Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

In defence of Animal Farm

My good comrade over at 'I.R.' has written an entertaining and typically witty post on the apparent problems confronted by a socialist when teaching George Orwell's fairy tale Animal Farm in school. The crucial passage is as follows:

Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, despite Orwell's protestations to the contrary, Animal Farm is, at root, a profoundly conservative book. It is impossible to ignore the central message of the story - the one that overwhelms the reader - i.e. that radical social change is bound to end in disaster because the irredeemably selfish, scheming, power-hungry and callous nature of human beings always asserts itself in the end. The pigs - Napoleon and Squealer, particularly, turn nasty for no reason other than the fact that this is, somehow, in their natures. The pigs, of course, are us - or, at least, us given the slightest sniff of power. There is no serious reference to the various concrete material factors that may have constributed to the rapid degeneration and failure of socialism in Russia. Things go wrong in Animal Farm because it is pre-ordained that they go wrong. It is written in the genes. My personal opinion is that Animal Farm is an awful book - it's philosophically and politically simplistic, resting on hand-waving appeals to some odd, half-articulated, semi-metaphysical entity, stuffed to the seams with conservative normative assumptions, called 'human nature', and it's horribly mean to pigs.

Regretfully, I have to take issue with the assessment of Animal Farm as 'an awful book'. In terms of literature, as a novel, it is incredibly readable and has carefully, well drawn memorable characters, while politically it stands as a devastatingly powerful satire on Stalinism, and totalitarian rule in general. Personally, looking back, when I read it at school as a young anti-capitalist - and I was not taught by a noticeably left wing English teacher - I like to think it helped in some way shift me from my early sympathies for the former USSR and former Eastern bloc - towards Trotskyism. This is not to say there are not weaknesses, relating to the isolation and disillusion with the possibilities for revolutionary change of Orwell himself at the time of writing. As I pointed out on this blog back in August 2005, (crudely paraphrasing an article by John Molyneux on Animal Farm from an old issue of International Socialism):

For a Marxist, Orwell's depiction of the rise and fall of the Russian Revolution in 'Animal Farm' is rather problematic due, in part, to his apparent conflation of Lenin and Stalin into one character - Napoleon - or rather the absence of a 'Lenin' character altogether. This implies Leninism led to Stalinism in a crude and ahistorical manner. Orwell's failure to acknowledge the devastating impact of the Russian Civil War is also relevant here, to say nothing of his pessimism about the possibilities of working class resistance under Stalinism. However, 'Animal Farm' is a novel - if you want to know more about the Russian Revolution read Trotsky himself as well as Tony Cliff's 'State Capitalism in Russia'.

Indeed, it is redeemable as a book if only for a conversation I overheard a few years ago on a crowded bus through town. Two young women students were quite loudly discussing Animal Farm which they were obviously studying for something or another, and while neither of them had any particularly deep understanding of the Russian Revolution, one of them did correctly note that 'Snowball' was meant to be 'Leon Trotsky.' At that moment, it dawned on me that if it was not for the teaching of Animal Farm in school, in all likelihood almost all schoolkids in Britain would emerge without ever having even heard of one of the most important revolutionary Marxists of the twentieth century. Indeed, in what other possible context would the name Leon Trotsky just come up in an everyday conversation? For that reason alone, socialists today surely stand indebted to George Orwell and to Animal Farm.

PS. Quite irrelevant really, but there was a quite interesting article about Orwell and hypocrisy in politics in the Guardian over the weekend. As Orwell was quoted as saying (from a defence of PG Wodehouse), 'All kinds of petty rats are hunted down, while almost without exception the big rats escape.' When I read that quote, I instinctively found myself thinking of the pro-war 'left', which claims to stand in Orwell's tradition of radical journalism but is purely concerned with hunting down petty rats while letting big rats like Bush and Blair escape their crimes.

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At 8:53 pm, Blogger Rob said...

I don't think that Trotksy merely being mentioned is reason enough for socialists to support anything. My year 9 history course, which largely conformed to the knee-jerk 'liberal' idea that 'the two extremes meet' nonetheless included a fairly positive examination of Trotsky. Indeed what is attractive about this 'Trotsky' (as opposed to the actual Trotsky) is the way in which he is always critical but never in power. Trotsky is often brought up not in terms of his positive programme etc. but rather as the 'left wing' of anti-communist critique. In other words what you are dealing with is a rather pointless Trotsky, rather like the Marx of Wall Street.


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