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Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four: Critiques of Stalinism `from the left’?

Review by Alex Miller

This essay is the result of a re-reading of George Orwell’s two most famous novels. Both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have acquired the status of textbooks, and are routinely used in schools to demonstrate to children the inherent dangers of social revolution. It is time for a reappraisal.

The ``Centenary Edition’’ of George Orwell’s Animal Farm contains a preface written by Orwell for the first edition (Secker and Warburg, 1945) but never published, together with a preface that he wrote specially for a translation for displaced Ukrainians living under British and US administration after World War II.

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Animal Farm: A Fairy Story
By George Orwell
Centenary Edition, Penguin Books, 2003
120 pages

Nineteen Eighty-Four
By George Orwell
Penguin Classics, 2000
326 pages


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If we are to take Orwell at his word in the first of these prefaces, Animal Farm is intended as a critique of the Stalinist Soviet regime ``from the left’’. He explicitly dissociates himself from conservative critiques, which he describes as ``manifestly dishonest, out of date, and actuated by sordid motives’’.

Critique `from the left’?

This is laudable: a left-wing critique of Stalinism was desperately needed in Britain at a time when the prestige of Stalin’s regime was at its apogee, and almost all of the left was turning a blind eye to the regime’s crimes.

No doubt the attempt manifests a degree of intellectual courage on Orwell’s part. But his work has largely been hijacked by the very conservatives he distanced himself from. The Centenary Edition of Animal Farm, for example, displays ringing endorsements from The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Evening Standard, The Sunday Times and The Spectator.

It is unfair to blame an author for the (mis-)use of his work after his death, so let’s ask: how successful was Orwell’s attempt to provide a critique of Stalinism ``from the left’’?

Orwell believed that the Bolshevik revolution had degenerated into something at least as bad as Tsarism, and much abuse has been heaped on Orwell by those on the left who refused to believe that the revolution had indeed degenerated under Stalin. However, we can surely now leave that sort of criticism of Orwell safely behind. It is still common to hear contemporary apologists for Stalinism accuse Orwell of being in the pay of the British intelligence services. In this review we will eschew such an ad homenim approach and instead attempt to appraise Animal Farm (and Nineteen Eight-Four) purely on their merits.

A prerequisite of a left-wing critique of the degeneration of the revolution is the provision of an accurate account of its causes. We can make some progress on this question by considering some of the features that Marx took to be essential for the success of a socialist revolution. Two years prior to the composition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote: ``A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of Communism], because without it want is generalized, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive’’ (quoted in Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Dover Books 2004, p.43). In other words, Marx thought that a successful socialist revolution would require the high level of development of material resources made possible by advanced capitalism as well as the most important productive force of all: the highly developed skills and productively applicable knowledge of the proletariat.

This allows us to identify two prominent causes of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution: one the one hand the scarcity of material resources and the low level of industrial and technological development in Russia, and on the other the severe weakening — indeed, near annihilation — of the already numerically small working class, mainly as a result of the civil war that followed the invasion of Bolshevik Russia in 1918-21 by a coalition of several imperialist countries, including Britain and the US.

Thus, although it survived the catastrophic destruction of the civil war, Bolshevik Russia lacked two of the key characteristics identified by Karl Marx as necessary for a successful transition from capitalism to socialism: a very high level of capitalist development (making possible an abundance of material resources), plus a numerically strong working class with a high level of cultural, political and technical development. Without these, the field was open for the formation of bureaucratic strata whose dominance of the USSR was crystallised in Stalin’s dictatorship and the defeat of the Left Opposition within the Bolshevik Party.

Animal Farm completely fails to reflect these key causes of the revolution’s degeneration. In the story, the rebellion of the animals leaves them with a material abundance of food: there is milk galore and a generous harvest of windfall apples, both of which are simply purloined by the cunning and selfish pigs, led by Napoleon (Joseph Stalin) and the soon-to-be-ousted Snowball (Leon Trotsky). In addition, only one animal — a sheep — dies as a result of the ``civil war’’, an attempt by the deposed farmer Mr. Jones and his human friends to retake the farm.

