Orwell warns the reader that no objective account of the war exists, as the only records available are those of party propaganda. After this warning, Orwell uses his authority as an eyewitness to analyze in detail the Barcelona street fighting of May 1937.
Orwell reminds the reader that his narrative is subjective. However, unlike most journalists, he did not rely on untrustworthy documents but, rather, on what he saw with his own eyes, which he considers trustworthy.
Orwell examines the events leading up to the street fighting. As political tension between Anarchists and Communists had been growing throughout Catalonia, a violent outcome was deemed inevitable. Workers began to feel that the Government was trying to impede the revolution. The Government’s decision to build a non-political police force and to order citizens to surrender all private weapons were the immediate causes of the conflict.
The Government was hypocritical in its non-political approach to security. Under the guise of privileging military efficaciousness, for example by using private weapons for the war effort, it was in fact launching a provocation and attempting to weaken the working class.
On May 3rd, 1937, the Government took over the Telephone Exchange, which was controlled by the Anarchists. Believing that they were under direct attack, the Anarchists took to the streets and began fighting. The city was divided geographically into political sections separated by barricades, with the working-class neighborhoods under Anarchist and POUM control pitted against the city center, which was under police and Communist control. However, the fighting was mostly defensive on both sides. On May 7, people began to leave the barricades, primarily because of the food shortage. That same day, Government-sent forces (the Valencian Assault Guards) took control of the city and the Government seized all private arms.
Fighting erupted as a result of the Government’s provocative action against the Anarchists. Beyond this planned aggression, however, the rest of the fighting was spontaneous, as each party was merely trying to protect itself. The Communist-led Government did not seek political compromise, but asserted its dominance through force, to which the Anarchists and the POUM were forced to surrender.
While the fighting had no direct effect on the war, it allowed the Valencian Government to assert its dominance in Catalonia, to further break up the militias, and to suppress the POUM. These things probably would have come to pass eventually, Orwell suggests, even if the fighting had never taken place.
The Barcelona fighting was used as a convenient excuse for the Government to carry out its long-term, premeditated plan of crushing the social revolution and the working class.
As to the nature of the outbreak, Orwell judges that it was entirely spontaneous. The Anarchist leaders disowned the affair from the start, while the POUM leaders, more hesitant, stood by the workers in the street, while at the same time urging the workers to only act defensively. In sum, neither the POUM nor the Anarchists were moved by revolutionary intentions or by rebellion against the Government. They were merely reacting to what they considered an unjust attack by the police. It was unlikely, too, that the Communists had planned or expected such a violent outbreak. If either side had contemplated large-scale violence, Orwell argues, there is no doubt that they would have brought troops to the city beforehand and made plans for food distribution, which was not the case.
Orwell describes the gap between party leadership and actions carried out on the ground. As with most Orwell’s experiences in this war, certain events came to pass primarily thanks to the energies and convictions of ordinary men on the ground who were courageous in defending their ideals. The fact that none of the political parties involved had planned this uprising, however, does not mean that they benefitted equally from its outcome. With greater political power, the Communists were bound to be able to use this episode to their own advantage.
The spontaneous nature of the conflict was not represented in the press, which placed all the blame on the Anarchists and the POUM. The English press denounced the Anarchists for refusing to obey the Government’s order to surrender their arms when such weapons were desperately needed at the front. This perspective, Orwell explains, disregards the complexity of the conflict between Communists and Anarchists. Both sides understood that political tension was likely to evolve into violence and that, as a result, it was important to keep arms for defensive purposes. To Anarchists, surrendering their arms meant capitulating to Communist dominance.
The English press’s condemnation of the Anarchists and the POUM was merely a continuation of their mistaken view of the conflict as a fight between Fascists and anti-Fascists. Their ignorance of the dynamics at play in the revolution put all the blame on one side of the conflict, whereas Orwell believes that the responsibility was shared.
The Government’s assault on the Telephone Exchange, Orwell argues, was bound to lead to violence. While the foreign press argues that the Anarchists should have surrendered the building without resisting (as any fight within the Republican coalition was harmful to the war effort), Orwell explains that this argument is beside the point. In the tense situation that Spain was in, the Government was bound to know that it would be met with resistance. It follows that both the Government and the Anarchists are at fault. The press, however, refused to produce a two-sided version of the events. This can be explained by the fact that Anarchists have virtually no influence in international press.
Orwell argues that the Government’s action against the Telephone Exchange was not a neutral act but, rather, a deliberate provocation, which it knew would result in violence. In other words, in chronological terms at least, the true instigator of violence was the Communist-led Republican Government. Once again, the press’s attitude is blind to the fact that two wars, not one, were being fought in Spain: the fight against the Fascists and the struggle for power within the Spanish left.
