“I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites,” wrote George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, his memoir of the Spanish Civil War. “The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared.”
Spain, rather than the Wigan Pier journey, was, I think, the true beginning of Orwell’s socialism, the socialism he would, some ten years later, say had been the making of him as a writer, raising his game above humbug and purple prose. Whereas in The Road to Wigan Pier he had disparaged socialism, even as he warmed to it, as a catch-all for cranks and vegetarians, sandal-wearers, nudists and plump summer schoolers in their ill-fitting shorts, the anarchic commonwealth he experienced in Barcelona transfixed him. “I have seen wonderful things,” he gushed to Cyril Connolly, “and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.”
Barcelona was visibly in the process of radical reinvention, the signs of its transformation everywhere ‑ posters, songs being played over loudspeakers “all day and far into the night”, people dressed down in working clothes or militia uniforms. Tipping was banned. Businesses were collectivised. This state of affairs, though it did not last and might have been peculiar to Catalonia, “lasted long enough,” Orwell said, “to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time, one realised afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable.” This was what made a true believer of him. Later, in wartime London, and fully expecting a German invasion, Orwell hoped an English revolution might be imminent. Just as he had believed Republican Spain could not defeat Franco unless it was also revolutionary Spain, so he now thought Britain could not prevail against Hitler unless it, too, could be revolutionised. In The Lion and the Unicorn, he advocated a kind of Barcelona-on Thames ‑ the Home Guard as people’s militia, billeted in the Ritz; the civilian population kitted out in battledress and eating communally; a gun in every worker’s home. Blood on the streets even. Only gradually and with regret did Orwell abandon this imagined Workers’ Republic of Albion.
Three ideas that are central to all Orwell’s subsequent, serious writing were formed in Spain. First, that socialism works. Second, that socialism works, but beware, for it can take an authoritarian turn. (Homage to Catalonia in part tells a similar story to Animal Farm ‑ the utopia betrayed from within when its leaders start to suit themselves.) Third, that those who betray lie brazenly, weaving an elaborate web of self-serving falsehood. “[I]n Spain,” wrote Orwell in the 1942 “Looking Back on the Spanish War”, “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 great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed … This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading from the world.”
Given the centrality of the Spanish Civil War to Orwell’s development, it is useful that his writings on that subject have been collected in a single volume, Orwell in Spain (Penguin, 2001). Homage to Catalonia dominates, but the journalism and correspondence from around the same time together with the two or three reflective pieces he wrote in the 1940s all make for a fascinating read. This, for instance. Orwell was about a year home from the war when Richard Rees wrote to him, enclosing a copy of Georges Bernanos’s Les Grands Cimetières Sous la Lune, which, like Orwell’s Homage, charts its author’s growing revulsion at his “own” side (for Bernanos the right) and his burgeoning despair. Rees suggested that the Falange, with which Bernanos had had some initial sympathy, existed in relation to the wider nationalist movement in the same way that the POUM ‑ the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista in whose militia Orwell served ‑ related to the wider Republican side and that Bernanos’s take on the fringe right might therefore interest him as a former member of the fringe left. “It is painful reading, of course,” wrote Rees, “but on the whole it convinced me that you were lucky, in spite of everything, to have got mixed up with the POUM and not the CP.” (It is a pity Orwell did not read Bernanos, or if he read him, did not write about him.)
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Madrid.
