George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia
This is Orwell's account of the six months or so that he spent in Spain fighting, or intending to fight, or recovering from fighting, on the Republican side of the Civil War. (In case your history is as hazy as mine, that was the side of the left-wing government, in opposition to the right-wing forces of Franco.) He puts the Catholic reader in the uncomfortable position of sympathizing with a soldier in a cause devoted to the destruction of the Church, and who is at very best indifferent to the killing of Catholics, including priests and nuns, and the demolition and desecration of churches. Moreover, he is more or less universally and justly acknowledged to be a great truth-teller and an important writer; he can't simply be dismissed as an unprincipled leftist.
One approach is to treat the book as the work of art that it is. Reasonably classifiable as journalism and memoir, it transcends the former category because it remains, three-quarters of a century after its initial publication, interesting for its own sake and not only as a document of its time. When the Spanish Civil War has become a bit of history of little contemporary relevance, Homage to Catalonia will still be read by non-historians. One need know little of the larger circumstances of the war, or of its rights and wrongs, to be interested in the events recounted and the man recounting them. It is a straighforward narrative of the author's experience, and its simple unornamented prose may appear at first glance to be merely functional, but such clarity and easy flow don't happen by accident.
Orwell's position as an Englishman among Spaniards makes for an engaging perspective. He is in many ways an almost stereotypical Englishman, or rather a certain kind of Englishman, one of the imperial and military sort, which by birth and early training he was: practical, orderly, at once impatient and indulgent of the foibles of the natives: "As usual, Spanish standards of marksmanship had saved me." He speaks of fear and danger with classic reserve, detachment, and understatement:
The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detal.
Having been shot and believing he was bleeding to death, he says:
My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well.
Although he was on the front lines for some months, the situation was something of a stalemate, with Republican and Nationalist positions separated by hundreds of yards and engaged mainly in desultory and ineffective sniping and shelling. There is in fact only one instance of real close combat in the story, one in which he remembers calling out to someone "This is war! Isn't it bloody?" Mostly his experience at the front consisted of boredom, cold, lice, and filth, all of which he renders very vividly. Taken simply as a well-written memoir, the book is worth reading.
And the Catholic can also take it as history, and as a testimony to the situation of the Church in Spain (and probably in all of Catholic Europe) with regard to the working class. How did it come about that the institution which ought to have worked to aid and protect the poor was, in the eyes of those same poor, so often seen as a tool of the oppressor? I suppose it must in fact have been, at least to some extent, and a scandalous extent, the tool of the oppressor. Orwell says little directly about this, but what he does say is revealing:
It struck me that the people in this part of Spain must be genuinely without religious feeling--religious feeling, I mean, in the orthodox sense. It is curious that all the time I was in Spain I never once saw a person cross himself; yet you would think such a movement would become instinctive, revolution or no revolution.... To the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon, the Church was a racket pure and simple.
Never once? That's hard to believe, and yet there is no reason to think that Orwell is not telling the truth. He also remarks on the almost complete lack of religious texts and symbols on gravestones which long pre-date the revolution. At any rate it is not surprising that this close association of the Church and an oppressive social order helped to produce the over-reaction of liberation theology.
In immediate-post-revolutionary Barcelona, Orwell found an egalitarian society which he found greatly attractive: everyone dressed more or less alike, no one bowed or cringed before anyone else, and a genuine sense of community cooperation seemed to be the organizing principle. This did not last long, of course, and the Catholic reader is likely to suspect that it could not have lasted long, mankind being what it is.
But the specific causes which brought about the end had a lasting influence on Orwell, and are still significant today. The latter part of the book relates the intramural fighting on the left which resulted in the POUM ("Workers' Party of Marxist Unification") with which Orwell was affiliated being purged, and Orwell himself making a hasty dash for England a few steps ahead of the police. In brief, what happened was that the international Communist party, controlled by the Russians, took steps to suppress the revolutionary parties in Spain, because a thoroughly entrenched and thoroughly socialist government there was not at the time in the best military interests of the Soviet Union. Suddenly a propaganda campaign painted Orwell's confederates as "Trotskyists," no better than actual Fascists, and people began to disappear. The bold and shameless lying by which this was effected made a deep impression on Orwell, and is a clear influence on his later work.
Like many an Anglo-American leftist before him, Orwell wanted to take refuge in the law.
All the while, though I was technically in hiding, I could not feel myself in danger. The whole thing seemed too absurd. I had the ineradicable English belief that 'they' cannot arrest you unless you have broken the law. It is a most dangerous belief to have during a political pogrom.
But the law of Spain, much less the law of revolutionary Spain, was not the law of England. I was reminded of the words spoken by someone or other in A Man for All Seasons: "This is not Spain." And further, of More's speech in the same play, to someone who would dispense with the law to get at the Devil:
And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!
This notion of law is not universal; it is one of the greatest things in the Anglo-American tradition, and we are in danger of losing it at the hands of people who are interested only in results--but that's a topic for another day.
Orwell's brand of socialism seems to have been benign and perhaps romantic: decentralized and democratic. I suppose he had read Chesterton, and I wonder what he thought of him. I sometimes suspect that the promising political movements promoted by such literary dreamers are doomed always either to be crushed or betrayed by the hard-headed, hard-hearted men who are most capable of seizing and using power.
A personal footnote: somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago I met a young man who spoke with pleasurable anticipation of killing Catholics, simply because they are Catholic. My best guess is that this was Christmas of 1999, because we spoke of the then-recent riots in Seattle protesting the World Trade Organization; I forget whether he had participated in them or only praised them. He was related by marriage to one of my cousins, and was at this family gathering more or less by accident, so I've never seen him again and can't remember his name. I made conversation with him, and drew him out on the subject of his revolutionary beliefs. He said it would be necessary to kill the enemies of the people, such as Catholics. I pressed him on that point--"Really? All the Catholics"--and he retreated a bit.
"Well, not the ordinary Catholics. Just the priests."
"Because they're oppressing the people."
What form he believed this oppression took, I don't know. I think I told him I was Catholic, but I can't remember for sure, because we were interrupted soon after that point in the exchange. He was, I would guess, in his late twenties at the time, so he would be forty or so by now, and I wonder if he still thinks killing all the priests, at least, would be a good idea.