Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 18, 2008

Animal Farm

Filed under: cruise missile left,Film,ussr — louisproyect @ 2:05 pm

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.

Read in full


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.


  1. I’m a BIG Orwell fan–despite his cynicism and bleak outlook based on his worldview and horrendous experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell was a humanist, someone who detested what we, as a species are capable of doing to each other, but unwilling to ring down the curtain on us and declare us hopeless. Whenever I read his work, whether it’s the novels, the essays, the journalism, the letters, I’m always struck by his fierce intelligence and independent mind. He was nobody’s fool and I shall retain my admiration for his life and work ’til my dying day…

    Comment by Cliff Burns — August 18, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  2. I saw this movie when I was 10 years old or something. I haven’t seen it since (i’m 30 now), but I can’t forget the scene when they take the working horse away in the butcher’s van and the donkey is running after it, screaming.. I used to have nightmares because of the scene.

    I didn’t understand anything of the politics back then, of course, I just thought that all cartoons were for children. What a way to find out to the contrary!

    Comment by lainej — August 18, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

  3. Louis: Could you call Orwell, a contradictory figure; Catalonia vs 1984.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — August 18, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

  4. Orwell moved to the right after WWII began. I rather like his earlier works, especially “Down and Out in London and Paris”.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 18, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

  5. I meant my last comment as a question.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — August 18, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

  6. Isaac Deutscher also offered what I think is a pretty fair assessment of Orwell in his essay “1984 and the Politics of Cruelty”.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — August 18, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

  7. Although 1984 and Animal Farm are generally considered “anti-communist classics,” is that how Orwell meant them? You could certainly read Animal Farm as more of an anti-Stalinist fable.

    Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, once wrote an essay (in the actual year 1984, I believe) about how the book holds up as SF. Not very well, he thought. Orwell just projected the penuious era of post-war Britain into the future, and had no sense of how, for instance, an actual police state would use technology to keep its population in line.

    Asimov, who was actually born in the Soviet Union (although he left it at a very young age) and was around the CP milieu in the ’30s (although he never joined), characterized Orwell as a bit of a fuddy-duddy adherent of a sort of “gentlemanly” socialism (wasn’t Orwell in the Independent Labour Party in the ’30s?) who had become embittered by his experiences with the Stalinists in Spain (his Homage to Catalonia is a classic).

    Asimov criticized Orwell’s pessimistic view of the future as “just a boot stomping on a person’s face.” The reality, Asimov said was that Stalinism, both in the Soviet Union and China, had mellowed considerably by the time 1984 actually rolled around.

    Comment by John B. — August 18, 2008 @ 10:21 pm

  8. Whereas capitalism, now that it has a second chance to reshape the world, can come up with nothing other than a generalized consensus that life should be commodified so completely that people will lose their ability to think outside the set-up provided by capital.

    Stalinism is lunacy to be sure, but is so heavy handed in its operations that it tips its hand early. Capital, on the other hand,has created a system so insidious that people learn to purge their own best thinking in order to survive.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — August 19, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

  9. Strange. I read Animal Farm and 1984 on my own, back in the early 60s, when I was 12 or 13. What I didn’t understand then about 1984 was the sex; I thought I got the politics. When I had to go to pep sessions in junior high, I recognized them as the Two Minutes’ Hate, except that they lasted longer than that. Though 1984 was meant as an anti-Soviet allegory, it has a lot more going on in it than that, y’know.

    I still have trouble seeing why Animal Farm as seen as capitalist-friendly. The humans in the book, the farmers, are not shown to have any redeeming qualities at all. Mr. Proyect says that Animal Farm wasn’t invaded by 21 countries; true enough, but it *was* invaded by the farmers, with guns, when the animals had none, with some loss of life. When I learned about the Allied invasion of the USSR years later, I took for granted that the farmers’ attack referred to it.

    One edition I’ve seen has an afterword by Malcolm Muggeridge or some such, who wrote that Animal Farm shows that Communism and capitalism cannot coexist. That’s odd, when you consider that the book ends with the pigs and the farmers reconciled, and it was impossible to tell which was which. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of capitalism as a shield against the Bolsheviks.

