Book Review: Homage to Catalonia

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Homage to Catalonia

By George Orwell

 

In 1937, when he was in his mid-30’s, George Orwell decided he needed to take an active role in the fight against fascism. Orwell was already a published author and fairly well-known critic and journalist; he was even better known as a socialist. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, had been published by a leftist publisher, and in early 1937, he published The Road to Wigan Pier, a book about the living conditions of coal miners in the north of England. Both books describe the terrible conditions faced by the poor and working class, and both are strong indictments of the capitalist system. Orwell, deeply concerned by the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, watched closely as the Spanish civil war began and intensified; when General Franco’s fascist forces, backed by Germany and Italy, began to rise to power, Orwell went to Spain to join the other side. He had trouble finding a place that suited him; he was already growing disillusioned with the corruption of Communism in Soviet Russia by Stalin, and the weak way that European socialists knuckled under to Stalin’s will – The Road to Wigan Pier is as much a criticism of English socialists as it is of the mine owners, and the publisher added a disclaimer to the book, hoping to prevent a backlash from the left. Orwell tried to join the English Communist Party – but was refused because he wouldn’t do what he was told. He eventually connected with John Macnair, who was a member of the Independent Labour Party, and who got Orwell a spot in the militia of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, the POUM in Spanish.

This is where Homage to Catalonia, the book that Orwell wrote about his experiences, begins: when he goes to boot camp as a new member of the POUM militia. It covers the next eight or ten months, which was all the time that Orwell spent in the war and in Spain before returning to England, eventually to write Animal Farm and 1984, two of the most effective criticisms of Soviet Communism ever created. This time, these experiences in this war, contributed to his disillusionment with Communism under Stalin’s influence.

Those two themes, the experience of actual warfare and the criticism of European leftists, especially the Communists, are the meat of the book. Orwell turns all of his remarkable ability as a journalist, his ability to describe and explain a scene, and his gift for clear and sharply-drawn imagery, bring the war to life: for half of the book, you could very well be in the trenches with him, or in Barcelona, where he was on leave from the front lines when fighting broke out in the streets between different factions of the Republican forces who opposed Franco’s fascists. Orwell talks about inadequate supplies, the freezing and filthy conditions, and, interestingly enough, the generally plentiful food and wine, and the overly abundant lice, which he experienced as a member of the militia. He was involved in several battles, most of them inconclusive, though he managed to escape the battle that eventually ended the POUM’s militia, a battle for the town of Huesca that killed thousands of militiamen and won nothing at all; Orwell was seriously wounded before that when he was shot through the throat by a sniper while standing in a Republican trench — targeted probably because he was quite a bit taller than most of the Spaniards in the trench with him. The bullet missed his carotid artery by a slim margin and left him unable to speak and in considerable pain.

When he is not describing life at the front, Orwell explains the convoluted situation on the leftist side of the war: Spanish Republicans included labor unions, Communists, socialists of all kinds; they had rebelled against the monarchy when Franco’s coup began, but had also led the successful resistance against the fascist general’s military forces. When Orwell was still in England, and then when he first arrived to join the militia, Spain was apparently the first successful people’s revolution: the bourgeois had fled or been eliminated, the Catholic church had been broken, churches looted and the clergy all but vanished. The POUM had attempted to create a classless militia, where the officers and the enlisted men received the same pay and lived in the same conditions, sharing tents and food and equipment regardless of rank. Members of the militia did not salute their superiors, and orders did not have to be followed if the men did not understand or agree with them; officers could not force compliance, but had to rely on persuasion, explaining to the men why the orders should be followed. (In a rather strange coincidence, the book I read two days after finishing this one, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, talks explicitly about this phenomenon, the POUM militia in the Spanish Civil War, where the men could refuse their superiors’ orders. I wonder if Haldeman read Homage to Catalonia.) But the POUM was a small piece of the Republican forces: much larger and more influential were the Communist Party, a different Spanish socialist party, and the two largest labor unions. And all of these groups soon took their lead from Stalin’s Russia, essentially because the Soviets supplied them with weapons and materiel for continuing their fight.

This does not sit well with Orwell. Several chapters break down the conflicts between the leftist parties, showing clearly which side Orwell himself was on; he meticulously tears apart the reporting of the war by the European Communist papers, particularly the fighting in Barcelona while he was on leave: it was begun when the police tried to take over the telephone exchange which was held by the labor unions, and led to several days of nasty fighting in the streets which eventually left something like 400 dead and over 1000 wounded (Though the numbers are reported by Orwell’s enemies and so seen as basically unreliable). After it was over, however, every major Communist and socialist media outlet blamed – the POUM. At the end of the war, after he is recovered from his wound, the Communists and socialists cracked down on the POUM, jailing hundreds of their leaders, usually without trial or even an accusation of a crime. Orwell, assuming that he would also be on the list for arrest, has to flee the country with his wife, leaving behind his friends and compatriots to die in dank prison cells, or to be shot by police and thrown into mass graves.

This war, these crimes, are what eventually create Napoleon of Animal Farm and O’Brien of Room 101 in 1984. Having read those books – several times – it was fascinating to read this book and see the seeds of what would come, a decade later. There is even a moment when Orwell expresses his visceral hatred of rats; and all I could think was, That’s why O’Brien uses them on Winston Smith.

As a description of a war experience, the book is vivid and interesting. As a political commentary, it is largely obsolete, but still fascinating if one is interested in Orwell’s fiction. This is the truth that is almost – but not quite – stranger than it. And the writing, of course, is brilliant. After all, it’s Orwell.

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