Friday, April 1, 2016

On the Ending of "Animal Farm"

Everyone thinks Orwell's on their side, don't they? Well, I mean other than the former Soviet government and modern-day die hards. My point is, Animal Farm is one of those novels that is exploited for its meaning in a way mostly indicative of the lack of knowledge of history in modern society. My copy even says on the back "Orwell's chilling 'fairy story' is a timeless and devastating satire of idealism betrayed by power and corruption." There's a good word: "timeless".

Of course Animal Farm can be read as a "timeless" text, unless you're one of those psychotic anti-intellectuals who think that the author's intentions are always absolute and that every text has only one meaning. At the same time, however, it has to be recognised that Animal Farm is a very specific satire of the events of the Russian Revolution and the history of the Soviet Union up until the mid 1940s, and specifically a representation of the "betrayal of the Revolution", as it was perceived, by Stalin and his supporters, who abandoned any serious concept of an egalitarian state and cemented the nation as a totalitarian bureaucracy in complete contradiction of its original purposes.

Yet simplistic analyses, as taught at a school level and regurgitated endlessly by many people with no literary education after school level, insist that the novel is simply trying to criticise "communism", in its nebulous Western twentieth-century sense as, effectively, a catch-all term for a non-traditional absolute government where people march around in uniforms a lot and put stars on everything. It's not, though, is it? Orwell himself was a socialist. Animal Farm is one strand of "Leftist" (another now-meaningless term) thought, Orwell's self-described "democratic socialism", criticising the authoritarian socialism of the Soviet Union. He was particularly frustrated that, despite mounting evidence in favour of Stalin being a ruthless tyrant, many on the British Left and elsewhere refused to see it (or perhaps had vested interests in ignoring the evidence).

The novel quite simply isn't just some catch-all attack on the "communist" bogeyman that reductive political thinkers would like to believe it to be. We don't even need Orwell's intentions to see this. It doesn't matter that Orwell is a socialist for us to see that this is a socialist novel criticising another form of socialism: it's all bound up in the conclusion of the narrative.

The ending of Animal Farm is probably best-remembered for the presentation of the pigs' nonsensical axiom "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others." That of course sums up the hypocrisy of the Soviet bureaucracy fairly well. They key, however, is the dinner scene in which Mr Pilkington of Foxwood and some fellow farmers dine with Napoleon and the other important pigs. By this point, the transformation of the Farm back to its original state is complete: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which."

So the pigs are indistinguishable from the men. We know the pigs are Stalin and his cronies. But what do the men represent? We see three major groups of "men" in the tale. Firstly, there is Jones, the farmer who is ousted by the animals. He and his family obviously represent the Tsar and the Russian aristocracy. I don't think that can be disputed. Jones and some men later attack the farm in the "Battle of the Cowshed", representing resistance by White Russian forces and their Western Allied supporters in the Russian Civil War. People would be less likely to know this because most people don't know that this part of history ever even happened. Then there's Frederick of Pinchfield, a "smaller and better kept" farm from which the later "Battle of the Windmill" attack happens. An orderly state attacking the Soviet Union? I think all would agree that Pinchfield represents Germany and Frederick ultimately fulfils the role of Hitler. So far, so simple. Pigs are like men. Stalin was just as bad as Hitler and the Tsar, wasn't he?

Of course. But it's not Jones or Frederick at the final dinner when the pigs and men are indistinguishable. It's Pilkington of Foxwood. Pilkington is an "easy-going gentleman-farmer who spent most of his time in fishing or hunting according to the season." Foxwood is a "large, neglected, old-fashioned farm." It has an uneasy relationship with Animal Farm for most of the narrative, but by the end of the text we see that Napoleon and Pilkington are very much on the same page. Who is Pilkington?

He's the West, obviously, and probably specifically the United Kingdom. I don't think you would get much disagreement about that, either. So when the animals look from pig to man and find them indistinguishable, what is Orwell saying? That Stalin is just as bad as the West. It couldn't be more obvious. Consider the words of Pilkington: "If you have your lower animals to contend with [...] we have our lower classes!"

Animal Farm is not just an anti-communist (if we read "communist" specifically as "Stalinist Soviet socialist") novel; it's an anti-capitalist novel as well. Western class-oriented capitalism is presented at the end of the text as the abysmally low bar by which Stalin's awful regime is judged, and Stalin's is found to be just as bad. I read a stupid comment the other day in which someone dismissed the ending as critical of capitalism because in their view the humans only represented the Aristocracy and the Nazis. This is to completely overlook what Pilkington and Foxwood are meant to represent in the text. Orwell spells it out to us with Pilkington's reference to classes.

I'm not saying I agree with Orwell. The way capitalism is currently practised in the West is extremely flawed, largely due to the shamelessly obvious power certain businesses wield over governments, but I can't fail to recognise that it has improved many people's quality of life and is at least somewhat functional for some people for the time being. Similarly, while I support a number of the aims of socialism, I am not an anything-ist because I find "-isms" reductive and intellectually limiting; I do not wish to subordinate my own independence of thought to ideology developed by other people. It's also true that Orwell in 1943 and '44 when he wrote Animal Farm did not have the wealth of information that we do now about the extent of Stalinist atrocities, partially due to Soviet secrecy and partially because the news that did make it to the West was often hushed up by pro-Stalinists. Fortunately, as it were, Orwell witnessed the repressive nature of the regime and its allies first hand in the actions of the PSUC in Spain.

Nonetheless, when people use Animal Farm as a literary stick with which to beat socialism, they generally fail to recognise that using this narrative in particular necessitates beating the Western democratic-capitalist system as well, and this makes Animal Farm a poor text for the Right to use to demonise the Left or for pro-capitalists to denigrate pro-socialists or whatever, because if you use Animal Farm in that way you're not saying "You're horrible", you're saying "You're as bad as I am!" That hardly makes a case for capitalism, does it? Unless you want to attack both, Animal Farm isn't the novel to use.

In that respect, of course, Animal Farm is quite the novel of its context. You would struggle to find any but the most deluded old-school communists these days who would dismiss, ignore or justify the outrages committed by Stalin's regime, when in the 1940s when the truth was less well known it was a more serious point of contention. Similarly, virtually everyone on the "Left", for want of a better term, would utterly denounce the policies of Stalin's USSR. This means, really, that Animal Farm and its well-known elements are a feeble weapon in the hands of those most eager to use it, and far more rhetorically effective in the hands of people who would place themselves similarly to Orwell's "democratic socialism". Yet these nuances tend to elude the most vocal political "thinkers".

These days everyone thinks they're an expert on literature, or that there's no such thing as expertise when it comes to the study of texts. Those people are, of course, wrong, and it's high time we recognised this. So the next time someone says "Haven't you read Animal Farm?" as a way of attacking one political position, the correct response is probably "Have you?"

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