mediterranean, including the British Empire’s last remaining field army in action, would have been cut off. The British army and fleet could probably have been supplied through the Suez Canal, at least for a while, but their positions would have been immeasurably weakened, and the enemy’s position immeasurably strengthened.

Fortunately, as Dalrymple wrote, “It was all to the credit of Orwell that he changed his opinion of totalitarianism so diametrically, but had he died just after the publication of Homage to Catalonia, not living long enough to write his anti-totalitarian masterpieces, he would have been remembered, if he was remembered at all, as a literary forerunner and praise-singer of some of the worst features of communist regimes.”