The Unfolded Lie

The grandeur of George Orwell, in our store of moral and intellectual memory, is to be found partly in his very lack of grandeur. He is remembered, with different and varying degrees of distinctness, as the man who confronted three of the great crises of the 20th century and got all three of them, so to speak, "right." He was right, early and often, about the menace presented by fascism and national socialism not just to the peace of the world but to the very idea of civilization. And he was right about Stalinism, about the great and the small temptations that it offered to certain kinds of intellectuals and about the monstrous consequences that would ensue from that nightmarish sleep of reason.

He brought off this triple achievement, furthermore, in his lowly capacity as an impoverished freelance journalist and amateur novelist. He had no resources beyond his own; he enjoyed the backing of no party or organization or big newspaper, let alone any department of state. Much of his energy was dissipated in the simple struggle to get published or in the banal effort to meet a quotidian schedule of bills and deadlines. He had no university education, no credential nor area of expertise. He had no capital. Yet his unexciting pen-name, drawn from a rather placid English river, is known to millions as a synonym for prescience and integrity, and the adjective "Orwellian" is understood widely and--this has its significance--ambivalently. To describe a situation as "Orwellian" is to announce dystopia: the triumph of force and sadism and demagogy over humanism. To call a person "Orwellian" is to summon the latent ability of an individual to resist such triumphs, or at least to see through them and call them by their right names.

Though he is best remembered for his satires upon, and polemics against, the big lie and grand illusion--he properly understood that it was both--of the "Great Soviet Experiment," Orwell acquired the necessary knowledge and insight for that task as a front-line fighter against the European right and its "crusade" (the term actually employed by Franco and his Vatican supporters) to immolate the Spanish Republic. It was while serving in Catalonia that he survived a fascist bullet through his throat while in the trenches, but he very nearly did not survive a Communist stab in the back while recuperating in Barcelona. From this near-accidental opportunity to bear witness came the body of work we now understand as "Orwellian." This work had been slowly begun in the sullen villages of colonial Burma and was refined in slums and coal mines and doss houses and on the picket lines of the Depression, but the crucible--or the point where the hammer met the anvil--was in Spain.

Introducing the American edition of "Homage to Catalonia" in 1952 (the first such edition, incidentally, because the book did not find a publisher in the United States until 14 years after it was written and two years after its author had died a virtual pauper), Lionel Trilling made the uncondescending observation that Orwell was not a genius. By this he meant and stated very finely:

"If we ask what it is that he stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one's simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do

This judgment strikes me as being simultaneously true and beautiful. Orwell was physically brave in Spain but not heroically so. He did no more than countless other volunteer soldiers and suffered very much less than many of them. But when he was put to the test and stumbled across an important chunk of evidence, he had to confront the strong pressure either to lie or to keep silent. Here again, he was exceptional rather than exemplary. He simply resolved that he would tell the truth as he saw it and would stipulate that he had only the vantage point of a bewildered and occasionally frightened but nonetheless determined individual. He repeatedly enjoins the reader, in effect, not to take him upon trust:

"It will never be possible to get a completely accurate and unbiased account of the Barcelona fighting, because the necessary records do not exist. Future historians will have nothing to go upon except a mass of accusations and party propaganda. I myself have little data beyond what I saw with my own eyes and what I have learned from other eye-witnesses whom I believe to be reliable."

In this properly provisional verdict, however, he unknowingly erred on the side of pessimism. The history of the May events in Barcelona in 1937 was certainly buried for years under a slag heap of slander and falsification. Orwell, indeed, derived his terrifying notion of the memory-hole and the rewritten past, in "Nineteen Eighty-four," from exactly this single instance of the abolished memory. "This kind of thing is frightening to me," he wrote about Catalonia, "because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world:

"After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history .... The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, 'It never happened'--well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five--well, two and two are five."

But in our very immediate past, documents have surfaced to show that his vulgar, empirical, personal, commonsensical deposition was verifiable after all. The recent opening of communist records in Moscow and of closely held Franco-era documentation in Madrid and Salamanca has provided a posthumous vindication.

The narrative core of "Homage to Catalonia," it might be argued, is a series of events that occurred in and around the Barcelona telephone exchange in early May 1937. Orwell was a witness to these events, by the relative accident of his having signed up with the militia of the anti-Stalinist POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista) upon arriving in Spain. Allowing as he did for the bias that this lent to his firsthand observations, he nonetheless became convinced that he had been the spectator of a full-blown Stalinist putsch, complete with rigged evidence, false allegations and an ulterior hand directed by Moscow. The outright and evidently concerted fabrications that immediately followed in the press, which convinced or neutralized so many "progressive intellectuals," only persuaded him the more that he had watched a lie being gestated and then born.

