Homage to Catalonia

by George Orwell

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 875

Homage to Catalonia, although in many ways a controversial book, has generally been praised for its description of the common soldier’s experience of war. Orwell makes clear his belief that some ideals are worth fighting, dying, and even killing for. At the same time, the common soldier’s ambivalence about killing other human beings is reflected in his writing. Frequent expressions of his remembered impatience to get on with the job of killing Fascists are thus balanced by repeated assurances to the reader that his marksmanship was poor. The author never tries to glorify war. With his sharp reporter’s eye for the telling detail, Orwell gives the reader a feel not only for the inspiring sense of camaraderie among the soldiers but also for the dirt, cold, stench, lice, physical discomfort, and sheer fright that afflict even those soldiers who fight for a worthy cause.

In his description of his battle experiences in the winter of 1936-1937, of his wounding by a sniper, and of his harrowing life on the run from the police following the suppression of the POUM, Orwell often discusses in a cold, almost clinical, way events that must have been extremely painful and frightening. This deliberate refusal to indulge in melodrama is often effective in letting the reader imagine for himself just how bad things really were.

Homage to Catalonia is not merely a memoir of one man’s experience of war; it espouses a definite political point of view, one difficult for most of his contemporaries either to understand or to accept. Orwell’s political stance, as reflected in this book, was simultaneously anti-Franco and sharply critical of the Loyalist side and was both enthusiastically and even radically Socialist and strongly anti-Communist. Anticipating that the book would meet with disbelief and opposition from a wide section of its readership, Orwell adopted an unusual device to win over the skeptics: admitting his fallibility. Twice the author admits that his own view of events was limited, that he could not entirely avoid bias, and that he undoubtedly made some mistakes. Such a frank admission of the possibility of error has the paradoxical effect of strengthening rather than weakening the reader’s faith in Orwell’s honesty and trustworthiness as a historian.

Such a rhetorical device, although it may persuade many, does not persuade all. To be sure, nobody argues that the book is fiction: The names mentioned in the book are, it is conceded, those of real people. Some critics, while recognizing Orwell’s skill at re-creating his own experiences for the reader, have found fault with the conclusions that he draws from those experiences. Aside from adherents of Communism, most critics have accepted Orwell’s indictment of the methods used by the Spanish Communists in achieving the suppression of the POUM. There has been less acceptance, though, of his implied thesis that the Socialist revolution would have enjoyed lasting success in Spain if the Communist Party had not blocked it. Even some anti-Communist critics, such as the historian Raymond Carr, have vigorously challenged Orwell’s contention that carrying out the POUM program of putting social revolution first and relying on the kind of irregular militia favored by the POUM could have made the victory of the Republic over Franco more likely.

In a sense, Homage to Catalonia provides plenty of ammunition for such critics. Because of the dual nature of the book, as both a vehicle for a political message and a record of one individual’s experience, there are bound to be inconsistencies and contradictions within it. Orwell is honest enough to let these contradictions show; he was not, however, able to resolve them all at that time. Although Homage to Catalonia presents a coherent political message, it does not put forward a coherent political philosophy.

One inconsistency of which Orwell does not show awareness is that between the ardent and unqualified internationalism manifested in the early chapters and the heightened awareness of the virtues of his homeland shown in the final chapters. In the first chapter, Orwell contrasts the noble idealism of revolutionary Barcelona with the “hard-boiled, sneering civilization of the English-speaking races.” When in chapter 8 he recounts his experience of the egalitarianism of the workers’ militia, he compares it favorably to “the money-tainted air of England.” Later in the book, however, Orwell, recounting his flight from the Spanish police, compares Spanish legal procedures unfavorably with the protection of individual rights found under English law and contrasts the sectarian intolerance found in the Republic with the more tolerant political climate of his homeland. No attempt is made, however, to weigh the disadvantages posed by the crass materialism of English capitalist society against the benefits provided by England’s ordered liberty, nor does he ask himself if there might not possibly be some connection between these two phenomena.

Yet because Orwell’s shift in beliefs was motivated by his own experience and by his reactions to those experiences rather than by abstract reasoning he remained in some ways a naive idealist even when his Spanish adventure was over. It was only in the decade following his Spanish experience that Orwell would wrestle with the profound questions, about the nature of man and society that that experience had raised.

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