The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Good Man's Wars (book review)

George Orwell
Homage to Catalonia


George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is the classic account of his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Here Fascists, Revolutionaries, and a tantalizing Utopia all appear. But I was first struck by how the book fit neatly into the usually lighthearted genre of travel writing. Here Orwell, like so many Englishmen, writes of his trip to Spain – as he might be writing of France or Italy – as an escape to stuck up, dour old England. The country is loved, hated, romanticized, as we might expect. The Spaniards are disastrously disorganized – all actions (even vital) are always pushed to mañana – but they are good-hearted. The countryside and towns are splendid, though Orwell only had time to appreciate them after being discharged. He communicates in “Bad Spanish”. He meets Italians, Englishmen and Frenchmen who had also joined the militia (including their wicked accents). One could almost be reading the experiences of an Erasmus exchange student (centered in, of all places, Barcelona, the quintessential student/international Anglo-experience city). One is only brought back to that time by the occasional incongruity, the shocking statement from another world, as for instance when Orwell describes a young Italian militiaman’s face as having “both candour and ferocity in it; also the pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed superiors.”

Orwell is here because he is a radical revolutionary and is willing to die for it. Orwell had been a colonial policeman in Burma where he had seen the excesses and humiliations of British imperialism. He had gone to Eton with the offspring of the English ruling class but willingly went into poverty in the slums of London and Paris to see the conditions of the working class. Orwell hated it: the wretched poverty and brutal working conditions of the proletariat combined with that self-satisfied bourgeoisie that guarded its wealth and privileges behind a careful set of norms and prejudices. So Orwell loves Barcelona. He is enthralled with the Revolution. People say “Salud” instead of “Buenas Dias,” they call each other “Comrade” instead of “Don” or “Señor”. They no longer even tip in the restaurants as waiters are now the equals of patrons. He is unconcerned with the fact that all the churches have been wrecked (Orwell assures us, the Catholic Church in Spain “was a racket”). Things are run down, the war means deprivation, but Orwell satisfies himself with symbols: “Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving.” To Orwell there is no doubt: “I recognized it immediately as something worth fighting for. Also I believe that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the worker’s side”.

So Orwell joins the militia and goes to the front. And here one would excuse him if he had become disillusioned. He does not embellish the fighting against Francisco Franco’s hated “Fascists”. Rather, we are constantly torn between war as so demanding on human beings as to reveal their nobler side, and war as at bottom a nasty, meaningless, if not outright boring thing. Orwell spent most of the serving in trenches, sometimes commanding thirty or so men. We meet a motley crew of Spaniards, teenagers and foreigners. They hardly have any weapons, any training or indeed basic equipment (like uniforms). The peasants curse both armies as crops are trampled and go unharvested. There us very little activity for weeks on end as the enemy mostly sticks to its side, the Republicans to theirs. Orwell seems more terrified of the bitter cold of spending a night in a trench in winter (or the occasional, necessary, bathing in a river) than of Fascist soldiers. He is as explicit as he can be about the unglamorous, downright unhygienic side of war. On the irrepressible ability of lice to spread at the front, he says:

I think pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war, indeed! In war all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae – everyone of them had lice crawling over his testicles.

Orwell does participate in a little fighting, including a diversionary offensive. It is mostly graceless, however, and brought to an end by his being wounded. Here too it is a meaningless, empty thing. Orwell is shot in the neck, out of nowhere, and crumples to the ground, convinced it was friendly fire. Obviously he survived the event but it was a close run thing, and he thought he had permanently lost his voice for a time.


Contrasting this is a sense – precisely because war is such a wretched thing – that to fight for a good cause is something noble too. It tugs at him. Orwell notes that wartime naturally turns even liberal regimes into despotic ones, he describes all the discomforts in detail, he warns against the dangers of Spanish hospitals where the nurses will steal your valuables… and yet the war is also a romantic thing. There is camaraderie in shared sacrifice. Orwell notes that whereas the Republican government’s factions of “Trotskyists,” Stalinists and Anarchists were at each others’ throats, at the front the vicious politicking of the cities was did not exist among these groups’ various militias. He even allows himself a little rhetorical flourish, once riding a train and seeing what “was like an allegorical picture of war; the trainload of fresh men gliding proudly up the line, the maimed men sliding slowly down, and all the while the guns on the open trucks making one’s heart leap as guns always do, and reviving that pernicious feeling, so difficult to get rid of, that war is glorious after all.” Even lousy, disheveled and maimed, the spirit of 1914 is not yet lost.

There is also, perhaps especially, the internal political war. Here it is of the constant, petty, and dangerous internecine fighting between the Republican government’s various leftwing factions. I cannot pretend to understand the intricacies of the P.O.U.M., C.N.T., F.A.I. and P.S.U.C. Here Orwell sees the decay of his Revolution as (paradoxically) the (Stalinist) Communists gradually take power, so bourgeois dress, norms and hierarchy return. There is almost a civil war within the civil war, as Communists and anti-Stalinists establish barricades in Barcelona, eyeing each other for days in case the tension should flare up into fighting in the streets.

