Where does a free society end and a police state begin? It's a question which vexed one of the world's finest political commentators, George Orwell, during his six months' service in the Spanish Civil War. And a question which remains just as relevant today, a whole millennium later.
1984 And The Spanish Civil War's the second in Paul Read's Forgotten Stories from Spain series. In terms of what's happening now in the Iberian political landscape, it's essential reading. Especially considering the parallels between a reactionary fascist force, Franco's Falange, and a reactionary quasi-fascist Partido Popular government.
We make a fine trio: George Orwell, Paul Read, and me. Unashamedly Republican as we all are. After all, the very first article I wrote for The Huffington Post compared one dogmatic dictator from Galicia, Francisco Franco, with another, Mariano Rajoy. Both intent on reversing the democratic advances made by their political predecessors.
An impeccably well-read Read's quick to acknowledge the debt we all owe to Orwell: "His work serves as a warning to not only critically look at the messages our governments issue about what is happening in the world, but what happened in the past as well." "This was Orwell's legacy to us, and it all began in Spain." The author of Homage to Catalonia's then heroes were the anarchists; these days he'd no doubt champion the cause of those looking to give power to the people, Podemos.
George Orwell was no armchair journalist. Sent to cover the Spanish Civil War as a reporter, he decided not only to observe but to participate. The resulting copy he filed was from a freedom fighter's perspective rather than journo on a jolly.
Many assume that Orwell fought, like many of his volunteer countrymen, for the International Brigades. But no, he attached himself to a minute Marxist militia, operating under the umbrella of the CNT (Confederacion National de Trabajordores). An experience which coloured his courageous convictions.
Orwell found himself drawn to the anarchists who organized themselves horizontally rather than vertically, mindful perhaps of the old saying "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely". He admired their puritanism, shutting down Barcelona brothels and gambling houses with bookshops springing up in their place. One imagines a Catalan capital with a Sempere & Sons popping up on every corner.
The Barcelona Orwell lovingly wrote about in Homage to Catalonia was a city under siege. Not just from Francoist forces but from the enemy within the left's resistance: the Communists. Read writes of "the re-defining of the POUM militia from a revolutionary Trotskyist organisation fighting for the defence of Spain, into a Fascist organisation fighting for the overthrow of Spain."
For Stalin was already the great dictator Franco would become. And just as mainstream left-wingers have labelled Podemos as fascist wolves in socialist sheep's clothing, the Soviets tarred "the non-communist left in Spain - and in particular in Catalonia - as fascists or semi-fascists." A lie perpetuated by Western journalists who feared that if the Soviet Union pulled out, Franco's victory was assured.
Orwell's own publisher, Victor Gollancz, decided not to release Homage to Catalonia because he felt it might harm the war effort. It was this betrayal which made the writer later switch to a more poetic portrait of his point of view in Animal Farm and 1984. With allegory replacing cold, hard fact.
Another enemy of Orwell was his 6´2¨ height, with the author dwarfing his fellow soldiers. This made him an easy target in the trenches and, indeed, he was shot through the throat. And his literary refusal to remove his head from the parapet would leave him open to attack after his involvement in the Spanish Civil War too; from an increasing army of critics.
For the purposes of writing this review, I received a free copy of Forgotten Stories From Spain: 1984 And The Spanish Civil War.