George Orwell is not like you or me.

Here’s George Orwell’s description of Barcelona early in the Spanish Civil War:

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 cafe 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-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal … Almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from an hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy … Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night … 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.

Orwell goes on to say that “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.”

It’s lucky Orwell is such a compelling storyteller, or I would have been obliged to stop reading Homage To Catalonia right there. This state of affairs, this chaotic, violent, graffiti-stained shambles, a half-wrecked city lorded over by Puritans with guns who’ve driven out (or worse) the priests and the “bourgeoisie” – this Orwell sees as “worth fighting for”? I understand that he was keen to fight fascism, and that in 1936 Spain was the one front where fascists could be fought. But who could blame an idealistic young leftist for arriving in Barcelona, taking a look around at the filth and the madness and the thuggish sloganeering, and concluding, “Not my fight”?

But this was the middle of the 1930s; one of those occasions when capitalism had managed to make itself look very bad – bad enough, perhaps, that it was possible for an intelligent person to convince himself that,

It is nonsense to talk of opposing Fascism by bourgeois “democracy”. Bourgeois “democracy” is only another name for capitalism, and so is Fascism; to fight against Fascism on behalf of “democracy” is to fight against one form of capitalism on behalf of a second which is liable to turn into the first at any moment. The only real alternative to Fascism is workers’ control.

(This is Orwell paraphrasing, semi-approvingly, the position of POUM, the Marxist faction whose militia he joined on arriving in Spain.)

Times were different. One clue is the business about the tips. (After being lectured for the sin of having tipped an elevator-boy, Orwell on his second visit to Barcelona months later, after the revolutionary fervor had faded, noticed that “[i]n a furtive indirect way the practice of tipping was coming back.”) Seventy years on, it’s hard to grasp a mindset where tipping is seen as a symbol of capitalist exploitation. I was raised to believe that in certain encounters, tipping was the correct thing to do; and I’ve always tipped waiters, taxi-drivers, and barbers, even when I was unemployed, even when, as has often been the case, the person receiving the tip was undoubtedly better off than I was. I recognise that the custom of tipping is nonsensical – why do we tip waiters in fancy restaurants but not the underpaid drones behind the counter at Wendy’s? But I can’t see how it would help the working poor if tipping were eliminated altogether; indeed, I doubt that unlucky elevator-boy at Orwell’s hotel was grateful for his manager’s intervention.

Similarly, when in my life waiters have failed to treat me as an equal, it has usually been because they saw me as beneath their station, not above it; and while many “shop-walkers” have introduced themselves to me by first name, I can’t think of any who’ve cringed before me, unless the empty politesse of greeting me with “Sir” is seen as a mark of subservience. I’m not crazy enough to say that class distinctions have disappeared, only that without benefit of revolution, we’ve reached a state in the development of our bourgeois democracy where class is far more fluid and complicated than Orwell and his contemporaries were capable of imagining.

So I’ve decided to cut Orwell some slack, as I finish off Homage To Catalonia. The world of 1936 was very different from our own, and it’s a testament to the vitality and immediacy of his writing that we can forget for a minute how very different Orwell is from us.

***

In May of 1937 fighting broke out in Barcelona between pro-Communist policemen and their nominal allies in the Marxist POUM and the anarchist CNT. Orwell describes an American doctor running up to him on the street:

“Come on, we must get down to the Hotel Falcón … The POUM chaps will be meeting there. The trouble’s starting. We must hang together.”

On the evidence of these lines (“chaps”, “we must hang together”), one might conclude that Orwell had never actually conversed with a living American. At any rate he had no feeling for how Americans talked. I’m guessing he rarely went to the movies.

M.

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