Timeline to this Timeline
September 9, 2001, I’m walking down Lafayette Street with my wife. We’re close to my apartment, with the Tribeca sky, the sky of my youth, hovering above our destination. I have a title idea. “Snowball’s Chance,” I say, “there’s something to it.” She isn’t so sure.
Then, 9/11. Then, 9/13, I understand the title. Animal Farm. Snowball returns to the farm, bringing capitalism, which has its own pitfalls. I’ll turn the Cold War allegory on its head—apply Orwell’s thinking to what had happened in the fifty years since the end of World War II. Three weeks later I have a clean draft.
I start to think about publication, and run into a bump: the feeling in the publishing world, in the entertainment world, is that parody is about to lose its protected status in the United States. Several major lawsuits are underway (2 Live Crew, The Wind Done Gone), copyright has been extended indefinitely for major corporations, and the Supreme Court has never looked more conservative. Given the climate, and that parody is not protected in the United Kingdom, the Orwell estate announces itself “hostile” to my manuscript. The book is nevertheless released in 2002 (by a small but longstanding press, Roof Books), and supported in part by a state grant. At the same moment I see fit to attack Animal Farm as a Cold War allegory—an allegory that I see as conservative, xenophobic, and a bludgeon for radical thinking—Christopher Hitchens, who has taken a sharp turn to the right, sees the need to defend it. In Why Orwell Matters, also published in 2002, Hitchens attempted to apply Orwell’s later-life “Cold War,” a term he popularized, to a stance against terrorism. The media picks up on Hitchens, and Snowball as a counterpoint, and the books are accordingly praised or derided.
Nikolai Kostomarov (1817–1885) pens his story Animal Riot, a farmyard allegory that takes as its analog a hypothetical Russian revolution. A century later, in 1988, the English-language Economist will compare Kostomarov’s 8,500-word story to George Orwell’s 20,000-word Russian Revolution allegory, Animal Farm (which, unlike Animal Riot, ends badly), finding numerous points of comparison. For example, a bull in Animal Riot:
“Brother bulls, sisters and cow-wives. Esteemed beasts worthy of a better destiny than the one which inexplicably befell you and made you a slave of tyrant Man! … The hour has come to cast off vile slavery and take revenge for all our ancestors tormented by work, starved and fed repulsive feed, who collapsed dead under whips and heavy carts, who were killed at slaughterhouses and torn to pieces by our tormentors. Rally with hooves and horns.”
Old Major in Animal Farm:
“Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let’s face it: our lives are miserable, laborious and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength … Why do we then continue in this miserable condition? Because nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings. There, comrades, is the answer to all our prob-lems. It is summed up in a single word—Man.”
In commemoration of the February Revolution and the deposition of the tsar, Kostomarov’s now prescient Animal Riot is reissued. In Animal Riot, Kostomarov—who has been dead for thirty-two years—wove his primary interests: political radicalism, historical consciousness, folkloric tradition. The story realizes an equation in Marxist analysis: the worker is the farm/plow animal. During his lifetime, Kostomarov—poet, playwright, novelist, historian, environmentalist, spiritualist and social critic—was a lauded figure, albeit in the Russian style: variously censored, arrested, blacklisted, exiled, and imprisoned.
In 1917, Mykhailo Hrushevsky is the head of the Central Rada, Ukraine’s revolutionary parliament. Hrushevsky, who rose to power as a historian, credits Kostomarov as a primary influence. Through the 1920s, Hrushevsky is prominent political force and political scholar in Soviet Ukraine.
Exiled and under the watch of the secret police, Hrushevsky dies in suspicious circumstances.
Eric Blair, already published as George Orwell, is living in Southwold, recuperating from a bought of pneumonia contracted on a motorcycle tour. Now supported by his friends and parents, he will not return to academic employment. Orwell is attending meetings of the Communist Party, where Hrushevsky and his death are a topic of discussion. Hrushevsky and Kostomarov are commonly referenced in the books and scholarship of the day.
Kostomarov is a figure strikingly analogous to Blair—their class position (the poor rich), their sickly disposition, and their interests (from the political to the environmental). In 1864, Kostomarov asserted that his writings had to meet a fundamental standard of “strict, relentless truth,” foretelling Orwell’s posture of truth at no compromise. Orwell’s 1941 essay “England Your England” echoes Kostomarov’s 1860 essay “Two Russian Nationalities,” which divided the nation, by class, into two distinct existences. Orwell, in “England Your England”: “There is no question about the inequality of wealth in England. It is grosser than in any European country, and you have only to look down the nearest street to see it. Economically, England is certainly two nations, if not three or four.”
