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George Orwell and the road to revolution

Orwell wrote Animal Farm at a time of global crisis as a warning about oppressive state power. Its message is as relevant as ever, says the New Statesman editor in a new introduction to the seminal book.

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In December 1936, George Orwell arrived in Catalonia as a volunteer in the struggle to defend the Spanish republic against the violent insurgency led by General Francisco Franco and his nationalist allies. The Spanish Civil War, as with today’s long, harrowing Syrian war, was a theatre of great power rivalry. The nationalists (or Falangists) were backed by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, and the leftist republican government by Stalin’s Soviet Union. The conflict became a rallying cause for the anti-fascist left across Europe and idealistic volunteers such as Orwell went to Spain to fight on the front line – principally in the pro-republican International Brigades – against the forces of reactionary nationalism.

Orwell arrived in Catalonia with his wife, Eileen, and through associates in the Independent Labour Party made contact with the far-left Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista (the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification), or POUM. He received some rudimentary military training and then served with the Lenin division of the POUM militia on the Aragon front, on “a quiet sector of a quiet front” as he later wrote, where one morning he was shot by a sniper in the throat and almost died. He returned to Barcelona, and during his convalescence in the spring and early summer of 1937, he witnessed the terror unleashed against the anti-Stalinist POUM and its supporters by the republican government. Orwell and his wife were forced to flee the country in fear of their lives. Andrés Nin, leader of the POUM, was imprisoned, tortured and later executed.

[See also: The year of the Great Humbling]

Orwell’s experiences in Spain (he did not know the country well before going there, and did not fully understand the origins of the conflict between the POUM and the republicans) hardened his scepticism of leftist authoritarianism: he was convinced that the Communist Party of Spain was taking its orders directly from Moscow. The betrayals and internecine conflict he witnessed, and the later refusal of the New Statesman, under the storied editorship of Kingsley Martin, to publish “Spilling the Spanish Beans”, Orwell’s eyewitness account from Catalonia, reinforced his contempt for left-wing “orthodoxy sniffers”, as he called them, and for British fellow travellers of the Soviet Union.

Something foul had happened in Spain, he believed, and the actions of the republicans in persecuting other anti-fascist factions, such as the POUM, had betrayed a noble cause and, in many ways, mimicked the worst excesses of the Falangists. He was profoundly disillusioned and yet, after his return to England, he would draw on his experiences in Catalonia and on a more general sense of political disenchantment to write the great counter-revolutionary novels, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), that transformed his fortunes late in life (he died from tuberculosis aged 46 in January 1950) and by which he shall always be remembered.

***

The Orwell we know today, celebrated as a truth-teller, a clear-eyed scourge of totalitarianism and a prophet of our new age of fake news, surveillance capitalism and the bio-surveillance state, is not the Orwell who struggled to find an audience for his writings from and about Spain – Homage to Catalonia (1938) sold fewer than a thousand copies in his lifetime. He was a freelance journalist and author who, before going to Spain, had published three minor realist novels and two works of essayistic reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). He didn’t go to university and, having spent five years in the Imperial Police in Burma, he had been scrambling to make a living as a writer after returning to England. He had more talent and resolution, but initially none of the smart literary connections of his old friend Cyril Connolly, a belletrist and metropolitan sophisticate whom Orwell (then Eric Blair) had met many years before when they were both at St Cyprian’s prep school in East Sussex and then Eton.

Orwell was a rebel but never a revolutionary. “He was a conservative in everything except politics,” Norman MacKenzie, a writer, academic and an old friend of Orwell’s, once said to me. He has been claimed by both the left and right as one of their own – because his politics are so hard to categorise. Early in his career he was a self-described “Tory anarchist” and later he called himself a democratic socialist, but, as he wrote in Wigan Pier, he was less interested in “proletarian solidarity” or the “dictatorship of the proletariat” than in what he called “common decency”.

[See also: What do magpies want?]

Orwell is a kind of border stalker, moving across ideological divides, cussedly independent, forging his own way. He was a conservative fascinated by the habits and rituals of English life, which he celebrated and anatomised in his essays and personal pieces, and a radical who loathed empire and public schools, and longed for a socialist transformation of society. The start of the Second World War was the moment at which he made peace with England and his own conflicted sense of Englishness. Here was a just national cause following the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, in which he could finally believe.

He particularly admired the patriotism of the ordinary man and woman, and contrasted this with the anti-patriotism of the bien pensant bourgeois left, whose “book-trained” socialism he denounced in The Road to Wigan Pier and then again in “The Lion and the Unicorn”, his wonderful book-length essay completed in 1940 during the Nazi bombing raids on London. Eileen, in a letter to a friend, said of “The Lion” that, “George has written a little book… explaining how to be a socialist though Tory”. This captures well the essence of what I find so attractive in Orwell’s complex politics: this simultaneous desire to conserve and to reform.