The POUM was a maverick Marxist-Leninist grouping, a revolutionary party too far out for Trotsky, who denounced it. Orwell served in its militia but did not join the party proper, something he later regretted. Nonetheless, it was central to his Spanish experience and a significant influence on his politics, in Spain and after. That Orwell fell in with it might have been down to luck, as Rees suggested. The POUM was the sister party of Britain’s Independent Labour Party (ILP), with which Orwell had a number of connections ‑ Rees himself, Adelphi magazine, and the shop, Booklovers’ Corner, where he had worked as a sales assistant. In planning his Spanish journey, Orwell had thought he needed some suitably far left backing to get into the country. When the Communist Party of Great Britain would not oblige him, he fell back on the ILP. Had he arrived with communist credentials, he would have likely ended up in the International Brigade. That would have taken him to a different and more dangerous front. He would have seen another Spain ‑ Madrid, say, rather than Barcelona ‑ and engaged with a different politics. Had he survived ‑ itself much less likely ‑ his afterlife would, I think, have been very different. No Animal Farm perhaps. Or Nineteen Eighty-Four. I do not mean that, under communist influence, he would necessarily have become a communist (though he was by no means immune to dogma). I mean that he would not have had the same exposure to the POUM’s brand of Marxism, or to the anarchic socialism of Catalonia, or to the official, and Communist-backed, move against these, all of which I think were formative. It was, in part, the unconventionality of Orwell’s Spanish experience that made it critical to his development. And critical also to the ideological transformation he attributes to himself in Homage, which is from the conventional to the fringe.
When he arrived in Spain, Orwell says, he still accepted what he would soon come to scorn as “the News Chronicle–New Statesman version of the war”, in which it was seen as a kind of defence of civilisation against Hitler. (Puzzlingly, in his introduction to Orwell in Spain, Christopher Hitchens has it that Orwell “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 civilisation”. But that is, in fact, the very idea that Orwell explicitly rejected on account of his Spanish experience). Only in his initial weeks in Spain, had he thought of the war as an historic moment, a potential reversal for a fascism that had had its way too long. The “plague of initials” ‑ the various left-wing groupings (PCE, FAI, CNT, PSUC, POUM even) ‑was something he said he initially found exasperating; why could they not sink their differences in a single, anti-fascist bloc. It was a surprise, he wrote, when he first heard his POUM comrades in the trenches casually refer to a group of militiamen in another trench as “Socialists”. Surely, thought Orwell, they were all socialists. It was only with time that he came to believe that the catchall anti-fascism was dubious, that it diverted people from reflecting on “the real nature of the struggle”.
The Familia Sagrada in Barcelona.
“The real nature of the struggle”, as Orwell came to see it, was that it is capitalism that is the true enemy. Fascism is simply an outward form of protean capitalism. End capitalism once and for all and you will end it in all its variants, whether fascist, liberal democratic or imperialist. For Orwell, the only conflict that mattered was the revolution ‑ socialism versus capitalism. Even the civil war itself was important only inasmuch as it was being waged in furtherance of revolutionary socialism. This distinctive way of seeing dominates much of his work from his time in Spain until some time after the Hitler-Stalin pact, including all of his political journalism and the novel Coming Up For Air. It was during this time that Orwell believed that a second Anglo-German war was coming and that it would, as in 1914-19, be a conventional imperialistic war. Talk of anti-fascism was nothing more than the usual business of working up pre-war antipathies; this is how he has George Bowling react to it in Coming Up For Air. In Orwell’s view, anyone who considered things objectively (as he might have put it) could see that fascism and imperialism were identical twins, hatched from the same suspect capitalist egg. Homage to Catalonia is in part the story of how he came to this view.
Orwell is especially fixed on this particular message in the journalism he wrote when he was fresh back from Spain and Homage to Catalonia was still a work in progress. “Spilling the Spanish Beans”, a two-parter published in the New English Weekly, for example, is considerably more shrill than the eventual book. In this doctrinaire piece, facts are pitilessly squeezed to fit the template of the dogma. Contra Hitchens, democracy and so forth are exactly not what is at stake here, says Orwell. Rather, there are two oppositions to Franco ‑ the liberal democratic opposition, which, he says, would have supported El Caudillo if only his fascism had been full-blooded instead of superficial, and the revolutionary socialist opposition that would never have supported him. Orwell’s view is that these two should have stayed separate. The workers should have gone on with their revolution, which, thanks to its militias, would have ultimately defeated Franco, leaving the middle class to sort themselves out. But for some reason, a majority on the revolutionary side—the Communists and most of the Socialists—instead united with the liberal Republicans in a Popular Front that aspired to nothing more radical than a Spanish version of France. Orwell concludes that this is because much of the left is in fact counter-revolutionary, the Communists above all. They talk a good class war, but as soon as they see one they join with the liberals to stifle it.
