Monday, January 22, 2007

Homage To Catalonia: Orwell and Spain

This weekend I had the pleasure of reading George Orwell's "Homage To Catalonia". It was about Orwell's experience fighting with the POUM forces during the Spanish Civil War.

The POUM was an ex-Trotskyist militia, that Leon Trotsky had tactical disagreements with. Yet the POUM was thoroughly anti-Stalinist, and much too independant for the Republican leadership, allied with the Stalinist Communist Party.

The issues of the Spanish Civil war politically, are still dealt with today. Should one advocate socialism while fighting for a nation? Do you align yourself with liberal bourgeousie? Do you take part in parliment? What is anarchism? This is an excerpt of that great book.

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.



LeftyHenry said...

I've been meaning to read that. My reading list just keeps getting longer...

troutsky said...

It is a great favorite of Che Bobs. I find Orwell an unreliable observer in certain writings, such as his experience in the mining country.Or his rantings about British communists during the War (Why I Write).A bit of a pretentious boor.But this is a fascinating slice of history, truly unique.

Anonymous said...

It really is an interesting book, Ken Loach's film - Land and Freedom - covers similar territory.

I remember at school being obliged to read Animal Farm in class and the teachers trying to drum into our heads that this shows that communism would never work.

For me, Orwell is a flawed character Immediately after the war he shopped names of (official) communists working in the media to the (British) authorities.

Graeme said...

it is my favorite book. i found it quite honest- he kept saying that the book was his opinion. It really cemented in my mind the difference between right and left wing communism.

Jim Jepps said...

It is a great book, and having gone through the massive disillusionment with the behaviour of the Communist Party in Spain you're right (SouthPaw) he made some terrible mistakes.

But those mistakes were as nothing to the way the CP slandered the names of good anti-fascists and had them arrested or shot. It's important to remember that is what Orwell was reacting against.

It's worth reading his book the Lion and Unicorn too... one of the most contradictory things he ever wrote, where he tries to fuse patriotism with socialism - and whilst inspiring and moving at times in my opinion he was barking up the wrong tree.

I was amused to see you saying the Trotsky had tactical disagreements with the POUM - i think that's understating it somewhat.

Trotsky was extraordinarily sectarian at this time and many worthwhile organisations internationally hoped to join the fourth international but were barred by trotsky's insistence that they could not deviate from his line in the least.

In my opinion it was a missed opportunity to forge an anti-Stalinist left international and break from dogma.

But perhaps Trotsky was right about the POUM, after all they did end up dead or disbanded. The core of Trotsky's argument was that they should not have been part of the popular front against fascism, that they should have had no part in the republican government, that in essence they should have fought both fronts at once.

I can't help thinking that was fantasy.

Sontín said...

It has been about twelve years since I read "Homage to Catalonia" but at the time I enjoyed it very much. It was also the first time I read about the CP undermining left coalition struggles. It is something that was to repeat itself in different forms in Chile, China, Cuba, and on and on, particularly under the argument that it was necessary create an alliance with the “progressive” members of the national bourgeoisie to create first a capitalist revolution and then in some undetermined future a communist one … In any case, a great book.

beatroot said...

Ren – you just have read one of my favourite books….

I must have read that thing ten times. I love Orwell, but he was not a saint. The Left hated him at the time…thought he was a traitor. Turns out he was one of the few who were not taken in by Stalinism back then.

But, with respect, I don’t think you can draw much wisdom from that book today. And this is what really bothers me about what is left of the Left today. You just can’t accept that we live in new times. All this talk about Should one advocate socialism while fighting for a nation? Do you align yourself with liberal bourgeousie? Do you take part in parliament? What is anarchism?....

These are old boring questions that mean nothing today. If the Left wants to regain some kind of respectability then it has to stop obsessing about situations relevant 50 years ago, and start trying to deal with the new reality.

And Orwell – my top writer – will not help you with that…

Oh, by the way: please change over to the New Blogger...placing comments is very difficult for us that have changed...

Agnes said...

An important book, Ren, I'm glad you read it.

Southpaw, "to drum into our heads that this shows that communism would never work." - otherwise it worked perfectly, didn't it? just tell me when and where.

"and start trying to deal with the new reality." - bingo. You can repeat this ad infinitum and nauseam. There is a reason for that.

Anonymous said...

A weasel I often read recently wrote a book about George:

Frank Partisan said...

Thank you for this feedback.

beatroot: It would be a nightmare to switch to Google Blogger. My template is rejected, and it is not made anymore on the site I found it. In addition all the links I acquired would be hard to transfer.

I'm struggling with the questions you raised. I personally have a contradictory atitude. I hate nostalgia, at the same time love classic surviving art, thoughts etc.

Welcome Nestor. Do you have your own blog?

Check out Sontin's blog, if you have interest about Nicaragua.

Redwine: Great to hear from you.

