Sunday, February 17, 2013

Homage to Catalonia

I recently re-read Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, inspired by exhanges with Brett Hetherington in comments at his place and mine. These are the quick notes I made when about halfway through:

 He freely admits that when he went to Spain he had no idea what he was fighting for, and was quite ignorant of the politics. He seems to have gone to the Republican side because the British press suggested they were in the right. He was just sucked in by baseless propaganda, peer pressure and the thrill of war.
He says that journalists did nothing but scream hatred from the comfort of their offices, and he hoped one day to see a 'jingo' with a bullet hole in him. He says the Communists tried to destroy the incipient 'workers' revolution', which he thinks was taking place, rather than just a reaction against the uprising. He clearly says that the Communists hated the Anarchists more than they did the Nationalists and were responsible for a lot of repression and death on the Republican side. It was pure People's Front of Judaea out there and I don't really understand why he stayed. He seems to have had, despite his professed ignorance and the treacherous, almost comically ridiculous circumstances in which the Republican position was being defended, an unshakeable conviction that he was on the right side, and that it was worth his while to fight with them. It seem to be based on nothing more than the belief that the far left is always the right side to be on.

And these are more considered and structured remarks written when I had finished reading:

Orwell's tale of his experiences in the trenches and in Barcelona in the first year of the Civil War are very instructive, about him and about the war. He clearly wanted the glamour of being killed or badly wounded. He was there as a kind of war tourist, satisfying his ego and justifying his beliefs by jumping into something he didn't understand and didn't care to.
He speaks of his fellow English and American mercenaries as though they were the most important people there, whereas they were just having their fun and would go home when they were tired of it. He speaks of the bourgeois hiding among the workers, pretending to be one of them, which is exactly what he was doing himself.
The fighting between the factions of the left is quite farcical. When it breaks out, however, Orwell stays with his group of anarchists and is fighting against the government. This reveals as false the original justification of fighting for the legitimate government against the uprisen. He is fighting fo his own, rather confused, political philosophy, which seems to involve control of everything by the working class. Whether this means anything at all in a practical sense is not clear. And the question of whether it could possibly work is another matter. He does at least have a fairly clear and consistent aim, revolution followed by rule by the working class. He contrasts this with capitalism, by which he appears to mean private ownership of the means of production (and implicitly, although the point is usually ignored, private organization of work and distribution).
He predicts that whoever wins there will be a dictatorship, but prefers a Communist dictatorship to Franco. He says that the Communist dictatorship would abolish serfdom, distribute the land among the peasants, and would create good communications, public health services and update the infrastructures that the country needed. If he had lived to see Franco do all of that (except steal other people's property, of course), he would have been astonished. If the Communists had won, I think we can be sure that they would have done hardly a fraction of it.I reread


Vincent said...

I haven't read it but listened to an illuminating discussion on Radio 4 which is having an Orwell season, in case you weren't aware.

Your reading of his stance chimes well with that discussion, and supports several points which make a lot of sense to me:

1. Almost nobody liked his book when it came out, and not many copies were sold, for he had managed to alienate all points of view.

2. The young man you describe sounds a typically mixed-up kid. Then I check his dates and discover he was 33 when the war broke out.

3. Homage to Catalonia has been called one of the best pieces of war reportage ever written, though in some respects I think they also said it was like a novel - which is a way to get to the truth better than straight facts. Its virtue lies in its fearless honesty.

4. This honesty allows the author to chart his own ignorance and naivete as well as his changing viewpoints as they occur - see point 2 above.

5. It was also said that a reader is better able to understand Animal Farm and 1984 better after reading Catalonia, so as to see that the later books are not just anti-Communist, but the warnings given by someone whose ideals had been very close to Communism, but had seen its organization from the inside. In this respect his best-known works may be compared with a play by Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mains Sales, which covers the same ground, written by a thinker who had suffered the same disillusionment.

Sackerson said...

I have read it, many years ago. Perhaps it is typical of popular movements throughout history - visceral first, theoretical second. What was Orwell's relationship with his father?

CIngram said...


Parts of it read like a novel, indeed. Like many (perhaps most) good writers, he can't avoid turning everything into a story, and Homage and Down and Out are better for it. He is clearly aware of some of the mistakes he has made and the contradictions he has tried to believe in, but the reader can see more of those mistakes and contradictions than Orwell himself can. I'll look up the Sartre play.


I should have thought that, beyond a certain point, they tend to be both visceral and theoretical at once, and the distribution among the faithful can be shifting and uneven. In many movements this is explicitly manipulated by the leaders, who often have different goals from those they recognise publicly.

As to Orwell's father, I have no idea, but from some remarks he makes I suspect he secretly despised him.