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John Molyneux

Animal Farm revisited

(Autumn 1989)

Originally published in International Socialism 2 : 44, Autumn 1989.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This article is a discussion of the politics of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I would not normally recommend this as the Marxist way to approach a literary work. As Trotsky reminds us, a work of art must be judged first according to the laws of art and a novel cannot be treated as if it were merely the dramatisation of a political treatise.

However, Animal Farm is something of an exception to this general rule. Not a novel in the usual sense, it is an explicit political fable-an unmistakable allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism-in which the characters are transparent symbols of either historical individuals (Old Major/Karl Marx, Snowball/Leon Trotsky) or particular social types (Moses/the priest, Squealer/the party propagandist, the dogs/the GPU), not ‘real’ or ‘rounded’ characters. The plot, at least in its main outlines, is not the product of creative imagination, but of the actual course of Russian history.

Orwell himself wrote of Animal Farm that it was the first work in which ‘I tried with full consciousness of what I was doing to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole’ [1], but it would probably be more accurate to say that the artistic serves the political.

This is not to suggest that Animal Farm lacks artistic merit. On the contrary, it is in many ways a minor masterpiece. Orwell’s deceptively simple but finely honed prose style works to near perfection and is superbly adapted to dealing with the central artistic difficulty involved in the Animal Farm project, that of making his characters believable as both animals and humans, or rather as animals with human characteristics. This was an enterprise which could all too easily have failed either by falling into the crude sentimentality of a Disney cartoon or by producing an effect verging on the ridiculous. In fact it does neither. In Animal Farm we laugh only when Orwell wants us to and when Napoleon sets the dogs on the dissident pigs and other animals we do not scoff, we feel the full horror of the Moscow trials. Orwell s solution to the problem is to tell us enough about his characters and their physical attributes to ensure that we never forget they are animals, but not so much that we visualise them with such clarity as to make their talking or working the farm seem absurd. It is a kind of descriptive tightrope walking and Orwell never falls off the wire.

Also, just as in Nineteen Eighty Four Orwell found a series of images which gave expression to the experience of totalitarianism (Big Brother, Room 101, thoughtcrime, etc) and so passed into the culture, so in Animal Farm there are moments of great power such as the final amendment to the Seven Commandments to read: ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’, and the closing scene when: ‘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.’ [2] These imprint themselves indelibly on the memory as encapsulating with superb irony the betrayal of revolutionary hopes and the cynical duplicity not just of Stalinism, but of rulers and exploiters of all types. [3]

Nevertheless the fact remains that the political significance of Animal Farm far outweighs and in a sense is out of all proportion to its artistic significance. In terms of the history of the novel Orwell stands as a rather parochial figure of the second rank: a good prose stylist but decidedly limited in emotional range and in his ability to create living, three dimensional characters. It is one of the reasons for the artistic success of Animal Farm that it does not require these qualities. In political terms, however, Animal Farm is probably the most popular and influential piece of literary propaganda produced in English, perhaps in any language, this century. The sheer scale of the book’s success is astonishing. According to my 1987 edition, it has been reprinted a staggering 57 times including three times in a single year and, as everyone knows, it is a favourite of teachers and examiners, appearing on virtually every O level, CSE and GCSE syllabus. Animal Farm’s only rival in this respect is Nineteen Eighty Four and it seems overwhelmingly likely that far more people have learned what they know of the fate of the Russian Revolution from here than from any other source. Certainly the ratio of people who have read Animal Farm to those who have read Trotsky, Deutscher, Carr, Cliff or any other serious account must be astronomical.

However, if the scale of the book’s success is surprising the reason for it is not mysterious. It is, of course, that Animal Farm is generally thought to be a simple, dramatic and extremely effective statement of the key arguments against socialism and revolution, namely that socialism can’t work and that all revolutions end in tyranny. This then is the justification for discussing Animal Farm and for that discussion being primarily concerned with politics. The political ideas of Animal Farm are part of our culture and of our consciousness. They play a role, a considerable role, in the ongoing argument that all socialists are engaged in. This is why these ideas need to be analysed and confronted.

