Homage to Catalonia
© 1952 George Orwell
On 17 July 1936, conservative and reactionary forces inside Spain opted to seize power by force, rather than allow the Popular Front government — an increasingly liberal, democratic, and progressive entity that undermined Spain’s vaunted traditions of feudalism and religious tyranny — to continue to set the nation’s course. The result: civil war. The resulting war seemed to be two wars in once: a defense on the part of Spain’s middle-class liberals to maintain their established rights, and a revolution on the part of the working class to assert their own rights. In Catalonia, for instance, workers seized control of various businesses and utilities, establishing communes which they intended to defend with local militias. Remarkably, Spain’s liberals, socialists, anarchists, and other progressives did not fight alone: people from western Europe and the United States came to the defense of Spain’s republic: entire brigades were formed of these volunteers.
Emma Goldman’s account of these communes and of the international brigades enraptured me when I read of them for the first time, and fueled entirely my interest in the Spanish Civil War. As a humanist, nothing inspires me more than the idea of people putting aside their tribalism and breaking bread together in the common cause of civilization. Thus I eagerly anticipated George Orwell’s account of his time in the International brigades, specifically in the Workers for Marxist Unification militia. There were many such militias, for each union and political party seemed to have its own.
Readers who pick up Homage expecting a war memoir will be disappointed, for Orwell experienced little in the way of action aside from nighttime patrols and one raid. The first third of the book details how poorly-equipped the Republic and unions were for a conflict: training for the Internationals was nonexistent, and weapons were badly dated. Some were scarcely worth more than clubs, and more dangerous to the user than the target. Orwell’s own exit from the war came about when a malfunctioning weapon sent a bullet through his next.
After his one-time raid, Orwell’s troops are sent to Barcelona where politics dominates. Through his eyes, we see the increasing marginalization of socialists and anarchists in favor of the Stalin-backed Communists, who gain influence in the government and consolidate power. During Orwell’s time in Barcelona, government troops attack union-held sections of town, leading to intermittent street fighting. Orwell addresses the broader implications of the Communist party’s role in Spain’s future in the next chapter, seeing as little than the hired men of Stalin and Russia. Eventually the Communists achieve primacy, declaring unions and parties associated with the anarcho-socialist revolutionaries illegal. Orwell must subsequently beat a hasty escape from the land he came to fight for.
Homage to Catalonia was certainty worth my while, giving me a firmer handle on this period I’m increasingly interested in. I enjoyed Orwell’s voice as a writer: frank, honest, passionate, but ever humane. In spite of the treatment he received at the hands of Government guards, the text bears them no ill will. There is no bitterness here, only a sigh of disappointment that the cherished ideal did not withstand. I recommend it, and plan on reading more in this area as I can.
- Emma Goldman’s Red Emma Speaks.