Twice now, the better-lettered viewers of MSNBC’s The Cycle have had their heads forced into their hands by a certain Krystal Ball, a one-time congressional candidate and amateur literary critic who has hit upon the extraordinary theory that George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a commentary on American income inequality. The novel, Ball explained last week, serves as a
political parable of farm animals where a bunch of pigs hog up all the economic resources, tell the other animals they need all the food because they’re the makers and then scare up the prospect of a phony bogeyman every time their greed is challenged.
Having been widely mocked for this unmatched contribution, Ball yesterday took to the air to defend her position, insisting that Animal Farm is, “at its heart,”
about tyranny and the likelihood of those in power to abuse that power. It’s clear that tendency is not only found in the Soviet Communist experience. In fact, if you read Animal Farm today, it seems to warn not of some now non-existent Communist threat but of the power concentrated in the hands of the wealthy elites and corporations.
One might paraphrase Oscar Wilde: To so grossly mischaracterize one of the great works of the Western canon can reasonably be seen as a misfortune; to do so twice looks likes carelessness. If only we had a word for calling things the opposite of their names . . .
It is especially remarkable that Ball could be confused as to what Orwell was getting at, because, whatever his underlying political bent, the novels are extraordinarily straightforward. Animal Farm does not so much hint at being a critique of Stalinist Russia as it beats its readers over the head with the idea over and over again. It is allegorical and abstract, yes. But in much the same way as were Victorian vaudeville acts — sufficiently pointed to leave the casual audience in no doubt who was being sent up; archetypal enough to avoid the censor’s red ink.
Orwell, an early critic claimed in The New Republic, was “saying in a clumsy way things that have been said better directly.” This is unfair. Orwell made no bones whatsoever about what he was doing, writing to his friend and translator Yvonne Davet that his work was “un conte satirique contre Staline” (a satirical tale against Stalin). Initially, such bluntness worked against him. In February 1944, in which month Orwell finished his final draft, the Soviet Union was still helping the allied forces fight Hitler, and, the Cold War having not yet started, nobody on the anti-fascist side much felt like publishing a broadside. With the descent of the Iron Curtain, the book turned into a roaring success. It is beyond embarrassing that Ball cannot grasp why this was.
One wonders whether the confusion stems from what she thinks she knows about Orwell’s politics? Contrary to the devout wishes of many conservatives, it remains an indisputable fact that George Orwell was a socialist. He was not “confused” about his politics. He was not a “capitalist in waiting.” He was not merely “living in another time.” He was a socialist, and he believed that, “wholeheartedly applied as a world system,” socialism could solve humanity’s problem. By contrast, he was wholly appalled by capitalism, which he described as a “racket” and which he believed led inexorably to “dole queues, the scramble for markets and war.” Abandoning a comfortable upbringing that had included an education at Eton and a stint as an imperial policeman in Burma, Orwell not only went out into the streets to discover how the other half lived but went so far as to risk his life for the cause, fighting for the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. (He was shot by a sniper, but survived.)
When the Right seized upon 1984 (which his publisher quipped to his irritation might be worth “a cool million votes to the Conservative party”), Orwell reacted with controlled anger, explaining in a letter that was published in Life magazine that,
my novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labor party, but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable, and which have already been partly realized in Communism and fascism.
So far, so clear.
And yet, admirably, he never lost his independence of mind, writing in the very next line of his explanation that,
I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences.
This fear came to preoccupy him — and to the exclusion of almost everything else. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936,” he explained in Why I Write, “has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”