Homage to Catalonia: the working class in the saddle

In a series of articles marking the anniversary of General Franco’s military coup against the Republican government of Spain Colin Revolting revisits George Orwell’s masterpiece of revolutionary reportage.

'Homage to Catalonia' (1938) by George Orwell, 1984 Penguin Books reprint. Cover illustration by Christopher Corr. Image: John Keogh

‘Homage to Catalonia’ (1938) by George Orwell, 1984 Penguin Books reprint. Cover illustration by Christopher Corr. Image: John Keogh

Homage to Catalonia is probably the most exciting, inspiring and insightful political book I’ve ever read. This year I re-read it in the very squares and streets of Barcelona where much of the action happens. I clearly remember the thrill of reading it as a teenager on the train to a boring office job. I wasn’t alone – all our crowd read it, passing around the same battered paperback. An indication of its influence on us is that we named our first squat in honour of the book: New Catalonia (we were teenagers, we had the right to be pretentious).

Orwell’s excitement at what he saw in Spain in 1936, which he transmits to us through the text, is neatly captured in one of the book’s best-known lines:

“It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle.”

In the book Orwell grapples with the big issues of the 1930s – issues which still resonate 80 years later: how to combat the threat posed by fascism, which sought to crush working class organisation; which tactics and strategies to adopt to further the cause of revolution; and whether anarchists, communists and socialists could strive together in the quest for socialism.

These questions had very real and life changing consequences at the time, not just for Spain but across the western world. The insurgent fascist army led by General Franco was rolling across the country and the Republican forces were attempting to hold them back:

“For the first few months of the war Franco’s real opponent was not so much the Government as the trade unions. As soon as the fascist rising broke out the organized town workers replied by calling a general strike and then by demanding – and, after a struggle, getting – arms from the public arsenals. If they had not acted spontaneously and more or less independently it is quite conceivable that Franco would never have been resisted. There can, of course, be no certainty about this, but there is at least reason for thinking it.”

Fascism had already triumphed in Italy and Germany and anti-fascists were actively battling with Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (the decisive Battle of Cable Street wasn’t until October). So when the Spanish workers rose against Franco anti-fascists across the world cheered and within months many had travelled to Spain to join the revolutionary resistance. Eric Blair (Orwell’s real name) was among them.

Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936, five months after the Spanish revolution began. He had planned to merely observe events but almost immediately he joined up to fight “because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do”. He succinctly captures those early days bursting with expectation and exhilaration:

“In the various centres of revolt it is thought that three thousand people died in the streets in a single day. Men and women armed only with sticks of dynamite rushed across the open squares and stormed stone buildings held by trained soldiers with machine-guns. Machine-gun nests that the Fascists had placed at strategic spots were smashed by rushing taxis at them at sixty miles an hour.”

Orwell was determined to show that what was occurring in Spain was, in addition to being a civil war and a war against fascism, the beginning of a revolution:

“[I]n the big towns of eastern Spain the Fascists were defeated by a huge effort, mainly of the working class, aided by some of the armed forces (Assault Guards, etc.) who had remained loyal. It was the kind of effort that could probably only be made by people who were fighting with a revolutionary intention – i.e. believed that they were fighting for
something better than the status quo. Even if one had heard nothing of the seizure of the land by the peasants, the setting up of local Soviets, etc., it would be hard to believe that the Anarchists and Socialists who were the backbone of the resistance were doing this kind of thing for the preservation of capitalist democracy, which especially in the Anarchist view was no more than a centralized swindling machine.”

His links with the Independent Labour Party in the UK led Orwell to join the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification). The POUM was not connected with either the reformist or communist Internationals. He describes his experience of being amongst fellow revolutionaries:

“The Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society… one got, perhaps a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like… I spent much of my time in the militia in bitterly criticizing the POUM ‘line’, but I never got into trouble for it.”

tmp_27075-land-and-freedom-1995-04-g-964722451

‘Land and Freedom’ (1995) directed by Ken Loach and written by Jim Allen

Land and Freedom, Ken Loach’s brilliant film depiction of the hope and bitter betrayal of the revolution, owes much to Orwell’s story and analysis. The role of women in the revolution is made particularly clear in the film. For instance among the first wave of revolutionary fighters men and women meet as equals on the front line. But as the social democrats and communists gain control the women are forced out of those positions and into being medics and cooks.

