by Katharine Byrne
Commonweal, 17 May 1996
Although he was a respected novelist and journalist in England during the '30s and early '40s, George Orwell (1903-50) had a hard time getting Animal Farm into print. He finished it in 1944 and sent or carried it from one publisher to another, but no one would take it. World War II was in progress. Russia was our ally and Britain's. A book that satirized the betrayal of Russia's revolution by its leaders was regarded, at the very least, as an affront to a friend. Moreover, an American publisher told him you just can't sell an animal story to adults.
Not until the end of the war in 1945 and the customary reshuffling of friends and enemies was a publisher willing to invest enough precious paper to produce 450 copies. These were sold out within weeks. The Queen dispatched an emissary to her bookseller-by-appointment, but his shelves were bare; an anarchist book shop offered the Queen a complimentary copy. The book has never been out of print since then, read by millions in dozens of languages. Nineteen ninety-six marks its fiftieth anniversary of publication in the United States.
If you were in high school at any time since the 1950s, you probably read Animal Farm, a story of the revolt of Farmer Jones's livestock against their brutal, drunken owner. The venerable boar, Old Major, is the philosopher of the revolution. His ringing words to the clandestine assemblage of animals remind them that their lives are "miserable, laborious, and short," with no share in the fruits of their labor. While ascribing all their troubles to "man," his speech ends with the warning: "Above all, no animal must ever tyrannize over his own kind. Weak or strong, clever or simple, we are all brothers. All animals are equal."
The barnyard is roused to revolution. Led by the pigs, the animals rout Jones and take possession; "Jones's Manor" is now called "Animal Farm." Morale is high. Victory is sweet for the liberated animals but also brief. At first they gambol in joy at the prospect of living out their lives in dignity, sharing in the prosperity their labor produces. Each works hard to sustain the revolution.
But then, inexorably, methodically, equality and freedom are stripped away as the pigs, under Napoleon, a ruler as brutal as Jones was, develop a ruling elite that abrogates all privilege to itself at the expense of the "lower" animals. (The wily pigs explain that they really don't like the milk that they refuse to share with the other animals; they drink it only to keep up their strength so that they can pursue the welfare of all.)
Lies and terror now rule "Animal Farm." In the ultimate reversal of Old Major's words, "all animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others." One form of repression has been replaced by another. In the end, the wretched animals are looking in the window at an economic summit between Men and Pigs, "Looking from pig to man, and from man to pig they observe that there is no difference between them."
John Halas and Joy Batchelor, in their animated cartoon film of the book (1954), apparently could not bear this ending. In their version of the book, "the animals, united, came on relentlessly" and a brick was thrown through the window, "shattering Napoleon's magnificent portrait under the impact of yet another revolution." Understandably, students like this version better than the original.
But as Orwell tells it, the fable ends with all the brave hopes in ruins. Virtue is crushed and wickedness triumphs. What went wrong? Orwell lays out the story and asks us to look at it. He does not moralize. This is what happened, but we know it is not right. We are left morally indignant at the injustice suffered. Are we to believe that this is the inevitable fate of rebellion? Or that other political systems are better than Stalinist communism?
As to that, Orwell does not uphold the political systems of the West. The men who come to deal with the ruling pigs, Pilkington from capitalist England and Frederick from Nazi Germany, commiserate with the pigs: "You have your lower animals and we have our lower classes." From his earliest years as a policeman for the British Empire in Burma--an "unsuitable career," he called it--Orwell always spoke out against oppressors of the poor and helpless: returning to England he spoke for the rights of tramps, hop-pickers, or coal miners.
A self-defined democratic Socialist, Orwell had a hard time with other members of the Left. An episode in Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet describes the situation succinctly. Addressing a Columbia University seminar, Mr. Sammler is attempting to defend Orwell's position, but he is interrupted by one of the bearded and unwashed students with "Orwell was a counter-revolutionary shit, and you're an old shit too." With this declaration, the meeting is ingloriously ended.
Maligned by the Left, Orwell has often been appropriated by the Right. In the flurry of interest that coincided with the year 1984, Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, claimed that Orwell would, if he had lived, subscribe to the conservative magazine and to the principles of its editor. In fact, Animal Farm had earlier entered the canon of required reading in most high schools for some of the wrong reasons, its author would say--and he did say so.
Orwell was distressed to find his Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four being used, especially in the United States, as cold-war weapons, purportedly the work of a repentant Communist who saw the light and wanted to warn the world of the inevitable fruits of revolution. When he saw the issue of Henry Luce's Life magazine expounding this idea, Orwell insisted that he had not written a book against Stalinism to deny the right of revolt by oppressed people, nor to advance American foreign policy. "My books," he said, "are about the perversions that any centralized economy is liable to."
In a letter to Dwight Macdonald, editor of Politics, Orwell further explained, "Revolutions led by power-hungry people can only lead to a change of masters....Revolutions only effect 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....You can't have a revolution unless you make it for your self; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship."
Should Animal Farm be read during the next fifty years? Of course, but for the right reasons: setting up as it does, with crystal clarity, the price paid when we do not safeguard our freedoms. The hard-working wretches of the world contribute to their own fate in their ignorant loyalty and apathy. In the book, the huge cart-horse, Boxer, a faithful, unquestioning worker ("I will get up earlier; I will work harder...Napoleon is always right") is sent to the knackers as soon as his usefulness is over. As he is carried off to his death, the weak protest of his hooves against the side of the van sounds the dying hope of the animals betrayed. The tendency of power to corrupt must always be recognized; people's hold over their own fate must prevail: an alert, informed, and wary electorate.
Is Animal Farm out of date since the Soviet Socialist Republics, as constituted, have failed? Only if it is read for the wrong reasons. The tale about independence won but lost continues to remind us that freedom is fragile and precious. Power corrupts, and there are forces at work seeking to wield it.
I have spoken to ten or twelve English teachers, from Highland Park, Illinois, to Highland Park in Dallas, Texas, about the continuing relevance of Animal Farm. I was glad to hear one of them say, "I'd hate to lose it as required reading. It is such a great story, told with precious touches of humor." Another added, "It's rare classic that students really enjoy." A thoughtful teacher told me, "The book is talking about any concentration of power. Last year bright student suggested that `the story warns us not to fight for our rights as students and then let class officers impose their ideas on the rest of us."'
After a lecture, Bernard Crick, one of Orwell's biographers, was asked by a listener, "If Orwell were alive today, what would he be?" Crick's answer sidestepped the questioner's effort to pull Orwell politically to the right or to the left and put a tag on him. "If Orwell were alive today," Crick said, "he would be a very old man; he would probably be counting the marbles in his head and hoping they were all there." Indeed, if Orwell were alive and well and had all his marbles he would be fighting as he did all the days of his brief life, writing against oppression and corruption wherever it exists, glad to know that the young are still reading and learning from Animal Farm.
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