Orwell’s wife, Eileen, visits him on the Aragon Front at Huesca, in March of 1937. Orwell is the tallest man present.
For six months, Orwell serves in a Trotskyite regimen on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War. (H. G. Wells described Orwell as “a Trotskyite with big feet,” and T. S. Eliot characterized Orwell’s political position as “generally Trotskyite.”) Taller than the average Spanish fighter, Orwell is admonished not to stand upright in the trench. Forgetting the warning, Orwell is caught by a bullet to the throat in May of 1937. He returns to England. The time in Spain is formative, and as Orwell writes in the essay to the Ukranian edition of Animal Farm (1947), it is thereafter that he begins to ponder a farm revolution. “For the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement. On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone, and which could easily be translated into other languages. However, the actual details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day (I was then living in a small village) I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge carthorse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.”
For Orwell and many socialists, the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 is a catalyst for a final break from Stalin’s Russia. Until now, Orwell has held formation, taking the Independent Labor Party (ILP) antiwar position. With the pact, Orwell reverses course, hawking for war via, among other outlets, the London Tribune, the Partisan Review, and the BBC. “This war,” he writes in his 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn,” “is a race between the consolidation of Hitler’s empire and the growth of democratic consciousness.”
Orwell begins work on Animal Farm in 1943, completes it in 1944, and promptly approaches five publishers. Despite Orwell’s letters of submission, which state that he won’t be open to edits (his rejection letters are rejection/editorial letters), the manuscript secures a speedy release.
The Faber & Faber editor, T. S. Eliot, an Anglican Royalist whom Orwell regards as a facist, is nevertheless Orwell’s first tier—but Eliot has passed on Orwell’s previous projects, and Orwell is not optimistic about landing a powerful publisher. While Eliot’s assessment of Animal Farm will be derided, his letter of rejection identifies the fault that will allow Animal Farm to be disseminated as propaganda. “The effect is simply one of negation,” writes Eliot. “The book ought to excite sympathy with what the author wants, as well as with his objections … Your pigs are much more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm—in fact, there couldn’t have been an animal farm without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.” Orwell’s wartime BBC acquaintance, William Empson, similarly warns Orwell that the “racial differences” of the farmyard justified the birthright of a leadership class. “Your metaphor—the intellectual superiority of the pigs—suggests that the Russian revolution was a pathetically impossible effort to defy nature. You must expect to be ‘misunderstood’ about this book on a large scale.”
Orwell also submits the manuscript to his friend and publisher, Victor Gollancz, who has the option on Orwell’s next work of fiction. Orwell frets that Gollancz is a poor political pairing for Animal Farm. Orwell is right: Gollancz balks on political grounds. (Gollancz, even years later, described Orwell as a “much over-rated writer.”) The Dial Press, a puzzling prospect, returns Orwell and his agent an equally puzzling rejection: animal stories, they say (this in the era of Disney), don’t sell. Jonathan Cape, of the London publisher Page & Co., is initially interested in the manuscript, but then claims to have been warned off by a representative by the Ministry of Information. Cape, upon reflection, fears the Russians, equated to pigs, will take offense. Secker & Walburg, where Orwell has previously worked as an editor, acquires Animal Farm for its 1945 list.
Orwell proposes to Celia Kirwan. Timothy Garton Ash sums up the event in his 2003 apologia, “Orwell’s List” (The New York Review of Books).
“To this depressed and mortally ill political writer of genius there came, in February 1949, a delightful piece of personal news. Celia Kirwan (née Paget) had returned to London from Paris. Celia was a strikingly beautiful, vivacious, and warmhearted young woman who moved in left-wing literary circles, as did her twin sister Mamaine, who would marry Orwell’s friend Arthur Koestler in 1950. Orwell had met Celia when they spent Christmas together in Wales with Arthur and Mamaine in 1945. He was lonely and in some emotional turmoil after the death of his first wife earlier that year. Celia and he got on very well, and met again several times in London. One evening just five weeks after their first meeting, he sent her a passionate letter, full of tender feeling and rather clumsily proposing either marriage or an affair. It ended, ‘good night my dearest love, George.’ Celia gently refused him in what she later described as a ‘rather ambiguous letter,’ but they remained close friends. A year later, she went to work for an intellectual review in Paris.”
One thing to add to Ash’s missive: when Orwell proposes to Celia Kirwan, she’s still married to the poet Patrick Kirwan—though the divorce is in the offing.
