Homage to Catalonia | Study Guide


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Homage to Catalonia | Context


Spanish Civil War


In a civil war, a single nation breaks into two or more conflicting sides. In the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), the two sides were the Republicans, a mix of left-wing parties that supported the newly elected government of Spain; and the Nationalists, who revolted against that government. Parties and organizations on the Republican side included communists, anarchists (antigovernment rebels), and trade unions. Individuals on the Republican side were mainly urban workers, agricultural workers, and educated middle-class people. In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell fights on the Republican side. He joins the militia organized by the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification, an anarchist party.

The Spanish Civil War erupted in response to political conflicts in Spain. In 1934, among other labor actions, there was a strike by miners in Asturias, a region in northern Spain. This strike was brutally suppressed by the Spanish military under the command of General Francisco Franco (1892–1975). In 1936 Spain elected a popular front government by a narrow majority. Popular front is a strategy of uniting left-leaning parties into a coalition to overpower right-wing or fascist parties. Homage to Catalonia depicts the breakdown of the popular front strategy in the Spanish Civil War, culminating in infighting on the Republican side. Orwell points out that a popular front strategy is doomed because it is an "an alliance of enemies," and so it likely "must always end by one partner swallowing the other."

The country was polarized by the election. Left-wing parties believed they were the last stronghold against fascism, and right-wing parties saw the Republican government as overrun by revolutionary radicals. The fascist Falange Party instigated street fighting after the election, and a group of young generals—Emilio Mola, Manuel Goded Llopis, and Francisco Franco—conspired against the Republican government.

Outbreak of War

The military uprising against the Republicans began in a Spanish garrison in Morocco, on July 17, 1936. The uprising soon spread, and it split the country into two warring factions. In Madrid and Barcelona the Republicans prevailed against the military conspiracy. Thus Orwell describes the jubilant, revolutionary atmosphere when he arrives in Barcelona in December 1936. By contrast, the towns of Old Castile, Zaragoza, Seville, Córdoba, Valladolid, and Cádiz went to the Nationalist side. In Homage to Catalonia Orwell is deployed in Zaragoza, then called Saragossa in English. Catalonia and the Basque provinces stayed on the Republican side. Orwell served alongside many Catalonian militia, and the title Homage to Catalonia is a tribute to the loyalty of that region's people and the bravery of its soldiers.

Because the regular army in Spain was damaged by the defection of so many key officers to the Nationalist side, the Republicans were initially defended by militias. A militia is a people's fighting force, called up in an emergency. Orwell fought in a militia alongside many Catalans and some Englishmen. The volunteers from around the world who came to the Republic's aid were also organized into militias, called the International Brigades. Later in the conflict the Republican government organized a Popular Army to replace the militias.

In the Republican zone, many farms and businesses were collectivized. This means they were no longer treated as private property; instead they were run as self-managed workers' collectives, in accordance with anarchist and communist ideals. Trade unions and local people's committees replaced many government functions. The militias, too, were democratically organized, as Orwell describes in Homage to Catalonia.

Infighting and Defeat

One goal of the popular front was to unite radical and moderate left-wing groups against fascism. This unity was fragile in Republican Spain, as Orwell learned to his dismay. The immediate revolutionizing of everyday life—collectivized factories, local self-governing neighborhood committees, collectivized farms—did not sit well with the Communist Party of Spain (Partido Comunista de España; PCE), which was loyal to the Soviet Union. The communists also thought the militias were too weak and disorganized to counter the fascists. In the Soviet Union, too, there was distrust of the revolutionary and anarchist ferment in Spain. As a communist body, the Soviet government was supposed to uphold the ideals of worldwide revolution and the establishment of classless societies everywhere on the globe. But the Soviet government, led by Joseph Stalin (1878–1953), wanted revolutions on Soviet terms, by those loyal to the Soviet Union and to Stalin.