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Thus, in Orwell’s story the Rebellion degenerates despite conditions of material abundance and an ``animal class’’ left largely intact by human aggression. Orwell seems to be saying that unless ruled by humans, the mass of animals will inevitably succumb to the tyrannical rule of the cunning and selfish among themselves. Transposed to the human domain, the moral of Orwell’s story is clear: without the capitalist class to govern them, the mass of workers will inevitably find themselves subject to the tyranny of the ``brainworkers’’ among them.

Of course, the animals in the tale are far from the high level of political, cultural and technical development required for the success of a socialist revolution. But there’s the rub: Orwell’s animals, with the exception of the pigs, are, though hard working, loyal and trustworthy, devoid of all intelligence and completely unable to learn anything from experience. This extremely low estimate of the potentialities of the working class is part of Orwell’s conception of the possibilities open to socialists. The options are exhausted by Stalinist totalitarianism and the ``social democratic’’ struggle for reforms within the confines of ``western parliamentary democracy’’.

Orwellian fantasy

The flipside of Orwell’s elitist and patronising attitude towards working people is his highly distorted picture of the nature of British capitalism. In the first preface to Animal Farm, he writes of ``the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation’’ and states that ``tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England [sic]’’. That would be the ``intellectual liberty’’ afforded — not so long before Orwell’s time — to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and other ordinary workers, imprisoned, banished or simply murdered by the British state for daring to organise trade unions, or the ``tolerance and decency’’ that callously sent millions of young people to the slaughterhouse of World War I — not to mention the horrors of imperial rule within the British Isles and overseas.

The intellectual liberty, tolerance and decency of British imperialism are the real Orwellian fantasy: insofar as those qualities have roots in Britain, they are the product of generations of struggle by the working people that Orwell snobbishly portrays as bovine dunces. It's not hard to see why Orwell is the darling of the ruling-class newspapers mentioned above. He may genuinely have attempted to provide a critique of Stalin’s USSR ``from the left’’, but all that he actually produced — in Animal Farm at least — was a banal piece of ruling-class propaganda.

Animal Farm thus fails utterly as a critique of Stalinism ``from the left’’.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

We will now attempt a similar evaluation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It has always been regarded as an attack on Russian ``Communism’’ and by extension an attack on any form of communist revolution. Isaac Deutscher, for instance, recounts that when he bought a copy of the book in New York shortly after its publication in 1949 the bookseller said to him: ``Have you read this book? You must read it, sir. Then you will know why we must drop the atom bomb on the Bolshies’’ (Heretics and Renegades (Jonathan Cape 1969), p.50). Does it fare better than Animal Farm as a critique of Stalinism ``from the left’’?

The action of Nineteen Eighty-Four takes place in London (capital of ``Airstrip One’’) some 40 years after a ``socialist revolution’’: the ideology of the society is known as ``Ingsoc’’ (``English socialism’’), the banners of the ruling party (``The Party’’) are scarlet, party members address each other as ``comrade’’, and Party literature describes a horrible time before the Revolution when the country was ruled by top-hatted toffs known as ``capitalists’’. The leader of The Party, whose portrait is omni-present, and who has godlike status, is ``Big Brother’’, whose physical appearance is remarkably similar to that of Joseph Stalin. The most hated figure is Emmanuel Goldstein, leader of the secret terrorist and anti-Party organisation known as ``The Brotherhood’’. Goldstein’s physical appearance is remarkably similar to that of Leon Trotsky (whose real name, ``Bronstein’’, surely determined Orwell’s choice of name for Big Brother’s would-be nemesis).

The details of the story of Winston and Julia, the two main characters, needn’t concern us here (though it should be said that it is quite gripping). For our purposes, the main facts are that the Revolution – which apparently started out with high ideals, has degenerated into something similar to, but much worse than, Stalinism. The social composition of the country is revealing. Two per cent belong to the ``Inner Party’’, a privileged layer of top-level bureaucrats, and13% belong to the ``Outer Party’’, a much less privileged layer of minor bureaucrats and administrators: whereas the members of the Inner Party have access to wine, real coffee, and live in plush serviced apartments, the members of the Outer Party live in shoddy accommodation, drink only synthetic ``Victory Gin’’ and are plagued by shortages of minor goods such as razor blades and shoelaces. Below the party members come the ``proles’’, who make up the remaining 85% of the population.