The analysis must begin with a problem. The problem is that Animal Farm is a ‘right wing’ book by a ‘left wing’ writer. Orwell’s left credentials (left, not Marxist) are substantial: he is the author of a powerful attack on imperialism (Burmese Days), a sympathetic investigation into the lives of the poor and the poorest (Down and Out in Paris and London), an indictment of the condition of the unemployed and the working class in the Depression (The Road to Wigan Pier) and, above all, of Homage to Catalonia, the superb anti-Stalinist celebration of the Spanish Revolution. He is also the person who actually went to Spain and fought with the POUM militia. How then did this ‘man of the left’ with his evidently sincere hatred of exploitation and oppression come to write a book which has been of such use to the right?

There are three possible solutions to this problem: first, that by the time Orwell wrote Animal Farm in 1943-4 he was no longer a leftist; that between 1937 and 1943 Orwell’s views had shifted markedly to the right – in short, that he had sold out and become a conscious and premature cold warrior.

Secondly, it is argued that Animal Farm is not a right wing book; really it is a left critique of Stalinism which has been used and distorted by the ruling class and the education system.

Thirdly, Animal Farm is said to be a right wing book despite Orwell’s intentions and that this disjuncture between intention and text is explained by contradictions in the author’s politics which are also present and observable in the text.

Solution one is a biographical argument which can be rejected on biographical grounds. It is true that between Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm there was a significant rightward shift. Orwell returned from Spain an inspired and committed socialist – a revolutionary even – who, as late as January 1939, was intending to oppose the coming war on internationalist grounds. He even contemplated forming an underground organisation to undertake ‘illegal anti-war activities’. [4] But the combination of the Hitler-Stalin pact and the outbreak of war turned him into a patriot or, more accurately, revealed his underlying patriotism [5], and this inevitably meant a move from revolution to reform. Nevertheless the move to the right did not go so far as to carry Orwell into the camp of reaction. Subjectively he remained a socialist, a Labour Party supporter and a left winger. In 1943, the year he began Animal Farm, he started a weekly column for Tribune which continued for four years.

It must also be remembered that the political circumstances of 1943–4 rule out the possibility that Animal Farm was written for opportunistic reasons. Britain and Russia were allies and Russia was at the height of its popularity. A book so obviously critical of the Soviet regime was therefore very much going against the stream – a fact which is confirmed by the difficulty Orwell experienced in obtaining a publisher. What seems clear therefore is that Animal Farm was intended as an attack on Stalinism from a position within the left (which is not the same as an attack on Stalinism from the left). [6]

Orwell himself claimed in 1946 that:

Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism as I understand it. [7]

Provided we are aware of the political nuances of ‘democratic socialism’ (the title would be claimed by Roy Hattersley) there seems to be no reason to dispute this as an honest statement on intent. In all probability Orwell would have been outraged at the way Animal Farm has been used, just as in 1949 he felt obliged to issue a statement in America denying that Nineteen Eighty Four was an attack on socialism or the British Labour Party. [8]

However, neither in politics nor in literature does intention necessarily coincide with result or achievement. Consequently rejection of solution one, that Orwell was a conscious reactionary, does not imply acceptance of solution two, that Animal Farm is a left wing book misrepresented by the system. The idea that Animal Farm and Orwell’s work as a whole can be rescued from the right wing and in some sense claimed for the socialist tradition is quite a popular one on me left. It has a particular appeal, I think, to those socialists for whom Homage to Catalonia has been formative reading and who are therefore inclined to read me rest of Orwell’s work in its light, seeing Animal Farm as broadly a Trotskyist account of the rise of Stalinism.