Orwell wouldn't have lived, if he stayed in Spain. He would have ended up killed by Stalinists in the Popular Front. He'd been accusing of Trotskyism, which means accusations of being with a supporter of a fascist fifth column. If the Trotskyists were fascist supporters, the smartest thing would have been to support Franco.

sonia said...

It's a great book. What Orwell was describing was the Communists gradually taking over the Revolution and replacing a capitalist system with a totalitarian system. The same thing occured in Russia in 1917-21, in China in 1949-50, and in every other country where Communism was established. In Spain, that process was halted because Franco won the war. In Chile, it was also halted when Pinochet made his coup.

True revolutionaries ALWAYS fight a two-front war, whether they like it or not, and whether they are even aware of it or not. And the more dangerous enemy is always on the left. At least after Franco or Pinochet, democracy can flourish. But after Stalin and Brezhnev, all you get is a fascist Putin... and a ruined economy...

Brian said...

Sonia, democracy is doing ok in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

Frederick said...

I'll definitely have to add this one to the reading list.

samrocha said...

thanks for stopping by, I have been a very poor blogger lately, but I would love to attend your meeting... I dont know if I am progressive but I am liberal... so let me know and I would love to meet

MarxistFromLebanon said...

Revolutionaries are those who fight for the emancipation of the Proletariat and not those who support the USA in Iraq Sonia

Anyways, regarding Spain, I recommend Earnst Hemmingway's "For Whom the Bells Toll", supposed to depict his experience in the Spanish Civil War when he fought with the Communists against the Fascists.

As for an alliance between the Communists and Liberals, that is a dead end. We have those in Lebanon who ended up supposrted Free Market, non-governmental intervention in social and economic issues.

beatroot said...

SoniaTrue revolutionaries ALWAYS fight a two-front war, whether they like it or not, and whether they are even aware of it or not. And the more dangerous enemy is always on the left.

Sonia....Orwell WAS on the Left. That's the point. You could be left in those days and not be a Stalinist....

MarxistFromLebanon said...

forget it beatroot, if she thinks that the Americans at their climax of sacrificing for others what to expect?

roman said...

Thank you for reminding me that Orwell is one of my favorite authors. In the paragraph presented, how honestly he describes the town of Catalonia with an eye for detail. I say honestly because he so easily admits his ambivalent feelings. He's not sure whether he is pleased by what he sees but has no qualms about describing it with profound respect and a sense of admiration.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Renegade! Orwell had his faults, but he was - fundamentally - on the right side in Spain and thereafter, as against the 'official' CP. I'll be writing something on 'Shiraz Socialist' about Orwell's dispute with Kingsley Martin (editor of the 'New Staesman' and apologist of Stalinism), tomorrow.

troutsky said...

Beatroot mentions a "new reality" and i would be curious to hear him define it a little clearer. Is Kant now irrelevant in this new reality, John Adams? Strauss and Schmitt or only Marx and Luxemburg?
Do we discard theory or amend and add to it? I wonder what Orwell would have to say about the movements of Latin america today?

Frank Partisan said...

I would like to ask beatroot and Redwine, if being a leftist is different in Eastern Europe, after living under Stalinism?

Anonymous said...

I think maybe we are more acutely aware that the Left is a thing of the past. When I tell people that I used to be a socialist they just laugh and think I was naive.. It’s impossible to tell them that there was a non-Stalinist left – for them, understandably, the left and Stalin were synonymous.

More interesting is the position of Orwell in this part of the world – something which I am going to try and find an excuse to do on my blog. Most don’t know that he was a left winger (although he called himself once a ‘tory anarchist, which is probably nearer the truth…)

Comrade Beatroot

Agnes said...


yes, it was. Still is, though what we called "left" here is long gone. (Let aside the fact that these dichotomies don;'t work anymore.)

Anyway it was not an intellectual game, not after the 30's, and even less after the war.

"for them, understandably, the left and Stalin were synonymous." - of course. The rest were killed, driven away etc, they were the first target. So it is a bit more complicatd, last year I posted an essay about the situation of the left in eastern Europe. Even so, it varied from country to country and decade from decade.

"Most don’t know that he was a left winger" - I am shocked. I thought illiteracy is an acquired quality, one has to work hard for it.

sonia said...


if being a leftist is different in Eastern Europe

It's a bit like being a vegetarian during the Irish Potato Famine.

But don't worry. Soon, Eastern Europe will be as prosperous as the West, and then, young people will be wanking to the posters of Che Guevara there as well...

Reidski said...

Shit, am I really writing a comment immediately after Sonia? Oh well, here goes.
Bollocks to Orwell, he was a fucking spy for the British state. While his mates were trying to build a revolutionary utopia, their fellow Spaniards and many people in the international brigades were trying to defeat fascism.

Animal Farm was stupid. 1984 was crap. I suppose that one about the Aspidristas or whatever wasn't too bad. Down in out in Paris and London was embarrassing.