Having arrived at this view of things, and having articulated it over a number of years in his principal literary output, Orwell then abandoned it. Orwell in Spain, in bringing together the relevant writings, shows this happening. In Homage to Catalonia, written over a longer period of time and with an eye on a wider readership than “Spilling the Spanish Beans”, he is already trying to nuance somewhat his earlier dogmatic take on the war. He argues that since capitalism is fascism, and the Popular Front is capitalist, it will end up introducing its own version of fascism (Orwell generally thought that the Republic would win the Civil War). However, it will be a better kind of fascism than Franco’s (which Orwell had elsewhere argued was not the full fascism). It will be better because it will allow some of the gains of the revolution to remain ‑the end of serfdom and clericalism, some of the revolutionary redistribution of land, the schools, healthcare and infrastructure. Democracy too perhaps. All in all a very unfascist fascism.
Four years on from Homage to Catalonia, Orwell had largely recanted the thesis that underlay it. In the 1942 “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War”, for example, he denounces it without quite letting on that he once, and publicly, believed it:
The Trotskyist thesis that the war could have been won if the revolution had not been sabotaged was probably false. To nationalise factories, demolish churches, and issue revolutionary manifestoes would not have made the armies more efficient. The Fascists won because they were the stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t. No political strategy could offset that.
And in “Spanish Memories” (1944), there is an almost complete volte face. The ex-Republican premier Juan Negrín, whose socialist credentials Orwell had once scorned, is now seen as almost heroic, someone who had taken Spain’s “revolutionary disorder” in hand and melded the raw militias into “a formidable army”. It was Negrín whom Orwell, throughout the Second World War, hoped the Allies might restore as Spain’s leader if only they would invade the country and topple Franco.
Homage to Catalonia sold badly on publication in 1938, before receiving a second wind on the back of the author’s late success. It is either the biggest or the second-biggest-selling book on the Spanish Civil War, its often compelling narrative shaping, if not skewing, successive generations’ understanding of the war. Yet it sets out a view of that conflict that its author shortly after rejected.
To be fair, it was never Orwell’s intention that the book should have such influence. Indeed, in the book itself, he is careful to say that his is not the last word on the subject. He acknowledges that he has had only limited experience and that his ability to assess matters has been inhibited by a command of Spanish he variously describes as “bad” and “villainous”. Orwell makes no secret of the fact that he witnessed very little fighting. The Aragon front was largely quiet when he was there. “The things that one normally thinks of as the horrors of war,” he commented, “seldom happened to me … A life as uneventful as a city clerk’s and almost as regular.” (It was therefore particularly unlucky for Orwell to be so seriously wounded on this quiet front. But having been wounded, he missed out on the Huesca attack, in which Republican losses were considerable).
“Beware my partisanship,” he writes, “my mistakes of fact and the distortions inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.” Significantly, Orwell sectioned the book’s more overtly political content into two discrete chapters and warmly advised his less political readers to pass these by. After publication, he requested that those chapters be isolated all the more in an annex if ever there was a second edition. But no second edition came in his lifetime and only in the 1980s, if not later, did the annexing take place. With its most overtly political content hived off, the book is at once more of a memoir and, arguably, more writerly. Towards the end, say, when Orwell describes a few days’ respite from the war and from politics:
For almost the first time I felt that I was really in Spain … In the quiet back streets of Lérida and Barbastro I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination … Of all Europe it was the country that had most hold upon my imagination. It seemed a pity that when at last I had managed to come here I had seen only this north-eastern corner, in the middle of a confused war and for the most part in winter.
