Seventy years ago, the literary equivalent of the D-Day landing in Normandy occurred on American shores. George Orwell’s Animal Farm landed on the shelves of American bookstores on August 25, 1946, just a year after its initial appearance in England. The book had been a success in England, selling well and making Orwell (1903-50) known beyond left-wing intellectual circles, where his reputation was that of a talented contrarian—a man of the left who seemed to take special pleasure in attacking his political confreres. In hindsight, the beachhead established by what he once called his “little squib” marked the moment of his breakthrough in America.

Some of this story has been told before. Yet a crucial part of it remains largely unknown: the role of Commonweal in introducing Orwell to American Catholics and securing his reputation—not only in American Catholic circles but also with the wider public. Remarkably enough, this process had already begun in the mid-1930s, fully a decade before Animal Farm’s American appearance and the postwar dawn of Orwell’s fame in the United States and beyond.

In America Animal Farm won broad support from intellectuals on the left and right for its brilliant exposé of Communism’s flaws. The charm and simplicity of the tale’s use of farm animals to show the corrupting effects of power made the story appealing even to the politically unsophisticated. But the speed with which Animal Farm became a literary sensation in the United States also owed much to its timing. It is important to remember how quickly and dramatically the international political climate shifted immediately after Animal Farm’s publication in England. The Cold War emerged in the weeks and months following the defeat of the Axis powers. During the next twelve months the real face of the Soviet Union was revealed as Stalin took increasingly aggressive actions around the globe.

On February 9, 1946, Stalin delivered an uncompromising speech in which he declared that Communism and capitalism were incompatible, and that Communism would prevail. A week later the Canadian government announced the defection of Igor Guzenko, a Soviet code clerk. Guzenko revealed that a sophisticated Soviet spy ring existed throughout the West and had been successful in stealing top-secret information to manufacture an atom bomb. Part of the disclosures from Ottawa showed that both the Treasury and State Departments might have top-level Soviet spies.

During the year between Animal Farm’s initial publication and its appearance in the United States, the Cold War shaped thinking in American political and cultural circles with regard to the Soviet Union and the nature of Communism. The imposition of a Communist government in Poland through a manipulated election in the fall of 1945 was the first signal that the Russians would not abide by the Yalta accords. In the course of the next two years the Sovietization of Eastern Europe continued, culminating in a coup d’état in Czechoslovakia in March 1948. A series of show trials, arrests of dissidents, and a crackdown on religious groups soon followed.

A galvanizing factor in changing American opinion of Russia was Winston Churchill’s March 5 speech in Fulton, Missouri, which alerted the American public to the dangers of Russian imperialism and made the expression “Iron Curtain” famous. At approximately the same time, although unknown to the general public, George Kennan sent his famous 8,000-word “Long Telegram” to Washington, outlining the sources of the Soviet Union’s aggressive behavior and political objectives. (A public version would appear a year later in the journal Foreign Affairs.) Kennan’s warning sent shock waves through Washington’s corridors of power. Meanwhile, in the early spring of 1946, civil war broke out between the Chinese Communists under Mao Zhedong and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.

Suddenly Communist sympathizers and fellow-travelers who had cheered on the Soviet Union found themselves and their cause unpopular. The impact of these events on Russia’s image in the United States can be traced in a series of Gallup polls. In August 1945, just after the Allied victory, 54 percent of the American public had a “positive view” of the Soviet Union. By January 1946, that figure had dropped to just 25 percent. In March 1946, following Churchill’s speech and the Guzenko revelation, 71 percent of the American public named the Soviet Union as a nation seeking world domination. Weeks later, Victor Kravchenko, a mid-rank Soviet apparatchnik who had defected to the United States two years earlier, published his shocking report of Stalinist Russia’s crimes and of the Soviet Gulag. I Chose Freedom appalled and outraged the American intelligentsia and had an even bigger impact in Europe.

The anxious mood inspired by all these developments primed the country for the appearance of Orwell’s “animallegory” in the summer of 1946.


ORWELL HAD A difficult time securing a publisher for Animal Farm in England—at least four major English presses rejected it. A partial explanation for Orwell’s difficulty in finding a publisher is that the Cold War did not develop as quickly in England as it did in the United States. The Soviet Union remained popular in England for its role in defeating Nazism. The new Labour government tried to accommodate the Russians—“Left speaks to Left” was one of the slogans of the time. By the end of 1945, however, Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had no illusions about the Soviet Union’s intentions. Bevin had fought bloody battles in the past over the attempts by Communists to seize control of the British trade-union movement.

