Eric Blair, pen name George Orwell, was not perfect as a person, but then, who is? Nevertheless, Orwell got the three major issues of the 20th Century right: He was anti-imperialist, anti-fascist and anti-Communist/anti-Stalinist.
Orwell’s military days in Burma taught him the human atrocity of the British Empire: “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing,” Orwell reflected in his essay, Shooting an Elephant. “I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.”
His essays against fascism and the British Tories offering apologetics for fascism in the 1930s should be required reading alongside his classic works of fiction, 1984 and Animal Farm.
In those essays, he did not treat fascism as some special province of the Germans or Nazism; rather he argued people should search for the “fascist streak” within themselves and their own society. He warned against the mistaken belief that modern reason would inevitably prevail over the absurdity and irrationality of fascism. He picked apart the appeals of the fascists, that these authoritarian, mass-murdering aggressors somehow successfully portrayed themselves to many of their people as victims, martyrs even, pitied and loved, but also feared and awe-inspiring.
A democratic socialist, Orwell was shot in the throat by a sniper in 1937 while fighting against the fascist Francisco Franco’s military overthrow of the Spanish Republic. He did not, however, subscribe to the pro-Communist and pro-Stalinist sympathies of many of his fellow fighters. He saw past the Stalinist propaganda of seduction toward totalitarianism under the banner of Communism. He fought that also, and wrote his seminal works of literature specifically to fight it.
Animal Farm stands as a repudiation of both the plutocratic capitalists and imperialists (the humans) and the Bolsheviks (the pigs) who would each in turn exploit the everyday working people (the other animals) for their own authoritarian ends. Orwell’s allegory was an instant hit and has remained so ever since, being championed by groups as disparate in their political ideology as they could get, from left-wing anarchists to the John Birch Society.
After publication in 1945, Animal Farm was translated far and wide for republication in many languages and nations across the globe.
Orwell, however, only wrote one specific introduction for an international translation of this master work: The one for Ukrainians.
In that essay introduction, Orwell explained his political evolution, saying that he would not have considered himself a socialist until the early 1930s, when he lived in Paris and London in poverty “for months on end amongst the poor and half-criminal elements who inhabit the worst parts of the poorer quarters.”
“I became pro-Socialist more out of disgust with the way the poorer section of the industrial workers were oppressed and neglected than out of any theoretical admiration for a planned society,” he wrote.
When he went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell said, “Through a series of accidents I joined not the International Brigade like the majority of foreigners, but the POUM militia — i.e. the Spanish Trotskyists. So in the middle of 1937, when the Communists gained control (or partial control) of the Spanish Government and began to hunt down the Trotskyists, we found ourselves amongst the victims. We were very lucky to get out of Spain alive, and not even to have been arrested once. Many of our friends were shot, and others spent a long time in prison or simply disappeared.”
These man-hunts by the Communists in Spain went on at the same time as the great purges in the USSR and were a sort of supplement to them, he wrote.
“To experience all this was a valuable object lesson: it taught me how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries. …
“My wife and I both saw innocent people being thrown into prison merely because they were suspected of unorthodoxy. Yet on our return to England we found numerous sensible and well-informed observers believing the most fantastic accounts of conspiracy, treachery and sabotage which the press reported from the Moscow trials.”
It became “the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was,” he wrote.
However, pointing to England, Orwell was quick to note capitalist countries also have great class differences with great differences in wealth leading to exploitation of workers.
“Up to 1939, and even later, the majority of English people were incapable of assessing the true nature of the Nazi regime in Germany, and now, with the Soviet regime, they are still to a large extent under the same sort of illusion.
“This has caused great harm to the Socialist movement in England, and had serious consequences for English foreign policy. Indeed, in my opinion, 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.”
So we see here now why Orwell in Animal Farm was both attacking the authoritarianism of propagandistic capitalism and communism at the same time. He was striving to expose “the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone and which could be easily translated into other languages” and to battle the exploitation of workers in order to revive a true political movement in their behalf.
Do not fall under the spell of authoritarian false prophets spouting propaganda under the auspices of working people populism, Orwell warns, whether they be imperialists, plutocratic capitalists, fascists or communists.
With authoritarianism and propaganda asserting itself today not just in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but in America’s own domestic politics, George Orwell’s only introduction for an international translation of Animal Farm, in Ukrainian, serves as a stark reminder on the dire importance of always forcefully resisting them both, and what’s at stake.
David DeWitt is the editor of the Ohio Capital Journal, which first published this essay.