Monday, April 04, 2011

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

(Book Review)

Put this in the category of "books-I-really-should-have-read-a-long-time-ago-and-am-somewhat-embarrassed-to-admit-I'm-just-getting-around-to-now." It's been on my reading list forever, and but I've only now actually sat down and read it.

And, like most books in this category, once I finally did start reading it, I wondered why in the world I had waited so long. It's an extremely readable little book, and moreover one that really gripped me. Once I started reading it, I had a hard time putting it down, and I finished off the entire book in a few days. (Which, for me anyways, is a bit of a feat. I'm one of those people who usually takes about 6 weeks to finish a book.)

But before I get into how great this book is, let me start at the beginning and explain why it had been on my reading list.

For starters, I'm a big George Orwell fan. I have not, to my shame, read a lot of his books (I'll have to work on remedying that), but what I have read has made an impression on me.
"Keep the Aspidistra Flying" I read during my college years, when I was trying to reconcile my idealism with my middle class lifestyle and the book did a lot to shape my evolving world view.
The first time I read "1984" (again back in college)I went in expecting a political book, but was instead amazed at how beautifully it was written. For this reason "1984" was one of the only audio-books I brought with me to Japan (in an effort to keep up my English literary skills despite being surrounded by a foreign language environment.) And it's one of the few books that I've listened to so many times I've practically got it memorized. ("Animal Farm" was also included as a bonus on the same audio book.)

As for this book, Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" may not be well known to the general public, but it is often read and often quoted in the crazy leftist circles I hang out in. It is practically required reading for anarchists, and as a nominal anarchist myself it's high time I finally got around to it.

Noam Chomsky himself is a huge fan of this book, and often talks about it in articles and interviews.
Chomsky talks about the importance of the contents of the book (although not completely uncritical of the anarchist movement in Spain, Orwell does portray them as the true voice of workers' control and workers' democracy, in contrast to the totalitarian methods used by the Communist party.) But Chomsky also thinks it's important to talk about the publishing history of the book. It was suppressed when it was first published in 1938. Only a few copies were sold in England, and the book wasn't even published in the United States. According to Chomsky, the reason has as much to do with the institutional left as it does with the right. In the 1930s communism was very fashionable among intellectuals, and it was unpopular to criticize the established Communist party. In the 1940s, the Soviet Union was our ally against Hitler. It was not until the 50s that this book was finally published in the United States, and then it was only because of the red scare, and this book was presented as cold war anti-communist propaganda. "Orwell, who had died already, would have hated it" said Chomsky (link here).

[Incidentally, while on the subject, another one of Chomsky's favorite Orwell stories is that Orwell had originally written an introduction to "Animal Farm" (W), in which he said that press censorship is not only a problem in totalitarian governments, but a form of it exists in England as well. It's just that in England, people are a lot more subtle about censorship. As if to prove Orwell's point, this introduction was suppressed.]

Anyway, all these are reasons why I should have read the book long before now. As to the actual book itself:

The book is a memoirs of Orwell's time in the Spanish - Civil - War. It describes how he arrived in Spain full of enthusiasm for the Republican Government, and then gets disillusioned by the totalitarian tactics of the Communist Party (although he remains an ardent anti-fascist till the end.)

Politics are the main thrust of this book, and yet to focus too much on politics would be to do an injustice to Orwell's writing. The real joy in this book is that it's just so well-written.
In this regard, the book truly is an overlooked gem. Not only do we have a first hand account of the historic Spanish Civil War (something invaluable in and of itself) but it's written by a writer who is worth reading--someone who knows how to use just the right words to create just the right images, and does so in a way that makes the book really flow.
Right from the beginning of the book you know you're in good hands.

In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers' table.

He was a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders. His peaked leather cap was pulled fiercely over one eye. He was standing in profile to me, his chin on his breast, gazing with a puzzled frown at a map which one of the officers had open on the table. Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend--the kind of a face you would expect in an Anarchist, though as likely as not he was a Communist. There were both candour and ferocity in it; also the pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed superiors. Obviously he could not make head or tail of the map; obviously he regarded map-reading as a stupendous intellectual feat. I hardly know why, but I have seldom seen anyone--any man, I mean--to whom I have taken such an immediate liking. While they were talking round the table some remark brought it out that I was a foreigner. The Italian raised his head and said quickly:


I answered in my bad Spanish: 'No, Ingles. Y tu?'


As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard.
Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him. But I also knew 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.

These wonderful descriptive passages continue on all through the book. In fact, if I had to choose to quote another passage to illustrate how well-written this book is, I'd be somewhat spoiled for choice. There's a very interesting passage in which Orwell gives a very detailed account of what it's like to be shot in a war and to think you're about to die (which someone else has excerpted for their website here) and there's vivid descriptions of the street fighting in Barcelona, and of the scene in which Orwell's wife warns him that the Communist Police are looking for him.

But I'll limit myself to one more long quotation, and the quoted passage below will just have to serve as an example of the pleasure that is found reading this book:

There seemed no hope of any real fighting. When we left Monte Pocero I had counted my cartridges and found that in nearly three weeks I had fired just three shots at the enemy. They say it takes a thousand bullets to kill a man, and at this rate it would be twenty years before I killed my first Fascist. At Monte Oscuro the lines were closer and one fired oftener, but I am reasonably certain that I never hit anyone. As a matter of fact, on this front and at this period of the war the real weapon was not the rifle but the megaphone. Being unable to kill your enemy you shouted at him instead. This method of warfare is so extraordinary that it needs explaining.

