Paralysed by the Absence of Danger

Jeremy Harding

  • Letters from Barcelona: An American Woman in Revolution and Civil War edited by Gerd-Rainer Horn
    Palgrave, 209 pp, £50.00, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 230 52739 3
  • War Is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War by James Neugass
    New Press, 314 pp, £16.99, November 2008, ISBN 978 1 59558 427 4
  • We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War by Paul Preston
    Constable, 525 pp, £9.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 1 84529 946 0

Lois and Charles Orr, an inquisitive, left-of-left couple, arrived in Barcelona in the autumn of 1936. Charles was 30, a serious fellow from Michigan; Lois was 19, more or less fresh from Kentucky. They had married earlier in the year and decided on a honeymoon in Europe. In Catalonia, a matter of weeks after Franco’s military uprising against the Second Spanish Republic, they settled happily into a political climate of intrigue and rivalry among the variegated species of anti-Fascists who failed, in the end, to hold the pass: bourgeois democrats and left republicans, socialists, anarchists and Marxists, as well as a host of foreigners, many in tune with the doctrines of the Communist International.

Lois and Charles were revolutionaries in search of a revolution and Barcelona was an exhilarating place to imagine they’d found it, even though it would soon be in ruins. They took up propaganda work with the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, a not quite Trotskyist party of which Trotsky himself was fiercely critical. The POUM’s members (including a number of its leaders) were drawn from the Left and Right Opposition to the Comintern, though it’s commemorated for its influential Left Opposition intellectuals – and for its role as a canary in the Stalinist mineshaft, as Orwell records in Homage to Catalonia, a memoir of his time in Spain, most of it spent at the front as a member of the POUM’s ill-equipped military detachments.

In Barcelona, Charles Orr worked for the party’s English-language bulletin and broadcast news in English on Radio POUM. Lois, an ardent revolutionary, also broadcast from time to time. ‘I have been speaking on the radio a lot lately,’ she wrote to her father. ‘You should try to hear me, short wave.’ She went on to work for the propaganda office of the regional government of Catalonia, the Generalitat. Soon enough she was unemployed and took up the role of outspoken pamphleteer: her tracts were distributed by mail to her family in Kentucky.

How Lois and Charles had arrived in Spain with fully-formed ‘far’ left positions isn’t clear from this edition of their letters or from the notes and interviews at the end of the book. All we know is that Lois’s mother was a socialist and that Lois herself had been a high-school supporter of the Socialist Party of America under Norman Thomas and perhaps, at university, an admirer of the young militants whose star rose in the party during the early 1930s. Lois sends a funny letter to her family in December 1936, responding to ‘Mother’s crack that she was sorry I was a Trotskyist’: ‘Lady, I ain’t no Trotskyist. You should read up on the position of the USA Socialist Party on war, etc, and you will find that it is exactly ye old Leninist principle that the POUM stands for: turn imperialist war into civil war.’ Who was or wasn’t Trotskyist was a tough question, and a dangerous issue, at the time. Lois knocked the whole thing off succinctly in another letter: ‘The POUM, you see, has many faults, one of which is that they are afraid of being called Trotskyists. They really aren’t of course; probably they would be better revolutionaries if they were.’

Lois is scathing about bourgeois democracy and profoundly anti-Republican: she wants a radical outcome in Spain, to which she sees the Republic as an obstacle; she and Charles despise ‘popular fronts’ of any kind, particularly the Popular Front in Spain, and they loathe Communist parties. They have little interest in Franco’s military encroachment on the Republic or the evolution of the Axis. Anti-Fascism, in other words, is a second-order struggle: the real enemies of these industrious visitors are the forces opposing the Spanish social revolution, championed by the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists (the FAI and the CNT) and to some extent the POUM, though it was always liable to disappoint them.

