‘Animal Farm’ Turns 75
Revisiting Orwell's work on the anniversary of the barnyard classic.
Seventy-five years ago today, “a little squib” contributed decisively to changing American attitudes toward the Soviet Union—our ally during the Second World War—and so to launching the Cold War. That sharp-edged squib was Animal Farm, a 30,000-word satire in the tradition of Aesop’s beast fables. The author who modestly described his own work as such was British writer Eric Blair (1903-50), better known by his pen name, George Orwell, and most famous for his next and last novel, 1984.
On August 26, 1946—exactly 12 months after American planes dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war in the Pacific—Orwell’s fable detonated on American shores, a literary nuclear weapon. Its impact on the cultural front of the Cold War proved immediate and lasting: never again would the American public speak warmly about the Soviet dictator “Uncle Joe” Stalin and his tyrannical regime.
I first read Animal Farm as the Cold War still raged, more than a half-century ago. As a boy, I was excited, as Orwell’s “fairy story” (his British subtitle) unfolded, to become aware that this barnyard tale was about geopolitical matters of much greater scope than the cruelty of a farmer toward his animals—or of pigs toward so-called “lower” animals, the beasts of burden such as the heroic cart horse, Boxer. I discovered in a state of anxious wonder that the tyrannical pigs represent the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, that the diabolical pig leader Napoleon stands in for Joseph Stalin and that his eloquent rival Snowball represents Trotsky, and on and on.
I was fascinated that the book was an allegory with precise correspondences between Russian history and every fictional event and literary character. The fun and excitement of reading it was to unlock the keys to understanding the depth of this apparent “animal story.” In later years, I taught the book regularly to college students and visited high schools where it was assigned. When I saw that many junior and senior high school teachers did not know much about Russian history, I wrote a high school textbook about the complex historical context of the allegory.
Yet little did we know as schoolchildren—or anyone else, for that matter, until the 1980s—that the sensational postwar popularity of Animal Farm, first in the U.S. and then around the world, had much to do with the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret funding and distribution of the film adaptation, along with translations into more than five dozen languages. Of course, all this happened after Orwell’s death in January 1950. Nonetheless, thanks to the efforts of the CIA, he became the leading, if posthumous, Cold Warrior of the postwar West.
Would Orwell have supported this cultural war against communism? That is a question that historians debate to this day. All we can say is this: A dead man has no means to prevent the use and abuse of his work in ways that he never envisioned. My own answer is a definite, if carefully qualified, “yes.”
I have taught the fable to high school and college students as an entertaining “animallegory” with a serious Aesopian moral: power corrupts. Yet there is a danger if one leaves it at that, neglecting to study the historical correspondences closely. That neglect results in downplaying the Russian parallels, even though the allegorical links between Russian history and the fable’s characters and events are quite exact.
On the other hand, one can also focus too much on the Russian correspondences and so elide Orwell’s larger warning against not just Stalin’s dictatorship, but political tyranny in general. I witnessed this firsthand when I interviewed Chinese theatergoers who had attended a stage performance of Animal Farm in Beijing. I expressed surprise that the Chinese cultural censorship bureau had approved staging a satire about the beastliness of communism. They looked at me quizzically.
“You see, Animal Farm is an allegory,” they said. “It’s a satire of Russian history, not Chinese history.”
If I ever add a chapter to my textbook on the historical context of Animal Farm, I must remember that unsettling lesson, as if from Mao’s Little Red Book. While Animal Farm is indeed an allegory of Bolshevik communism, it is also about evil regimes that may arise anywhere, not just in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Uncle Joe.
Yet communism meant Stalinism when Orwell was writing Animal Farm. The Soviet Union was the only communist nation on earth in the mid-1940s. (The People’s Republic of China was officially founded in October 1949, three months before Orwell’s death in January 1950.) So the wartime difficulties that Orwell faced in criticizing allied Russia and communism were different from those in later years, when communism spread throughout the world.
No less difficult for Orwell in 1944-45 was the struggle to secure a publisher in wartime England. Animal Farm was rejected by several British and American publishers on political grounds alone. British publishers deemed it “dangerous to the war effort” to criticize the Soviet Union—at least, not until Nazism was finally defeated. American publishers felt similarly when approached by his agent in mid-1945. (Some publishers were simply obtuse. For example, failing to grasp the satire, Dial Press in New York told Orwell that they didn’t market “animal stories.”)
Nonetheless, within a year of war’s end, Western public opinion toward Russia was already cooling. The timing of Animal Farm’s American publication was perfect. Critics hailed it as a modern classic equal to Aesop and Fontaine. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and became a runaway bestseller in the fall of 1946, selling more than a half million copies by the end of the year.
By the mid-1950s, Orwell’s squib had become a required school assignment in classrooms throughout the world and came to sell in the tens of millions—at least 40 million by 2021. Joined with the even greater success of his last book, 1984, which jolted American readers less than three years later in June 1949, Orwell’s two political satires established the framework of totalitarianism in which Americans came to perceive the shifting danger from Nazism to Stalinism—and some of the ideological language bandied in the emerging Cold War (a term coined by Orwell during the Second World War). His double-barreled satirical attack against Stalinism has defined the issues of freedom versus totalitarianism for most Americans and Britons, a battle between the so-called Free World (the West) and an evil (Orwellian) empire.
John Rodden has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy (Princeton University Press: 2020).