Review: Revisiting Animal Farm

Allegory of the terrible betrayal of the Russian revolution

Andy Ford reviews George Orwell’s influential story, 70 years since it was first published in 1945

A success almost from the start, Animal Farm was rated among the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century by Time Magazine. It often features in the school curriculum. Conversely it was banned in all the Stalinist countries right up until 1989, and remains banned in Zimbabwe, Burma and even some conservative Gulf states.

The first thing that strikes you is how well-written it is. The action unfolds in clear straightforward language, with the deceptive simplicity of a fairy tale. In fact its original title was ’Animal Farm: A Fairy Story’. Orwell’s craft as a novelist shows in his introduction of the animals as they assemble for their first meeting in Chapter One. He gives exactly the right amount of information to outline their characters for later use. Also Orwell’s use of humour, as when the cat votes both ways at the meeting (by voting both for and against the question "Are rats comrades?"), ensures the book is enjoyable to read and also memorable afterwards.

Orwell had experienced the full depths of the Communist Party and Stalinists’ despicable actions and repeated and monumental lying in the Spanish civil war where he served with a political formation influenced by Trotsky, the POUM militia, and he was determined to tell the truth about Stalinist Russia. To do so he chose the method of an allegory, where almost every action in the novel has its parallel in Stalin’s seizure of power and brutal mismanagement of the Soviet Union.

The narrative begins with ‘Old Major’, a kind of amalgam of Marx and Lenin, explaining his idea of a society where the animals are no longer exploited by human beings and enjoy the fruits of their labour. The idea is taken up enthusiastically by the animals and sooner than they could have ever expected the incompetent rule of Farmer Jones (the tsar) is overthrown. The farm is renamed ‘Animal Farm’, a new flag of the ‘hoof and horn’ is created, and leadership is assumed by the pigs, in particular Napoleon (Stalin) and Snowball (Trotsky) – but they seem never to agree.

An early forewarning of future problems is seen when Napoleon takes charge of the farm’s milk, only for it to ‘disappear’, bringing to mind the recently unearthed evidence that even early on after the revolution Stalin issued an order that officials and bureaucrats were to get an extra ration of bread – in this way cementing loyalty to himself. But extra bread would be a pitiful inducement except in conditions of mass hunger. This was Trotsky’s starting point for his important analysis of the degeneration of the USSR. In an obscure article discussing the theoretical possibility of revolution in a backward country, Marx had written "where want is generalised all the old crap [ie oppression] would revive", and Trotsky realised that want and hunger had been the starting point for Stalin’s triumph.

A wave of rebellion sweeps the other farms as Animal Farm sends out pigeons with the message of revolution, rather like the early Third International. The human beings cannot tolerate this and invade the farm but are soundly beaten by the tremendous efforts of the animals, led by Snowball. Napoleon takes little part in the ‘Battle of the Cowshed’, just as Stalin played little part in the Russian civil war when the new revolutionary state was invaded by just about every capitalist power on the planet. Trotsky formed and led the Red Army which defeated the invaders.

Napoleon and Snowball next disagree on the building of a windmill on Animal Farm. This mirrors the dispute between Stalin and Trotsky over industrialising the Soviet Union. The dispute is settled when Napoleon appears with vicious dogs he has reared in secret in the farmhouse and chases Snowball off the farm, in an allegory of Stalin’s use of his secret police to exile Trotsky and frighten his supporters into silence. And just as in the Soviet Union of the late 1920s, Napoleon steals Snowball’s ideas and presents them as his own. From that point on the weekly meetings to discuss and agree Animal Farm’s next steps are turned into meetings for the animals to receive their instructions, just as the initially democratic soviets were turned into transmission belts for the instructions of the ruling clique.

The windmill is laboriously constructed by the animals, in particular Boxer, the farm horse. Tremendously strong and self-sacrificing, Boxer throughout is the symbol of the ordinary Soviet workers. Despite his efforts the windmill collapses, just like much of Stalin’s first five-year plan was unsuccessful, leading to the tremendous famine of the early 1930s. While the animals are close to starvation gullible human visitors are shown a fake abundance of food, just as the ‘Friends of the Soviet Union’ (a group Orwell despised) were fooled by Stalin’s stage-managed tours. Despite its collapse Napoleon orders Boxer and the animals to construct it all over again.

Meanwhile Napoleon begins negotiations with two neighbouring farms over trade deals. The first, Foxwood, is declining and badly kept (Britain), another, Pinchfield, is well kept with a farmer "always involved in law suits" (Nazi Germany). Napoleon plays one against the other but eventually sells some timber to Pinchfield, despite the horrific cruelty of its owner to his animals. Once the deal is done the animals are told that the stories of torture and cruelty were "very much exaggerated". And just like Hitler, the deal is repaid with an invasion of Animal Farm from Pinchfield which the animals only beat off with tremendous suffering and the destruction, again, of the windmill.

One of the most terrible moments in the book is the death of Boxer. After all his efforts to construct the windmill, he is getting old, and his hoof is slow to heal. Napoleon says he will be sent to a veterinary surgeon, but when the van arrives to collect him, the animals realise it is painted with the words "Alfred Simmons. Horse Slaughter and Glue Boiler". Boxer is being taken to the knacker’s yard. Just so were the heroic Soviet workers repaid for their efforts by Stalin in the great purges of the 1930s.

"All animals are equal but some are more equal than others"

The final betrayal comes when the guiding moral of Animal Form – that ‘All animals are equal’ – is altered to read: "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others". In just such a crude and hypocritical manner did Stalin and his acolytes betray the founding principles of the USSR. In the famous scene at the end of the book, based on the Tehran conference of 1943, the animals look from "pig to man, and man to pig, but it was impossible to say which was which".

So complete was the degeneration by 1943 that Orwell could see no difference, and in fact Trotsky made the same point – that in outward appearance and behaviour there was indeed little to choose between the Stalin clique and the dictators and leaders of capitalism. But Trotsky pointed out that the economic foundations of the USSR were completely different to those of the capitalist states and it was this that enabled the USSR to defeat the Nazi hordes.

The book has had a peculiar publishing history. Initially in 1945 Stalinist sympathisers hindered its progress but its honesty and sheer quality shone through leading to some good, then rave reviews, followed by world-wide sales, allowing Orwell the time and the funds to work on his final book, 1984. Then the book was taken up as a crude anti-Russian propaganda tool by the CIA, which funded an animated film in 1954. The idea is still often propagated in schools that revolution is futile as it just leads to dictatorship. But nothing could be further from Orwell’s views. The book at all points defends the initial act of revolution and the true hero is Boxer, who like working class people everywhere is the true source of any wealth and success on the farm. The fact that he is tricked and duped out of that wealth, and even to his cruel death, is more an indictment of Napoleon than of Boxer.

Orwell never found his way to a theoretical understanding of the degeneration of the Soviet Union. But he was a principled and sincere democrat and socialist and Animal Farm stands as an honest and superbly written allegory of the terrible betrayal of the Russian revolution by a gang of self-seeking, unprincipled cut-throats.

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December 2015