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Arts and Culture

‘Animal Farm’ for the Status Quo?

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Posted on Jul 13, 2013
karen horton (CC BY 2.0)

Complex works of art lend themselves to multiple interpretations, especially where political matters are concerned. Late in 1946, American writer Dwight Macdonald asked George Orwell whether the book “ ‘Animal Farm’ … meant that revolution always ended badly for the underdog, ‘hence to hell with it and hail the status quo.’ ” In advance of the publication of a new collection of Orwell’s letters, “George Orwell: A Life in Letters,” to be published by Liveright in August, here is the author’s response.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

George Orwell at The New York Review of Books:

Re. your query about Animal Farm. Of course I intended it primarily as a satire on the Russian revolution. But I did mean it to have a wider application in so much that I meant that that kind of revolution (violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters. I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job. The turning-point of the story was supposed to be when the pigs kept the milk and apples for themselves (Kronstadt). If the other animals had had the sense to put their foot down then, it would have been all right. If people think I am defending the status quo, that is, I think, because they have grown pessimistic and assume that there is no alternative except dictatorship or laissez-faire capitalism. In the case of Trotskyists, there is the added complication that they feel responsible for events in the USSR up to about 1926 and have to assume that a sudden degeneration took place about that date. Whereas I think the whole process was foreseeable—and was foreseen by a few people, eg. Bertrand Russell—from the very nature of the Bolshevik party. What I was trying to say was, “You can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictat[or]ship.

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