Less the heroes of our stories than the villains of some other bastard’s

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Jack Graham

Jack Graham writes and podcasts about culture and politics from a Gothic Marxist-Humanist perspective. He co-hosts the I Don't Speak German podcast with Daniel Harper. Support Jack on Patreon.


  1. FlexFantastic
    July 23, 2014 @ 10:59 pm

    Great, spectacular post.

    One minor comment that just touches on your last sentences: I always took Animal Farm as basically endorsing the thrust of your Soviet-Union-as-Capitalists position (and why I always argued in school that it was one of the best anti-capitalist texts in the curriculum). It's been a while since I read it, but the entire narrative arc was simply to make the Stalin & co. indistinguishable from their western capitalist neighbors. Which is the final point made in the book.

    And, of course, being an anarchist the narrative that those wishing to capture the apparatus of power will inevitably use it for tyranny is probably a narrative I'm relatively more sympathetic too. Even while recognizing that, in most of these cases, those positions draw from liberal fears of the radical rather than, you know, a belief that the proper path is the dismantling of all hierarchies.

    To put it another way (as I'm thinking out loud and typing), revulsion is misplaced. The liberal is revolted that the revolutionary will stand on the neck of the oppressor. Revulsion should properly be placed on the revolutionary would seek to appropriate the mechanisms of state power to snap that neck.

    Or something.


  2. Jack Graham
    July 24, 2014 @ 4:53 am

    I think Orwell had a basic understanding of the fact that the Soviet Union was a form of state-run capitalism. He says as much in Homage to Catalonia. But the problem with Animal Farm is that he structures it so that each character and event relates directly to real world people and events… except when he doesn't. He makes it clear that he's talking directly about Russia, and then mystifyingly makes Lenin and Trotsky into one pig: Snowball. He represents the capitalist attack upon the new workers' state but has it beaten off with relative ease without causing any damage to the farm that is proportional to the catastrophic damage wrought upon Russia by the Whites and the civil war. Thus he sites the degeneration of the revolution in the wrong place. It looks more like the result of pig ambition and the ignorance and stupidity of the rest of the animals. Eliot's remark about "more public spirited pigs" being required actually hits the mark. In Orwell's version of the story, whether he intended it that way or not, that's precisely what was needed, because it was pretty much just the cleverness and selfishness of the pigs that caused the problem. By writing it as an allegory Orwell makes the process look eternal and inevitable and transhistorical, even mystical – that's what allegories started as, after all, ways of telling supposedly eternal metaphysical truths to commoners who couldn't grasp theology. He must've known that. This is why the book is beloved of the Right, and why it gets taught in schools, and why the CIA contributed money to the old animated film version. The strange thing is that the wisdom of commercialism dictated that the old film needed a happy ending in order to sell, and I think even the CIA wanted a second revolt at the end because they wanted to implant the idea that Communist regimes could be overthrown, so the animation actually has a better ending than the hopeless finality of the book. It has the animals attacking the humans/pigs again. If you decide to seize upon the hints in the story that Napoleon's regime is economically as well as politically similar to that of the humans, you end up with something accidentally Anarchist or neo-Trotskyist. After all, if Animal Farm is just like us, surely that must mean that we are just like Animal Farm. But none of that alters the way the book is taught, remembered, thought of and repeatedly invoked – even today – as kind of talismanic proof that revolution just takes you back where you started.


  3. FlexFantastic
    July 24, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

    Yeah, I don't think you're wrong on the intent of Orwell at all here, or why conservative types love the book. I just think that intended reading is incoherent and the accidental anarchist/neo-Trotskyist take is actually just a straightforwardly more logical takeaway.

    I remember it as one of the earlier "what they're trying to teach me here is totally full of shit" moments in education.


  4. varalys the dark
    July 26, 2014 @ 2:27 am

    Epic post! I have nothing to add except that I really ejoyed reading it 🙂


  5. Anonymous
    August 5, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

    The irony is that Orwell, would've hated how much nearly every political current has tried to claim him for their own, from anarchists and Trots (fair enough, though he wasn't that close to their ideals) to (free-market) libertarians and conservative (like Burgess's 1985, which takes the view that 1984 was all about…trade unions?) and even Traditional Catholics and neo-Nazis/fascists!

    He's probably spinning in his grave at how bloody politicised his own name is.


  6. Gavin Burrows
    August 11, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

    This is another excellent piece, Jack! Incisive analysis, plus a photo of an ape firing two machine guns at once – what's not to like? Sorry to be such a laggard in replying, only just caught the film.

