A Terrible Blogger is Born!

April 1, 2009

Public-spirited pigs

georeorwell2t_s_eliot_simon_fieldhouse1It seems strange now, given the book’s near-universal acclaim, but George Orwell’s political allegory Animal Farm was once controversial for its attack on Joseph Stalin. It was initially rejected by publishers, including Faber and Faber, whose then-director, T.S. Eliot, rejected it personally. London’s Sunday Times has an article on the release of some of Eliot’s private papers, including a letter to Orwell concerning his novel. Eliot wrote:

We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the current time.

pc70In other words, this was 1944 and England was allied with the Soviet Union against Germany, so a novel attacking their allies was bad form. But this was just the sort of political bravery characteristic of Orwell, which would later earn him admiration from literate people of many different political persuasions. History has been much less kind to Eliot’s politics, which were conservative with a capital “C”. He once famously described his outlook as, “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”. Eliot wrote that he was “unconvinced” by Animal Farm‘s “Troskyite” politics. Although  the “good” pig, Snowball, is generally regarded by critics to be a Trotsky-like figure, and the “bad” pig Napoleon who drives him away and tries to turn him into an enemy of the animals was modeled after Stalin, I’m not sure this is enough to call the book “Trotskyite”. The main thrust of the book, and what readers usually take away from it, is not an advocacy of a particular set of political remedies, but its critique of revolutionary movements and ideas, and how they get corrupted. This includes everything from the strong-man type in Napoleon, or the sheep who are unable to comprehend much of the new creed, yet go around repeating what they do know of it (a few slogans like “two legs bad, four legs good”) incessantly. Whether things would have been better had Snowball remained is a debatable point. It could be that in such a revolution the strong-man is bound to win out over the idealist. At any rate, Eliot himself succumbs to a delusion similar to those who think the U.S.S.R could have been a real workers paradise had only Trotsky been at the helm.pc1

After all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm – in fact there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all [possibly a good idea] without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.

T.S. Eliot as Stalinist- who would’ve thought? (Why do I say “Stalinist”? Because the Soviet New class, and its inevitable strong-man, surely figured justified their rule because they were “the best qualified to run the farm”.) The idea that a dysfunctional political system can be made better simply with better people is one of the most naive, yet most common, of fallacies. It needs a name. Let’s call it the “public-spirited pigs fallacy”.

P.S.- Since writing this, it has been pointed out to me that the “public-spirited pigs” argument is not Eliot’s, but rather his interpretation of Orwell’s view. Even if this is what Orwell thinks, I find it a dubious reading of the novel. Snowball is a public-spirited pig, yet this does not save him from being deposed by Napoleon. Indeed, it is hard to think of what would prevent Napoleon’s rise to power except structural changes to Animal Farm. That Eliot says in parentheses that “someone might argue” the public-spirited pig position indicates that Eliot himself did not in fact hold this view. But his statement that the pigs are the best qualified to run the farm because they are smarter than the other animals (and is Napoleon not the smartest of them all?) is unqualified, and jibes with what we know about Eliot’s authoritarian predilictions in politics.

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1 Comment »

  1. Really interesting. I always forget that Orwell was actually a pretty controversial person in his day. It’s too bad the establishment’s made him a household name, but sanitized him by watering all his thoughts down to “totalitarian governments are bad” in the process.

    Comment by Andrew — April 5, 2009 @ 2:54 am | Reply


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