Review: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

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Homage to Catlonia by George Orwell book cover
Homage to Catalonia (1938) is George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain fighting alongside the Republicans in 1936/37. Fought in the years leading up to World War II, the Spanish Civil War was in many senses an international war, with pro- and anti-Fascists from across Europe travelling to join the fight. It was while Orwell was putting the finishing touches to The Road to Wigan Pier in December 1936 that he decided to join the fighting. Until that point he had not written significantly on Spain, but felt an increasingly restless need to fight fascism in a practical sense and so, with a naïve idealism about revolution and valour in battle yet to be thrown off, Orwell set out for Barcelona. On arriving, he fell into allegiance with the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista), a revolutionary Marxist group that was part of the Republican effort. He would fight beside its members for months on the Aragonese front, and would later be targeted, as part of the POUM, by fellow Republicans as in-fighting erupted in Barcelona. Homage to Catalonia is split between Orwell’s personal recounting of his time spent in Spain, and an analysis of the political situation, in particular the propaganda and tangle of factions nominally on the left.

Orwell’s account of the war is personal and covers only a small part of the fighting – he acknowledges as much himself. It is an account of warfare that is far from modern, from his poorly trained comrades and the lack of weaponry or food, to the boredom and inaction of the trenches. Regardless of political purpose, Orwell’s time in the trenches is a dirty miserable experience that appears largely futile, and Orwell returns with little to show save for a fresh bullet wound to his throat (which is played down in the book) and an admiration of the Spanish. It wasn’t until Orwell later reflected on his experiences in Spain that he came to see it as an important point in his development as a political writer; a coming-of-age.

The politics of the war were far more complicated than many, including Orwell when he set out, appreciated. Far from a simplistic case of the workers and communist / liberal supporters versus the fascists, things were an awful lot more complex. Indeed, Orwell’s scathing assessment of communism’s involvement in Spain would later cause much of the left to dissociate itself from the book on its publication and Orwell’s stance, the thrust of which is typified by the following quote:

"In reality it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain. Later, when the Right-wing forces were in full control, the Communists showed themselves willing to go a great deal further than the Liberals in hunting down the revolutionary leaders."

The blend of bourgeois communism, socialism, centrism, and various other ideologies practiced in the Republican-controlled part of Spain where Orwell stayed frequently appear farcical, fracturing one side of the war along lines, at times, of almost non-existent difference in doctrine and crippling the effort. As Orwell describes the Stalinist police fighting the anarchists who attempt to retain the chaotic liberation the war has won for them, the politics of the situation can become more than a little confusing. Eventually, the POUM (the small political group that Orwell has been fighting alongside) act as scapegoats for the outbursts of violence and Orwell is hounded. Tellingly, it is in his protectiveness when writing of the POUM that one most feels Orwell’s in-group bias towards his comrades (whether his opinion be right or not).

Homage to Catalonia is not just a recounting of the war, however. It is also written to reveal truths about politics as Orwell saw them from his conflicted position (he being both anti-Franco and critical of the Loyalists, strongly Socialist and anti-Communist). Many of Orwell’s views of the war are controversial, or at least, disputable. Perhaps most pertinent is the idealism with which he still writes here, which causes him to believe that without the Communist intervention against the POUM, the small group might have achieved the social revolution it sought. In truth, although an important period in Orwell’s life and the development of his political thinking, it would take some time for him to work through the problems he encountered in Spain and to shift his opinions on man and society to the more cynical position his later writing took.

One of the key things that Orwell experiences about war is the falsity of propaganda, not just in Spain but as a principal in general. He identifies the remoteness from the frontline of the spinners of lines (“All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting”) and much of the shifting of perspectives brought on by propaganda is reminiscent of 1984, where Eurasia and Eastasia are seen almost as interchangeable allies / enemies; so too the many factions in the Spanish civil war.

As Orwell himself warns, it is important to be vigilant to the author’s own biases. Homage to Catalonia covers only a very slim part of the conflict and Orwell was aware of this. But for all Orwell’s view is subjective, it is his own truth – straight and honest as he sees it. His honesty about his own fallibility and the less than glamourous state of things persuades the reader of the author’s reliability. As Orwell writes of the propaganda of the communists one is very aware that his own writing is part of the propaganda battle in its way, and yet, as is one of the qualities that has allowed Orwell’s writing to resonate, his own voice feels less sure and more honest than many of those he writes against. As an empiricist, Orwell’s insistence on experiencing the things he wrote about first hand is rarely more important than here. While it is possible to throw oneself into poverty in the knowledge that a warm bed is waiting somewhere should one need it, to plunge oneself into the middle of a chaotic war is something quite different. Though wild and naïve, the decision to do this is what makes Orwell’s account so readable – his honesty in the face of horrific conditions brings human experience to the political discussions he later indulges in.

Orwell’s clear, straight descriptions impress upon the reader the conditions of the trenches without glamourising the act of warfare. For a public school boy brought up on the type of colonial fiction that celebrated the valour of battle, Spain was undoubtedly an experience that helped Orwell to throw off some of the misinformation poured into him during his upbringing, the remnants of which are still visible in Homage to Catalonia. His wry humour and sincere writing, which lacks affect for the most part, carry the reader with the author as he espouses his views on the war.

Orwell’s writing was counter to the persuasive ideologies many were getting caught up with at the time – he demonstrated that, regardless of stance, any ideology could result in disaster if its proponents didn’t heed the necessity for truth and fairness. Later Homage to Catalonia might have been appropriated as a means of condemning Communist policy by the American side of the Cold War, but Orwell’s comments are far broader than that. It is a pity that the book did not sell in any significant number at all until its publication in America and the new editions that were subsequently printed as it is a book that might have had a profound impact on many bourgeois commentators back in Britain, who in 1938 had not yet experienced the horrors of World War II. On his return to England at the end of the book, Orwell finds it "sleeping the deep deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs." As with many things, it seems Orwell was ahead of the pack.

The homage of the title is quite interesting: Orwell romanticises the Spanish and the revolutionary spirit, and homage somehow feels like too emotive a word for strange subjective-objective stance Orwell manages to find in his writing generally. An important book for trying to understand Orwell and all his contradictions (or at least those things that are painted as contradictions).


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