Orwell is credited with coining the term “cold war,” in the following passage of his 1945 essay “You and the Atomic Bomb” (London Tribune):
“For forty or fifty years past, Mr. H. G. Wells and others have been warning us that man is in danger of destroying himself with his own weapons, leaving the ants or some other gregarious species to take over. Anyone who has seen the ruined cities of Germany will find this notion at least thinkable. Nevertheless, looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications—that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.”
Animal Farm is published the month of the German surrender—the exact moment to launch a long-awaited attack on Russian policies. The Cold War that Orwell has named embraces Animal Farm, which becomes part of the postwar U.K. debate, and outperforms expectations.
The U.S. market isn’t excited about the property, but three occurrences will soon lead to a print run of a half a million books: Frank Morley of Harcourt Brace chances upon the novel in Cambridge; in The New Yorker, Edmund Wilson hails the U.S. edition; the Book-of-the-Month Club offers the title as a main selection.
In 1946, the second issue of Polemic (where Celia Kirwan works as an editorial assistant) publishes Orwell’s “The Prevention of Literature.” The fifth issue of Polemic follows up Orwell’s essay with a response (annotated by Orwell) by the communist poet Randall Swingler, who served in Italy during World War II (he was awarded the Military Medal of the British Army). While Swingler agrees with Orwell that a writer must “dare to be a Daniel,” he objects to Orwell’s broad sweeps and “intellectual swashbucklery.” Moreover, Swingler doesn’t see Daniel in Orwell: “What in heaven is Orwell really worried about? He appears at the moment to be getting more space than any other journalist to report truthfully … Orwell’s posture of lonely rebel hounded by monstrous pro-Soviet monopolists has a somewhat crocodile appearance.”
An alternative read of Orwell persists after Orwell’s literary canonization. In a 1971 collection of essays about Orwell, Raymond Williams—novelist, critic, and the driving force of Cultural Materialism—will draw a portrait of Orwell as an architect of orthodox thinking who mounts a “successful impersonation of the plain man who bumps into experience in an unmediated way, and is simply telling the truth about it.” Salman Rushdie, in his 1984 essay “Outside the Whale,” echoes the position: “Orwell … is advocating ideas that can only be in the service of our masters.”
The Information Research Department (IRD) is formed by the British Foreign Office, which is overseen by MI6. Novelist Fay Weldon will later recall that when an MI6 figure walks down the hall she and her colleagues are instructed to turn their backs: “Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by.” The IRD is the brainchild of Christopher Mayhew, who, in 1947, as a junior minister, proposed a “propaganda counteroffensive.”
For the next thirty years, the IRD will exercise its influence through a miscellany of media, particularly the written word and radio (i.e., the BBC). The IRD will publish, distribute, and translate works by Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, and many other noted figures. Timothy Ash, in his 2010 book, Facts Are Subversive, investigates the doings of the IRD, known informally as “the dirty tricks department.” The IRD, writes Ash, indulges in “character assassination, false telegrams, putting itching powder on lavatory seats, and other such cold war pranks … little of which will be found in the files, even if the intelligence-related ones are finally released.” Ash: “the IRD’s anticommunist activities were Britain’s equivalent of the McCarthyite witchhunt.”
Animal Farm is a core IRD project: the IRD broadcasts the novel on Voice of America, produces a cartoon that it distributes in multiple languages, and sponsors translated editions of the work world-over (Orwell helped the IRD strategize circulation). Suffice it to say: Asia (China, Vietnam, and Korea), Europe (especially Eastern Europe), South and Central America, and anywhere that has a language worth bothering about. To cite Andrew Rubin in his 2012 book, Archives of Authority: “Few books in the history of English literature enjoyed such a rapid diffusion into as many languages as Animal Farm.” Among other books that tell the story of Animal Farm and the IRD: Paul Lashmar and James Oliver, Britain’s Secret Propaganda War, 1948–1977 (1998); Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (1999); Tony Shaw, British Cinema and the Cold War: The State, Propaganda and Consensus (2001).
Celia Kirwan, now working for Robert Conquest, a staffer of the IRD, visits Orwell. Orwell is sick with tuberculosis—he will recover, marry, relapse, and die within the year. He will also work with the IRD on the promulgation of Animal Farm, as well as several lists of IRD enemies (at least two lists) that he will hand over to Kirwan. According to Bernard Crick, the prominent Orwell biographer, Arthur Koestler (who is soon to be Kirwan’s brother-in-law, and who is employed by the IRD and the CIA) also contributes to the enemies lists. (In 1950, the IRD will purchase 50,000 copies of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and distribute the books in Germany; the CIA will support the U.S. release of Darkness at Noon.) The enemies lists primarily log and report upon writers, intellectuals and artists.
