Monday, May 19, 2008

Teaching 'Animal Farm'

Note: The following post is a total mess. I might restructure and beat it into shape later.

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I was told that I'd be teaching Animal Farm to Year 9. I winced inwardly at the news. It doesn't help that the class has two English teachers and that the other one, besides me, is the deputy principal with (as far as I can gather) the broad political views one would generally expect a senior manager at a comprehensive school to hold - mostly default social liberal but with distinct leanings towards status quo conservatism and the veneration of authority. After all, as an orthodox Marxist acquaintance of mine likes to say, 'being determines consciousness'. The teaching of Animal Farm usually ends up invoking some vague, almost metaphysical notion of 'human nature' which it seems is necessarily at odds with the demands of just egalitarian social structures. Staggeringly glib 'lessons' or 'truths' about the inevitability of failure for radical projects of social change are almost always extrapolated with an appropriate effortlessness. The signs are that it won't be any different this time. I checked the class's books to see what they had done with their other teacher and wasn't wholly surprised to see that they had been given a preparatory mini-lesson in Totalitarianism in which the names Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Hitler had been grouped together as examples of 'ruthless leaders' with the clear implication that they were all much of a muchness and that, moreover, liberal capitalism (although it's fairly safe to assume, actually, that the word 'capitalism' wasn't mentioned) should not be tinkered with or else Horrible Things will happen. What exists is nice and good and right - it is synonymous with freedom and democracy. The Bad People are not in charge. We don't have any dangerously silly ideas about material equality around here. The most annoying thing about these notes is not so much that (some implied) moral equivalence was drawn between Marx and Lenin, on the one hand (and I'm no big fan of Lenin) and Hitler on the other (although that's galling enough), but the historical ignorance on display - Marx wasn't ever a leader of anything very much.

I mentioned to the other teacher that I had misgivings about teaching this book - I tried to say, as tactfully as possible, that I was a socialist and that I found the lessons and meanings that are usually drawn from Animal Farm to be spectacularly glib ones. It wasn't too surprising that the immediate result of this confession was that I had it pointed out to me that, 'as a professional, I mustn't bring my political views into the classroom'. The assumption, here, of course, was that a socialist political outlook is a crude, lumbering and unsightly sort of thing that one tends to lug around and, whenever one gets half a chance, to shove it into other people's unwilling and protesting faces. A socialist political outlook is a clumsy, bulky contraption that tends to get in the way and obscure a clear view of things. A socialist political outlook is the sort of thing that sensible and practical people choose to do without - a bit like they choose not to read books through the lenses of antique telescopes. The other main aspect of the same assumption is that non-socialists don't have strong political views and don't, as a matter of course, bring them into the classroom. This will come as startling news to anyone who's ever been into an RE or History classroom, often full of pictures of the historical heroes it's fairly safe for good liberals to quote and admire - Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy, for example. No politics in the classroom there. No sir. None at all.

But liberals and conservatives, more often than not, think that their thinking is not political - at least it's not Political with a capital 'P'. Whereas left-wing thinking is bound up with a cumbersome ideological straight-jacket that shapes, squeezes and constrains all mental activity, the liberal and conservative is entirely free from Ideology. But all successful ideologies are necessarily invisible. A successful ideological framework appears, precisely, not be an ideological framework at all, but a straight-forward, value free (and therefore unremarkable and uncontroversial) description of how the world really is. For this reason most people who support (and, indeed, most of those who simply accept - unthinkingly or resignedly) the current political and economic configuration of society like to imagine that their beliefs are, somehow, 'ideology free.' One of the central ideological underpinnings of conservatism, of course, is the idea that conservative thought has no ideological underpinning. But one cannot step outside of ideology any more than one can jump out of one's own skin (I think I may have nicked that phrase from Eagleton). Nevertheless the dominant ideological framework has a powerful draw to it - it seems, on the surface of things at least, self-evidently true. It appears to grasp and articulate solid reality - just the way things are. This is because the ideological framework(s) in question allows you to go with the flow. It doesn't demand much bothersome critical thinking or continually subject its bearer to various pangs of guilt, frustration or feelings of anger. It fits nicely with the world around it and doesn't keep nosily turning over stones and pointing to all the nasty creepy crawlies that emerge. Such an ideological framework that appears not to be an ideological framework might for example allow you to watch the new Sex and the City film without being disturbed by the insistent suspicion that it is, more than anything else, a tacky celebration of vapid, shallow, consumerist, elitist individualism somehow managing to masquerade as 'feminism' even though it represents the partial perversion and commodification of what feminism stands for.

I digress. It is possible to teach Animal Farm as a socialist with a fairly clear conscience. After all the main target of attack - Stalinism - is a deserving one. Furthermore, the famous ending of the novel - where the animals look from pig to Man and from Man to pig and cannot tell the difference - is, surely, just as critical of, and damning about, the humans (i.e. the capitalist powers) as it is of the pigs. In addition, it's clear that the author's sympathies lie with the rebellious animals when they turf Jones out of Manor Farm - even if, as it becomes clear, further on, he thinks that the revolution is necessarily doomed to degeneration and failure. Indeed it's perfectly legitimate to point out, while teaching the book, that Orwell regarded himself as a socialist and, of course, took up arms in Spain against Franco. Orwell claimed that his story should be regarded as an attack on Stalinism 'from the left' and that the Right's attempts to appropriate it for their own ('common sense', 'anti-ideological', 'non-political') political purposes were illegitimate. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, despite Orwell's protestations to the contrary, Animal Farm is, at root, a profoundly conservative book. It is impossible to ignore the central message of the story - the one that overwhelms the reader - i.e. that radical social change is bound to end in disaster because the irredeemably selfish, scheming, power-hungry and callous nature of human beings always asserts itself in the end. The pigs - Napoleon and Squealer, particularly, turn nasty for no reason other than the fact that this is, somehow, in their natures. The pigs, of course, are us - or, at least, us given the slightest sniff of power. There is no serious reference to the various concrete material factors that may have constributed to the rapid degeneration and failure of socialism in Russia. Things go wrong in Animal Farm because it is pre-ordained that they go wrong. It is written in the genes. My personal opinion is that Animal Farm is an awful book - it's philosophically and politically simplistic, resting on hand-waving appeals to some odd, half-articulated, semi-metaphysical entity, stuffed to the seams with conservative normative assumptions, called 'human nature', and it's horribly mean to pigs.

There's an interesting review of Animal Farm here.

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