Revisited, Orwell's message still rings true

By Nikhil Gupta

The muffled thuds of artillery fire, punctuated by the staccato bursts of rifles and machine-guns, shatter the stillness of the dawn, echoing through the ridges and valleys. Staring across one at another in the bitterly cold and bleak heights of Aragon during the winter of 1936 are the bedraggled soldiers of two armies engaged in protracted trench warfare – fighting, bleeding, dying for different ideals and visions of Spain. The Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936-1939, was a brutal conflict that foreshadowed the Second World. The war was a direct consequence of the 1936 elections, when the Spanish people elected the Popular Front (a coalition of leftist, socialist, communist, and separatist parties) in fair elections. The Popular Front had vowed to continue previously initiated policies of agrarian reform. Angering the conservative elite in the country, the military and Catholic Church launched a coup led by General Franco against the government to reinstitute the former power structure of Spain. Franco had the support of most of the Roman Catholic clergy as well as fascist Germany and Italy, while Republican Spain had the Soviet Union, Mexico, and international volunteer brigades as its benefactors. One of the volunteers was George Orwell.

Orwell went to Barcelona in December of 1936 to cover the war as a journalist, but within three days he joined a militia and was trained for the front. When he returned to England in July of 1937, he penned a memoir of the war. “Homage to Catalonia” remains one of the best accounts of the Spanish Civil War more than sixty years after it was published. The book is a personal narrative of the conflict, exploring the realities of life on the ground and capturing a snapshot of Republican Spain during a period of profound upheaval in the country. More importantly, however, Homage to Catalonia is a moving testament of a people betrayed by their government and the world so that the political interests of a select few could be seen to fruition.

“Homage to Catalonia” is one of the best examples of what we would today label travel journalism. It is written in the first person and rather than providing an academic exercise in dates, names and battles, it seeks to convey the vast breadth of the author’s experiences – what he saw, felt and thought – while still maintaining some semblance of impartiality. Orwell dispassionately describes in such detail all that transpires around him (including at one point a discussion of precisely what it feels like to be shot through the neck) that he provides the reader with an unparalleled view of the Spanish Civil war. As Orwell writes about the bitter winter winds of the front, the daily struggle to find firewood and the losing battle all men waged against boredom during that bleak winter, the reader finds himself not in a sterile didactic work, but in a vibrant panorama. It is the reader, and not Orwell, that lies belly-down in the long grass as bullets tear up the earth inches above his head, and the reader that sees Barcelona bedecked in the reds and blacks of the revolution.

Orwell’s use of this style allows him to present a view of society we have chosen to forget. In our society today, the ideology of socialism is inextricably bound up with the state capitalism, brutality and oppression of Stalin and Mao. Yet in “Catalonia,” Orwell finds a “feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.” In December of 1936, Orwell found himself in a society controlled by the working-class where all servility and power structure had been overthrown. Tipping was forbidden, the cabaret shows and exploitative prostitution of the former ruling class destroyed, and the servile scraping of the poor to the wealthy – the use of formal titles and bowing – forgotten. Everywhere he looked, people stared each other in the face and addressed each other as equals. He writes, “There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” This sense of equality pervading society and the vibrant hopes of the people for a better future convinced Orwell that this vision of society was one he would risk his life to preserve. In our society, where we attack the monolithic evils communism and socialism, “Homage to Catalonia” serves as a powerful reminder of what we have forgotten.

What Orwell captures best, however, is the indignation and rage he felt as this beautiful vision of Catalonia was destroyed by the Spanish Government and its foreign backers. When Franco first invaded Spain, the people of Catalonia rose up in revolution, storming fascist controlled machine-gun nests and buildings with sticks of dynamite in their hands. They were fighting against centuries of oppression for a genuine revolution and a chance to build a more equitable society.

Unfortunately, the Spanish government and its foreign support did not view the war in the same light. Stalin’s Soviet Union provided the majority of the support for Republican Spain, and Stalin wanted nothing more than to preserve Soviet interests. The security of the USSR was based on alliances it had with capitalist nations like France and Britain that would strongly object to a revolutionary Spain. Hence, Stalin used the leverage he had over the Spanish government to force it to suppress the workers movements.

When Orwell returned from the front to Barcelona in May of 1937, the city had changed. The government had ended worker-control of the city. A bourgeois had reemerged, differential pay schemes were implemented in the army and factories, and fine restaurants once again served food to the wealthy while the poor starved. The worker militias that had fought off Franco for a year were being disbanded in the name of efficiency, and a brutal civil guard, formed of the same men that had protected feudalism for so long in Spain, was reintroduced. As Orwell describes this process, his impartiality begins to fall away, and the indignation he feels as a human being witnessing this travesty burns like a beacon. His outrage when the government declared war on the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), labeling it a fascist fifth column and arresting or killing virtually all its members, fuels the reader’s fury at this betrayal of a people so that the interests of the French and Soviet Governments could be served. Eventually, Orwell himself became a fugitive because of his connections with the POUM, and he narrowly escaped Spain in July of 1937.

In “Homage to Catalonia,” Orwell is paying his respects to the men and women who fought and died for a beautiful vision of a better future that was undermined for the political interests of a few. He is mourning for the Catalonia he risked his life for, the Catalonia that was so callously destroyed. His work is a glorious testament to an age when humans were willing to fight for their visions of the world, rather than merely debate and reflect upon them endlessly in the safety and sterility of a classroom. It is a poignant reminder of a time that we who live in an age of abstraction and reflection, “sleeping the deep, deep sleep,” of complacency and peacetime, have forgotten ever existed.