Homage to Catalonia
Harcourt, Inc., 1969
I do not have to tell you that Orwell was an amazing writer; 1984 is such a powerful and entertaining work that millions of people who rarely read at all can discuss that work in detail. Sadly, few individuals take the opportunity to read his other works. This book is a must read for those who wonder where Orwell's inspiration came from for his magnum opus and for those who still seriously contend that the Marxist view of history is correct.
Because 1984 was written after the fall of Nazi Germany, it is too easy to assume the horrid conditions described are in fact references to the Third Reich and such totalitarian regimes. Orwell was able to write such captivating descriptions because he had lived through many of the miseries he described, but as far as I know Orwell never stepped foot inside Nazi Germany or Stalin's U.S.S.R. His experience came fighting for the Spanish Republican forces in the region of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War (1936-9). Originally planning to merely report on the war, Orwell decided to volunteer with the P.O.U.M (Workers Party of Marxist Unification), which recruited militias to fight against the Nationalist forces (composed of religious conservatives, Fascists, monarchists, and other Right leaning forces) lead by Francisco Franco.
Despite being a Leftist himself, no one in the world has given harder hitting reviews to socialism and communism in practice than Orwell. The Republican forces were a hodge-podge of socialist, communist, and anarchist groups with their constituent labor unions that were usually supported by different left leaning foreign organizations and nations. Because the Soviet Union was the main supplier of arms for the Republicans, the P.S.U.C (leading communist group tied to Stalin) became the major power for the Left in Spain and promptly removed more revolutionary elements that opposed Stalin, such as Orwell's P.O.U.M. Many of the elements of internecine fighting and suspension of civil liberties that are familiar elements of 1984 are recorded first as history in Homage to Catalonia:
Ministry of Propaganda: Check
Official stories being changed: Check
Official enemies/friends being changed: Check
Leftist government putting their own desires ahead of the people: Check
People arrested in the middle of the night with no trial or even indictment: Check
Stagnant wars with better armed troops in the rear to prevent insurrection among fictional enemies: Check
Blue overalls for the workers: Check
Ill defined counter revolutionary philosophy lead by some shadowy figure (Trotskyism, Goldstein): Check
Police raiding homes and stealing every conceivable item: Check
Food and supply shortages: Check
This is a remarkable work, greater than his more famous fictional pieces. The Spanish Civil War is a complicated historical topic due to the fragmented nature of the parties involved and the difficulty of sorting out propaganda from realistic accounts. Orwell pulls no punches. While he served in the P.O.U.M., he acknowledges that this tints his view of the war, but largely resorts to only covering events he witnessed himself rather than positing guesses based on hearsay (when hearsay is used, it is clearly marked as such). A wonderful first hand account of this conflict. The descriptions of the "fighting" on the front is similar to that of most static conflicts, though I was surprised by the egalitarian nature of the P.O.U.M. and how well it seemed to hold together. Whether such a system could work in a more dynamic situation is more debatable.
The last sentence of this book was particularly prophetic, not just of England but of the entire Western World not already ensnared in Fascism.
The exit question I have after reading this book is: how will a classless society ever emerge from a proletarian revolution? Orwell wisely does not touch on this subject at all as his work is not a treatise on political or economic theory, but as someone who does study those subjects it is the question that dominates my mind once I finally put this book down. Marx never goes into any detail on how that unprecedented shift in power would occur; history shows leftist groups fighting and purging one another (along with millions of innocents) and establishing perpetual dictatorships of the politburos rather than of the people. The defense of communism in light of the last 100 years of butchery and misery in Marxist nations has been that true Marxism has never been attempted yet; this book furthers my believe that "true" Marxism cannot happen and that every attempt to create it will only create a dictatorship of whichever leftist group wins out.
What Others Have Said
The Brothers Judd gave this book an A