John Reed

George Orwell’s The Freedom of the Press

A proposed preface to Animal Farm, expurgated and footnoted (with a bias).[1]

This book was first thought of, so far as the central idea goes, in 1937, but was not written down until about the end of 1943.[2] By the time when it came to be written it was obvious that there would be great difficulty in getting it published and it was refused by four publishers.[3] Only one of these had any ideological motive. Two had been publishing anti-Russian books for years, and the other had no noticeable political colour. One publisher actually started by accepting the book, but after making the preliminary arrangements he decided to consult the Ministry of Information, who appear to have warned him, or at any rate strongly advised him, against publishing it.[4] Here is an extract from his letter:

“I mentioned the reaction I had had from an important official in the Ministry of Information with regard to Animal Farm. I must confess that this expression of opinion has given me seriously to think … I can see now that it might be regarded as something which it was highly ill-advised to publish at the present time. If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators, that it can apply only to Russia, to the exclusion of the other dictatorships. Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.”[5]

This kind of thing is not a good symptom. Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship (except security censorship, which no one objects to in war time).[6] But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the MOI or any official body.[7] If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face.[8]

Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions.[9] The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.[10]

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines-being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact.[11] So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.[12] A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.[13]

At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia. Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill. Stalin is sacrosanct. The endless executions in the purges of 1936-8 were applauded by life-long opponents of capital punishment, and it was considered equally proper to publicise famines when they happened in India and to conceal them when they happened in the Ukraine.[14]

But now to come back to this book of mine. The reaction towards it of most English intellectuals will be quite simple: “It oughtn’t to have been published.” Naturally, those reviewers who understand the art of denigration will not attack it on political grounds but on literary ones. They will say that it is a dull, silly book and a disgraceful waste of paper. This may well be true, but it is obviously not the whole of the story. One does not say that a book “ought not to have been published” merely because it is a bad book. After all, acres of rubbish are printed daily and no one bothers. The English intelligentsia, or most of them, will object to this book because it traduces their Leader and (as they see it) does harm to the cause of progress. If it did the opposite they would have nothing to say against it, even if its literary faults were ten times as glaring as they are.[15]

The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular—however foolish, even—entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say “Yes.” But give it a concrete shape, and ask, “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?” and the answer more often than not will be “No.” In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses.[16] If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who ‘objectively’ endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought. These people don’t see that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you. To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.[17]

  1. Penguin’s 2000 edition of Animal Farm included the essay “The Freedom of the Press,” which was identified as “Orwell’s Proposed Preface to Animal Farm” and dated 1945. The essay was first published in The Times Literary Supplement, 15 September 1972. You are reading a footnoted and elided version of that essay. By reading further, you risk participating in a crime; what I am doing here may be technically illegal.

  2. I wrote Snowball’s Chance very quickly, in the three weeks following 9/11, 2001. Snowball comes back to the farm. Brings capitalism.

  3. There was a feeding frenzy around 9/11. A New York editor who had just been given her own imprint—I am, in all seriousness, afraid to say who—was rumored to have come out of her office screaming, “This is a fucking goldmine we’re sitting on!” But where the market didn’t cap my agent’s enthusiasm, her lawyer did. I foolishly mentioned all this to the New York Times, which detailed the equivocation in an article about Snowball that ran in the Arts Section. Since then, the sentences about my literary agency have disappeared from the online version of the piece, which is shorter than the original.

  4. An Australia/UK publisher offered a healthy advance on Snowball’s foreign rights. Snowball had significant press coverage in the United Kingdom and Australia. We didn’t collect the money before Christmas, and after the holiday the deal was gone. The fear may have been, maybe rightly, that the coverage of the book was flash-in-the-pan—that there hadn’t been enough actual engagement with the content. The writer for the London Telegraph read the book, but other U.K., Australian, and international news outlets weren’t so demanding. When I talked to the BBC, Christopher Hitchens as my opposition, Hitchens was open about not having read the book. In the U.S., perhaps due to my hometown stature, there was only one well-published literary assessment by a writer who hadn’t read the book. Cathy Young’s “Blaming the Victim of Terrorism” appeared in the Boston Globe and Reason Magazine.

  5. The Orwell estate sent a letter to my publisher telling him not to publish Snowball. The lawyers are firmly against my releasing the letter, which I’d like to do, though I have to say it’s rather unremarkable.

  6. In our time, this exception, “National Security,” is a justification for widespread, endemic censorship, and a seemingly ineluctable erosion of individual freedoms.

  7. After my agent’s lawyer oinked his hesitations, I called James Sherry—and James and I were idealistic enough to try to get the book out with his small but reputable publishing house, Roof Books. In 2001, there were two major distributors. (Now there’s only one.) The next-best option, Small Press Distribution, took on Snowball, where the book has been a longtime “bestseller.” But mainstream distribution brings a different set of numbers, and can restock. We’d sold out bookstores before the publication date, and while the buyers at Barnes and Noble was delighted, they were also clapping their hands, saying finis.