Unfortunately this interpretation must also be rejected. First, it is not, from my experience as a teacher, the ‘natural’ reading of the book, i.e. it is not the interpretation made by the average reader on first reading. On the contrary, the large majority of student readers of Animal Farm I have encountered take it to be a critique of socialism and revolution. Second, as I shall try to show in the course of arguing for solution three, it is not an interpretation which can be sustained on me basis of detailed analysis of the text.

Solution three posits a contradiction between intention and text and within the text, arising from a contradiction in Orwell’s politics. The root of this contradiction is that Orwell combines an ethical condemnation of capitalism with a rejection of Marxism and a deep pessimism about the working class as the agent of socialism. Where it is a matter of Orwell’s personal political stance the ethical element in the combination is sufficient to keep him subjectively on the left, but when me combination is presented as a historical analysis (albeit in allegorical form) die objective effect is predominantly right wing – ultimately it reinforces the view that socialism is impossible.

I say predominantly and ultimately because there certainly are left wing elements in Animal Farm. It is important to recognise and specify these partly because the right wing appropriation of the book has resulted in these often being overlooked and partly to understand how and why they are effaced in the overall effect.

The most important left element is Old Major’s passionate denunciation in the opening chapter of the brutal exploitation and oppression of animals under the rule of Man. This is intended to parallel Marx’s critique of capitalism and of the exploitation of the working class by the bourgeoisie. The key point is that Orwell clearly endorses this critique and invites the reader to identify with it. [9]

’The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth ... Why then do we continue in this miserable condition? Because nearly the whole produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings,’ says Old Major, and Orwell obviously agrees. The animals’ rebellion, i.e. the workers’ revolution, and the defence of their revolution in the Battle of the Cowshed are depicted as entirely justifiable and their aspirations for prosperity, peace, comradeship and equality as noble and desirable. Orwell’s indictment of the regime established by Napoleon and the pigs is that it is indistinguishable in its tyranny and oppressiveness from the rule of Man in general and Mr Jones in particular. Throughout the book no human (i.e. bourgeois) appears as anything other than an exploiter.

Animal Farm also contains a neat little satire on the role of religion in the character of Moses, the tame raven, who is ‘a spy and a tale bearer’ but also a clever talker who tells the animals about ‘Sugarcandy Mountain’ to which all animals are supposed to go when they die. Moses is driven out in the Rebellion but is later allowed to return by me pigs who use him for the same purposes he was used for by Mr Jones, and many of the animals revert to their belief in his stories of Sugarcandy Mountain. ‘Their lives now, they reasoned, were hungry and laborious; was it not right and just that a better world should exist somewhere else?’ [10] Here Orwell is clearly making use of a simplified version of the Marxist analysis of religion.

A further critical and subversive feature of Animal Farm is the way it deals with the pigs’ justification for their privileges. The first breach in the principle of animal equality comes when, immediately after me Rebellion, the pigs lay claim to the milk and apples:

Squealer was sent to make the necessary explanation to the others.

’Comrades,’ he cried, ‘You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike milk and apples, I dislike them myself. Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health. Milk and apples (this has been proved by Science, comrades) contains substances absolutely necessary to the well being of a pig. We pigs are brain workers. The whole management and organisation of this farm depend on us. Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples. [11]

Here Orwell presents Squealer’s argument as merely a clever piece of self serving hypocrisy, but in so doing he exposes not only the Stalinist justification for special shops for party members and so on, but also one of the central arguments used by our own bourgeoisie to justify its privileges. If it is false that ‘brain workers’ are morally entitled to more than manual workers then how is it to be justified that lawyers earn more than dustmen or managers more than miners?

It is therefore reasonable to point out to bourgeois admirers of Animal Farm that it depicts their system as ruthless exploitation, their class as cruel and incompetent tyrants, their religion as a fraud and their ideology as a swindle. Nevertheless we would deceive ourselves if we did not also recognise that the effects of this quite sharp social criticism are outweighed and negated by the fact that the book discredits socialism and indeed any attempt at radical transformation of this unhappy state of affairs. It is the analysis of precisely how it does this which reveals the deeply reactionary content of Animal Farm.

