Some novels have fewer equals than others

`Animal Farm' was published 50 years ago today. With Communism dead, is this classic political satire still relevant?
Click to follow
Alan Clark - historian, former Conservative minister and animal rights campaigner

Animal Farm is permanently relevant as a parable to warn of the consequences of allowing a totalitarian system to supplant a democratic one. It is a seminal work, but I do have one reservation about it. I regret anything that causes humans to despise animals, or gives people the opportunity to justify exploitation and maltreatment of animals.

Animal Farm illustrates well the way totalitarian regimes are tolerated, indeed often welcomed, because they exploit weaknesses in human nature. It could apply in democratic societies, as well - that element is always there. All politicians find the democratic overhead an encumbrance, as you see in the Labour Party at the moment. Votes, committees and consultative processes are actually a nuisance when you're trying to make things work.

Fay Weldon - writer

I remember I didn't want to read the book initially, because like any natural-born leftist, I didn't want to believe that utopian dreams could have this propensity to self-destruct.

It's relevant today, of course. Children read it and see the same thing happening in the playground. It has a much wider relevance than the story of Stalinism. The condition Orwell described is still with us in England in 1995.

I don't think what happens in the book is inevitable, or human nature. Orwell tried to point out our problems, and was realistic about it.

Francis Burns - head of English at Newman College of Higher Education, Birmingham, and chief examiner for English at GCSE

I started teaching in the Fifties, when it was a set text. It is still popular in schools because of the simplicity of its language and because children are brought up on fables about animals. They identify with animals.

The notion of some people behaving as we would like to behave and others in an awful way appeals to children. They are always interested in adult behaviour and how much being civilised is a veneer.

Teenagers are interested in the political ideas and the notion of dictatorship and propaganda, even though they don't know as much about Hitler and Stalin. The text shows clearly how the person in power can manipulate the world in which he lives.

It will always be relevant, since every age seems to be a violent age. The question I ask students today is - at what point would you stop the pigs in their tracks? At what point would you stop a dictator?

The present generation of schoolchildren are not cynical, but they are more able to look in a more detached way at the way the adult world manipulates things. Children won't swallow fables with a happy ending. They'll take a happy ending in a love story - if they are in the mood - but when it comes to a situation they can actually relate to in everyday life, they will resist a happy ending.

Malcolm Bradbury - novelist and critic who wrote the preface to Penguin's 40th anniversary edition of `Animal Farm'

I first read it in 1947, when I was still at school. It was a common reference point for people of my generation. Orwell was a powerful figure in the late Forties. People forget now that when he was alive, you followed him for the news, the real news.

In a sense, it was the first post-war British novel. Orwell wanted it published during the war, but we were allies with Soviet Russia and there were paper shortages. TS Eliot at Faber and Faber turned it down. When it was eventually published, its warning about the failure of the Communist revolution was past its sell-by date as far as Orwell was concerned. Then the Cold War happened and Animal Farm began to look like a prophecy.

It's a universal fable. It says that an innocent populace which hands over absolute power to leaders who say they'll make decisions in everyone's best interest will find that they are victims of, not friends of, the political class. On the left, you can think of Castro's Cuba, of many countries in eastern Europe, of Vietnam. But it's equally applicable to the right, to, say, Argentina.

Ralph Steadman - artist and writer who illustrated the 50th anniversary edition of `Animal Farm'

Its message is universal - you should be constantly on your guard against tyrants and dictators. You could transpose the story on to just about any new ideology. It's an eternal story - you overthrow a system and begin another with a great whooping of joy, and then you start feeling a sense of disappointment. There are those of us who love power and want it at all costs, but they don't become men of vision - they become politicians.

Relevant now? Very much so - it's not just anti-Stalin, it is anti anyone on the left who would turn a blind eye to what Stalin was doing in order to bolster their own ideologies. Orwell was asking for socialism, but for a kind that would be for the people. The book is a wonderful yardstick against which to measure how revolutions start, how they evolve, and how they always end up.

Ann Leslie - foreign news journalist, `Daily Mail'

I first read Animal Farm in my mid- to late teens. It wasn't the first Orwell I had read. I had always rejected it on the grounds that I didn't like political allegory and the fact that it looked like a twee book on talking animals. Obviously, when I read it, I found out I was wrong.

I remember being very excited by it and it remains one of the greats of the 20th century. There are characters like the Stalinist pig Napoleon turning up all the time, whether they are Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia or assorted African dictators preaching the liberty of the underdog and ending up as neo-fascists.

I was incredibly moved to find it was circulating in samizdat in the Soviet Union before perestroika, and in China after the "opening up" and before the massacre in Tiananmen Square. The awe in which the book was held by the people who talked to me about it - in conditions of great secrecy - underlined its political relevance. To them, it was not a polemic - it was a sacred text.