The Ingsoc society is unimaginably totalitarian. Every aspect of the lives of the members of the Outer Party are subject to surveillance by ubiquitous ``telecreens’’: two-way television sets that are so sophisticated that they can detect changes of heartbeat rhythms in the dark. Any sign of deviation from the principles of Ingsoc is likely to result in the ``vaporisation’’ of the person concerned by the ``Thought Police’’, whose job it is to root out and punish even the remotest hint of unorthodoxy. There is a daily ceremony called the ``two minutes hate’’, in which party members whip themselves up into a frenzy of hate against Goldstein, and history is continually falsified: Winston’s job, in the Ministry of Truth, is the systematic rewriting of newspaper articles from the archives in order to delete references to the victims of the Thought Police.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, then, we have another example of a revolution that has degenerated, this time in spite of taking place in an advanced capitalist country with a numerically preponderant proletariat. Now, given that technology has developed to the extent that a large section of the society is under 24-hour surveillance, one would expect the ``proles’’ to manifest a high degree of intelligence and technical skill: after all, who designs, builds and maintains the telescreens that make possible the intricate surveillance operation? (The Inner and Outer Party members don’t, as they have purely bureaucratic and administrative functions). In Orwell’s story, however, the ``proles’’, like the beasts in Animal Farm, are completely stupid, and devoid of even the most rudimentary intelligence. They have ``debased’’ cockney accents, are described at one point as ``helpless, like the animals’’, at another as constituting ``an impenetrable wall of flesh’’, and at another a working-class mother is described as having ``powerful mare-like buttocks’’.

Bound to degenerate

Thus, Orwell’s elitist and patronising attitude towards the working class in Animal Farm reappears in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the headline message is the same: a socialist revolution, even if it were to happen in an advanced capitalist country, would be bound to degenerate because of the innate helplessness and lack of intelligence of the working class.

It is worth noting in passing that Marx himself, despite being an infinitely better writer and thinker than Orwell, had an entirely different attitude towards ordinary people. He wrote, for example:

When the communist artisans meet, they seem to be meeting for the purpose of propaganda, etc. But in the process they acquire a new need, the need for society, and what seemed to be a means has become an end in itself. One can see the most illuminating effects of this practical process if one watches a meeting of socialist French workers. Smoking, drinking and eating are no longer merely an excuse for meeting. The society, the entertainment, which is supposed to be for the purpose of meeting, is sufficient in itself: the brotherhood of Man is no idle phrase but the real truth, and the nobility of Man shines out at us from these faces brutalized by toil (quoted in Werner Blumenberg, Karl Marx: An Illustrated History, Verso 2000, p.47).

And there are deeper differences between Orwell and Marx. Orwell believes that power, independently of the specific social circumstances in which it is realised, is governed by a logic that inevitably leads to corruption and exploitation. In his view, even if the working-class successfully seizes power in an advanced capitalist country, corruption and exploitation will inevitably prevail. This idealist and anarchist philosophy is vastly inferior to Marx’s approach, according to which power can only be studied meaningfully as embodied in concrete social and economic structures.

This point is well-made by Deutscher: ``at heart Orwell was a simple-minded anarchist … To analyse a complicated social background, to try and unravel tangles of political motives, calculations, fears and suspicions, and to discern the compulsion of circumstances behind their action was beyond him. Generalisations about social forces, social trends, and historic inevitabilities made him bristle with suspicion … Yet his distrust of historical generalisations led him in the end to adopt and to cling to the oldest, the most banal, the most abstract, the most metaphysical, and the most barren of all generalisations: all their conspiracies and plots and purges had one source and one source only – ‘sadistic power hunger’. Thus he made his jump from workaday, rationalistic common sense to the mysticism of cruelty which inspires 1984” (Heretics and Renegades, pp.47-8).

Our conclusion is thus that given an understanding of the social and economic factors that led to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, neither Animal Farm nor Nineteen Eighty-Four give us compelling reason to believe that a socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist society must inevitably deteriorate into Stalinism, or worse. Thus, despite whatever other literary merits they may possess, neither of Orwell’s most famous books constitutes an effective critique of Stalinism ``from the left’’.

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