December 2013

December 2013 - Set of eight anti-fascist cartoons by Gertrude Elias offered as a story board to the BBC Ministry of Information for a cartoon film in 1942, but declined

Gertrude Elias's cartoon storyboard, 1941

Gertude Elias and other members of the British Communist Party have claimed that George Orwell plagiarised her 1941 cartoons and their animal characterisations to produce his anti-Communist novel, Animal Farm, published in 1945.  It is also asserted that Orwell, employed in the Ministry of Information (MOI), was largely behind the decision to decline the storyboard.  If Orwell did recommend the rejection of the work, that should not surprise us.  His primary role in the MOI was to assist in the vetting of British Communist sympathisers and Marxist intellectuals within the MOI or who were seeking work in the MOI; exclusion might follow, but no more than that.  The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 and the ongoing Soviet programmes to establish communism in other countries hardly endeared the British War Cabinet to Communists in Britain.

Is this a straightforward case of plagiarism?  Even if George Orwell sought to invert, as suggested by some, the fable for his own ends and give the creation of his novel added piquancy, why did he not at least acknowledge that Elias’ fable was the source or spark of his Animal Farm idea?  It may well not have been, for Elias’ cartoon fable was hardly the first adult political fable in modern Europe.  A number were written in the early 20th century.  One was very close indeed, in every sense.  Władysław Stanisław Reymont’s, The Revolt (1922), a metaphor – no less – the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, described a revolt by animals that take over their farm in order to introduce ‘equality’.  Might Orwell have already read this work?  The Polish author’s work seems a closer candidate than Elias’ for inspiration or ‘plagiarism’.  It seems that Orwell thought little of Elias’ work, and it is likely that he thought it lacked originality.

Gertrude Elias’ cartoons are certainly a fine piece of satirical work, and very interesting.  They reflect the fact that she studied textile design in Vienna’s Austrian State Academy, specifically woollen textile design, and of course she was a Marxist intellectual in her reaction to things, and Communist sociological and economic ideas are reflected in this cartoon sequence.  Wool, sheep and knitting figure in three of the cartoons and in the dialogue.  In one, the sheep are the ‘goodies’, the anti-fascist heroes; they defeat the fascist pigs in the ‘The War’.  It is of course an intelligent view of the sheep; they are right-thinking, proletarian sheep, who must surely think for themselves.  They are Marxists; they are not easily fooled.  George Orwell’s sheep in Animal Farm, by contrast, are easily manipulated.  For the anti-Marxist Orwell they are part of Stalin’s propaganda machine, and part of the problem.  However Orwell’s fable is essentially a warning about any dictator or ideology, left or right.  That is what makes Orwell’s Animal Farm a universal work for many.  Might Gertrude Elias herself be thinking here in the politically reductive, ideological terms that Orwell warned against in Animal Farm: ‘four legs good, two legs bad’?