George Orwell

(Eric Blair)


Animal Farm


George’s (Eric’s) fable summary of the rise and fall of socialism in Russia. Clearly it resonated – this book has been constantly reprinted since being written, as he concludes the story, in the four months between November 1943 and February 1944. Who knows how far the popular (my) consciousness of Stalinist Russia has been shaped by this book. I suspect some of its popularity would be from capitalists gleefully applauding the depiction of communist leaders as utterly corrupt and exploitative, although it should be noted that the final tragedy we’re left with is that the vile socialist leaders have become as bad as the capitalists:

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 was a committed socialist and far from moving to oppose it after seeing some of the appalling suffering in ‘communist’ Russia, was rather deeply saddened by the despotic betrayal of the revolution. There was a time before the National Socialists of Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union had so tainted socialism’s image, and it was still quite possible to be respected as an intelligent and humane thinker and as a socialist. Blair didn’t question socialism as such, but was deeply concerned with the poor way it was realised and marketed (cf. the latter chapters of The Road To Wigan Pier).


The extended parable is unsubtle (or, if you prefer, crystal clear) – there’s no mistaking who Napoleon the pig, and Squealer with his ridiculous statistics, represent. Interesting that he’d have to acknowledge Jesus as much as anyone else as a stylistic influence, although Jesus’ parables always forced a wider perspective than any particular political leader. In one way Orwell tries to give a face to the incomprehensible numbers betrayed by Stalin: in our human way we can instinctively feel more anger and despair in the betrayal of the noble fictional Boxer. Although if we are to take this fable as having wider implications than an interpretation of one particular place and time I suspect we can only look to the taciturn and cynical Benjamin the donkey. Benjamin is the oldest animal on the farm at the start of the book and seemed no closer to death at the end - “Donkeys live a long time”, and given his superior intelligence and good heartedness there’s no-one else better placed to model wisdom. Rather than a socialist party line that revolution simply must come sooner or later as a historical necessity, Benjamin reserves his hopes in the good times, and his despair in the bad, feeling that ultimately things will return to the status quo – of hard work and exploitation.


It was a tough time to be a socialist – there were such hopes in the thirties (cf. John Wain’s Comedies), could we blame Orwell for the crushing despair of 1984 and Animal Farm? For all his contemptuous dismissal of religion, there was a time that Orwell was a true believer in socialism, and held as much passionate hope in the ‘golden future time’ of equity and plenty following the revolution as the gullible animals tempted by Moses’ Sugarcandy Mountain. The aforementioned Road To Wigan Pier recounts as much of a testimony of conversion as I’ve heard in a few churches. Reading guys like Orwell it feels like Socialism had much in common with a religion, and the teachings went (go) bravely beyond the dominant cult of nationalism (as does the best of religion, something Orwell never acknowledged) – hence much of the violent and vehement opposition it faced by those who felt betrayed by their own countrymen at their darkest hour: imagine opposing jingoism at a time of war! (Or read LewisScrewtape Letters which did just that. I wonder if there’s any record of what these two contemporaries thought of each other? They must have surely been aware of each other. Despite their similarities I suspect they would have seen the other as dangerous foe). Socialism had big – huge – dreams, a whole new world worth passionately fighting and even dying for, a world where everything changed, the emancipation of peoples enslaved since time beyond memory. Imagine the excitement, the hopes when this generation thought it might be part of the time when the revolution came – and big things were happening on the world stage. I’d compare it to that of Christian starting to feel that, yes, Christ would be returning – look at the signs – any day now!


But then comes the crisis of faith – the utter disillusion reflected in Animal Farm. I don’t know that Blair ever became quite as fatalistic as Benjamin (Benjamin would hardly be taking the trouble and risk of publishing!), but I definitely feel like his zeal and approach became tempered (and even have a dim recollection of him being accused of some sort of shifty complicity towards the end of his life – or am I mixing him up with P.G. Wodehouse?). Perhaps he wrote 1984 partly to clarify that his dim view of communist Russia did not begin to suggest an endorsement of capitalism – rather, much as Animal Farm concludes, Orwell highlights how corrupt leadership is happy to bring about the same ends of exploitation using whatever left or right political rhetoric suits its purposes. 


January 2005