ISBN 978-0-141-18305-3. “Homage to Catalonia” was originally published by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd in 1938. This edition by Penguin in 2000 has an introduction by Julian Symons (biographer, reviewer & military historian) and a note on the text by Peter Davidson (Professor of English at De Montford University, Leicester). It is interesting that in the late 1930s Orwell was going way-off script as far as his publisher was concerned. Gollancz had not wanted to publish the second half of “The Road to Wigan Pier” as he didn’t think his intended readership would like it. By the time “Homage to Catalonia” was delivered Gollancz gave up and handed over the rights to Warburg. It is also of note that the rights to all Orwell’s works remains with his family and it was his wife that dealt so forthrightly with his reluctant publisher. Without her maybe Orwell would have died into obscurity. About her we still know very little although she was in Spain with her husband. Instead we are to learn here of Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil war in which he fought for the Republican side.
First off – you have to face the fact that this is a remarkable book by a remarkable man. In all our readings of Orwell we seek the man who wrote “Nineteen Eighty-Four“. That man is always there and each time we see a new side. His time in Catalonia probably did as much as anything to make the man who wrote the book that shaped our cultural-political landscape ever since. He entered the war as a volunteer initially just to write about it as a journalist. He was sponsored by the Independent Labour Party which had an alliance with one of the leftist factions in Spain known as the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista) which, as Orwell described it, was
“…one of those dissident Communist parties which have appeared in many countries in the last few years as a result of the opposition to ‘Stalinism’.”
Upon arriving Orwell decided to join the fight as a soldier in the POUM militia. He enters the war as an idealist, a utopian socialist who wanted to be on the side of the working man against Fascists. He exits the war bitterly disillusioned by the cynicism of the internecine battles conducted within the anti-fascists forces. He himself was pushed out of the country less by the sniper’s bullet (through the throat) and more by the Stalinist purge underway by the Communists who were gaining power (through the pay-rolling the Republican Government “loyalist” cause).
Initially Orwell was ignorant of the intra-leftist factional disagreements within Spain. He was, as he admits, naïve and disinterested. As far as he was concerned they all wanted the same thing – the defeat of the Fascists – so what was the problem? As he was soon to learn; the reality was infinitely more complex. The POUM was but one faction operating in Catalonia. It was a political party comprising of former Communists and Socialists. The PSUC (Partido Socialista Unificado de Cataluna) were the official Communists in Catalonia whilst there were groups of Trade Unions under various acronyms such as CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo) and UGT (Union General de Trabajadores). The PSUC was the political organ of the UGT. Then there were the Anarchists – the Anarcho-Syndicalists. The CNT had as its political organ the FAI (Federacion Anarquista Iberica) – the Anarchists. Complicated.
The latter grouping had amassed considerable power with the revolutionary collectivisation of industry and farming. As we discussed earlier in our review of Noam Chomsky’s “On Anarchism” – these factions were at times aligned with each other in the war against Fascism and Franco. At other times there were simply uneasy truces behind the lines although matters rapidly deteriorated. We should also note the legacy of these issue that live on today. You can read about those in our review of “The Village Against the World” by Dan Hancox.
Orwell first arrives in Spain in December 1936 and enters Catalonia at a time when power was held in a democratic fashion amongst the factions. Orwell first describes Barcelona (euphorically) as a workers’ utopia
“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers…”
“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.”
The hated Catholic clergy had been forced out and the workers enjoyed a period of equality. The bosses (the bourgeois) had gone underground and were soon the re-emerge under the protection of the Communists. Orwell’s euphoria is quickly tempered as he enters the militia. His Etonian sense of military discipline seems quite affronted:
“Every foreigner who served in the militia spent his first few weeks learning to love the Spaniards and in being exasperated by certain of their characteristics. The Spaniards are good at many things, but not at making war.”
Indeed, by the time Orwell flees for his life it was only his love for the Spanish people that allowed him to retain his faith in humanity. His training in the militia constituted square-bashing as the men had no guns to train with. This was to become a theme as the leftist militias were always starved of guns both in barracks and on the front-line. The government had kept the equipment and the best soldiers behind the lines to reverse the revolution. Winning the war at that time against Franco was only a secondary consideration. Orwell was exasperated at the lack of equipment and angered with the high levels of equipment dolled out to the policemen back in the cities.
