Normalising the revolution: Orwell, Homage To Catalonia and the Libyan conflict

12 July 2011

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In this short essay I compare George Orwell's experiences of the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) with present reports of the conflict in Libya. I argue that the goals of social and political revolution have been considerably transformed - indeed normalised - over the last eight decades.

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I know that I promised a post about Michael Lipman at the end of my last post, but events have got me onto something more immediate. In the near future I will also be breaking up my blogs into separate buttons for easier access. 

Like I'm sure you have, I’ve been noticing some themes in the material pouring out of Libya at the moment, where close to civil war is still raging. I couldn't help noticing that the 'near Europe, but not in Europe' trope comes up in both the present day Libyan and historic Spanish cases.

I happened to be re-reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia the other day, and spotted some really interesting parallels with Libya which others have also noted, for example here in Time.

Curmudgeon: George Orwell in later life.

George Orwell was, of course, a famous essayist and novelist, whose real name, as you’ll know, was Eric Blair. He took his pen name after the river Orwell in Suffolk, which I happened to visit the other day by coincidence. Orwell is now particularly well known for his Animal Farm and 1984.

Prior to that later, more cynical phase, he was an idealistic young socialist who travelled to Republican Spain to cover what was – or at least he believed to be - the Spanish revolution. Civil war was raging after a failed military coup against the second Spanish Republic, and many believed that conditions were ripe for revolution too.

 

Optimists: the POUM were later viciously suppressed by Spanish Stalinists. 

On arriving in Barcelona in December 1936 with a great feeling of optimism, Orwell noted the buoyant and thrilling revolutionary camaraderie:

The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. [1] 

Filled with revolutionary fervour as a consequence of this experience, Orwell then volunteered to join the Marxist POUM militia, and was sent off to fight Franco on the Huesca front. I encourage you to read about his experiences at the front, particularly his vivid memories of being shot in the neck. 

By the time Orwell returned from the front in April 1937, Orwell noted with disappointment that in Barcelona

The change in the aspect of the crowds was startling. The militia uniform and the blue overalls had almost disappeared; everyone seemed to be wearing the smart summer suits in which Spanish tailors specialize. Fat prosperous men, elegant women, and sleek cars were everywhere.

He concluded that:

The working class believed in a revolution that had been begun but never consolidated, and the bourgeoisie were scared and temporarily disguising themselves as workers. In the first months of revolution there must have been many thousands of people who deliberately put on overalls and shouted revolutionary slogans as a way of saving their skins.

Now things were returning to normal. 

So the revolution was betrayed, Orwell concluded, by people who had mostly just been pretending in the first place. The return to normality, as he perceived it, was a symptom of the revolution’s defeat. He was profoundly critical of life going on as normal when his comrades were living and dying in lice-infested trenches at the front.

Vivid: free online here

Let’s turn to the present. Each day at work, we have BBC News 24 on in the corner of the room and I peer over to see that, yes, Libya is still headline news. There seems to me to be certain parallels between the Libyan and Spanish examples. Moreover, the Libyan crisis became a focus for Labour Party politicians - especially Ed Miliband - when they were appealing for NATO intervention in Libya.  

However, a comparison with journalists’ accounts of recent events in Libya reveals a striking contrast with Orwell's Spanish experience insofar as they have completely different expectations as to what a revolution should look like. Visiting the Libyan revolutionary hotbed of Benghazi after two months of social and political upheaval, Anthony Loyd remarked with clear skepticism here about the survival of the rebel Provisional Transitional National Council (PTNC):

The moment these factions start infighting, the revolution is finished. Conflict has not yet broken out, but is very possible given the PTNC’s lack of direction and the rivalry caused by the power vacuum. On the evening of the 31st March a group of shabaab, enraged by a sense of abandonment on the battlefield, stormed the PTNC offices- in search, it seems, of someone to give them orders. That week, dropping by the military headquarters to interview a rebel commander, I watched two groups of fighters embroiled in a mass punch-up. In the melee, the only bullets fired were in the air. That could easily change. [2]

Skeptic: Prospect's Anthony Loyd did not have high hopes for the Libyan revolution. 

Along with many other commentators on both right and left, Loyd was clearly profoundly skeptical of claims of revolutionary movements or transformation to democracy overnight, seeing the rebel zone as more of a group of brawling amateurs and turncoat politicans. In great contrast, Tom Malinwoski visited Banghazi three months after Loyd (almost the same time between Orwell’s two visits to Barcelona) and described the scene here very differently:

In Benghazi itself, the evidence of upheaval becomes more apparent. Each day, the streets roar with the sounds of pep rallies staged by fighters heading for the front; they fire guns in the air and occasionally set off dynamite to prove their devotion to their cause. 

But then the rallies give way to traffic jams and the rhythms of normal life. [3]

I think the real change here is that revolution in Orwell’s time meant trying to create a new and exciting form of society. He believed that people were supposed to be doing something revolutionary all the time, not just while transitioning to a stable state. It seems to me that the experience of the twentieth century has transformed the term revolution into one which means the establishment of a kind of normalised, social democratic state as opposed to something truly egalitarian and different.

‘Returning to normal’, as Orwell criticised of the Barcelona revolution, has now become a good thing.

Which is certainly an interesting transformation, don’t you think?

(c) Michael Weatherburn (July 2011)

 

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References:

[1] Homage to Catalonia online here.

[2] Writing in Prospect here.

[3] Writing in The New Republic here

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