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George Orwell: ‘Animal Farm: A Fairy Story’

Malcolm Bradbury


Animal Farm: A Fairy Story — surely the most important work of fictional political satire to be written in twentieth-century Britain — was first published on 17 August 1945, just as what we have come to call ‘the post-war world’ began. It appeared in the month when US atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and when the ensuing Japanese surrender brought six years of world-wide hostilities to an end. There are many good reasons for describing George Orwell's short fable as the first British post-war novel, not least because it helped begin, and because along with its companion piece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, it decidedly influenced, a new lineage of liberal and socially attentive writing in British fiction, which developed through the late 1940s and 1950s. Yet, as Orwell indicates — in a polemical preface on censorship he wrote for the book, but fortunately did not publish, for it would have narrowed the book's meaning — he had conceived the central idea for it in 1937, when he fought with the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) militia during the Spanish Civil War, and saw Communist purges of the Spanish Leftists at first hand. It was six years later, in the middle of the Second World War, that he wrote the book, over a period of three months at the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944. They were important months, during which the Russians turned the tide of the German advance on their territory, and Stalin met with Churchill and Roosevelt in Teheran to plan the overthrow of Germany. That meeting is reflected in the events at the end of the novel, when pigs and men sit down, both to collaborate and to quarrel, and the revolution of Animal Farm loses all its innocence. It was also the time when Stalin was held in highest esteem in Britain, among the populace and the general intelligentsia, a fact that Orwell hated.

It was for just these reasons that, as is well known, the manuscript now seemed impossible to publish. Publishers of different persuasions and political associations found good but various reasons for not bringing the book into print. Stalin was a crucial wartime ally who was helping the way toward victory; and forming the backbone of Orwell's book was a sequence of direct if allegorised allusions to the betrayal of the Russian Revolution by Stalin and his acolytes: the treacherous treatment meted to Trotsky, the purges and show trials, the fudges of the Nazi — Soviet pact, and the exploitation of popular decency by a new elite for their own advantage and survival. In the unpublished preface (it was lost, recovered, and is reprinted in this edition) the angry Orwell suggests that these rejections arose from a spirit of liberal self-censorship in Britain, and a fundamental unwillingness of Left, Centre and Right alike to face unpalatable truths. Orwell's rejections came from publishers on the Left, like Victor Gollancz, who had published much of Orwell's work both in his regular list and in his Left Book Club, and those of the mainstream, worried about the impact of the book on wartime needs and policies. One interesting and revealing letter was from T. S. Eliot, rejecting the book in his capacity as an editorial spokesman for Faber & Faber: ‘We have no conviction...’ he wrote ‘that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time.’ Eliot acknowledged the Swiftian power and skill of the work, and saw that it came from someone of Trotskyite sympathies, but he felt that its form of satirical indignation was too negative for the times. After four such rejections, Orwell began to despair, and he planned to publish the work himself. Fortunately, Frederic Warburg took the book, in what proved one of the wisest publishing decisions of modern times. But there were further delays due to paper shortages, and Orwell's plain, powerful and impassioned fable did not appear until after VE day and after the Labour victory in the British General Election, just at the point when the hot war was over and the cold one had not yet quite started.

In fact these delays and obstructions were probably one of the better pieces of fortune in Orwell's not always fortunate life. Animal Farm really was a post-war novel, a book that belonged with the moral and political reappraisals and the changes of world-historical mood that followed the years of conflict. It appeared at the moment of formation of a new climate, in an era of annihilation and rehabilitation, and it was an enormous and an international success. With the book Orwell was to become, for the last five years of his life, perhaps the most important and influential British novelist of the day. That day was a dark one, for though the war was over the world remained in a state of dismay. The coming of the atomic age had brought a new sense of terror and annihilation into the world. The price of the Fascist totalitarianism of the previous two decades was becoming all too clear. Much of Europe lay in waste, and from the physical and moral ruins came the evidence of the Nazi extermination camps, in which so many millions had died. At the Potsdam conference in July, where Truman, the new American President, faced Stalin with Churchill and Attlee, the wartime alliance was already becoming untied, and America's atomic domination accelerated this process. The century of modern mass revolutions, and the drive inside them toward totalitarianism, was already turning sour on itself, and in these circumstances a new moral reckoning seemed necessary.

