Animal Farm parodied; Orwell estate is not amused

Paul Flewers hatchet.job at virgin.net
Tue Nov 26 13:32:03 MST 2002


Unfortunately, I've sold all the copies of my pamphlet on Orwell, but it
should be going up on Bob Pitt's website before too long. In the meantime,
here's the chapter on Animal Farm (sans footnotes).

Paul F

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Animal Farm: Revolutionary Betrayal or Consummation?

THE Second World War entered a new phase after the German assault upon the
Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. One immediate result was that the Soviet Union
rapidly changed in people's perception from being a near-ally of Nazi
Germany into a staunch and respected ally of Britain and, after December
1941, the USA as well. The rehabilitation of Stalin and the Soviet Union was
not so much a return to the fellow-travelling days of the late 1930s, but
part of the wartime ideology in Britain. It went much further, with the
British government being obliged to give official approval to the Soviet
Union, an endorsement which was simultaneously fulsome and uneasy.

Whilst respect for the Soviet Union in its fight against Nazi Germany was to
some extent a refracted form of British patriotism - one account says that
'criticism of the USSR became tantamount to treason' - it could not avoid
being conflated with the idea of the perceived superiority of a planned
economy, and even with the idea of socialism. Only a tiny handful of people
at various obscure points across the political spectrum refrained from
joining in the Stalin-worship, and Orwell was one of them.

It was almost typical of Orwell that at the peak of British respect for the
Soviet Union he should write a novel that was a sharp polemic against
Britain's wartime ally. Needless to say, he had considerable problems
getting Animal Farm published, and even when it was released by Secker and
Warburg, it was shorn of its polemical foreword, thus helping to rob it of
its contemporary relevance.

The unpublished foreword to Animal Farm showed Orwell's great concern about
'the prevailing orthodoxy' of the 'uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia',
which he considered was encouraging extremely unwelcome and ominous
tendencies amongst British intellectuals. He flailed out at the 'veiled
censorship' operating in their circles:

'At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is
assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is
not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is "not done"
to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was "not done" to mention
trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing
orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely
unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the
popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.'

He said that from the early 1930s, the bulk of British intellectuals had
consistently accepted the Soviet viewpoint 'with complete disregard to
historical truth or intellectual decency'. One could not obtain 'intelligent
criticism or even, in some cases, plain honesty' from writers and
journalists who were 'under no direct pressure to falsify their opinions'.
Moreover, 'throughout that time, criticism of the Soviet regime from the
left could only obtain a hearing with difficulty'. Most of all, he decried
the trend amongst intellectuals towards restricting the expression of
oppositional ideas that were seen as 'objectively' aiding an enemy, a
process leading towards the destruction of 'all independence of thought',
and to a 'totalitarian outlook'.

Although Orwell was aware that the tendency towards self-censorship went a
lot further than the intelligentsia, he laid the blame for it mainly on the
left-wing intellectuals who refused to criticise the Soviet regime when it
committed acts that would be roundly condemned if perpetuated by another.
For Orwell, the 'willingness to criticise Russia and Stalin' was 'the test
of intellectual honesty'. His message to pro-Stalin intellectuals was
brutal:

'Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don't
imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking
propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly
return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.'

Orwell also sensed amongst the pro-Stalin intellectuals a decided tendency
towards power worship that was no different to that expressed by those who
sided with Hitler or Mussolini, and this 'cult of power' was 'mixed up with
a love of cruelty and wickedness for their own sakes'.

As for the novel itself, Animal Farm is obviously based upon the experience
of the Soviet Union, from the Russian Revolution, through the emergence and
victory of Stalinism, to the wartime years. Some of the characters are
eponymous. The taciturn, devious and ambitious Napoleon is clearly Stalin,
and the more inventive and vivacious Snowball is an equally obvious Trotsky,
although he 'was not considered to have the same depth of character' as
Napoleon, which is an odd characterisation. There is, however, no porcine
Lenin, as Major (Marx) dies just before the animals take over the farm,
although the displaying of Major's skull is reminiscent of the rituals
around the embalmed Bolshevik leader. The pigs as a whole represent the
Bolshevik party, the thuggish dogs are the secret police, and the other
animals mainly represent the Soviet working class and peasantry.

Although Orwell's sympathies are clearly with the animals, his overall view
of them is not particularly complimentary. The pigs, the most intelligent
and the only literate creatures, move immediately into a commanding position
because of their superior intelligence, and become an increasingly ruthless
ruling élite. The sheep are the most stupid, unable to command even the
basics of the animalist credo, and are merely able mindlessly to bleat
slogans at official command. Boxer, the big carthorse, is practically
illiterate, and represses his occasional worries that things aren't right
with his mantras of 'I will work harder', and 'Napoleon is always right'.
Even though the animals attempt unsuccessfully to prevent the exhausted
Boxer from being taken to the knackers, they willingly believe the pigs'
tale that he died at the vet. Not surprisingly, many commentators, both
friendly and hostile, have accused Orwell of having a low opinion of the
working class.

It is not surprising that Animal Farm was and continues to be championed by
conservatives for their own purposes. The moral of this book appears to be
that revolutions merely lead to the emergence of new and possibly more
oppressive élites. At the end of the book, a by-now bipedal and clothed
Napoleon shows a delegation of humans around the farm. He tells them that
the old revolutionary symbols and rituals have been abolished. It is clear
that the other animals know their place. Having greatly cheered his
visitors, they sit down to celebrate, only to come near to blows when they
find themselves cheating at cards. The animals peering through the windows
see that the pigs and men have become interchangeable, 'it was impossible to
say which was which'.

The main problem with Animal Farm is that there is no analysis of how a
ruling élite came into existence. The development of the pigs from a
leadership into a ruling élite is just given; it is as if any leadership
will inevitably become a ruling élite once it seizes power. Orwell attempted
to reassure the American libertarian Dwight MacDonald, saying that he was
referring to a revolution led by 'unconsciously power-hungry people', and
insisting that the moral of the book was: 'You can't have a revolution
unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent
dictatorship.' But that's not how the book is usually interpreted, and
MacDonald's qualms would not have arisen were it otherwise.

Stanley Plastrik, an American socialist, even wondered if Orwell had
renounced socialism:

'Is not the anti-socialist or liberal reader entitled to draw the conclusion
that the tale is meant as a parable on the utopian character of the
socialist cause? We believe so, although Orwell has not had the political
conviction or courage to make this clear, perhaps reflecting the very
uncertainty reigning in his head.'

Of course, using different sorts of animals to represent social strata
ensures that there will be insurmountable barriers from the very start. A
cat or dog, let alone a goose or duck, cannot become a pig. Unlike social
strata, these are immutable categories. But notwithstanding the imagery, it
is Orwell's inability to explain the rise of a post-revolutionary élite
which led to his book being used by conservatives. Although Orwell was
worried about this, Animal Farm became popular with conservatives precisely
because it sees the pigs' ascendancy into a ruling élite as an ineluctable
process. If it did not, it could not be used as a pro-capitalist work.

Animal Farm did not represent any renunciation on the part of Orwell of the
cause of socialism. Rather, it was intended to show the need for a
libertarian brand of socialism. His opposition to both capitalism and
totalitarian collectivism remained constant. Reviewing Hayek's
anti-socialist tract The Road to Serfdom, Orwell noted:

'Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war.
Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship and war. There is
no way out of this unless a planned economy can be somehow combined with the
freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and
wrong is restored to politics.'

This predicament was to be the axis around which Orwell's future writings
would revolve.





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