The Spanish Cockpit

An introduction to Orwell’s Spain

by Oscar Clarke



Oscar Clarke last wrote for us on George Orwell as Britain stood up to totalitarianism. Now he describes the work of Franz Borkenau, who like Orwell had been on the ground in Spain, and whom Orwell came to know personally after Borkenau took refuge in Britain as the Second World War broke out.


I – Orwell and Borkenau

George Orwell must have felt quite dejected when he returned to Britain in July 1937. He had received a bullet through the throat from one of Franco’s rebels, but that didn’t prevent him being chased out of Spain by communists. And he was given further cause for despair when he came to look at what the British left-wing press had been saying about the Civil War. Not only in the communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, but in other left-wing publications, like the Daily Herald and the News Chronicle, were the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), in the ranks of which Orwell had fought, being subjected to accusations of clandestine activities in the service of “fascism”. It was the era of European “Popular Fronts”, which was also the era of what Victor Serge called “liberal Stalinism”. Wild conspiracy theories, originating in Moscow, indicted first Russian and then international members of the non-Stalinist left as secret Gestapo collaborators. And liberal cheerleaders for Stalin repeated the slanders.

Orwell’s attempts to correct them were stifled by his publisher, Victor Gollancz, who refused even to glance at the manuscript of Homage to Catalonia, and by the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, who had commissioned Orwell to write an article about Spain, but then refused to print it. Shamefaced, Martin instead proposed that Orwell review a book which had just been released, The Spanish Cockpit, but subsequently declined to publish that, too. Orwell’s arguments, Martin complained, implied that his correspondents in Spain were all wrong. But the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four would at least have been heartened by the book itself, for he judged it to be the best to have come out of the Civil War – which was, ironically, a verdict echoed by the New Statesman’s eventual reviewer, V. S. Pritchett.

The author of The Spanish Cockpit was Franz Borkenau, an Austrian sociologist who had spent most of the nineteen twenties travelling around Europe in the employ of the Comintern, studying the communists’ left-wing adversaries, the social democratic parties, in various countries. Throughout that decade, the line of the Comintern, directed from Moscow, had shifted to-and-fro; at times it was preached expedient for European communist parties to cooperate with social democrats; at other times, they were instructed to denounce social democrats as despicable lackeys of the bourgeoisie. It is very likely that Borkenau’s studies began to upset his paymasters. In any case, he left the German Communist Party and his Comintern job in 1929, when international communism underwent one of its most extreme shifts to the left and began denouncing social democrats as “social fascists”.

Thus Borkenau, who was forced to leave Germany when Hitler came to power, knew from personal experience that the various “Popular Front” alliances of left-wing forces were built on fluctuant foundations. When the Francoist rebellion broke out, he resolved to go to Spain to see how the alliance there would hold up under the added pressure of war. Unlike Orwell, who went to fight, Borkenau wanted to carry out a sociological survey. He was influenced by the social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, through whose technique of “participant observation” Borkenau hoped to gain an understanding of what the War meant to the Spanish people. He was refused entry to the rebel side, noting that the Francoists tended not to allow any foreign reporters in unless they were assured in advance of their support. Like Orwell, therefore, Borkenau only experienced developments on the government side. He made two visits to Spain, from August to September 1936 and from January to February 1937, which is one reason why The Spanish Cockpit complements Homage to Catalonia. Orwell left for Spain in late December 1936 and returned to England in July 1937. Taken together, the two books constitute year one of the Spanish Civil War.

FB The Spanish Cockput

That is not to say that they are, by any means, the only two contemporary accounts one needs to read in order to learn about the period between July 1936 and July 1937 in Spain. There is, however, one crucial aspect of the Civil War which most contemporary accounts conspired to ignore, but which Borkenau and Orwell did not. And it was because of their willingness to write about it that their books now appear as companion volumes in a more than solely chronological sense. It was a kind of subplot to the War, which only really had to do with the government side. It had very little to do with the fighting of the War, but was, in fact, the story of what went on behind the lines. It was the story of the social revolution which began with the defence of Barcelona on 19 July 1936 – or, rather, the subplot of the revolution, which is the subplot of all revolutions: the gradual transition from mass terror to police terror.

