George Orwell’s “fairy story” Animal Farm stands as one of the most powerful indictments of Stalinist Russia.
This is a simple fable about how a glorious rebellion by animals on an English farm is betrayed by the development of a new ruling class of pigs under an all-powerful tyrant.
But in it Orwell exposed with devastating effect how the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” became simply “four words, four lies”.
It was written during the Second World War at a time when the Western ruling class was in alliance with Russia against Nazi Germany.
“Uncle Joe” Stalin was a man the West could do business with so Orwell had trouble getting Animal Farm published.
But by the time it finally saw the light in 1945, the war-time alliance was already giving way to mutual hostility.
Orwell’s work was subsequently popularised in the West as an ideological weapon of the Cold War.
School students in Britain today are still likely to be given Animal Farm to read at some point.
This is presumably not because it is a classic of 20th century literature, but so that it can act as a warning about where ideas of revolution and socialism “inevitably” lead.
Yet the author of Animal Farm was himself a socialist. Orwell did not intend the work to be an attack on the ideas of either socialism or revolution.
In his 1947 preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, he stressed that “nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated.
“And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement.”
Watching a new production of Peter Hall’s theatrical adaptation of Animal Farm, one is struck by just how uncompromising Orwell was when it came to “the destruction of the Soviet myth”.
Comrade Napoleon, who represents Stalin, successfully constructs his new totalitarian state through both force – with the bloody terror of the Moscow Trials and the secret police represented by Napoleon’s guard dogs – and fraud, with the propaganda of Squealer.
With all the satirical humour of the novel, this production brings out how the betrayal of the ideals of the revolution and Animalism, or Communism, is complete.
Immediately after the animals’ rebellion, “some hams hanging in the kitchen were taken out for burial”.
But by the close, Napoleon and his cronies sit down for a feast with neighbouring farmers to celebrate their successful counter-revolution at a table laden with sausages and other meats.
As one capitalist farmer notes to roars of laughter from the pigs, “If you have your lower animals to contend with, we have our lower classes!”
This is not to say that there is nothing problematic for socialists about Orwell’s book.
Orwell’s pessimism in the face of the rise of Stalinism and fascism led him to generally portray the bulk of the “lower animals” and particularly the cart-horse Boxer (representing the working class) as essentially rather stupid.
The pigs (the intellectuals) are shown as power-hungry.
Yet this theatrical adaptation refreshingly leaves one feeling more hopeful than a strict reading of Animal Farm itself.
The portrayal of Snowball, representing Leon Trotsky, for example is extremely sympathetic in contrast to the slight ambivalence of the book.
While remaining faithful to Orwell, the play has musical compositions throughout which add new dimensions to the story. They show debates between Clover, another cart-horse, and Muriel the goat about whether the revolution has been betrayed.
While resistance among the “less equal” animals to the new exploitation appears futile, the play seems to suggest that if there is hope, it lies with Clover – and so the working class – and the dream of a future rebellion.
Animal Farm is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until 8 November. Go to » www.wyplayhouse.com for more information