In 1936, after publishing The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell went to Spain to fight against the Fascists being led by Francisco Franco. In 1931, the Spanish King, Alfonso XIII agreed to allow elections to decide the government of Spain. Overwhelmingly, the people of Spain voted to abolish the monarchy and form a liberal republic. Over the next five years, government control swung between conservatives and a coalition of leftists called the Popular Front. This division all came to a head in 1936 as army officers led by Franco, fearing that the leftist government would give way to a Marxist revolution, conspired to overthrow the Republican government. Franco’s military, calling themselves the Nationalists, began their coup in Morocco (then under Spanish control). Garrisons across Spain rose up in rebellion, and workers responded in kind – with little help from the Republican government. The Nationalists allied with the Spanish fascist party, Falange, and eventually began receiving military aid from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The Republican government began receiving aid from the Soviet Union, and international aid from individuals like George Orwell.
It was in this tangled mess of political fractionalism, international influence, and war that Animal Farm was born. There were sharp divisions on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War: there were Communists, Basque and Catalan nationalists, Republicans, anarchists, various socialists and workers parties all vying for control of the coalition (sometimes violently) – and that’s not even considering outright warfare between Republicans and Nationalists.
George Orwell was deeply marred by the internecine conflict he witnessed in Spain. The group Orwell joined, POUM (Workers Party of Unification) ended up being called “Fascists” by Communist propaganda. Pro-Soviet Communists outlawed POUM, and made arrests. Orwell and his wife actually had to go into hiding, and after they left Spain in 1937, he was actually tried in absentia by the Tribunal for Espionage & High Treason. These arrests and trials were part of the great attack on Trotskyists by the Stalinist regime.
Leon Trotsky was a co-leader of the October Revolution that led to the Communist overthrow of Tsarist Russia. He and Stalin were initially ideologically very similar, but after Stalin came to power, Trotsky became a major critic of his regime. He was eventually exiled from Russia, and murdered in Mexico in 1940. In the mid-1930s, Stalin began what would become known as “The Great Purge”. Along with the more general ethnic cleansing and assassinations that occurred at this time, there was a cleansing of Soviet Russia of the influences of Trotsky and other dissidents.
POUM, in Civil War Spain, was opposed many of the things supported by Stalin. Along with propaganda labeling them as really fascists in disguise, pro-Soviet Communists also accused POUM of being Trotskyists.
Animal Farm is a really simple story. It has the feel of a fairy tale, or a fable.
He began writing the novel during WWII, in 1943. It wasn’t published until just before the end of the conflict because of fears that it would offend Stalin, who was an incredibly important ally in the war effort against Germany. In some respects, this is a disappointment. George Orwell felt that our need for Stalin made us ignore the terrible crimes of the Soviet government – and he wasn’t wrong.
With the rise of the Cold War, Animal Farm found a resonance that Orwell, perhaps, thought he’d missed out on. It quickly became ubiquitous reading material for students, and went on to be one of the most important works of fiction of the 20th century.
As a reader, coming to it for the first time in my 30s, I found it to be a nearly flawless book.
The required reading we all experience in schools is a bit of a double-edge sword. Forcing certain books down kids’ throats can really turn some of them off reading, but it also exposes a lot of kids to things they wouldn’t otherwise experience. If I had read this like most people have, I don’t think I would’ve picked it up, now. And I don’t know that I would’ve enjoyed it much as a teenager.
I can’t stress enough how terrible of a student I was.
But now? Knowing the outline the history of the Soviet Union, and having a decent grasp of the major events of the first half of the 20th century? I got a lot out of the book, and thoroughly enjoyed his biting satire.
I’m not breaking new ground here, but this was a great book.