September 29, 2005
A State of Affairs Worth Fighting For
Prompted by Buck’s “Nordic Nations Excel at Productivity”, I recalled a paragraph from what I consider George Orwell’s best book, Homage to Catalonia.
This was in late December, 1936, less than seven months ago as I write, and yet it is a period that has already receded into enormous distance. Later events have obliterated it much more completely than they have obliterated 1935, or 1905, for that matter. I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-wallkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou,’ and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos días.’ Tipping had been forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from an hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trains and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of peopple streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the workers’ side; I did not realize that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.
In short, a situation of overt class warfare, very much like that in the United States today, but with roles (dare one say moralities?) reversed.
Posted by Chuck Dupree at September 29, 2005 01:24 AM
Thanks for posting that, Chuck. I've never read Homage to Catalonia, but I'm going to have to go find a copy now.
Thanks for the thanks, qubit.
Mayhap Martha has a comment or an observation. She's really the Orwell expert.
"Homage" is indeed a good book. It also contains a serious clue to the secret of the rise of the British Empire, of which Orwell was one of the last and finest products.
I speak of Orwell's consistent and totally unselfconscious inclusion, in Homage's lengthy sections on the privations and horrors of trench warfare, of "milkless tea" along with such things as gangrene, TB, starvation, endless mud, mortar fire, flesh-eating rats and the like.
When you are up against a race that has the fortitude to worry -- and worry seriously, not in an ironic or sarcastic way at all -- about "milkless tea" during war, you have a problem. Anybody worrying about the lack of milk for tea has a sense that the future includes a solution to the tragic milk situation, that is, a sense that the future includes victory, and is a dangerous opponent indeed. Indomitable.
Thanks for asking. I think everyone should go read Homage to Catalonia. No time to comment in detail but NB that famous hair-raising paragraph is a first impression, and later in the story Orwell becomes disillusioned about the completeness of the supposed transformation.
Joel and I did an H to C photo essay last year after an Orwell-themed visit to Spain. See http://www.netcharles.com/orwell/pics/spain.htm .
I also want to say that it is scary and bad and dangerous to talk about "a race that..." does anything collectively. People are people, sometimes brave, sometimes not. Cultures differ, sure, but culture is one thing and personal character is something else and "race" is a pretty arbitrary label when you come down to it. Attributing character traits to members of "a race" has really scary implications. I'm just back from three days of traveling with an octogenarian couple who were imprisoned by the Japanese American Internment & am hence very much reminded that in the 1940s the responsible govt. figures justified locking up all people of Japanese descent, regardless of their individual actions or loyalties, with claims about indelible racially determined character traits -- e.g. General DeWitt's famous line, "a Jap is a Jap."
I think Martha's dead on about the use of the word "race". But I also think Wayne makes an excellent point about a group of people with a confidant vision of the future.
Martha is, as usual, correct about Orwell's later disillusionment. But his enchantment is also meaningful. He saw something that inspired him. It turned out to be at least partly a mirage, but that mirage was, I claim, based on archetypal goals and values. We on the left, even those of us on the extreme left, should not be intimated by values discussions. Our values, to paraphrase Boykin, are bigger than theirs.
This is a good one, recently attributed to Orwell though published under a pseudonym in 1943.
"...The inability of mankind to imagine happiness except in the form of relief, either from effort or pain, presents Socialists with a serious problem. Dickens can describe a poverty-stricken family tucking into a roast goose, and can make them appear happy; on the other hand, the inhabitants of perfect universes seem to have no spontaneous gaiety and are usually somewhat repulsive into the bargain. But clearly we are not aiming at the kind of world Dickens described, nor, probably, at any world he was capable of imagining. The Socialist objective is not a society where everything comes right in the end, because kind old gentlemen give away turkeys. What are we aiming at, if not a society in which 'charity' would be unnecessary? We want a world where Scrooge, with his dividends, and Tiny Tim, with his tuberculous leg, would both be unthinkable. But does that mean we are aiming at some painless, effortless Utopia? At the risk of saying something which the editors of Tribune may not endorse, I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue...."
P.S. No, I don't think 1936 Spain was similar to, nor a mirror image of, our present U.S. situation. It was just different. By 1936, civil society had been in a state of breakdown in Spain for quite a few years -- the Hugh Thomas history of the Spanish Civil War is a big help in understanding that bigger picture. And there were local specifics that just seem strange from this distance, e.g. that Spanish "left" politics were tied in closely with anti-clericalism, and that a lot of what the Spanish left had to rebel against was really feudalism, and that leftist political parties seem to have had specific ethnic as well as ideological loyalties. And this was all pre-Gandhi: I don't think nonviolence was even understood to be a possible political goal or method in 1930s Europe. 'Twas in another lifetime. They did things differently there. The story is food for thought, and H to C is a good story and a well-told one. But I would beware of direct analogies.