Friday, July 15, 2022


Kotkin and Catalonia

In "Homage to Catalonia," George Orwell tells the fascinating tale of his time in Spain fighting the fascist forces of Franco in the 1930s.  Such service was romanticized by Ernest Hemingway and many others in the West who took up arms. In Orwell's case, he escaped doom twice, which naturally tempered his romanticism.  The first time was conventional -- he took a bullet through the neck and was left at the mercy of dubious Republican medical services.  The second came to pass when he and his wife -- British citizens -- were placed on a list of those to be arrested, not by the "bad guys," but by the same Republican government with which Orwell was allied, a government which, in an echo of the Russian show trials («показательние процессы») then taking place in Moscow, tied the far-left faction under whose banner Orwell was fighting to Leon Trotsky, and fantasized that the far left and the far right were engaged in a giant conspiracy to subvert the global Communist aims of Joseph Stalin, who was supplying much needed arms and other material to the Republic.  In fact, there were many factions allied against the Nationalists in Spain.  Orwell had chosen his, which was called "POUM," almost on a whim.  The Republicans knew that POUM was not conspiring with Franco, but cynicism and desperation led them to cave to Stalin, just as cynicism and desperation led his domestic comrades to point fatal fingers at countless Russian victims of the terror, some of them Stalin's personal friends and life-long fellow travelers.

Thus "Catalonia" helps us to understand what nation-state served as Orwell's model for the nightmare controlling authority he fashioned in "1984."  There was not one model, it's true, but the clear commonality with Soviet Russia led to the suppression of that most famous of Orwell's books in many Western circles.  Orwell never gave up the allegiance to the left that had led him to Spain, but his vision of it was clear.

Stephen Kotkin, in his biography of Stalin, explains how direct was the dictator's hand in orchestrating the events that nearly cost Orwell his freedom and perhaps his life.  Kotkin also points out for us that at the very same time that he was engaged in these machinations, Stalin was exercising veto power over the Reds in China in his capacity as leader of the global Comintern.  Those Communists were wrestling with the question whether to concentrate their efforts against Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist government or rather against the imperial designs of the Japanese.  Stalin intervened to save Chiang's life after he was arrested and given over to his great enemy -- Mao Tse-Tung. Kotkin is not given to wild speculation, but he permits himself a tempered speculation that had Stalin not so intervened, Japan's next imperial moves might have been directed against northern China and not against targets in the Eastern and South Pacific, including Pearl Harbor.

Madrid and Barcelona are a long way from Nanking and Tokyo.  Yet this was Stalin's chessboard during the period when, in Kotkin's words, he was "waiting for Hitler," a period we tend to think of as a lull before the real action came into play with the invasion of Poland on Sept 1, 1939 and, more directly for Stalin, Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941.  How then can we reject Kotkin's central premise that Stalin was indeed the "essential man" of the bloody 20th century?

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