Following her appearance on the In Our Time radio programme discussing Orwell's Animal Farm, Professor Mary Vincent reflects on its powerfully written but fundamentally untruthful and simplistic analysis of Soviet Russia, based on Orwell's mistaken interpretation of the Spanish Civil War and his blindness to gender issues.
When I picked up Animal Farm to reread it before taking part in Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time the other week, I did so with some trepidation. Going to discuss it with colleagues who are more expert in Orwell’s life and works than I am seemed a daunting task, particularly as I had first read the book as a schoolgirl. But it took only a few pages for the power, and simplicity, of the allegory to take hold. The importance of Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War in the shaping of the narrative leapt out from almost every page. The new society that the animals create remains a source of hope even as it is being gradually dismantled. This was the ‘state of affairs worth fighting for’ that Orwell had glimpsed when he arrived in revolutionary Barcelona in December 1936 and that had later been betrayed by Moscow. Paradise, briefly glimpsed, is slowly and inexorably lost.
It is this sense of inevitability that gives Animal Farm its power. The allegory is of the totalitarianism of the left, which Orwell believed had destroyed the Spanish revolution. There are, though, many other echoes of his Civil War experiences. The set-piece battles, the struggles to defend the windmill, the ‘victory’ declared when a piece of ground has simply been regained, all come from his time in the trenches on the Aragón front, where illiterate soldiers were taught to read. For the Republican government, literacy was emancipatory, rather than the tool of power it becomes for Orwell’s pigs. With the other animals, they establish a collective form of social and economic life on the farm, just as the villages of Aragón were collectivized. As a collective, Animal Farm is very like its Spanish forerunners: surrounded by agricultural land and so, in some senses, cut off; self-sufficient in food but with no means of making petrol, medicines or many manufactured goods; heroic but not necessarily efficient.
These drawbacks are clearly shown in Animal Farm but there is no sense that they contributed to the final outcome. The socialist utopia is betrayed by the pigs just as the Spanish workers were betrayed by Stalin’s henchmen. Any wider complexity or contingent circumstances are omitted or ignored. This may be an unfair criticism of the ‘fairytale’ of Animal Farm but it’s a significant issue with Homage to Catalonia. The relationship between the two is close. After all, Spain was where Orwell saw what he profoundly believed to be the truth of Stalinism when the POUM, whose militia he belonged to, was suppressed. This was, to him, the truth of experience; he and his fellow POUMistas were witnesses to the real nature of Stalinist power. He was thus compelled to reveal it. Animal Farm is a way of bearing witness.
As with all Orwell’s later writing, its power lies in its prose. This is plain, clear, and deceptively simple. It is the result of great skill and much craft, honed by his years of filing journalistic copy and informed by his audience. Orwell wrote for the ordinary man. His disdain for the literati led to some odd alliances—for example with the bombastic and reactionary fantasist, Roy Campbell—and his romanticized belief in the ordinary worker never wavered. The plainness of his prose conveyed a common sense approach to history and politics, determined, more than anything, by his own experience. Orwell always operated from first principles, with little background research or wider investigation. He lived his truth; as witness, he was the hero in his own narrative. He spoke out about the suppression of the POUM—a nasty, unnecessary skirmish that followed the reassertion of control by the central Republican government—and reinterpreted it as the central struggle in not only the Spanish Civil War but also the wider history of the European left.
He also spoke up for the innate goodness of the common man, the ‘crystal spirit’ he wrote of in the poem ‘The Italian solider shook my hand’. In Animal Farm, it is the animals themselves who play the role of the workers, who are also the people of England. As with the Italian militiaman—about whom Orwell knew absolutely nothing—it is an idealized picture rather than an analytical one. The pigs are a caste while the other animals are distinguished by occupation with very little, if any, differentiation between them. There is no complexity to the social world of Animal Farm.
This simplicity enhances the power of the fable, but make it impossible to use it as an analysis. Take, for example, the way gender is treated—or rather not treated—in the book. Interestingly, Napoleon is the only virile male in the book, at least the only one to sire children. The female pigs are simply breeders; the dogs are bitches but only so they can provide Napoleon’s vicious canine defenders. Clover is a mare but her gender isn’t important; Molly, the pony, leaves for another farm, seduced by sugar lumps and ribbons, a caricature of a silly girl. The association of masculinity, power, and violence is never explored. As with other forms of complexity, gender is simply absent. We can identify Stalin and Trotsky behind the characters in Animal Farm and the vision of Marx or perhaps Lenin. But don’t bother looking for Kollontai or Luxemburg or even Pasionaria.