The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) is launched by the CIA. The front—Arthur Koestler is one of the founders—will promote the cultural caché and political philosophy of the West. As summarized by Frances Stonor Saunders in Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War:
During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government committed vast resources to a secret programme of cultural propaganda in western Europe. A central feature of this programme was to advance the claim that it did not exist. It was managed, in great secrecy, by America’s espionage arm, the Central Intelligence Agency. The centrepiece of this covert campaign was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, run by CIA agent Michael Josselson from 1950 till 1967. Its achievements—not least its duration—were considerable. At its peak the Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in thirty-five countries, employed dozens of personnel, published over twenty prestige magazines, held art exhibitions, owned a news and features service, organized high-profile international conferences, and rewarded musicians and artists with prizes and public performances. Its mission was to nudge the intelligentsia of Western Europe away from its lingering fascination with Marxism and Communism towards a view more accommodating of ‘the American way.’”
In the coming decades, the reach of the CCF will extend immeasurably into the life of America’s arts and letters. (Even The Paris Review will be, at the very least, financially ennabled by U.S. covert activity.) Arguably, the CCF directs the course of U.S. art and literature in the twentieth century. According to the CIA’s own website (2012): “The Congress for Cultural Freedom is widely considered one of the CIA’s more daring and effective Cold War covert operations.”
Orwell dies of a burst artery in his lung—a complication of his tuberculosis. Four months earlier, Orwell had married Sonia Brownell, fifteen years his junior. Sonia, as guardian of Orwell’s holdings, will be criticized, lambasted, excused, defended, and heralded. Famously beautiful, Sonia will go on to reputation as a grand dame of the arts and literature in London and Paris. She’ll be noted for her affairs (she remarries Major Michael Pitt-Rivers, who is gay) and social interventions.
The CIA courts Sonia Orwell, and options Animal Farm for film.
The CIA’s Cold War agenda is apparent enough, but Orwell is by not yet a literary icon, and Sonia’s primary concern may well be the longevity of Orwell’s legacy. Orwell’s involvement with MI6, and the CIA’s upkeep and not-covert, day-to-day involvement in the film project—as documented by Daniel Leab in Orwell Subverted—make it extremely unlikely that Sonia and other partners of the Orwell Estate are oblivious to the constant CIA presence. The English animation firm chosen for the project, Halas & Batchelor, has heretofore produced—almost exclusively—military propaganda and promotional materials.
One story contends that Sonia cedes the film rights to Animal Farm only upon delivery of a date with Clark Gable. According to The Paper Trail, Jon Elliston’s Internet discussion of declassified information, CIA official Joe Bryan made the arrangements, “as a measure of thanks.”
Lord Betrand Russell, one of five honorary chairs of the CCF, outlines the logic of cultural education in his 1951 book, The Impact of Science on Society:
The subject which will be of most importance politically is mass psychology … Its importance has been enormously increased by the growth of modern methods of propaganda. Of these the most influential is what is called “education.” Religion plays a part, though a diminishing one; the Press, the cinema and the radio play an increasing part. What is essential in mass psychology is the art of persuasion. If you compare a speech of Hitler’s with a speech of (say) Edmund Burke, you will see what strides have been made in the art since the eighteenth century. What went wrong formerly was that people had read in books that man is a rational animal, and framed their arguments on this hypothesis. We now know that limelight and a brass band do more to persuade than can be done by the most elegant train of syllogisms. It may be hoped that in time anybody will be able to persuade anybody of anything if he can catch the patient young and is provided by the State with money and equipment … Anaxagoras maintained that snow is black, but no one believed him. The social psychologists of the future will have a number of classes of school children on whom they will try different methods of producing an unshakeable conviction that snow is black. Various results will soon be arrived at. First, that the influence of home is obstructive. Second, that not much can be done unless indoctrination begins before the age of ten. Third, that verses set to music and repeatedly intoned are very effective. Fourth, that the opinion that snow is white must be held to show a morbid taste for eccentricity. But I anticipate. It is for future scientists to make these maxims precise and discover exactly how much it costs per head to make children believe that snow is black, and how much less it would cost to make them believe it is dark grey … The completeness of the resulting control over opinion depends in various ways upon scientific technique. Where all children go to school, and all schools are controlled by the government, the authorities can close the minds of the young to everything contrary to official orthodoxy … Education should aim at destroying free will, so that, after pupils have left school, they shall be incapable, throughout the rest of their lives, of thinking or acting otherwise than as their schoolmasters would have wished … Any serious criticism of the powers that be will become psychologically impossible.”
The previous year, 1950, Betrand Russell was awarded a Nobel Prize.