Threaded through everything he wrote, whether reflecting on his unhappy experiences at prep school or the compromises he made in the service of the empire as a colonial policeman in Burma, was his contempt for authoritarian control. He hated the bullying boarding-school headmaster just as much as he did the Stalinist apparatchik or racist colonial overlord. Like Edmund Burke, Orwell believed that violent revolution served too often as a gateway to tyranny. He was an anti-utopian and, unlike many of his intellectual peers, he was never beguiled by the Soviet experiment.

***

Animal Farm is a book about a revolution that can be read as a parable of the Russian Revolution and the terror and oppression that followed in its wake, culminating in the show trials and purges of the 1930s. Orwell was an admirer of Jonathan Swift and Animal Farm is a Swiftian satire in the spirit of Gulliver’s Travels. It is written as if for older children, and the pellucid, plain prose – Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” that political writing should aspire to the condition of art – has a magical readability, like the best fairy tales.

The revolution begins on Manor Farm, deep in the southern English countryside, the “sleekest” landscape in the world, as Orwell described it in the long, final paragraph of Homage to Catalonia. One day the animals rise up against Mr Jones, the indolent, drunken farmer, and they drive him, his wife and their staff off the land. They lock the gates: the renamed Animal Farm is now their domain, a closed non-human world with its own rules and regulations and egalitarian ethos. The animals even have their own version of the “Internationale”, a stirring call to solidarity, “Beasts of England”. They draw up their Seven Commandments of Animalism, a moral guide for the good life, the last of which is: “All animals are equal.”

What could possibly go wrong?

The leaders of the revolution are two highly intelligent and cunning pigs, Napoleon and Snowball. Their actions are guided by the philosophy of a wise and ancient pig, Old Major, who dies early in the book but not before delivering a rousing speech about the need for all animals to escape from human oppression. He addresses his fellow farm animals as “comrades” and has a direct message for them: “And among us animals let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.”

If Major is meant to be Karl Marx (or perhaps he is Lenin), then Napoleon and Snowball are surely Stalin and Leon Trotsky. But whether Orwell intended so explicitly to recast the leading figures of the Russian Revolution and its chief ideologue as pigs on an English farm matters less than the grand sweep of the narrative, which can be read both as an indictment of the inevitable corruptions of revolutionary politics and as a tightly plotted allegorical entertainment, rich in intrigue, humour, pathos and subtle characterisation. I am especially fond of Boxer, a kind and loyal old carthorse, and, for different reasons, Squealer, a malign pig and propagandist who betrays all confidences as he seeks to ingratiate himself with the farm’s new power brokers. We have all met his type and they are thriving in the era of anonymous Twitter accounts and online shaming.

One October day, Mr Jones launches a failed attempt to take back control of the farm. He and a group of local farmers, who have been plotting – where else than in the pub? – are confronted and beaten back by the animals in what is subsequently legendised as the Battle of the Cowshed. But far from being a liberation, this victory begins only a period of darkness. The leaders of the revolution are divided over how to run the farm and each has his own faction. Napoleon wants to consolidate power and security – one could call it his version of socialism in one farm – while Snowball, as Trotsky did, aspires to foment widespread rebellion, carrying the spirit of the revolution to neighbouring farms and beyond. Snowball loses the internal power struggle and is banished. Napoleon becomes the authoritarian ruler of the farm, bolstered by a network of spies and informers, and soon we are told by the omniscient narrator that the animals “worked like slaves”. Later, the seventh commandment is amended from “All animals are equal” to “Some animals are more equal than others” – one of the most unforgettable clarifications in modern literature.

***

Animal Farm’s appeal is timeless: it speaks to the political moment at which it was written, in 1944, during the Second World War, as the United Kingdom was engaged in an existential struggle against fascism, while also transcending it because of the grace of the storytelling and the power and simplicity of its political message. There is a reason the adjective “Orwellian” has such universal resonance: Orwell understood something fundamental about the malign effects of oppressive state power and about how political language can be distorted and manipulated so that falsity is claimed as truth, even in liberal democracies – especially in liberal democracies; just listen to the bluster of Donald Trump. He knew that history could be rewritten or forgotten – and this repelled him.

Orwell was working on Animal Farm when the Soviet Union remained an essential ally engaged in a heroic rearguard against Nazism on the Eastern Front, in what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War. But unlike, say, HG Wells and other leading progressives of the time, Orwell never had any illusions about Stalinism: he foresaw that what lay ahead was, as he wrote in a profile of his friend Arthur Koestler, a disillusioned former communist and author of the novel Darkness at Noon, “bloodshed, tyranny and privation”.

