I’m not certain that I got across what I was trying to say in my last blog, written as it was over several days when I had a lot going on. But I decided to listen to the BBC Radio 4 In Our Time podcast on Animal Farm and it made a few of the points I wanted to make clear to me. I listened to the audiobook of Animal Farm last September, and I think I also got it more then, too. The basis of this thought is that Orwell was a committed socialist – he fought on the side of socialism in the Spanish Civil War, he worked with the Labour Party and was friends with Nye Bevan; but his writing was generally critical of the Left – be it Stalin or socialism – and less obviously so of the Right. Therefore he was adopted, after his death, by the Right and you are as likely to find someone on the Right quoting Animal Farm (or Nineteen Eighty-Four) about the dangers of socialism or communism as you are someone who would have actually agreed with Orwell politically.
When I listened to Animal Farm last September one of the things that struck me the most was the way in which history was re-written, and how the animals of the farm (particularly Boxer) were taken in through their devotion to Napoleon so much so that he could re-write history that they themselves lived through. Yesterday, Meryl Streep’s comments about the PEOTUS at The Golden Globes were criticised by some on the basis that Hollywood celebrities were not to be listened to – by fans of Ronald Reagan who had just elected a reality television host as president. But the most interesting comment that I saw was journalist Glenn Greenwald’s observation that talk radio hosts are considered legitimate political commentators when they are just as wealthy and privileged (often more so) than Meryl Streep, just as distanced from the everyday lives of ordinary people. I can’t help thinking that between Nancy Isenberg’s history of class in the USA and Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men I should be able to put together an answer to this, but in many ways being aware of the problem is enough.
Animal Farm is very specific to Orwell’s contemporary Russia in many ways but there are also elements to Napoleon’s take-over that are general and relevant right now. One of the messages of Animal Farm and, now, Rogue One is that one of the most important aspects of progress is longevity, is continuing to make the future better than the present – donkeys live a long time. In Rogue One, the Rebels sacrifice their lives but are successful (for about a quarter of a century, at least); in Animal Farm, what initially looks like a utopia is ultimately destroyed by those in power.
But this is still not quite getting across what I was thinking. Animal Farm can be read in a number of very specific ways – against communism, against socialism, and against totalitarianism. Because I have read Homage to Catalonia and Down And Out in Paris and London and I studied Shooting an Elephant and I know a little about Orwell’s life beyond his fiction, I know (or believe) that he intended the latter reading; but history allowed those aspects to be downplayed in favour of a screed against the USSR during the Cold War. This is why I worry that, despite what the writers of Rogue One say, selling Death Star pyjama pants sends a very different message about how this film should be understood, one that could do lasting damage.
And finally, the way I believe that this damage can be countered is by progressive readings of these texts, by those of us on the Left (however broadly we define that) communicating our readings of these texts and the very important messages that they carry, by claiming these narratives for our cause. But reading these texts needs individual media literacy, literacy that governments like Napoleon’s and those in contemporary, real, human world want to discourage by telling us it’s just a story about animals, just a space fantasy, just entertainment. We can work to make things more than that.
When stories are in the public realm, their meanings change over time – in a way, this is precisely what Rogue One is doing to the original Star Wars trilogy. But how these changes happen is variable and difficult to control and not necessarily in the hands of the writers.