In the first place there is the fact that the allegory works on two levels. On the one hand a number of the characters and events in die story represent actual figures and episodes from Russian history, eg Snowball represents Trotsky, the Windmill debate represents the industrialisation debate of the 1920s, Napoleon’s deal with Frederick is the Hitler-Stalin pact and so on. On the other hand some characters and events are symbolic in a wider sense. Thus Mr Jones represents the bourgeoisie, or perhaps the ruling class in general, rather than the Tsar as such; Boxer represents ‘the ordinary decent worker’ in general rather than specifically the Russian working class; Clover, Mollie and the Sheep represent definite social types (or what Orwell imagines to be definite social types) and are not in the least specifically Russian. In this way Animal Farm is simultaneously an allegory of the Russian Revolution and of revolution in general. It therefore suggests, and the suggestion is built into the very structure of the book, that the fate of the Russian Revolution is the inevitable fate of all revolutions past and future. This idea is further reinforced by the setting of the story very definitely in England, which immediately carries the message that any revolution in England is destined to end the same way.

Also very significant in conveying the same idea are the points at which the story of Animal Farm diverges markedly from actual history. This may seem an unreasonable line of argument in that a beast fable of 120 pages obviously cannot reproduce with any great exactitude all the complexity of the Russian Revolution and its degeneration. But in fact one of the most notable features of Animal Farm and one of its undeniable achievements is just how closely it manages to follow the real events and how much it packs in: not just the revolution, the exile and slander of Trotsky and the purges, but also the debate on socialism in one country [12], the peasant resistance to collectivisation (the rebellion of the hens), the strategy of the popular front (the pigeons’ change of slogan from ‘Death to humanity’ to ‘Death to Frederick’) and many other relatively minor details. Of course there is much simplification but that is what it mostly is – simplification not distortion. It is in this context that two substantial alterations, one might say falsifications, of the record are important.

The most blatant of these concerns the character of Napoleon. It is clear that Napoleon represents Stalin, just as Old Major is Marx and Snowball is Trotsky. Who then represents Lenin? Since Orwell depicts the Rebellion as led by two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, one is forced to the conclusion that Napoleon also represents Lenin. Thus in Animal Farm the figures of Lenin and Stalin are merged into one character. This is of enormous ideological significance. The dominant orthodoxies both West and East have always insisted, each for their own reasons, on the continuity of Leninism and Stalinism: the former to discredit Marxism and the revolution itself as the inevitable prelude to tyranny, the latter to claim for themselves the heritage of the great revolutionary. Whether it was intentional or not, Orwell, by conflating Lenin and Stalin, unavoidably endorses the standard Western view.

There are a number of versions of the Leninism leads to Stalinism thesis. In one Lenin was from the outset a totalitarian personality bent on absolute personal power; in another it is the Leninist concept of the party that is the prime source of the totalitarian evil; in a third it is the very project of revolution that is the original sin and Lenin and Stalin are merely different stages in the predestined logic of revolution. But in all cases the implications and conclusions are profoundly reactionary.

If Animal Farm had contained a separate Lenin figure this would not in itself have resolved the matter (any more than it does in real life) but it would at least have permitted the continuity to be questioned within the terms of the text. As it is, the merger of Lenin and Stalin in Napoleon forecloses on this possibility and greatly strengthens the impression of a smooth and inevitable degeneration into dictatorship.

