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Betrayals

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I have a Russian wife. We work together – articles, talks, translations, books, to keep the wolf from the door. Sometimes, when a bigger than usual energy bill slides through the letterbox, or the car breaks down or the tax-man cometh, one of us will look at the other with a rueful grin and say: ‘The solution as I see it, Comrade, is to work harder.’

It’s a direct quotation from Animal Farm (1945) and the character we are quoting is the big carthorse Boxer, eighteen hands high, and the stalwart representative of the proletariat in George Orwell’s book. The quip consists in the fact that merely to work harder is not the solution. Nor was it the answer to the problems faced by the Russian people in the wake of the 1917 Revolution and the era of Lenin and Stalin. But Boxer’s faith in hard work is as admirable as his fate is shocking, and for all the story’s humour, it is Boxer who gives it its tragic centre and its emotional power.

Most of us have read Animal Farm. We all know pretty well what it is: a satirical allegory in the form of a fable, and a parable on the history of Communist Russia from the 1917 Revolution to the end of 1943. That would be my literary definition, to which I would add that the book also has a wider symbolic purpose. In other words it’s about the Revolution but that’s not all it’s about. And while we know what the book’s about, what should be better known is how difficult it was for Orwell to get it published. One American publisher rejected it because he said there was no real market for animal stories. And even after it was published some bookshops placed it in the children’s section.

You could of course argue that Orwell had nobody but himself to blame, because he called it Animal Farm: A Fairy Story, an ironic subtitle to say the least. But any bookseller with a grain of sense should have recognized at once that the ‘fairy story’ possessed a meaning far beyond talking a

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I have a Russian wife. We work together – articles, talks, translations, books, to keep the wolf from the door. Sometimes, when a bigger than usual energy bill slides through the letterbox, or the car breaks down or the tax-man cometh, one of us will look at the other with a rueful grin and say: ‘The solution as I see it, Comrade, is to work harder.’