  8. That people were willing to live in a state of denial—ignoring war, ignoring injustice, ignoring tremendous threats to themselves and even the planet—continually amazed Orwell, and he struggled with the cartography of complacency. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “In the face of terrifying dangers and golden political opportunities, people just keep on keeping on, in a sort of twilight sleep in which they are conscious of nothing except the daily round of work, family life, darts at the pub, exercising the dog, mowing the lawn, bringing home the beer, etc.” In “Notes on Nationalism,” Orwell marveled at “the lunatic habit of identifying oneself with large power units.” And therein lies the answer to our twenty-first century state of denial. Our identities are under siege: advertising, education, the arts. We are built up and destroyed by lifestyles and categories (of race, of class, of culture) that exist primarily to contain, delimit, divide and exploit the human experience. If there’s anything you think you need to buy to be who you are—whether it’s curtains from Ikea or a CD or a book or liposuction or take-your-pick—you don’t own yourself.

  9. If this was true of World War II, our wars since 2002 have taken on a different model. Our present day war coverage—fully embedded, fully cooperative—is subsidized, approved, in tandem with government. A few characters on the far right might have complaints about specific incidents of press “leakage” (as they might call it), but there’s little more to discuss. The fundamental debate is whether or not we should trust government to oversee what information is made available to the public. The far right and the far left say no, while the center is more likely to say yes.

    Our present-day impression of Orwell is that he was an underground man waging a war of truth. The compelling critique of Orwell, 1945 and today, is that he was the preeminent spokesman of orthodox thinking, wearing the mask of a contrarian (Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Christopher Hitchens, etc.). In 1946, Randall Swingler, a poet who served in Italy during World War II (he was awarded the Military Medal of the British Army), published a response to Orwell’s “The Prevention of Literature.” While Swingler agreed with Orwell that a writer must “dare to be a Daniel,” he objected to Orwell’s broad sweeps and “intellectual swashbucklery.” Moreover, Swingler didn’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.”

  10. The marketplace is pinched and fashioned by the corporate psychologies that own distribution. Individuals are desperate to find inroads to distribution. They want to live in “the warm spot,” and the overlords encourage them in the notion that if they subscribe to this or that, if they parrot certain ideas, they can partake. This cultural echo of corporate psychology is at the core of decision-making in, for example, the literary world. Editors and writers are consciously trying to conform. Perhaps now, as in Orwell’s time, censorship is not a problem of compliance—people are not ordered, or not as a rule ordered, to comply. The ogre of Orwell’s age was complacency; alas, the ogre of our age is more formidable: complicity.

  11. When Snowball’s Chance came out, parody was not protected in the United Kingdom, and various legal actions, most notably against Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, a parody of Gone With The Wind, foretold the extinction of parody in the United States. With Mickey Mouse coming up for Public Domain, U.S. copyright had been extended, arguably in perpetuity. Following the U.S. administrations of the ’80s, the Supreme Court was markedly conservative. Conventional wisdom: why should parody fare any better than copyright? In the end, conservatives embraced parody in their own tradition; the Supreme Court unanimously protected parody, and since 2002 the United Kingdom has taken steps to allow for parody, owing to the financial incentives of parody in entertainment, The Daily Show, etc.

    During the 2002/2003 discussion of Snowball and copyright, the “particular fact” that only one newspaper (the Portland Tribune) saw fit to mention is that Animal Farm is based on the story “Animal Riot,” which was written by the Russian historian Nikolai Kostomarov in 1879/1880, and published in 1917. Snowball’s Chance was published 57 years after Animal Farm, while Animal Farm was published 38 years after the publication of “Animal Riot.” In other words: the criticism of Snowball that cited copyright relied upon a logic that would have more aptly applied to Animal Farm, which was not a parody but an elaboration of another author’s story.

    On July 23, 1988, the Economist compared the two texts:

    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 of 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 problems. It is summed up in a single word—Man.”

  12. One friend, a writer I quite I respect, was so unwilling to entertain the idea that there was something wrong with his beloved Orwell that he hasn’t talked to me since I last saw him—he’d come to a reading of Snowball at Housing Works, 2002, without having known much about the book. On the flip side, I’ve met a few Orwell haters—but most people assess Snowball as I assess it myself; it’s a criticism of Animal Farm that Orwell would have welcomed.

    I do sense that there’s an “orthodox” line of reasoning about Snowball’s Chance that I’m not privy to—but perhaps that’s vainglorious. The current U.S. orthodoxy is more concerned with consecration than consciousness. Major media has sole discretion to ordain existence—and it doesn’t need to defend its decision-making process. Anything deemed unorthodox is to be ignored without engagement, without regret—is to be presumed beneath contempt. Snowball, which for whatever reasons was baptized with media birth, subsists in a half-life of half readers. People like it or don’t like it based on whether they deem themselves to be a friend or foe of its political message. It’s a book that breaks my heart over and over; I can’t tell you how many people have told me they admired it—people who I swiftly discerned hadn’t read it.