The second serious historical misrepresentation concerns the years immediately following the revolution and in particular the civil war of 1918 to 1921. In reality this was a period of immense and terrible suffering for the Russian people. The economy experienced near total breakdown, industrial production fell to a tiny fraction of its pre-revolutionary level, the transport system disintegrated, starvation and disease swept through the cities and the populations of Petrograd and Moscow, the heart of the revolution, fell drastically. The Whites came within a hairbreadth of crushing the young workers’ state and to defeat them the regime had to subordinate virtually everything to the needs of the army, including sacrificing a substantial part of the most politically conscious section of the working class. Relations between town and countryside were stretched to breaking point and beyond by the need to requisition grain. The Bolshevik regime was forced, repeat forced, as a matter of life and death of the revolution, to resort to harsh and authoritarian measures. [13]

It was in this period therefore that the material foundations of the Stalinist bureaucracy were laid. Not only were the authoritarian precedents established (the Bolshevik political monopoly, the banning of factions, and so on), which would later be employed by Stalin for his own purposes, but also the active subject and driving force of the revolution – the industrial proletariat – disintegrated. ‘Dislodged from its class groove’, as Lenin put it at the time, by the war and the economic collapse, the working class ceased to exist as a collective which could rule or control those who ruled in its name. It was this that initiated the transformation of the state and party officials into a privileged self serving bureaucracy.

It was against this background and in response to this situation that the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky developed in the 1920s, with each leader and each faction reflecting and representing divergent social forces. Stalin spearheaded me drive of the bureaucracy to free itself from any dependency on the working class and establish itself as a ruling class in its own right. Trotsky led the desperate resistance of that section of the working class and the Bolshevik Party which remained loyal to the original goals of the revolution. Victory went to Stalin not because of his personal superiority but because the social force for which he stood was, at that point in time, stronger and more cohesive man me working class.

In Animal Farm, however, this crucial period is depicted in a completely different light. The catastrophic difficulties and hardships of the early years disappear without trace.

How they toiled and sweated to get the hay in! But their efforts were rewarded, for the harvest was an even bigger success that they had hoped … Moreover, it was the biggest harvest the farm had ever seen … All through that summer the work of the farm went like clockwork. The animals were happy as they had never conceived it possible to be …With the worthless parasitical human beings gone, there was more for everyone to eat. There was more leisure too. [14]

The devastation of the civil war also vanishes. The Battle of the Cowshed, which corresponds to the civil war, is a very easy victory for the animals and lasts all of five minutes. The only casualties suffered by either side are one concussed stable lad and one dead sheep. The work of the farm is not disrupted one iota.

The effect of this misrepresentation is to deprive the rise of pig rule/Stalinism of any material root or causation. It reduces the struggle between Napoleon/Stalin and Snowball/Trotsky to a purely personal rivalry between individuals of conflicting temperaments. Even the central question of socialism in one country, which is given less prominence than the Windmill/industrialisation debate, is treated merely as logic chopping, a six-of-one half-a-dozen of the other argument with no significant influence on the fate of the farm/revolution.

As usual, Snowball and Napoleon were in disagreement. According to Napoleon, what the animals must do was to procure fire-arms and train themselves in the use of them. According to Snowball, they must send out more and more pigeons and stir up rebellion among the animals on the other farms. The one argued that if they could not defend themselves they were bound to be conquered, the other argued that if rebellions happened everywhere they would have no need to defend themselves. [15]

The omission of the material conditions of the revolution’s degeneration leads to what is the most reactionary feature of Animal Farm, namely the positive explanation it offers of the failure of the Rebellion to achieve its aims. This explanation is couched entirely in terms of the conflict between the ‘Utopian’ revolutionary goals of equality, freedom and democracy, and the innate fixed characteristics of the different animals.

Thus the pigs’ greed and lust for power commence from the very moment that Jones is overthrown and apply to all me pigs without exception. Orwell makes a special point of noting that on the appropriation of the milk and apples, ‘All the pigs were in full agreement … even Snowball’ [16] and such resistance as is offered to the rise of Napoleon, first by Snowball and then by the four young porkers, who protest at the abolition of me Sunday meetings, is never directed at pig rule or pig privilege as such. No reasons are given for this unanimous corruption of the pigs. It is simply presented as automatic – the inevitable expression of pig nature.

