Today I finished reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia , which is a first-person recounting of his experiences fighting Fascism during the Spanish civil war . Scattered thoughts follow.
I want to point out that George Orwell was a true mensch–and that his wife was amazingly competent and patient, both for putting up with his adventurism and then saving his ass when the secret police came knocking. In the author’s own words, he set out to Spain to shoot himself a Fascist, and participated in the most direct of action until he was shot in the throat.
I have recently finished his Animal Farm , and many years ago in school had read 1984 first for fun and then for class. His essay Politics and the English Language is one that I reread probably every few years and serves as a guide (not always followed) for my own writing. His appendix in 1984 around Newspeak is also worth a periodic reread. Words are powerful stuff, and this is no less relevant today than at the time of his writing.
For whatever reason I had not realized just how far left Orwell was. I had somewhat assumed he despised Communism and Fascism, but his musings in Homage very much set the record straight: he was quite literally a bomb-throwing, gun-toting radical of the sort I respect. Wikipedia has him down as a Democratic Socialist, but I suppose I’ll have to go dig around in his own writings to see what exactly he claims membership with. One of the points he keeps coming back to is in fact just how far left he was of the Spanish Communist party at the time (embodied in the PSUC ), more on this later.
One of the things other traits that he seemed to possess is a measure of humility, reminding the reader at various points that his perspective of the goings-on in the war was limited. He devotes a few chapters to providing a high-level view of things that he acknowledges he didn’t see or understand at the time, particularly the political situation. He doesn’t dress up his own bravery much at all, and is open with his criticism of his own British background and baggage.
A good chunk of the short book takes place on the front, embedded during what I think was late winter/early spring with units of the POUM militia. A recurring theme is just how wretched this was: descriptions of genital lice, of mud and shit everywhere, of the poor quality of the materials and the disorganization of the entire war effort. He mentions that, as a Briton, he expected a rather more concerted and proper war effort; as the memoirs continue, I think this view clearly softens as he comes to terms with his fellow soldiers and situation.
I’ve done the one-meal-a-day thing for a while and have been camping in less than ideal conditions, but I cannot imagine the stubbornness or will required to stick out in the conditions he mentions. To me, the worst of it was the overall stagnation he conveys of their effort: both sides dug in too far to dislodge but also not equipped much to muster real attacks, a sort of indefinite purgatory punctuated by random violence and injury as stray potshots finally found a target or as friendly militiamen made mistakes. He says as much himself, despairing that he felt he was doing nothing to actually fight Fascism.
The other major part of the book to me that is interesting is his reflections on the failure by the Communists of the working class. He mentions a revolutionary spirit stoked in the beginnings of the war that is gradually but firmly suppressed by the Communists. It’s fascinating to read the evolution of events, but I cannot at all disagree with his feeling that the workers were getting sold out by their brothers who needed to follow Russian stipulations accompanying war material. I feel his sorrow at the egalitarianism being replaced once more with the old hierarchies.
I’ll be honest that I don’t quite follow the provided reasoning for why the Communists were given external marching orders to quell the revolutionary tendencies. My takeaways are basically that:
The popular movements of the Anarchists, trade unions, and POUM were seen to be more in the mold of Menshevik-style communism and so the Stalinist Russians at the time going to oppose them as a matter of habit.
True revolutionary spirit is something that all established states cannot abide, lest the contagion spread and disrupt things at home.
It is possible that the Russians wanted to prevent revolutionary messaging from creating additional allies for Franco, though he already had the support of both Italy and Germany so it’s unclear if this would’ve been a big deal.
I need to go back and re-read his analysis to make sure I’m not missing anything. I could well be totally misinterpreting it!
His rude awakening at the propaganda being circulated to outflank the POUM in the political battle at home was gut-wrenching. Losing friends and colleagues and getting wounded himself only to be denounced as a Fascist collaborator himself was awful. Similarly, the systematic tightening of the noose around the POUM and workers’ movements in order to dismantle them was depressing to read–mostly because I knew how it’d end. He and his wife barely escape, and several of his friends are executed or lost into internal detention.
One of the notable things about this is that he is remarkably kind in his description of the people he interacts, even those who rob from him and persecute him and ultimately even put a bullet into him. As he says himself, he hates Spain but never the Spaniards. There’s an amazing empathy and integrity behind that, and I hope some day to emulate it if in similar circumstances.
One of the baffling things to me is that a proper guerilla war (see Che’s seminal work on the subject) may have succeeded against Franco. Che worked with a primarily rural and agrarian force against a better-equipped centralized army, and his playbook seems to match exactly the sort of decentralized capabilities embodied by the early workers and militiamen. Instead, as mentioned above, those same folks were first folded into and then purged from the ranks of the anti-Franco forces. I’m also curious how Mao’s playbook would’ve faired, given that it was published at about the same time all this went down.
Anyways, I would highly suggest that people interested in this sort of history read the book. It is only a couple hundred pages of very readable English, and it sheds a good light both on Orwell and on the politics going on around the Spanish civil war.
There’s a lot of stuff in this book that I think resonates with me with regards to the current state of the world.
First, the observation of just how bad the reporting was. Orwell cites several British publications at the time either parroting or deliberately crafting disinformation. The reveal of flatly contradictory accounts of the same event (in this case, the attack on the telephone exchange) was probably amazing at the time of publication, but these days it is common practice. We still have this issue with reporting on things like the Occupy movement near a decade ago (has it really been that long, I wonder?) and the various protests and riots today. Mistrust in official media outlets is well-placed, but at the same time I think that Orwell would probably caution us against the alt-media rumor mills.
Second, the internecine fighting of the anti-Fascist forces didn’t work out. Instead of banding together to achieve a common goal (something their enemies excelled at), the impression I get is that the passion and decentralization which is essential in actually holding territory in the face of a technically and materially superior force was drummed out. Bullets that should’ve been put into Fascists were instead used in political executions. And at the end of the day, Franco won . In the various struggles I see today, I see the same sort of mistakes being made. If people want to really strongly oppose what they consider Fascist and reactionary movements today, maaaaaybe they shouldn’t be so quick to fight each other over identity and ideological details irrelevant and often opposed to mobilization.
Lastly, it was of critical import that the POUM was disarmed prior to and as part of their liquidation. I cannot help but note that anybody today who claims to be on the radical side cannot with a straight face insist on disarmament of the people except as a bald attempt to subjugate them. Similarly, any attempts to control the means of production via DRM or licenses or anything else ultimately only serve to empower the authorities at the expense of the worker and the common man.
I really enjoyed reading this book and getting to know a bit more about Orwell. I was introduced to a war and set of politics I was not familiar with, and will probably go dig up more on how the whole thing went down.
I’ve got some Lenin to read later, but the next one on the queue is Mussolini’s autobiography from the 1920s (which includes as an appendix his big handbook of Fascism). The foreword is by a US ambassador with such fawning admiration that I was honestly a bit taken aback, so we’ll have to see how the rest of it goes.
I’ve also been poking at Robert McNamara’s retrospective on Vietnam, and so far it’s been a depressing lot of inheriting past poor policy decisions without standing up to fix them. I don’t suspect it’ll get better.
I also probably need to throw up my thoughts on Kill All Normies and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed , but this historical stuff is more interesting at the moment.