“On every hill-top, Fascist or Loyalist, a knot of ragged, dirty men shivering round their flag and trying to keep warm.”
Orwell wrote at length about the futility of the trench warfare he was engaged in. Combat was rare. The men spent all their time trying to keep warm and find something to eat. Men died retrieving a few potatoes from no-man’s land. When there was combat it was brief yet Orwell can hardly disguise his enthusiasm. Although not gung-ho he explains that all the soldiers longed for action if only to break the monotony of trench life. From his descriptions of the combat Orwell was exceptionally brave but he remain nonchalant and matter-of-fact about the whole episode. He seems to belong to a special breed of Englishman increasingly rare these days. Maybe that is a good thing..
The POUM militia had no system of rank and everyone was paid the same. This may seem a recipe for disaster but Orwell observed at close hand that it worked rather well. It was “more reliable than might be expected“.
“..it is a tribute to the strength of ‘revolutionary’ discipline that the militias stayed in the field at all. For until June 1937 there was nothing to keep them there, except class loyalty.”
In April 1937 Orwell returns to Barcelona from the front and is immediately struck by how different the city has become since his December visit.
“Now the tide had rolled back. Once again it was an ordinary city [..] with no outward sign of working class pre-dominance.”
Enthusiasm for the war had waned and the government had resorted to conscription into the new Popular Army. Although well equipped the new army had spent little time at the front where the Fascists had been held back for months by various leftist militias. To Orwell’s disgust
“Politically conscious people were far more aware of the internecine struggle between Anarchist and Communist than of the fight against Franco.”
The Communists were skilfull users of propaganda and had begun reserving all the blame on the irregular militias and all praise for the Popular Army – despite them being much the same in many places. In Barcelona under Communist supervision the rich had no problem getting whatever they wanted whilst the poor were back to queuing for bread and olive oil. Business as usual was back in Barcelona.
As for Orwell’s views of the Anarchists? He wrote:
“As far as my purely personal preferences went I would like to join the Anarchists.”
The only reason he didn’t leave the POUM and join the CNT to enter the FAI militia was that they were fighting on the Teruel front and Orwell longed to fight in Madrid. To fight there he would have to join the Communist International Column. However, events were to overtake his quest. By May the intra-Leftist animosity broke out into actual street fighting in Barcelona and Orwell was thrown into defending his comrades in the POUM. The Communists now had the upper hand in local Government and moved to disarm the workers. They moved against one of the Unions, the CNT who held the Telephone Exchange. All hell broke loose.
Orwell was to write of events as a “Communist-Anarchist feud” and was angered by the descriptions given to the events in the “foreign capitalist Press” who only seemed able to repeat Communist propaganda.
“I should exaggerate if I said that nine-tenths of it is untruthful. Nearly all the newspaper accounts published at the time were manufactured by journalists at a distance, and were not only inaccurate in their facts but intentionally misleading.”
The street fighting in Barcelona was soon over as an uneasy truce between the factions settled into place. Stalemate ensued. The Communists scape-goated the POUM for the violence and were soon portraying the POUM as a Fascists organisation. It was an absurdity that today we would describe as “Orwellian”. Orwell himself no longer wished to join the Communist brigades and stuck with his comrades.
“I could not join any Communist-controlled unit. Sooner or later it might mean being used against the Spanish working class.”
Three days after the Barcelona street fighting Orwell was back on the front line. He quickly fell to a Fascists sniper. He was lucky to survive the bullet through his throat. The doctors at the time told him he would never talk again – but he did. He was pulled back through various field hospitals before getting treated properly. All seemed to be going well before he returned to Barcelona to be re-united with his wife. Walking into their hotel his wife quietly told him to run away. Orwell was confused for he did not know that the Communist purge of the POUM had begun. The Government were filling the jails with all the POUM militia men they could find. All were held without any due process and none had committed any crime – something that Orwell found hard to accept. He slept rough for many nights as the police hunted for him.
