Animal Farm hit a nerve at the right psychological moment in America, just when the pro-Soviet fellow-traveling movement was beginning to unravel…
What havoc “a little squib” can cause! Seven decades ago, George Orwell’s Animal Farm was published in the United States. Its publication launch was August 26, 1946, almost exactly a year after its appearance in England. Subtitled “A Fairy Story,” the “little squib”—Orwell’s modest term for the book when he wrote the Russian émigré scholar Gleb Struve—was only thirty thousand words, a brilliantly original hybrid of Aesopian fable, Menippean satire, and historical allegory.
Animal Farm hit a nerve at the right psychological moment in America, just when the pro-Soviet fellow-traveling movement was beginning to unravel. Published to reviewers’ kudos and good sales in the United Kingdom in August 1945, it nevertheless gained attention chiefly from the English literary-political elite, especially the London left-wing intelligentsia and serious literary-minded readers. Animal Farm, however, had only a moderate influence on the wider British public. Its full impact was not felt until it crossed the Atlantic a year later, and some of the long-term consequences proved highly ironic. Indeed, the circumstances shaping the American reception of this Englishman’s “squib” generated cultural and intellectual tremors that contributed decisively to the decades-long ideological fault lines that surfaced between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Communism was never a powerful political force in either the United States or England, albeit during the war broad popular support for the Russians in their struggle against Nazi Germany prevailed. Both countries, however, featured groups of prominent and influential fellow travelers whose sympathy, if not primary loyalty, was to the Soviet Union and its communist principles. In the United States, fellow traveling peaked during the war. The Russians became the darlings of the American progressive left, and Joseph Stalin acquired the image of the affable pipe-smoking “Uncle Joe.” Unlike in the U.K., however, by the time Animal Farm landed on the desks of most American readers, the gloss was already beginning to fade from this rosy picture of the USSR. Even liberal-minded Americans’ affections for the avuncular wartime ally had cooled—and the Cold War was on the horizon. It would take another decade for a similar feeling of alienation to reach the left intelligentsia in England—in fact, not until Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called Secret Speech exposing Stalin’s crimes shocked the West in February 1956.
Numerous other differences between the postwar U.K. and U.S. also accounted for the growing transatlantic rifts. For example, whereas the English were preoccupied with the devastation caused by the war, including postwar rationing and an economy in shambles (not to mention the July 1945 defeat of the Conservatives under Churchill and election of the first Labour government in decades), America was enjoying an unprecedented level of prosperity and global influence—the apogee of the “American Century.”
Specific to Animal Farm’s reception in the United States was a series of events that disillusioned all but the blindest admirers of the Soviet Union. The Russians began clamping down on communist-controlled governments in Poland and other Eastern European countries. In February 1946, Winston Churchill struck a fatal blow at the communist cause in his famous Iron Curtain speech, significantly delivered in the United States, not in Great Britain. His purpose was to warn the Americans of the inescapable reality of Soviet imperialism in Europe.
Around the same time, a minor code clerk in Canada, Igor Guzenko, defected and was seeking refuge in the West—and revealed that the Russians had been spying on their Western allies throughout the war and had gained valuable information on the construction of the atomic bomb. To make matters worse for progressive defenders of the USSR, Orwell’s “squib” arrived soon thereafter, making the clever and convincing case that the Soviets’ wartime conduct was no merely ephemeral issue. The fable delivered a persuasive and easily understood indictment of the Russian Revolution itself, the centerpiece of much left-wing and progressive praise.
So, Animal Farm appeared in the midst of an escalating controversy in the United States over how to deal with the Russians. The “Fairy Story” established Orwell’s reputation in America, a process that would be completed with the publication of his better-known indictment of Soviet Communism, 1984, three years later. Little known outside certain intellectual circles in England before the war, Orwell became, along with Arthur Koestler, the outstanding popularizer of the perils of Soviet totalitarianism in the postwar years. Orwell’s success, even more so than Koestler’s, was largely a by-product of the Cold War. Orwell presents us with the curious paradox of an admitted leftist—he preferred to describe himself as a “democratic Socialist” (and always capitalized the noun) with the emphasis on democratic—who also became a cult hero among conservatives throughout the United States.
Familiar in the United States only to a narrow band of Trotskyists in New York until Animal Farm’s publication, Orwell entered the American scene as a blank slate—and soon became touted as the leading literary Cold Warrior. Only after the publication of Animal Farm and the even greater success of 1984, which appeared in June 1949, a mere seven months before his premature death from tuberculosis, did many of Orwell’s writings from the 1930s and 1940s appear in the U.S. His essays, especially “Shooting an Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language,” embellished his reputation as a master of direct, crystalline prose. The image of Orwell in America was also simple, clear, powerful—not to mention politically useful. He was the outspoken, even belligerent Cold Warrior, the writer who also led the fight in the “Cold War” on the linguistic and cultural front. (Orwell is even credited in the Oxford English Dictionary with having coined the phrase Cold War.)