As a novelist, Orwell could be heavy-handed and programmatic, and sometimes, as in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), his novel about an impoverished writer that was informed by his early failures in literary London, bitterness seeps through the pages like an ink stain. The trajectory of Animal Farm, from the idealism of the initial uprising to its inevitable betrayal once the unity between Napoleon and Snowball fractures, is predictable. And yet, one is still endlessly surprised, on rereading, by the subtle shifts in mood and the sympathy one has for the plight of most of the animals as they slowly begin to realise that the revolution has not liberated them from servitude and exploitation; that the revolution has been betrayed.

Orwell is not renowned for his humour and yet Animal Farm is very funny, as the best satire is – consider the sheep on the farm bleating inanely about “Four legs good, two legs bad”, or consider Napoleon, as time passes, assuming the characteristics of the humans he once despised. He ends up (hilariously, ridiculously) wearing Mr Jones’s old bowler hat and, much later, he and several other senior pigs are observed conspiring with local farmers, “but already it was impossible to say which was which”.

***

Orwell wrote Animal Farm quickly over a four-month period but then could not find a publisher for it. TS Eliot, the editorial director of Faber & Faber, was a conservative, but was one of many who haughtily rejected the book. “We have no conviction… that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time,” he wrote. It was also rejected by Collins (“too short”), Victor Gollancz, who had commissioned The Road to Wigan Pier, and Jonathan Cape (“too anti-Soviet”).

In the end, Fredric Warburg of Secker & Warburg agreed to take on Animal Farm, on the condition that he could also publish Orwell’s subsequent work. This turned out to be a shrewd business decision since his next book was Nineteen Eighty-Four, the dystopian satire that became a bestseller once more after Donald Trump, whom the novelist Philip Roth mocked as the “boastful buffoon”, won the US presidency in 2016.

Animal Farm was eventually published in August 1945, a week after the United States had dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, heralding the gloom and paranoia of the nuclear age. By this time, the Allies were victorious in Europe and the Soviet Union had contributed extensively, as well as millions of lost lives, to the vanquishing of Nazism. But the message of Animal Farm was not triumphant. Beware, it said, nothing good will come from communist revolution or the totalitarian mind.

[See also: Unmasking Graham Greene]

It was mostly favourably reviewed, notably by Cyril Connolly, and the initial print run of 4,500 copies sold out within a few days, as did subsequent print runs. Orwell, after years of relative neglect, found himself feted and in demand. The book also broke through in the US. It was an American Book of the Month Club selection, which meant 540,000 copies were printed, and was reviewed by the celebrated critic Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker, who said it was “absolutely first rate” and predicted that Orwell would emerge as one of “the ablest and most interesting writers that the English have produced in this period”. A few weeks before his death on 21 January 1950, Orwell, now mortally sick, said darkly: “I’ve made all this money and now I’m going to die.”

In the 1950s, the CIA used Animal Farm as a source of anti-Soviet propaganda and circulated huge numbers of copies. It was of course banned in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and even today it is outlawed in many oppressive states, though is freely available in China.

***

I first read Animal Farm as a teenager in the 1980s, during the Cold War (a phrase popularised by Orwell), when the threat of nuclear annihilation shadowed all our imaginations, and life behind the Iron Curtain, as Churchill called it, seemed as menacing as it was unknowable. I couldn’t work out whether Orwell was on the political left or right, and I read the cultural critic Raymond Williams’s short book on him to help me decide. It did not help.

What I understood then, though my own politics were inchoate, was that Orwell was on the side of freedom and truth-telling. You could say he was of the left, but not with or on the left. He did not believe in the inevitability of progress, or the desirability of “book-trained” socialism, or in the pursuit of absolute equality. But he did believe in common decency.

As I write this in the spring of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic is deepening and accelerating, and yet social solidarity is flourishing even as we are compelled to “socially distance” from one another. More than ever, it seems, in the depth of global crisis, the common decency of strangers can bring comfort and inspiration as it did for so many during the darkest period of the Second World War, when George Orwell was writing Animal Farm and much of the world was in the grip of tyranny. 

“Animal Farm”, with an introduction by Jason Cowley, is published by Macmillan Collector’s Library on 7 January 2021, as part of a series of new editions of Orwell’s works.

This feature is part of the New Statesman Christmas Special, also featuring Helen Macdonald, Tracey Thorn, Grayson Perry, Helen Lewis, Joni Mitchell, Ian Hislop, John Gray, Stephen Bush, Jacqueline Wilson, William Boyd and much more of the best new writing.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 11 December 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special