By George Orwell
Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 initially with the intention of being a war correspondent, but soon enlisted with the POUM militia, a Socialist ally of the Republican government “because”, he explained “at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed like the only conceivable thing to do.”
The Catalan city was seething with revolutionary fervour, with newly collectivized workshops and stores, and unionist control over every aspect of life. Orwell depicts these early glimmers of egalitarianism through the visual space of the streets:
“Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt….
“Every shop and café had an inscription saying it had been collectivised… Waiters looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’ and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’.”
After some haphazard training Orwell was shipped off to the front. Compared to the Fascists, the cold and deprivation were more persistent enemies. He describes night-time sorties into no-man’s-land to scratch potatoes out of the dirt and risking snipers and mortars in order to gather a few splinters of firewood to keep warm.
Confined to trenches, poorly equipped and thrifty with ammunition, actual contact with Fascist troops was minimal. “This wasn’t a war, it was a bloody pantomime,” his British friends used to joke.
More common was the endless drift and boredom of guard duty and the occasional stray bullet. One of those bullets caught Orwell in the neck, partially destroying his vocal cords and narrowly missing his arteries. He candidly describes this as “an interesting experience”.
Those resisting Franco were by no means monolithic. A mixture of Anarchists, Stalinist Communists, small decentralized union collectives and an array of foreign militias all competed for influence. Propaganda campaigns were waged between the rival groups amidst suspicion of espionage and agents provocateur.
A deep ambivalence soon overtook Orwell’s romantic enthusiasm for the revolution as he witnessed factionalism deteriorate into outright violence. While he was convalescing in Barcelona, battle-fatigued and demoralised, the POUM was denounced as ‘Trotskist’ and in the pay of the Fascists and banned (both accusations were untrue). Orwell was now forced to fend for his life, sleeping in the streets as his fellow soldiers were imprisoned and killed by their former comrades.
In the morning Orwell would visit the barber shops and ‘shoe-blacks’, to clean himself up and spend the day masquerading as a bourgeois tourist. “It was queer how everything had changed.” he said. “Only six months ago, when the Anarchists still reigned, it was looking like a proletarian that made you respectable.” Finally he fled the revolution which he had come to defend - ossified and bureaucratised out of existence. As history would show, the Fascists eventually won.
Orwell was a man who not only displayed intellectual finesse, but who also made great sacrifices for his ideas. Yet, in spite of all he gave up in pursuit of a cause, he was forthright enough to see through - and speak up against - its dogma.
George Orwell was an idealist, but he also recognised the inevitability of power and how it could crush human freedom beneath the weight of ideology. Homage to Catalonia displays the judicious use of language and the insistence on simplicity and honesty that has helped Orwell's work to endure for so long.