In the last days of 1936, Spain was five months into a bitter civil war, in which volunteers from many countries were helping the elected government of the Spanish Republic battle a military coup led by General Francisco Franco and backed by Hitler and Mussolini. Some foreigners flocking to Spain, though, had come for another reason as well: the northeast part of the country, particularly Catalonia, was in the midst of the most far-reaching social revolution ever seen in Western Europe.
Workers had taken over factories and peasants the large estates; waiters were running restaurants and trolley drivers the transport systems. Municipal garbage trucks carried anarchist slogans. Hundreds of idealistic visitors wanted to take part in a revolution that came not, as in Stalin’s Russia, from the top down, but from the bottom up. In Barcelona, a young American economist named Charles Orr was working for the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), or Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification—an independent leftist group with its own militia at the front.
“A little militiaman, in his blue coveralls and red scarf, trudged up the stairs to my office on the fourth floor,” remembered Orr later.
The lifts, as usual, bore the familiar sign NO FUNCIONA…
There was an Englishman, he reported to me, who spoke neither Catalan nor Spanish…. I went down to see who this Englishman was and what his business might be.
There I met him—Eric Blair—tall, lanky and tired, having just that hour arrived from London….
Exhausted, but excited, after a day and a night on the train, he had come to fight fascism…. At first, I did not take this English volunteer very seriously. Just one more foreigner come to help…apparently a political innocent.
The newcomer spoke of a book he had written, about living as a tramp in England and washing dishes in Paris restaurants. But Orr had not heard of this or of the several novels this “gawky, stammering adventurer” said he had published.
“To us he was just Eric…one of a small band of foreigners, mostly British, fighting on the Aragon Front.” This was where Blair would be sent, west of Barcelona, when he promptly joined the POUM militia. “He was tongue-tied, stammered and seemed to be afraid of people,” Orr wrote. But however inhibited he was in conversation, he was anything but that in print, where he wrote under the name of George Orwell.
Like Orr, few people anywhere had then heard of the thirty-three-year-old author, who had been supporting himself largely as a part-time bookstore clerk and by running a small grocery shop out of his home. He had finished the book that would first bring him wide notice, The Road to Wigan Pier, but it had not yet …