Toward the end of World War II, as Orwell began to castigate the Soviet Union as something less than a disinterested, gallant ally of the West, he became an object of suspicion in the eyes of those American leftists who sympathized with the cause of communism. American Trotskyists and pacifists, men like Dwight Macdonald and Philip Rahv, regarded him as an honest man and not an apologist for either Stalinism or capitalism. Orwell was one of the first writers to recognize that the real threat to Western society was from totalitarianism, not simply from fascism. In an essay on Arthur Koestler in 1946, he made this point with characteristic directness. “The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian.” The American left would not reach this stage in its thinking until long after the war.
Although Orwell’s achievement of popular success in the United States came in 1946 with the publication of Animal Farm, he had conceived the idea for it after fighting against General Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. He joined the anarchist units in Catalonia and was disgusted on his return home to discover how much the popular press had distorted the war. What particularly disturbed him, however, was his discovery that the communists and their sympathizers had managed to get their view of the war accepted by knowledgeable leftist groups in England. During his stay in Spain, Orwell had watched with growing disgust the adroit way in which the communists destroyed the power of other popular left-wing forces opposing Franco. He thus made a discovery that other European and American leftists were not to learn until after World War II: Despite their ideological pose, the communists subordinated everything to Russian national interests.
For Orwell, the essence of socialism was that it championed “justice and liberty,” as he said in The Road to Wigan Pier. The Spanish Civil War convinced him that the pretense of the USSR—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—to be a “socialist” country would have to be exposed. Indeed, Stalin’s totalitarian regime was no more “socialist” than its Janus-faced counterpart on the right, Nazi (Nationalist Socialist) Germany. The Second World War put a temporary halt to any work on Orwell’s part to demythologize the USSR. But toward the end of the conflict, he became even more determined to unmask the Soviet system, because Russia’s heroic defense against Hitler had further blinded people to the real nature of communism. In “The Prevention of Literature” (1946), written just a few months after the British publication of Animal Farm, Orwell elaborated on his reasons for wanting to expose communist tyranny. Fifteen years ago, he noted, when one defended intellectual freedom, one had to do so against the attacks of conservatives, Catholics, and fascists:
Today one has to defend it against Communists and ‘fellow-travelers.’ One ought not to exaggerate the direct influence of the small English Communist Party, but there can be no question about the poisonous effect of the Russian mythos on English intellectual life. Because of it, known facts are suppressed and distorted to such an extent as to make it doubtful whether a true history of our times can ever be written.
This attitude dominated Orwell’s work in the postwar period. He continued to attack tyranny and totalitarianism as he had before the war, only now the most serious threat came from Russia.
Another factor convincing Orwell to expose the Russian Revolution was his intense dislike of Stalinist intellectuals and fellow travelers in England. Orwell was disgusted with the way “fashionable” leftists—his own inveterate descriptor—swallowed and belched out communist propaganda. His struggle to get his Spanish Civil War reports and other anticommunist writings published deepened this sense of disgust. Orwell found it hard to forgive those who had censored him in the 1930s. The personal and the political mixed a powerful brew of rage in his mind, firing his commitment to expose how Comrade Napoleon’s system of government and ideology, along with his smug cadres of well-trained pigs in Britain and elsewhere, had thoroughly duped the West.
By November 1943, his thinking had crystallized and he began work on a short political tract aimed at demonstrating how the Bolshevik Revolution had been corrupted by the revolutionaries themselves. After considerable experimentation, he hit upon the idea of using the form of the beast fable: He would destroy the Soviet myth with an even more powerful counter-myth.
Within a matter of weeks, he finished the first draft of Animal Farm and began looking for a publisher. Since the Anglo-Russian alliance was still strong, his manuscript was consistently rejected. Victor Gollancz, owner and publisher of one of the leading leftist publishing houses in England, rejected Animal Farm on the grounds that, whatever its merits, it was playing into the hands of the Nazis, a charge that Orwell found specious and that angered him bitterly.
Despairing temporarily of seeing his work in print—and even considering having it published at his own expense—Orwell found a small English press, Secker and Warburg, which agreed to put out a limited edition. So Animal Farm appeared in 1945 and won immediate critical and popular acclaim. The cordial relations between Russia and England were just beginning to fray, rendering the political-intellectual climate more tolerant of a work condemning the Soviet Union.
This is the first essay in a two-part series. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Fall 2016).