It was while he was writing Homage to Catalonia that Orwell reviewed two Irish writers who had published on the same subject. The first of these was Máirín Mitchell, whose Storm Over Spain was one of the handful he commended – “a Catholic,” he told the readers of Time and Tide, “but very sympathetic to the Spanish Anarchists”. The other was Eoin O’Duffy, late of the Blueshirts, whose Crusade In Spain he roundly panned in the New English Review (“General O’Duffy’s adventures in Spain do seem to have resembled a crusade in that they were a frightful muddle and led to nothing in particular …”). An indignant O’Duffy cancelled his subscription. Mitchell wrote thanking Orwell for his positive review but advised that she was Irish not English, as he had assumed. Also, she said, judging by The Road to Wigan Pier, they were on different sides politically. (Her subsequent Back to England would be published by the Right Book Club.)
Máirín Mitchell, who died in 1986, has been largely forgotten. Born in England in 1895, her background appears to have similar to that of Orwell’s first wife, Eileen Blair (née O’Shaughnessy). Both, for instance, were the children of an Irish father and an English mother and both grew up in some comfort (Máirín’s father, Thomas, was a GP and her brother, Edward, attended an elite private school). Mitchell, though, seems to have more taken by her Irish origins than Eileen, choosing to become an Irish, rather than an English, writer ‑ and as Máirín rather than the Marion of her birth certificate.
Though she and Orwell were indeed on different sides politically, Mitchell was hardly a conservative, at least not a conventional one. If forced to categorise her politics, one might place her close to a philosophy like distributism, a kind of Catholic market socialism but with a modest anarcho-syndicalist influence. (Distributism was closely associated with GK Chesterton and, even more so, Hilaire Belloc, both of whom Orwell loathed, in large part on account of their Catholicism but also, I suspect, because neither slotted easily into his rigid, late-1930s worldview.) Mitchell’s admiration for the Spanish anarchists seems to have come mainly from what she saw and read about them and much of what she read came via their own press ‑ their extensive voluntary work to bring education to the poor and their attempts to establish functional industrial and agricultural collectives. She was predisposed to anarchism, however, having spent some time with the Spanish comrades’ more theoretical London counterparts, the movement based around the Freedom Group, with which Orwell too had a connection. (His prickly wartime set-to with a number of British anarchist pacifists, including Alex Comfort, that was hosted by Partisan Review, and he and Comfort’s subsequent heated debate ‑ in rhyming verse! ‑ in Tribune. To his credit, Orwell would later step in and defend the Freedom Press against official harassment in the 1940s, though Comfort would be one of the unreliables he listed for the International Research Department, a Cold War propaganda agency.) “I … would not have missed those days,’ Mitchell writes of her time with the Freedom Group, 2among people who were not content with things as they were. Better in youth the endless talk, even the “isms”, that divine discontent, than the young who do not question, who never rebel … The veterans were generous in opening their minds to us, and releasing the rich garnering of years of experience, reflection and contacts.” Charles Lahr’s Progressive Bookshop at Red Lion Square she describes as a focus for this loose circle, which probably dates Mitchell’s time with it to around the mid- to late 1920s. Francis Stuart and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington were among the participants, which included many Irish expatriates.
It is difficult to see how Orwell missed Mitchell’s Irishness since Storm Over Spain offers a decidedly Irish take on that country and its troubles, from the dedication to Liam Ryan, whose father, Desmond, was a 1916 veteran (and with whom Mitchell had a lengthy correspondence), to the epigraphs that head almost every chapter (Connolly, Pearse, Terence MacSwiney, Yeats, James Stephens, Mangan). There are also the historical Irish-Spanish connections Mitchell has unearthed. Richard Wall of Coolnamuck, for example, who supervised the restoration of the Alhambra Palace, eventually becoming an official of the Spanish state. Or Leopold O’Donnell y Jorris, Conde de Lucena and Duque de Tetuán, a descendant of the Antrim O’Donnells who crops up in almost every Irish account of the Spanish Civil War, and who helped, in his liberal parliamentarian phase, to inspire the first wave of Spanish anticlericalism in the nineteenth century. But for O’Donnell, a latter-day conquistador, Spain might not have had Morocco. And without Morocco, Franco would have had nowhere to make his reputation, and no Regulares, his elite Moroccan soldiers. (Mitchell is throughout respectful and acknowledging of Spain’s Islamic heritage, missing no opportunity to mention its achievements and legacy. She takes issue with those on the left who have criticised Franco’s deployment of the Regulares, who have said “very uncomplimentary things about the colour and social status of the Moors … ‘black barbarians’, ‘semi-savage natives’ ‑ terms a little strange perhaps to be used by the people who at other times were loudest in proclaiming the virtues of the Moors during the Riff wars, and loudest in their calls for the liberation of all subject peoples”. Mitchell wonders whether, when the war ends, the Moroccans will be extended the freedoms that the Muslims, pre-Reconquista, once extended to Christians and Jews.”
