George Orwells’ ‘Homage to Catalonia’ – a short review.

This is a re-read of Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s autobiographical adventure of experiencing the Spanish Civil War during late 1936 till mid-1937. George Orwell managed to get to Spain to fight for the Republicans against the Fascists with the British Independent Labour Party (the ILP) as he was refused by the Communists in Britain to go and fight with the International Brigades. I think this is one of his best journalistic novels; his descriptions of the Aragon front in Catalonia are really incredibly descriptive, detailing the privations all the militia at that time had to endure, and also this combined with several months of really no activity on the front lines – they just held their positions and suffered from cold, louse, poor weapons, bad food, limited tobacco with nothing really going on to relieve the boredom, apart from the occasional sniping that took place between the trenches (of note, there is little to distinguish this part of the front with the 1914-18 war of trenches – a period starting to change gradually in warfare stemming from the Great War, with the first proper use of aircraft with any real effectiveness; this was the end of ‘old warfare’ and the entrance into the ‘new’).

At the start of the book, Orwell explains distinctively what was going on in Barcelona when he arrived in December 1936; he, as George Orwell considered himself a Democratic Socialist, experiences a city in the throws of Revolutionary élan, with no class distinctions in any part of the city; Red and Black flags, denoting the CNT-FAI (Anarchist-Syndicalist) colours flying everywhere and so on, and he states in the first few pages that this was a city ‘with the working class in the saddle’; it seems as if he had never been so inspired to what he believed he was fighting for – against fascism and for some sort of workers democracy. A defence against the increasing dominance of fascist powers from Italy and Germany that had taken hold of Europe at this time.

However, this is a journalistic book, and later on, it becomes full of disillusionment; he witnesses first hand the May days in Barcelona, a period where the Republican Government try and take control of CNT-FAI owned collectives, the Telephone Exchange being the most notable, under influence from the Stalinist Communist Party (PSUC) to try and halt any further advance of any form of social revolution that had occurred from the first days of the attempted coup from Franco’s fascists (falange). It confuses Orwell that how could two sides, despite their ideological differences in their theories of Socialism, end up causing a ‘civil war within a civil war’, which is how it was portrayed? How could two sides, both equally hating Franco, end up causing internecine strife that could only strengthen the opposing side? This makes Orwell think more deeply about the role of the Stalinist Communist Party, and the fact that he slowly begins to understand their role in suppressing both the Anarchists and POUM (a quasi-Trotskyist organisation of some forty thousand members) because they saw that the only way to win against the fascists was to continue their program of collectivisation and workers control, whereas the official Communist line was that of ‘win the war, then social revolution’.

Orwell became wounded when he returned to the front after the May Days, with bullet through his neck, which meant he was out of action. He mentions towards the end of his journalistic novel that several of his ILP friends ended up being incarcerated in the dreadful Spanish Prisons, such as Bob Smillie, grandson of the Scottish miners leader, who later died. However, I would argue and like to suggest that Orwell, being a Socialist of a Democratic viewpoint, saw through what was actually occurring with the suppression of the POUM and CNT-FAI with the official Comintern line that a social revolution in Spain could only have weakened Stalinist Russia, that in effect he saw the Communists as actually the harbingers of, and eventual defeat, for both the Spanish workers along with its peasants whose land had been, early on the civil war, collectivised. Only a few years later, did Stalin make the Soviet-Nazi pact. A total kick in the teeth for all the old revolutionaries who had struggled and fought in Spain during this period. The accusations of ‘Trotsky-Fascism’ against the POUM and CNT-FAI led, maybe I would suggest, into the Second World War and the total defeat of the Spanish Civil War. And I could go on. But I will not. Old history, but still, in a modern society, holds many ramifications.

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