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Orwell on Fighting Fascists: From the Spanish Civil War to Ukraine

Orwell's words still resonate today

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In 1942, as WWII was raging in Europe, George Orwell decided to look back and rethink his Spanish Civil War experience. The result is his brilliant essay entitled, “Looking back on the Spanish War.”

This essay goes beyond the complexities of this particular civil war. Orwell’s analysis explains unsavory role that media and politicians play in crafting arguments and writing history; it exposed the attack on historical facts and truth caused by political affiliation and by the lack of more credible arguments, it addresses the disturbing facts about class issues and capitalism’s implicit encouragement of fascism. Orwell’s analysis is so penetrating and insightful, that it practically provides an x-ray picture of the current Civil War in Ukraine with all its participants and supporters. Once again we have the world community which is heavily involved in the conflict.

<figcaption>A legend</figcaption>
A legend

On the one hand, there are “progressives” who take the side of Peoples Republics of Lugansk and Donetsk, with Russia providing the military support to the industrial East and paying the lip service to the concerns of its workers. Once again we have Western countries falling over backwards in their blatant anti-Russian propaganda, in their embrace of Orwellian doublespeak, in their implicit desire to squash the working class and its demands, while providing the full support of the bourgeois-fascist Kiev rulers and their Franco style politics.

Various national, religious, and cultural issues complicate and obscure the underlying conflict that manifests itself in Ukraine, but I think we owe it to the genius of Orwell to see through these complications and recognize the hidden paradigm that is as relevant today as it was seventy years ago. We also owe it to Orwell to rise above the narrow “class” or political issues, and to fight for the truth, no matter where it takes us.

Long time ago he alerted us that the avalanche of fantasies and propaganda might be stopped only by wars: “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue. And then when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

Orwell’s insights contained in his prophetic essay highlight the most important issues that puzzle today’s observers of the Ukrainian crisis. Here are some of these insights and the quotations that support them.

1. Our vested political affiliations interests preclude us from seeing atrocities committed by various sides. As we fail to even strive for objectivity, truth disappears, and history dies.

I have little direct evidence about the atrocities in the Spanish civil war. I know that some were committed by the Republicans, and far more (they are still continuing) by the Fascists. But what impressed me then, and has impressed me ever since, is that atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence. Recently I drew up a table of atrocities during the period between 1918 and the present; there was never a year when atrocities were not occurring somewhere or other, and there was hardly a single case when the Left and the Right believed in the same stories simultaneously…

The truth, it is felt, becomes untruth when your enemy utters it… Unfortunately the truth about atrocities is far worse than that they are lied about and made into propaganda. The truth is that they happen…These things really happened, that is the thing to keep one's eye on. They happened even though Lord Halifax said they happened. The raping and butchering in Chinese cities, the tortures in the cellars of the Gestapo, the elderly Jewish professors flung into cesspools, the machine-gunning of refugees along the Spanish roads — they all happened, and they did not happen any the less because the Daily Telegraph has suddenly found out about them when it is five years too late.

Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie… I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.

2. But regardless of obfuscations, fantasies, and denials, the broad truth is clear: the ruling classes will resort to anything to subjugate the working ones. Something similar is clearly bserved in the current attack at the proletarian contingent of Eastern Ukraine that includes miners, steel and other industrial workers.

The broad truth about the war is simple enough. The Spanish bourgeoisie saw their chance of crushing the labor movement, and took it, aided by the Nazis and by the forces of reaction all over the world. It is doubtful whether more than that will ever be established…

One has to remember this to see the Spanish war in its true perspective… There is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins. Nearly always one stands more or less for progress, the other side more or less for reaction. The hatred which the Spanish Republic excited in millionaires, dukes, cardinals, play-boys, Blimps, and what-not would in itself be enough to show one how the land lay. In essence it was a class war. If it had been won, the cause of the common people everywhere would have been strengthened. It was lost, and the dividend-drawers all over the world rubbed their hands. That was the real issue; all else was froth on its surface….The Fascists won because they were the stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn't. No political strategy could offset that.

3. Since the fascist and bourgeois leaders cannot really say that their purpose is to squash the labor, they resort to scapegoating, and invent the enemy against whom they have to protect the country: Russians. The fantasies about endless Russian invasions in Ukraine fuel the current anti-Russian discourse as they did at the time of Orwell.