Well, now we have the papers of the Soviet Military Archive in Moscow, formally known as the State Military Archive. "Document Forty-Two," in the series dealing with Spain, provides us with the text of a lengthy unsigned report delivered on April 15, 1937, and forwarded by Georgi Dimitrov to Marshal Voroshilov. The importance of the traffic is emphasized by this very routing: Unimportant messages did not go from the head of the Comintern to the chief of the Red Army and thus almost certainly to Stalin himself. (The actual author may well have been Andre Marty, the French-born Comintern agent for Spain, memorably etched in at least some of his cold hatefulness by Ernest Hemingway in "For Whom the Bell Tolls.")

In robotic prose, the author characterizes the non-communist left in the Spanish Republic and specifically in Catalonia as "fascists or semi-fascists." He goes on to describe the position of Moscow as "absolutely correct on every question." This slavish stuff might be called routine, but just after a paean to the "natural and indisputable" inevitability of a Communist Party victory, the writer of the report comes to the point. A crisis may be objectively brewing, given the staunchly anti-Russian positions taken by Largo Caballero and his republican cabinet, but it may still need some subjective assistance. In fact, the duty of the party involves "not wailing passively for a 'natural' unleashing of the hidden-government crisis, but to hasten it and, if necessary, to provoke it." The date of this proposal, which also announces that "the Party is waiting for your advice on this question," anticipates the communist police attack on the Barcelona telephone exchange by a matter of a little more than two weeks.

The succeeding paper, "Document Forty-Three," was written on May 11 and is the first report back to the Comintern on the mixed results of the action. Regretting the extent to which the POUM and other forces had been able to resist the Stalinist onslaught, the author (whose identity in this instance is uncertain) relays the demand for "energetic and merciless repression" by means of a "military tribunal for the Trotskyists." (These documents, and many others of extraordinary interest, were disclosed as a consequence of an exclusive agreement between the State Military Archive and Yale University Press. They appear in full in "Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War," by Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov, reviewed on Page 1.) There is no need for guesswork about the meaning of this; Peter Davison's work on Orwell has already established that a Catalan version of the Moscow show-trials was in preparation and that Orwell and his wife, Eileen, would have been in the dock--an NKVD file unearthed in Moscow and dated July 13, 1937, describes them as "pronounced Trotskyists"--had they not managed to slip across the border into France. As it was, many of their English comrades were imprisoned and vilely ill-used, and Andres Nin, the leader of the POUM, was kidnapped by Stalin's agents and tortured to death. With each succeeding disclosure from the records of the period, it becomes clearer that Orwell's freehand sketch of events was a journalistic understatement.

"Part of his malaise," wrote Jennie Lee, who saw Orwell in those terrible days, "was that he was not only a socialist but profoundly liberal. He hated regimentation wherever he found it, even in the socialist ranks." Lee went on to become the wife of Aneurin Bevan, who was also Orwell's editor and patron at Tribune. Her choice of the word "malaise" and her stress upon regimentation are both oddly paradoxical. To many supporters of the Spanish Republic, especially to foreigners who did not wish to impose themselves (as well as to those who did), it seemed axiomatic that one should first win the war against a fascist mutiny supported by Hitler and Mussolini and only then discuss the shape of the future. Orwell, the old Etonian, former colonial policeman and lifetime foe of affectations and posturings, might have been expected to be highly susceptible to this no-nonsense approach. In fact, in his "Notes on the Spanish Militia," discussing a POUM attack on Huesca, he writes, "I was not in this show, but I heard from others who were that the POUM troops behaved well." It sounds amazingly like a stiff-upper-lip staff officer ("this show") of the generation before.

Yet when it came to it, this rather insular and reserved Englishman--renowned in his own detachment as a bit of a stickler for discipline, whose wife when at the Aragon front wrote yearningly of Crosse & Blackwell pickles and Lea & Perrins sauce and good old English marmalade--brought himself to see that a conventional military victory was an illusion and that what the place really needed was a thorough social and political revolution. Moreover, he came to understand that much of the talk about "discipline" and "unity" was a rhetorical shield for the covert Stalinization of the Spanish Republic. Undoubtedly, he was assisted to this conclusion by the caliber of the revolutionaries he met, both Catalan and international (he often finds occasion in these pages to speak well of the German comrades). And, of course, he could tell in his bones and from experience that the Stalinists were lying. As a consequence, the honor of many decent and brave people was upheld, through his fragmentary but consistent writings, against a positive downpour of calumny and malice. This can sometimes make one feel better about the supposedly hopeless pragmatism, the sheer want of theoretical capacity, of the island race.