II – Social Revolution

When Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936, he found a workers’ city, which to a great extent had removed any trace of its “bourgeois” past. He observed how the address “usted” had been abandoned in favour of the more familiar “tu”. A minor change of language habits, perhaps, but it was a symptom of a larger change in social relations. Large factory owners had fled; armed workers had control of the streets; the churches had been burned; and hotels and banks had been requisitioned. The exploitative tyranny of capitalism was surely at an end. Orwell rejoiced. This was “a state of affairs worth fighting for”. He was fighting, that statement implied, not only against Francoism, but for social revolution.

Borkenau was perhaps more cautious about the latter objective. His comments upon the sanguinary actions of the Durruti column, for instance, leave the reader with the impression that he was rather appalled. And on the beach in Sitges, he remarked upon the burning of religious artifacts as a “sad performance”. Some factory owners had fled, but only because others had first been killed. The anarchists were the strongest party in Barcelona in the summer of 1936 because they were the most ruthless. But whether or not he sympathised with their project of social revolution, despite its attendant evils, Borkenau had set himself the task of recording the opinions of the participants in the struggle. And one of the important revelations of his book was that, paradoxically, those on the government side most opposed to social revolution were the communists. In Barcelona, a representative of the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC) denied that there was, or had been, any revolution in Spain. Borkenau mused:

I wonder how it is that communists, who, all over the world, for fifteen years have discovered revolutionary situations where there were none, and done tremendous mischief by it, now do not recognise revolution when… it is really there.

The strength of the anarchists in Barcelona, coupled with the revolutionary temper of Catalans, to whom fascism took on the added horror of being Castilian, meant that social revolution proceeded much further in Catalonia than in the rest of Spain. But its progress brought gradual resentment. Borkenau noted that the Barcelona petit-bourgeoisie became disaffected with and even afraid of the anarchists, who threatened to extend their policy of expropriation and, theoretically, advocated the utopian fantasy of a society without money or property. In their asceticism, Borkenau compared the Spanish anarchists to the Anabaptists of sixteenth century Münster. Seeking, perhaps to take advantage of popular feeling against the anarchists, the Barcelona communists, in September 1936, launched as a slogan the demand for the “protection of the property of the small industrialist” (a strange slogan for communists!). And after the International Brigades, armed by Moscow, successfully defended Madrid in November 1936, the balance of power in Barcelona began to shift in the communists’ favour.

FB Spanish Cockpit pb


Throughout Spain, now, all arms from Moscow went to communists, which in Barcelona meant the PSUC. Very quickly, the PSUC gained not only military strength, but the support of those disaffected by the period of anarchist predominance. As Borkenau put it, the “old rule of revolutions” was beginning to assert itself to the anarchists’ detriment: a revolution had better be ruthlessly carried through to the end, or otherwise not started at all. The anarchists, though they had been willing to give licence to revolutionary violence, never had a totalitarian disposition. Garcia Oliver, one of the anarchist leaders, defending his conduct in 1939, wrote that: “we have shown an example hitherto unknown in Revolutionary history, when – though we formed the majority – we did not yield to the temptation to establish a Dictatorship.”

The communists, by contrast, were only too ready to do just that. Already by December 1936, the month Orwell arrived, the POUM was excluded from the Catalan government on the basis of the lie that it was really a pro-fascist party. In Moscow, around the same time, it was “revealed” that Trotsky was a Gestapo spy.

III – Police Terror

The exclusion of the POUM was a portent of its suppression in May 1937, described by Orwell in the most memorable section of Homage to Catalonia. It is interesting to note that the communists moved first against the POUM – and not against the anarchists – for they were always a small and politically insignificant group. But the events in May described in Orwell’s book become more intelligible in the light of the observations Borkenau made in a 20-page chapter towards the end of his book: “In Jail – The Police Regime”.

