Homage to Propaganda. George Orwell’s Encounter with the Propaganda Machine.

Book Review: ‘Homage To Catalonia’ by George Orwell.

Brief: Orwell’s first encounter with the manipulation of public mind happened when he was fighting against Fascists in Spanish Civil War.

They say if you are not a socialist at 20, you have no heart. When you read George Orwell’s novels — you read the thoughts and feelings of a man who had a heart. The last book I read was Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia’. I’ve bought it from a small second-hand bookshop in London — a type of bookshop Orwell used to work once. I love second-hand bookshops — they sell old editions of famous novels, which usually have the great art cover of the past. My edition of ‘Homage To Catalonia’ had an old Spanish newspaper, a rifle and a P.O.U.M. flag painted on the cover. These were three important items that Orwell always had with himself, while he was fighting in the trenches of Spanish Civil war in 1937.

The cover of my edition on the left and the second-hand bookshop I bought it on the right.

There was a shortage of everything on the front line. Food, tobacco and bullets! Most importantly bullets! Orwell tells how each member of his brigade was given only one cartridge of 50 bullets, which had to be shot wisely. It was difficult to save bullets, because he and his fellow soldiers were using rifles which were twenty or thirty years-old. The rifles were dirty, often broken and were often getting stuck. Orwell knew that, but it didn’t stop him from coming to Barcelona to fight against Fascism and to defend democracy.

“Spanish Civil War was the last war for an idea” said my friend once in a pub. “There were Fascists, Communists, Anarchists and many others fighting for their own vision of the future for Spain. It was working class vs. aristocracy or simply saying poor were fighting the rich.” That’s what attracted Orwell.

He was stunned by the atmosphere of the revolution and the equality that was born by the uprising. “Human beings were trying to behave as human beings . General and private, peasant and militiaman, still met as equals; everyone drew the same pay, wore the same clothes, ate the same food, and called everyone else ’thou’ and ’comrade’; there was no boss-class, no menial-class, no beggars, no prostitutes, no lawyers, no priests, no boot-licking, no cap-touching. I was breathing the air of equality.”

This is equality that Orwell hadn’t seen in England at a time and quiet frankly we don’t see it even today in 2016. “Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ’Señor’ or ’Don’ or even ’Usted’; everyone called everyone else ’Comrade’ and ’Thou’, and said ’Salud!’ instead of ’Buenos días’. Tipping was forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy.”

Little he knew that soon it will be over.

War & Cigarettes.

The safest way to witness the war is to read George Orwell. From the first chapter till the last, Orwell was not letting me to come back to the reality. When the bullets were flying over his head — I had a feeling they were flying over my head as well. When Orwell was suffering cold Spanish winters on the front-line — I could feel the cold all over my body as well. When he was craving tobacco and was hoping that some cigarettes would arrive from Barcelona — I went and bought a pack of Marlboro from a local shop.

However what worried Orwell was not the Fascist’s bullets that could cause injury (eventually one of the bullets hit him in the neck); he wasn’t worried about the shortage of food either, he was worried about a new tendency that was unfolding right in front of his eyes — propaganda.

The war “taught me to read the war news in the papers with a more disbelieving eye. It was above all a political war.” Political war between the groups that my friend said “were fighting for ideas”. However soon the idea of equality was about to disappear. Not because of Fascists, who were supported by German Nazis, but by Soviet Union and Communists.

There’s a propaganda technique that each government uses — scapegoating. We are all familiar with that tactic. It is when people in power fail to find a solution to a problem they are facing — they shift the blame on someone else. That ‘someone else’ is usually less powerful, smaller in numbers and has no power to fight back. That’s what Soviet Union decided to do in Spain.

“Once the U.S.S.R. had intervened the triumph of the Communist Party was assured.” Orwell observed how a massive propaganda machine backed by U.S.S.R. was applying the scapegoating tactic in a scale that Orwell had never seen before. Their target was the POUM — the political party Orwell was member of — he witnessed the entire Communist press focusing their power on scapegoating his political party. “The P.O.U.M. was declared to be no more than a gang of disguised Fascists, in the pay of Franco and Hitler, who were pressing a pseudo-revolutionary policy as a way of aiding the Fascist cause. The P.O.U.M. was a ’Trotskyist’ organization and ’Franco’s Fifth Column’. This implied that scores of thousands of working-class people, including eight or ten thousand soldiers who were freezing in the front-line trenches and hundreds of foreigners who had come to Spain to fight against Fascism, often sacrificing their livelihood and their nationality by doing so, were simply traitors in the pay of the enemy.”

The governments around the world, democratic or authoritarian, easily discredit their opponents by using this same technique. Examples of how Hitler was scapegoating Jews in 1930’s, or how Turks were scapegoating Armenians in 1915 depict this tactic very well.

“Today the key-word is ’Trotsky-Fascist’; yesterday it was ’Social-Fascist’” — says Orwell. In modern Russia the ‘scapegoat’ word Trotsky is replaced by a world ‘liberal’. We see history making another cycle again with modern Russian authorities doing the same to their opponents. They are creating a country that is holding on hatred.

This evil is inherent not only to Russia. You can see the its fragments in the United States when Donald Trump scapegoats Mexican migrants or Eastern European leaders trying to make refugees suffer, in order to maintain the themselves at the wheel of power.

They forget that those policies were used by Nazis, which led humanity to hell. It showed that the descent to hell is easy — what’s hard is to climb back to heaven. Orwell witnessed the beginning of this descent by reading Communist newspapers and listening to Radio broadcasts.

“Once the U.S.S.R. had intervened the triumph of the Communist Party was assured.” Orwell’s prediction came true. Communist patrols started arresting members of Orwell’s POUM party. Those who were detained were held without charge and even been executed. Orwell knew that the revolution is over and it’s no longer safe to stay in Spain. He and his wife, Sonia, with the help of British Consul in Barcelona managed to escape.

Orwell wrote ‘Looking Back at Spanish Civil war four years after and you can read his thoughts here.

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