Integrity, though, is not just a matter of dogged adherence. It is most striking to see, in these pages, how Orwell continues to fight with the weapons of patience and politeness. Whether it is in combating an anonymous reviewer in The Listener (a stolid adherent of the common sense school) or debating with other leftists like Raymond Postgate, he maintains the rules of rational argument and never--except in taking the odd potshot at an occasional fascist--descends into mere invective. He monitors reports of the trial of the POUM, keeps up the search for news of his missing or imprisoned friends and steadily answers all his correspondence. Every now and then, we glimpse another "flash-forward" to the raw material of "Animal Farm" or "Nineteen Eighty-four," as when we read of his old comrade Georges Kopp being tortured by confinement with rats or when Orwell dryly notes that Antonov-Ovseenko, the Soviet commissar in Barcelona charged with the extirpation of Trotskyism, has himself been indicted in Moscow for Trotskyist deviations, or when in Orwell's papers we find Bertram Wolfe's eulogy to Nin, with its evident influence on the world of Goldstein and Big Brother. The only lacuna--and it is an odd one, given Orwell's sensitivity to colonial questions--concerns the subject of Morocco. It was from this base, and with a heavily Moorish army, that Franco's aggression had been launched. The demand of the Trotskyist left was that Spanish Morocco should be immediately given its independence, first as a matter of principle and second because it might undermine Franco's imperial rearguard. The communist line was to oppose this, because such a policy would alienate Britain and France, the other two colonial powers in North Africa. Meanwhile, they used chauvinist propaganda against the employment of dark-skinned infidels by a Catholic crusade. The argument was a very intense one at the time; it is disappointing to find Orwell having so little to say about it.

The intellectuals and writers of enlightened Europe generated shelf upon shelf of prose and poetry during the Spanish Civil War, but it is absolutely safe to say that most of this stuff would not bear reprinting except as a textbook in credulity and/or bad faith. There is barely a sentence, however, in this collection that causes a wince or a shudder. Orwell, who did not share the febrile enthusiasm of the clenched-fist cheerleaders and propagandists, nonetheless had a deeper belief than they did in the capacities of the Spanish people. His work also acts as a prophylactic against the efforts of a certain revisionist school, which now likes to argue that the victory of Franco was preferable after all, because the alternative would have been a prototype "Peoples' Democracy" of the order of Czechoslovakia in 1948. Orwell, who had grasped the nature of "Peoples' Democracy" more acutely than most, argued to the contrary. An awful tyranny was possible in either case, he granted, but:

"Given a Government victory, it seems much likelier that Spain will develop into a capitalist Republic of the type of France than into a socialist state. What seems certain, however, is that no regression to a semi-feudal, priest-ridden regime of the kind that existed up to 1931 or, indeed, up to 1936 is now possible. Such regimes, by their nature, depend upon a general apathy and ignorance which no longer exist in Spain. The people have seen and learned too much. At the lowest estimate, there are several million people who have become impregnated with ideas which make them bad material for an authoritarian state."

In the event of a Franco victory, as Orwell also noted, "the desire for liberty, for knowledge and for a decent standard of living has spread far too widely to be killed by obscurantism or persecution." Those who assert that Spain would have become Stalinized in the event of a Franco defeat are also fond of arguing that Franco's regime was relatively benign, as against Hitler's, say, and that it gave way in the end to democratic evolution from below. Why could not this be true in the opposing case, and for much the same reasons? The missing element in the calculation is the ability of people to make their own history, an ability that Orwell did not doubt since he had seen it demonstrated. Dystopia might win, but it did not have to, and it might not last. In this sense, the courage and bearing of the Catalans taught Orwell to argue against his own direst premonitions.

He was prescient even in the smaller things, writing in 1943 that it was mistaken to believe, as many did, "that Franco will fight for the Axis if the Allies invade Europe. Fidelity is not the strong point of the minor dictators." To combat Franco in 1937 was to hope for a reverse of European fascism tout court once that struggle had been betrayed by Stalin and Chamberlain and Daladier, matters resumed the banal shape of Realpolitik and local compromise. Excess of zeal is a poor guide, especially for the ideologically inclined.

