George Orwell on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Bryan Caplan has a interesting post on George Orwell’s portrayal of democracy in his classic work Animal Farm. As Bryan notes, the initially egalitarian and democratic regime established by the animals gets subverted in large part because of political ignorance. Like Bryan, I would be interested to know more about Orwell’s view of real-world democracy. Did he believe that the problem of political ignorance could be overcome by education or some other means? Or perhaps he thought that the problem of ignorance was irremediable, but democracy was still the best form of government. Given that he remained a socialist to the end of his life, Orwell obviously could not adopt my and Bryan’s preferred solution of limiting and decentralizing government in order to mitigate the problem.

It’s also interesting to note that Orwell’s portrayal of democracy at Animal Farm was actually far more positive than the Soviet history he based the novel on. Unlike Animal Farm, the USSR was a brutal totalitarian state from the start and was never democratic. Opposition parties (including even left-wing socialist ones) were suppressed from the beginning, and there were never any free elections or any direct democracy of the kind Orwell depicts.

I’m not sure whether Orwell deviated from Soviet history on this point in order to make a statement about democracy or because he was in thrall to the view (common among anti-Stalinist Western leftists in his day) that the Soviet experiment only went awry under Stalin. His modestly favorable portrayal of Snowball – the pig who serves as an analogue to Trotsky – is compatible with the latter idea, though Snowball is not a completely positive figure in the novel. Some degree of rot is evident even in the “pre-Stalinist” era at Animal Farm, though the animals are described as “happy as they had never conceived it possible to be” during this period. In reality, large-scale totalitarian repression began under Lenin, not Stalin. And the real Trotsky was almost as bad as his rival, in some ways even a little worse.

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