But as for the Fascists and their backers, how could they come even as near to the truth as that? How could they possibly mention their real aims? Their version of the war was pure fantasy, and in the circumstances it could not have been otherwise… The only propaganda line open to the Nazis and Fascists was to represent themselves as Christian patriots saving Spain from a Russian dictatorship. This involved pretending that life in Government Spain was just one long massacre (vide the Catholic Herald or the Daily Mail — but these were child's play compared with the Continental Fascist press), and it involved immensely exaggerating the scale of Russian intervention. Out of the huge pyramid of lies which the Catholic and reactionary press all over the world built up, let me take just one point — the presence in Spain of a Russian army. Devout Franco partisans all believed in this; estimates of its strength went as high as half a million. Now, there was no Russian army in Spain. There may have been a handful of airmen and other technicians, a few hundred at the most, but an army there was not. Some thousands of foreigners who fought in Spain, not to mention millions of Spaniards, were witnesses of this. Well, their testimony made no impression at all upon the Franco propagandists, not one of whom had set foot in Government Spain. Simultaneously these people refused utterly to admit the fact of German or Italian intervention at the same time as the Germany and Italian press were openly boasting about the exploits of their’ legionaries’.

4. Fascist propaganda tends to follow the recognizable pattern: embrace fantasy, reject objective truth, and turn night into day. That strategy, Orwell claims, is scarier than the bombs that are currently falling on England.

This kind of thing is frightening to me, 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… Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’. There is only ‘German Science’, ‘Jewish Science’, etc. 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. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement.

5. Orwell points out that only working class is capable to resist fascists, even though it might be first duped by its slogans.

The backbone of the resistance against Franco was the Spanish working class, especially the urban trade union members. In the long run — it is important to remember that it is only in the long run — the working class remains the most reliable enemy of Fascism, simply because the working-class stands to gain most by a decent reconstruction of society. Unlike other classes or categories, it can't be permanently bribed. To say this is not to idealize the working class. … Time after time, in country after country, the organized working-class movements have been crushed by open, illegal violence, and their comrades abroad, linked to them in theoretical solidarity, have simply looked on and done nothing... Yet this does not alter the fact that the working class will go on struggling against Fascism after the others have caved in. One feature of the Nazi conquest of France was the astonishing defections among the intelligentsia, including some of the left-wing political intelligentsia. … With the working class it is the other way about. Too ignorant to see through the trick that is being played on them, they easily swallow the promises of Fascism, yet sooner or later they always take up the struggle again. They must do so, because in their own bodies they always discover that the promises of Fascism cannot be fulfilled. To win over the working class permanently, the Fascists would have to raise the general standard of living, which they are unable and probably unwilling to do.

6. Orwell recognizes the dubious role that the supporters of both sides played in the conflict. The west seemed to condone the Spanish fascists, even though it eventually rose up against Hitler -- the Frankenstein of fascism that proved too dangerous for its makers. Stalin supported Republicans, but in a way that failed to reveal his motives and goals. Orwell stresses that Stalin, while fighting fascists and participating in geopolitics, did not really care about the working class in Spain, having squashed and subjugated the Russian one. Consequently, fascism in Spain won. Franco victory had clearly emboldened the fascists and resulted in the greatest catastrophe of the XX century. One hopes that the outcome of Ukrainian Civil War would be different from that of Spanish one.

The most baffling thing in the Spanish war was the behavior of the great powers. The war was actually won for Franco by the Germans and Italians, whose motives were obvious enough. The motives of France and Britain are less easy to understand. …Yet in the most mean, cowardly, hypocritical way the British ruling class did all they could to hand Spain over to Franco and the Nazis. Why? Because they were pro-Fascist, was the obvious answer. Undoubtedly they were, and yet when it came to the final showdown they chose to Stand up to Germany. It is still very uncertain what plan they acted on in backing Franco, and they may have had no clear plan at all. Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time, and at certain moments a very important question. As to the Russians, their motives in the Spanish war are completely inscrutable. Did they, as the pinks believed, intervene in Spain in order to defend Democracy and thwart the Nazis? Then why did they intervene on such a niggardly scale and finally leave Spain in the lurch? Or did they, as the Catholics maintained, intervene in order to foster revolution in Spain? Then why did they do all in their power to crush the Spanish revolutionary movements, defend private property and hand power to the middle class as against the working class? Or did they, as the Trotskyists suggested, intervene simply in order to prevent a Spanish revolution? … I believe that in the future we shall come to feel that Stalin's foreign policy, instead of being so diabolically clever as it is claimed to be, has been merely opportunistic and stupid. But at any rate, the Spanish civil war demonstrated that the Nazis knew what they were doing and their opponents did not. ... That side which had arms would win. The Nazis and the Italians gave arms to the Spanish Fascist friends, and the western democracies and the Russians didn't give arms to those who should have been their friends. So the Spanish Republic perished.


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