The basis of the pigs’ dominance is, of course, their superior intelligence. [17] This, like their greed, is presented as given and inborn, ‘the work of teaching and organising the others fell naturally upon the pigs who were generally recognised as being the cleverest of the animals.’ [18] The leadership role of Napoleon and Snowball is also ‘natural’ in origin. ‘Pre-eminent among the pigs were two young boars named Snowball and Napoleon ... All the other male pigs on the farm were porkers.’ [19] And what of the sows? Well, ‘naturally’ they are not worth mentioning!

Orwell misses no opportunity to reinforce the same message. In the first vote on whether rats are comrades ‘there were only four dissentients, the three dogs and the cat’. [20] The sheep behave from first to last exclusively as ‘sheep’ and Mollie, ‘the foolish, pretty white mare’ who asks ‘the stupidest questions’ [21], is only being true to her ‘nature’ when she defects to Man for the sake of sugar and ribbons. [22] In fact no animal in Animal Farm undergoes any development or is able to escape from the prison and destiny of inherited character.

This is a deeply conservative viewpoint and its right wing implications come most to the fore when we ask the question, what enables Napoleon to usurp power, how does he get away with it? The answer of Animal Farm, Orwell’s answer, is essentially that it is the stupidity of the other animals. This stupidity is emphasised throughout. In the first ‘heroic’ days of the Rebellion all decisions are taken by the general assembly or ‘Meeting’ (corresponding roughly to the Soviets) but the democracy is fatally flawed because of the animals’ lack of intelligence. ‘It was always the pigs who put forward the resolutions. The other animals understood how to vote, but could never think of any resolutions of their own.’ [23] It is for the same reason that Snowball’s attempt to involve and educate the lower creatures in Animal Committees proves a failure, as do their reading and writing classes [24], a fact which is crucial for the repeated manipulation and deception of the animals with regard to the Seven Commandments.

But if virtually all the animals (bar the pigs) are stupid it is the stupidity of Boxer the cart-horse, who symbolises the ordinary, decent, average working man, that is most stressed and most important. Boxer is key because Boxer, like the working class, has the power to deal with Napoleon and his dogs. Orwell certainly seems to have grasped the power of the working class, for he presents this very dramatically. In the scene which parallels the Moscow Trials Napoleon has set the dogs on the four previously dissident pigs. The dogs have tasted blood and three of them fling themselves at Boxer:

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 the tails between their legs. Boxer looked at Napoleon to know whether he should crush the dog or let it go. [25]

Boxer has the power but he never uses it. At every stage he is duped by Napoleon and Squealer. And he is duped because he is stupid. His response to every new piece of corruption, every new oppression, every new lie is the pathetic and submissive repetition of his mottos, ‘Napoleon is always right’ and ‘I will work harder.’ Boxer is not just stupid through circumstance, he is congenitally and irrevocably stupid. When Boxer makes his first appearance it is his strength and stupidity that are immediately mentioned:

Boxer was an enormous beast … as strong as any two ordinary horses put together … a somewhat stupid appearance, and in fact he was not of first-rate intelligence. [26]

And his stupidity resists all attempts at education. Despite great efforts he is unable to learn the alphabet beyond the letter ‘D’.

What a horrible and slanderous picture of the working class this is. Of course the intellectual development of workers is damaged by social conditions, by poverty, abysmal education and alienated labour. Of course in normal times most workers are to a greater or lesser extent dominated by the ideas of the ruling class. But these characteristics are neither innate nor unchangeable. At peaks in the class struggle ‘ordinary’ workers display extraordinary initiative and creativity and even in the depths of reaction, when the confidence to resist openly has been smashed, they are never as stupid, brainwashed and supine as Orwell suggests here.

We are now in a position to summarise succinctly the political message which emerges from Orwell’s allegorical account of the degeneration of the revolution.

