by John Newsinger
Europe-Asia Studies, Nov 1996
George Orwell had a peculiar fate: a committed socialist writer, he was to have his two most popular books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, confiscated by the right, transformed into classic texts of the Cold War. This was only made possible by his premature death, aged only 46, which prevented him reaffirming his socialism in more positive fashion. Nevertheless, it has been argued by a number of commentators that there was something about both books that made them so accessible to the right, to an anti-socialist reading. Orwell might have considered himself a socialist, the argument goes, but because of his background, his theoretical inadequacies, his political inconsistencies, his pessimism, the books were, in fact, reactionary. Does Animal Farm, for example, argue that revolutions always fail, always end in betrayal? Does it show the working class as stupid, incapable of self-rule? Or is the book, as I would argue, a marvellous socialist protest against Stalinism, written by someone who can quite legitimately be described as a 'literary Trotskyist'?
While Orwell certainly had inadequacies and inconsistencies in his political thinking, the two decisive factors allowing the confiscation of Animal Farm by the right were in fact the changing political context and much of the left's continuing sympathy for the Soviet Union. When Orwell wrote the book, cooperation between Russia and the West was still the order of the day but this was quickly to break down into the Cold War. The assertion that the Russian ruling class (the pigs) were as bad as the Western ruling classes (the humans) was perverted into an attack on the Soviet Union on behalf of the Western Powers. This was certainly not what Orwell intended. If cooperation had continued, as Orwell had expected when he wrote the book (although he later denied this), then it would have been read very differently. The other problem, one that caused Orwell continued concern, was that most of the left believed that Russia, even under Stalin, was still somehow progressive, a workers' state of some kind, even socialist. This factor has been seriously neglected in discussion of the fate of Orwell's last two books.
Is Animal Farm really a reactionary novel that rejects revolutionary change? It is difficult to see how this interpretation can be sustained when we consider the Major's tremendous indictment of capitalism and call for revolution at the start of the book. All this clearly has authorial endorsement. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Orwell's sympathies are with the working class (the farm animals) in their revolutionary overthrow of Farmer Jones and establishment of a workers' state (Animal Farm). What follows is the story of the betrayal of the Russian Revolution and rise of Stalinism, of a new privileged class, told as fable. The chosen form of the novel inevitably involves simplification but the extent to which this compromises its socialist politics is most debatable. His portrayal of the farm animals as so easily fooled by Napoleon and the pigs is the book's weakest spot; indeed, in much of Orwell's writing he stumbles over the question of working-class consciousness. Nevertheless, despite this important weakness, the two crucial elements of the book are its support for the overthrow of Farmer Jones and its indictment of the revolution's betrayal by the pigs. Once again it has to be emphasised that as far as Orwell was concerned the pigs had become as bad as, indistinguishable from, not worse than, the humans. The famous last scene where the farm animals look in through the window and can no longer tell them apart was a satire of the Tehran Conference involving Stalin and his Western Allies.
As for the notion that Animal Farm suggests that all revolutions are doomed to betrayal, well Orwell argued quite explicitly against that view elsewhere, condemning it as conservative. He certainly believed that all revolutions 'fail' but only because utopia was unobtainable. This did not mean they were not worthwhile and would not improve things, make the world better - though never perfect. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that he would have welcomed the revolutionary overthrow of the communist regimes. Interestingly enough, the Halas & Batchelor cartoon film of the book that appeared in 1955 ends with the donkey, Benjamin, leading a new revolution of the animals to overthrow Napoleon and the pigs. The following year, of course, this was actually to happen in Hungary.
What of the description of Orwell as a literary Trotskyist'? While he was never a member of a Trotskyist organisation and explicitly rejected essential aspects of Trotskyist politics, nevertheless Homage To Catalonia, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, together with much of his journalism, are deeply influenced by Trotskyist ideas. Indeed, it can be argued that they amount to an unacknowledged dialogue with Trotskyism. Most commentators greatly exaggerate the influence of the former Trotskyist, James Burnham, author of The Managerial Revolution, on Orwell. In fact, he had a considerable familiarity with the politics of the Trotskyist movement and can best be seen as criticising Burnham from a position influenced by Trotskyism.
Orwell was himself to describe Animal Farm as Trotskyist 'in the wide sense' and this seems a useful description of much of his political writing. Why is this either played down or ignored in most accounts of Orwell's work? Put quite simply, it is not acceptable that such an important literary figure should have such connections.
What of this particular edition of the book? It is without any doubt a handsome volume but personally I am doubtful whether Ralph Steadman's powerful illustrations actually do justice to the text. His style is too one-sidedly savage. He excels at portraying corruption and brutality and does not have the more sympathetic portrayal of the oppressed in his artistic register.
The edition also contains Orwell's intended 'preface' for the British edition of Animal Farm, the essay, 'The Freedom of the Press', and his preface to the Ukrainian edition. It is good to see these two pieces in print once again.
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