The shift in American public opinion made it easier for Orwell to find a publisher in the United States, though certain liberal circles continued to oppose serious criticism of the Soviet Union. Peter Viereck, writing in Confluence, then edited by the young Henry Kissinger, claimed that Animal Farm had been rejected by twenty publishing companies. This was surely an exaggeration, but there was still considerable pro-Soviet sympathy in intellectual circles. Angus Cameron, the editor of Little, Brown, and a prominent fellow traveler, rejected the book out of hand. Dial Press turned it down on the grounds that “it is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.” Finally, Harcourt Brace took a chance on Orwell’s fable, and got rich in the process.

Animal Farm was an immediate success in the United States. A witty and skillful allegory of the key events of the Russian Revolution, Orwell’s “fairy tale” (as he often called it), delivered a devastating indictment not only of the events of the Revolution but also of Communism as a political and economic system. The Book-of-the-Month Club chose Animal Farm as a September 1946 selection, ensuring that its sales would dwarf those achieved in England. Indeed a half-million copies of that edition were sold during the next four years, and Animal Farm soon became required reading in American high schools and colleges. It wasn’t long before the sentence “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others” became a familiar slogan.

While reviews of Animal Farm in the popular press were all laudatory, the Nation and the New Republic, with their long history of pro-Russian bias, dismissed Orwell’s indictment of the Soviet Union. The New Republic, which had been an apologist for every twist and turn of Soviet conduct for a decade, could see no connection between the slaughter of the loyal workhorse, Boxer, and the millions of victims of Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture. Elsewhere reviewers exalted Animal Farm as a contemporary classic. In the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson compared Orwell as a satirist to Jonathan Swift and Voltaire. In a lead review in the New York Times, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described the book as “a story of deadly simplicity” written “with such gravity and charm that Animal Farm becomes an independent creation, standing apart from the object” of criticizing the Soviet Union.

But it was Commonweal that presented the most perceptive and well-informed discussion of the book—in a review that demonstrated a thorough acquaintance with the rest of Orwell’s work, most of which was still unpublished in the United States. Orwell’s enthusiastic reception in America among the former Trotskyists at the Partisan Review and Dwight Macdonald’s Politics (both of which had published his essays) was understandable, given Orwell’s own independent socialist, quasi-Trotskyist stance. But who could have guessed that a Catholic journal would also become one of the most prominent advocates of his work during the next decade?

Of all Catholic periodicals—both in the United States and in the United Kingdom—Commonweal alone devoted extensive space and positive attention to Orwell’s work, beginning with his realistic novels of the 1930s, continuing with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was only after his death in 1950 that most other American Catholic organs paid much attention to Orwell. Commonweal recognized Orwell’s work as early as 1937, when it reviewed his first two novels, Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter (something that not even the Trotskyist or English Catholic press had done). The magazine was then the only Catholic periodical to have taken note of his work—fully two years before the English journal Month published the first article about Orwell in the British Catholic press.


WHAT MADE Commonweal take such an early an interest in Orwell? One possible answer: Spain. In December 1936, Orwell left England to fight in Catalonia with a motley left-wing militia (consisting of Trotskyists, anarchists, and other radicals) known as the POUM. By that time, Orwell was already becoming well known in London intellectual circles for his book reviews, gritty realistic novels and reportage, and essays such as “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging.” English Catholics could not abide his writings about the Spanish Civil War, which disregarded the atrocities committed against the Catholic Church, particularly the murder of priests and nuns, while emphasizing instead the atrocities committed by General Franco’s forces. It is to Commonweal’s credit that it acknowledged this dimension of Orwell’s work but nonetheless dared to seek common ground with him on other issues, especially since the Spanish Civil War had been one of the most divisive events in the magazine’s history. Controversy over the war precipitated the resignation of one editor, the anti-Franco George Schuster, and the forced retirement of its founding editor, Michael Williams, who had opposed Franco at first but later supported him. Both men had originally resisted the church’s pro-Franco stand and its condemnation of the Loyalists running the Spanish Republic. They had urged a more nuanced view of the war, arguing that neither side was innocent. Yes, they acknowledged, the Republicans desecrated churches and murdered clergy, but Franco was supported by modern tanks, fighter planes, and troops from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which used Spain to test the weapons and tactics that would soon ravage Europe. The Loyalists were drawn to what they considered a utopian society and what they rightly saw as the opening round in a global battle against fascism. The bloodthirsty anticlericalism evidenced early in the conflict, plus revenge for Stalin’s aid to the Popular Front, settled the question in favor of Franco for most Catholic church officials and publications, almost all of which were either under church control or sponsored by religious orders. Although polls showed that four out of ten Catholics supported the Popular Front, Commonweal’s position was very unpopular with the Catholic establishment, especially in New York City, where the magazine operated. The controversy over Spain unleashed an onslaught of criticism against the magazine and cost it many subscribers. Its editors were isolated, holding a position shared by only one other Catholic publication—the pacifist Catholic Worker.

