Homage to Catalonia

by George Orwell

Cover image

Publisher: Harcourt
Copyright: 1938
Printing: 1980
ISBN: 0-15-642117-8
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 232

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Today in the United States, the Spanish Civil War is viewed as a largely forgotten prelude to World War II, with Franco as a proxy for Hitler and fascism. Some remember that the opposition to Franco was largely Communist and categorize it as a proxy war between Russia and Germany. But it's almost forgotten today the degree to which the Spanish Civil War inspired volunteers from elsewhere in Europe to fight, that early in the war it seemed possible that Spain could form a revolutionary socialist state, or that there was intense infighting on the Republican side between the Soviet-supported communists and the other Marxist and anarchic parties. History tends to compress complicated fights into simple, easily-remembered narratives.

Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell's account of his time spent as as soldier on the lines of the Spanish Civil War, fighting Franco. He arrived in Catalonia in December of 1936 and spent the winter on the lines, returning to Barcelona in 1937 just before the street fighting in April (now known as the Barcelona May Days) and then returning to the lines until he was injured by a sniper's bullet. Near the end of his recovery in Spain, the Marxist party with which he had been fighting was suppressed by the Stalin-supported government and nearly everyone he fought with was arrested. He escaped the country by train into France with his wife (who had been working in Barcelona during the war).

One learns from Orwell's other writing that he was furious when he wrote this book. The international press coverage of the Barcelona May Days was particularly dire, swallowing and repeating the government lie that the fighting was started by the POUM, the Marxist but not Stalinist party for which Orwell had been fighting. Orwell writes repeatedly about his disgust with the press and the books published at the time in his other papers, and wrote this book in part due to his inability to concentrate on another topic. But in Homage to Catalonia itself, there's barely a hint of this. It is instead an exceptional example of detailed journalism from personal experience, with a tight focus on Orwell's own thoughts and reactions at the time and specific disclaimers around his summaries of the broader politics of the time.

Roughtly the first half of the book and part of the second is a detailed account of the reality of trench warfare with a rag-tag, poorly equipped volunteer army. Orwell brings to bear his remarkable ability with clear, concise, and vivid description, summing up in brief moments and anecdotes the frustration, boredom, and futility of the fighting. Where he was stationed, the trenches were static, there was no artillery to speak of, both sides had ancient, inaccurate guns, and there was no hope of any decisive action. Life in the trenches was mostly an effort to stay warm and awake, with sprinklings of ineffectual long-range fire and attempts to scavange the deserted countryside for food and firewood. When he finally saw brief intense action, he describes the chaos, strange comedy, and surreality of active combat for undefined goals without any clear view of the larger tactical picture.

The interlude of the Barcelona May Days is even more revealing, capturing the strangeness of waiting and tense boredom that comes in the middle of events that history sees as dramatic. Orwell goes into considerable detail about what he heard and saw, in part to debunk the later claims of the Communist government, but simultaneously paints a compelling portrait of the confusion of street fighting in a charged political atmosphere and the odd personal alliances and human connections that form. The tail end of the book, dealing with the suppression of the POUM and Orwell's attempts to help his former commander and then to flee the country with his wife capture the disillusionment and sense of futility as Orwell's reasons for fighting are swept away by the government turn towards Stalinism.

Orwell's discussions of the underlying politics are fascinating and reveal the degree of inaccuracy of the typical US conflation of all forms of Marxism and Communism. I think it's hard for the typical US reader, coming to these events from the other side of the Cold War, to understand the vision that Orwell was fighting for and against. There's so much baggage now behind the concepts of communism, Marxism, a classless state, and revolutionary politics that it's hard to understand why Orwell would leave England and volunteer to fight in the war. Some of the feeling comes across, though, in Orwell's descriptions of Barcelona when he first arrived, a city where everyone looked each other in the eye, without cringing and deference to one's "betters," and his description of an army where everyone from officers to privates received the same pay. He spends some time disagreeing from personal experience that class equality interfered with an effective army and portrays Marxist soldiers with a surprisingly high morale despite miserable conditions and poor or nonexistent equipment. It takes a leap of imagination, and I don't have Orwell's belief that the society he imagines is truly possible on a sustained basis, but after reading Homage, I feel I have a better understanding of why the vision was so powerful to him.

The political arc of the story also tells by proxy the betrayal of Marxist ideals by Stalinist Communism. Orwell draws sharply a distinction that is now all but lost to the typical US reader: Stalin's Communism, which Orwell shows vividly as little but fascism in different clothing, and the idealism of the Marxist and anarchist parties. (Unfortunately, one has to read between the lines to get a feel for the anarchists, a political ideology even more foreign to the average US reader than Orwell's socialism, since Orwell writes almost entirely from personal experience and his connections were always with POUM rather than the anarchist parties.) Orwell's other writing shows in more detail the degree to which international communism derailed the political Left, but few of the discussions are as vivid as the betrayal and false accusations against POUM, the suppression of the party, and the arrest as fascist spies soldiers who fought bravely against Franco on the lines. For the most part, Homage sticks with concrete facts on the ground, but Orwell does take some time to explain his beliefs on why it was advantageous to Russia to suppress a popular revolution in Spain and how the surrender of the socialist movement to the foreign policy of Russia as a country was disasterous.

Like all of Orwell's non-fiction work I've read, Homage to Catalonia is tightly written, packed with information and specific detail, and writing in the sparkling, lucid tone of an exceptional journalist. The contrast with the bankrupt he-said, she-said journalism of the typical press is striking. Orwell owns and states his biases, separates his personal observations from his interpretations with exceptional deftness, and casts light on a largely forgotten but critical part of history. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-09-05

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