A recent article in The Guardian by the highly-regarded historian Professor Paul Preston made the case that George Orwell’s classic Spanish Civil War tract, Homage to Caledonia, was ‘bad history’. Attacks on Orwell’s text are not new – his book represents a potent challenge to the legitimacy of the Spanish Republic from one of the left’s most influential authors of the twentieth century. This is no small deal: the Spanish Republic retains a special place in the hearts of many progressives as an iconic democratic regime martyred by expansion of fascism during the 1930s. While vilification of the Republic is to be expected at the hands of conservatives, criticism from the left presents a much more enduring challenge to the historical memory of the Republic.
Those most concerned about the historical memory of the Spanish Republic in Britain have therefore always been cagey about Orwell’s text. The newsletters and websites of organisations such as the International Brigade Memorial Trust still occasionally carry articles attacking Orwell. Ex-International Brigaders, notably Bill Alexander, have written on the subject in years gone by. Professor Preston himself has also criticized Orwell’s book in forums outwith The Guardian.
Orwell’s writings, and in particular the controversial bits about the uprising/suppression of the POUM in Barcelona, are well outside my area of expertise and I have no standing to engage with the substance of any criticism of its contents or make a case for its (in)accuracy. In terms of my own personal opinion, I’d probably come down on the same side as Professor Preston et al and conclude that Orwell’s position in Homage to Catalonia was naive at best when it came to prioritising revolution over the Republican war effort. For me, however, this isn’t the issue. Singling out Orwell’s book as being especially flawed or biased seems to miss the point – it was written as a reaction to his immediate experiences in Spain, with all the acknowledged passion and limited scope that a personal account implies (and Orwell himself wasn’t shy about admitting that his account was constrained by such factors). In other words, this is a primary source, not a scholarly history of the conflict.
This makes ‘bad history’ a curious label to apply to Orwell’s work. As every historian knows, any primary source contains bias, especially those describing so emotive an event as the Spanish Civil War. In the numerous primary sources I’ve considered for my own work, there’s not one that is unbiased or neutral, or able to fully escape the limitations of the author’s viewpoint. Many contain factual or interpretive ‘errors’ on the same magnitude as Orwell. That’s fine – that’s why historians try and find a range of perspectives and sources to build their case. If we dismissed each source because of its flaws, we’d soon have little to work from.
Professor Preston’s criticism is of course much more nuanced than this. As he noted, the problem is that for many readers, Homage is the only text on the Spanish Civil War they will ever engage with, amplifying the gravity of the book’s flaws. This is indeed a serious problem, although hardly unique to the field of the Spanish Civil War. How many people have had their knowledge of major historical events shaped by literature or film? Academic historians could doubtless poke holes in most such accounts, yet it’s unarguably true that for most people, reading a scholarly monograph is hardly the way they like to expose themselves to new ideas. The best we can hope is that those who find themselves moved by Orwell’s work are encouraged to find out more about the conflict and seek out other perspectives.
An unspoken part of this problem is that Orwell was a very good writer, with a style that comes across as plainspoken and honest. It’s not just that Orwell wrote unpalatable things about the Spanish Republic, it’s that they sound so immensely convincing and Orwell himself consistently comes across as a confused yet honest witness. It is this appearance of bluff honesty which, I think, annoys his critics so – and encourages them to dig into his character and fact check his work so closely. Even so, I don’t believe that the solution is an Orwellian hatchet job simply because he failed to meet impossible standards for any writer discussing events as complex as the Spanish Civil War. Orwell (like just about any living or historical figure) cannot stand that level of scrutiny, and nor should he have to – and we should treat Homage to Catalonia as we would any primary source: critically yet constructively.