Stephen's Reviews > Homage to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
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's review
Aug 03, 2009

it was amazing
Read in June, 2009

HEADLINE: For students, here the politics is explained.

For you students who have this great book imposed upon you in a syllabus, here is the best help I can give you with regard to Chapters V and XI, which are in some editions included only as Appendices.

It is interesting to note that at the outset Orwell himself was nonplussed by the alphabet soup of the political situation in Spain. At first he was at a loss when confronted with the idea of right wing communism as you probably are. It was only as he became aware that he was every bit as much in danger of being killed by the “Communists” as he was of being killed by Fascists that he became educated.

That aspect of the book is dense when one first encounters it. No doubt about it. This is not Orwell's fault because he explains it about as clearly as it could be explained. I think the problem arises in part out of the simplistic preconceptions about the Spanish Civil War that we bring to the book even now. Orwell is still trying to get us straightened out in our thinking.

Far be it from me to sound as if I am trying to be helpful to Orwell. Nonetheless and for what it is worth, I think his explanation would have been immeasurably clearer if he had used the term “Stalinist” every time he describes the P.S.U.C. rather than “Communist.” The reason that he did not is perhaps that the term “Stalinist” was not in quite as wide a usage then as it is today.

The distinction is simply this. Stalinists placed the interests of the Soviet Union first and foremost. The ideals of socialism held a very distant second place to that. In fact it was Leon Trotsky's view, simplistically put, that Stalinists really did not give a shit about international socialist ideals at all and in fact considered them anathema.

Therefore, when you are reading, try mentally substituting the word “Stalinist” for the word “Communist” whenever you encounter it. In those few instances where that substitution would lead to an inaccurate reading, the context will clearly tip you off.

It was in the vital interest of the Soviet Union at the time to have strong alliances with capitalist democracies for the purposes of its own defense. The Spanish Republic, the government that Franco was attempting to overthrow by military coup, was a capitalist democracy. Another capitalist democratic ally is exactly what the Stalinists wanted in Spain. They did not want a revolution, be it anarchist or socialist. It was the Stalinists who were truly defending the existing capitalist democracy.

Obviously, the Stalinsts also deeply appreciated that a Franco government in Spain would not be an ally of the Soviet Union.

Therein is where the three-way aspect of this conflict comes in. Contemporaneously, with the hostilities between the army and the established Republic, the anarchists and labor groups started a true left-wing revolution that ultimately would have done away with the Republic, a capitalist democracy. . . .and the Roman Catholic Church in Spain, by the way.

The tricky aspect of the situation arose out of grim necessity. The true left-wingers, the anarchists and labor groups who were in the midst of staging their revolution, and their enemies the Stalinists were forced into an extremely uneasy cooperative effort in fighting Franco. Had there been no Franco, the Spanish Civil War would have been a two-way conflict between the left-wing anarchists and labor groups on one side and the capitalist democratic Republic and Stalinists on the other. Maybe.

I have read these sections of the book many times in order to get this through my head, but I gladly stand ready to be corrected on any of it.

The lesson of the book, by the way, is: Pay attention to politics. Politics can get you killed.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Kevin (new) - added it

Kevin McMahon I'm not a student but thanks for the explanation it really helped when reading the appendices.

Stephen Those were kind words, Kevin. One encounters kind words so seldom in today's world. Thank you for stopping by.

Cole Great explanation of an often misunderstood section of one of Orwell's most interesting (in my opinion) books. I feel like a better understanding of the political and military alliances of the Spanish Civil War - which acted, I think, as a microcosm of Western politics to come - is very useful when decoding the undercurrents of political movements even today.

Sam D Thanks for writing all this. I'm about 2/3 of the way through the book, and although I feel I understand most of the politics, this is certainly helpful!

Stephen Cole and Sam D, thank you for these kind comments.

message 6: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "The lesson of the book, by the way, is: Pay attention to politics. Politics can get you killed."


Aaron Million Great distillation of the murkiness that surrounds that war. Thanks!

Limo Lamo Yeah, it's indeed important to bear in mind that the Stalinist were not internationalist. In being so they were essentially not communists either. They suppressed many foreign would be revolutions, probably for the reason that they needed those capitalist countries as trading partners. Quite ironic, but for this reason (the reason that they were so active in the market) they should be regarded as State Capitalist. Around the time of the book being written, people were starting to hear about labour camps (gulags) as well as see the stalinists efforts to suppress foreign movements, in 1956 when the stalinist suppressed what could have been a successful revolution in Hungary it was realize by the left how far the USSR have devolved. almost every communist at this stage tore up their party membership card and many communist shifted to the right or towards anarchism.

I would say that in reading Orwell, its important to realize his criticism of authoritarianism, (more apparent in 1984 and Animal Farm). He was extremely critical of the idea of the vanguard party. And as a left libertarian probably held the view that all forms of authority should be justified.

Gary Thanks, Steve: that's a very helpful review - and I haven't been a student for 30 years!!

message 10: by Joshua (new) - added it

Joshua Knechtel Pretty great summary, and how I now somewhat understand things. FWIW, I haven't read this yet, its on my to-read, but I had to read up (wiki, etc) about the SCW when reading For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Jamie Baldock cheers for that summary - extremely helpful

Larissa Troitino Great explanation! Thank you!

Larissa Troitino Great explanation! Thank you!

Michael Great summary, makes perfect sense to me so far, I'm away to tackle the indices now. Thank you!

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