In this brief period Orwell found out what it was like to be the victim of an extreme police-state. Good fighting men were thrown into jail simply for belonging to the wrong shade of political party. All the paranoid insanity of Orwell’s dystopian vision of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was born in those days on the streets of Barcelona. He and his wife were lucky in being able to slip away to France by train. Others were less lucky. Even the foreign fighters were disappearing into the new gulags. Many were dying there. Orwell and wife makes there way home through Paris and then London yet still they longed for Spain. There remained a feeling of being betrayed by their own home nation as it slipped towards its own inevitable war against world Fascism:
“…the Royal Weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen – all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometime fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”
At the back of the book there are two Appendices that deal with the politics of the Republican factions in Civil War Spain and the precise details of what happened in Barcelona in May 1937. Through it Orwell is contemptuous of the British Press for their role in miss-representing what happened in Spain. He praises the Manchester Guardian (this lives on today as The Guardian based in London) for being the only one portraying the realities of what happened. His worst criticisms are reserved for a rag called “The Daily Mail” who
“..amid cheers of the Catholic clergy, was able to represent Franco as a patriot delivering his country from hordes of fiendish ‘Reds’.”
“We all remember The Daily Mail’s poster: ‘REDS CRUCIFY NUNS’ “
The Daily Mail was a horrid Right-wing rag then. Nothing has changed. Then this:
“The Daily Mail, with its tales of red revolution financed by Moscow, was even more wildly wrong than usual. In reality it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain.”
This is a theme to which Orwell is drawn to in Appendix 1: the betrayal of the Spanish working classes by Communist Russia. He describes the Communists as being on the “extreme Right” of the Spanish Government.
“In reality this this should cause no surprise, because the tactics of the Communist Party elsewhere, especially in France, have made it clear that official Communism must be regarded, at any rate for the time being, as an anti-revolutionary force. The whole of Comintern policy is now subordinated to the defence of the USSR, which depends upon a system of military alliances. In particular, the USSR is in alliance with France, a capitalist-imperialist country.”
It does lead one to wonder about the entire post-war scenario presented by traditional Cold War dialogues. If Comintern had long abandoned exporting Communism abroad then what was the Cold War really about? Now that is a profound question..
“It was the Communist thesis that revolution at this stage would be fatal and that what was to be aimed at in Spain was not workers’ control, but bourgeois democracy. It hardly needs pointing out why ‘liberal’ capitalist opinion took the same line.”
In this betrayal we draw an idea that emerges in “Nineteen Eighty-four“. The idea of political expediency trumping all ideology. There was no real difference between Fascists and Communist. Both were the enemy of Orwell’s beloved working class. The proletariat would never be served by either extreme. Only the Anarchists had achieved anything close to the ideal that the more utopian Orwell longed for. “Nineteen Eighty-four” was a product of a dystopian vision where the Fascists and Communists would eradicate the Anarchist solution.
I started this review by stating that this was a remarkable book by a remarkable man. It is the genesis of the work that would make Orwell a household name. Without the street fighting in Barcelona there would be no “Nineteen Eighty-four“. Uncannily enough Orwell knows this. It would be more than ten years before he would write his famous work yet he describes with profound truth how the boring days and nights he spent with a rifle on a roof top would be the making of history. These days we know far more about Eric Blair and his dystopian novel than we will ever know about the suffering in Barcelona.
What would Eric make of these events? Would he rather be known for “Homage to Catalonia” or “Nineteen Eighty-four”? Given Gollancz’s cool reception there was a danger of no one ever reading “Homage”. It was published to an unreceptive public. The right message in the wrong place at the wrong time. Simply telling people “how-it-was” was never going to be enough. Orwell would have to find a way to tell this tale again. He found that way through spinning the tale again, this time as science fiction. He then dies young. He never fully recovered from his wounds received in Spain. He certainly died before he was famous. No doubt he would be content with the success. Without “Nineteen Eighty-four” few of us would ever be reading any of his other works. They would remain as they were in his own day: obscure. His later vision was to propel his work into an arena of near cosmic importance. War made the man and took him from us. Yet his message lives on.