Animal Farm, the first British feature-length animated film, premieres in New York City at the chic Paris Theatre, December 29, 1954. To much pomp, Sonia Orwell attends the event and tours the city, visiting celebrities and literary figures. The premiere receives global coverage and is generally praised, with some exception taken by the far left and far right. Variety calls the film “a powerful preachment.” Time magazine applauds the filmmakers for challenging audiences to “look the Soviet horror square in the eye.” The New York Times: “vivid and biting.”
Christopher Montague “Monty” Woodhouse, the fifth Baron of Terrington, contributes an introduction to first U.S. paperback edition of Animal Farm. Woodhouse, an Oxford professor and conservative Parliamentary politician, cites Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write,” quoting the sentence, “Every line I have written since 1936 has been against totalitarianism.” Woodhouse elides the conclusion of the sentence, “and for democratic socialism.”
Michael Peters, in his 1995 essay “Animal Farm, Fifty Years On” (Contemporary Review), will credit Orwell with having anticipated the elision: “Whilst Orwell was happy to see his book used to attack the Soviet myth, he did become increasingly worried about the way it was being used by the Right as a means of demonstrating that all revolutionary change was bound to fail.”
The Daily Telegraph “breaks” the story of the enemies lists that Orwell handed over to Celia Kirwa and the IRD. The first list: 135 names in a handwritten notebook. The news is of Orwell’s documented betrayal of “fellow travelers,” but there’s an unpleasant addendum: a plethora of racist, homophobic, and creepy remarks. Also, the list is replete with vindictive inclusions: for example, “Douglas Goldring,” on a second list of thirty-eight names (page shown here), criticized Orwell for having revealed troop strategies and movements of the Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War.
The list of thirty-eight, which is typed, presumably compiles the more notable threats; the document is declassified in 2003—though an additional seven names remain a secret of the state, as do any official list or lists generated by Orwell’s disclosures. Of the seven names withheld, one can surmise embarrassing or sensitive contents. Such as? The list of seven was an “A” list, those to be regarded as the most hostile to the interests of MI6. Or, the list consisted of persons blacklisted during the McCarthy Red Scare, or persons who suffered obvious consequences of political affiliation. Charlie Chaplin is on Orwell’s list and was blacklisted in the U.S.—but more damning to Orwell’s reputation would be a Red Scare correspondence to lesser known figures—especially if, for example, all seven on an “A” list suffered repercussions.
In addition to the known lists, Bernard Crick (prominent Orwell biographer) references a list of eighty-six names prepared by Orwell and Arthur Koestler. 86 + 38 + 7 = 131. The conjecture: might there originally have been three lists? Most dangerous to least dangerous?
Additional IRD/Orwell records, and to what extent there are such records, remains classified.
In 2002, Christopher Hitchens publishes Why Orwell Matters, which explains away Orwell’s role as an MI6 informant. Snowball’s Chance, also a short book, and published in near simultaneity, is paired with Why Orwell Matters in media discussion. Hitchens, modeling himself on Orwell’s late-life conservatism, argues vociferously for U.S. and U.K. military commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Orwell estate, a corporate concern with a litigious history, formally objects to Snowball’s Chance. (Full circle: back to my bias.) Bill Hamilton, the literary executor to the estate, logs his disapproval in a letter to James Sherry, the publisher of Snowball’s Chance. Writes Hamilton: “the clear references to 9/11 in the apocalyptic ending can only bring Orwell’s name into disrepute in the U.S. I am alarmed that you would consider publication of this book without first clearing the rights in principle with us: the original is of course in copyright, as are the characters and ideas. I must consider what further action to take.”
The threats do not deter Sherry, but U.K. distribution is quashed. Over Christmas 2002 and New Year’s 2003, Black Ink Books, an Australian/English pub-lisher (parody is not protected in the United Kingdom) makes an offer, commits to an agreement, then demurs.
In 2012, George Orwell’s diaries are published. Major media maintains its pattern of keeping Orwell’s secrets. In his review “Garden of Notes by Author of ‘Animal Farm,’” Dwight Garner of the New York Times warns readers against Orwell’s “gardening diaries,” which are “terse, factual, telegrammatic.” The Daily Beast, however, looks at the diaries in the light of what they reveal about Orwell’s writings. Jimmy So, in his review “Orwell’s Lies,” compares Orwell’s nonfiction with the source material found in the diaries, confirming a long held opinion that Orwell was a little wishy-washy on the details.
Also in 2012: Melville House releases a tenth anniversary edition of Snowball’s Chance.
John Reed is the author of four novels. He lives in New York.