Orwell’s Animal Farm: “a statement about human society everywhere and at all times”

Orwell’s Animal Farm is commonly read as a critique of Stalinism. However, is it a critique of Stalinism or totalitarianism in general? And, what is more significant, is it a cautionary tale of how quickly and easily a power structure might turn totalitarian? Or, is it inherently? Did the animals on the Farm simply re-create what they had wanted 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, refusing publication, T. S. Elliot 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

What was 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, in some sense, or potentially? Is this the true source of T. S. Elliot’s dissatisfaction, too unpleasant for him to pinpoint accurately?

Perhaps, Orwell’s views can be glimpsed, to some extent, from other sources. Orwell wrote an Introduction to Animal Farm. It was not published with the book, and remained unpublished for the next thirty years. It was eventually 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, some commentary on the Introduction can be found here.)

Another source is Orwell’s commentary on Zamyatin’s We:

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

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 harder question that is likely to produce a less than palatable answer. Perhaps, what Orwell “aims at” is “the implied aim” of any power structure.

John Sutherland raises a similar question in his essay on Animal Farm at 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.[2] 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

A related post on Quotations: Zamyatin and Huxley through Orwell’s eyes

Orwell Society on Russian Revolution: