Critical Context

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 730

Although it is easy to criticize the short-term political judgments found in Homage to Catalonia, it is, in a sense, unfair to do so. If the Orwell who left Spain was a different man from the Orwell who had arrived there, the Orwell of the late 1940’s was also a different man from the one who had written Homage to Catalonia. The account, like a snapshot, captures for all time one moment of that process of growth and change with which Orwell groped toward the elaboration of a clear and consistent political philosophy. The end product of that process, which began long before Orwell’s Spanish experience, would be his two great works of political fiction; the fable Animal Farm (1945) and the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

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Under the influence of his direct observation of colonial oppression as an imperial policeman in Burma in the 1920’s and of his awareness of the suffering of working-class Englishmen during the Depression, Orwell had, by 1936, come to incline towards a Socialist viewpoint. Prior to his Spanish experience, however, he had been neither doctrinaire in his views nor especially hostile to the Communist Party. In the Road to Wigan Pier (1937), an account of his visit to an English industrial town, Orwell had criticized English Socialists of all varieties for their dogmatism and lack of understanding of the English working class; he bore no special animus against the Communists. In the short run, Orwell’s Spanish experience which made him a fierce anti-Communist, also converted him to an ardent faith in revolutionary Socialism. Yet, the experience also planted the first seeds of doubt, seeds that would germinate in the decade after Homage to Catalonia was first published.

With the coming of World War II in 1939, the tension in Orwell’s thinking between internationalism and patriotism was firmly resolved in favor of the latter: He wholeheartedly supported England in its struggle against Nazi Germany. For some years after 1938, Orwell maintained his commitment to revolutionary Socialism. As late as 1940, he argued that Great Britain must undergo a Socialist revolution if it were to have any hope of defeating Germany. By the end of World War II, however, there was a fading of Orwell’s earlier simplistic faith in the Socialist vision and a greater awareness of the complexity of social and political questions.

Animal Farm was the story of animals who take over the farm from its human master only to see the pigs establish themselves as a new elite. The fable expressed both Orwell’s loss of faith in the efficacy of revolution in bringing about liberating social change and his growing doubt about whether a mere change in economic institutions could bring about the moral transformation necessary if a better social order were to be established. His last work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, painted a dismal picture of a future world dominated by all-powerful totalitarian states that suppress the truth and rewrite history for their own purposes. The bleak view of the future undoubtedly drew on his memories of Republican Spain, where the Spanish Communists had suppressed the truth about the POUM. At the same time, this view of the future reflected a pessimism about human nature quite at variance with the optimism manifested in the concluding chapter of Homage to Catalonia.

Homage to Catalonia must be read in the context not only of Orwell’s development as a thinker over time but also of the British and American intellectual world of the 1930’s. Orwell’s enthusiasm for the Socialist ideal of a classless society and his expressed hope that such an ideal might be realized in Republican Spain reflect the discontent with the existing economic order so common among intellectuals during the Depression decade of the 1930’s.

Yet if Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in some ways reflects the times in which it was written, in some ways it goes beyond them. Homage to Catalonia is a milestone in the evolution of British and American liberal intellectual opinion away from that admiration for the Soviet Union and Stalinism which had characterized it in the 1930’s. Because of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell shares the honor, with the Hungarian-born writer Arthur Koestler, of being one of the first left-wing writers to warn his fellow liberal intellectuals that totalitarianism could be found on the Left as well as on the Right, in Stalinist Russia as well as in Nazi Germany.

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