Homage to Catalonia | Study Guide

Orwell

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Homage to Catalonia | Chapter 8 | Summary

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Summary

George Orwell compares the experience of coming back to Barcelona after fighting on the front to an experience he once had in Myanmar ("Burma" in Orwell's day). Taking the train from the Burmese city of Mandalay up into the mountains, Orwell went from a warm, tropical climate to a chilly one in a matter of hours. Just so, the company's arrival in Barcelona confronts them with "the same abrupt and startling change of atmosphere." On the train, Orwell's company had persisted in the camaraderie, boisterousness, and egalitarianism of the front. But in Barcelona they find an atmosphere "alien and hostile" to ragged militiamen like themselves.

Months ago when Orwell first arrived in Barcelona, he had found a town in which "the working class was in the saddle." Now people in Barcelona have gone back to using formal modes of address; the wealthy once again dare to exhibit their finery while beggars throng the streets; and there is "no outward sign of working-class predominance." Orwell decides his previous impression was something of an illusion. Class divisions never went away; they just went underground, and now they are back.

Worse, the people of Barcelona have lost interest in the war and in revolution. Orwell proposes several reasons for this. Maybe it's Barcelona's distance from the front. Maybe it's that the revolution failed to really put the working class in control. Since they see no hope of real social change, people just want the war to end. Even "politically conscious" people are somewhat indifferent to the war; instead they are more aware of infighting within the Republican side.

To Orwell's dismay, a propaganda effort is underway, denigrating the militias and praising the Popular Army. The Popular Army is the replacement for the previous Spanish army, whose officer class had been too riddled with Nationalists and fascists to defend Republican Spain. The new Popular Army is more hierarchical than the democratically organized militias, and much better equipped. Orwell feels the injustice of it; the Popular Army trains with pistols in the rear, far from danger, while the ragged militiamen stake their lives on the front. Officially the Popular Army and the militias are integrated, but the propagandists twist this fact to their advantage. Many militia victories are falsely credited to the Popular Army.

Worst of all is the changed mood in Barcelona. Before, there were excited crowds cheering revolutionary victory; now there is "an unmistakable and horrible feeling of political rivalry and hatred." Everyone thinks the infighting is about to come to a head, especially the conflict between anarchists and communists.

Orwell gives a short sketch of the infighting. Catalonia had been granted autonomous status within Republican Spain; this was one of the reasons Catalonia had gone to the Republican side. Now the Generalidad (the government) of Catalonia is controlled by a communist party called the PSUC, an abbreviation for Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya or Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia. The PSUC was a branch of the Communist Party of Spain, abbreviated as the PCE. On the anarchist side were the CNT, a confederation of anarchist trade unions; the Friends of Durutti; and the POUM, the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista or Workers' Party of Marxist Unification.

According to Orwell, the Generalidad's priority at this time was to get weapons out of the hands of the anarchist CNT workers. At the same time the police had been brought back, after having lain low during the revolutionary heyday of self-governance and freedom. The police units are the Civil Guards and the Assault Guards.

Tensions increase, particularly after a series of high-profile murders. A well-known anarchist, Antonio Martín, is killed when a band of Carabineros, or militarized police, seizes the customs office. Also killed is Roldan Cortada, a member of the UGT, the Unión General de Trabajadores or General Union of Workers, a socialist confederation of trade unions. Cortada was presumably killed by someone from the CNT, the anarchist confederation of trade unions. Then a CNT man is "bumped off," or killed, presumably by someone in the UGT.

May Day is approaching, an international holiday in celebration of the working class. But tensions are so high that all the May Day demonstrations in Barcelona are canceled. Orwell is relieved. Had there been a May Day parade, he would have been obliged to march with the POUM. He does not want to get embroiled in a street fight or be picked off by a sniper while marching in a parade: "not my idea of a useful way to die," he confides.

Analysis

Because Orwell is a scrupulous reporter of the truth, he tries here to account for his subjective bias. When he describes the "abrupt and startling change in the atmosphere" in Barcelona between December 1936 and April 1937, he also puts his experience in perspective. Everyone else who visited Barcelona at intervals of a few months during the Spanish Civil War, Orwell says, had this same experience—no matter which months their two visits spanned. People who first came August and returned in January say the same as Orwell: "The revolutionary atmosphere had vanished."

The phenomenon of Barcelona's vanishing atmosphere is strange; at any two points in time—regardless of when—Barcelona exhibits a decline. What has changed? It could be a change in the perceivers; Orwell perhaps initially saw Barcelona through rose-colored glasses. His earlier impression was in some ways an illusion. Although everyone he saw in Barcelona in December 1936 seemed to be working class, many wealthy people were apparently going about in disguise at the time. Orwell's political analyses in the Appendixes suggest another answer. Barcelona's egalitarian utopia was always in decline from the start, as the various parties fought for dominance and the communists attempted to quash the revolution. From the beginning, revolutionary Barcelona was always tending toward less freedom and a return to older forms of domination.

The other change in atmosphere, besides Barcelona then and now, is the difference between the battlefront and the city. In a few days the difference will collapse, as battles erupt in the streets of Barcelona. But initially, as Orwell and his fellow militiamen enter Barcelona, they notice the enormous change in the atmosphere. The front is characterized by friendliness, generosity, and openheartedness—even between enemies. The city is characterized by mistrust, hostility, and treachery. Orwell will again experience this shift, this time in reverse, when he returns to the front after the street fighting in Chapter 10. There Orwell finds Assault Guards—the enemy of the POUM in Barcelona—simply treat him as a fellow Republican.

In this chapter Orwell also gives an overview of the different factions and parties on the Republican side. Many histories of the Spanish Civil War start with this "plague of initials," as Orwell calls it. But Homage to Catalonia is a firsthand account, not a scholarly work of history, and Orwell presents it from his point of view. Thus readers have seen Orwell's war so far, a straightforward contest between fascists and Republicans. Readers learn of the factionalism within the Republican side at about the same time Orwell does, in the spring of 1937.

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