Upon returning to Barcelona, Orwell immediately notices that the atmosphere in the town has changed drastically since his last visit. In the train, as soldiers and peasants mingled in joyous commotion, the cheerful atmosphere of the front was maintained throughout the trip. However, as soon as they reach Barcelona, the men are met with deep hostility. The revolutionary atmosphere, Orwell notices, has entirely vanished and working-class control is no longer apparent. To whatever extent the city might still show signs of being in the midst of a war, it has returned to the normal rhythm of a bourgeois, capitalist city.
In Barcelona it seems the revolution was only a fragile, temporary event. Months later, as people’s enthusiasm for the war has receded in the face of ordinary civilian life, Orwell is not yet able to grasp the reasons for this sudden shift. His surprise at the current state of affairs highlights the extent to which men at the front are unaware of political dynamics taking place in the rear. It also suggests that Orwell’s initial optimism—his belief that revolutionary ideals had truly transformed the city of Barcelona—was probably naïve.
Instead of wearing working-class clothing, the crowds in Barcelona have gone back to wearing the fashionable outfits of the period. Orwell notices a surprisingly high number of members of the newly formed Popular Army, an army not affiliated with any political party, intended to replace the militias. In the meantime, while the revolutionary militias are fighting at the front, the Popular Army is training in the rear. The Popular Army is organized on a slightly more hierarchical basis than the militias and Orwell notices that they wear much homogeneous, official-looking uniforms, in stark contrast with the ragged militias.
Both the civilian population and the new Popular Army demonstrate conventionally capitalist habits. The Popular Army’s superior dress signals that they enjoy greater resources than the militias. This suggests that the Republican Government might be intentionally transferring resources away from the militias and, more generally, away from the revolution. The differential treatment of these two types of troops appears incomprehensible and unjust. It suggests that Orwell’s own camp might be more divided than he initially thought.
Even though most of these men have not yet fought in the war, they all carry an automatic pistol, a weapon that is desperately needed at the front. When he compares himself to these men, Orwell is extremely aware of how ragged and unkempt he and his fellow militiamen look to the civil population. When he notices how people stare at them, he feels uneasy, aware that the prestige he enjoyed before leaving the front has faded away.
Orwell becomes aware of the irreconcilable gap between his experience of the war in a revolutionary militia and ordinary civilians’ attitudes toward the war. This also serves as an indication that the Republican camp is not as united and homogeneous as he had initially believed.
Over the next few days, Orwell becomes convinced that the city has undergone a profound shift. He identifies two main changes. First, the civilian population has lost all interest in the war. Second, society’s normal class divisions are becoming apparent once again.
Everything Orwell sees in Barcelona is at odds with his personal mindset. For him, the effort to transform society for the better should be the center of attention, but this is no longer what most civilians believe.
Orwell is shocked by the population’s indifference to the war. To a man returning from the dangers of the front, such disinterest is horrifying. Part of the reason for this civilian lack of interest, Orwell explains, is undoubtedly Barcelona’s distance from the front. In other cities, such as Madrid and Valencia, which are much closer to actual fighting, people are much more capable of displaying solidarity and camaraderie. Another reason, he argues, is people’s disappointment in the revolution. As working-class control slowly began to give way to ordinary class divisions, people became disillusioned with the idea of revolution and with the war more generally. Instead of keeping up the fight for working-class control, which they saw as a lost cause, people decided that they simply wanted the war to end.
Orwell realizes that geography can cause divisions within the anti-Fascist camp, and that a town’s distance from the front causes its inhabitants to be more or less involved in the military fight against the Fascists. It seems that feeling personally involved in the conflict, as Orwell has been, is crucial in sustaining social and political convictions. The revolutionary fervor that Orwell had considered a permanent state of affairs was circumstantial and temporary. His own camp, therefore, does not unilaterally support the war.
As people’s attention shifted away from the front, the more politically conscious members of society began to focus more on political infighting within the Republican coalition than on the greater goal of defeating Fascism. In turn, most of the population primarily cared about material needs and the problem of the food shortage. Men returning from the front were no longer celebrated and the ordeals of the front were largely ignored in everyday life. In addition, a propaganda campaign was underway, denigrating the militias and eulogizing the Popular Army. In theory, the militias were integrated into the Popular Army, but in practice, as Popular Army troops were busy training in the rear and the militias were fighting in the front, the militias retained their unique characteristics, separate from the Popular Army.
Orwell becomes aware of political divisions within his own camp, the anti-Fascist Republican coalition. He realizes that not all citizens are interested in politics, for there is a larger difference between politically engaged citizens and ordinary members of society than he would have thought. In addition, the political left is plagued by military and political divisions. Despite supposedly fighting the same enemy, the two Republican armies share different ideological principles and modes of organization. These tensions can destroy people’s commitment to the anti-Fascist cause.
While Orwell was fighting at the front, vehement propaganda attacked the militias as disorganized, inefficient units, while the fact that the militias were the only forces actually defending the front was ignored as much as possible. In addition, since the militias were technically part of the Popular Army, their successes at the front were often attributed to the Popular Army in the press. The result, Orwell notes ironically, is that the news sometimes simultaneously condemned and celebrated the very same militia groups.