This was an era of crisis for the liberal conscience, which had leaned leftwards in the 1930s and now saw many of its old radical allegiances tainted and corrupted by the harsh facts of war, power and terror. Yet the need for a new liberalism, a spirit of democratic anti-Fascism to redirect the drive of the century, was more evident than it had ever been. A changed spirit of liberalism, agonised, self-doubting, faced with new and enormous historical realities that had lain beyond its reckoning, began to declare itself. In the preface to his influential book The Liberal Imagination (1950), the American critic Lionel Trilling-who was to write very well on Orwell-captured the new flavour of self-analysis: ‘It has for some time seemed to me that a criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time.’ In Britain, the evident loss of national power, the election of the Attlee Labour government, and the emergence of welfare-state legislation brought the fundamental problems of fair-minded social legislation into the open. It was clear that over the war years Britain had undergone a relatively quiet but real social revolution, and that it was now going to have to devise for itself a new and weaker place in the world. Orwell himself, in a famous phrase, had described his country as a family with the wrong members in control. But had the right relatives now inherited, and could they really manage the austere new estate?

In retrospect, I believe we can see the end of the war, both in British and world terms, as a fundamental turning-point, when what changed was not just the map of power and superpower, but the entire direction of a twentieth-century political and historical energy that had taken Europe into modern mass revolution, terror and calamity. In the world of Western literature and ideas this seems conspicuously true. It now appeared to many that an entire era of modem writing as well as modern ideas had come to an end, and apocalyptic literary thoughts were in the air. As Orwell's friend Cyril Connolly put it in Horizon, a magazine for which Orwell wrote regularly, it was ‘closing time in the gardens of the West’. The modernist movement had largely faded, partly because of the wartime deaths of some of its leading figures, but also because some parts of it had been tainted by political choices: Ezra Pound, for instance, was being held in an army prison cage in Pisa, facing charges of treason because of his broadcasts for Mussolini during the war. But the left-wing allegiances of many writers of the thirties were also in disorder, and writers like Auden changed markedly in belief and direction, while literary intellectuals were beginning to speculate on Marxism as ‘the God that failed’. As Jean-Paul Sartre said in his What is Literature? (1947), the two previous literary generations of the century were tainted, and writing would need to begin again, appealing to readers hungry for a new sense of truth and reality. It meant, as many writers in many countries now argued, that writing and politics had to recover a fresh kind of intimacy (as Lionel Trilling put it, ‘the word liberal is a word primarily of political import, but its political meaning defines itself by the quality of life it envisages, by the sentiments it wishes to affirm’). This, then, was the climate in which Animal Farm happened to come out, and where it made its first mark on public consciousness. It was a very British story (the Manor Farm that becomes Animal Farm belongs firmly in the British landscape); it was in some ways a very domestic story; but it was also a story that touched at the heart of contemporary world affairs and anxieties.

Orwell, too, was a writer of the thirties. He had published four novels in that decade, of considerable but not of the highest quality, partly because they are very flatly realistic and their purpose seems instrumental. Yet Orwell considered himself not a novelist but a political writer. He had been down and out in Paris and London, followed the road to Wigan Pier, fought in Spain and made his homage to Catalonia. He had modulated the ex-Etonian Eric Blair into the plainer George Orwell, and made himself a central and immersed recorder of the economic, social and political problems of his age. Half in resistance to any aestheticisation of writing, he had perfected his famous plain style, the no-nonsense manner that unites the voice of British commonsense decency with that of the revolutionary propagandist so easily that it has the sound, no less, of truth frankly expressing itself. He had touched poverty and pain, challenged capitalism and imperialism, tried various forms of social identification, and come to speak not only for the unemployed and displaced workers of the Depression but the new half-life of British surburbia, with all its limits and potentials. He had come to a radical, vivid and often deeply idiosyncratic but loving reading of his own culture in all its variety, while at the same time seeing that culture in the frame of world-historical change and process. Out of this he had devised both a form of writing and a form of politics, a sometimes strange and often volatile mixture of radical socialism and intimate identification with the lasting decencies he saw in everyday British life.