The issue of the Spanish Civil War remained problematic for many American Catholics into the 1940s and 1950s. Writing in Commonweal in 1953, Frank Getlein recommended that Catholics view the conflict with the same “ruthless honesty” that characterized Orwell’s writings on the war, especially in Homage to Catalonia. Whereas Orwell had fiercely attacked his fellow leftists who downplayed Stalin’s betrayal of the revolutionary cause, most American Catholics closed their eyes to the failings of Franco’s side.

What makes it especially difficult to explain Orwell’s appeal to the editors and contributors of Commonweal is his well-known hostility to the Catholic Church. Indeed, he considered the church’s political tendency plainly fascist, distinguishing it from Anglicanism, which did not “impose a political ‘line’” on its followers. The collaboration of the Spanish church with Franco during the Spanish Civil War permanently hardened his attitude, though anti-Catholicism is evident throughout his work. Orwell mocked the idea of heaven and the Catholic (and Anglican) priesthood in Down and Out in Paris and London and A Clergyman’s Daughter, denounced “Romanism” as the ecclesiastical equivalent of Stalinism in The Road to Wigan Pier, compared “orthodox” Catholic intellectuals to Communist Party writers throughout his journalism, and linked religious with political orthodoxy in O’Brien’s power-crazed speech in Nineteen Eighty-Four. After spotting a Bible Society sign noting that the local Protestant shop did not carry the Catholics’ Douay Bible, he wrote a friend: “Long may they fight, I say; so long as that spirit is in the land we are safe from the RCs.”

In truth, Orwell’s attitude toward Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular was more nuanced than it might seem at a glance. He did express sympathy for the traditions of the Anglican faith—he was buried in an Anglican churchyard and his biographers note that he seems to have had a phase of regular church attendance during his early thirties. Even his notorious hostility to Catholicism was more complex than most observers recognize. It would be fair to say he was not so much anti-Catholic as anti-church: it was not the faith as such that he found noxious, but the illiberal institution behind it. Unlike most Marxists, whose rigid historical materialism led them to treat religious ideas as unworthy of consideration, Orwell engaged such ideas directly. He agreed with much of the church’s modern social teaching, though he lamented that its defense of private property kept it from going far enough. It was the hypocrisy of the church—indeed the extent to which it betrayed its own teachings and values, thereby turning itself into another mere “-ism” like Marxism—that Orwell scorned.

Some Catholics thinkers earned strong praise from Orwell. He had great respect for the French novelist and essayist Georges Bernanos, who shared his hostility to totalitarianism. He was keenly, though not uncritically, interested in G. K. Chesterton, whose novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill exerted some influence on the conception of 1984. In a review of Frank Sheed’s Communism and Man, Orwell observed that Sheed’s analysis of Marxism was honest, intelligent, and free of the complacent sense of moral superiority he detected in many Catholic intellectuals. By contrast, he was severe in his judgment of Graham Greene’s work precisely because he thought that Greene did not take his faith seriously enough. In a negative review of The Heart of the Matter, Orwell pointed out that Greene repeatedly suggests that a Catholic sinner is superior to a good pagan, a suggestion Orwell considered both snobbish and morally unserious. He lamented that Greene “appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingué in being damned.” He suspected that this idea was a symptom of Christianity’s decline:

This cult of the sanctified sinner seems to me to be frivolous, and underneath it there probably lies a weakening of belief, for when people really believed in Hell, they were not so fond of striking graceful attitudes on its brink.

Besides being morally frivolous, the “cult of the sanctified sinner” also made Greene’s novel psychologically implausible. Its Catholic protagonist, a commissioner of police in a West African British colony, traps himself in an adulterous affair. He commits sacrilege and, finally, suicide to avoid hurting either his wife or his mistress. Orwell wasn’t buying it:

If he really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in Hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women. And one might add that if he were the kind of man we are told he is—that is, a man whose chief characteristic is a horror of causing pain—he would not be an officer in a colonial police force.

