Sunday, April 25, 2010

All Animals Are Equal

(Click on the image for its source and more information)

Homo Superior points to a piece on George Orwell's Animal Farm by Christopher Hitchens at/in the Guardian -- but mainly, it seems, to complain about "all these passive-verb sentences". (Maybe he's alluding to Orwell's admonition "Never use the passive voice where you can use the active"?) I'd be grateful for the link simply for a related story sending Hitchens up for using "lesbian" as some kind of insult, with a link to a wonderful (or maybe terrifying) site that I'm going to add to my blogroll. And I'm taking it as an opportunity to post here a piece I wrote on Animal Farm in the 90s for the local student newspaper.

If I had to point to one decisive influence that swung my politics to the left, it would be easy: George Orwell's Animal Farm, which I discovered in the fifth or sixth grade. I read it on my own, not in school, which is probably why it wasn't until years later that I encountered the prevailing interpretation of the book.

Both Right and Left agree that Animal Farm is a Cold War tract, an attack on Stalin's USSR and a vindication of Churchill and Truman's national security states. When they're feeling charitable, my fellow leftists dismiss it as a product of tubercular delirium in Orwell's last years. Right-wingers see Animal Farm as a sign that Orwell was abandoning socialism in favor of a mature anti-Communism, like that of Joe McCarthy or Francisco Franco. Both sides assume that anti-communism equals fawning pro-capitalism, but that's not how I understood Animal Farm, so this summer I went to the library and reread it.

The introduction to the Time-Life edition I read declares that when Animal Farm was published in 1946, "already it was becoming brutally clear that wartime hopes of peacetime cooperation between the West and Russia had been dangerously naive." If that was Orwell's message, he didn't manage to get it into Animal Farm, which states clearly that the rulers of capitalist society will find peaceful cooperation with totalitarian states brutally easy.

It's true that the rebellious animals of the Manor Farm are betrayed by the pigs, who represent the Communist elites who ruled the Soviet Union. But if Animal Farm is a defense of Western democracy and free enterprise, where are the benevolent democratic leaders of the West? They can only be represented by the vicious, drunken farmers, who have no redeeming qualities at all. By Cold War values, the ending of Animal Farm is a happy one. The pigs have seen the error of their ways and become just like their farmer counterparts, who in turn see at Animal Farm "a discipline and an orderliness which should be an example to all farmers everywhere.... [T]he lower animals on Animal Farm did more work and received less food than any animals in the county." I can imagine Winston Churchill expressing such views, or the architects of NAFTA.

"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." This hardly depicts a radical difference between England and the USSR, Churchill and Stalin: it says that they are indistinguishable. East and West can meet, if not altogether amicably: "Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress.... The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr. Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously." Cheaters both. For me this scene calls up images of Nixon meeting Chairman Mao, or Reagan dining with Deng Xiaoping.

"But the luxuries of which Snowball had once taught the animals to dream, the stalls with electric light and hot and cold water, and the three-day week, were no longer talked about. Napoleon had denounced such ideas as contrary to the spirit of Animalism. The truest happiness, he said, lay in working hard and living frugally." Is this Stalinism -- or is it Reaganism, the Era of Diminishing Expectations? Grandiose dreams of increased comfort and leisure were bruited about when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s; now we hear that the postwar boom was an economic aberration, and we had better adjust to the idea that things are going to get worse, not better.

No, Animal Farm is a subversive book. If the adults who allowed it into my school's library had really read it, they'd have made sure I never did. The right-wing censors who want to purge the curriculum of any real political incorrectness don't realize that their hero, George Orwell, is laughing at them from his grave.
Hitchens's column does include some interesting information about Animal Farm's publishing history and its reception worldwide, for which I thank him. He crows over having noticed "one very salient omission":
There is a Stalin pig and a Trotsky pig, but no Lenin pig. Similarly, in Nineteen Eighty-Four we find only a Big Brother Stalin and an Emmanuel Goldstein Trotsky. Nobody appears to have pointed this out at the time (and if I may say so, nobody but myself has done so since; it took me years to notice what was staring me in the face).
He's right, though I think I recall having noticed the omission myself. Never wrote about it, though, and while it's interesting if you demand that your allegories walk on all four feet, I'm not sure it means anything. (Hitchens has nothing to say about its significance either.) I think what I pointed out is more meaningful, especially with regard to Animal Farm's reception by the anti-Communist West. Someone must have noticed it before, but I don't recall ever reading anyone who did. People like Malcolm Muggeridge (who wrote the introduction to the Time-Life edition that I quoted in my column) didn't realize that the leaders of the US and Britain during the Cold War were Orwell's farmers, every bit as vicious and corrupt as the Soviet Union's pigs.