One of George Orwell’s purposes in writing Homage To Catalonia was to give an account of events by one who was there. As Orwell was in Barcelona during the ‘May Days’ of 1937 which were headlined as a ‘Trotskyist Rising’ using ‘Hidden Arms’ by the British Communist press his rebuttal is particularly valuable. Orwell cites and dates his examples. Several newspaper libraries and museums hold complete runs of the Daily Worker, the main subject of Orwell’s outrage at its inaccuracy, but access for many is difficult. An online repository offers an easier access, although not every issue can be found. Ukpressonline explain that the images available to browsers are “low-resolution, intended only to demonstrate coverage of the archives”.
The other source to be aware of is Cockburn In Spain: Despatches from the Spanish Civil War, by Claud Cockburn, edited by James Pettifer. It was Cockburn, using his pseudonym of Frank Pitcairn, who wrote the reports of 11th May 1937 and 17th May, to which Orwell had the greatest objection. Cockburn had reported throughout 1936, collecting his reports in the earlier book Reporter In Spain, which are re-printed in Cockburn In Spain along with later material.
In 1936, though, as Orwell pointed out, the Daily Worker (the Communist Press as Orwell calls it), “the Communist press in foreign countries was shouting that there was no sign of revolution anywhere; the seizure of factories, setting up of workers’ committees, etc., had not happened–or, alternatively, had happened, but ‘had no political significance’. According to the Daily Worker (6 August 1936) those who said that the Spanish people were fighting for social revolution, or for anything other than bourgeois democracy, were’ downright lying scoundrels’.”
Daily Worker 6 August 1936, page 4
Orwell moved his examination on to the May Days, and quotes again: “According to the Daily Worker (11May):
The German and Italian agents, who poured into Barcelona ostensibly to ‘prepare’ the notorious ‘Congress of the Fourth International’, had one big task. It was this:
They were–in cooperation with the local Trotskyists–to prepare a situation of disorder and bloodshed, in which it would be possible for the Germans and Italians to declare that they were ‘unable to exercise naval control of the Catalan coasts effectively because of the disorder prevailing in Barcelona’ and were, therefore, ‘unable to do otherwise than land forces in Barcelona’.”
Frank Pitcairn’s front page report
Orwell goes on to discuss the struggle over the telephone exchange (it was run by anarchists who were not prepared to cede control to the Communists), explaining “For reasons of space I have taken only the reports of one incident, but the same discrepancies run all through the accounts in the Communist press.” Orwell has expanded “Communist Press” to include issues of Imprecor, particularly for May 29th (and possibly the New Statesman) by this point. He noted, though, that the Daily Worker could not leave the point alone: “in a still later issue of the Daily Worker (3 June) Mr J. R. Campbell informs us that the Government only seized the Telephone Exchange because the barricades were already erected!”
J R Campbell’s column of “Barcelona Facts”
Orwell examines at least one more issue of the newspaper before he ends. What must be acknowledge now, though, is the Daily Worker‘s constant attention to Spain, the struggles of its people, and the barbarism of the Falangists supported by the Nazis and Fascists. A frontpage article from this period describing the bombing of British ships by Italian aircraft may have been the raid that Orwell was later to use as a criticism of the lack of action by the British government in The Lion and the Unicorn.
UKpressonline is to be commended on making these historic documents available. Students of history and those wishing to read more about George Orwell and his struggles for truth in the reporting of war will want to consider subscribing to the service.
L J Hurst
Uploaded February 23 2019