Orwell’s Animal Farm is commonly read as a critique of Stalinism. However, is it a cautionary tale of how quickly and easily any power structure might turn totalitarian? Does any power structure contain seeds of potential abusiveness? Did the animals on the Farm simply re-create that which they desired to change?
“If you have your lower animals to contend with,” he said, “we have our lower classes!”Animal Farm, Chapter 10
In his letter to Orwell, T. S. Elliot, refusing publication, writes:
On the other hand, we have no conviction (and I am sure none of the other directors would have) that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time. [Emphasis – Quotations] It is certainly the duty of any publishing firm which pretends to other interests and motives than mere commercial prosperity, to publish books which go against the current of the moment: but in each instance that demands that at least one member of the firm should have the conviction that this is the thing that needs saying at the moment. I can’t see any reason of prudence or caution to prevent anybody from publishing this book – if he believed in what it stands for.
Now I think my own dissatisfaction with this apologue is that the effect is simply one of negation. It ought to excite some sympathy with what the author wants, as well as sympathy with his objections to something: and the positive point of view, which I take to be generally Trotskyite, is not convincing. [Emphasis – Quotations] I think you split your vote, without getting any compensating stronger adhesion from either party – i.e. those who criticise Russian tendencies from the point of view of a purer communism, and those who, from a very different point of view, are alarmed about the future of small nations. And after all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm – in fact, there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed, (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.from Letter to George Orwell from Faber & Faber Limited (T.S. Eliot), 13 July 1944
Elliot provides an explanation of faux complexity. It seems, he either did not understand Orwell’s book or wanted to avoid being explicit about his views. What may have been the true source of T.S. Elliot “dissatisfaction”?
Orwell ends his book with:
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.Animal Farm, Chapter 10.
Does Orwell tell us that he sees the two states as identical? Is this the true source of T. S. Elliot’s discontent, perhaps too unpleasant for him to pinpoint accurately?
Orwell wrote an introduction to Animal Farm that remained unpublished for the next thirty years. Eventually it was printed by the New York Times on October 8, 1972, under Orwell’s original title: The Freedom of the Press. (The New York Times article requires a subscription; however, the text can be found here and some commentary – here.) Orwell’s introduction may be interpreted as suggesting that a critique of Stalinism is his purpose, but most of the essay is seemingly devoted to a discussion of the publicity that surrounded his book at the time of its publication and of his views on the freedom of thought.
When Animal Farm was published in Ukraine in 1947, Orwell wrote a preface in which he touched upon his creative process:
On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone and which could be easily translated into other languages. However, the actual details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day (I was then living in a small village) I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.
I proceeded to analyse Marx’s theory from the animals’ point of view. To them it was clear that the concept of a class struggle between humans was pure illusion, since whenever it was necessary to exploit animals, all humans united against them: the true struggle is between animals and humans. From this point of departure, it was not difficult to elaborate the story. I did not write it out till 1943, for I was always engaged on other work which gave me no time; and in the end I included some events, for example the Teheran Conference, which were taking place while I was writing. Thus the main outlines of the story were in my mind over a period of six years before it was actually written.GEORGE ORWELL’S PREFACE TO THE UKRAINIAN EDITION OF ANIMAL FARM, MARCH 1947
Despite Orwell explicitly states that his objective was “exposing the Soviet myth”, the manner in which he does the “exposing” tells a more complex story. Through juxtaposition, the two regimes are likened to each other.
Orwell’s commentary on Zamyatin’s We provides another insight:
It may well be, however, that Zamyatin did not intend the Soviet regime to be the special target of his satire. Writing at about the time of Lenin’s death, he cannot have had the Stalin dictatorship in mind, and conditions in Russia in 1923 were not such that anyone would revolt against them on the ground that life was becoming too safe and comfortable. What Zamyatin seems to be aiming at is not any particular country but the implied aims of industrial civilisation.FREEDOM AND HAPPINESS (REVIEW OF ‘WE’ BY YEVGENY ZAMYATIN), George Orwell
Zamyatin’s We was an inspiration for Orwell. As with Zamyatin’s We, it is much simpler and deceptively satisfying to ‘dismiss’ Orwell’s Animal Farm as a critique of a particular regime, as opposed to asking a vastly more unpleasant question, the answer to which is likely to be unpalatable to many. Perhaps, what Orwell “aims at” is “the implied aim” of any power structure. Possibly, T. S. Elliot refused to publish Orwell’s work because he actually understood what the book described, and, being in a position of power in that specific situation, he did not like being compared to a pig.
John Sutherland raises a similar question in his essay on Animal Farm published by the British Library:
… Or is Animal Farm a statement about human society everywhere and at all times?
In her study of the CIA’s cold war culture-war Frances Stonor Saunders describes how the CIA covertly acquired the subsidiary rights to Animal Farm from Orwell’s second wife and widow Sonia. The film was produced in England and released in 1954, the ending radically changed to predict the eventual overthrow of swine-human totalitarianism by the unquenchable forces of Western democracy. It was a wholly non-Orwellian happy ending.
… This is a book which contains perennially valid truths.from An introduction to Animal Farm (British Library) John Sutherland
P. S. In light of the recent publication The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, a correction is needed. Animal Farm is a statement about human society but not “everywhere and at all times”, as the archaeologists and anthropologists clarify. (And, as the economists tell us, this does not have to be the case in our times either.)
A related post on Quotations: Zamyatin and Huxley through Orwell’s eyes
Orwell Society on Russian Revolution: