May 3rd, 2014

Orwell, Animal Farm, and socialism’s inherent contradictions

Yesterday commenter “Nick” wrote this on the thread about Krystal Ball’s Animal Farm summary:

OK, OK, I hate to be this guy, but Orwell would have been fine with Ball’s reading. Orwell was a socialist. His problem with the pigs was that they became no different from the neighboring farmers; his problem with Soviet Marxism was that it acted just like capitalism

Orwell self-identified as a socialist, and “Nick” makes a thought-provoking point, but I disagree with it. Animal Farm isn’t about Orwell’s own complicated and contradictory political stance. It’s a parable that was meant to illustrate some of the inherent evils of Communism. Yes, economic exploitation by those in power towards the workers (all in the name of a false “equality”) was part of it. But the focus was on totalitarianism, lack of liberty, and statist control—problems he located in the left, not capitalism.

That said, it is also true that Orwell was very much against income inequality. In fact, that’s the main reason he identified as a socialist. His socialism was a strange beast, however, and he himself recognized the inherent contradictions and difficulties of adherence to it:

As [Orwell] describes so well in “Capitalism and Communism: Two Paths to Slavery”: “Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect.”

Orwell was a brilliant man, and he struggled to reconcile his wish for a certain type of world with his knowledge that such a world could probably never come to be as he wished it. Much of his writing was devoted to the horrors of failed attempts to achieve that world.

Animal Farm is a critique of Stalinism/Communism, and although capitalism as an exploitative system plays a role at the beginning of the book, by the end the astute reader sees Communism as at least as bad or even worse. Orwell was also aware of the strong possibility that liberty and socialism of any sort (not just Communist Stalinism) could not be reconciled, as the above quotes from him indicate. It is my opinion that Orwell came very close to understanding that his vision of a planned economy plus freedom could not come to pass, that the contradiction was basic, and that socialism would always sow the seeds of its own destruction. I just think he couldn’t fully face and embrace that knowledge because to do so would have meant renouncing a lifelong dream. So he clung to some notion of a kinder gentler socialism without the totalitarianism, while at the same time he wrote tirelessly about the evils of Communism.


Socialists have also raised some interesting questions about what Orwell seems to be saying about Lenin and the rise of Stalinism. In fact, Orwell has suggested elsewhere that Trotsky and Lenin are partly responsible for the rise of totalitarianism in Russia and that Bolshevism itself contained elements of authoritarianism. Molyneux, the British socialist, has written a compelling article with a very close reading of the plot and characters of Animal Farm, and concludes that Orwell equates Lenin with Stalin (morphed into the single Napoleon character). Molyneux argues that Orwell gives no way to understand the reasons for the revolution’s failure except human nature (as opposed to insufficient material conditions). All this leaves the book with the reactionary message at the heart of it–that all revolutions fail.

…Even in his best political writing, and his sharp exposés of aspects of capitalism, Orwell was never sure whether a real alternative was possible. Whatever Orwell’s intentions, his most famous books undoubtedly reflect these frustrations and despair. Writing as an isolated intellectual removed from day-to-day struggle, (with the notable exception of his participation in the Spanish Civil War), Orwell never regained the hope for workers’ power he experienced while in Spain.

And that’s coming from a pro-socialist, writing in a socialist periodical.

27 Responses to “Orwell, Animal Farm, and socialism’s inherent contradictions”

  1. Ymarsakar Says:

    The alternative is a system starting from the bottom, not an elitist top down hierarchy. The alternative can only manifest as a redistribution of power, not merely a redistribution of wealth. Wealth isn’t so much the problem as it is the Leftists and Zs here that want to consolidate power in the hands of the evil.

    Until people can change themselves at the bottom, or at most a system where two people with a strong bond change each other, there is no system that can produce such idealistic goals.

  2. Texasyankee Says:

    I’ve loved Orwell since I first read his works in the the early 60’s. If he had lived longer, or if he lived today, I think he would have been like you, Roger Simon or David Horowitz, former leftists who when faced with reality changed their beliefs and were honest enough to admit it.

  3. Don Carlos Says:

    “socialism would always sow the seeds of its own destruction” as it proceeds into progressive and inexorable totalitarianism, causing uncountable miseries. And humanity, having invented it, is doomed to have it rise again and again from its own ashes.

  4. Matt_SE Says:

    Too many commentators, usually from the left, aren’t comparing socialism/communism to capitalism, but to cronyism/fascism.

    This is, of course, comparing the extreme left to the merely far left.

    Orwell seems to have done this. Pope Francis, I think, has done this. Obama continues to do this, along with all of his supporters.

    This is the quintessential straw-man argument, though in some cases like the Pope, it may be unwitting.

    Now, I’m sensitive to the counter-argument that “Real X has never been tried.” Lord knows that we hear that often enough from leftists. And it might be that “Real Capitalism” is impossible; the acquisition of wealth coupled with the human trait of resting on one’s laurels may always result in protectionism/rent-seeking.
    But we should at least be honest in what we are comparing.

  5. JL Says:

    Its been a while since I posted, largely due to my present heavy work load, but also due to a general sense after Obama won his second term that I had few answers to give. My politics was such that I am definitely not of the left, and I actively identify with the center right, but at the same time I would probably be regarded as a RINO by many further to the right. After two center-right Republicans in a row lost to Obama, what else could I add?

    However, I’ve continued to be a frequent reader of Neo’s blog. I’m actually at my office now, and was immediately drawn to this post. Excellent comment on Orwell. It makes me want to read Animal Farm again. I did so many years ago, and also his other masterpiece, 1984. Both do an excellent job of articulating the dangers of totalitarianism. As one whose parents escaped Communism, I think more people should be encouraged to read and discuss these books, lest we forget.

    But, what really drew me in, is the sense that Orwell appears to have had of this conundrum we live in… the sense that “although capitalism as an exploitative system plays a role at the beginning of the book, by the end the astute reader sees Communism as at least as bad or even worse. ” I think many on the left and the right try to respond to this conundrum of Orwell’s by trying to come up with an easy answer… that if we only try harder, socialism can be made to work… or maybe some other form of socialism … or maybe (as Randians would argue) its capitalism really is that forgotten ideal which makes everything work.. or maybe its anarchism or something else.

    My belief if that Orwell’s conundrum is the truth itself: in other words, there’s no answer to this in this faulty, imperfect world. There is no magic political system that makes everything perfect, or even near perfect. In my view, Capitalism is both more functional (by far) and preferable to Socialism, not because it aims to create perfection, but precisely because it makes imperfection work more constructively. But even there, knowing history, its still the truth that many tragedies have occurred due to the free-market system… although much less so than under that tragedy-in-itself known as Communism. The truth is, that the un-perfectibility of life is something we just have to grapple with, and reaching for easy solutions is an all to easy habit that distracts from that reality.

  6. Matt_SE Says:

    BTW, did Mr. and Mrs. Ball want their daughter to become a stripper?
    ‘Cause they chose one hell of a name for her.

  7. Ymarsakar Says:

    The idea that Europe had a free market system isn’t as correct as people think.

  8. Ray Says:

    People forget that Mussolini, the developer of Fascism, was a socialist and communist. Mussolini decided that communism was inapplicable to Italy. Fascism was his Italian version of communism. Communism lite if you will.

  9. Ira Says:

    My take-away from Animal Farm was that people had to be extremely cautious regarding the extent to which they allow others to have power over them. In a capitalist society, one who enters the employ of another typically has the freedom to quit and seek employment (either self employment or employment by others) elsewhere. The animals, and the people of Russia, either voluntarily ceded (or refused to fight to the death) complete power over themselves to others.

  10. neo-neocon Says:


    I thought the same about Krystal’s extraordinary name, but here’s some info about its actual origins. It turns out that her father is a physicist who did his dissertation on crystals, and he named her after those kinds of crystals (although that doesn’t explain the strange spelling).

    Here’s another fun fact about Krystal:

    Among her MSNBC peers, the one she names as a role model is the host of Politics Nation, Al Sharpton. “He is really an activist first, and his number one commitment is to the causes he cares about,” she explains. “I want to have that same commitment. Because my goal is not to be on TV — my goal is to have an impact.”

    I suppose she could champion the fabricator of a fake racial crime and defame the prosecutor by falsely accusing him of abduction and rape, or stir up riots over false racial accusations, or…No, come to think of it, maybe she should stick to the role of literary critic extraordinaire.

  11. rickl Says:

    Or she could just take up stripping.

  12. blert Says:

    Both “Through the Looking Glass” and “Animal Farm” are aimed at real (corrupted) politics.

    Specifically, the brutal mangling of words, meanings and truth and outcomes.

    And it’s not for nothing that both works keep popping up in all political discourse forever afterwards.

    “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

    “…to be master…” Simply spoken, … yes.

    Leftism, its discourse, is utterly dominated by OUTCOMES.

    Funny, so is cronyism!

    And both tend to fob off criticism and introspection by the universal defense: “It’s for the children.”

    So,… it’s all for their “outer child.” (the universal descendant – the next generation)

    This two-fer: running all of our todays while morphing all of our culture to ‘intelligently’ (politically) direct the destiny of all mankind… it’s the totalitarian impulse writ as if benign.

  13. Mary Says:

    Capitalism is not akin to communism, nor does it lead to slavery. It is NOT capitalism, when there is corporate welfare, it’s NOT capitalism, to demand amnesty or guestworkers be imported for cheap foreign labor. That is communism. Neo-cons are communists, the neo-con movement was founded by communists, Trotskyites, which is why they seek to destroy the US econmomy and exploit power in the US to enrich themselves.

  14. neo-neocon Says:


    Of course [slaps hand on forehead]! You make it so clear; why didn’t I see it before? I’m a Communist, as everything I’ve ever written on this blog makes clear.

    I denounce myself.

    We’ve got some strange trolls tonight.

  15. Ymarsakar Says:

    Neo-con isn’t really a current Leftist propaganda memo. They’re focused on domestic insurgents and domestic terrorists now for militia and US veterans/patriots.

    Mary, are you perhaps in the wrong decade here with the totalitarian deus ex machina time travel agenting?

  16. Ymarsakar Says:

    Courtesy of MacG.

    Blert, there is another example of totalitarian impulses.

  17. Caedmon Says:

    When a group of Ukrainian exiles in London in the 1940s wanted to produce a Ukrainian language edition of Animal Farm they wrote to Orwell about it in Ukrainian. The book is so apposite to the Russian Revolution they just assumed it must have been written by someone who was there. So those, and there have been many, attempting to squeeze an apologia for Communism out of it from the final chapter are wasting their time.

    Orwell’s apologia for Socialism was The Road To Wigan Pier written in 1935, and on the printing press while he was on the road to Spain. It remains readable today, and many regulars at this excellent blog would enjoy Orwell’s contempt for progressives.

    From this book it is plain that Orwell did not so much support Socialism as believe, and fear, that it was inevitable. Orwell had a deep sensitivity to language but he knew zilch about economics. He was a journalist who set out to find facts to fit his preconceptions and looked for them in the North of England, where the Industrial Revolution begun 100 years ago was in slow decline (such so slow decline that it did not fully decline for another 40 years or so). What he missed was that the industrial revolution had moved south. The roots of Orwell’s humane socialism lay with Victorians such as William Morris and John Ruskin, he was suspicious of progress and overlooked the arrival of the automobile, the aeroplane and the telephone, all fairly substantial clues as to where capitalism was actually going.

  18. blert Says:


    This is an ‘ALTERNATIVE’ Weakly with a wrappership that is never going to vote GOP.

    I’m amazed that the rest of the Republican candidates continued to sit on through the farce.

    As for the self-imputed esteem of the ‘magic’ voice, ’tis to laugh.

    WW = all memory hole all of the time.

    I’m somewhat astounded that ANYONE bothered to waste their time with WW.

    In ad circles this is known as pitching your wares to the wrong demographic, rather like exercise bikes to prison inmates.

