An attack on Socialism?

George Orwell's Animal Farm, Militant, April 1987

George Orwell's Animal Farm is on the English literature reading list for the Leaving Cert again this year. Many students studying for the course find it to be one of the new books that they actually enjoy reading in preparation for the exam. Animal Farm, a satire on the 1917 Russian Revolution and its degeneration in the 25 years that followed, is a brilliantly written and very relevant novel - little wonder that it is one of the most widely read books in the English language.

In the book, the animals of Manor Farm rebel against their tyrannical owner Mr. Jones, take over the land and rename it Animal Farm. Things go well for a while - all animals are equal, living conditions improve ad an attempt by neighbouring farms to take back the farm by force is repelled. But then following a power struggle between Napoleon and Snowball, Napoleon starts tot rule the roost, and run down the ideals of the rebellion until in the end the pigs become the new masters and 'all animals are equal bit some are more equal than others.'

It is no surprise that the authorities chose Animal Farm for the Leaving - it is a book which is widely used to 'prove' that a socialist revolution will always lead to totalitarian dictatorship. The book which is widely read in this way was written by a man who spent many years fighting against capitalism.

Most leaving Cert students will not be told that Orwell had been a member of the Independent Labour Party (a left wing break-away from the British Labour party) in the 1930s, had fought with socialists and revolutionaries in Spain against Franco's fascists revolt and was a member of the Labour Party in the 1940s - criticizing the 1945 Labour government for being too soft with Britain's ruling class.

Of course, it was 'fashionable' for writers and middle-class intellectuals to be Left wing in the 1930s. For most of them this meant support for the Communist Parties. Many middle class writers who would have strongly opposed the Russian Revolution and workers' democracy in the day of Lenin, Trotsky, gave generous support to the Soviet Union under the butcher Stalin.

But Orwell was too honest to give blind support - and when he saw the 'Communists' in Spain trying to hold back, then destroy a revolution which Moscow didn't want, he turned fiercely against Stalinism.

At this time, many workers who had rejected both social democracy (the old Labour Parties) and the 'Communist' Parties as a force for socialism, joined with Leon Trotsky in helping build a new international socialist movement - the Fourth International. While Orwell respected Trotsky (the 'Trotsky' characters in both Animal Farm and 1984 - Goldstein and Snowball - are shown in a favourable light) he had become disheartened by the defeat of the Spanish revolution and the viciousness and dishonesty displayed in Stalin's purges. He stepped back into disillusionment.

Many disillusioned socialists of that time latched onto the 'theory' of that the Russian Revolution inevitability led to Stalinist totalitarianism. On the other hand, the Marxists explained that the revolution degenerated only because it remained isolated in an economically backward society. If a new revolution occurred, socialism could be achieved provided that the revolution was spread to other, industrialised countries.

And so, Orwell's 'hero' in Animal Farm is not so much Snowball, brilliant as he might be, or Boxer, the carthorse who vows to work harder for the success of the farm, but Benjamin, the old and cynical donkey who has seen it all before and believes that nothing will ever really change.

Orwell never intended to write a book that capitalism could use to its advantage. In the preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, Orwell explains his reasons for writing the novel:

"In my opinion, nothing has contributed so mush to the corruption of the original idea of socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country and they every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated. And do for the last ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement."

In the book he describes the horrific, miserable life led by the animals before the rebellion when the capitalistic Mr Jones ran the farm. Yet by expressing his disillusionment in fable form he has helped capitalism convince many young people that true socialism can never come about. For socialists, it shows above all else the need to be very clear about the way one expresses one's ideas.

Meanwhile, any socialist should read Homage to Catalonia, Orwell's earlier eyewitness socialist account of the Spanish Revolution, and, in my mind, his best book - one that Leaving Cert students won't be asked by the authorities to read.

Michael Barry.

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