Book Review I: George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia
It’s remembered as “the best book about the Spanish Civil War,” and that’s fair. Orwell’s blow-by-blow narrative of his role in the war, fighting in the ranks of the “Workers Party of Marxist Unification” (P.O.U.M.) is more gripping than a novel, and disturbingly funny. But a good chunk of the book is a bitter catalogue of the political pissing contests that ruined the Popular government and scared away funding that could have allowed them to defeat Franco’s National army.
In Orwell’s view, Franco’s uprising could have been stopped. It would have been the first stillborn Fascist coup, and it might have stemmed the tide that he found so horrifying. The Catalans he met, the “workers,” had begun a genuine revolution that wiped away all the trappings of class, from personal greetings to tipping bartenders. It was working, we’re told – the anarchists and their anagrammed militias had stopped the Nationalist advance in 1936 with outdated weapons. But the socialists in charge (“right-wing socialists”), depending on the support of the Soviet Union, formed a ranked Popular Army and began phasing out the militias. On page after page, Orwell rages against the “counter-revolutionary” Soviets, the British left-wing press, and international Communists for their failure to buck up the anarchists. They killed the revolution in its cradle: “It was inconceivable that the people in his territory … liked or wanted Franco, but with every swing to the Right the Government’s superiority became less apparent.”
Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalger Square, the red buses, the blue policemen — all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
He wrote this in 1938.