Homage to Catalonia
George Orwell, 1938

In December 1936 George Orwell signed on with a Marxist group fighting against Francisco Franco's fascists in eastern Spain. This book is an account of his time on the front lines and in Barcelona during a battle between Soviet-backed communists and the anti-Stalinists with whom Orwell was affiliated.

And that brings up what to me was the one of the two most interesting aspects of an otherwise dull book about a man whining that wars make it hard to get cigarettes. Seriously, the monomaniacal focus on tobacco started off as slightly amusing but after a while became genuinely intolerable. Back when the tobacco executives were insisting to Congressional investigators that nicotine wasn't addictive, someone should have just read this book into the record. "I wonder what is the appropriate first action when you come from a country at war and set foot on peaceful soil. Mine was to rush to the tobacco-kiosk and buy as many cigars and cigarettes as I could stuff into my pockets." There's something like this on almost every page.

But anyway. Spain in the 1930s was divided up into a million different political parties, each with its own acronym: Orwell's was the POUM, and then you had the PSUC, and the CNT, and the FAI, and the UGT, and the JCI, and the JSU, and the AIT, and the FBI, and the CIA, and the BBC, BB King, and Doris Day. Thus the civil war was fought between coalitions, with the fascists, monarchists, aristocrats, and clergy on one side, and the communists, socialists, democrats, and anarchists on the other, at least at first. This is a big part of what appealed to Orwell: here at last was a clear-cut war of good against evil, between forces trying to liberate the people and those trying to enslave them. When he first arrived in Catalonia, then in the hands of the anarchists, Orwell was struck by the new society of equals that had sprung up, where people in shops acted like friends helping you out and not toadies grateful to serve you. "Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine." As far as the socialists and anarchists were concerned, the revolution was underway and they weren't going to give it up in order to restore the previous regime, however preferable it might be to living under Franco. The communists, however, differed.

The PSUC (communist) position, as Orwell rendered it, was: "At present nothing matters except winning the war; without victory in the war all else is meaningless. Therefore this is not the moment to talk of pressing forward with the revolution. We can't afford to alienate the peasants by forcing collectivization upon them, and we can't afford to frighten away the middle classes who were fighting on our side. Above all for the sake of efficiency we must do away with revolutionary chaos. We must have a strong central government in place of local committees, and we must have a properly trained and fully militarized army under a unified command. Clinging on to fragments of workers' control and parroting revolutionary phrases is worse than useless; it is not merely obstructive, but even counterrevolutionary, because it leads to divisions which can be used against us by the fascists. At this stage we are not fighting for the dictatorship of the proletariat, we are fighting for parliamentary democracy. Whoever tries to turn the civil war into a social revolution is playing into the hands of the Fascists and is in effect, if not in intention, a traitor."

This was the position of the Spanish communists because it was the position of their chief sponsor, Josef Stalin. There is a germ of old-time Marxism in there — before Lenin, Marxists maintained that true communism could only arise as a proletarian reaction to the excesses of capitalism. This is why agrarian Russia, with its huge peasantry but tiny proletariat, was one of the last countries that non-Russian Marxists would have selected as the launching point for the revolution. So orthodox ideology would have insisted that Spanish workers rise up against the government, not against a usurper. But more to the point, despite the fact that one of Lenin's main slogans was "power to the soviets" (ie, local councils), once the Bolsheviks were in control, all power was centralized and the soviets became dummy organizations. Nor was the Red Army any more egalitarian than any other army. In short, the society of equals of which socialists around the world dreamed, which Orwell saw a glimpse of in Catalonia, and which was anathema to Western conservatives, was also anathema to the USSR.

The POUM (socialist) position, in Orwell's words, was: "It is nonsense to talk of opposing fascism by bourgeois 'democracy.' Bourgeois 'democracy' is only another name for capitalism, and so is fascism; to fight against fascism on behalf of 'democracy' is to fight against one form of capitalism on behalf of a second which is liable to turn into the first at any moment. The only real alternative to fascism is workers' control. If you set up any less goal than this, you will either hand the victory to Franco, or, at best, let in fascism by the back door. Meanwhile the workers must cling to every scrap of what they have won; if they yield anything to the semi-bourgeois government they can depend upon being cheated. The workers' militias and police forces must be preserved in their present form and every effort to 'bourgeoisify' them must be resisted. If the workers do not control the armed forces, the armed forces will control the workers. The war and the revolution are inseparable."

It seems to me that this sort of dispute is fundamental to politics in general. Change a few of the words and you could easily make this into a capsule summary of the struggle that goes on within opposition parties in democracies. On one side you have the triangulators, the people who say that all that matters is winning elections, that no part of your platform is sacred because if you don't have power then your platform is irrelevant. Those on the other side point out that if you become like your enemies, what does it matter if you supplant them?