The old enemy gets the occasional dig. “An Englishman’s home is his castle,’ she says of Gibraltar, “but it is so often somebody else’s castle”, and parallels between Ireland and Spain are frequently found. Referring to the Basque Country, she notes how it includes only three of the four historic Basque territories ‑ Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba. Navarra supported Franco and thereby, writes Mitchell, “one of her Four Green Fields was lost to Euzkadi”. Spain’s rebellious poor are like “the croppies of Wexford [and] the pikemen of Enniscorthy” and she seems sympathetic to Republican efforts to move to tenant proprietorship. Irish support for Franco, like that of O’Duffy, she finds ironic ‑ War of Independence veterans helping to suppress Basque and other nationalisms, and the grandsons of tenant righters now fighting on the wrong side of Spain’s own land war.
It might be that she influenced Orwell. References to Ireland are rare enough in his work, but in Homage to Catalonia, two come along at once. “The poorer classes in Barcelona,” he writes, “looked upon the Assault Guards as something rather resembling the Black and Tans, and it seemed to be taken for granted that they had started this attack on their own initiative …” And later: “The Ministry of Propaganda was, of course, about as likely to give an objective account of the Barcelona troubles as (say) the late Lord Carson would have been to give an objective account of the Dublin rising of 1916 …”
If, for Orwell, the imagined, romantic Spain briefly imposed itself on his memoir of war, for Máirín Mitchell, the civil war has intruded on what might otherwise have been a travel book. As a result, Storm Over Spain, written in the last months of peace, when rumours of a rightist coup were already rife, becomes unwittingly a reflection on the beloved country now in chaos. Mitchell writes: “Paradise hung above the Alhambra, said the Moors. So they made vaulted roofs with arabesques above their arches, and came as near to paradise as their art could bring them. But it was an aeroplane that hovered over the palace the first day we went there, and it was anything but paradise for the visitors at the Alhambra Palace Hotel a few weeks later, when more aeroplanes came and dropped bombs here.”
She has been politicised by events and against type, like Orwell himself, who had once hoped he might write great naturalistic novels. This and a fondness for anarchism is their small common ground.
Both treat anarchism kindly, Orwell especially. Unlike Mitchell, he does not mention the curious fact that some Spanish anarchists became government ministers, both in the Catalan regional government and in Madrid. Also, there was a darker side to anarchist Barcelona that he hints at without dwelling on it. Here was a city in which, as he put it, the working class was “in the saddle”. And the middle class? They “had either fled, been killed or voluntarily gone over to the workers’ side”. Or pretended to have gone over. “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.”
Some had “been killed” ‑ blink and you’ll miss it, but there it is. Some had been killed and many others had been sufficiently panicked that they felt the need to “save their skins”. But Orwell seems less than fazed by this. Indeed, although he would shortly rage at Auden’s use of the phrase “the necessary murder” in his 1937 poem “Spain”, he seems to have been generally less outraged by killing than by the abuse of power. (Reviewing GL Steer’s The Tree of Gernika – that is Guernica ‑ he is almost blasé; bombs doing what bombs do.)
