Lee Heidhues 9.18.2021
George Orwell experienced war.
He believed that “his erstwhile friends on the left also could seek to destroy individual rights with malignant vigor.” This is what I find happening in San Francisco as it decides whether or not to make this town a more car free, people first, environmentally friendly venue.
Specifically, too many people leading the push for a car free JFK Drive and Great Walkway along the Pacific Ocean are allowing themselves to be compromised to death by elected officials and City Hall bureaucrats.
Compromise is not an option. A strict unwavering position is the only strategy to guarantee success.
People who speak out boldly regarding a more car fee city are ridiculed, marginalized and cast aside by those who feel compromise is the only path to success.
Why are vocal advocates being criticized by those who should welcome their support? Absent compromise they fear losing their seat at the table.
People who fancy themselves City Hall insiders will learn their value to the decision makers is illusory as their goals are stripped away piece by piece.
Wannabe insiders who readily compromise core beliefs in return for crumbs will be jettisoned by the power structure, condemned by their core followers and left with nothing at the end of the day.
Wall Street Journal 9.18.2021
“Homage to Catalonia,” a brilliant blend of reporting and analysis, marked the great turning point in his career, the moment when he recognized what others did not: the sobering fact that lies and threats to freedom could come from illiberalism on both ends of the political spectrum. This was when Orwell became Orwell.
Shortly after George Orwell received a medical discharge from his militia in the Spanish Civil War, he traveled to see his wife in Barcelona. She greeted him in a hotel lounge with a “sweet smile,” but then “hissed” a warning into his ear: “Get out!”
At first, Orwell was confused, stammering: “What? Why? What do you mean?”
Soon he understood. He had fought alongside Communists on the front lines and even suffered a bullet wound in his neck. Now the authorities were arresting his comrades, allegedly for collaborating with their fascist foes. There were rumors of executions. “This was not a round-up of criminals; it was merely a reign of terror,” wrote Orwell in “Homage to Catalonia,” the memoir he published the next year, in 1938.
Yet this is more than a chronicle of battles and boredom. “It would be quite impossible to write about the Spanish war from a purely military angle,” wrote Orwell. “It was above all things a political war.” Orwell despised fascism and wanted to defeat it, but his time in Spain convinced him that his erstwhile friends on the left also could seek to destroy individual rights with malignant vigor.
Orwell remained a socialist for the rest of his life, but his scorn for Stalin isolated him. Conservatives distrusted an author with links to the left. Meanwhile, leftists objected to the claim that their vision of a black-and-white struggle was a fantasy, and that a supposed champion of the workers of the world was a murderous thug.
Orwell is most remembered for a pair of books from the following decade, “Animal Farm” and “1984.” The first, an allegory of Stalinism, made him famous. The second, a dystopian nightmare, secured his legacy. It also led to the invention of the word “Orwellian,” a term that ironically describes the totalitarianism that Orwell bitterly opposed.
None of this would have been possible if Orwell had not visited Spain and written about his own Orwellian experience in a foundational book that sold less than a thousand copies during his life and wasn’t printed in the U.S. until after his death.
He and others of his generation went to Spain in the 1930s to defend its socialist government from an insurrection led by Francisco Franco, a general who allied himself with monarchists and other traditionalists. The Soviet Union supported the government and Nazi Germany backed Franco, in what is often described as a proxy war between communists and fascists.
“Homage to Catalonia” is valuable in part for its gritty descriptions of a soldier’s life, dominated by long periods of monotony and interrupted by flashes of violence. “In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy . . . with the enemy a bad last,” wrote Orwell. “The real preoccupation of both armies was trying to keep warm.” One of the book’s best lines goes to a commanding officer: “This is not a war,” said Georges Kopp, “it is a comic opera with an occasional death.”
“It was difficult to think about this war in quite the same naively idealistic manner as before,” he wrote. Orwell came to realize that almost nobody was telling the truth. “One of the dreariest effects of this war has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right,” he wrote. Part of the problem was that many of the journalists who reported on the war weren’t even in Spain.
Worse was their willingness to cover up the problem that nearly led to Orwell’s capture in Barcelona: Stalin’s purges had gone international. Orwell’s Spanish militia belonged to the anti-Stalin left. For Moscow’s minions, always alert to ideological deviance, it posed as much of a threat as Franco’s forces. “I happened to know, what very few people in England had been allowed to know, that innocent men were being falsely accused,” he wrote later in an essay. “If I had not been angry about that I should never have written the book.”
There would have been no book at all if Orwell had not escaped from Spain and its chaos. After learning of the danger in Barcelona, he slept in its streets for several days. Eventually he and his wife fled to France, evading security officers on the train that carried them across the border.
“It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes,” wrote Orwell at the end of “Homage to Catalonia.” After Spain, he’d go on to create indelible works of fact and fiction about deception and oppression, all rooted in his extraordinary witness account.