The 1954 CIA-financed Halas and Batchelor animated production of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is now available on YouTube in eight parts, beginning here. I can’t remember if I saw this movie in the 1950s, but I surely remember reading this and “1984″ in high school. I am also fairly sure that our social studies teachers were instructed to assign these cold war staples. For impressionable teenagers living under the threat of nuclear attack from the dirty Rooskies, Orwell’s books were designed to reinforce the belief that it was better to be dead than red.
We never were told that “1984″ was written as an attack on all forms of monolithic societies, including the Cold War anticommunist west. It was strictly a warning about the dangers of Communism. “Big brother was watching you” was only about the GPU, not the FBI. To become an “unperson” was something that happened to Soviet dissidents, not the Hollywood 10, etc. When we got to the final chapter when Winston Smith is threatened with having hungry rats dine on his eyeballs, it was all we needed to wrap ourselves in the American flag. Who would want to say a good word about socialism when it led to rodent hell?
“Animal Farm” was just as scary and even more directly focused on the evils of trying to run a society based on human (or barnyard animal) needs rather than private profit. This was an Aesopian fable about the USSR, with animals standing in for leaders of the Russian revolution. Snowball the pig was Leon Trotsky and Napoleon, another pig, was Joseph Stalin. Like “big brother is watching you”, Animal Farm’s “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” had the power of a mantra.
The one thing that never came up in classroom discussions of “Animal Farm” was the actual history of the Soviet Union. Unlike the Soviet Union, the animal-run farm of Orwell’s novel was never invaded by 21 countries, even if populated by penguins or ferrets. The real lesson was that human nature (or animal nature) was rotten. Once the farmers were gone from the scene, the pigs would turn out to be just as rotten. So the moral of the story was “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
In 2002, the tables were turned on George Orwell as the N.Y. Times reported:
What if Snowball had his chance? An American novelist has written a parody of ‘”Animal Farm,”‘ George Orwell’s 1945 allegory about the evils of communism, in which the exiled pig, Snowball, returns to the farm and sets up a capitalist state, leading to misery for all the animals. The book, “‘Snowball’s Chance”‘ by John Reed, is being published this month by Roof Books, a small independent press in New York. And the estate of George Orwell is not happy about it.
William Hamilton, the British literary executor of the Orwell estate, objected to the parody in an e-mail message to the James T. Sherry, the publisher of Roof Books, saying, ”The contemporary setting can only trivialize the tragedy of Orwell’s mid-20th-century vision of totalitarianism.”
“‘The clear references to 9/11 in the apocalyptic ending can only bring Orwell’s name into disrepute in the U.S.,”‘ Mr. Hamilton wrote. Reached by phone, he said he had nothing more to add to the message.
“Snowball’s Chance”‘ is being published at a time when Orwell’s reputation has been under attack because of revelations that in the late 1940′s he gave the British Foreign Office a list of people he suspected of being ”crypto-Communists and fellow travelers,” labeling some of them as Jews and homosexuals as well. One of those condemning Orwell has been the writer Alexander Cockburn, whose father, Claud, a British journalist and member of the Communist Party, was a bitter foe of Orwell’s.
“How quickly one learns to loathe the affectations of plain bluntishness,”‘ Mr. Cockburn writes in an introduction to Mr. Reed’s novella. ‘”The man of conscience turns out to be a whiner, and of course a snitch.”
Finally, I would recommend Alex Miller’s essay on Orwell’s 2 anti-Communist classics on Links, the online journal of the DSP in Australia, where he nails “Animal Farm” to the wall:
The flipside of Orwell’s elitist and patronising attitude towards working people is his highly distorted picture of the nature of British capitalism. In the first preface to Animal Farm, he writes of “the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation” and states that “tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England [sic]”. That would be the “intellectual liberty” afforded – not so long before Orwell’s time – to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and other ordinary workers, imprisoned, banished or simply murdered by the British state for daring to organise trade unions, or the “tolerance and decency” that callously sent millions of young people to the slaughterhouse of World War I – not to mention the horrors of imperial rule within the British Isles and overseas.
