Thursday, November 10, 2005

Orwell, 'Homage to Catalonia'

I'd been meaning to read Homage to Catalonia for the longest time, mostly because I'm interested in the issue of long distance motivation - why do people like jehadis and ISM activists and George Orwell travel to far off places to fight, and possibly die? Disappointingly, there is very little in the book about what exactly Orwell's motivations were - he is incredibly vague about why he went off in the first place, but - to his credit - incredibly candid about being incredibly vague ('If you had asked me why I had joined the militia I should have answered: "To fight against Fascism", and if you had asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: "Common decency"', p. 47, my edition. ) Despite this, HTC turns out to be a stunningly delightful read in which I learn more than I'd ever hoped to.

Much of the book discusses extensively the internecine struggles within the political left, between Communists, 'Trotskyists' and Anarchists and how this often tended to overshadow the larger(?) struggle (the 'primary contradiction') vis-a-vis the Fascists. Anyone who wants to beef up on this could do no better than to read chapters 5 and 11, which Orwell very sweetly advises readers to avoid if they have no interest in party politics.

There are many touching passages on the experience of actually existing socialism, which Orwell speaks of as a chaotic and occasionally frustrating, but always strangely wonderful experience. Here is Orwell describing conditions within the militia he was fighting with (pp. 27, 28):

The essential point of the system was social equality between officers and men. Everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, and mingled on terms of complete equality. If you wanted to slap the general commanding the division on the back and ask him for a cigarette, you could do so, and no one thought it curious. In theory at any rate each militia was a democracy and not a hierarchy. It was understood that orders had to be obeyed, but it was also understood that when you gave an order you gave it as a comrade to comrade and not as superior to inferior. There were officers and NCOs, but there was no military rank in the ordinary sense; no titles, no badges, no heel-clicking and saluting. They had attempted to reproduce within the militias a sort of temporary working model of the classless society. Of course there was not perfect equality, but there was a nearer approach to it than I had ever seen or than I would have thought conceivable in times of war...In a workers' army discipline is theoretically voluntary. It is based on class-loyalty, whereas the discipline of a bourgeois conscript army is based ultimately on fear...

And even more touchingly, he writes of day to day civilian life in anarchist Civil War Spain (pp. 103-05):

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it...Many of the normal motives of civilised life - snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. - had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master...However much one cursed at the time, one realised afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word 'comrade' stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy 'proving' that Socialism means no more than a planned state capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the 'mystique' of Socialism, is the idea of equality' to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me...In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me.

Orwell writes almost blandly about the absolutely momentous events that he is an actor in - in part this may be because one cannot evaluate the momentousness of events contemporaneously. But there's an incredible detachment to the way he describes being hit by a bullet, for example ('The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail.', p. 185) And there is much humour scattered throughout the book, as when he describes Gaudi's Sagrada Familia (possibly Barcelona's most iconic landmark) as (p. 225)

a modern cathedral, and one of the most hideous buildings in the world. It has four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles. Unlike most of the churches in Barcelona it was not damaged during the revolution - it was spared because of its 'artistic value', people said. I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance...

And then he returns to (p. 231)

southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. 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...Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood...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 road of bombs

Written 1938. But beyond the specifics of what was actually happening in the Spanish Civil War, the book is fascinating for its insights into the nature of war in general (dear Niall Ferguson and Michael Ignatieff, I hope you're reading this, p. 65).

One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting...The people who wrote pamphlets against us and vilified us in the newspapers all remained safe at home, or at worst in the newspaper offices...all the usual war-stuff, from the libels of the inter-party feud, all the usual war-stuff, the tub-thumping, the heroics, the vilification of the enemy - all these were done, as usual, by people who were not fighting and who in many cases would have run a hundred miles sooner than fight.

And after dissing most of the major broadsheets on this score, he notes (dear Tony, I hope you're reading this):

I should like to make an exception of the Manchester Guardian. In connection with this book I have had to go through the files of a good many English papers. Of our larger papers, the Manchester Guardian is the only one that leaves me with an increased respect for its honesty.

And that, dear readers, is why my day always begins the way it does.

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