Homage to Catalonia | Study Guide


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Homage to Catalonia | Themes


Human Decency

At the start of Orwell's time in Spain, he encounters an immensely likeable Italian militiaman. They can barely communicate, having no language in common. But Orwell sees in the man's face a willingness to lay his life down for a friend, and he is moved by the man's essential decency. At the end of Orwell's time in Spain he is offered a handshake by a man who is in many ways his enemy, a government official who knows Orwell belonged to the now-illegal POUM militia. In these and other encounters throughout Homage to Catalonia, Orwell shows he believes that human decency is more important than political analysis or even political parties.

Looking back on his time in Spain, Orwell realizes he was somewhat naive when he first arrived. If he had been asked why he was in Spain, Orwell tells readers, he would have said, "To fight against Fascism." If he had been asked what he was fighting for, he would have said "common decency." Later he realizes the Spanish Civil War was much more than a fight against fascism; it was also a struggle for power within Spain. So Orwell grows out of his initial, naive understanding of why he is in Spain. But he never recants his belief in what he is fighting for; to Orwell, common decency matters more than politics.

Socialist Ideals

Orwell has many embittering experiences in the Spanish Civil War. He sees propagandists tell lies about his comrades in arms, and he sees communists fighting to suppress the revolution. He also learns there is another war going on, besides the one against the fascists; there is a vicious struggle, within the Republican side, for control of Spain. And there are still more disillusionments. When Orwell first arrives in Barcelona, he thinks he is seeing a city where "the working class was in the saddle." Later he realizes this impression was partly an illusion; wealthy people were just biding their time before they felt free to parade their privileges once again. Despite all these disillusioning experiences, Orwell comes away from the war still believing in socialist ideals.

Orwell prizes egalitarianism, human decency, and generosity, and he sees these in socialism. (He is not too particular about political labels, though he tends to describe himself as a socialist.) Despite all its problems, he believes the Spanish Civil War offered "a foretaste of Socialism," and that has made it worthwhile. Under socialism, Orwell says, the usual motives for human behavior, "snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss ... simply ceased to exist." This foretaste of socialism did not last, Orwell admits. It was swept under a tide of geopolitical machinations, an "enormous game that is being played over the whole surface of the earth." Even though it was temporary, Orwell says, everyone who experienced that temporary socialism had to admit they "had been in contact with something strange and valuable."


In Orwell's novel 1984 (published in 1949), a torturer in a totalitarian society pressures the main character, Winston, to falsely state two plus two equals five. Winston protests, "How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four." In the Spanish Civil War Orwell was not tortured, but he was bombarded with propaganda that contradicted the plain evidence in front of his eyes. In government propaganda, victories won by the militia were credited instead to the Popular Army, a sleek, well-fed lot who had spent most of the war in the rear, training. In government propaganda, Orwell's comrades in arms are said to be "Fascists, traitors, murderers, cowards, [and] spies." There is an element of illogic in the propaganda, and an element of blatant lying. The POUM militiamen was formed to fight fascism, not aid it. The Popular Army had been far from the front during the battles it supposedly won.

Orwell comes to see distance from the war is crucial to propaganda making, and perhaps to propaganda believing. At the front things are clear: the fight is against fascism, and everybody on the antifascist side is a comrade in arms. But farther from the front, the truth about the war gets murkier. "War-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting," Orwell observes.

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