The thumbnail biography of George Orwell goes like this- scholarship boy at an English public school, not accepted by his wealthier fellow students. Colonial policeman in Burma, disillusioned by imperial abuses. Left the service and bummed around, wrote about his experiences, and became a journalist.
Now, my copy of Homage to Catalonia is misplaced, so certain details may be wrong, but the essence of the story wil be accurate. Orwell arrived in Barcelona at the end of 1936 to write about the Spanish Civil War. He was so swept up in the revolutionary fervor he decided to fight. Although he was a Communist- an important point- his press credentials were from the International Labor Party, so he joined the militia of the Worker’s Party of Marxist Unity, or by its Spanish acronym, POUM.
Orwell contrasted the poor equipage and dubious military skills of the militia with its strong atmosphere of working class comradeship, which which he found very touching. After a mostly uneventful few months on the line, he returned to Barcelona for R&R.
While George was away, a rift had opened up in the pro-government cause. The government wanted to disarm the party militias, which resisted. The communists started a media campaign painting the anarchists and Marxists as secretly fascist. After some street fighting, the non-communist left was banned and many of its members arrested and killed. Two of Orwell’s friends were disappeared, and Orwell just barely escaped the same fate.
I found Orwell’s reaction to this strange. He was upset- exasperated- annoyed- quite put out, but not actually angry. He could not quite bring himself to believe a fundamental injustice had been done, and it had been done by Communists. Orwell saw, and noted with approval, many abusive actions against the bourgeousie- churches desecrated and filled with excrement, landowners run off, a mill broken up for firewood. Orwell blamed the fate of his friends on the Spanish legal system, although I doubt if Spain had had habeas corpus it would have made any difference. Orwell was probably also aware of the many crimes committed by the left in Spain previous
Orwell made one strong judgement against the communists that were running the show in Spain- that they had impeded the revolution. This was what he really cared about, and again, while it upset him, it did not make him break with the Communist cause. Homage to Catalonia and 1984 were both published after his death.
Orwell is an eloquent voice against Stalinism, but for me that is not enough. Orwell criticized Stalinism from the standpoint of a non-Stalinist communist. He didn’t see anything wrong with killing people in pursuit of the revolution, he just didn’t like it when communists who weren’t quite 100% behind the current program from Moscow got the same treatment.
George Orwell was fundamentally committed to the goal of worldwide communist revolution. That goal was important enough to him that he remained silent about its crimes, even the murder of two friends.
This choice, this rationalization, is the fundamental failing of the Western left in all the years since.