Political divisions within the left are evident in the media coverage of the war. The press does not provide an objective account of what is happening. Rather, it has adopted a one-sided stance to support the Popular Army and condemn the revolutionary militias. This causes the press to publish news articles that are contradictory, misleading, and unduly critical. Orwell thus shows that the press is not to be trusted.
In the city, Orwell begins to realize that what he had interpreted during his first visit as universal support for working-class control was often nothing but a ruse. While the working class was moved by revolutionary hope, the upper class fell prey to fear and adopted techniques to conceal their wealth so as to avoid retaliation. Four months later, the situation was slowly reverting to normal. Food shortages predominantly hurt the poor, who could not afford the rising prices of food, and beggars began to appear in large numbers in the street. People abandoned the informal mode of speech (“tú”) and returned to distinguishing between formal and informal relationships in conversation (“usted”).
Orwell realizes that his initial enthusiasm toward the revolution in Barcelona lacked nuance, subtlety, and political insight. While he believed that society had been completely transformed, Barcelona in fact remained divided along pre-existing (yet temporarily hidden) class lines. Evolving economic circumstances—the result of the war’s heavy toll on ordinary life—brought to light these underlying class divisions. This suggests that people’s attitudes toward revolution are weaker than he thought, moved as much by convenience as by political ideals.
A couple of days after arriving in the city, Orwell is shocked to pass by an elegant confectioner’s shop selling sweets at outrageous prices. He wonders how, in a time of war, people can spend their money on such useless goods. At the same time, Orwell admits that he partakes in exactly the same behavior. After months at the front, desperate for the luxuries of everyday life, he treats himself to any extravagance he can afford.
Orwell is aware that his attitude is somewhat hypocritical. While he is disgusted by certain outward displays of wealth, he is nevertheless able to reap the benefits of his own wealth. His attitude toward social equality does not translate easily from the front (where he shared the same material hardships as his fellow soldiers) to ordinary urban society, where his wealth and status set him apart from the difficult lives of the working class.
During this period, Orwell indulges in refined food, begins to feel sick from such excesses, and acquires a revolver. At the same time, he also makes plans to leave the POUM and go fight with the Communists in Madrid, in order to take part in real battles. While he would have wanted to join the Anarchists, logistical reasons made it more convenient for him to join the International Column, a group of international volunteers attached to the Communist Party.
Orwell’s decision to leave the POUM for another political group, the Communists, is not ideological but practical, intended to make him feel more involved in military life. The ease with which he considers switching from one political group to the next signals that he is not yet fully aware of the irreconcilable differences between Spanish leftwing parties.
Looking back, Orwell reflects on the street fighting between Communists and Anarchists that was soon to take place in Barcelona. Had he joined the Communists and been sent away from Barcelona, he argues, he would probably have accepted the common narrative about the street fighting that was presented in the press. However, for trivial reasons (such as the fact that Orwell was still waiting on a new pair of boots he had ordered), he postponed his arrangements to leave for the Madrid front. As a result, he was still under POUM allegiance during the Barcelona fighting.
Orwell realizes that political loyalty can be shaped by purely arbitrary circumstances, such as being present in the right place at the right time. His entire political destiny is, at least in part, shaped by the unpredictability of chance events. Subsequently, belonging to a particular group influences one’s entire interpretation of events, making it impossible to retain an objective view of the conflict.
In the city, the atmosphere is so tense that an outbreak of violence seems inevitable. Political tensions are brewing under the surface and everyone can sense that trouble will soon emerge. The main reason for such tension is the division between leftwing parties that want for the revolution to continue (the Anarchists and the POUM) and parties that want to suppress it (the Communists). While the Communists hold most of the political power in Catalonia, the Anarchists are supported by a large section of the population and by members in key industries. The Communists want to assert their control in the political game and confiscate the weapons that the working class still possesses. As the Civil Guards (an armed police force traditionally protective of the upper class) are being reinstated, it becomes apparent that the Communists will unite with the police to seize the Anarchists’ weapons by force.
Orwell realizes that, even among leftwing parties, the revolution was not accepted unilaterally. Paradoxically, while the issue of social revolution solidified Orwell’s commitment to the anti-Fascist cause, it is in fact the major issue dividing the anti-Fascist coalition. This internal political disagreement within the left is a real conflict, pitting two camps with varying economic, material, and political resources against each other. The Communists, Orwell realizes, are not afraid to attack their own allies in order to uphold their anti-revolutionary views, regardless of the need for unity in time of war.
A few incidents prove that these tensions can indeed evolve into violence. In various cities in Spain, police forces attempt to seize buildings controlled by the Anarchists and, in one instance, kill a prominent Anarchist. In Barcelona, murders are committed by both sides, and the public funerals that follow often serve to heighten divisions between the Communists and the Anarchists. The foreign capitalist press does not take an objective stance on the topic, but adopts a one-sided view. It publicizes the murders of Communists while largely ignoring the fact that Anarchists are also being killed.
As the political tension between Anarchists and Communists mounts, Orwell realizes that the press is an unreliable and partisan source of information, as it always sides with the Communists. It becomes apparent that what Orwell had read in the press before coming to Spain, where the Spanish Civil War was presented as an easy conflict between Fascists and anti-Fascists, is at odds with the political reality on the ground.