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Animal Farm: Socialism and Class Consciousness

The BBC recently showed the 1955 Cold War animation film of Animal Farm produced by Halas and Bachelor from the novel by George Orwell. The animated film was supposed to be a lesson of not only what happens when a revolution goes wrong but that all revolutions are bound to fail because of flawed original thinking and impractical execution. The CIA paid for the filming as its cultural contribution to the Cold War, subtly changing many of Orwell’s themes and ideas in the service of the US against the USSR (see D. J. Leab, Orwell subverted, 2007).

The novel, ANIMAL FARM, is a fable, a fairy story satirising the Russian coup d’etat in 1917 by the Bolsheviks and the subsequent rise of Stalin and his reign of terror during the 1930s. It was written by George Orwell between November 1943 and February 1944, and published in 1945.

The importance of the publication of ANIMAL FARM was that this was the first serious literary criticism of Stalinism, although the Socialist Party of Great Britain had consistently criticised Lenin, Stalin and Russia State capitalism from 1918. The capitalist Left in Britain had been dominated through the 1930s by the communist Party and fellow-travellers, and especially in wartime, with Stalin seen as an ally against fascism: so an overt criticism of Stalinism would not have been published - even ANIMAL FARM, first rejected by T S Eliot at Faber & Faber, only got printed as a story for children.

Orwell himself wrote of ANIMAL FARM that it was the first work in which ‘I tried with full consciousness of what I was doing to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole’, (G. Orwell, COLLECTED ESSAYS, JOURNALISM AND LETTERS (CEJL) (Penguin London, 1968, Vol. 1, p. 7). Orwell’s aim was to make art political.

The farm animals led by the pigs expel the farmer and set up a farm with an egalitarian set of “seven commandments”, to be run in the interest of all the animals. But the pigs take control, there are subsequent purges, denouncements and false confessions, and the use of dogs by the pigs to terrorise, control and dictate to the other animals. The seven commandments originally drawn up by the animals are reduced to a single law: “All animals are equal: but some are more equal than others”. The animals, especially the horses, work heroically to build a mill - just as in Russia workers and peasants slaved to meet Stakhanovite targets, imposed by the Party. And rations for the animals are ever shorter, while the pigs enjoy a privileged, lavish lifestyle.

The pigs controlled information and distorted history - an important theme that Orwell focussed on in his 1984, just a few years later, which is far more of a dystopia than ANIMAL FARM. ANIMAL FARM got through the post-war Iron Curtain because it seemed to be an innocuous children’s tale. As a fable it followed Aesop, La Fontaine and the Russian Krylov - also Saltykov-Schedrin - in using an innocent-looking fable about animals to describe reality and spell out a radical moral, even under strict censorship.

The novel ends on a pessimistic note. Pilkington, a farmer from an adjacent farm, gambles and drinks with the pigs who ape human behaviour by walking on two feet and dressing up in clothes while the name of the farm reverts back to Manor Farm. The final scene is of the animals outside the dining room window to the farmhouse watching Napoleon the pig quarrelling with Mr Pilkington the farmer over a game of cards. Orwell wrote:

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 (Penguin, 2015, p.115).

The novel is an example of a dystopia – the opposite of a Utopia; a nightmare world of violence, alienation and despair. In a dystopia, a writer sets out a horrifying future and leaves it to the reader to ascertain how not to go there. For Orwell the Animals were too stupid to liberate themselves. They were only fit to be led, either by humans or by the pigs. This is the deep anti-Marxism in the book and it is for this reason it is celebrated by Conservative newspapers and academics who see in Orwell as “one of their own”. ANIMAL FARM was a piece of ruling-class propaganda.

The consequence of revolution for most of the animals is that they have no power; they are subject to arbitrary violence, remain exploited and are no better off than when Farmer Jones ran the farm. In fact the situation is apparently worse for them than it had been before. They had been promised “animalism” a social system that would improve their lives but this had not been the case. They remained exploited.

There was no hope left. Hope in the promise of a better world had been held out to the animals by the Boar “Old Major” (Marx). Hope was to be in animal solidarity working together with a common aim. But the last scene in the novel - of the animals peering in through the farmhouse window at the new exploiting class - showed the animals’ apparently hopeless situation.

But did the animals lose all hope? If they see no difference between men and pigs, surely this is recognition of their own subject position in the farm. You can learn from your mistakes; there is hope from despair, although the servile support given by the animals to the pigs - the Bolsheviks that ruled Russia - shows that political lessons are not always learnt. However the scene of the ruling class quarrelling with each other, the one seen by the animals through the farmhouse window, will not go away, so hope always remains that a socialist revolution is still possible. The animals can learn from their experience and make history for themselves.

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