George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

“There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.”

– George Orwell

In every generation, in every age, there are a handful of writers, a few only, whose voices are the voices of moral authority. Whose writing, authentic and exact as the needle of a compass, helps us to decipher the murkiest of our ethical questions. We may not always agree with their positions, but we cannot help respecting them for their stand, and in either supporting or attacking them we find ourself forced to clarify not only our own thoughts but also, and more importantly, our own feelings. We may disagree with their politics, but we cannot dismiss the people.

It would be hard to find an English writer of the last century who better exemplifies this type (I hesitate to say ideal, though some would argue the word is apt) than George Orwell. Orwell’s unadorned and unassuming prose has the honesty of a spotlight, it has only to be focussed on a subject for all the dross of obfuscation and propaganda to be shorn away, and the cold, hard logic of the argument to show through in all its dire, unflinching majesty. In an age when capitalist democracy would seem to have won an overwhelming victory over both fascist dictatorships and communist authoritarianism, Orwell’s writings may seem to have little but historical interest, but even so the uncompromising authority of his vision has to be read to be believed. Taken as a whole Orwell’s books may mark the most complete and compelling attack ever mounted against the forces of propaganda, of ideological misdirection via the media. Orwell’s disdain for journalists in general is profound and (probably) excessive, but the key message of his writing – that history falls to easily into the hands of those who wish to reshape it, and that in an age of propaganda the chief duty of the intelligent man is to establish and defend the truth at all costs – is arguably more relevant today than it has been at any point since the close of the Vietnam War.

Homage to Catalonia is a proud and important affirmation of that message. Lionel Trilling, in his 1950 introduction to the book, calls it quite simply “one of the important documents of our time.” That claim is, if possible, an understatement. Homage to Catalonia is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read, an indignant and heartfelt book that manages, at the same time, to be deeply insightful. The book is an account of a period of roughly half a year that Orwell spent in Spain, fighting with the Spanish militia (or, more specifically, with the militia organised by the Marxist P.O.U.M party) against the forces of General Franco. This is an interesting time, not only because it is 1937 and the forces of Fascism and Communism are preparing themselves for what will eventually become World War II, but also because it is both an exciting and somewhat confused period in Spanish history – a period on which Orwell’s book casts important light. Orwell’s status as a participant in the action – he fought for four months on the front, receiving a bullet wound to the throat that left him literally speechless and led to his eventual discharge – is one of the key sources of his authority here. It is hard to argue with someone who can offer a compelling eye-witness account of events, who can describe, in such exquisite detail, both the inglorious realities of life at the front and the charged political atmosphere prevailing in Barcelona. George Packer, in a recent New Yorker article about the relationship between Hemingway and Dos Passos at the same time, writes: “Almost seventy years after its publication, his “Homage to Catalonia” holds up against all the recent revelations and controversies about the Spanish Civil War”. To see how deep and important a book it is, you have only to compare it to the romantic monstrosity that Hemingway produced about essentially the same conflict.

At the heart of Orwell’s book is the vision of a revolution betrayed. The story of Homage to Catalonia is the story of a true working-class revolution, an uprising, in 1936, of the common people of Spain against not only the Fascist forces of Franco, but also against the bourgeois democratic institutions that had held them so long in their neo-feudal grip. Thus, in the aftermath of the people’s uprising, farms and factories are collectivised, shadow local governments of workers put in place and the army that marches out to fight Franco is an army of comrades, of equals – there are no formal ranks, no pay differentials. A socialistic ideal has been established. It is Orwell’s contention in the book that this revolution was systematically undermined and then destroyed by the Communist Party itself, whose interest (or rather Stalin’s interest – which at this point was the same thing) lay simply in protecting the USSR. This meant that the capitalist republics that were Russia’s key strategic allies had to be appeased, and made the success of a worker’s revolution in Spain a political inconvenience. So important was this political objective for the Communist Party, Orwell argues, that they were willing to not only betray the Spanish working class, but even to indulge in petty infighting and reprisals against loyal anti-fascists, even at the cost of weakening the offensive against Franco. As the book progresses, we see the factions that Orwell supports, and who have been waging a long, hard battle against the Fascist forces, being accused first of jeopardising the defense against the Fascists, and later of outright treason. Orwell presents, in the second half of his book, a fairly detailed account of how this terrible betrayal was accomplished, along with a scathing indictment of the way that journalists, particularly the foreign press, played along with the Communist Party line, without any respect for truth, reason or fairness.

