I read with interest Dougie Harrison's
article on George Orwell. The characters in the novel Animal Farm
are usually compared to USSR leaders. As 1984 approached, I was working as a bridge engineer in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was president and led the Iraqi Ba'ath Party. Understandably, there were a few Iraqis who were not exactly enamoured with their government. I became friendly with one of the local engineers, Hamid, who asked me to recommend some books that would help to improve his English. I managed to smuggle a few books into Iraq, including Animal Farm
I was sitting in my office one morning with the door open (a closed door could only mean that you had something to hide). I heard these chortles coming from down the corridor. Intrigued and curious, I sauntered down to the door of Hamid's office. His door was open as well and he was sitting behind his desk reading Animal Farm
. I asked him what was so funny? 'It's these pigs,' he said, 'I can fit every one to leaders of the Ba'ath Party'. Needless to say, the book was burned that afternoon.
My considerable enjoyment of Dougie Harrison's affectionate appraisal of George Orwell the man was slightly marred by two linked mistakes I believe I detected.
The first and more unquestionable was the erroneous assertion that Orwell fought in Spain with the communist-dominated International Brigades. This, unfortunately, is not only mistaken but greatly
mistaken. Orwell served in the first part of 1937 near Alcubierre on the Aragon Front where the Francoist rebel professional army was opposed by a raggle-taggle bunch of volunteer amateur soldiers, mainly under the flag of the anarchist CNT trade union supplemented by the allegedly Trotskyist POUM political party, in whose ranks Orwell had enlisted.
Only a few months later, in early May 1937, a 'civil war within the civil war' broke out on the streets of Barcelona following which the CNT-POUM allies were purged from power, both from the Catalan Government and from the Central Government then in Valencia. Amongst many others, POUM leader Andrés Nin was liquidated by elements of the by now communist-dominated Republican side. Incidentally, Glasgow University student Bob Smillie, aligned like Orwell with the POUM via the ILP, was part of the resulting collateral damage, though he died in a jail in Valencia rather than in Barcelona.
Quite by chance, Orwell was on leave in Barcelona for those murderous days and I believe the fact that he subsequently only missed sharing the fate of both Nin and Smillie at the hands of the communists by the skin of his teeth can be seen as the single most significant 'personal-political' experience of his life. Certainly, from my point of view, it explains what I view as Dougie's second, more debatable, error.
In his peroration, Dougie reflects on the irony of Orwell's having become after his death a cats-paw of the West in the cold war and, though he doesn't use the word, the adjective 'unwilling' permeates his analysis. But was Orwell unwilling to side with the West against the communists in the Cold War; which latter term he himself first coined? I think not.
One of the strongest arguments in my favour is the list of fellow travellers which in May 1949 Orwell handed to an obscure quango which was part of the British Intelligence Services. Whilst the renowned commentator Timothy Arton-Gash attributed this controversial decision to a witches' brew of death-bed anguish topped by sexual passion, my reading is very much simpler. Having witnessed first-hand in Barcelona the crude, violent reality of Stalininist repression, culminating in the merciless liquidation of perceived enemies, Orwell came to the conclusion that, post-Second World War, he knew viscerally which of the two contending sides any surviving angels were on.
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