It is that, while the old order is undoubtedly exploitative and cruel, the attempt to create a new order of equality and freedom is doomed to fail because it is contrary to certain unchangeable features of human nature. The division of society into rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited is inevitable because it rests on ‘natural’ inequalities, above all inequalities of intelligence. Egalitarian revolutions founder and will continue to founder because (a) there will always be some (the elite, the intellectuals, me leaders, the superior) who will seek to exploit the revolution for their own ends; and (b) they will succeed in this because the mass of ordinary people, specifically me industrial working class, are intellectually incapable of organising production and running society democratically – the working class cannot emancipate itself.

No wonder therefore that Animal Farm is so vigorously promoted by the right, for it endorses two of the most fundamental themes in its ideology: that the privileged classes owe their position to their personal superiority and that no better system is possible because the masses are inferior. The bourgeoisie is quite willing to concede that life under its rule is hard, cruel and unfair – in some ways it is to its advantage that this should be recognised and accepted – provided only that it is also accepted that mere is no alternative.

That Orwell himself does not relish this conclusion, that he finds it morally repugnant, that he sincerely cares for the lower orders and that it is not explicitly formulated but arises ‘spontaneously’ and inescapably from the story only serves to make it the more weighty.

What then accounts for this deep contradiction in Orwell’s world view? In my opinion it is the product of two factors which interact with each other.

The first is his class background. Orwell, or Eric Blair, was born into the administrative middle class of imperial Britain and educated at prep-school, Wellington and Eton. ‘To me in my early boyhood,’ he recalls, ‘to nearly all children of families like mine “common people” seemed almost sub-human.’ [27] Of course Orwell broke with this background, abandoned his career with the Indian police, rejected many of the values of his class and became a champion of the ‘common man’. But it was not a complete break. Orwell did not become a militant in and of the working class movement, nor did he adopt the world outlook of the workers’ movement, i.e. Marxism. [28] Rather he adopted the role of the self conscious outsider who, while investigating the conditions of the workers and the poor (and sympathising with them), would retain his individual independence and detachment. In the process he never lost his scepticism about the political capacities of the working class. This, like many of his psychological attitudes to the working class, is most clearly expressed in The Road to Wigan Pier:

The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle classes … a working man, so long as he remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a Socialist in the complete, logically consistent sense … so far as my experience goes, no genuine working man grasps the larger implications of Socialism … As for the philosophic side of Marxism … I have never met a working man who had the faintest interest in it … I have yet to meet a working miner, steel-worker, cotton weaver, docker, navvy or what not who was ideologically sound. [29]

This diatribe presents itself as an attack on middle class intellectual socialists, but its underlying implication is clear. Socialism in its developed form is a middle class phenomenon because workers are not capable of grasping generalised political ideas. The denial is all the more striking in that Orwell was only able to write The Road to Wigan Pier thanks to the assistance of organised political workers.

The same theme pervades the depiction of the ‘proles’ in Nineteen Eighty Four as ‘like the ant which can see small objects but not large ones’ and ‘people who had never learned to think’. Even in the great exception, Homage to Catalonia, much of the force of Orwell’s celebrated description of ‘a town where the working class was in the saddle’ comes from his amazement that working class people could achieve such a thing. [30]

The second factor and obviously objectively the most important is the bleak times through which Orwell lived: Victor Serge’s ‘midnight in the century’ – the rise of Hitler and Stalin, the Moscow Trials, the betrayal of the Spanish Revolution and the triumph of Franco, the Second World War. That Orwell should sink, under the weight of these terrible defeats and horrors, into pessimism, despair and peculiar cynicism is understandable. That such events should revive and confirm many of his deep fears and prejudices about the working class is not surprising. Conversely it is self evident that if Stalinism and Fascism had been defeated and international socialism had triumphed neither Animal Farm nor Nineteen Eighty Four would have been written. But to understand the social conditioning of a message is not to endorse it or even make it more palatable and certainly does not change the fact that it is a message which socialists have to combat.