The reviews of Sheed and Greene alone demonstrate a surprising theological sophistication on Orwell’s part—and an unusual degree of interest in Catholic teaching for a British socialist. Orwell was, to use the poetic phrase that Max Weber applied to himself, “religiously musical.” But he also had a nose for hypocrisy, posturing, and snobbery, and his criticism of Catholics often focused on those vices. He was suspicious of the fashionable upper-class vogue to “swim the Tiber” during the 1920s and ’30s. He thought the conversions of Evelyn Waugh and (Orwell’s Etonian classmate) Christopher Hollis were motivated at least in part by nostalgia. (It did not help that both Waugh and Hollis were politically conservative.) By contrast, although Orwell disliked Irish nationalist writers such as Sean O’Casey, he felt affection for the 3 million working-class Irish laborers in Britain, almost all of them Catholic. His argument was with Rome, not with the Irish Catholic worker in the pews of London’s East End.

It bears noting here that English and American Catholicism were—and still are—very different. During Orwell’s lifetime, American Catholics formed an immigrant church of working-class families, not unlike the families Orwell visited during his trip to the industrial Midlands of England in 1936 to do research for The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s distrust of English Catholicism was rooted in his old-fashioned radical view of it as the religion of the upper-class recusants.

Orwell regarded the church as fundamentally and irremediably illiberal. The raison d’etre of Commonweal was, then as now, to prove that this need not be the case. If the magazine embraced Orwell, it was not only because of his political courage, but also because of his moral seriousness—what one might call his heroic decency. American Catholics could overlook Orwell’s hostility to religion because he was seen as a man whose ethic was essentially Christian. He sympathized with the poor and victims of oppression throughout the world, including the victims of the British Empire. Moreover, he was honest enough to admit that the decay of religion in the modern world had left a spiritual void, one that was filled by totalitarian ideologies like Nazism and Communism. Orwell believed that Christianity had fostered a genuine sense of altruism, and he lamented what he called the decay of religious belief because that decay might weaken belief in human dignity and free will. This anticlerical skeptic was someone with whom American Catholics could establish, as it were, a cordial ecumenical dialogue. It also didn’t hurt that Orwell happened to share the Catholic view on some powerful cultural issues. For example, he despised what he called “birth control fanatics” and opposed abortion.


IN JULY 1946, just a month before the publication of Animal Farm in the United States, Charles Brady in America reviewed Orwell’s collected essays, Dickens, Dali and Others. The review was headlined “Virtuous Skeptic,” for Orwell was “that tonic thing among left-wingers, a man who applies his healthy skepticism to his own collectivist theories… and has the mother wit to see that ‘most revolutionaries are potential Tories.’” The relatively unknown Orwell was “a man we Catholics ought to get on reading terms with for he is very definitely on our side,” a kind of Catholic fellow-traveler. That is precisely how Commonweal had always approached him, accenting the Orwell whom Catholics could admire and emulate. This was in keeping with Michael Williams’s original desire, expressed in Commonweal’s inaugural issue in 1924, to avoid the kind of “partisanship he saw in most Catholic publications.”

The magazine’s review of Animal Farm was a tour de force, arguably the most insightful and comprehensive notice that the fable received on either side of the Atlantic. Animal Farm was reviewed in Commonweal in September 1946 by Adam de Hegedus, the Hungarian-born British author. The review reflected his experience of living in England for years. De Hegedus knew Orwell’s literary work far better than did American intellectuals. De Hegedus believed that an aggressive nationalism had almost destroyed European civilization in World War II. He saw Animal Farm as Orwell’s commentary on the disease of nationalism. He recognized that the book demonstrated Lord Acton’s “immortal thesis according to which power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Placing Animal Farm within a Catholic context, de Hegedus associated the fable with “man’s craving for the absolute, which is the most powerful basis of nationalism.” De Hegedus called Animal Farm “poetry…the type of journalism that stays news.” He also described it as a “parable,” noting that Orwell “is an artist who knows precisely how effective it can be not to say explicitly what he means, and this little tale of 120-odd pages has more explosive energy and actuality than a five-hundred page carefully documented report on Russia.” De Hegedus added the shrewd and accurate observation that Orwell is “angry with Russia because Russia is not socialist,” but he also insisted that Orwell himself was “not a real socialist but a well-meaning and intelligent radical liberal.” The review concludes with a short discussion of the first collection of Orwell’s essays published in the United States, along with observations on Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter. It was clear that de Hegedus was also familiar with Orwell’s other work, including Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, which he described as “the best book about poverty in England.”