I was reminded of something Duncan Black wrote about the (at the time) three leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for president. His was a three-line post, but unpacked, it's something like this: They didn't, and don't, dramatically differ on policy details. But Hillary Clinton's message boils down to, "I know how to work within the system better than anyone," having learned at Bill Clinton's side the delicate art of picking and choosing which things to sell your supporters out on (greenlighting media consolidation, greenlighting marriage discrimination, gutting welfare, increasing censorship) in order to gather the political capital to provide them a few of the things they want (family and medical leave, more sensible taxation, reasonably sane judges). But the important thing is maintaining power, and one of the arguments that Clinton's supporters have put forth — especially in the aftermath of the Nevada caucuses, when Clinton's people were accused of dirty tricks — was that the Clintons are very good at holding on to power and have no qualms about resorting to Republican-style tactics, pointing to the Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry campaigns as examples of what happens when you're reluctant to lower yourself to the level of your opponents. Clinton has also spent far more of her campaign funds on consultants, which falls right in line with the notion that you should never say anything that doesn't poll well — a charge that stuck to the Clintons back in the 90s and which also neatly matches the PSUC line about not alienating the rubes you're trying to keep on your side.

John Edwards took a different line: "The system sucks, and we have to fight like hell to destroy it." Clinton claimed that her years in the White House and subsequently in the Senate made her "ready from day one"... but ready to do what? Make trades with corporate interests and hope that the people came away in a marginally better position? The Edwards campaign argued that, on the contrary, the single fundamental problem with American society is that unchecked corporate power allows a select few to live ever more privileged lives at the expense of those who actually do the work. This is unjust, contrary to the general welfare, and a threat to domestic tranquility; consequently, it is the job of the president to fight corporate depredation, not to cozy up to big business in hopes that the people will receive some sort of ancillary benefit from your mutual backscratching. Even if nominating a Democrat who caters to corporate interests gives the party a better chance in the general election, which is debatable, you're still a prisoner trading a 45% chance of going free for a 55% chance of nicer guards. This is not entirely dissimilar from the POUM line.

Then there's Barack Obama: "The system sucks, but I'm so awesome that it will melt before me." Uh-huh. That's Duncan Black's summary, but I'm not convinced that Obama even thinks that the system sucks — I looked through his "Blueprint for Change," and I didn't see a lot about transforming society. Like Clinton, he seems to think that the job of government is to "tackle problems"; not only does he use that phrase, but he then goes issue by issue, lays out what he sees as the "problem," and then puts forward a plan. That's all well and good, but it strikes me as completely reactive. In his speeches Obama talks about "hope" and "change," but hope for what? Change to what? I said up top that there were two ideas in Homage to Catalonia that I found interesting. One was about the balance between gaining power and being co-opted. The other is that since, as noted, society had been transformed in Catalonia, the socialist forces weren't just fighting against Franco but for the new society they had started to create. They were builders, not repairmen.

One of the most pernicious trends in language today is the tendency to talk about everything as a "solution." I have actually seen raisins referred to — I kid you not — as "premium dried fruit solutions." Now, it's not hard to see why marketing people would glom onto this language: "here's something you might enjoy eating" is nowhere near as forceful as "you have a problem and it is a lack of dried fruit!" But this is terrible for many reasons, of which I will talk about two. One is that it's inaccurate. Consider typewriters. The Qwerty keyboard layout was designed to slow typists down in order to avoid jammed keys. By the 1930s, this was no longer an issue, but the inefficient layout led to typist fatigue. So August Dvorak created a more efficient keyboard. That is a true solution: there was a known problem that people were complaining about, and he fixed it. Compare this to word processors. They are computer programs, or in today's lingo, "software solutions." But word processors weren't invented to solve problems! There was no public outcry among writers demanding a way to make words magically fly around a page. The supply created the demand: first the engineers and programmers dreamed up the technology, and people said "whoa, that's awesome" and adopted it. That's how progress happens: not just by fixing what we know to be deficient, but through the efforts of visionaries who imagine ways to improve what we didn't know needed improving.

Which brings up the second problem with calling everything a "solution" — by suggesting that an idea can only be worthwhile if it solves a problem, it encourages us to be complacent about anything that isn't a crisis, whether that crisis be real or fake. There was a time when you could hear someone running for the Democratic nomination quoting George Bernard Shaw and claiming to "dream of things that never were, and ask, 'Why not?'" Now it seems that they've decided that, no, looking at things the way they are is plenty. Sure, you can make a case that things are so fucked up at the moment that repair work is all we can manage. But just as fighting against Franco was much less inspiring for the Catalonians than fighting for the revolution, I'd be much less disappointed about this election season if, after intensively following political news for months on end, I had a sense of the vision the candidates had for America.

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