When the Popular Front took a turn to the left in September 1936, the Generalitat in Barcelona followed suit, bringing members of the POUM into the regional government. Lois felt very quickly that the progress of the counter-revolution – to which she was endlessly alert, like an ecstatic in a religious sect – could be measured not simply by the new centralising tendency but by the way her comrades acquiesced in it. Members of the POUM were more than happy, she believed, to trade away the sacred gains of the revolution in Spain – land collectivisation, worker-management and locally organised anti-Fascist militias – for a share in the corrupt political process.

Lois went up and down about these gains: sometimes, it seemed, there was still everything to play for, but her anxieties were nearer the truth. The moment for a radical modernisation of labour and land in Spain had not survived the general strike of 1934 and now, even in the short-lived gala days of the Popular Front in Barcelona, it ought to have been obvious that a complicated indigenous struggle against centuries of backwardness was giving way to a crude, internationalised war against a quarantined peninsular Republic. The prospect of bourgeois democracy, or even ‘workers’ democracy’ of the kind the Orrs favoured, was growing slimmer by the week. Yet the couple couldn’t have seen this: their busy seclusion in the city meant that Lois never visited the front and Charles only managed a few days; the war intruded on their thoughts only when startling news came through or when air raids came closer, but then the blind was quickly drawn on these unwelcome truths. Military imperatives, they felt, could be used to excuse far too many evils; Lois hated the idea of the war effort squeezing her revolution into a tawdry parenthesis and she saw, correctly, how the rising influence of the Communists deprived the POUM and anarchist militias on the Aragon front of the weapons they needed to do their job.

For all their frustrations, the Orrs had a good time. Lois writes early in 1937: ‘Tomorrow the Feminine Section and the Communist Youth’ (both of them POUM structures) ‘are sponsoring a picnic – all day picnic to the sea.’ And later: ‘Boy, am I sunburned!’ Neither she nor Charles spoke Catalan, they evinced only the barest interest in the host culture in which their revolution had germinated and they lived mostly in expatriate circles, but their friendships with other foreigners, including John McNair, the ILP representative in Barcelona, were rewarding. Lois was close to Eileen O’Shaughnessy (‘nice but very vaguish when she talks and is eternally smoking cigarettes’), who spent most of her time in the city while Orwell was at the front. In the spring of 1937 Charles and Lois took a day out with Eileen in the country (‘so mountainous and beautiful’), starting early and returning late: ‘we climbed part way up a hill and lay in the grass for a couple of hours in the sun eating candy and talking.’ Eileen had no axe to grind, which made her a rare bird among the expats in Barcelona and may have accounted for her charm in Charles and Lois’s eyes. For all their zeal, they were a lively, sociable couple.

The fourth member of the party on that bucolic outing was George Tioli, an ‘Italian boy . . . quite a civilised and interesting person’. Tioli was a ‘child-psychologist’ according to Lois, who disapproved of all psychology, and according to Charles ‘a refugee from Fascist Italy’ who ‘pretended to be a journalist’. He tagged along with the Orrs when he was free, which was rather often, and he was a dab hand at getting their mail out of Spain through connections he claimed to enjoy at the Turkish mission. In spite of his charms, they came to feel that George was an obscure fellow, but in May 1937, as the Generalitat and the Communists resolved to stitch up the libertarian left in Barcelona, he began to hint that he was not just a feckless, pretty face.

On May Day the Generalitat cancelled the traditional workers’ marches in the name of the war effort. Two days later the Guardia de Asalto marched on the telephone exchange, run largely by the anarchists. Ministers in Madrid and locally had had it up to here with the Barcelona telephone exchange. In The Spanish Civil War (2001), Hugh Thomas tells of an anarchist phone operator interrupting a call from the president of the Republic to his counterpart in Catalonia and announcing that ‘lines should be used for more important purposes than a talk between the two presidents.’ The POUM rallied to the anarchists once the shooting started; Orwell (who’d come into the POUM militias via the ILP) was among them, having arrived in Barcelona for some well-earned leave from the front only to find himself holed up with a rifle alongside POUM comrades, defending the Telefónica – owned, as it happened, by the US corporation ITT.

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