    If you look at WW’s follow up: they take as a given that AGW.

    They are DEEP in the mists on that one.

    But, then, this episode is symptomatic of the Left generally.

    They ARE true believers.

  19. Ymarsakar Says:

    Blert, it just goes to show how Republicans are controlled by non grass roots functions on the West and East coast.

    Instead of using collective bargaining and walk out, they prefer to beg for scraps.

  20. NeoConScum Says:

    Comrade N-Neocon: Thank You for the self-denunciation, Comrade. Now, as a decades long student of Stalinism and its oceans of corpses, I must tell you that Yezhov & Beria are awaiting your further begging for your mere life in the bowels of the Lubyanka before(of course) you give up your newly self-denounced life.

    Mary: The staff at Shady Oaks Asylum is eagerly awaiting your arrival. Can you say,”Long days in the EST Room”?? ((-:

  21. Nick Says:

    Neo – Thanks for noting my comment. I felt like I was nitpicking, and I hate to do that. I’m glad to see that I triggered an interesting conversation. I’m torn about Orwell – he had uncanny insight into one aspect of totalitarianism, but his overall record is ambiguous. We have to be careful about adopting Orwell into the conservative movement.

    You said, “Orwell was a brilliant man, and he struggled to reconcile his wish for a certain type of world with his knowledge that such a world could probably never come to be as he wished it.” I think you hit the three key words in any discussion of Orwell: “brilliant…struggled…reconcile”. One of the big themes of this blog seems to be what you do when you discover that you can’t reconcile certain beliefs.

  22. John Scotus Says:

    In Orwell’s own memoir of his part in the Spanish Civil War, he comes across more as an anarchist than anything else. While he did not serve with the anarchists, there was an anarchist group nearby, and he felt a strong kinship with them. When he talks of communism, his frame of reference is not Marxist class struggle and dialectic, but something more ill-defined and primitive. He also displayed extreme bitterness towards Stalinism and the Soviet-led international communist movement because they had co-opted the other communist movements in Spain and then made peace with Franco.

    While Orwell saw himself as a critic of communism from the left, in practice when it came to actual policy he often sounded a lot like David Horowitz and other modern-day neo-conservatives. It is true that he wanted equality, but there is no indication that he thought this could be achieved through state intervention. Rather, he viewed the state and all forms of authority with suspicion.

    Of course, this understanding of Orwell is based upon just a small selection of his writings, so it may be incomplete. However, to analyze “Animal Farm” from the viewpoint of Marxist dialectic to try to say that Orwell was inveighing against capitalism is more than a stretch–it is a willful misreading of everything Orwell was about. “Animal Farm” was a parable of the Soviet system. He may have been saying that the communists were no different than the capitalists when it came to greed and the impulse to control others, but the story is about the dangers of communism, and not the dangers of capitalism.

  23. Ymarsakar Says:

    Under the Left’s Totalitarianism, you will say what they say you will say. You will write what they say you will write. You will think what they say you will think. Orwell, being dead, is more susceptible to that.

  24. Nick Says:

    John –

    “However, to analyze “Animal Farm” from the viewpoint of Marxist dialectic to try to say that Orwell was inveighing against capitalism is more than a stretch–it is a willful misreading of everything Orwell was about. “Animal Farm” was a parable of the Soviet system. He may have been saying that the communists were no different than the capitalists when it came to greed and the impulse to control others, but the story is about the dangers of communism, and not the dangers of capitalism.”


  25. richard40 Says:

    On the subject to whether real capitalism has ever really been tried, the US had something pretty close to unfettered capitalism (except for the sin of slavery, and some small level of gov corruption), for most of its existence, until Woodrow Wilson (and even them capitalism made a comeack under Coolidge). And for all that period, out nation grew and prospered, with gov spending (except in wartime) being a small fraction of GDP. We did not really abandon full capitalism until FDR, and then only partly. The full big regulatory big spending regulatory state did not happen fully until LBJ, Nixon, Carter.

  26. Thoughts on Orwell, Animal Farm, and socialism’s inherent contradictions | James Russell Ament Says:

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