Orwell and Strange Bedfellows

Criticism of Soviet Allies was ‘not done'

Mural depicting Napoleon the Pig, an obvious allusion to Joseph Stalin. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, made a living writing and editing for a variety of left-leaning publications from the early 30’s to the 50’s of the 20th century. During this time, he also published several novels, some of which are quite a bit better than the others.

He is most famous for Animal Farm, an allegorical fable referring to the Bolshevik Revolution and Stalin’s betrayal of the people he claimed to revolt on behalf of. And for 1984, a dystopian condemnation of a theoretical government regime which renders revolution absolutely impossible through a butchering of thought and language.

We’ll take a look at those unwilling to publish Animal Farm, their reasons for not publishing it, and most importantly what Orwell thought about the thing.

Orwell intended a particular introduction for Animal Farm, which is not included in all versions of the book and was not included in the first edition. Once one reads it, assuming of course they view the story as merely a fable meant for children, one can see why. In my own copy of Animal Farm, the Everyman’s Library print, his introduction is included as an appendix. In the event the reader does not have access to the print version, The Orwell Foundation hosts all of his essays online, including The Freedom of the Press, the essay title for this introduction.

I highly recommend reading it. If not, I’ll be pulling liberally from it here, anyway.

Something to understand about Orwell is while he was a Socialist, he could not allow anyone to go without criticism. This is in fact why the man is so interesting; his writing smacks of earnest honesty, rather than the obfuscating and politically-motivated garbage which is more traditional of political writing. Initially, he found himself quite supportive of the Soviet Union, hoping to see in it a government truly for the people. But as time went on and as news of the Five-Year Plan’s famines became known in the 30's, he felt betrayed. His sentiments moved away from the promise of Soviet Communism and towards an examination of its atrocities and philosophies of control, instead.

This is around the time he began to conceive of Animal Farm.

Self-Censorship and Intellectual Cowardice

Orwell begins by mentioning he knew there would be push back from publishers on the book. Not because it was no good, Orwell knew it was good or else he wouldn’t have submitted it. But due to a tendency of liberals in his country towards self-censorship. He includes in his introduction a reply from a publisher who arranged publication of the novel, then pulled out at the last second after consulting the Ministry of Information.

From Freedom of the Press, Orwell writes:

One publisher actually started by accepting the book, but after making the preliminary arrangements he decided to consult the Ministry of Information, who appear to have warned him, or at any rate strongly advised him, against publishing it. Here is an extract from his letter:

I mentioned the reaction I had had from an important official in the Ministry of Information with regard to Animal Farm. I must confess that this expression of opinion has given me seriously to think… I can see now that it might be regarded as something which it was highly ill-advised to publish at the present time. If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators, that it can apply only to Russia, to the exclusion of the other dictatorships. Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs[1]. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.

Orwell continues in his own words:

This kind of thing is not a good symptom. Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship (except security censorship, which no one objects to in war time) over books which are not officially sponsored. But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the MOI or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.

While the state, in this case the Ministry of Information, advised against publishing the novel due to how it would be received by the Russians and those sympathetic to the Soviets in Britain, they did not forbid it. The publisher took that step themselves, in addition to adding the absurd criticism that the Russians would take issue with their ruling caste being represented by those of porcine persuasions. This was self-censorship and an odd instance of Russo-mania, as Orwell put it.

In 1943, the year Orwell initially attempted to have the book published, World War II was in full swing. England had been pummeled by the Nazis in the Battle of Britain and Europe for the most part was lost to Germany. In response to the German invasion of the U.S.S.R. in 1941, the Soviet Union had entered the war and thrown their lot in with the Allies, of which Britain was counted. The Soviet Union, warts and all, were an ally in the war against Nazism. To criticize the Soviet Union was anathema. Soviet criticism was viewed as poison and this view was not the result of any formal or official policy at all. It was instead a type of group think, from the bottom-up.

Orwell writes:

At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia. Everyone knows this, nearly everyone acts on it. Any serious criticism of the Soviet régime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable. And this nation-wide conspiracy to flatter our ally takes place, curiously enough, against a background of genuine intellectual tolerance. For though you are not allowed to criticise the Soviet government, at least you are reasonably free to criticise our own. Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill, at any rate in books and periodicals. And throughout five years of war, during two or three of which we were fighting for national survival, countless books, pamphlets and articles advocating a compromise peace have been published without interference. More, they have been published without exciting much disapproval. So long as the prestige of the USSR is not involved, the principle of free speech has been reasonably well upheld. There are other forbidden topics, and I shall mention some of them presently, but the prevailing attitude towards the USSR is much the most serious symptom. It is, as it were, spontaneous, and is not due to the action of any pressure group.

One expects this kind of nonsense from official state organs, but not from a group of literary individuals vainly pronouncing themselves to be free thinkers and explorers. It is rank hypocrisy, not of any kind of conspiratorial nature, but purely organic. A herd-censorship, engaged in from the bottom-up, with the bottom being various publishers and intellectuals unwilling to rock the boat. Criticize an ally? It simply isn’t done.