Commonweal’s subsequent writing about Orwell went far beyond Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, spotlighting his affinities with Catholics ideas and ideals. In fact, Commonweal featured Orwell in ten substantial essays and reviews after his death in January 1950, just seven months after Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared. In 1953, Richard Weaver, the conservative author of Ideas Have Consequences, reviewed a posthumous collection of Orwell’s essays for Commonweal. He praised Orwell as a “good humanist” who in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four had condemned the mania of the age: ideology.

In a 1954 essay for Commonweal, the English critic Geoffrey Ashe, pondered at length why Orwell’s work should appeal to Catholics. Ashe argued that, despite Orwell’s atheism and his overriding concern for the material progress of the working classes, Orwell also longed for a “reign of kindness, brotherhood, beauty, truth.” Animal Farm portrayed the impossibility of reconciling these two goals and the inevitable spiritual crisis to which the vainglorious dream of revolution leads. To Ashe, Animal Farm was nothing less than a rejection of utopianism. Ashe claimed that Orwell’s socialism was essentially a Christian ethic—do no harm to others—and that, toward the end of his life, he transcended socialism, for though he proved unable “to budge an inch towards Christian orthodoxy, he clung to Christian values.”

Later in the 1950s, Commonweal touted Orwell’s importance in another long essay titled “Orwell’s Secular Crusade.” Richard Voorhees, who wrote the first academic book on Orwell ideas (The Paradox of George Orwell, 1960), devoted four pages to what he called the central conceptions of Orwell’s “philosophy”—the danger of nationalism, the problem of power, the dignity of the common man, and the role of religion in society. Like Chesterton, Orwell possessed common sense, loved nature, and cherished the common man. One of Orwell’s observations about the modern world—that “it is a restless, cultureless life…in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetos and in complete ignorance of the Bible”—would have appealed to Chesterton. Where they differed, of course, was on the question of religion. Voorhees argued that Orwell was “just not interested in religion except an as institution which seemed to him an impediment to socialism.” Even in Animal Farm, Orwell found time to express his hostility to religion. The raven, Moses, preaches about Sugarcandy Mountain where all obedient, submissive animals will go to their reward. But this did not negate the political force of his appeal for Catholics: Orwell’s loathing of Soviet Communism fortified Catholics, whose own anti-Communism had rendered them suspect in American intellectual circles. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were openly welcomed as support for the Catholic stance against Communism. According to Voorhees, Orwell was one of Chesterton’s “good agnostics.”

If Animal Farm shaped the American public’s view of the Soviet Union and its interpretation of the Cold War, it was Commonweal that played a key role in that development. It had drawn attention to Orwell’s work long before any other American publication. It took courage, tolerance, insight, and independence of mind for a Catholic journal to praise a figure with such a strong antipathy to religion. It is noteworthy that no other Catholic journal—not America, not the Dublin Review, not the Tablet or Month in England—gave more than passing attention to Orwell until after his death, at which point virtually everyone (even the editors of the Nation) jumped on the Orwell bandwagon. It is a testament above all to Commonweal’s longtime editor and publisher Edward S. Skillin that he was open to the work of this idiosyncratic Englishman.

What’s more, while other Catholic publications gave Orwell merely brief or belated recognition and presented him even in the 1950s and early ’60s chiefly through a Catholic lens, Commonweal not only sought to see similarities between Orwell and the Catholic tradition but also made a strenuous effort to see Orwell on his own terms, fully acknowledging his differences with both church teaching and the magazine’s own editorial positions. Years before Vatican II turned the church decisively toward the world, Commonweal exemplified a stance of liberal tolerance and critical engagement with the modern secular age. If the magazine was sometimes castigated in official church circles as insufficiently Catholic, it was also ahead of its time in making American Catholicism more truly catholic and less narrowly sectarian. Its reception of Orwell serves as a fascinating case study of Commonweal’s history and editorial culture. The magazine’s editors and contributors neither anathematized Orwell nor sprinkled him with holy water. Instead they simply gave him the respect they thought he deserved, welcoming his support for the cause of liberal democracy and intellectual freedom without soft-peddling his hostility to Catholic Christianity. He was, in Commonweal’s judgment, a skeptical humanist from whom American Catholics could learn a great deal. On the seventieth anniversary of Animal Farm’s appearance in the United States, that verdict warrants reaffirmation.

John Rodden writes about modern Irish history for a wide range of publications. John P. Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University.

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Published in the September 23, 2016 issue: View Contents
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