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Henry Judd

Animal Farm – A Good Fable
with a Misdirected Moral

(30 September 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 39, 30 September 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Animal Farm
by George Orwell
Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York; $1.75, 118 pages.

GEORGE ORWELL’s fable of the Animal Farm has aroused much interest and comment, particularly about the inner meaning of the tale. We would like to begin this review by recommending the book for, regardless of the opinion one may hold as to its political content, it is in most respects a delightful story. The book has had widespread circulation in England, where its author is a well-known literary critic and contributor to the London Tribune, publication of the left-wing Labor Party leaders. It promises to have a broad circulation in America.

This parable of the Russian Revolution is presented in the form of a popular animal rebellion against Man, the farmer and exploiter of the Animal Kingdom. Orwell has a keen insight into and sympathy for the animals of his imaginary farm, their characteristics and mannerisms. In fact, the story of the animals considered per se – their relations with each other, their desires and efforts – is told in such a friendly, warm-hearted fashion that the reader’s sympathies are won from the start.

But, of course, Orwell has intended much more by his story. Some of the individual scenes are executed with taste and dash – the rejoicing of the animal-brothers after the success of their Rebellion; the dramatic struggle against Man’s counter-revolution; the heartbreaking episodes of the animals’ struggle with the physical obstacles standing in the way of their socialist farm; the tragic episodes as an animal pig-bureaucracy moves steadfastly on the road to power and, ultimately, the final triumph of the Counter-Rebellion, an episode of Thermidorean tragedy and horror.

The Vivid Picture of Animal Life

The animals on Mr. Jones’ Manor Farm represent the Animal Kingdom in all its strata and divisions. Old Major, the wise prize boar, combines the wisdom of theoretical understanding with the driving passion for action. His young disciples among the pigs are the elite “animals of action,” learning and preparing for the day of Rebellion. The work-horses of the farm, Boxer and Clover, represent the best of solidity in honesty and integrity of character; the sheep are manifestations of that dull-gray mass, so easily deceived, so often betrayed, yet so downtrodden. But each animal presented has a personality all of its own. By grasping the special animal-traits of the different species, by bringing these traits to life in simple illustrations, Orwell succeeds in creating a unique, live community.

Old Major Lenin, the prize boar, has given meaning to this animal life of exploitation by explaining its why and wherefore and by showing a path to liberation. His song of freedom, Beasts of England is more than a rallying song, it becomes their CREDO. The Rebellion is led by the two boars, Snowball Trotsky and Napoleon Stalin. Man, the exploiter, is driven out. The socialist Animal Farm, guided by laws of equality (“all animals are equal”), and brotherhood (“no animal shall kill any other animal”) is set up.

In harmony and happiness, the animals begin to work their own community, to build and repair, to learn the new knowledge, and unlearn the old ways. But in the atmosphere of an intensified hostility between Napoleon Stalin and Snowball Trotsky, the opening wedge of discord, petty privilege and dissension begins to make its way and grow.

A sharp clash takes place over the issue of farm industrialization and, in the course of it, Snowball Trotsky is driven off the farm. It is discovered by the animal mass that sly Napoleon Stalin his been secretly erecting his own flank of solid supporters – dogs and young porkers. The Rebellion has reached its moral apex, henceforth it can only decline, both organically and spiritually. The rest of the Animal Farm tells us, in easily recognizable form, the familiar episodes of the decline and degeneration of the Russian revolution into its present barbaric stage, culminating in the renovation of the farm’s ancient name under Farmer Jones, “The Manor House,” as the pig-bureaucracy takes on the form, shape and function of the once-defeated exploiter, Man. The story does not, of course, parallel the actual happenings in Russian history, but sufficiently suggests the events.

Various Interpretations of the Fable

Now, as a political parable, Animal Farm has been interpreted in diverse ways. This varied reading of Orwell’s book is not hard to understand, since it results from the most apparent flaw of the tale. We do not, naturally, refer to those deliberate misinterpretations that can be found in the Stalinist or semi-Stalinist press; nor to simple blockheads (like Ely Culbertson) who could not even grasp the fact that the parable had Russia in mind. The New Republic reviewer, for example, who certainly knows better, considers the rivalry between Snowball Trotsky and Napoleon Stalin to be the story of Trotsky’s supposed rivalry with Lenin!

A parable would be dull indeed if nothing were left to imagination and suggestion. No one demands that everything be labeled and classified for the reader. The value, taste and flavor of a parable comes precisely from that gap between the tale and its reality in which the reader’s imaginative fancy is free to roam and grasp at suggestions.

But nevertheless, in this reviewer’s opinion, there is a serious flaw in Orwell’s work. We cannot, therefore, accept the opinion expressed by some that Animal Farm is a “minor masterpiece” destined to join the great allegories of literature.

A parable, in simple terms, is a method of setting forth an event through the medium of a tale, the better to suggest or point out a profound truth. The parables of Jesus in The New Testament are classic examples of this. But Orwell’s parable does not, in our opinion, satisfy this essential demand. When one has read the book, therefore, he is still at a loss as to precisely how the whole thing is meant, what he is to understand by it all. Perhaps this failure is due to the fact that the necessary “gap” between fancy and reality is, throughout the book, too narrow – often non-existent when the story moves almost on a perfect parallel with the events of the Russian Thermidor.

The Political Confusion of Orwell

But we feel the explanation is closer to the author, more political in character. It lies in the general confusion of Orwell, and, we believe, in the fact that he really does not himself know what to conclude from his tale – therefore, his inability to write a true parable.

Actually, what is Orwell saying to us in the Animal Farm? Many have interpreted it, with much justification, as a rejection of the conception that it is possible to build a socialist, equalitarian community in this world; that the degeneration into Napoleon Stalin’s pig-collective State was a natural, inevitable process. The causes of Napoleon’s success in getting the upper hand are weakly stated, indeed; as are the issues between him and Snowball Trotsky.

The portrait of Snowball Trotsky is more than weak, it is unobjective and distorted. He is made out to be a pompous fanatic (but not above participation in a bureaucratic act of personal privilege, along with Napoleon Stalin) of doubtful character. Once driven off the farm, he vanishes utterly from the scene, except as vilely reported through the words and deeds of his enemy, Napoleon. There is no suggestion that he attempts to continue the traditions of the Rebellion; he is simply vanquished. Napoleon triumphs in full, without reservations. 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 mind.

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