During his first journey in Spain, Borkenau described how he had talked to and interviewed representatives of all shades of opinion on the government side. He had, in the course of these conversations, been frank about his own opinions and unsparing in his criticism. As he put it, “I did not think any of the parties participating in the fight had a panacea for winning it”. And he was unafraid to say so.

But when he returned to Spain in January 1937, the atmosphere had completely changed. No reporter could any longer roam freely around loyalist Spain without some form of party accreditation. Borkenau found that he was often being shadowed. Communist spies began approaching him in attempts to catch him out as a “Trotskyist”. In Valencia, he was arrested, released and, shortly after, arrested again, all without any knowledge of the charges against him. The mass terrorism of the first summer had targeted the real enemies – according to anarchist ideology – of the revolution: priests, capitalists and the landed gentry. It was horrific, but revolution is violent. Had there not been terror in Paris in 1792? The character of mass terror was spontaneous and unorganised. It was an orgy of violence visited upon the bastions of the old regime by its newly liberated victims.

The mass terror had calmed and abated. But, attendant to the growing influence of the communists, the heresy hunts had begun. “Every revolution”, Borkenau observed, “seems to undergo, in its course, this transformation from mass terrorism to police terrorism”. In Spain, this transformation had taken place under the influence of Moscow. And, as Orwell observed when he returned to England, the Spanish police terror was really an extension of what was happening in Russia at the same time – which explains why members of the POUM were its first targets. The POUM, though in reality fairly insignificant in Catalonia, and even more so in the rest of Spain, was a Party formed mostly of ex-communists, some of them considering themselves followers of Trotsky. Its raison d’être was anti-Stalinism.

Communists, during the years of the Moscow Trials, had an obsession about “Trotskyism” – or what they sometimes called “Trotsky-fascism” – which belied its actual influence. Trotsky and his followers were, to the Communists, a cosmically evil force, whose only goal was to destroy the revolution and prevent the coming of the just order prophesied by Marx. In Moscow, most of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution were eventually condemned and sentenced to death as “Trotskyists”. If the accusations against them were true, it would have meant that the October Revolution was carried out almost exclusively by enemies of the October Revolution. The British intellectual John Strachey was “wholly convinced” by the old Bolsheviks’ confessions, but, so mesmerised was he by Gletkin, the interrogator in Darkness at Noon, he also thought Arthur Koestler had intended to mount a defence of the Trials!

FB related POUM Trial Transcripts

When Borkenau was arrested, it was as a suspected “Trotskyist”. There was no evidence on which to suspect him of being a follower of Trotsky, which would be an ordinary interpretation of what the term implies. But Trotskyism was, in fact, a denunciation of much wider scope. “The peculiar atmosphere which to-day exists about Trotskyism in Spain is created, not by the importance of the Trotskyists themselves”, Borkenau wrote, “it derives from the fact that the communists have got into the habit of denouncing as a Trotskyist everybody who disagrees with them about anything”. Borkenau was denounced first by a communist spy, with whom he had been too frank in his criticisms of communism, and then by his English typist, a communist, who had taken exception to some of the opinions he had dictated to her for his book. The denunciations related to criticism of communism; the charge was “Trotskyism”.

After the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Borkenau would write a book, The Totalitarian Enemy, in which he would compare the totalitarian regimes of Germany and Russia. In Spain, already, he had begun to notice a similarity in mental outlook:

The communists… are getting into the habit of believing that people whom they decided to call Trotskyists, for the sake of insulting them, are Trotskyists in the sense of co-operating with the Trotskyist political party. In this respect the Spanish communists do not differ in any way from the German Nazis. The Nazis call everybody who dislikes their political regime a ‘communist’ and finish by actually believing that all their adversaries are communists… I have no doubt that all the communists who took care to make things difficult for me in Spain were genuinely convinced that I actually was a Trotskyist.

FB Totalitarian Enemy

Nazis and communists also shared the belief that those who disagreed with them deserved to be murdered, as Orwell would learn a few months later. He, of course, escaped, but many others, like his friend Andreu Nin, were not so fortunate.



Oscar Clarke is a PhD student at the University of Bristol, researching the political ideas of Franz Borkenau.


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