Wednesday, 24 May 2017 13:33

Animal Farm: a powerfully written allegory but an untruthful, gender-blind analysis

Published in Fiction

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.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017 13:33

Communism in the gunsights

Published in Fiction

Graham Stevenson reviews the recent In Our Time radio programme about George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Melvyn Bragg's discursive radio series, In Our Time, recently considered Orwell's Animal Farm with comment from Steven Connor, Grace 2 Professor of English at the University of Cambridge, Mary Vincent, Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sheffield, and Robert Colls, Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University.  The usual response of the liberal-minded intelligentsia to Orwell, awe-filled exaggeration of his `timeless’ importance was there, as was to be expected. But it was refreshing to hear Professor Vincent openly judge Orwell as being completely wrong about Spain, as perhaps befits the author of original research in the social basis of Franco's support, particularly that provided by the Catholic Church, as evidenced in her “Catholicism in the Second Spanish Republic” (1996).

Much of the programme was a well-travelled rehearsal of the events of Animal Farm and of Orwell’s own life. A staunch critique of publishers’ reluctance to publish the text is made, hindsight-driven as it is an expected justification that publishers were fearful was focused on the assumption that it was merely the fact of the prestige of the Red Army and Commander-in-Chief Stalin that worried people who spend their lives sending out rejection slips!

Sloppy historical facts abounded; for example, it was said the Cold War had more or less started in August 1945, so it was “alright” to publish Animal Far then but not a year or two earlier. In fact, it was the British government’s announcement that it could no longer afford to prop up the right wing anti-communists in Greece as late as February 1947 that promoted US President Truman to announce a global programme of funding of such projects that was the trigger for the Cold War.

The truth is that Orwell’s book wasn’t (isn’t) very good and it only makes sense as a tongue-in-cheek fable about Communism. The 1941 drawings by Gertrude Elias for a storyboard for a cartoon film featured Nazi hoodlums as pigs – and the allegory rooted in personal experience. She mooted the idea for a cartoon to the Ministry of Information and the imagery and ideas were known to Orwell, who briefly worked there as a BBC Talks Producer. He and Elias knew each other and she was later very firm in that the core of his Animal Farm was effectively plagiarised from her, after the mischievous inversion of Nazi pigs into Soviet ones.

In 1946, the New Republic book reviewer, George Soules, panned Animal Farm with disgust: “the book puzzled and saddened me. It seemed on the whole dull. The allegory turned out to be a creaking machine for saying in a clumsy way things that have been said better directly. And many of the things said are not instantly recognized as the essence of truth, but are of the sort which start endless and boring controversy.”

Such a view of the work was common; indeed, it was not uncritically or well received at any point until the CIA heavily popularised it. Orwell wrote a preface to a 1947 Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm in which he makes it clear that this is an anti-Soviet work, designed to undermine the Soviet Union. One moment’s thought – a Ukrainian edition in 1947 – should make clear the malevolence with which this book was promoted. Amusingly, Melvyn Bragg comments that for a work slating propaganda this is “an irony”. Perhaps there is a more cynical explanation?
In terms of substance, its value is over-rated by the process of filling its gaps with belief that they are intended. It is helped in this by being written with great speed and little skill (the original work was sub-titled “A Fairy Tale”) and the fact that it isn’t very long. Supposedly, it is full of laconic irony and is a humorous satire, as critics of Orwell and his sources have long stated, his work is almost entirely at odds with the two famous anti-communist pieces.

Frustratingly, the radio discussion speeds past the 1930s and 40s, almost missing the Spanish war. Yet it is noted that Orwell’s contrary nature seemed always to start with opposing one thing and ending up against another. Although, the canonisation into a “saintly and heroic” figure in the 1950s is touched on, that he doesn’t see any contrariness in Nazism is passed over almost without comment. It is communism that is in the gunsights.

Seemingly, it is the rewriting of history that is the strongest motivator of Orwell; the “fragility of memory”. Yet, frustratingly, it is only as the broadcast programme is about to end and the off-air (intriguingly available on the web) discussion emerges that the expert of the piece, Professor Vincent is able to stress her view that “Orwell got it all wrong about Spain”. Defeat was not down to Stalin but to the military aid given by the Fascist powers that was not stopped by French or British politicians.

An account of how Orwell’s creative output, as opposed to his journalistic production, seems uncomfortably too well informed by material produced by women is available online here:
http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1451:orwellian-mischief&catid=36:articles-and-reviews&Itemid=135

A short account of Gertrude’s life can be found here:
http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1446:elias-gertrude&catid=5:e&Itemid=20

A pamphlet containing an extract from Gertrude’s encounter with Orwell is now available:
http://www.marx-memorial-library.org/shop/shop-books/item/674-gertrude-elias-pamphlet