Just such an excess of wartime enthusiasm, and of the puritanism that may accompany it, led Orwell to commit his only lapse into demagogy. In May 1937--that cruelest of months for the cause, as it was to turn out--W.H. Auden published his extraordinary poem "Spain," which first appeared as a shilling pamphlet with proceeds donated to Medical Aid for the Spanish Republic. In a long and extremely moving evolution of verses, the poet attempted to express his emotion for the martyred country itself ("that arid square, nipped off from hot Africa and soldered so crudely to inventive Europe"), to hymn its centrality in the hearts of thinking and feeling people ("Our thoughts have bodies/The menacing shapes of our fever/Are precise and alive") and to register the moral agony that was experienced by intellectuals who abandoned neutrality and decided to support the use of force by their chosen side:

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death;

The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;

To-day the expending of powers

On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

In successive articles, one of them written for The Adelphi in 1938 and another more celebrated under the title "Inside the Whale," Orwell emptied the vials of contempt over this stanza in particular. He denounced it as "a sort of thumb-nail sketch of a day in the life of a 'good party man.' In the morning a couple of political murders, a ten-minutes' interlude to stifle 'bourgeois' remorse, and then a hurried luncheon and a busy afternoon and evening chalking walls and distributing leaflets. All very edifying. But notice the phrase 'necessary murder.' It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder .... The Hitlers and the Stalins find murder necessary, but they don't advertise their callousness, and they don't speak of it as murder; it is 'liquidation,' 'elimination' or some other soothing phrase. Mr. Auden's brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled."

The laden sarcasm here is more than slightly thuggish; it also reflects one of Orwell's less agreeable habits of mind, which was an instinctive prejudice against homosexuals. (Allusions to "pansy" or "nancy" poets elsewhere in his writing are common enough. They are usually directed at Auden or his supposed clique and are the only expletives uttered by Orwell that could also have been authored by Zhdanov or some other Stalinist cultural enforcer.)

Auden of course exemplified nothing of the kind; in order to believe that he did, you would have to find the words (not the phrases) "liquidation" or "elimination" to be "soothing." His "brand of amoralism" consisted in trying to be direct and honest about the consequences of going to Spain and overcoming what were essentially pacifist scruples. For example, though he broadcast propaganda for the republican government from Valencia, he was revolted by the burning of churches, revolutionary actions which Orwell always reports and refers to with the utmost breeziness as to be expected in time of class warfare and civil strife.

It isn't clear how much immediate effect Orwell's polemic had on Auden, but in 1939 he revised "Spain" to delete all allusion to such choices, and after the 1950s he would not permit the poem to be anthologized at all. This is in more than one way a pity, because it robs us of a magnificent minor epic in verse and leaves stranded and isolated a haunting phrase which many people have heard but which fewer and fewer people can "place." That phrase--"History to the Defeated"--forms part of the climax of the poem and suggests in an elegiac way that the losers will never be granted their meed of honor. To them, history "May say Alas but cannot help or pardon." In later life, Auden came, wrongly in my humble opinion, to think of this as an expression of the repulsive idea that impersonal or Hegelian capital-H "History" was necessarily on the side of the triumphant big battalions.

Yet "History to the Defeated" is the underlying subject and text of this collection of pages and fragments. Like several others in the "midnight of the century," the glacial period that reached its nadir in the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Orwell wrote gloomily but defiantly for the bottom drawer. He belongs in the lonely 1930s tradition of Victor Serge and Boris Souvarine, and David Rousset--speaking truth to power but without a real audience or a living jury. It is almost tragic that, picking through the rubble of that epoch, one cannot admire him and Auden simultaneously. "All I have is a voice," wrote Auden in "September 1, 1939," "To undo the folded lie,/The romantic lie in the brain ... And the lie of Authority." All Orwell had was a voice, and to him, too, the blatant lies of authority were one thing and the "folded" lies that clever people tell themselves were another. The tacit or overt collusion between the two was the ultimate foe.

In Catalonia three years ago, the history of the defeated was finally celebrated as a victory. A square near the Barcelona waterfront was named Placa George Orwell, while a street in the town of Can Rull was named Calle Andres Nin. Present at the dedications were many veterans of the Barcelona "May Days" of 1937, who had survived to bear witness because Nin never betrayed any names to his interrogators and murderers. The translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy that are read by Catalan schoolchildren are Nin's translations; he was a figure in Catalonia's literary and linguistic revival and a lover of Russia for the same reason that he was a hater of Stalin. The history of the Civil War that is taught to Catalan schoolchildren now includes Orwell and has been wiped clean of any totalitarian or revisionist taint.

Truth, it turns out, is great after all, and can prevail. Orwell's writings are a modest individual illustration of that mighty proposition, which will always stand in need of volunteers to vindicate it.

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