At this point one cannot help but question Orwell’s objectivity – he questions it himself. That Orwell’s sympathies are clearly with the P.O.U.M. (which was branded as a Trotsky-ite organ of the Fascists themselves and brutally suppressed in mid 1937) is both evident and admitted, and certainly much of his anger against the Communist betrayal derives from his personal loyalties. Despite this, Orwell is hard to disbelieve. In part this is because he is, after all, Orwell. In part, it is because his writing is a model of clear organisation and detached, clinical prose (it is hard to accuse a man who can write “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail” of not being dispassionate). But mostly it’s because, despite his partisan perspective, he brings a great deal of logic and factual accuracy to bear on his conclusions. Leaving all his wonderful analysis of the inconsistencies in the Communist (and popular) interpretation of the events of that time aside (though these are extremely sharp and to the point) Orwell’s main argument is a simple one: If the militia was truly pro-Fascist how does one explain the fact that thousands of militia fighters held critical fronts against Franco’s forces through a long, hard winter with pitiful weapons and supplies, while Communist aid was slow to come and more regular government forces were yet to make their presence felt? To the extent that it is true that in late 1936 and late 1937 Anarchist forces were the key reason that the Spanish government was able to hold out against the Fascists, it hardly seems logical to claim that these forces were the very ones that were planning to betray the Spanish government after it was better prepared to take on Franco. There are many other impressive arguments that Orwell makes, describing in detail the things he saw and experienced, many of which seem inexplicable except as proof of Communist treachery – and too many of his facts are too easily refutable for him to be lying – but this, to me, seemed the most positive and convincing of his arguments.

Why is this interesting? First, because it sheds a new light, not only on the Spanish history of that period (and it is hard to argue with Orwell’s version of it) but also on the implications this has for the period immediately to follow. All through the book there is the idea, sometimes stated, sometimes implied, that the infighting between the various political interest groups in Europe severely hampered these early efforts by Spanish fighters to defeat the fascist powers. This is interesting because it makes the rapid advances of Fascist forces in Europe that much more explicable – it’s not just that the Axis powers were formidably well-organised, it’s also that their opponents were too caught up in their own petty power struggles to successfully oppose their common foe. At one point, writing about the British destroyers that were sent to help the Spanish Government quell an ‘uprising’ by the Anarchists in Barcelona (a historical event which Orwell examines in great detail) Orwell writes that “the British Government, which had not raised a finger to save the Spanish Government from Franco, would quickly intervene to save it from its own working class“. In another part of the book he argues that the Communist Party did immeasurable harm to the anti-fascist struggle by not allowing the war in Spain to be seen as a battle of the working class against the fascists. Had they acknowledged the reality of the revolution in Spain, he argues, international support for the Spanish fighters would have been much greater. This sense of disillusionment, of outrage, is ever present in the Homage to Catalonia – Orwell, tries to maintain a balanced and impartial (if unobjective) point of view, but the depth of his indigation comes through clearly. Strangely, this does not hurt the credibility of the book, rather it lends it a sort of moral force, so that what could easily have been a sterile exploration of civil war politics becomes an emotional and personal journey.

The larger reason I think Homage to Catalonia is important, though, is that in a world grown too dismissive of Socialist ideals, it offers an insightful view of two very different faces of the Socialist vision. In what remains, for me, the most important passage of the book, Orwell writes:

“However much one cursed at the time, one realised afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all.”

In our own time, this alternate vision of Socialism has long died out. The verdict of history is against Socialism now, or rather against the kind of communism that Stalin and Mao developed, which was, if truth be told, a travesty of every socialist ideal, a cruel despotism masquerading as historic inevitability. It may no longer be possible to think of Socialism, as a practical political force, with anything but nostalgia. That Socialism is dead is more or less unquestionable – but there are those of us who continue to believe that its death represents a great and grievous failure, the betrayal of the greatest dream that mankind ever had the courage to dream, however difficult and improbable it may have been. Orwell, in writing about the P.O.U.M militia is not simply paying homage to Catalonia, or to the terrible fate of those brave men who fought against the forces of fascism with everything they had only to be denounced as traitors by their own country. He is composing an important and touching elegy to an idyll of human brotherhood that was never to be.

The last line of Homage to Catalonia reads “… the deep deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.” It is this sort of clarity, this level of insight, this incredible and prescient understanding, that makes Orwell one of the truest and most important voices of his time.