National and international newspapers portrayed the Spanish Civil War as a fight between good and evil, or democracy and Fascism, but personal experience of the war ultimately convinced Orwell that this was an overly simplistic—and even misleading—way of reporting on the conflict in Spain. Although Orwell came to Spain to fight Fascism, he quickly realized that the political left (those opposed to Fascism) was a loose coalition of parties with divergent political interests and different visions for the future of Spain. Orwell’s disillusionment with the left was the result of his realization that infighting among political leftists, rather than the military assault from the political right, handed the Fascists a victory, and that leftist parties do not hesitate to use undemocratic tactics to assert their political dominance. Thus, Orwell comes to see that the left is not unambiguously “good,” and the heart of the Spanish Civil war is not a fight between democracy and Fascism so much as a struggle for dominance among the different parties of the political left.
Ideologically, the Spanish political left is divided into two camps: those supporting and those opposing social revolution. Orwell does not initially believe this difference to be of much relevance to the war. On one side, the Liberals, Communists, and right-wing Socialists aim to rebuild the prewar democratic society with a central government and a militarized army. They believe that pursuing revolutionary goals detracts from the more important objective of winning the war. As such, they wish for the social revolution to be suppressed. On the other side, the Anarchists, POUM (Marxists), and left-wing Socialists want to build a new society controlled by the working class. To them, the war and the revolution are inseparable, for a return to ordinary democracy would simply mean accepting capitalism, a system that is oppressive of the working class. However irreconcilable the two camps might be, Orwell does not initially believe this ideological rift to be of much importance. He believes that, in the context of war, the political left will be able to remain united against its common enemy, Fascism.
However, as the war drags on, Orwell realizes that the issue of infighting among left-wing parties is not tangential to the war—rather, it’s at the heart of the conflict. In May 1937, Barcelona is paralyzed by street fighting between Communists and the POUM that soon turns into an all-out political war. While Orwell believes that the POUM were merely defending themselves against an attack by the police, the Communists present an entirely different narrative of the street fighting, accusing the POUM of rebelling against the Government and being Fascist sympathizers. Orwell is dismayed by this version of events, which he sees as outright lying and misinformation. Nevertheless, it is the Communists’ version of events that the media picks up and reports. As a result, the Government declares the POUM illegal and the Communist-controlled secret police begins to arrest anyone previously connected to the POUM militia. Orwell is shocked by the Government’s choice to eliminate a faction that is fighting on its own side. He realizes that he has underestimated the seriousness of political divisions in Spanish society and he comes to believe that political rivalry is a more powerful influence in the war than even the desire to protect democracy from Fascism.
As the persecution of the POUM increases, Orwell discovers that the political left is just as capable of engaging in authoritarian tactics as the political right. This leaves him disillusioned about the future of democracy in Spain. The suppression of the POUM is a “witch hunt” that affects people in every corner of society, including nurses, wives of POUM members, wounded soldiers, and even children. People are imprisoned on spurious charges and kept in prison without trial. The rule of law, as Orwell conceives of it, vanishes in the chaos of the conflict. Furthermore, the press becomes an instrument of Communist censorship and propaganda, spreading information that is at odds with the reality Orwell witnesses on a daily basis. The leftist press, he concludes, is just as vicious and inaccurate as Fascist propaganda, since it manipulates the truth in order to protect the interests of the Spanish Communist party. Simultaneously, capitalist Europe worried that revolution in Spain could undermine capitalist democracy, and as a result the Western European press chose to ignore the topic of revolution entirely, presenting the war as a simple opposition between “good” (democratic) and “bad” (Fascist) forces—the very narrative that convinced George Orwell to leave England to fight against Fascism in Spain in the first place. By dismissing the idea of revolution in Spain and exacerbating internal division in the Spanish political left, the media thwarted possibilities of political compromise, undermined democratic process, and ultimately changed the course of the war.
Political Infighting and the Media ThemeTracker
Political Infighting and the Media Quotes in Homage to Catalonia
A fat man eating quails while children are begging for bread is a disgusting sight, but you are less likely to see it when you are within sound of the guns. […] But God forbid that I should pretend to any personal superiority. After several months of discomfort I had a ravenous desire for decent food and wine, cocktails, American cigarettes, and so forth, and I admit to having wallowed in every luxury that I had money to buy.
On one side the CNT, on the other side the police. I have no particular love for the idealized ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.
I was in no danger, I suffered from nothing worse than hunger and boredom, yet it was one of the most unbearable periods of my whole life. I think few experiences could be more sickening, more disillusioning or, finally, more nerye-racking than those evil days of street warfare.
When you are taking part in events like these you are, I suppose, in a small way, making history, and you ought by rights to feel like an historical character. But you never do, because at such times the physical details always outweigh everything else. Throughout the fighting I never made the correct ‘analysis’ of the situation that was so glibly made by journalists hundreds of miles away.
As for the newspaper talk about this being a ‘war for democracy’, it was plain eyewash. No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and—because this was Spain—more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties.
In the intervening days there must have been numbers of men who were killed without ever learning that the newspapers in the rear were calling them Fascists. This kind of thing is a little difficult to forgive. I know it was the usual policy to keep bad news from the troops, and perhaps as a rule that is justified. But it is a different matter to send men into battle and not even tell them that behind their backs their party is being suppressed, their leaders accused of treachery, and their friends and relatives thrown into prison.
It did not matter what I had done or not done. This was not a round-up of criminals; it was merely a reign of terror. I was not guilty of any definite act, but I was guilty of ‘Trotskyism’. The fact that I had served in the POUM militia was quite enough to get me into prison. It was no use hanging on to the English notion that you are safe so long as you keep the law.
Smillie’s death is not a thing I can easily forgive. Here was this brave and gifted boy, who had thrown up his career at Glasgow University in order to come and fight against Fascism, and who, as I saw for myself had done his job at the front with faultless courage and willingness; and all they could find to do with him was to fling him into jail and let him die like a neglected animal.
It was queer how everything had changed. Only six months ago, when the Anarchists still reigned, it was looking like a proletarian that made you respectable. On the way down from Perpignan to Cerbères a French commercial traveller in my carriage had said to me in all solemnity: ‘You mustn't go into Spain looking like that. Take off that collar and tie. They'll tear them off you in Barcelona.’ He was exaggerating, but it showed how Catalonia was regarded. And at the frontier the Anarchist guards had turned back a smartly-dressed Frenchman and his wife, solely – I think – because they looked too bourgeois. Now it was the other way about; to look bourgeois was the one salvation.
I thought it idiotic that people fighting for their lives should have separate parties; my attitude always was, ‘Why can't we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?’ This of course was the correct ‘anti-Fascist’ attitude which had been carefully disseminated by the English newspapers, largely in order to prevent people from grasping the real nature of the struggle. But in Spain, especially in Catalonia, it was an attitude that no one could or did keep up indefinitely. Everyone, however unwillingly, took sides sooner or later. For even if one cared nothing for the political parties and their conflicting ‘lines’, it was too obvious that one's own destiny was involved.
It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a frontline trench, except on the briefest of propaganda-tours.
A tremendous dust was kicked up in the foreign anti-Fascist press, but, as usual, only one side of the case has had anything like a hearing. As a result the Barcelona fighting has been represented as an insurrection by disloyal Anarchists and Trotskyists who were ‘stabbing the Spanish Government in the back,’ and so forth. The issue was not quite so simple as that. Undoubtedly when you are at war with a deadly enemy it is better not to begin fighting among yourselves; but it is worth remembering that it takes two to make a quarrel and that people do not begin building barricades unless they have received something that they regard as a provocation.