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.”
How he understood it was changing by the day. “Collectivism,” he warned in a 1944 book review, “leads to concentration camps, leader worship and war.” More important, perhaps, he admitted that this might always be so, suggesting that “there is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.” Like Wilde before him, he held that freedom of the intellect to be indispensable. The question: Could socialism accommodate it?
It is de rigeur these days to cast Orwell as being merely an anti-totalitarian socialist — a “democratic socialist,” if you will — and, in doing so to parrot the graduate student’s favorite assurance that, because Marxism has never been tried in any sufficiently developed country, its critics are condemning merely its “excesses.” Certainly, Orwell did not believe that the Soviet Union was in any meaningful way a “socialist” state: “Nothing,” he charged, “has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated.” But, dearly as he hoped it could be realized, he also never quite managed to convince himself that his form of socialism was possible either — let alone that it could coexist with the English liberties he so sharply championed. For Orwell, it was not simply a matter of distinguishing between the “good” and “bad” Left, but worrying whether the former would lead always to the latter — a concern that the British literary classes, which indulged Stalin’s horrors to an unimaginable degree, did little to assuage.
Which is all to say that Orwell worried that the world of 1984 was inevitable. “The scene of the book,” Orwell explained, “is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.” Throughout his later writing, there is something of Edmund Burke in the man — of the smart revolutionary who recognizes deep down that he does not live in a world that will ever be fit for revolution. When he writes that “there is no way out of” collectivism’s pitfalls “unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect,” the “somehow” really matters. Why? Because it might not be. You will note that both of Orwell’s revolutions turn out the same way: both the one that is “premature” (Animal Farm) and the one that has taken place in an advanced society (1984, in which the ruling party is named “IngSoc”). Indeed, as the Legal Insurrection blog recently noted, John Molyneux, the British Trotskyist, argues convincingly that even Animal Farm carries the suggestion that revolution will falter not because the material conditions for change have not yet been met but because human nature dictates that it must. And if Molyneux is correct, Lee Wengraf of the International Socialist Review concluded in a 2003 essay, then Animal Farm is a “book with the reactionary message at the heart of it — that all revolutions fail.”
It is peculiar that Ball has elected to give one of Orwell’s books the full Ministry of Truth treatment when there is so much else in his work that she could have chosen to buttress her point. She could have opened at any page The Road to Wigan Pier or Down and Out in Paris and London — or, really, picked up any one of his many essays — and she would have come across a host of writing that would have served her cause. This was a man whose raison d’être was to puncture the middle class’s indifference toward conditions at the bottom, and to recruit them to his cause. One acerbic line, and she’d have her case. That instead she felt the need to repeatedly hijack the imprimatur of a novel that is explicitly about something else tells us all we need to know: She’s never read a word of it.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.