Animal Farm? Is that the best you can do?
I write as an admirer of Orwell. I also think he was deeply flawed in many ways, and some of his novels (e.g. A Clergyman’s Daughter — I read how it ended on Wikipedia because it’s so bad I couldn’t finish it), are awful. If you want to get a feel for how the old colonialists used to think, however, Burmese Days is worth reading.
But there is still a body of work, some interesting essays, and a willingness to put himself in harm’s way for things he believed. He wrote Animal Farm as a response to what we now call Stalinism, and the way the Soviet Union behaved during his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He saw the Stalinist project as the destruction of humanity’s chance of social change, in fact a reactionary project.
There’s a couple of points to note here. First, Animal Farm a fairy tale and you can read it all kinds of ways. Second, it’s a product of its time. After the second world war Russia transformed in Western thinking from friend to enemy because it was one of the places the working class thought it could look to and see an end to capitalist tyranny. In fact, we wouldn’t have all the gains from the social democratic project (things like the New Deal in the USA and the creation of the social safety net across Europe) without the war, and without the very existence of the Soviet Union putting the fear of rebellion up the capitalist class. But the SU was a flawed project that eventually capitulated to capitalism. A large number of modern socialists now believe that the creation of a new class that did the thinking for the working class and created a new state is not a socialist project.
Orwell’s hatred of Stalinism gives the book its structure and it tells a version of story of the early days of the revolution. It’s a very simplistic version of what happened, and has been used ever since as a book to frighten children about the dangers of communism. But what he was really writing about was the dangers of the soviet model’s indifference to workers’ control and it’s suppression of dissenting voices, this subtlety does not suit the people who want to attack socialism or communism and isn’t part of the narrative that’s sprung up around the book.
Most people wrongly put the idea of the socialism of the old soviet era together with the idea of socialism the thing. But in fact there are two trends in socialist thought. One of these thinks you need to create a new state to replace the old one (as in the soviet style). The other thinks that you need to create democratic methods of organising society and remove the need for the state, that creating a new state will just perpetuate the dominance of a small minority over the mass of people. This is known broadly as Anarcho Socialism or Anarcho Communism and has four or five variants. The thing is, you can’t have a go at an An Soc/Com by using the Soviet Union, or indeed Animal Farm, as an example.
Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War, where the workers rejected capitalism and organised themselves after a military coup tried to overthrow an elected government and started a civil war with the encouragement of other countries that were afraid of workers’ control (does this sound familiar?). He saw at first hand a place where there was no state any more, where workers and peasants had taken control of their lives and the means of production, were educating themselves and running the factories, where it didn’t need a new class of people creating a new state to make it work. Orwell felt very strongly that Soviet interference helped pull down the anarchist system, and his hatred of them stems from this.
Homage to Catalonia:
There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gipsies. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers’ shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets were coloured posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes. To anyone from the hard-boiled, sneering civilization of the English-speaking races there was something rather pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards took the hackneyed phrases of revolution. At that time revolutionary ballads of the naïvest kind, all about proletarian brotherhood and the wickedness of Mussolini, were being sold on the streets for a few centimes each. I have often seen an illiterate militiaman buy one of these ballads, laboriously spell out the words, and then, when he had got the hang of it, begin singing it to an appropriate tune.
Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia (Penguin Modern Classics) (pp. 4–5). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
So saying Orwell’s writing proves that socialism does not work is at best naive. He was writing about an authoritarian socialism he felt did not work, after having witnessed one that did, before it was destroyed at least in part by the authoritarian socialists. They have form on this, too, for example there was an anarchist collective of over a million people in the Ukraine after the revolution in 1917, which they fought together with to drive out the old regime. When the danger was over they promptly occupied the place and suppressed them.
By modern standards Orwell was very wrong about a lot of things. For example he hated gays and used them as examples of weakness and perfidy. It’s also believed that, post war, he informed on soviet sympathisers in the labour movement because he believed them to be a danger to democracy. He was a man of his time, and class, and trying to hold him to a standard we would expect from a socialist thinker in the twenty-first century is ridiculous. But to hold up a fairy story he wrote to warn about the dangers of authoritarian socialism as a critique of all socialist thought, and socialism in general, is at best naive and extremely disingenuous.
So the next time I say Animal Farm, is that the best you can do? This is why.