Posts Tagged ‘Ernest Mandel’

The Spanish Civil War and the Real Origins of Orwell’s Anti-Communism

January 2, 2019

Orwell’s 1984 is one of the very greatest classic dystopian novels depicting a bleak future in which the state has nearly absolute, total control. It’s particularly impressed Russians and others, who lived through and criticized Stalinism. Some of these have expressed amazement at how Orwell could have written the book without actually experiencing the horrific reality of Stalin’s USSR for himself. After the War, Orwell became a snitch for MI5 providing the agency with information on the suspected Communists. It’s a sordid part of his brilliant career as an anti-imperialist, socialist writer and activist. Conservatives have naturally seized on Orwell’s 1984, and the earlier satire, Animal Farm, to argue that the great writer had become so profoundly disillusioned that he had abandoned socialism altogether to become a fierce critic of it.

This is unlikely, as the previous year Orwell had written The Lion and the Unicorn, subtitled Socialism and the English. This examined English identity, and argued that for socialism to win in England, it had to adapt to British traditions and the English national character. But it didn’t reject socialism. Instead, it looked forward to a socialist victory and a socialist revolution, but one that would be so in keeping with English nationhood that some would wonder if there had been a revolution at all. He believed this would come about through the increasing blurring of class lines, and pointed to the emergence of a class of people occupying suburban council housing, who could not be easily defined as either working or middle class.

This view of the necessity of developing of a particularly British, English variety of socialism was one of the fundamental assumptions of the Fabians. They said in the History of the society that

‘Fabian Essays’ presented the case for Socialism in plain language which everybody could understand. It based Socialism, not on the speculations of a German philosopher, but on the obvious evolution of society as we see it around us. It accepted economic science as taught by the accredited British professors; it built up the edifice of Socialism on the foundations of our existing political and social institutions; it proved that Socialism was but the next step in the development of society, rendered inevitable by the changes which followed from the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century.

In Lane W. Lancaster, Masters of Political Thought, Vol. 3, Hegel to Dewey (London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd 1959) 309.

George Bernard Shaw, in his paper ‘The Transition to Social Democracy’, also stressed that the movement towards socialism was a proper part of general developments in British society. He wrote of the Fabian programme

There is not one new item in it. All are applications of principles already in full activity. All have on them that stamp of the vestry which is so congenial to the British mind. None of them compel the use of the words Socialism or Evolution; at no point do they involve guillotining, declaring the Rights of Man, swearing on the alter of the country, or anything else that is supposed to be essentially un-English. And they are all sure to come – landmarks on our course already visible to far-sighted politicians even of the party that dreads them.

Lancaster, op. cit., p. 316.

Shaw was right, and continues to be right. Thatcher wanted to privatise everything because she was afraid of the ‘ratcheting down’ of increasing nationalization, and believed this would result in the gradual emergence of a completely socialized British economy. And the fact that so much British socialism was based on British rather than continental traditions may also explain why Conservatives spend so much of their effort trying to persuade the public that that Socialists, or at least the Labour left, are all agents of Moscow.

It appears to me that what turned Orwell into an anti-Communist was seeing the Communist party abandon its socialist allies and attack their achievements under Stalin’s orders in the Spanish Civil War. The Trotskyite writer Ernest Mandel discusses this betrayal in his From Stalinism to Eurocommunism (New York: Schocken Books 1978).

The switch to a defence of the bourgeois state and the social status quo in the ‘democratic’ imperialist countries – which implied the defence of private property in the event of severe social crisis and national defence in the event of imperialist war – was made officially by the Seventh Congress of the Comintern. It had been preceded by an initial turn in this direction by the French Communist Party (PCF) when the Stalin-Laval military pact was signed. The clearest reflection of this turn was the Popular Front policy; its most radical effects came with the application of this policy during the Spanish Civil War. In Spain, the Communist Party made itself the most determined, consistent and bloody defender of the reestablishment of the bourgeois order against the collectivisations spontaneously effected by the workers and poor peasants of the Republic and against the organs of power created by the proletariat, particularly the committees and militias, which had inflicted a decisive defeat on the miltaro-fascist insurgents in nearly all the large cities of the country in July 1936. (p. 18).

Others have also pointed out that the nightmare world of 1984 is a depiction of a revolution that has taken the wrong turn, not one that has failed, which is another tactic adopted by Conservative propagandists. Orwell was greatly impressed by the achievements of the Spanish anarchists, and anarchism is highly critical of state socialism and particularly the USSR.

It thus seems to me that what Orwell attacked in Animal Farm and 1984 was not socialism as such, but its usurpation and abuse by bitterly intolerant, repressive groups like the Bolsheviks. It was a view partly based by what he had seen in Spain, and would no doubt have been reinforced by his awareness of the way Stalin had also rounded up, imprisoned and shot socialist dissidents in the USSR. Orwell was probably anti-Communist, not anti-Socialist.