Wherever the lines were within hailing distance of one another there was always a good deal of shouting from trench to trench. From ourselves: 'Fascistas --maricones!' From the Fascists: ''Viva Espana! Viva Franco!'--or, when they knew that there were English opposite them: 'Go home, you English! We don't want foreigners here!' On the Government side, in the party militias, the shouting of propaganda to undermine the enemy morale had been developed into a regular technique. In every suitable position men, usually machine-gunners, were told off for shouting-duty and provided with megaphones. Generally they shouted a set-piece, full of revolutionary sentiments which explained to the Fascist soldiers that they were merely the hirelings of international capitalism, that they were fighting against their own class, etc., etc., and urged them to come over to our side. This was repeated over and over by relays of men; sometimes it continued almost the whole night. There is very little doubt that it had its effect; everyone agreed that the trickle of Fascist deserters was partly caused by it. If one comes to think of it, when some poor devil of a sentry--very likely a Socialist or Anarchist trade union member who has been conscripted against his will--is freezing at his post, the slogan 'Don't fight against your own class!' ringing again and again through the darkness is bound to make an impression on him. It might make just the difference between deserting and not deserting. Of course such a proceeding does not fit in with the English conception of war. I admit I was amazed and scandalized when I first saw it done. The idea of trying to convert your enemy instead of shooting him! I now think that from any point of view it was a legitimate manoeuvre. In ordinary trench warfare, when there is no artillery, it is extremely difficult to inflict casualties on the enemy without receiving an equal number yourself. If you can immobilize a certain number of men by making them desert, so much the better; deserters are actually more useful to you than corpses, because they can give information. But at the beginning it dismayed all of us; it made us feel that the Spaniards were not taking this war of theirs sufficiently seriously. The man who did the shouting at the P.S.U.C. post down on our right was an artist at the job. Sometimes, instead of shouting revolutionary slogans he simply told the Fascists how much better we were fed than they were. His account of the Government rations was apt to be a little imaginative.' Buttered toast!'--you could hear his voice echoing across the lonely valley--'We're just sitting down to buttered toast over here! Lovely slices of buttered toast!' I do not doubt that, like the rest of us, he had not seen butter for weeks or months past, but in the icy night the news of buttered toast probably set many a Fascist mouth watering. It even made mine water, though I knew he was lying

You'll notice, if you read the above quote, the humor that sneaks into it. And this is also typical of the way the whole book is written. While reading this book the corners of my mouth were constantly twitching upwards in little half smiles at the subtle humor Orwell infused throughout his writing.

Actually, although the book is most famous for its politics, the majority of the chapters are just about describing the every day nature of the war. In fact Orwell is almost apologetic when politics intrude into his narrative:

"If you're not interested in the horrors of party politics, please skip [this chapter]; I am trying to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters for precisely that purpose. At the same time it would be quite impossible to write about the Spanish war from a purely military angle. It was above all things a political war."

Orwell first arrives in Barcelona to see that the anarchists are in complete control of the city. He describes the kind of revolutionary society the anarchist have created:

The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. ... It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Senior' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' and 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos dias'. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. 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.

Orwell enlists in the anti-fascist republican cause, but he soon discovers there are deep divisions with in the anti-fascist side. On one hand there are the anarchists, who see the war as a working people's revolution. On the other side are the middle-class republican capitalists, who see the war as a way to re-establish bourgeois capitalism, and want to roll back the gains that the working class had made during the early days of the war.

So far so simple. But here is what Orwell claimed very few people outside of Spain actually understood: the Communist Party was actually against the working class revolution, and it was the Communist Party more than anyone else that wanted to restore bourgeois capitalism. The official Communist Party at this point was completely controlled by the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union didn't want to upset its various international alliances by having a revolution in Spain. And so it was the Spanish Communist Party which was responsible for crushing the worker's revolution, destroying worker's control of factories, and throwing all the revolutionaries in jail.

Orwell was in Barcelona when street fighting between the anarchists and the Communist controlled police broke out, and he describes what he saw.
Orwell himself had joined the militia as a member of a Trotskyist organization, and so in the end had to flee from Spain for his life after he saw many of his friends rounded up and jailed.

The Communist Party, of course, placed all the blame for the violence on the anarchists and Trotskyists. The Communist newspapers in Britain repeated the official line, and even the capitalist newspapers attacked the anarchists. As Orwell writes:
The reason why a one-sided version has been accepted is simply that the Spanish revolutionary parties have no footing in the foreign press. In the English press, in particular, you would have to search for a long time before finding any favourable reference, at any period of the war, to the Spanish Anarchists. They have been systematically denigrated, and, as I know by my own experience, it is almost impossible to get anyone to print anything in their defence.

Orwell dedicates a whole chapter to examining the lies and misrepresentations of the English press.

Although Orwell apologizes for the political chapters in his book, in my opinion they are the most interesting. It's a pity this book was so little circulated when it was first released, because the journalists he named in this chapter really deserved the public shaming he tried to give him. In particularly Orwell goes after the Communist controlled press.

Orwell showed that the journalists write so many logical absurdities and self-contradictions that, even though they were hundreds of miles away from the actual events, they must have known they were lying.
It's a beautiful thing to see a brilliant mind like Orwell's simply rip apart all of these articles. (It's also not hard to see why this is one of Noam Chomsky's favorite books. Orwell's media critiques are very similar to Chomsky's own style.)

And finally, one can see in these chapters Orwell's frustrations with political manipulation of the truth, a theme of course that he would develop further ten years later in "1984."

A fascinating little book. At only 232 pages, it's well worth the short time it will take you to read it.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Mumia Abu-Jamal & George Orwell (Recommend skipping to the 5 minute mark to skip the introduction.)

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