Barcelona at the barricades

Issue: 125

Andy Durgan

Lois Orr, GerdRainer Horn (ed), Letters from Barcelona: An American Woman in Revolution and Civil War (Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2009), £45

Lois Orr, a 19 year old student and sympathiser of the American Socialist Party, arrived in Barcelona in September 1936. She had been on her honeymoon with her husband, Charles Orr, hitch-hiking across France on their way to India when they heard that revolution had broken out in Barcelona.

Like many of her generation, Lois believed Spain was now “the most favourable location for a breakthrough” for the world revolution. Instead they were to witness the decline of the revolution and its defeat at the hands of the Stalinists and their allies. For ten months they would be immersed in “the sights and sounds and smells of revolution”, as historian Gerd-Rainer Horn puts it.

Lois and Charles were part of the hybrid community of generally very young revolutionaries that descended on Barcelona at this time and associated with the revolutionary socialist organisation POUM. Many went to the front to fight—over 500 foreigners enlisted in the party’s militias—while others stayed in the rearguard where Charles edited the POUM’s English language paper Spanish Revolution and Lois worked for a time for the Catalan government (the Generalitat). Understandably this is not the book to read if you want to find out what really happened in the Spanish Revolution. The letters detail their attempts to grapple with events unfolding around them, from the daily lives and political squabbles of the foreign revolutionaries with whom they shared their work and lodgings, through to an obsession with food and frequent attempts to reassure worried parents. Having only the most tenuous grasp of Spanish, let alone Catalan, hardly helped them grasp the complexities of the revolutionary process.

Both were radicalised by their experience. While Charles joined the POUM, Lois became increasing sympathetic to the Trotskyists, in particular the dissident US Revolutionary Workers League led by Hugo Oehler. Both would later be active in Max Shachtman’s Workers’ Party.

After the street fighting in May 1937, when the anarcho-syndicalist CNT federation and the POUM withdrew from the barricades, Lois explained, “The revolutionaries (except a lot of fair-weather foreigners who are all leaving the country) are working frantically to build an organisation that can give the necessary slogans and lead the masses to victory—a revolutionary Marxist party that understands and doesn’t fail at the moment of action as the POUM always does.”

With the POUM outlawed, there began a witch-hunt of foreign revolutionaries in a crude attempt to produce “evidence” of the existence of a “fascist-Trotskyist” spy ring. Lois and Charles were caught up in this maelstrom and briefly arrested before their US passports saved them.

While not having the sweep of Orwell’s classic account of the revolution or the political sharpness of Mary Low and Juan Brea’s Red Spanish Notebooks, “one unique contribution of Lois’ letters”, as Horn puts it, “lies in their—oftentimes unwitting—reconstruction of the mentality of an entire generation of revolutionaries who had flocked to Spain”.