"There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all." - George Orwell
Just read Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s lesser-known masterpiece, a brilliant, heart-breaking and darkly hilarious memoir of his time fighting against Franco’s ultimately victorious Fascists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). He wrote it while the war was still raging, shortly after he survived a shot through the neck by a Fascist sniper and barely evaded the Communist-backed secret police to escape from Spain.
Orwell goes to Spain an optimistic anti-Fascist, planning to cover the war as a journalist, but once he arrives in Revolutionary Barcelona, he immediately signs up to fight in one of the political militias. As months in the trenches unfold his optimism fades, as far behind the front lines the shaky coalition against Franco - Anarchists, Communists, Socialists and Republicans, with workers’ unions allied to the various political parties - disentigrates amid byzantine party feuding, street-fighting, political arrests, and nearly a civil war within a civil war.
As a book it is prophetic, wise, wry and oddly quiet in tone. (Thanks to Jacob Appelbaum for recommending it in an internet talk.) A few quotes below, only to stoke your interest, but I highly recommend finding a copy and reading it very soon:
THE SPANISH PEOPLE:
"I defy anyone to be thrown as I was among the Spanish working class […] and not be struck by their essential decency; above all, their straightforwardness and generosity. A Spaniard’s generosity, in the ordinary sense of the word, is at times almost embarrassing."
"The one Spanish word that no foreigner can avoid learning is mañana. […] Whenever it is conceivably possible, the business of today is put off until mañana.”
"When one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. […] There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for."
"Discipline did not exist; if a man disliked an order he would step out of the ranks and argue fiercely with the officer."
"I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. […] Many of the normal motives of civilized life - snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. - had simply ceased to exist."
"For some reason all the best matadors were fascists."
"The Popular Front might be a swindle, but Franco was an anachronism. Only millionaires or romantics could want him to win."
"Since 1930 the Fascists had won all the victories; it was time they got a beating, it hardly mattered from whom. If we could drive Franco and his foreign mercenaries into the sea it might make an immense improvement in the world situation, even if Spain itself emerged with a stifling dictatorship and all its best men in jail. For that alone the war would have been worth winning."
"In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy."
"The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae - every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles."
"It is curious that when you are watching artillery-fire from a safe distance you always want the gunner to hit his mark, even though the mark contains your dinner and some of your comrades."
"The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail."
"The Communist’s emphasis is always on centralism and efficiency, the Anarchist’s on liberty and equality."
"The war was essentially a triangular struggle. The fight against Franco had to continue, but the simultaneous aim of the Government was to recover such power as remained in the hands of the trade unions."
"It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front-line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda-tours."
"One of the dreariest effects of this war has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right."
"[T]here must have been numbers of men who were killed without ever learning that the newspapers in the rear were calling them Fascists. This kind of thing is a little difficult to forgive."
BARCELONA STREET RIOTS:
"The immediate cause of friction was the Government’s order to surrender all private weapons, coinciding with the decision to build up a heavily-armed ‘non-political’ police-force from which trade union members were to be excluded."
“'It' - the fighting - was now thought of as some kind of natural calamity, like a hurricane or an earthquake, which was happening to us all alike and which we had no power of stopping.”
"Barcelona is a town with a long history of street-fighting. In such places things happen quickly, the factions are ready-made, everyone knows the local geography, and when the guns begin to shoot people take their places almost as in a fire-drill."
PURGE OF THE “TROTSKYISTS”:
"Anyone who criticizes Communist policy from a Left-wing standpoint is liable to be denounced as a Trotskyist."
"[S]o long as no argument is produced except a scream of ‘Trotsky-Fascist!’ the discussion cannot even begin. […] It is as though in the middle of a chess tournament one competitor should suddenly begin screaming that the other is guilty of arson or bigamy."
POLICE STATE CRACKDOWN:
"I have no particular love for the idealized ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on."
"It was no use hanging on to the English notion that you are safe so long as you keep the law. Practically the law was what the police chose to make it."
"The Spanish secret police had some of the spirit of the Gestapo, but not much of its competence."