We get a sense of the vicious sectarianism that is so characteristic of the hard left. Orwell spends a great deal of time correcting the “lies” that were spread in much of the Communist European press that described as “Fascist” those parties opposed to the Communist Party takeover in Catalonia. (We also learn something of his fringe status that he felt the need to rebuke what was a rather marginal movement in England.) This is Orwell’s education in totalitarianism. Many of the themes that would later find their way into 1984 are present. Onetime allies become eternal enemies as Communist thugs hurl the epithet “Trotskyist” at their rivals. Orwell’s own friends vanish one by one, held up incommunicado in Spanish prisons, where it seems inevitable they will die of neglect. The war against the Fascists, the real war, becomes a mere background to the internal struggle for supremacy. His Revolution is dying.


Orwell leaves Spain as his membership of a non-Stalinist militia makes him a public enemy. He returns to an England that must have seemed rather unreal. If one is not in the mines, slums or factories, it is not an unpleasant place. Things are secure, timely, predictable. English travelers to Spain write in the papers that things are going fine because they “do not really believe in the existence of anything outside the smart hotels.” Always the sense that safe life in wealthy, stable, English-speaking countries makes one rather aloof and unable to fully understand the experiences of others. While in Spain, he had the inability to “shake off” the British notion that the police could not arrest him so long as he had done nothing wrong. In England the milk bottles, the cricket matches, and Royal weddings are there as they seemingly always have. But such calm in contrast with the war and upheaval of Spain does not bring Orwell peace of mind: “sometimes I fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”

Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s love letter to a Revolution. We are reminded of Orwell’s radicalism. It is striking how he spends no time at all to addressing the arguments of the Right (by which we mean any capitalist). They are enemies and that is a given. He is solely concerned about the nature and debates of the revolutionary Left. It says something of his priorities even as the radicalism of his legacy is carefully excised from our consciousness. It reminds us to of the banality, the inadequacy of contemporary politics. Who among the Left today would be willing to brave life and limb for their ideals? Our imaginations are shut. We cannot conceive of a better society, of another form of human organization. We dare not even try. And this is perhaps Orwell’s goal above all. To make us understand that there was a moment, however brief, in which he saw a window into another world, that the foundations of this one are not so solid. And if there is another world, that good men must risk themselves if we are to attain it.

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Blogger Sublime Oblivion said...

An excellent review, Ombrageux.

In reply to your last point, I think the main reason for the dissipation of radicalism is the increasing "deideologization" of politics in the past 50 years. In a world where rightists become environmentalists and leftists conduct privatizations, there are no more absolutes left to fight for.

Whether this will remain the case indefinitely, or whether we shall in time "return to the future", is another question. I suspect the latter.

3:00 AM  
Blogger CJWilly said...

Hello Sublime Oblivion!

Thanks for the comment. As a fellow "rootless cosmpolitan" (although I am a full Romano-German!), your blog really struck a chord with me. It is really one of the best and most original on the internet. Nothing like expertise on a topic (Russia), a grounding in political classics, and raw ambition!

Assuming (big if?) there is no great economic or environmental collapse, I can't see a new ideological politics in the West and, indeed, the entire "aging post-industrial world".

On the other hand, there is no reason why not revolutionary messianism might not seize hold of all those youthful, still impoverished nations from Kinshasa through Cairo to Beijing. All those of desperate poor people crammed in cities, who ruling class only holds its sway through tank and rifle. (Indeed, the Islamic rebels are a first manifestation of this.)

5:33 PM  
Blogger Brett Hetherington said...

I enjoyed reading your review very much, Craig. I could discern Orwell’s influence in some of your writing style in phrases such as “at bottom.” (Though he would have disapproved of your use of the “not…un-” arrangement.) I am just pleased that he is (still) being both read and appreciated by people under the age of forty!

Overall, I agreed with your summation of Homage to Catalonia. I tend to think it is only in the last decade or two that Barcelona has become what you call “the quintessential student/international Anglo-experience city.” (It is a place I like to visit, but sometimes I am glad to live 40 km’s away from it.)

I liked how you spotted Orwell’s “inability to shake of the British notion that the police could not arrest him so long as he had done nothing wrong.” The rule-of-law (and for that matter, “the law of rules”) is such a fixed idea in the heads of so many English people I also know.

Sadly, I think you are also right on the mark when you talk about the atrocious state of the Left of politics today. It is true to argue that there is no longer any encouraging talk of a new way of formation for our civilization. But Orwell’s strength was to summon the honesty to show us that the only possible chance could come from examining our own motives and prejudices.

(Some of my writing on George Orwell can be read at the link below…)


2:53 PM  

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