On August 17th, 1945 George Orwell (1903-1950) had his second best known work, the timeless allegorical fable Animal Farm, first published in London by Secker & Warburg. The original subtitle A Fairy Story was dropped when it came out in the US in 1946.
Orwell wrote the book between November 1943 and February 1944, but due to the British-Soviet alliance against Germany during World War II, major publishing houses wouldn’t touch anti-Soviet literature, including Orwell’s first publisher Victor Gollancz (1893-1967).
It describes a group of barnyard animals who overthrow and chase off their negligent human master, establishing their own allegedly egalitarian community. Though the intelligent and power-loving pigs soon conclude that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Eventually, they subvert the revolution and become the new tyrannical leaders in an even more oppressive and heartless dictatorship.
Although in Homage to Catalonia, presented to the public in April 1938, Orwell had already described his personal experiences and observations from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), his active participation from December 1936 until June 1937 inspired Animal Farm, too.
There were huge political differences among the Left in Spain. The situation in Barcelona in May 1937 was especially chaotic: the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya, PSUC), in reality entirely under Soviet control, the anti-Stalinist Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (Partit Obrer d’ Unificació Marxista, POUM), in whose militia Orwell served, the anarchists as well as the central and regional government forces all fought each other.
The POUM had some connections with Leo Trotsky (1879-1940), the biggest political rival of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), exiled in Mexico. Out of the blue, the organization was accused of plotting with the commander of the Nationalist troops, General Francisco Franco (1892-1975).
In June 1937, the Republicans declared the POUM illegal, as they couldn’t afford to offend their Russian arm suppliers. It can be considered the culmination of a violent inner-Spanish confrontation going on since the beginning of the conflict.
Orwell, who according to his own words went “to Spain to join the militia to fight against Fascism”, was consequently forced to flee after fabricated accusations of being a spy came up. This trauma marked him for the rest of his life.
In an essay from 1946, “Why I Write”, Orwell affirmed that Animal Farm was the first book in which he tried, with full consciousness of what he was doing, “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole”.
The author also claimed that since 1936, every line of serious work he had written, directly or indirectly, was against totalitarianism and for what he defined as Democratic Socialism.
Never mind that this utopian idea is a contradiction in itself, because democracy and Socialism are incompatible. Orwell’s hostility against Stalin was based on the wrong belief that a supposedly good cause had been betrayed by the wrong person.
In addition, despite all the abominable crimes committed during the era of Stalinism, the victorious Bolsheviks immediately enforced a reign of terror. The Soviet Union didn’t become a brutal dictatorship only after Stalin rose to power, nor was it less despicable after he was gone. A cult of personality was already developed around Vladimir Lenin after his death in 1924 and just reached new heights under Stalin.
Notwithstanding that Orwell was a political dreamer, and maybe because my father taught me since I was a boy to respect all living creatures, I found the book extremely touching when I read it about 35 years ago.
One scene in particular made me cry: the horse Boxer, who has dedicated all his efforts to the community and hopes to enjoy a deserved retirement, collapses while pulling stones for a new windmill.
Even though the pigs announce that they will take him to a (human) hospital to recuperate, in reality Boxer is being sent to a glue maker to be slaughtered. Still, the impudent lie that he has died because the doctors couldn’t cure him soon spreads.
In our increasingly Orwellian societies, a growing number of privileged minorities dictate the majority what it should think or do. In addition, solidarity with the older generations that generated the wealth we are all enjoying is disappearing fast. The warning contained in Animal Farm seems therefore timeless.