    Comment by The Promiscuous Reader — August 19, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  10. Neither 1984 nor Animal Farm can be reduced to ruling-class propaganda, despite their weaknesses. I think it’s worth noting the revisions the CIA made to the film version of Animal Farm.
    “The second objection was that the script had to make it absolutely clear that not all farmers were bad, that many cared for their animals and that there were farms where the animals were content. The CIA was certainly not going to finance a film attacking capitalism as well as Stalinism.

    They also wanted to change the final episode of the novel, in which the farm animals can no longer tell the pigs from the men, so that it involved only pigs. This was, of course, a crucial change because what Orwell was intent on demonstrating in the novel was that the Soviet Union was behaving exactly the same as the imperialist powers—in fact, had become indistinguishable from them. This was clearly not acceptable to the CIA.”

    Comment by Paul P — August 19, 2008 @ 5:21 pm

  11. Animal Farm is available online through Project Gutenberg Australia.


    Comment by Joshua H — August 19, 2008 @ 6:23 pm

  12. I love that version. Watch it with my nieces and nephew all the time. Seen the Blacklisted Hollywood 10’s ‘Salt of the Earth’? Worth checking out:

    Comment by Public D — August 20, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

  13. You are wrong about ANIMAL FARM. It is a good socialist book, not capitalist propaganda. I read it for the first time back in the early Sixties when you and I were students at Bard. I’m glad your postings made me read it again. After more than forty years of reading Trotsky, Deutscher, and countless accounts of the Russian revolution, I can only see Orwell’s story as true. You are wrong also about the film. Despite its funding the directors were obviously doing their best to be faithful to the book. The scene where the animals sing the INERNATIONALE is moving. Reread the story and watch the film and tell me how this is anti-socialist propaganda. It is anti-Stalinist for sure, but so I would think are you and I. I cannot see how a new fable telling the story of how Snowball (Trotsky) came back and restored capitalism makes any sense. As for your complaint that ANIMAL FARM will make people doubt the possibility of a socialist victory or that it doesn’t sufficiently make us face the threat of counter-revolution, I can only suggest that you add THE IRON HEEL to your reading list. But be advised that when Jack London wrote that story a hundred years ago many of the comrades objected that it would scare people from voting for Debs. Finally, Orwell is not rat because of his list of fellow travelers. The people on the list were intellectuals who openly defended the Moscow trials and the murder of Trotsky. He wasn’t telling British political police anything they didn’t already know.

    Comment by paul Mueller — August 27, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

  14. For kids in grade school the animated Animal Farm film never failed to mesmerize the audience.

    My father who taught for the Chicago Public School system for 30 years on the South Side near the Projects used to tell me how amazed he was that whenever he’d start that film the kids, who were always pretty loud & rowdy at the start of a movie — & he’d let them be that way — would always shut up en masse at the opening scene as if driven by the pied piper.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 22, 2009 @ 1:18 am

  15. If Orwell wasn’t telling them something they didn’t already know, why was he telling them anything at all? Anyway, it was an old McCarthyite gambit to tell potential “friendly” witnesses that they already had the names they wanted the witness to give – it was an attempt to sweeten the pill of being an informer.

    Orwell moved significantly to the right after the Spanish Civil War. His attitudes were quite in harmony with those of the British establishment, especially its more right-wing members. Patrick Bishop in “Bomber Boys”, an account of the RAF bombing of Germany in the war, notes that Orwell’s “tender conscience” did not stop him from expressing approval of the bombing campaign in a BBC broadcast he made a few days after the massive bombing raid on Cologne in 1942. A few Labour MPs and clergymen expressed misgivings about the bombing of German civilians, but Orwell had no problems with it.

    Comment by Hasta siempre comandante — March 24, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

  16. A much better book critical of Stalinism “from the left” would be Andrey Platonov’s novel “The Foundation Pit”. It has none of the cold-war hysteria laced through Orwell’s Animal Farm.

    Comment by Albert — March 13, 2015 @ 11:04 pm

  17. […] keep working toward a different political economy?  The fact that even the CIA saw Animal Farm as useful for propaganda purposes suggests what little practical threat Orwell’s vision posed to the vested interests of […]

    Pingback by Andrei Platonov – The Foundation Pit | Rock Salted — May 14, 2017 @ 1:38 am

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