Archive article from The Socialist Issue 306
Books that inspired me
Homage to Catalonia
IN THE first of an occasional series on books that inspired socialists KEITH ELLIS looks at Homage To Catalonia by George Orwell.
I READ Homage To Catalonia when I was 20. I had grown up watching John Wayne films where war was portrayed as heroic or glamorous. Even films like Catch 22 and M.A.S.H didn't totally dispel this image.
George Orwell was the first writer I had come across that talked about the horrific conditions and boredom of war. He graphically described the sights, sounds and smells of conflict.
Orwell travelled to Spain in 1936 to report on the Spanish Revolution. An army mutiny led by the fascist General Franco against a reformist government resulted in a revolt of the Spanish workers and peasants. In Catalonia, the revolutionary movement saw workers taking control of the factories and peasants taking over the land.
Orwell wrote: "When I first reached Barcelona I had thought it a town where class distinctions and great differences of wealth hardly existed." This made such an impression he joined the struggle against fascism.
In Catalonia the revolutionary army was organised by the trade unions, political parties and anarchist federations. For the next three months Orwell served, alongside the POUM, on the front line just outside Zaragoza. The militias were poorly armed and ill equipped. There was no battle plan and weeks were spent in dirty conditions.
Initially George Orwell couldn't understand why an offensive wasn't launched in Catalonia to help relieve the fascist siege of Madrid. Eventually he worked it out.
Stalin and his supporters in Spain did not supply arms to the revolutionary masses because they wanted to crush (or at least contain) this movement, to do a deal with Britain and France over the threat posed to the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. Stalin's support for Spain's capitalists gave confidence to anti-working class forces.
The Barcelona Orwell returned to in May 1937 was transformed. The rich and middle classes felt safe to be seen. Class distinctions had reappeared together with beggars on the streets.
In May 1937 the Civil Guard tried to take the telephone exchange from the anarchists as a first step to destroy workers' control in Barcelona. There was intermittent fighting to defend the revolutionary gains of the workers. Orwell describes the lack of leadership offered by the anarchists and the POUM, which resulted in their defeat.
By the end of 1937 Orwell had returned to the front, been wounded and escaped to France. The POUM and the anarchists had been outlawed and the republican government was headed for defeat at the hands of the fascists.
Leon Trotsky explained that the workers and peasants of Spain could have achieved one hundred revolutions, the only thing lacking was a revolutionary party. Orwell's description of the chaos and lack of leadership during the May days in Barcelona reinforces Trotsky's conclusion.
However, despite the defeat, Orwell had seen what a future workers' state would look like. "One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word 'comrade' stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality."
By reading Homage To Catalonia workers can get a glimpse of what a socialist society will look like, the feeling of common struggle to create a better society, a society that abolishes poverty, exploitation and wars.