When I described The Wind in the Willows as about the only book that adults as well as children can read with equal satisfaction, in which the protagonists are animals, I was drawing a contrast mainly with fables. I was implying, perhaps not entirely correctly, that adults would not derive as much satisfaction from fables as children. Conversely, the writer who perhaps made the most effective transition to the world after the Second World War, wrote a book involving animals which was emphatically intended for adults. Children who read it, often as a prescribed text, are in effect being treated as apprentices in the world of politics and social criticism.

I refer to Animal Farm, the allegory about Soviet Communism with which George Orwell made his name in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. He was a strange man, and a strange writer, an Etonian with deep resentment of the British ruling class, a socialist who seemed to look down on the workers and was accused of claiming that ‘the working classes smell’.

The accusation was by the Daily Worker, the communist party newspaper, and arose from the bitter infighting that had overtaken the left, following the split between Stalin and Trotsky in the Soviet Union. Orwell had seen this in its most dramatic form during the Spanish Civil War, when he had gone out to support the Republican forces, and found that their internal rivalries allowed the Fascist forces easy triumphs. He wrote about this in Homage to Catalonia, which was not a success, perhaps because when it was published, in 1938, the dangers of fascism loomed large, and the minutiae of the problems in Spain were of less importance.

Orwell had not really been part of the British establishment previously, his family background and his touchiness about it, as well as the fact that he had to go to work after school instead of proceeding to university, precluding the easy transition to positions of influence that had been possible for schoolfellows such as Cyril Connolly. He started off in Burma, which might have seemed ideal for someone who had been born in India, where his father had been in the Civil Service – but it was in a lowly position in the Opium Department. Orwell himself was only in the police in Burma, and his perceptions about the absurdity of the colonial masters, as presented in Burmese Days, did not endear him to the upper classes in Britain. At the same time he was not at all positive about the Burmese and, unlike Forster say whose critique of imperialism was based on sympathy for Indians as fellow human beings, Orwell seems to have seen the Burmese as monstrous if obsequious crooks.

The same bitterness about life dogs his depictions of the hand to mouth existence he led on returning to Britain, in books such as Keep the Aspidistra flying, a title based on the pretentiousness of aspidistras, a ghastly plant that would-be fashionable homes felt they had to display. Orwell’s essentially malign view of human nature I believe precluded him then from being a great writer, even though his sharp analyses of the conditions in which working people lived as well as of the language used in modern journalism would have allowed him some credit for social analysis.

This absence of human sympathy however, the failure to create characters who appeal to the reader, did not prove a problem when it came to political satire. Having in a sense joined the establishment through his work during the War, in particular through his contacts with the world of publishing, of books as well as newspapers, Orwell was able immediately after the war to publish his scathing criticism of Stalin and the Soviet Union, just at the time when these were seen as the greatest threat to the West.

Orwell wrote of a farm in which the animals rose in revolt and threw out the owners, on the grounds that the fruits of labour should belong to the workers. Before long however the pigs, who are the best administrators, take on the role of owners and prove even more skilful in exploitation. The process is best summed up in the seven commandments they put up at the start of the revolution, and then subtly alter as their control becomes more divisive, culminating in ‘All Animals are Equal’ getting the addendum ‘But some Animals are more Equal than others’.

The allegory is extremely skilful, including the fight between the two leading pigs Napoleon (Stalin) and Snowball (Trotsky), the alliance with a once hated neighbor (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany), and the show trials of pigs who confess to having been in secret contact with Snowball. Orwell also has incisive portraits of individuals who contribute to the perversion of the revolution, from the ideologue Squealer, who can produce arguments to justify anything, to the workhorse Boxer who blindly believes in Napoleon right through to when he is sold to the butcher after he has exhausted himself by working for the Revolution.

Four years after Animal Farm, Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four, an even more forceful indictment of the authoritarian state. The techniques of such a dispensation are based on those he had highlighted in his attack on the Soviet Union, but he envisioned for 1984 a world in which three such states had divided the world up, and existed in a constant state of tension, in which two were fighting with the third. The alliances changed constantly, leading to a regular rewriting of history by the Ministry of Truth.

The hero, or main character, in the novel, Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry, feels that the system should be changed, and he joins a group of dissidents, only to find out that his chief confidant is a government agent. Such intrigue and betrayal are central to Orwell’s vision of what authorities believe essential to the perpetuation of their rule, a conception very different to what Aldous Huxley had advanced in Brave New World. As I noted in discussing that work, Orwell’s vision is perhaps much more realistic with regard to what actually happens. I am not so sure though that those who wish to perpetuate their control are quite as cynical as Orwell suggests. Rather, even though they may be fooling themselves, such authorities tend to believe they are working in the interests of the people they control – at least in places where they have to survive on their own, without the overwhelming support external forces provided for pocket dictators such as for instance Mobutu. Otherwise they would not be able to survive quite as successfully for so long as many manage to do, since they need to take at least a few capable people along with them.

Indeed, my strongest memory of 1984 seems to me to confirm this view. It dates from 1986, when I was lecturing on the American Semester-at-Sea programme, and we stopped over in Odessa. I did not take any of the optional trips, for I had been in Moscow and Leningrad before, and instead I did all my duty turns during our stay there. But this still left lots of time to wander around on my own, to go to the ballet and the circus and to talk to many youngsters for whom the world was just beginning to open up. A couple, who described themselves as dissidents, showed me a building which had the figures 1984 on top, and said that this was the headquarters of the local KGB. They knew all about Orwell, having heard him read on the BBC and, when I wondered about this, for I had been told all about Soviet censorship, they said all that was breaking down – the censors were tired, they said, and no longer believed in what they were doing.

I have no illusions about the Soviet system, and there is no doubt that its collapse came as a relief to most people who lived under it. However it did ensure a reasonable education for all, and excellent education for substantial numbers. This was enough to ensure greater awareness of the world at large, and hence not just desire for, but also capacity to achieve, change.

My own view of Orwell then is that his myopic view of humanity precluded him from writing books that increase one’s understanding of either societies or human inter-relationships. But as a political commentator, he certainly provides invaluable perceptions.