Orwell writes:

The servility with which the greater part of the English intelligentsia have swallowed and repeated Russian propaganda from 1941 onwards would be quite astounding if it were not that they have behaved similarly on several earlier occasions. On one controversial issue after another the Russian viewpoint has been accepted without examination and then publicised with complete disregard to historical truth or intellectual decency. To name only one instance, the BBC celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Red Army without mentioning Trotsky.

Leon Trotsky, of course, headed the Red Army for several years. His omission would be a glaring oversight, indeed. Too glaring to have been accidental. Ignoring him smacks of his feud with Joseph Stalin, a feud which ultimately resulted in Trotsky’s exile and murder. Within Animal Farm, the pig Napoleon is quite obviously Joseph Stalin, while Snowball is Leon Trotsky; Snowball even possesses Trotsky’s love of violence and fanatical willingness to engage in it. Snowball is exiled from Animal Farm and a narrative of evil is crafted by Napoleon and spread about by Squealer to justify expelling him as a rival for control of the farm.

Orwell continues to describe the herd-censorship mentality of the free thinking left of Britain at the time:

What is disquieting is that where the USSR and its policies are concerned one cannot expect intelligent criticism or even, in many cases, plain honesty from Liberal writers and journalists who are under no direct pressure to falsify their opinions. Stalin is sacrosanct and certain aspects of his policy must not be seriously discussed. This rule has been almost universally observed since 1941, but it had operated, to a greater extent than is sometimes realised, for ten years earlier than that. Throughout that time, criticism of the Soviet régime from the left could only obtain a hearing with difficulty. There was a huge output of anti-Russian literature, but nearly all of it was from the Conservative angle and manifestly dishonest, out of date and actuated by sordid motives. On the other side there was an equally huge and almost equally dishonest stream of pro-Russian propaganda, and what amounted to a boycott on anyone who tried to discuss all-important questions in a grown-up manner.

The modern reader, of which I count myself for good or ill, cannot help but think to their modern situation in relation to the one depicted here by Orwell. One can see the same dynamic playing out, though of course not in any way sympathetic to Russia. My mind, upon reading Animal Farm again, centered on the various protests raging across the United States during the Summer of 2020 and the treatment they have received from various media outlets.

Conservative media sources condemn these protests too wholly, too absurdly, to be anything more than the manifestly dishonest manner Orwell refers to in his introduction. One can count on Conservative opposition to such things; there is no bravery involved. An entire ecosystem of thought has been erected, a structure provided where individuals can say whatever they like, so long as it is anti-protest. It is so pervasively immature and without nuance, it is simply tuned out.

Liberal media sources on the other hand find themselves hesitant, if not wholly unwilling, to condemn the obvious excesses of the Black Lives Matter movement. They must see them, as we are told the camera does not lie, except perhaps when it does. Loose organizations such as Antifa, populated with violent wreckers of the sort Leon Trotsky would wholeheartedly approve of, run amok torching cities and murdering people under this BLM umbrella. In response, a blanket disapproval of violence at large is all one gets, no names named, no risks taken.

The people, the vast majority of human beings, enjoy free speech. Whether out of ignorance or true tolerance, that is how it is. It is only the intelligentsia who view themselves as epistemological gatekeepers, determining what will and will not be published or discussed. This is done out of a motivation to back a particular horse in some sort of race, with the belief criticizing the horse will cause it to stumble, or interfere with its good work as an ally in some sort of struggle.

Just as in WWII, where the intelligentsia were so desperate to ensure a successful war effort against the Nazis to the point any and all criticism of the U.S.S.R. was to be stifled, the same dynamic plays out in the modern day with these protests. Is it any wonder the liberal intelligentsia encourage viewing the Trump administration as a fascist one? Any and all actions, viewed as working against Donald Trump, would be a good and necessary one from that viewpoint. Even when we quite clearly see it isn’t, we won’t talk about it.

It simply isn’t done.

Orwell is a man who is misunderstood. He is mostly utilized as a club against one’s political opponents. He criticized everyone, which makes him ideal for this sort of political chicanery. A conservative who knows nothing of him sees only communism in 1984 and a socialist who knows nothing of him sees only Nazism and fascism in 1984. But they are both correct. Orwell’s greatest foe was totalitarianism at large. He understood there was no totalitarian creed which could support liberty.

I’ll close with Orwell’s closing from his introduction. As always, in terms of political writing, whatever one thinks they’ve contributed Orwell almost certainly said it first and better than I ever could.

For quite a decade past I have believed that the existing Russian régime is a mainly evil thing, and I claim the right to say so, in spite of the fact that we are allies with the USSR in a war which I want to see won. If I had to choose a text to justify myself, I should choose the line from Milton:

By the known rules of ancient liberty.

The word ancient emphasises the fact that intellectual freedom is a deep-rooted tradition without which our characteristic western culture could only doubtfully exist. From that tradition many of our intellectuals are visibly turning away. They have accepted the principle that a book should be published or suppressed, praised or damned, not on its merits but according to political expediency. And others who do not actually hold this view assent to it from sheer cowardice.

The United States could use more George Orwells right about now and less Squealers.

Attempted humorist, hobo historian, and complete idiot. Follow at RBLamb.SubStack.com for new stuff.