The protagonist of a novel I’m now writing speaks in the voice of George Orwell, except that he uses the manly, tobacco-and-gin accents of reason, detachment, and persuasion to discuss love, rather than politics. The novel is called Earthly Love, and it will be the ninth book I’ve written, which is a painful thing to recount as only five of them have seen the light of day.
When, in 1993, a work of autobiography I had written under the title The Gingerbread Race: A Life in the Closing World Once Called Free was published in England, to some enthusiastic notices from a press then still residually highbrow and still sensible to the heritage of the Cold War, it would have pleased me to no end to hear that its thesis was an echo of the closing pages of Orwell’s Animal Farm. But although the critics said many flattering things, some of them interesting, none was to draw this particular parallel.
As for myself, of course, I had read both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four while still a teenager in Russia. Once in the West, I went on to devour Orwell’s essays and other writings, without, however, rereading the two masterworks, of which by then I remembered only the basic outlines of the plot, with the result that, in 1993, I did not make the connection between the thesis of The Gingerbread Race and that particular prophecy of Orwell’s any more than did any of my readers.
I admire Orwell for the same reason I admire John Stuart Mill, which is the pleasure these writers give by involving the reader in the process of thinking. A woman I was once in love with asked me why I affected a stutter. I answered that, in the milieu to which I had been born, stuttering was comme il faut, like knowing which fork to use or how to uncork a bottle of champagne; only an intellectual parvenu would have his speeches prepared beforehand, rattling off apophthegms as though the audience had paid an entrance fee to see a conjuring act on stage; while stammering out one’s thoughts made for an infinitely more refined performance, giving the audience the sense that they were every trick’s intellectual progenitors, or at least coauthors. In contrast to such thinkers, Socrates, for instance, always seems to know in advance what he is going to say in the Dialogues, though he is clever enough and polite enough to try to conceal this.
The thesis of my book was that, in their evolutionary development, the Soviet and the American social systems were bound to merge into a single suprapolitical organism, arriving at the same ideology-free terminus at roughly the same moment by very different paths, historically thorny and almost equally circuitous. The Soviet system got there, in the half-century since 1953, by way of an alternative political culture fostered by an immensely powerful and, since Stalin’s death, all but autarchic, secret-police apparatus. This culture first circumvented, then subverted, and eventually suffocated and displaced the dominant political institutions, those of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, together with their official ideology, namely communism. The final, open phase of displacement began with Gorbachev and was given the name perestroika, or social restructuring.
The American system took longer to mature, but, as in Russia, the main event was the burgeoning of unelected decision-making elites that eventually resulted in the emergence of a single cohesive oligarchy. As in Russia, the objective of the new culture was a social modus vivendi whereby the people would be pacified by the practices of participatory democracy and reassured by the public functioning of its mechanisms, while the power and the policy would remain in the hands of a small, and to a large extent hereditary, political junta.
Unlike the Russian version, however, despite the fact that it had taken more than twice as long to mature, in the United States the new culture never became fully coherent. Since their Tammany Hall days, American elites have been flying by the seat of their pants, as witness the simple yet significant fact that one can hardly name a single nattering nabob of negativism who can do the nattering in a language other than American English. By contrast, Arab friends who have heard the secret-police oligarch Evgeny Primakov address an audience in Arabic insist that he speaks it like a native of Syria.
Coming back to Orwell, what is remarkable about his posthumous fate is the measure of fame this subtle writer has achieved. The public debate of the last decades of the Cold War, which may be said to have ended in 1984 with the publication in Russia of a Russian translation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, had been animated by the spectral presence of Orwell, and few political commentators, right or left, had not tried to relate their versions of events to one or another of his ideas. And then, suddenly, just as the visionary’s central prophecy had begun to come true, he was put away in the back of the wardrobe like an old suit of clothes that had outlived the fashion.
Yet turn to the last couple of pages of Orwell’s fable, as I recently did. All I’d remembered was that the animals (that is, the Bolsheviks) of Manor Farm (meaning Russia), as it was called before they changed its name to Animal Farm (Soviet Union), were collectively a satire on the history of Russia since 1917, with the pigs eventually emerging as the Stalinist elite, which, in 1944, when Animal Farm was completed, was of course the only elite that mattered. Stalin saw to this by regular pruning of the secret-police apparatus, a prudent practice that his heirs were unable to maintain.
But I had completely forgotten about Mr. Pilkington of Foxwood. My God, he is every inch the American Every-oligarch, from Averrell Harriman to the present day. He is George Bush incarnate. Upon his return to Animal Farm, he notes “a discipline and an orderliness which should be an example to all farmers everywhere.” He puts forward the view that “between pigs and human beings there was not, and there need not be, any clash of interests whatever.” And here he is in his cowboy hat, in a moment of off-the-record bonhomie, sipping a beer and slapping Gorbachev on the back: “‘If you have your lower animals to contend with,’ he said, ‘we have our lower classes!’”
The pigs respond in kind by putting in train a process of social restructuring. Nobody now believes, says their leader, that “old suspicions” still linger, but “certain changes had been made recently in the routine of the farm which should have the effect of promoting confidence still further.” Thus, the “foolish custom of addressing one another as ‘Comrade’” is dropped, as are the revolutionary symbols, equivalent to the Soviet hammer and sickle, on the farm’s flag. Finally, “henceforward the farm was to be known as the ‘Manor Farm,’” which was “its correct and original name.” And then the chill of the final paragraph:
[A]nd they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
On this brief visit to Manor Farm, as it is now known, I have not once used the word most associated with Orwell—namely, totalitarianism. But even a cursory rereading of Animal Farm leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that, by this word, Orwell designated a complex political reality more viable, more capable of evolution, more adept at mimicry—and, in the final analysis, more assured of survival—than the West, with its comic-book bugaboos of wicked communist and red commissar, rubber truncheon and prison bunk, was ever able to accept during the period known as the Cold War, to say nothing of the euphoric years of Pax Reagana that followed. Once again, it all comes down to the historic failure of America’s governing classes to develop a culture, at any rate a culture capable of interpreting Orwell.