Idealism and Naiveté: On Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”
George Orwell paid homage to Catalonia, Spain, in his journalistic book on the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, but he paid homage to much more.
Orwell, like many idealistic men and women of his generation, gave up comfort and security to fight for socialism, communism or republicanism against the proto-fascist Francisco Franco. The war, which heralded many crucial dilemmas, ran from 1936-39, resulting in Generalissimo Franco’s victory.
One of those idealistic individuals was my high school history teacher, Peter Carver. He had fought with the communists, been jailed for his trouble, and came away with a life-long abhorrence for communism in general, and “Uncle Joe” Stalin in particular. I read Homage to Catalonia as an act of homage to my influential teacher.
Carver, like Orwell and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, managed to come away from bitter experiences with communism without bitterness of soul. Some part of the utopian dream that communism represented had touched his heart, and that openness remained.
Homage to Catalonia does not reveal Orwell as a mature political theorist, but as a man in the process of understanding his experiences and attempting to put them in perspective. Likewise, The Gulag Archipelago shows us Solzhenitsyn as a true believer, an intuitive follower of the party of Lenin, even after he is arrested on Russia’s western front. Surely there has been a mistake, he thought. I just need to speak to the right person to have the whole horrible mess straightened out, then I can continue to serve the Revolution – and in the process remove this disturbing cognitive dissonance.
Orwell presents the Spanish Civil War as a class conflict between the reactionary, would-be feudal, land-owning families (and the Catholic Church) represented by Franco, and the Republicans, who are a collection of bourgeois and working-class factions. He arrives in a Barcelona which has been revolutionized, in the hands of labor organizations such as the anarcho-syndicalists (CNT). This is as it should be for Orwell. Why pursue the modern slavery which is capitalism when the possibility of socialist revolution is within our grasp?
But this is the problem: the Russian Communists have entered the struggle against Franco, but on the side of the bourgeoisie rather than the revolutionary socialists, and it is clear the antifascistas will soon have to confront a contradiction.
Now this is not the kind of contradiction entertained by Marx’s historical materialism. Stalin has allied himself with France out of his fear of Germany. France has no interest in a revolutionary Spain, and one of Stalin’s other great betrayals – the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — is still in the future.
Solzhenitsyn might point out that Stalin’s fear of Germany was certainly legitimate, given that he was in the process of gutting his own military in a series of bloody purges.
The Communist International’s policy becomes “support the interests of the Spanish middle class even if it means turning on the socialist revolutionaries.” And guess what: the military successes of the anarchists and independent Marxists meant they would soon be a threat to the bourgeois dominance of the Republican party.
While Peter Carver might have fought with Communist units (I never asked him this important question), Orwell fought with the POUM, a faction of independent Marxists in Catalonia and Zaragoza. At some point in mid-1937, the Republicans, at Russian insistence, began concocting stories about POUM betrayal, that they had been colluding with Franco. And the arrests began, leading Orwell and his wife to flee Spain in fear for their lives.
How naive was Orwell? Having escaped Spain, he put together this book of reportage within months, Homage to Catalonia hitting the shelves in 1938. He interspersed chapters of political analysis, apologizing to readers for all the acronyms, and suggesting they can skip these parts if it gets tiresome. This great journalist had come face to face with the biggest story of the 20th century — the perfidy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and its betrayal of the working class and its would-be intellectual representatives — and he is afraid of boring his readers with acronyms!
Of course, the division among the Republicans led to their failure against Franco. His Nationalists won the Spanish Civil War, and Franco remained in power until his death in 1975. The Nationalist victory was still in the future when Orwell was writing in 1937, so we are not told what he thought about this catastrophe for the Spanish working class (We have to imagine that Stalin thought that Franco’s victory was preferable to a socialist revolution in Spain, given his nationalistic geopolitics).
But naiveté can be charming, and Orwell’s political evolution is still relevant. After all, how do we respond to this great fact of history: the most powerful idealistic ideology has spawned the most murderous regimes the world has known?
Orwell felt no need to apologize for his revolutionary enthusiasm over Barcelona in December 1936 because he still saw socialism as the path to authentic human relations.
But Solzhenitsyn had reached a different point by the time he began writing the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago. He observed that evil is not “out there,” but the dividing line between good and evil runs through every human heart. The spiritual path is that of attending to the “beam in our own eye” before any form of violence in the service of the ideal could ever be justified.
Trying to protect me from the leftists I would encounter on the University of Sydney campus, Carver had me read Karl Popper. I bought and devoured Popper’s two-volume The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1979. The vaccination didn’t work. I was still swept into Marx’s orbit, first by the man himself, and then by the postmodernists and the critical theorists.
I was soon made spiritually ill by not-really-post-Marxists such as Adorno and Foucault. I might not have wanted to throw myself at the barricades, but then barricades were pretty hard to find in Sydney in the 1980s. The next best thing, as far as Satan was concerned, was for me to be caught up into a bubble of criticism of the status quo, which bubble severed me from real human relationships and real happiness.
I did attend a Socialist Workers Party meeting in which a visiting British professor assured us passionately that international finance capital (or whatever) was about to collapse of its own weight. In the age of disco, Adorno’s critique of the culture industry seemed more to the point.
George Orwell (1903-50)
Radio host Mark Levin’s impressive Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America makes a major mistake, in my opinion. Like Popper, he locates the drive towards totalitarianism in the craving for transcendence, the yearning for utopia.
You can’t kill the utopian impulse, because it is written on the human heart. In the Bible, the Book of Revelation (Rev. 22:1-5) still plants seeds of hope for the future:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”
Levin and other paleo-conservatives want us to surrender that hope, but it is not for us to surrender. Orwell’s book is a homage to the human spirit he experienced in Barcelona and the battles he fought with the volunteer militias — who were woefully trained and armed yet defeated not by the fascists but by the Comintern.
Orwell fought for a few short months with his rag tag militia. The Catalan POUM unit he joined up with was without military training and possessed few functioning firearms. They lived and fought in the cold central foothills of Spain against small fascist units, sometimes from trenches, sometimes hand-to-hand.
Initially frustrated by the small prospect of any military success, and the large prospect of dying a purposeless death, Orwell observed his fellow fighters. Embarrassingly young and inexperienced, they held on through pain and tragedy, and did not desert. Theirs was a brotherhood of survival in the midst of mud and gore, and of idealism and patriotism.
Orwell and his wife later fled Spain, in fear of both Stalinists and fascists, but regretful at leaving an historic and romantic struggle behind. Too historically close to these events at the writing of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell would later chart the course of totalitarian politics allegorically in Animal Farm and as prophetic fiction in 1984. Perhaps, like the mature Solzhenitsyn, he came to realize that a utopian struggle that destroyed instruments of due process and representation is irresistible honey to charismatics of a psychopathic bent.♦
Peter Elliffe is a New Zealander by birth. He graduated from the University of Sydney, majoring in philosophy, reading the Frankfurt School and German Idealism. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and three of his six children, having met the Unification Church in 1988.