It remains a profound warning of how utopian revolutionary schemes for the better of mankind invariably lead to corruption and oppression. I also think it's a wonderful introduction for young people. My nine-year- old daughter, who admittedly comes from a household where politics is discussed all the time, got the political message instantly.

Miklos Haraszti - writer and former member of dissident movement and MP in Hungary's first post-Communist parliament (1990-94). (Under Communism, `Animal Farm' was banned but distributed in dissident circles. There were two Hungarian translations)

Animal Farm was a brilliant critique of a totalitarian state, and that was the main level on which we read it during the Communist era. But for us, the book had another, geo-political dimension. We in central and eastern Europe were the hopeless lands, the Animal Farm lands. This was the cursed place from which fascism, dictatorship, world wars and Communism emerged. Nothing ever changed here; nothing ever could change here. Like the animals in the book, we were condemned by our very nature to remain slaves. Even when we staged revolutions, they never led to a new quality of government, but always back to the pigs.

Animal Farm was a painful - and justified - description of countries that never made it. And it fed the pessimism we felt about ourselves. But when we read Animal Farm now, it is as a history book. We see it as a warning of the dangers that any free society can face. Fifty years on, and, for us, at last, Animal Farm is over.

David Lodge - novelist and critic

I've always admired and liked it. When it was actually written, in the winter of 1943-1944, it was an extremely daring, provocative book; a satire on the Communist revolution in Russia. Orwell had difficulties finding a publisher; Animal Farm was considered unpatriotic, inopportune.

Then in 1945-1946, the political climate changed. The Soviet Union seemed to have a sinister potential and Orwell's message was seen as timely. He crystallised doubts and disillusionment with Soviet Communism under Stalin. And in simple phrases - "some animals are more equal than others" - he sums up huge, complex historical processes. Today, it is a less surprising book, but its validity is confirmed. It is a political allegory with timeless appeal, because it is accessible in the manner of an Aesop fable. Orwell uses brilliantly and subtly our emotional responses to animals, particularly in casting the political leaders as pigs. A pig is the only animal on a farm which cannot be useful until it's dead. I'm sure Orwell meant that. Animal Farm deserves its classic status.

Anne Applebaum, deputy editor of the `Spectator' and author of `East and West', a book about the aftermath of the fall of Communism in the former Soviet Union

It is a wonderful book. I've read it about 15 times and own it in more than one language. I first read it when I was at school and, having been told it was an allegory, I studied it very closely to try to work out which character represented which historical figure. For me, it was a seminal text; it was before I understood the Russian revolution and it shaped a lot of my later views.

It is one of the best books on the psychology of revolutions. It acts as a kind of blueprint for the way revolutions actually happen and, as I observe more revolutions in my later life, it becomes more accurate. Indeed, it is in areas like Poland and Russia that it is most widely read and where people love it the most.

Wendy Morgan - actress who appeared as a "minor pig" in Peter Hall's stage production of `Animal Farm' at the National Theatre

I was younger then and not very political - politics went right over my head - but appearing in Animal Farm helped me make a connection.

The moment happened during rehearsals. I was new to the company, playing a minor pig. I was a food taster for one of the big pigs, who was played by a big-name actor who really did think I was nothing and nobody. I pretended to taste the food, and he said, in front of everyone, in his big actor's booming voice, "You just taste - I'll keep on eating". He was putting me in my place, letting me know how power operates. I was not an equal - what's the famous line again? "Some animals are more equal than others"?

I was humiliated, but I pulled a trick. I tasted the food, but while he kept on eating, I dropped dead behind him. And everyone laughed. It wasn't about upstaging him. It was a small animal making sure its voice was heard. I was standing up to the big pigs.

Ryszard Kapuscinski - Polish writer

Over the past 50 years, this book was present in our thoughts as an indispensable companion and adviser in our endeavour to under-stand the vicious, fraudulent and unjust nature of all authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

It was translated into Polish soon after its publication in London and promptly prohibited by the Communist authorities. For more than 40 years, Animal Farm was one of the books most frequently smuggled from England and most eagerly awaited by independent-thinking people in Poland.

Trained by the long experience of trying to understand the Aesopean language of literature, we could easily communicate with the language and message of Animal Farm. It was as though Orwell had written this book for us. I can think of very few other works of literature that share the virtue of being at one and the same time a piece of great and remarkable art and a vital friend in the struggle for human dignity and liberty.

Interviews by Adrian Bridge, John Cassy, Genevieve Fox, Paul Kingsnorth, John Lyttle

Comments