50 Years ago, 'Animal Farm' emerged, a work of enduring genius and exquisite courage.

April 07, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Sometime in July, call up everybody you know who is genuinely concerned about human liberty and invite them to a 50th birthday party for George Orwell's "Animal Farm."

To mark that book's historic first half-century, Harcourt Brace & Co., the original publisher, has produced a special edition, gloriously ornamented with paintings and drawings by Ralph Steadman (180 pages. $26). Or there is a current simple paperback copy available (Signet Classic. 128 pages. $4.95).

You know "Animal Farm." It is said to be among the 20 bestsellers in the entire history of publishing. It is in print in more than 70 languages.

The formal title is "Animal Farm, A Fairy Story," but it is a fable, not a fairy story, told in the form of fables, with animals behaving as humans - evolving from innocence to complete anthropomorphization.

Thus, finally "Animal Farm" is a tragedy. At its end, betrayal is complete and betrayal is universal. Pigs, the cleverest and most political of the rebelling farm animals, have joined man, and both are busy cheating each other. They have become identical.

The tale is told without a single phrase of condescension, with no hint of cuteness. It is a clean, direct, spare, heart-chilling horror story. And its truths about the totalitarian urge and the nature of Marxism are at least as telling as those of any other book ever written.

To make your celebration punctilious, glasses should rise in early August, to mark the first American publication in August 1946. "Animal Farm" had been published almost exactly a year before in Britain. Both publications were terribly difficult: Orwell, who was bone poor, had finished writing the book in 1944, and the manuscript had thereupon been rejected by a staggering array of publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, out of despicable political pusillanimity.

Stalin good!

The Soviet Union, the United States and Britain were, of course, allies in the latter years of World War II. "Animal Farm," while a fable of universality, was so specifically parallel to Soviet Marxism that publisher after publisher during the war - and even after - refused to consider offending the Russians. There was substantial government encouragement of those rejections. Orwell observed that in 1944 and 1945, "Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill."

Few writers or scholars supported Orwell or joined in his criticisms of communism. An appalling number of intellectuals, American as well as British, were contorting themselves and history to make excuses for the obvious and well-known horrors of the Soviet system. Orwell, in the face of all that, was a man of immense courage, standing in a perilous position with very little company.

Yet once it finally saw print, the book was an almost immediate sensation. It was savaged by Marxists of every stripe, especially academics, though at that point Orwell maintained he was himself a socialist. Ultimately and worldwide, the book brought huge, incalculable popular energies to the anti-communist movement.

The hypocrisy of the publishing industry's resistance to the book was dramatized by a declaration of the judges of the then highly literary Book of the Month Club. Soon after reading the first galleys in 1946, they said: "It has been queer to think of this book ticking away like an unexploded bomb deep in the middle of the crowded Main Street of our life. It caused a sensation when it was published in England. When it came to your committee, we cried with one voice: 'This is it!' "

It was, and is. "Animal Farm" has perpetuity. It is a brilliant modern explication of Lord Acton's immortal observation that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It is a profoundly democratic document and, for all its grimness, an ecstatic celebration of the individual, of lone liberty.

Orwell's power grew from his passionate distrust of organized humankind's capacity to preserve liberty. His subsequent - and last - book, "1984," about the fragility of liberty as well, is hardly less grim.

L But his task was to sound alarms, not to predict the future.

If a lesson has been learned in the 50 years since, it is the recognition of the hypocrisy of those who grasp power in the name of public interests, of a greater society, of "the people."

Ideology itself is the enemy.

And cowardice.

There are still people who don't get it. But communism is almost dead. Much of the world, though far from perfect or perfectible, has come to recognize and reject totalitarianism.

For that, no small thanks are due that modest, sublimely moral, supremely sensible man, Eric Arthur Blair, who wrote under the name George Orwell. On the nature of power and hypocrisy, he wrote in 1949: "One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes revolution in order to establish the dictatorship."

His legacy was immense. His influence was historic. The good his mind and work did for Earth's people is beyond measuring.

You owe him. Pay up: Throw that party. Tattoo on every guest's brain these words he wrote in his 1947 preface to "Animal Farm":

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

***

The Holocaust

I can add nothing to this week's "Argument." But I cannot resist saying that of the 60 or so such essays I have commissioned and edited since beginning these pages 14 months ago, none has been more morally and intellectually compelling than Jonathan Cohen's this week. Though both Stalin and Mao slaughtered more millions for politics than the Nazis did for race, no question in modern life can be of more demanding importance than that raised by what has come to be called the Holocaust. Read the piece. Read the book. Think!

Pub date: 04/07/96

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