The intellectual liberty, tolerance and decency of British imperialism are the real Orwellian fantasy: insofar as those qualities have roots in Britain, they are the product of generations of struggle by the working people that Orwell snobbishly portrays as bovine dunces. It’s not hard to see why Orwell is the darling of the ruling-class newspapers mentioned above. He may genuinely have attempted to provide a critique of Stalin’s USSR “from the left”, but all that he actually produced – in Animal Farm at least – was a banal piece of ruling-class propaganda.
Animal Farm thus fails utterly as a critique of Stalinism “from the left”.
London Review of Books 5 July 2007
The story behind Animal Farm [Halas and Batchelor, 1954]
by J. Hoberman
In the annals of American intelligence, the mid-1950s were the golden years: the CIA overthrew elected governments in Iran and Guatemala, conducted experiments with ESP and LSD (using its own operatives as unwitting guinea pigs), ran literary journals and produced the first general-release, feature-length animation ever made in the UK.
It was Howard Hunt who broke the story that the CIA funded Animal Farm, John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s 1954 version of George Orwell’s political allegory of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, played out in a British farmyard. Cashing in on his Watergate notoriety, the rogue spook and sometime spy novelist took credit in Undercover: Memoirs of an American Secret Agent (1974) for initiating the project, shortly after Orwell’s death in 1950. The self-aggrandising Hunt may have exaggerated his own importance in the operation – possibly inventing the juicy detail that Orwell’s widow, Sonia, was wooed with the promise of meeting her favourite star, Clark Gable – but, as detailed by Daniel Leab in Orwell Subverted: The CIA and the Filming of ‘Animal Farm’ (Pennsylvania, $55), the operation was real.
It’s been brought to my attention that “Animal Farm” does include an invasion by farmers who sought to destroy the animal-run farm. I checked chapter 4 and there is indeed a reference to this (the novel is not online but you can read summaries at http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/animalfarm):
One day in October, Jones, all his men, and half a dozen others from the neighbouring farms, attack Animal Farm. They walk up the laneway through the main gate. They are all armed with sticks except for Jones, who carries a gun. The animals, however, are well prepared. After an initial skirmish where the pigeons and geese attack the humans, Snowball attacks them, supported by Benjamin, Muriel and all the sheep. The men repulse this attack with their sticks, and Snowball sounds the retreat. They fall back to the farmyard, pursued by the men, who think that they have triumphed. However, they have walked into a trap.
Interesting that this might be as an attempt to map to historical events, Orwell makes no effort to connect the downfall of the animal experiment as a function of the invasion. Indeed, there seems to be no serious damage to the farm’s infrastructure or the lives of its animal-citizens, at least on the basis of the summary.
Furthermore, you can find evidence of the animal farm’s collapse before the invasion ever took place in chapter 3. Again, quoting from the summary:
Sunday is a rest day, when the animals assemble at a great Meeting. This is where the work for the coming week is to be planned, and various motions discussed. All of the resolutions are put forward by the pigs. The other animals are aware of this, but as they cannot think of any resolutions themselves, they allow the pigs to lead. As the weeks go by, it becomes clear that Napoleon and Snowball rarely agree about anything…
It is soon learned that the pigs took the milk that disappeared on the first day, and are now mixing it into their mash. The pigs now issue a decree stating that all windfall apples are to be gathered up and given over for the exclusive use of the pigs. Some of the animals are puzzled by this, and wonder why the apples are not to be shared out equally. Squealer goes before them to explain. He tells them that the pigs, as the leaders, must keep their brainpower up, and that science has proven that milk and apples are essential for this.
With Communist pigs acting in such selfish fashion, no wonder Orwell felt compelled to give the British Foreign Office a list of people he suspected of being ”crypto-Communists and fellow travelers.” Orwell went to great lengths to avoid being a pig apparently, even if it involved turning himself into a rat.