  13. In 2002, the preferred U.K. attack on Snowball was on the grounds of copyright. In the United States, the critique was a coupling of political polemics (Hitchens called me a “Bin Ladenist”), coupled with class clichés; I was a spoiled Ivy League kid (I did go to Columbia University for my MFA); I was a painter who’d suddenly decided to try writing (my father is the painter); I was getting rich by publishing a pinko takeoff of Animal Farm (I did not get rich).

    In 2012, the question of copyright infringement is a complete non sequitur, not only because parody has been re-established as protected speech, but also because Animal Farm is available on the internet. Animal Farm is public domain in Australia, and the text has “illegally” made its way to countries where it is under copyright. If Snowball is a transgression of copyright, it is one among millions.

    In the London Telegraph’s 2002 article, “Animal Farm Parody ‘Exploits Orwell,’” William Hamilton, Orwell’s literary executor, was quoted as saying: “If it were a straight parody, I would say ‘good on you’. But this book seems to take rather than give.” (The Telegraph’s Internet archive of its coverage of Snowball, like the New York Times archive, is truncated.) That same criticism—that I’m taking more than I give—might well be leveled at this essay. To any who might accuse me of infringing copyright by publishing my elided and footnoted version of Orwell’s “The Freedom of the Press,” Google the search terms “George Orwell”+essay+“The Freedom of the Press” and count copyright infringements among the 138,000 results.

    As a concession to my own fallibility, I confess that I’m less uplifted by the Internet availability of Snowball’s Chance—though perhaps it’s poetic justice that a version of the text has been downloaded in embarrassingly high numbers in Europe, particularly in the former nations of the USSR. There’s been some confusion in those countries as to whether or not I’m the dead John Reed, who has been cut from my version of Orwell’s essay. All, I suppose, poetic justice.

  14. Up to here, I’ve snipped a mere 86 words from Orwell’s essay. Nothing of consequence. This paragraph, however—78 words as shown—was originally a three-paragraph, 1243-word section. Orwell, in the elided material (the full essay is available on the Internet), discusses the hypocrisy of the English Press, Stalin’s purges, the power of the Catholic Church, a biography of Stalin written by Trotsky, the Red Army, the Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Lord Nelson, Colonel Mihailovich, Marshal Tito, The Daily Worker, the Catholic Herald, and other matters.

    Orwell’s critics—setting aside the question of the list of “crypto-Communists” Orwell handed over to the Information Research Department of the British Foreign Office—characterize Orwell as a half-hearted political thinker and a full-time Cold Warrior. Orwell, who did work with the Information Research Department as a propagandist, coined the term Cold War; Animal Farm was backed by the CIA and the British Foreign Office as an educational tool of the Cold War; 1984 was embraced by right-wingers as an attack on socialism. Orwell was not happy about the latter, which is evidenced by his repeated attempts to redress the criticism. Personally, I find it impossible to believe that Orwell would have approved of the use of Animal Farm to demonize foreign nations and bludgeon independent thought. But that is how the book was used. The message of Animal Farm in U.S. public schools: revolution is doomed to fail; the leadership of the pigs, who are smarter, is an evolutionary inevitability.

    T.S. Eliot, who passed on publishing Animal Farm, is often singled out for his shortsightedness. To credit Eliot, he hesitated at the fault that allowed Animal Farm to be heisted as propaganda after Orwell’s death. “The effect is simply one of negation,” wrote Eliot: “The book ought to excite sympathy with what the author wants, as well as with his objections.” Orwell’s wartime BBC acquaintance, William Empson, a poet and the author of Seven Types of Ambiguity, warned Orwell that the “racial differences” of the farmyard espoused 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.” In 1984, Orwell repeated the shortcoming—the overall effect of 1984 is one of helplessness and doom—allowing U.S. republicans to promote the message as anti-socialist.

  15. The art of denigration may well be a lost one. Only one right wing U.S. critic, Arthur Salm of the San Diego Union Tribune, read Snowball’s Chance closely enough to deliver the faint praise, “John Reed good, Orwell better.”

    Two reporters—who were working for venues that published critical views of Snowball—intimated to me that their copy was out of their control. Marcus Warren, then the New York correspondent for the London Telegraph, told me on the phone that he liked the book, but that’s not what his higher ups were looking for. Rachel Donadio, now of the New York Times and then a reporter for the neoconservative New York Sun, repeatedly told me, live and on the phone, “I have a job to do.”

  16. At this moment, I wouldn’t presume that conservative or liberal sectors would agree that every opinion is entitled to a hearing.

  17. Since note #13, I have elided an additional 1459 words.

John Reed is author of five books, most recently Tales of Woe. His work has appeared in Paper magazine, PopMatters, the New York Press, Time Out New York, Artforum, BOMB, Playboy, Art in America, the Los Angeles Times, the Rumpus, and the Wall Street Journal.

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