Nor does Orwell mention the many Spanish clergy that were killed, or the desecrations, the exhumed corpses of priests and nuns put on public display. Church burnings he reports as an almost recreational activity, certainly an understandable one. It is a “pitiful lie”, he writes, to claim that churches were burnt because they had been used as fascist vantage points. (Perish the thought that there was anything that rational in it). They were burnt, “because it was perfectly well understood that the Spanish Church was part of the capitalist racket”. It was the spoilsport Communists who put a stop to this, thus marking the end of the civil war’s revolutionary phase.
Máirín Mitchell was in Spain before the church-burnings got properly under way but did get some sense of what was coming. What she knew of it generated mixed feelings, neither condemnatory, like E Allison Peers or John Davies-Langdon, nor supportive, like Orwell. This was her anarchists, acting against her church. Churches were burnt but the church itself once burnt people, she offers at one point by way of so-so rationale. And sometimes the church could look after itself.
In Algeciras … I saw a man pick up a little nun and throw her on the ground. What did she do but up and slap his face. No turning the other cheek. Good luck to her … she is just as poor as you are, and that’s no way to win recruits to your cause. Though I doubt if he had one. Such acts are generally discouraged by members of the revolutionary parties in Spain.
Where Orwell enthuses over anarchist and other anticlericalism, Mitchell tries to explain it away as primarily the excesses of an unrepresentative few. But she is critical of the left for its failure to see the diversity of the Spanish church. Not all priests were comfortable with the church’s wealth, she says, quoting a Father Garcia Morales: “The people don’t hate God, or the Church, they hate the priests of the church for not being in the vanguard of the people’s armies.” The church would have suffered less, she comments, if it had been more supportive of progressive measures.
If an English commentator regrets the burning of Spanish churches, Mitchell goes on to say, it is typically because the churches were beautiful, not because they were places of worship quite literally sacred to the people who attended them. “To take away from sorrowing people the one comfort they know,” she writes, “is no minor tragedy of modern revolutions.” To deprive the poor of the exercise of their religion is to disadvantage them further.
It is interesting in this respect to read Peadar O’Donnell’s description of the destruction of a church in his memoir Salud! An Irishman in Spain, recently republished. A small group goes about the actual destruction, in which a boorish Englishman takes a particular delight. Most, however, including O’Donnell himself, stand round awkward, uncomfortable. Orwell, just a few years after Homage to Catalonia, would write how the loyalties of his schooldays were reawakened by the prospect of war and that for all his engagement with the far left, he was “a patriot after all”. A different nationality shaped O’Donnell, one that had evolved in revolutionary opposition to Orwell’s and in which Catholicism had been both integral and, in its way, progressive. It was inevitable that his reaction to the destruction of a church would be so radically different from Orwell’s. I come from that same culture of commonplace piety and it was formative enough that I can sense the awful audacity of a church being trashed by the self-elected. For this anarchic arrangement that Orwell praises had its own elites, people who had a say in what was destroyed and what was let stand; or who was let live and who was killed. Orwell’s anarchists seem to be acquiring under his nose the trappings of a kind of statehood, its symbolism and so forth, and to be imposing the very type of singalong conformity he would later satirise in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
John Cornford, an English communist whose poem “Full Moon at Tierz: before the storming of Huesca”, Orwell admired for having reworked the old-style patriotism of Newbolt’s “Vitai Lampada” into a revolutionary call to arms, was in Barcelona a little before Orwell, when the anarchist phase was at its height. He says that real power has shifted from the Catalan home rule government, the Generalitat, to the anarchists (mainly), and that these patrol the streets at night when “splits, unpopular bosses, and known fascists are taken for a ride”. Outside Barcelona, he says, “thousands of kulaks and landlords have been killed” (diary letter from Aragon, 1936). Cornford suspects that the anarchists plan to attack the government and reckons that the Communist Party should try to prevent this while consolidating the gains of the revolution.
Both Orwell and Mitchell admired anarchism, to the extent of playing down its excesses. But for all their sympathy, neither was ever an anarchist. Mitchell saw anarchism as a useful corrective to the conformity of the “mass mind” (an idea akin to Belloc’s “servile state”) which she thought was sweeping Europe, though apparently sparing Ireland. As a form of social and economic order she favoured the anarchistic commune, and as a strategy for defence passive resistance, but in the end she concluded “civilisation is not yet ready for anarchism. It does not appear to be advanced enough to do without authoritarianism, whether left or right.”