What of Britain’s involvement? The claim is that ‘the temperament of the British’ would never accept fascism and of course that the second world war was fought against fascism. However the government of the day failed to support Republican Spain and actually sent gunboats to Barcelona when it appeared that there would be a revolutionary uprising in the city.

When I first read Homage to Catalonia, during the battles against the National Front of the late 1970s, it was the vivid description of fighting fascists from trenches carved into hard stony hills that gripped me – something of an adventure story interspersed with political analysis which Orwell suggests you can “skip” if you wish. Re-reading it this year it was the chapters that explain the political and physical battles within the revolution that I found most riveting. Whilst writing in a clear, sober and persuasive style, being as “objective as possible” as he says, Orwell wrote as an active participant . Referring to the great divide between the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary left across the world he says, “The only hope is to keep political controversy on a plane where exhaustive discussion is possible”.

From experience I find that in the grip of political activity – whether a protest action, a campaign or a conflict at work – the implications of opinions and decisions have a far greater importance. Much of what I have learnt through reading, discussion and meetings has been tested, confirmed or found wanting through the activity and application of those ideas and theories. This for me is one of the things which makes Orwell’s book so good. He is actively involved, he is actively engaged in the debates and decisions and actively learning from the experiences of himself and others around him.

Orwell wrote his account six months later, after his personal involvement was brought to an abrupt end when he received a neck wound. As the counter-revolution extinguished the hopes of the revolutionaries for a better Spain he escaped, narrowly avoiding probable imprisonment and possibly worse.

Orwell’s interpretation of the trajectory of the revolution represented a significant but minority position in Spain at the time. An even smaller proportion of the international left shared his analysis and his account was refused by left publishers at the time. But by observing and analysing in such a clear, honest and engaging way, unsullied by Stalinism and reformism, it is Orwell’s account of the revolution and counter-revolution that has stood the test of time and continues to influence anti-fascists and revolutionaries 80 years later.

The tragic ending of this story is well known. But how it happened and whether it could have been avoided is what this book brilliantly portrays and analyses. As Orwell writes when he returns to Barcelona from the battle front, “The Stalinists were now in the saddle…”

For more on the anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, click here to read Andy Durgan’s article on the revolutionary war

There are 4 comments

  1. Brian Parkin

    This is a lovely read Colin. Of course Orwell is a highly problematic and much disputed over writer on the left- even to this day. reading his earlier essays and novels, I always got the idea that he never really understood the working class or its potential as a conscious agent for historical change. Until Barcelona Orwell’s championship of workers is based on a majority class being forever denied a ‘fair crack of the whip’. He sees them as hapless victims and himself in the role of a Tribune representing the grievances of an inarticulate Plebian mass. Consequently Orwell was- and remained- incapable of developing a critique of capitalism wherein the working class as the exploited are capable of deriving power by the unique position they occupy in the production of value. But what Orwell does derive from his experience in Spain is the innately democratic will of the working class once it throws off the shackles of the bourgeois state. It is his account of the sheer vibrancy of that democratic spirit and the way it both mobilises and challenges and liberates men and women who often, and quite inadvertently, find themselves the key component in the changing course of history. I experienced the beginnings of that process in Portugal in 1974 and it is that exhilarating chaos of that liberation I will never forget. Our day will come.

  2. jake

    Orwell was a snitch, he worked for the services and his fiction is a source of anti communism. Not surprising to see the ultra leftist RS21 promote anti communism. The revolution was not betrayed by the Stalinists as the Poum and Anarchists did not present any real alternative.

    Trotsky also flip flopped on Spain, which you don’t mention.

Leave a Reply