This predominantly negative assessment of the politics of Animal Farm will, I expect, meet with the objection from some quarters that it underestimates the courage of Orwell’s anti-Stalinism. I have no wish to deny that courage but my concern is to evaluate a book, not a person, and we must remember that courage can serve all manner of causes, some downright reactionary. Nor can we forget that from the standpoint of revolutionary socialism anti-Stalinism is essential but by no means sufficient.

Anti-Stalinism that is based not on a materialist analysis of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and a commitment to working class self-emancipation, but simply on moral rejection of totalitarian methods and practices can lead to liberalism, Stalinophobia and right wing anti-Communism. An examination of Orwell’s trajectory post-Animal Farm reveals elements of these traits including a tendency to see Communism, even here in the West, as the main enemy. This is a drift which culminates in Nineteen Eighty Four, but its roots are already clearly discernible in Animal Farm.


1. G. Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (CEJL) (London 1968), Vol. 1, p. 7.

2. G. Orwell, Animal Farm (London 1987), p. 120.

3. Raymond Williams is, I think, right to suggest of the first of these moments that ‘It is one of those permanent statements about the gap between pretence and actuality, profession and practice, over a very wide range’, and of the second that ‘Seeing that they are the same because they act the same, never mind the labels and the formalities: that is a moment of gained consciousness, a potentially liberating discovery’. (R. Williams, Orwell (Glasgow 1971), p. 74).

4. CEJL, Vol. 1, pp. 377–8.

5. See CEJL, Vol. 1, p. 539, and R. Williams, op. cit., pp. 63–64.

6. In the preface to the Ukrainian edition he wrote: ‘… 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.’ CEJL, Vol. 3, p. 405.

7. CEJL, Vol. 1, p. 5.

8. See CEJL, Vol. 4, p. 502.

9. It should be noted that what Orwell endorses is Marx’s (moral) condemnation of capitalism and not Marx’s theory of history. Orwell was never at any point a Marxist theoretically and had only a very rudimentary knowledge of Marxism.

10. Animal Farm, p. 100.

11. Animal Farm, p. 32.

12. See Animal Farm, p. 46.

13. The basic facts concerning this terrible period should be known to most International Socialism readers. However, the best of many accounts is T. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 3, The Revolution Besieged (London 1978).

14. Animal Farm, pp. 25–26.

15. Ibid., p. 46,

16. Ibid., p. 32.

17. Note the contradiction between this and the milk and apples episode already highlighted. Ethically Orwell rejects superior intelligence as a justification for privileges, but sociologically he depicts it as the basis of class divisions.

18. Animal Farm, p. 15.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., p. 11.

21. Ibid., p. 16.

22. The character of Mollie is a particularly crude sexist stereotype, symptomatic of Orwell’s attitude to women.

23. Animal Farm, p. 28.

24. There is another interesting contradiction here which may again illustrate the conflict between Orwell’s intentions and his execution, between his conscious purposes and his sub or semi-conscious assumptions. On page 29 he tells us, ‘The reading and writing classes however were a great success. By autumn almost every animal was literate to some degree’. But on page 30 he goes into detail and it turns out that, apart from the pigs, only the dogs, Muriel the goat and Benjamin the donkey learn to read. The vast bulk of the animals get no further than the letter ‘A’.

25. Animal Farm, p. 72.

26. Animal Farm, p. 6.

27. G. Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (Harmondsworth 1987), p. 10.

28. Orwell’s service with the POUM militia might seem to contradict this, but his original intention in going to Spain was to ‘gather materials for newspaper articles, etc.’ (CEJL, Vol. 1, p. 316) and his membership of the POUM was almost accidental, not based on political commitment. (See R. Williams, op. cit., pp. 54–55.)

29. The Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 152–5.

30. I am indebted to Charlie Hore for this observation.

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