In May 1937 tensions between the government (including the communists) and the anarchists and other leftist groups came to a head in Barcelona in May 1937. The government ordered Assault Guards, a unit of militarized urban police, to take the Telephone Exchange building. Until then it had been held by the CNT, a confederation of trade unions. The anarchists, believing the government had begun all-out war on them, responded with gunfire in the streets. Orwell was on leave in Barcelona at the time, and he joined the fighting on the anarchist side, along with the POUM.

The ensuing unrest of the Barcelona May Days split the Republican side. Communists, Republicans, and others ousted Republican government leader Francisco Largo Caballero, seeing him as in thrall to revolutionary communists. He was replaced with a socialist, Juan Negrín.

This process was not peaceful; as Orwell describes in Homage to Catalonia, communist militias like the PCE (Communist Party of Spain, Partido Comunista de España) fought against the POUM and against the anarchists. For Orwell this infighting represented a shocking betrayal of broadly socialist ideals. It is possible to get the impression from Homage to Catalonia that treachery caused the Republicans' ultimate defeat. However, the Nationalist side was better equipped, with arms from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy; it also had key individuals of the officer class on its side. In 1937 the Nationalist general Francisco Franco returned to Spain from Morocco to join the fighting on the Nationalist side. In 1939 the Republicans were defeated, and Franco went on to be dictator of Spain from 1939 to 1975.

Anarchism and Communism

19th Century

In Homage to Catalonia Orwell finds many different political parties in Republican Spain, particularly anarchist and communist. The political philosophies known as anarchism and communism did not emerge in isolation. In Europe in the 19th century there was a great ferment of innovative social thought, and many new egalitarian political philosophies arose. Some were utopian visions of society. Named after English writer Thomas Moore's Utopia (1516), utopian societies are those in which all conflict and suffering have been eliminated. American cotton spinner Robert Owen (1771–1858) thought people could reorganize their social institutions to eliminate the evils of society. French social theorist Charles Fourier (1722–1837) proposed that people should live in small agrarian collectives called phalanxes. Alongside the utopians were three broad types of new political philosophies: anarchism, socialism, and communism.

Anarchists believe government harms society and should be eliminated; social relationships untainted by domination are the anarchist ideal. The first person to call himself an anarchist was French political theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65). He believed society did not need laws, and once the laws were removed a natural social harmony would emerge. The Russian revolutionary Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) believed private property and inequality should be replaced by the free distribution of goods and services.

Communists believe society advances through conflict between social classes. One day the working class will prevail in those conflicts, ushering in a classless society called communism. The preeminent theorists of communism were the Germans Karl Marx (1818–83) and Friedrich Engels (1820–95). Both anarchists and communists want to do away with capitalism, the system under which workers must sell their labor power to exploitive capitalists. Socialism and communism are often used as synonyms. ("Aren't we all Socialists?" George Orwell asks in Homage to Catalonia.) Socialists believe in egalitarian ideals but not necessarily revolution or the elimination of capitalism.

These are very broad descriptions of anarchism and communism, and individuals do not always distinguish among these philosophies. Kropotkin referred to his ideas as "anarchist Communism." However, there was a significant split between anarchism and communism in the late 19th century. In 1864 an international federation of workers' parties called the First International was founded in London. This First International was originally called the International Working Men's Association. Both anarchists and communists belonged to the First International. However, the preeminent communist philosopher, Karl Marx, clashed with one of the preeminent anarchists, the Russian Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76). At an international meeting in the Hague in 1872, the First International split over the clash between Marx's communism and Bakunin's anarchism. This tension is the context for the conflict in Homage to Catalonia between the communists and the anarchists and the POUM on the other side. In Homage to Catalonia Orwell remains committed to socialism, but he is disheartened by the self-dealing and the treachery of the various leftist factions.

