Animal Farm belongs to the Left
Animal Farm is both George Orwell’s greatest literary triumph, and least understood work writes Liam Byrne in Socialist Alternative. Orwell was a socialist novelist, journalist, essayist, adventurer, broadcaster, compulsive smoker, and interrogator of power. He is best remembered for his dystopian novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, taught for generations as powerful excoriations of the sinister idea that the inequities could ever be challenged through a revolution of the working class.
What these accounts leave out is the small detail that Orwell himself was a committed socialist who wrote not to decry revolution, but to warn against its corruption – a message all the more powerful for the knowledge that Orwell had experienced such a betrayal of revolution. He was a volunteer soldier in the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), where the revolutionary forces were destroyed from within by Stalinist reactionaries who draped themselves in the rhetoric of radical change.
Published in 1945, Animal Farm is a beautifully written “fairytale”, with sympathetic animal characters and biting political symbolism. In the first stage of the story, the animals of Manor Farm rise together to overthrow the despotic rule of their human master, Mr. Jones, at the “battle of the cowshed”. Orwell evokes the figures of the Marxist movement through the animals: old Major, the aged wise-saw representing Marx; Snowball representing Leon Trotsky; Boxer, the gallant strong, but simple cart-horse symbolising the exploited working class; and Napoleon, the figure of Stalin, who drives Snowball from the farm and institutes a brutal totalitarian regime based upon the iconic Stalinesque pronouncement: “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.” This literary exposition of the Russian revolution has been held up since its publication as an example of the inevitability of totalitarianism from any attempt to fundamentally alter the status quo.
Despite anti-communist crusaders claiming Animal Farm as their own, the book itself offers little support for the conservative right. It unreservedly endorses the initial revolutionary act. Initially at least, it appears that the animals are ushering in a new society, correlating to Old Major’s vision, and his warning that: “in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him. Even when you have conquered him, do not adopt his vices.”
As this initial revolutionary movement degenerates into the totalitarianism of the pig Napoleon, the criticism that Orwell makes is not that the animals were instituting socialism, but rather that the new regime being led by the pigs was itself a betrayal of socialism. The Pigs form a new ruling elite and become indistinguishable from the humans who exploit animals elsewhere. The poignant ending of the book describes the other animals looking upon the pigs as they feast with the hated humans:
“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Orwell wrote of his intentions with Animal Farm: “I meant the moral to be that revolutions are only a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job.”
This distrust in revolutionary leadership directly relates to the Russian revolution, but was also influenced by the experience in Spain where the working class was so catastrophically betrayed by those who claimed to be its leaders. Orwell was arguing that whatever the experience in Russia, and indeed Spain, there was no inevitability that workers would make the same mistake elsewhere. What happened in backwards Russia would not necessarily happen in Britain. The utopian expectation of much of the middle class left would not be fulfilled. But the better, more equal world he had dedicated his life to could still be achieved. This is what Orwell meant when he stated: “All revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure.”
Orwell was critical of those who contended that all revolutions would inevitably end in brutal totalitarianism. In his article on Arthur Koestler, and in particular Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon – a fictional account of the Moscow show trials – Orwell criticises the argument that revolutions are a “corrupting process” that inevitably “lead to the cellars of the OGPU” (the Stalinist secret police). He rejected this conclusion as being “not far removed from pessimistic Conservatism”.
In so far as what his intent was in Animal Farm, it is worth looking at what he wrote about it, in the period where its co-option by the right was beginning to be clear. In the preface to the Ukrainian edition, Orwell explained:
“Nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated. And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement.”
Orwell was not condemning the concept of revolution, nor labelling human nature as too corrupt to facilitate a new society based upon social equality – as countless right wingers (and exam takers) have proclaimed. In fact Orwell himself argued, in his famous “As I Please” column, against the argument that human nature meant that socialism could never become a reality:
“The proper answer, it seems to me, is that this argument belongs to the Stone Age. It presupposes that material goods will always be desperately scarce… We are selfish in economic matters because we all live in terror of poverty. But when a commodity is not scarce, no one tries to grab more than his fair share of it.”
Animal Farm is far from the first step in a long march to the neoconservative right by Orwell. But there remain many criticisms that socialists should make of it. In particular, the condescending portrayal of the Russian working class through the courageous yet idiotic and compliant horse Boxer. Throughout the text the animals are depicted as thoughtless beings, easily misled by the pigs’ gilded tongues and empty promises. The following description is typical:
“The animals listened first to Napoleon, then to Snowball, and could not make up their minds which was right; indeed, they always found themselves in agreement with the one who was speaking at the moment.”
The depictions of the simple-minded animals evokes a considerable deal of empathy for them as the tyranny of the pigs takes hold, but it strips them of any sense of agency. After showing the power of the animals to overthrow the hated humans, they become the compliant victims of an equal oppression. The animals have the strength and the power to rid themselves of the tyranny of the pigs, but not the intelligence. One pivotal scene shows Boxer defeating Napoleon’s bodyguards, the dogs, as they prepare to carry out an execution of pigs who had fallen from Napoleon’s favour. Boxer:
“saw them coming and put out his great hoof, caught a dog in mid-air, and pinned him to the ground. The dog shrieked for mercy and the other two fled with their tails between their legs. Boxer looked to Napoleon to know whether he should crush the dog to death or let it go.”
This condescension, and his belief that all revolutionary parties and leaders are inherently corrupt, has created ambiguities that have allowed conservatives to claim Orwell’s work for their own purposes. But these ambiguities do not overwhelm what is, at its core, a powerful warning against the corruption of a revolution.