    One quite blatant piece of leading the audience by the nose is the way Koba is made to look like a nasty piece of work and Caesar as the wise ape, the pin-up of the simian world. If chimps could sport twirly moustaches they’d have probably given Koba one of those. It’s like the cast of a melodrama were asked at the last minute to play it morally complex, and didn’t have time to change costumes. Because of this you could pretty much tell where the second film was going even before the first film was over. So even when, for example, Koba points out to Caesar he carries the scars on his body from human torture, what he’s saying is framed by constant reminders this is the bad guy talking. There’s notably nothing like that for his human corollary. Dreyfuss, the guy who wants the multiplexes back is more genuinely misguided.

    Funnily enough, I thought of the Russian Revolution too, but more about the cult of personality as evident in Eisenstein’s ‘October’. The way we so-naturally divide into leaders and followers is symbolised in the film by speech. In the first film, all the apes get given the same smart gas. So they can presumably all talk as and when they want to. But signing is clearly the prose of Apetown, while speech is the verse – speech is associated with speechifying, with power. Very few apes say much in the film, principally its Caesar and Koba. Apetown even comes with a special platform purpose-built to speechify from. The mass is literally voiceless. Even smart gas doesn’t stop us being dirty, dumb apes.

    And notably, while the humans don’t have so neat a conceit to frame the thing, it’s pretty much the same deal. They’re mostly non-speaking extras, fearful when the lights aren’t on, happy-dancing when they come back.

    (Added to which there’s the anthropocentrism. The speechifying is similar to scenes in the first film where Caesar proves he’s smarter than the average ape by standing upright. There’s no particular advantage for this to a chimp, in fact they’re built to knuckle-walk. But human-like is film code for smarter. Even in a film about how we should love our ape buddies.)


  7. Gavin Burrows
    August 11, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

    Onto ‘Animal Farm’… the big problem with this book seem from here is that it was written in such a different era to the Cold War world, let alone the post-Cold War one. We simply take it for granted that Stalinism is a synonym for dictatorship. After all, when did you last bump into an actual apologist for him? Martin Amis writing a book in the Noughties with the aim of discrediting him is a sure sign of someone who needs to get out more.

    Not so at the time. As Wikipedia puts it “Orwell wrote the book… when the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union was at its height and Stalin was regarded highly by the British people and intelligentsia, a circumstance that Orwell hated. It was initially rejected by a number of British and American publishers.” It’s take-up by the right, let alone the supposition that its existence is proof of the inevitable failure of revolution (and it’s not, you know, a novel or something) is an extreme form of retconning. Even the 1954 film you mention, though an early adaptation, falls the other side of this divide.

    In short, when Orwell satirised Stalinism there was still a case to be proven. When we read the book now, when all that seems such a given, we naturally look outside his main thrust and to the broader picture. It’s in this gap that the right tries to insert itself. I think this is a distortion of Orwell’s intention which should be challenged. So I guess I'm really on FlexFantastic's side.

    I would, however, have to concede your point about the pigs being made the problem. You can sympathise or not with Orwell’s critique of Bolshevism, and to be honest I’m more in the sympathise camp. But to suggest the political failings of Bolshevism simply became the historic failings of the Russian Revolution isn’t so much a leap as a classic case of failing to make a materialist argument.

    Given the times and the conditions, it’s not so surprising the revolution failed. But that doesn’t explain why it failed the way that it did. Even if we were to see the Bolsheviks as scheming villainous Kobas (not, incidentally, something I'd say), how were they able to get so dominant? Why did Russia fall into bureaucratised centrally planned capital rather than, say, a more Western style of market capitalism? (Which many at the time predicted as its fate.) Perhaps we can talk about all of that after the third ‘Apes’ film is released. But the point for now is, as much as ‘Apes’, ‘Animal Farm’ presupposes the bewildered herd.

    One point did confound me, however. Where do you see the importance in merging Lenin and Trotsky into one character? If anything, I’d say that enhances the Trotskyist reading of the book. Instead of portraying Trotsky as the natural successor of Lenin, the figure least likely to betray revolutionary gains, it’s arguing Snowball is the natural successor to Snowball.


  8. Arthur Isaac
    January 26, 2015 @ 2:48 pm

    At once you speak of standing on the necks of oppressors while NOT being cast as an egomaniacal villain, yeah.

    Bolshevism and the Holmodor where forced on Stalin by Capitalists? Next you might suggest that you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.


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