20th Century

In the 20th century some nations put communist and anarchist ideas into practice through revolution. The first and most significant of those was the Russian Revolution of 1917. Revolutionaries overthrew the government of Tsar Nicholas II (1868–1918), and the Bolshevik Party subsequently established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union. The fledgling republic was beset by multiple challenges, including civil war, World War I, decreased industrial production, and food shortages. The revolution did not immediately bring about a classless society, and the government undertook oppressive measures: a secret police was founded with unlimited power to imprison suspected "counter-revolutionaries." In 1921 anarchist sailors on the island of Kronstadt in the Soviet Union rebelled, and the rebellion was violently put down by the Bolsheviks. While the czarist government had long used prisons in Siberia, the Soviet Union established its first prison camp in 1923 on the Solovetsky Islands in Siberia.

Other revolutions and republics formed elsewhere. In 1918 Germany declared itself a socialist republic briefly, but the new republic was put down in 1919. In 1912 the 268-year reign of the Qing dynasty in China was replaced by a republic, which in 1949 became the People's Republic of China, organized along communist lines. In 1936 Spain elected a popular front government by a narrow majority, and this coalition included the Communist Party of Spain (PCE). By the time Spain declared its republic, the first premier of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), was dead and had been replaced by Joseph Stalin (1878–1953). Stalin continued oppressive measures, and he also oversaw a wave of violent land collectivization, forced migration, famine, and Siberian imprisonment.

In the early 20th century, communism—or socialism, to use the term George Orwell preferred—had fallen far short of its ideals in many ways. However, in Homage to Catalonia George Orwell explains he remained hopeful. He was scornful of "party-hacks and sleek little professors" who claimed "Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact." Despite socialism's failings, Orwell thought it was too easy for intellectuals to dismiss socialism. "There also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this," Orwell writes in Homage to Catalonia. Ordinary people, according to Orwell, were still willing to risk their lives for this other version of socialism founded on the "idea of equality" and of a classless society.


"To fight against Fascism," Orwell imagines himself answering when asked why he has come to Spain. Although the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War was not synonymous with fascism, the Nationalist side was deeply influenced by fascist ideology.

Fascism is a political ideology characterized by extreme nationalism, cultural conservatism, disregard for democracy, and a belief in natural social hierarchy. Fascism is opposed to political liberalism (the belief that government should protect individual freedom), and it is opposed to communism and anarchism. Some fascist regimes have coupled these characteristics with a belief in racial purity and racial superiority, as in Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime in Germany (1933–45). The fascist ideal is a single-party state in which all citizens serve the state; there is little difference between military and civilian life.

Fascism first emerged in early 20th-century Europe. Italy's Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) was the first fascist ruler. His National Fascist Party came to power in 1922 when they forced the abdication of Italy's king Victor Emmanuel III. In Germany in 1932 the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi Party, came to power with the election on August 19, 1934, of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) as chancellor of Germany. Other early 20th-century fascist parties had significant influence in Austria, Portugal, Greece, Croatia, and Norway. Asia and the Middle East also saw some fascist ideologies take root in the 20th century. In the United States, a white supremacist organization called the Ku Klux Klan showed some fascist characteristics. Fascists suffered a significant defeat in World War II, with Allied powers (including Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States) triumphing over the Axis powers (which included Germany, Italy, and Japan). After the war the Nazi Party was illegal in Germany. With the collapse of communism in 1989, however, neo-Nazi movements that embrace Nazi policies have arisen in Europe and the United States.

Spain's 20th-century Fascist Party, the Falange, never developed into a single-party state. Fascists were but one element of the many parties on the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War. Nonetheless, the war was seen, by both sides, as a crucial arena for the battle between communism and fascism. Followers of leftist ideologies throughout Europe and the Americas came to Spain as volunteers in the fight against fascism, and the communist government of the Soviet Union provided weapons to the Republican side. Fascist parties throughout Europe saw Republican Spain as in thrall to revolutionaries, and so Germany and Italy sent arms to the Nationalist side.

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