Not all farmers were bad…

Issue: 119

John Newsinger

Daniel J Leab, Orwell Subverted: The CIA and the Filming of Animal Farm (Pennsylvania State University, 2007), £36.50

The Halas and Batchelor animated film of Animal Farm had its world premiere in New York on 29 December 1954. A fortnight later on 13 January 1955 it premiered in London. The film was celebrated as the first British feature length cartoon, as a cartoon that dealt with serious issues and as a breakthrough for the British film industry.

As we now know, the film was only made possible by CIA funding. Daniel Leab’s appropriately titled Orwell Subverted is an exhaustive study of CIA involvement in the making of the film, a study that furthers the earlier work of Frances Stonor Saunders (Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War), throws additional light on the CIA’s cultural activities, and reveals, for the first time, the detailed changes that the agency insisted on in the making of the film.

That George Orwell, a socialist who had fought with the Poum militia in the Spanish Civil War, and who remained committed to the socialist cause until the day he died, should have his great anti-Stalinist classic hijacked by the CIA, is, of course, the ultimate indignity. But was there something about the book and its politics that lent itself to the use made of it by both the CIA and the British secret propaganda agency, the Information Research Department (IRD), established by the Labour government in 1948? Both organisations sponsored the publication of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four throughout the world. The IRD even produced a comic strip version of Animal Farm, which it tried to place in newspapers in as many countries as possible. Orwell’s anti-Stalinism was, to be blunt, made use of for counter—revolutionary and pro-imperialist purposes. How much of the responsibility for this was his?

There is no doubt Orwell’s anti-Stalinism led him into dangerous waters in the late 1940s. His understanding of the Soviet Union as a bureaucratic or oligarchic collectivist society led him to conclude that capitalism was the lesser evil in a conflict between the two systems. While this was certainly better than proclaiming Russia a socialist paradise, it did involve Orwell, on a number of occasions, making it clear that in the event of a war between the US and the Soviet Union he would support America. It also saw him collaborating with the IRD shortly before his death, although the nature of this collaboration has been widely and wilfully misinterpreted.

Even so, the important point was that, while capitalism might be the lesser evil, he still regarded it very much as an “evil”. Indeed, he argued that the only cause actually worth fighting for was a United Socialist States of Europe, something that he recognised both the Americans and the Russians would regard as a threat. He condemned British subordination to the US as an obstacle to socialist advance.

Ironically, the best demonstration of the socialist credentials of Orwell’s anti-Stalinism is provided by the changes the CIA required to Joy Batchelor’s scripts, which were faithful to the book. Leab identifies three areas where Joseph Bryan, a psychological warfare expert who monitored the film for the agency, wanted modifications. The “investors”, he told Batchelor, were very concerned at her sympathetic portrayal of Snowball (based on Leon Trotsky). Her script suggested that Snowball was “intelligent, courageous, dynamic” and that if he had not been assassinated he might have succeeded in “creating a benevolent, successful state…this implication we cannot permit”. Instead the CIA wanted Snowball portrayed as a “fanatic intellectual whose plans if carried through would have led to disaster no less complete than under Napoleon”.

The second objection was that the script had to make it absolutely clear that not all farmers were bad, that many cared for their animals and that there were farms where the animals were content. The CIA was certainly not going to finance a film attacking capitalism as well as Stalinism.

They also wanted to change the final episode of the novel, in which the farm animals can no longer tell the pigs from the men, so that it involved only pigs. This was, of course, a crucial change because what Orwell was intent on demonstrating in the novel was that the Soviet Union was behaving exactly the same as the imperialist powers—in fact, had become indistinguishable from them. This was clearly not acceptable to the CIA. Finally, they wanted the film to end with an animal uprising against the pigs, something that was very much part of CIA policy at the time.

Clearly, crucial aspects of Orwell’s novel were recognised by the agency as being incompatible with their objectives. Why then were they so easily able to hijack it?

The answer is simple. It was the British left’s continuing celebration of the Soviet Union as socialist that effectively handed the book over to the enemies of socialism in the 1950s. Orwell’s warnings about Stalinism went unheard by the majority of British socialists, and it was their sympathy for Stalinism that enabled the book to be used against them, although even then its meaning had to be violated.

The difficulty of the fight that Orwell was engaged in when trying to convince the left that Stalinism had nothing to do with socialism would, of course, have been familiar to the founders of this journal. The problem was perfectly illustrated by the historian E P Thompson’s 1951 response to allegations of tyranny and repression in Eastern Europe. He contemptuously dismissed the claims as “the Big Lie technique of Goebbels over again”. Indeed, the lie was “so monstrous that we cannot be troubled with it, we turn our backs on it, and direct the argument on to more practical questions”.

Even someone of Thompson’s stature was prepared to cast himself in the role of Squealer! Nothing Orwell could write or do could possibly make any impression on this certainty, this refusal to recognise the Stalinist repression that was sweeping across Eastern Europe. It was to take the action of the working class in Poland and Hungary in 1956 to make these people listen. Hope lay with the proles.