When the Second World War came, he sat down to write an essay, ‘Inside the Whale’, which is a strange mixture of historical triumph and historical dismay. Orwell was convinced that an age of totalitarianism was now inevitable and that it would dispense not just with the aesthetic urge but with the writer himself: ‘The literature of liberalism is coming to an end and the literature of totalitarianism has not yet appeared and is barely imaginable. As for the writer, he is sitting on a melting iceberg; he is merely an anachronism, a hangover from the bourgeois age, as surely doomed as the hippopotamus.’ In this essay Orwell seems to be saying that the end has come not only for the aesthetic tradition of modern writing but for all moral independence as well. Yet Orwell's wartime writing was unusually vigorous, and it became clear that he felt no need to forego his own critical liberalism. Animal Farm may be taken as a testament to that effect, for, as we have seen, it was initially largely directed into persuading British liberals about the real nature of Stalinism. At the same time the book is a direct encounter with the processes of totalitarianism, and in it all the machinery of modern state oppression is brought to bear, not least the silencing and calumniating of those who have alternative visions (‘Comrades, here and now I pronounced the death sentence upon Snowball. “Animal Hero, Second Class”, and half a bushel of apples to any animal who brings him to justice’). Orwell knowingly explores the formidable powers of terror, propaganda, and the process of revolutionary self-betrayal; but his book leaves its author in full possession of the values that challenge this, the most important being the conviction (which he expresses in the unpublished preface) that freedom of thought and speech can be claimed as a transcendent and deep-rooted Western heritage. Animal Farm is in many respects an old-fashioned book; certainly it is not written from ‘inside the whale’, where, as he said, ‘seemingly there is nothing left but quietism — robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it’. It is not an angrily quiescent writing, like the fiction of Henry Miller; nor is it a work of fractured modernism, like Kafka's fiction, so frankly opened out to the author's own despair and self-humiliation. It is a work of Swiftian rage and Swiftian certainty, written from a position of political and moral energy. That is what helped it succeed in the post-war world.

Animal Farm also protects as a virtue those qualities that can make it into a traditional work of art: ‘Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole,’ Orwell observed, in a statement whose authority we can recognise as we sit down to read this plain, simple and yet remarkably potent fable. The book that, if it had been published in wartime, might have seemed first and foremost a work of contemporary political propaganda could seem, in the post-war world, to be something more. It carried forward, as few of Orwell's contemporaries seemed able to do, the moral and political energy that could be salvaged from the spirit of the thirties, but it also criticised some of that decade's fundamental illusions and expectations. It was also, in my own judgement at least, quite the best book Orwell ever produced. It united its satirical and political rage with the vivid near-timelessness of mythic writing, helped in this by the tradition of the animal fable. It expressed itself less in the form of a political hostility than a moral vitality. In an important essay on Arthur Koestler (1944), Orwell had written something that perhaps explained why he seemed separate from some of his thirties contemporaries; he attacks those left-wingers of the time who ‘have always wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian’. Orwell was always in essence an anti-totalitarian, and perhaps it was this that opened him out to the prospects of the literary imagination. It has always seemed to me that the essence of Animal Farm is that it is the ultimate form of sceptical fiction. It takes the doctrinal and the established, the authorised version and the sacred text, and brings them into the bewildering, sceptical world of the fictional. Here the oppressive, the authoritarian, the hegemonic, the totalistic become fictions of their own. The post-war world, seeking a moral discovery as well as a political understanding, needed its fiction to unravel the fate and fortunes of an oppressive process of history. This was another reason why Animal Farm had such a lasting influence.

The success of Animal Farm posed many problems for Orwell. It marked a massive change in his reputation, but that did not mean that he was universally understood. He suffered the dismaying fate of being regarded — especially by some of his American reviewers and readers — as the ultimate cold-war combatant, in passionate assault on revolution or socialism itself. That was far from being his intention, although as his biographer Bernard Crick has pointed out, it is not easy to read the book as being for revolution. But the crucial point Orwell wished to make — though, since the point was rarely taken, he did not quite get it across — is that the failure frequently lay within the revolutionary process, as its leaders fought to perpetuate themselves as opposed to the interests of those whom the revolution was meant to serve. Orwell shared the familiar twentieth-century hope of a socialist revolution capable of transforming or reconstructing society. His concern was that those for whom such revolutions were intended were more often the victims than the beneficiaries, that, indeed, their task was to turn against their power-hungry leaders and throw them out. We know well from our own time that the old guard therefore set about centralising and commanding all positions of power; so the tanks roll again into Tiananmen Square. Orwell knew this, too, and made his position clear in a letter to the American critic Dwight Macdonald, a friend who read the book only as an allegory of the Russian Revolution. In that letter, quoted in the Note on the Text, he explained: ‘I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job.’

