Thursday, 6 March 2008


Animal Farm: A Fairy Story
By George Orwell
Centenary Edition, Penguin Books, 2003
120 pages, £7.99


George Orwell’s Animal Farm is published here in a “Centenary Edition” that contains a preface written by Orwell for the first edition (Secker and Warburg 1945) but never published, together with a preface that he wrote specially for a translation for displaced Ukrainians living under British and US administration after World War II.

If we are to take Orwell at his word in the first of these prefaces, Animal Farm is intended as a critique of the Stalinist Soviet regime “from the left”. He explicitly dissociates himself from conservative critiques, which he describes as “manifestly dishonest, out of date, and actuated by sordid motives”.

This is laudable: a left-wing critique of Stalinism was desperately needed in Britain at a time when the prestige of Stalin’s regime was at its apogee, and almost all of the left was turning a blind eye to the regime’s crimes.

No doubt the attempt manifests a degree of intellectual courage on Orwell’s part. But his work has largely been hijacked by the very conservatives he distanced himself from. This edition, for example, displays ringing endorsements from The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Evening Standard, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator.

It is perhaps unfair to blame an author for the (mis)use of his work after his death, so let’s ask: how successful was Orwell’s attempt to provide a critique of Stalinism “from the left”? Orwell believed that the Bolshevik revolution had degenerated into something at least as bad as Tsarism, and much abuse has been heaped on Orwell by those on the left who refused to believe that the revolution had indeed degenerated under Stalin. However, we can surely now leave that sort of criticism of Orwell safely behind.

A prerequisite of a left-wing critique of the degeneration of the revolution is the provision of an accurate account of its causes. Two prominent causes were the scarcity of material resources and the low level of industrial and technological development in Russia in 1917, together with the severe weakening — indeed, near annihilation — of the already numerically small working class, mainly as a result of the civil war that followed the invasion of Bolshevik Russia by a coalition of several imperialist countries, including Britain and the US.

Thus, although it survived the catastrophic destruction of the civil war, Bolshevik Russia lacked two of the key characteristics identified by Karl Marx as necessary for a successful transition from capitalism to socialism: a very high level of capitalist development (making possible an abundance of material resources), plus a numerically strong working class with a high level of cultural, political and technical development. Without these, the field was open for the formation of bureaucratic strata whose dominance of the USSR was crystallised in Stalin’s dictatorship and the defeat of the left-opposition within the Bolshevik Party.

Animal Farm completely fails to reflect these key causes of the revolution’s degeneration. In the story, the rebellion of the animals leaves them with a material abundance of food: there is milk galore and a generous harvest of windfall apples, both of which are simply purloined by the cunning and selfish pigs, led by Napoleon (Joseph Stalin) and the soon-to-be-ousted Snowball (Leon Trotsky). In addition, only one animal — a sheep — dies as a result of the “civil war”, an attempt by the deposed farmer Mr Jones and his human friends to retake the farm.

Thus, in Orwell’s story the Rebellion degenerates despite conditions of material abundance and an “animal class” left largely intact by human aggression. Orwell seems to be saying that unless ruled by humans, the mass of animals will inevitably succumb to the tyrannical rule of the cunning and selfish among themselves. Transposed to the human domain, the moral of Orwell’s story is clear: without the capitalist class to govern them, the mass of workers will inevitably find themselves subject to the tyranny of the “brainworkers” among them.

Of course, the animals in the tale are far from the high level of political, cultural and technical development required for the success of a socialist revolution. But there’s the rub: Orwell’s animals, with the exception of the pigs, are, though hard working, loyal and trustworthy, devoid of all intelligence and completely unable to learn anything from experience. This extremely low estimate of the potentialities of the working class is part of Orwell’s conception of the possibilities open to socialists. The options are exhausted by Stalinist totalitarianism and the “social democratic” struggle for reforms within the confines of “western parliamentary democracy”.

The flipside of Orwell’s elitist and patronising attitude towards working people is his highly distorted picture of the nature of British capitalism. In the first preface, he writes of “the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation” and states that “tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England (sic)". That would be the “intellectual liberty” afforded — not so long before Orwell’s time — to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and other ordinary workers, imprisoned, banished or simply murdered by the British state for daring to organise trade unions, or the “tolerance and decency” that callously sent millions of young people to the slaughterhouse of World War I — not to mention the horrors of imperial rule within the British Isles and overseas.

The intellectual liberty, tolerance and decency of British imperialism are the real Orwellian fantasy: insofar as those qualities have roots in Britain, they are the product of generations of struggle by the working people that Orwell snobbishly portrays as bovine dunces. It's not hard to see why Orwell is the darling of the ruling-class newspapers mentioned above. He may genuinely have attempted to provide a critique of Stalin’s USSR “from the left”, but all that he actually produced — in Animal Farm at least — was a banal piece of ruling-class propaganda.

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