Graham Stevenson reviews the recent In Our Time radio programme about George Orwell's Animal Farm.
Melvyn Bragg's discursive radio series, In Our Time, recently considered Orwell's Animal Farm with comment from Steven Connor, Grace 2 Professor of English at the University of Cambridge, Mary Vincent, Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sheffield, and Robert Colls, Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University. The usual response of the liberal-minded intelligentsia to Orwell, awe-filled exaggeration of his `timeless’ importance was there, as was to be expected. But it was refreshing to hear Professor Vincent openly judge Orwell as being completely wrong about Spain, as perhaps befits the author of original research in the social basis of Franco's support, particularly that provided by the Catholic Church, as evidenced in her “Catholicism in the Second Spanish Republic” (1996).
Much of the programme was a well-travelled rehearsal of the events of Animal Farm and of Orwell’s own life. A staunch critique of publishers’ reluctance to publish the text is made, hindsight-driven as it is an expected justification that publishers were fearful was focused on the assumption that it was merely the fact of the prestige of the Red Army and Commander-in-Chief Stalin that worried people who spend their lives sending out rejection slips!
Sloppy historical facts abounded; for example, it was said the Cold War had more or less started in August 1945, so it was “alright” to publish Animal Far then but not a year or two earlier. In fact, it was the British government’s announcement that it could no longer afford to prop up the right wing anti-communists in Greece as late as February 1947 that promoted US President Truman to announce a global programme of funding of such projects that was the trigger for the Cold War.
The truth is that Orwell’s book wasn’t (isn’t) very good and it only makes sense as a tongue-in-cheek fable about Communism. The 1941 drawings by Gertrude Elias for a storyboard for a cartoon film featured Nazi hoodlums as pigs – and the allegory rooted in personal experience. She mooted the idea for a cartoon to the Ministry of Information and the imagery and ideas were known to Orwell, who briefly worked there as a BBC Talks Producer. He and Elias knew each other and she was later very firm in that the core of his Animal Farm was effectively plagiarised from her, after the mischievous inversion of Nazi pigs into Soviet ones.
In 1946, the New Republic book reviewer, George Soules, panned Animal Farm with disgust: “the book puzzled and saddened me. It seemed on the whole dull. The allegory turned out to be a creaking machine for saying in a clumsy way things that have been said better directly. And many of the things said are not instantly recognized as the essence of truth, but are of the sort which start endless and boring controversy.”
Such a view of the work was common; indeed, it was not uncritically or well received at any point until the CIA heavily popularised it. Orwell wrote a preface to a 1947 Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm in which he makes it clear that this is an anti-Soviet work, designed to undermine the Soviet Union. One moment’s thought – a Ukrainian edition in 1947 – should make clear the malevolence with which this book was promoted. Amusingly, Melvyn Bragg comments that for a work slating propaganda this is “an irony”. Perhaps there is a more cynical explanation?
In terms of substance, its value is over-rated by the process of filling its gaps with belief that they are intended. It is helped in this by being written with great speed and little skill (the original work was sub-titled “A Fairy Tale”) and the fact that it isn’t very long. Supposedly, it is full of laconic irony and is a humorous satire, as critics of Orwell and his sources have long stated, his work is almost entirely at odds with the two famous anti-communist pieces.
Frustratingly, the radio discussion speeds past the 1930s and 40s, almost missing the Spanish war. Yet it is noted that Orwell’s contrary nature seemed always to start with opposing one thing and ending up against another. Although, the canonisation into a “saintly and heroic” figure in the 1950s is touched on, that he doesn’t see any contrariness in Nazism is passed over almost without comment. It is communism that is in the gunsights.
Seemingly, it is the rewriting of history that is the strongest motivator of Orwell; the “fragility of memory”. Yet, frustratingly, it is only as the broadcast programme is about to end and the off-air (intriguingly available on the web) discussion emerges that the expert of the piece, Professor Vincent is able to stress her view that “Orwell got it all wrong about Spain”. Defeat was not down to Stalin but to the military aid given by the Fascist powers that was not stopped by French or British politicians.
An account of how Orwell’s creative output, as opposed to his journalistic production, seems uncomfortably too well informed by material produced by women is available online here:
A short account of Gertrude’s life can be found here:
A pamphlet containing an extract from Gertrude’s encounter with Orwell is now available:
Graham Stevenson is a political and trade union activist, and has held many senior posts in the labour movement.