Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I've always stuck up for the pigs - now I learn they're a bunch of dirty communists.  The ones on Animal Farm at least.  I like to think other farms around Britain were experimenting with other forms of government at the same time - social democracy, anarcho-capitalism and Islamic theocracy, though the latter is unlikely to be run by pigs.

This is one most of us will have read at school, and I remembered it pretty vividly.   Four legs good two legs bad; taking the old workhorse Boxer to the knackers' yard; the end when the pigs become indistinguishable from the greedy farmers.  But it's worth experiencing again when you know a bit more about Stalin and Orwell himself.

What really struck me was the faith the author has in socialism.  Burgess's 1985 made a big deal of how Orwell's was a very English socialism (Ingsoc!) and that's a major issue here.  The animal version of the Internationale is Beasts of England, which explicitly harks back to a golden age of proto-marxism in this green and pleasant land.  It's not just a direct metaphor for Russia under Stalin, it's also the dream of a strangely conservative communism at home.

I am not and have never been a member of the communist party.  To me it's always seemed self evidently evil and stupid, so it's interesting to get such a vicious denunciation of the Soviet Union from a staunch left winger writing at a time when Stalin was at the height of his powers, and the commies were actually our allies (the book was published in 1945.)  He must have been pretty brave.  His disgust is at how the high ideals of Marxism are twisted to become the same tyranny as before - they're not really communists any more.  But that makes the denounciation all the more bitter.

Here's one aspect I found especially intruiging - Napoleon holds late night drinking sessions with his pig cronies in the farm house (breaking at least two tenets of Animalism) which seem very close to Stalin's "parties" with Beria, Malenkov et al.  Were these drunken, terrifying parties common knowledge at the time, or is corruption just that obvious and banal.

This has piqued my interest not only in Orwell, but in left-wing infighting.  I'm keen to read Homage to Catalonia now, especially since a union rep in Aberdeen told me (with a touch of bitterness) about how he'd spied for MI5 during the Spanish Civil War, and sold out the real communists.  Who knows, but I get the feeling that Orwell's moral compass is probably more reliable than most.


zungg said...

While admiring Orwell's ballsy politics in Animal Farm, I've always been disappointed by the straightforwardness of the allegory. It is an essay masquerading as a work of fiction; not that there's anything wrong with this but I'd prefer it dropped the pretense. Orwell was a supreme essayist and a poor-to-middling novelist, but you can tell from reading his novels and his essays that he wished this were reversed.

I recommend this great-value essay compendium. I read all 1400 pages straight through in about three weeks; he's that good. You can see the whole tradition of enlightened non-fiction (in english) finding its acme, Orwell drawing on Hazlitt, Swift, Johnson and practically giving parthenogenetic birth to recent animals like Hitchens and Amis fils. I'm a very disagreeable person but find myself agreeing with Orwell on most artistic issues, except his praise for Dickens. I'd like to think I'd agree with him on political issues too, but I have to exempt myself from that conjecture (hindsight, not fair).

zungg said...

As for Orwell's moral compass, yes, you're bang on. It is very reliable and very consistent, in its rightness rather than in its pure direction. That is to say, he is one of very few pundits to correct himself when he makes a mistake. No ego with Orwell, just razorly insight and perfect style. Buy his Everyman essays, or I will bloody well buy it for you.

Joe said...

Well, that impassioned plea can't be ignored. It's on its way, and there's nothing more likely to get me to put aside by beloved kindle than a gorgeous everyman edition.

I do know what you mean about the directness of the parable. I suppose that's why I paid such attention to the traditional Enlgishness of the communism - that was something new. In particular, Napoleon is such a convincing and close portrait of Stalin that he suffers as a character himself. But would Animal Farm have become so influential if it had been a straight up essay? What would be our image of Uncle Joe if it didn't exist?

Read the Prefect! Perfect to follow Revelation Space. More on Exordium and why an archeologist called Sylveste would somehow be in charge of a planet.

zungg said...

Yes I read your review of The Prefect. I'm going away tomorrow - permanently, except for three days at the end of the month - so I might buy it as a going away present. I actually thought Redemption Ark was maybe even better than Revelation Space plot and SF-wise; my favourite thing is still the Gothic lighthugger. And the entoptics, though they were strangely missing from RA.

Joe said...

Hell's bells, that's a big slab of Orwell! A wise investment of some Amazon vouchers.

Redemption Ark was pretty damn good as well wasn't it. The only thing I've heard about Absolution Gap is that the ending may be a little confusing if you haven't read Reynold's Galactic North collection.

See, this is how those evil sci-fi writers drag you in!