When MSNBC host Krystal Ball opined on what she considered the true meaning of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, her comments met with a storm of derision from the right.

Here’s what Ball said, and at first glance it seems preposterous:

Animal Farm, hmmm — isn’t that Orwell’s political parable of farm animals where a bunch of pigs hog up all the economic resources, tell the other animals they need all the food because they’re the makers and then scare up the prospect of a phony bogeyman every time their greed is challenged?

Of course Animal Farm isn’t some sort of critique of capitalist greed. It’s a parable that was meant to illustrate the inherent evils of Communism, and the focus was on Communism’s destructive and exploitative totalitarianism, lack of liberty, and statist control—problems he located in the left, and which Ball ignores.

That said, it is also true—as Ball seems to be trying to suggest—that Orwell was also very much against income inequality. In fact, he identified politically as a socialist, and that was probably the main reason why. But his socialism was a strange beast, and he himself recognized the inherent contradictions and difficulties of adherence to the doctrine:

As [Orwell] describes so well in “Capitalism and Communism: Two Paths to Slavery”: “Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect.”

Orwell was a brilliant man, and he struggled to reconcile his wish for a certain type of world with his knowledge that such a world could probably never come to be as he wished it. Much of his writing was devoted to the horrors of failed attempts to achieve that world.

Animal Farm is a critique of Stalinism/Communism, and although capitalism as an exploitative system plays a role at the beginning of the book, by the end the astute reader sees Communism as at least as bad or even worse. Orwell was also aware of the strong possibility that liberty and socialism of any sort (not just Communist Stalinism) could not be reconciled, as the above quotes from him indicate. It is my opinion that Orwell came very close to understanding that his vision of a planned economy plus freedom could not come to pass, that the contradiction was basic, and that socialism would always sow the seeds of its own destruction. I just think he couldn’t fully face and embrace that knowledge because to do so would have meant renouncing a lifelong dream. So he clung to some notion of a kinder gentler socialism without the totalitarianism, while at the same time he wrote tirelessly about the evils of Communism.


Socialists have also raised some interesting questions about what Orwell seems to be saying about Lenin and the rise of Stalinism. In fact, Orwell has suggested elsewhere that Trotsky and Lenin are partly responsible for the rise of totalitarianism in Russia and that Bolshevism itself contained elements of authoritarianism. Molyneux, the British socialist, has written a compelling article with a very close reading of the plot and characters of Animal Farm, and concludes that Orwell equates Lenin with Stalin (morphed into the single Napoleon character). Molyneux argues that Orwell gives no way to understand the reasons for the revolution’s failure except human nature (as opposed to insufficient material conditions). All this leaves the book with the reactionary message at the heart of it–that all revolutions fail.

…Even in his best political writing, and his sharp exposés of aspects of capitalism, Orwell was never sure whether a real alternative was possible. Whatever Orwell’s intentions, his most famous books undoubtedly reflect these frustrations and despair. Writing as an isolated intellectual removed from day-to-day struggle, (with the notable exception of his participation in the Spanish Civil War), Orwell never regained the hope for workers’ power he experienced while in Spain.

And that’s coming from a pro-socialist, writing in a socialist periodical.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]