Yet Orwell's work had a more complex appeal for an era that looked anxiously back at the early twentieth-century history of revolutionary totalitarianism, and that sought to construct a new liberal hope. He soon began to have a massive impact on the new writers of the post-war generation and then the writers of the 1950s, those who came along after him and found themselves generally short of predecessors. The plain fable of Animal Farm — on the one hand reassuringly English, on the other worldly-wise and universal-radiated through the fifties, when writing often became a form of moral politics. Like the work of E. M. Forster — who was influential, but had, alas, long since ceased to write novels — it pointed to an essential direction for the liberal imagination: the need to assert ordinariness against power, decency against history, scepticism against authority, moral anxiety against political deceit, true prose against propaganda. The events that took place on Animal Farm were now no longer an allegory of one past revolution, but a drama of events and choices still in play. That was reinforced by the publication of Orwell's last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which pointed its dark warning at the future. In Orwell we could read of our own times, of the corruptions of propaganda, of slogans that were rewritten to suit the powerbrokers, of the machines of state oppression, of good intentions lost and historical hopes sacrificed, of a sense of lasting decency, which might itself be naive but which was a necessary hope. We could read of the growth of state apparatuses and their apparatchiks, of moral commandments excised and opponents eliminated. We could also believe in the power of fiction to challenge the leaders who offered their sacred truths and historical necessities as justifications for the misappropriation of history and the oppression of individuality. We could, in short, go on reading and re-reading Orwell.

I have emphasised the environment in which the book was born and in which its reputation and meaning developed. The sign of a good book is that it is endlessly re-read and, in a sense, endlessly rewritten. Today, around fifty years after its time of writing, Animal Farm retains its power. It has never been out of print; it has penetrated many societies and transformed many imaginations. Indeed, it has just been published in its sixty-eighth language. It has continued to comment on a series of late twentieth-century revolutions that have followed the inexorable course of the fiction itself. ‘All revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure,’ insists Orwell. Yet the pattern of failure he describes — as good intentions are followed by the emergence of oppressive elites and the imposition of control through force and propaganda — has acquired a pre-emptive authority. Now, as the twentieth century ends, the history of the century's revolutions has taken a strange turn. In the states established by older, proletarian revolutions, the idea of Centrist, bureaucratic revolution has begun to dissolve, as much from within as without. In that process many of the hidden decencies that Orwell spoke for in his Clovers and his Boxers, and which many critical readers have found naïve or historically impossible, have had a strange resurgence. History may be rewritten, historical figures may be airbrushed from the record, loyal workers may go to the knacker's yard; the human memory remembers. Tanks may roll, but small figures will stand up for a crucial moment in front of them. State leaders, ayatollahs and imams continue to decree, and offer their hearers half a bushel of apples to sacrifice this or that individual to the urgencies of god or history. At the same time other forms of revolution happen. Orwell, a man of great political and moral intelligence, wrote in a time when, like most European intellectuals, he assumed that the direction of the century was toward egalitarian or proletarian revolution. Today we see that perhaps the hidden revolution of the century was a bourgeois material revolution, a revolution of entrepreneurial plenty. That was not Orwell's expectation, and certainly would not have been his wish.

Yet in a hundred ways Animal Farm triggers our modern intelligence and persists in its relevance, and its seemingly simple yet subtle fable still belongs to us as we try to find our way through the changing political and moral labyrinths of twentieth-century history. Though it remains a very English book, smelling both of the British farmyard and a distinctive and traditional sense of liberalism and decency, neither extreme in form nor unexpected in its moral urges, its meaning has stretched out into contemporary history and into world culture; we have all lived or risk living somewhere close to Animal Farm, or Manor Farm as it becomes again at the end. It is one of the great modern political allegories, and the story it tells, of innocent and necessary revolution turning into dictatorship and betrayal, is not just a striking piece of political intelligence but a fundamental modern myth.

Malcolm Bradbury, 2000

Malcolm Bradbury: ‘Introduction’ (to ‘Animal Farm: A Fairy Story’ by George Orwell)
First published: Penguin Books, 2000.

Machine-readable version: O. Dag
Last modified on: 2015-09-24

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George Orwell
Animal Farm: A Fairy Story
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