Orwell proceeds to examine the Communist and pro-Communist accounts of the conflict, which placed all blame for the violence on the POUM. The violence was described as a premeditated rebellion by the POUM, a Fascist conspiracy aimed at halting the Government’s war efforts. Orwell offers three reasons for which it is impossible for the POUM to be part of a Fascist conspiracy against the Government. First, the POUM was too small a group to provoke such large-scale violence. Second, the accusation of Fascist collaboration with Italy and Germany is ridiculous considering that it relies on absolutely no evidence. Finally, trouble only arose in Barcelona and nowhere else. At the front and in the POUM stronghold of Lérida, life and the struggle against Fascists went on as usual. Had the POUM meant to orchestrate a Fascist uprising, it would undoubtedly have had consequences in other places besides Barcelona.
Orwell distances himself from his deeply personal approach to describing the war and attempts to examine press articles objectively, using reason and political arguments to identify the flaws in the news coverage of the event. Instead of mentioning his own conviction that the POUM is an admirable, democratic, anti-Fascist force, he takes the accusations against it seriously and counters them on their own terms. In so doing, he demonstrates his commitment to providing a just, truthful account of events. However subjective his opinions might be, they remain based on a reasoned, critical, and informed understanding of what happened.
After examining articles from the Communist press, Orwell concludes that it is full of contradictions. In one article, the Anarchists are presented as the ones who attacked the Telephone Exchange—which is, in fact, their very own building. In another, the police attacked the Telephone Exchange in order to remove fifty POUM militiamen who had occupied the building the night before. These and other instances convince Orwell that the Communist press is full of untruths, providing a confused and contradictory account of the event.
Orwell shows that the articles published in the pro-Communist press make little sense, thereby undermining their own arguments. It remains unclear whether journalists are merely misinformed or are deliberately muddling the truth as a political strategy.
The articles also engage in pure fabrication that demonstrates a complete ignorance of local dynamics. Some speak of machine-guns, tanks, and artillery fire, for which, Orwell notes, there is absolutely no evidence. Orwell describes these exaggerations as political necessity. In order to formulate a credible accusation against the POUM, newspapers needed to overemphasize the POUM’s strength, which would allow them to convincingly portray the POUM as being fully responsible for the outbreak of violence.
Orwell concludes that the contradictions and gross inventions he has read are not innocent mistakes but, rather, deliberate manipulations of the truth. Instead of using facts to support their arguments, journalists put their political arguments first, manipulating the facts for their arguments to appear more convincing. This approach goes against all standards of journalistic ethics.
In sum, Orwell concludes, the Communist press was aimed at a public entirely ignorant of local circumstances in Spain. They were meant to instill hatred against the POUM and, in the case of some foreign capitalist newspapers, against the Anarchists, laying all blame for the fighting on one side. Orwell emphasizes that most foreign journalists in Spain depended on the biased Ministry of Propaganda for information.
Orwell once again puts forth the argument that, without firsthand knowledge of local circumstances—which he, unlike many other journalists, was able to acquire—the news cannot convey the truth.
Accusations that the POUM was a fascist organization lacked credibility, as all POUM leaders had serious histories of revolutionary involvement, and had played an important part in resisting Fascist forces. While the POUM’s insistence on revolution could arguably be considered counter-productive to the war effort, it could not, in any circumstance, be understood as treachery. In fact, after the events, the falseness of such accusations came to light when most members of the Spanish Government rejected all charges against the POUM. While Fascist spies were always shot immediately, the POUM leaders have been kept in prison and official charges never formulated. These facts suffice to conclude that all charges against the POUM were direct inventions of the Communist press.
Orwell demonstrates that the accusations against the POUM were blatantly false. It is likely that the Government knew this even as it was arresting POUM members. In other words, the Government and the Communist Party’s attitudes were highly hypocritical. They were intentionally sabotaging the revolutionary effort for political reasons, not because the POUM was an actual military threat to their chances of winning the war against Franco.
Finally, Orwell addresses the accusations that the POUM are a Trotskyist organization. By examining three different possible definitions of the word “Trotskyist,” he argues that this charge revealed nothing about the POUM’s actual ideology, but that it was merely used as an insult, equivalent to calling someone a traitor and a criminal.
Orwell focuses on the power of words to carry even nonsensical accusations. The word “Trotskyist” was never clearly defined in the press and, as such, conveyed a mysterious sense of shame and culpability, but it was not attached to any particular crime.
Orwell explains that he has discussed the accusations against the POUM in such detail because he believes that this fighting within the leftwing coalition was not trivial but, rather, was the most dangerous force undermining the anti-Fascist coalition. Eliminating political rivals through false accusations, Orwell argues, is a typical Communist technique. Its only effect is to breed political intolerance, divide the political left, and impede serious discussion of complicated events.
Orwell identifies the true enemy of the anti-Fascist cause not as the Fascists themselves, but as a group in the anti-Fascist coalition: the Communists. The Communists’ anti-democratic behavior resulted in the breakdown of the very democracy for which they were supposedly fighting.