The Wolf Book Club recently debated Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, with its “fight against Fascism” motivating much of the group to enthuse despite major flaws.
The book is horrendously outdated, of null literary value, and only of interest in explaining Orwell’s tortuous path to achieve his 1984 masterpiece.
A young journalist desperate to escape (really, destroy) British classism, Orwell arrives in Spain in 1936 and, like many other political naifs, decides to enlist. His highly confused and confusing narrative – which can charitably be described as a travel book gone badly awry – picks up immediately from his enlistment (with no setting of the stage whatsoever) and wends its way through wearingly stupid months at the nearly comatose front and, in the end, reveals the suicidal internecine lunacies of the far left.
The young Orwell is self-aware enough to realize the reader might find his lengthy discourses (in chapters 5 and 10 specifically) on “the political side” as “trivial” – absurdist, is more like it. We are drowned in the endless party acronyms — POUM, PSUC, FAI, UCT, JCI and so on – in which Latin countries have always excelled. By the tale’s end they are all at each other’s throats (instead of that of the hated Fascists under Franco), while the militia which Orwell joined named The Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification (POUM in Spanish) has been banned and Orwell must flee the country or face jail or execution. (In one unintended moment of humor, Orwell questions a colleague: “Aren’t we all Socialists?” [ch.5, p.32] Why yes, but why should that keep you from killing each other?)
The Marxist militia, which is somehow vehemently anti-Stalinist, is labeled Trotskyite – surely a death knell, given how Communists hate with a passion any party/philosophy/personage too close to their own that doesn’t pay homage. This, indeed, explained their intense dislike of Fascists – as close competitors for totalitarian/authoritarian control. (Recall that Nazis were National Socialists, while Communists were simply International ones – U.S.S.R anyone?)
Why a travel book gone badly awry? Orwell dispenses with a back story and plops the blind reader into enrolling with the Marxists right along with him. He also has his wife in tow, but she only receives passing mentions throughout the tale (i.e. without any character development or depth whatsoever), as fleshed out as a nondescript poodle. He begins his yarn – in the Lenin Barracks of Barcelona no less – with a man-crush on a young Italian whom he fantasizes to be an Anarchist: “I have seldom seen anyone – any man, I mean – to whom I have taken such an immediate liking.” Does he bother to find out what party the man actually belongs to? No.
I hoped he liked me as well as I like him. But I also know that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again, and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain. [ch.1, p.5]
So, with a disarming if unintended honesty, Orwell admits his experience was largely built on first impressions – a string of fantasies just like this one, in fact. This may be journalistic, but it is hardly writerly or admirable. Nor the stuff of an engaging travel yarn.
Granted, some of his “comrades,” such as his Belgian captain named Kopp, get more fleshed out – if only because they are jailed and presumably assassinated by the end, so we need to sympathize beyond superficialities.
What explains for Orwell’s coarseness and gullibility? Swept up by Socialist propaganda, it seems, he romanticizes to the nth degree the entire farce, that is, he is filled with revolutionary fervor. Murderously against capitalism and societal order, he idolizes the working classes (recall Down and Out in Paris and London) and fetishizes “equality” – even if it entails much destruction including the burning of churches. Again and again, he lauds true revolutionary fervor, even while confessing that the Fascists “were indistinguishable from ourselves.” [ch.2, p.13] (He means only physically, though perhaps it was a slip.)
Strangely for a man who would develop into a perceptive, even sensitive, writer, his take on warfare and killing is startling cold. Among the long standoffs along the front, where boredom and cold and hunger reign while wildly inaccurate rifles pop off, he writes cooly of a bullet “getting home on a human body.” [ch.3, p.17] Later, he blankly admits that sniping at Fascists was “rather fun.” [ch.11, p.110] Oh really?
Unintentionally so, the book reveals the massive human folly of playing at war and revolution.
The only reason to read it – if not needing one more eyewitness account to the Spanish Civil War better written than most – is to track Orwell’s late maturation into a masterful writer on the rancid nature of propaganda and totalitarianism.
As an example, by book’s end he claims that 9/10ths of what journalists wrote about the war were flat out lies. (Over a century later, little has changed.) He nurses an admirable hatred for Communists – to whom he blames for the loss to Franco’s forces, by dividing the left – but apparently remained a card-carrying Socialist all his life, without apparently realizing that Socialism is everywhere and always a stepping stone to Communism. (Some dictionaries, before getting scrubbed, still define it that way.)
1984, written a dozen or so years later, is a masterwork, an unlikely love story between rebels (one might say deplorable counter-revolutionaries), on the detailed oppressiveness of a totalitarian regime using propaganda to control its victims’ very thoughts. His insight that if you control the language you can control the thinking becomes more appropriate every woke day.
Indeed, in one of the book’s torture and brainwashing scenes, the Party mouthpiece, O’Brien, tells our doomed hero, Winston:
Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. [1984, p.217]
Not a moment too soon, Orwell appears to have relinquished his youthful naivete in romanticizing revolutions.
Yet, among my book club colleagues, the old (and very contemporary) trope that being anti-Fascist justifies anything clouded their eyes to the inhumanity of it all. Don’t misread me. More than anyone I hate antisemitism, for obvious ethical and Biblical reasons, but to claim that Fascism, due to the killing of 6 millions Jews, was a greater threat to democracy or humanity than Communism is absurd. The simple, cold calculation that Communism (or Marxism, or Socialism, or Progressivism, whatever you want to call it) has massacred 100 million, while the Fascists a tenth of that, tells us otherwise. (But Communist propaganda, increasingly of the Chinese variety, is everywhere.)
In its most positive light, Homage to Catalonia is a treatise on the evils of propaganda – a realization which took full flower in 1984‘s brilliant depiction on modern society’s ruthless deployment of it.
Reread 1984 – urgently – before it goes down the memory hole. In these days when State propaganda rules the airwaves, social media, the universities, as well as the Uniparty, Orwell’s cautionary tale is updating before our tired eyes.
[Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell, 1938 (Project Gutenberg text, styled by LimpidSoft, pdf date unknown)
[1984, George Orwell, 1949 (Signet Classics Edition, 1984)]
Here is a video of the Wolf Book Club discussion: