After passing through the futuristic dystopian and totalitarian society presented in 1984, I decided to give one of George Orwell’s classics a go: Homage to Catalonia. Written in the form of an autobiographical novel, Orwell presents his days in the Spanish army, their unpreparedness and their fall into the hands of the Communists influences coming from Russia.
Here he brings to bear all the force of his humanity, passion and clarity, describing with bitter intensity the bright hopes and cynical betrayals of that chaotic episode: the revolutionary euphoria of Barcelona, the courage of ordinary Spanish men and women he fought alongside, the terror and confusion of the front, his near-fatal bullet wound and the vicious treachery of his supposed allies.
His days in the preparatory camp are marred by a comparison between the British forces and a bit of looking down on the Spaniards, who didn’t even know how to fire a gun before they went into battle. The political crisis and the war shine a new light on the life in the trenches. The rats are analysed, the mosquitoes and even the human louse.
“The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives chiefly in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of getting rid of him. Down the seams of your trousers he lays his glittering white eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of thier own at horrible speed. I think pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate thier pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war indeed! In war all solderies are lousy, at the least when it is warm enough. The men that fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae – every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.”
His days in the revolutionary force see him checking out the Fascist sides and the Socialista as well as the Communists. He sees where their interests are and knows he’s right when he sees how the expected democracy was not showing up even though the idealists wished for it.
“Except for the small revolutionary groups which exist in all countries, the whole world was determined upon preventing revolution in Spain. In particular the Communist Party, with Soviet Russia behind it, had thrown its whole weight against the revolution. It was the Communist thesis that revolution at this stage would be fatal and that what was to be aimed at in Spain was not workers’ control, but bourgeois democracy. It hardly needs pointing out why ‘liberal’ capitalist opinion took the same line.”
The book, besides the description of life in the army, also makes sure to analyse the political dogmas going around and pick the best bits and worst bits from all of them.
“Philosophically, Communism and Anarchism are poles apart. Practically—i.e. in the form of society aimed at—the difference is mainly one of emphasis, but it is quite irreconcilable. The Communist’s emphasis is always on centralism and efficiency, the Anarchist’s on liberty and equality.”