Like Orwell, Mitchell thought industrial capitalism was finished and that the coming authoritarianism would, worryingly, be hard-line communist. But it might, in time, be subverted or reformed in favour of “free cooperative communes”. Before which, presumably, there would be some bleak dystopia.
Basque nationalism affords her a more conventional and arguably realistic political ideal. Several of her other writings focus on key figures from Basque history ‑ Juan Sebastián Elcano, Andrés e Urdaneta and Berengaria of Nabarre. It is only on account of their treatment of the Basques that Mitchell is notably critical of the anarchists. “The violence of some of the anarchists in Bilbao towards the end of 1936 and their attitudes towards freedom of worship among the Basques, was a departure from their traditional principle of toleration towards the views and beliefs of others.” The Basques, unlike the Republic, appear to have done better in reconciling church to (prospective) state than either the Republic itself or the Catalans. The Basque ideal being, according to José Antonio de Aguirre, “a poor Church preaching real Christianity [and] identified with Spain’s humble people”. This social Catholicism was possibly closer to Mitchell’s actual politics than anarchism. A distinctive and unconventional part of the Republican side, Basque nationalist support for Madrid was time-limited, like that of the POUM and, indeed, the anarchists. Once Franco was defeated, the Basques intended to go their own way, politically and economically.
Orwell has little to say on the Basques, though from his review of GL Steer I sense that he was unsympathetic. The Basques are in the Republican camp, he says, solely because the Republicans have granted them autonomy. And Steer, he writes, with no apparent irony, is so partisan towards them as to be unreliable.
Orwell, despite his eulogising of Spanish anarchism, favoured a socialism that was conventionally statist. Some eighteen months after Homage to Catalonia, he would, in The Lion and the Unicorn, advocate that revolutionary socialists draw on the traditional and well-established loyalties of English nationhood rather than on abstractions like proletarian solidarity.
Anarchism aspires to the abolition of the state and the end of politics. The state is to be dismantled early in the revolution to give way to an ungoverned and socialist order, maintained without coercion. Marx, too, aspired to statelessness. As socialism consolidated itself, he said, the state would gradually wither away, though this would happen in a future so distant as not to matter. Prior to its withering away, the state, now revolutionary socialist, would empower itself to unprecedented levels. Orwell’s concern, as a reflective socialist, was that state actors, having empowered themselves so comprehensively, might not ever willingly step down. The writings that made his name, that have become canonical and have entered into the general culture are considerations of this possibility.
I am assuming that Storm Over Spain was a poor seller since there was no second edition and the book is, these days, scarce ‑ more difficult to obtain than some of Mitchell’s other works, none of which has the kudos of an Orwell endorsement. And Mitchell herself is largely unknown. There was an obituary of her father in the British Medical Journal (“he is survived by three daughters, one of whom, Máirín Mitchell, FRGS, is a well-known writer on maritime subjects”), while Edward, her brother, died in the First World War and is commemorated on a number of war memorials. But of Máirín herself there is apparently not even a photograph in circulation. Only for Orwell having mentioned her, I might never have come across her. And the book of hers that impressed him, Storm Over Spain, has been out of print for more than eighty years. All this might be changing. Mitchell is mentioned in Katrina Goldstone’s recent Irish Writers and the Thirties and in Barry McLoughlin and Emmet O’Connor’s In Spanish Trenches. An exhibition on her life and work is planned for the Basque Autonomous Region in 2022 and a conference in Andalusia the following year. A Spanish translation of Storm Over Spain is in the works. Perhaps a new edition in English might not be far behind.
With thanks to Katrina Goldstone, Jose Francisco Fernandez Sanchez, Amaia Lopez de Munain and Darcy Moore. Martin Tyrrell’s class “Orwell, Ireland and the War” will begin at Queen’s University, Belfast Open Learning in the autumn.