It’s a direct quotation from Animal Farm (1945) and the character we are quoting is the big carthorse Boxer, eighteen hands high, and the stalwart representative of the proletariat in George Orwell’s book. The quip consists in the fact that merely to work harder is not the solution. Nor was it the answer to the problems faced by the Russian people in the wake of the 1917 Revolution and the era of Lenin and Stalin. But Boxer’s faith in hard work is as admirable as his fate is shocking, and for all the story’s humour, it is Boxer who gives it its tragic centre and its emotional power. Most of us have read Animal Farm. We all know pretty well what it is: a satirical allegory in the form of a fable, and a parable on the history of Communist Russia from the 1917 Revolution to the end of 1943. That would be my literary definition, to which I would add that the book also has a wider symbolic purpose. In other words it’s about the Revolution but that’s not all it’s about. And while we know what the book’s about, what should be better known is how difficult it was for Orwell to get it published. One American publisher rejected it because he said there was no real market for animal stories. And even after it was published some bookshops placed it in the children’s section. You could of course argue that Orwell had nobody but himself to blame, because he called it Animal Farm: A Fairy Story, an ironic subtitle to say the least. But any bookseller with a grain of sense should have recognized at once that the ‘fairy story’ possessed a meaning far beyond talking animals and fantastic situations. In the Grey Rabbit stories the weasel and the fox are simply villains and Hare is simply selfish and self-important; the cooking-pot and the red-hot oven are terrifying enough but they are what they are and no more; and when the owl bites off Grey Rabbit’s tail and bandages the bleeding stump with a cobweb there is nothing behind it but some nostalgic rustic lore, beloved of Alison Uttley. With Orwell it’s something else again. Most publishers naturally saw all too well that the clarity of the writing and the simplicity of the storyline, the characters and situations, circumstances and events were exact allegorical equivalents of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by Stalin and his henchmen for their own selfish ends. To anyone who possessed the faintest knowledge of Russian and European history from 1917 to 1943, the book unrolled like a chart of correspondences, crystal clear. As follows: Manor Farm is Tsarist Russia, Animal Farm is Russia after the Revolution, later recognized as the Soviet Union; Mr Jones is the Tsar, Nicholas II; the humans are the capitalist ruling class; the animals are the working classes in general, and the pigs the post- Revolution totalitarian rulers. Specifically Old Major is a combination of Marx and Lenin. Snowball is Trotsky, expelled and assassinated, with Napoleon as Stalin, Squealer his spin doctor, the dogs his secret police, the pigeons his spies, and the bleating sheep the mindless mob. Jones’s expulsion is the Bolshevik Revolution; his return the Counter-Revolution; the Battle of the Cowshed its defeat, with the Battle of the Windmill being the German invasion of Russia in 1941, and Stalingrad. There is Moses the raven, who represents the Church; Boxer and Clover the proletariat in particular; the principles of Animalism are those of Marxism/Communism; the Windmill Plan is the inauguration of the five-year plans; the hens are the kulaks, and their refusal to hand over their eggs the real kulaks’ destruction of their own farms to avoid the state getting its hands on them. Orwell did not stop there. The animal slaughters are the fake trials and forced confessions and bloody purges ordered by Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s. Neighbouring farms and their owners are easily identifiable. Pilkington is Churchill, his Foxwood farm, Britain; Frederick is Hitler and his Pinchfield Germany. Even the non-aggression pact is there, and the breaking of it by Hitler. Finally Napoleon’s party, where pigs and men meet and cheat, represents the meeting between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference of 1943. When at the end Squealer is seen walking on his two hind legs and Napoleon carries a whip in his trotter, the story of equivalences is all but complete. One set of masters has been replaced by another, and the central principle has been hideously corrupted and perverted; all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. The oppressed animals, terrorized by their own kind, look from pig to man and man to pig, and from pig to man again, and can no longer tell the difference. ‘It was impossible to say which was which.’ Stalin and Stalinism had triumphed and an entire nation had been betrayed. The artistic ease and sheer simplicity with which Orwell arranges it all, with a farm as his setting, ought to have astonished publishers into acceptance. In fact Gollancz sent it back stating that it was impossible for him to publish such a book: Stalin after all was an ally. He wasn’t the only one unwilling to risk offending Uncle Joe, of whom Churchill himself had said that it was better to have him on the inside pissing out than on the outside pissing in. Jonathan Cape turned it down next, and so did T. S. Eliot at Faber, who had already rejected Down and Out in Paris and London a dozen years previously. As for Animal Farm he thought that it was the wrong time, the wrong point of view, that it was simply too negative. And so on. Sadly, Eliot wrote Orwell a chilly rejection which said that as the pigs were obviously far more intelligent than any of the other animals, clearly they were best qualified to manage the farm. So far as Orwell was concerned these attitudes were anti-libertarian because, as he had written in his proposed but omitted preface, ‘Many of our intellectuals have accepted the principle that a book should be published or suppressed, praised or damned, not on its merits but according to political expediency’ – an outright denial of Voltaire’s famous principle: ‘I detest what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ And Orwell went on to say with blunt clarity: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ Eventually Frederic Warburg accepted it and it went on to sell at ten times the rate Orwell was used to. It appeared in the USA a year later, and by the end of the decade well over half a million copies had been sold. Truth had triumphed, and so had the book. The book itself, though anti-Stalinist, is not narrowly anti-Soviet, though that is its primary intention, but is a comment on all revolutions which bring to power power-hungry people who eventually pervert the ideals with which a revolution starts out and become the new masters, like Napoleon, with whips in their trotters. What is it that goes wrong? Human nature – it simply gets in the way of revolutionary ideals. The masses aren’t alert enough to know or to say when enough is enough. And the power-seekers are all too ready to take advantage of this, and to take control. Some critics think the comic sense is so great in this book – no apparent Orwellian bitterness or despair – that it almost lulls you into non-awareness of its political message. And certainly there are some things in it that encourage us to enjoy the book purely for the skill and charm and fun of it: the various animal committees – the Clean Tails League for Cows, for example – and scenes such as the cat sitting up on the roof of the barn and graciously inviting any sparrow who chooses to come and perch on her paw because all animals are now comrades (the sparrows keep their distance!). But for my money it’s not the smiling book some say it is. The rage may be muted beneath the laughter, but it is there. And in no part of the book more so than in the story of what happened to Boxer, the loyal worker sold to the knacker and slaughtered in his yard when no more work can be got out of his battered old carcass. As Malcom Bradbury commented, tanks may crush people and ayatollahs and imams and state leaders offer bribes of half a bushel of apples to sell out the Boxers of this world. But Boxer will not be airbrushed from history. Orwell has seen to that. Boxer’s death is in fact the emotional climax of the book. He is the salt-of-the-earth – good, honest, hard-working, selfless and decent. He gives his all – and all for others, for the cause. Hence the terrible circumstances of his betrayal. It could have been avoided, had the animals stood their ground at the start and prevented the pigs from taking over. The story is about the awful consequences of passivity and blind faith. The cynical and ruthless slaughter of the good but gullible workhorse in the knacker’s yard is the most powerful and shocking moment of the narrative. But this is what people do to people; this, more specifically, is what dictators do to their own people. They betray them. Animal Farm is ultimately about this betrayal, about the betrayal of individuals and ideals, and of entire nations. If satire is the exposure of the frailty of human institutions through laughter, indignation or contempt, there is no truer or greater satire than Animal Farm.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 65 © Christopher Rush 2020


About the contributor

Christopher Rush has been writing for thirty-five years. His books include the memoirs To Travel Hopefully and Hellfire and Herring, and Will, a novel about Shakespeare. His latest novel, Penelope’s Web, was published in 2015.

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