Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Homage to Catalonia - George Orwell

I have no idea why this post went up last week, even when it agreed I'd scheduled it for today. Homage to Catalonia is Orwell writing about his time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, during which he served in a militia organized by the POUM, which was a relatively small communist (more Trotskyist than Stalinist, though not entirely either) party in Spain. Orwell talks about his time at the front, which was mostly uneventful, but did involve some occasions of combat, but also the difficulties in turning a group of workers and peasants and foreigners into some sort of unified combat, especially when they were all supposed to be part of a classless society. It is somewhat difficult to pull rank when everyone believes they are equal.

The second half of the book covers the point when Orwell returns to Barcelona (where his wife is staying), and things start to swing away from the classless society towards one with definite upper and lower classes. More troubling, it's the point when the Stalinist Communists are using their leverage to take control of the Government, at which point they start rounding up members of the other revolutionary party groups (like POUM or the Anarchists), and throwing them in prisons. Or killing them, of course. Orwell, who is recovering from being shot in the throat when the arrests really take off, barely manages to escape Spain with his wife.

I expected Orwell to be more furious in his writing, raging at the injustice done to people of Spain whose only crime was joining one group to help fight for their country, rather than a different group that is supposed to be allied with them, but that doesn't really come through here. He's writing six months after, so perhaps he'd had time to come to terms with it, or perhaps none of what happened really surprised him once he had time to think about it. This is an edition that contains revisions he made some years later, so two of the chapters in the original text are now appendices, and the latter of those deals entirely with the official government line on what happened during the street-fighting in Barcelona in early May (which Orwell was there for, on leave from the Aragon front), how much a load of bull it is, why the Spanish government is saying it, and why the various Communist newspapers abroad are swallowing it. Even there he seems more resigned at the duplicity, maybe gently amused at the naivete of some of the journalists, than angry. He does still feel confident the Government would defeat Franco. But he also expects that afterward, it will assume the form of a dictatorship, at least for awhile. He's also certain that dictatorship would be infinitely preferable to a dictatorship with Franco in charge.

He wound up being wrong about Franco being defeated, though given the stories he tells of the material shortages the militias were facing, it's perhaps not much of a surprise. In some cases, you only received a rifle when you reached the front, and were given one by a soldier you were replacing on the line. The soldiers cycled in and out, the firearms stayed put. He noted that the Soviets and Mexico were the only countries selling guns to the Government, while the Italians and Germans armed Franco. The liberal democracies - Britain, the U.S., France - couldn't be bothered*. Of course, it appears the government was putting a lot of its armaments into Assault Guards/police, to keep their own populace under control, because that's a productive use of energy when fighting for your survival. But if the Spanish Communists were taking orders from Stalin, and he didn't want a true revolution to take place in Spain, as Orwell contends, exerting energy to disarm and lock up the elements most likely to push for a permanent status quo of a classless society makes some kind of sense.

I did feel there was a certain undercurrent of that kind of feeling of cultural superiority you see in the writings of some British or American writers. It's not quite the "noble savage" thing, but there's a definite sense Orwell brings certain expectations about how things should be done from England, and the Spanish failure to match that provokes certain reactions in him. He seems very fond of Spain, and most Spaniards, but there's a certain backhandedness to the compliments. There was a line, which I can't find now, about how he didn't think the Spanish had the discipline or efficiency to run an effective Fascist government, anyway. Gee, thanks?

It's an interesting, if brief, look at a particular section of the Spanish Civil War, albeit from a foreigners' perspective, but some many of Orwell's points about the how and why of the changing nature of the conflict were well-made. I don't find him a vivid writer, in terms of painting a picture of a scene, but he's a solid writer at this stage.

'The war was essentially a triangular struggle. The fight against Franco had to continue, but the simultaneous aim of the Government was to recover such power as remained in the hands of the trade unions. It was done by a series of small moves - a policy of pin-pricks, as somebody called it - and on the whole very cleverly. There was no general and obvious counter-revolutionary move, and until May 1937 it was scarcely necessary to use force. The workers could always be brought to heel by an argument that is almost too obvious to need stating: 'Unless you do this, that and the other we shall lose the war.'

* Leon Blum tried to send some guns when he had some power in France,, but his efforts were blocked. Because the Third Republic couldn't have taken a step out the door without tripping over the shoelaces it couldn't agree with itself to tie that morning.

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