'A vivid warning about dangers to the planet posed by capitalism'

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The rank and file in peril? A still from the 1978 animated film of Watership Down

The author Richard Adams died last Christmas, prompting Christian Høgsbjerg to re-examine Adams's well-loved work about a band of rabbits on the run, Watership Down. Here Christian analyses the politics of the novel, using the tools provided by Marx, Engels and Gramsci.

The novelist Richard Adams, author of the classic Watership Down, died at the end of last year aged 96. Watership Down, first published in 1972, originated in stories about the adventures of a band of rabbits that Adams — a civil servant at the time — told to his two daughters to pass the time on long car journeys. It quickly became a bestseller and was made into an animated film in 1978.

Adams himself always insisted (rightly, I think) there was no conscious “political allegory” within the story of Watership Down (as there is, say, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm). Much of the narrative was simply derived from memories he had of serving in the British army during the Second World War and the characterisation of many of the rabbits based on army officers he had met in that time. It is probably fair to say that the left in general has therefore not tended to bother much with Watership Down, with some even trying to critique it as a politically reactionary, militaristic “boy’s own” adventure story.

In fact, Watership Down is an epic novel, arguably not only fully deserving of its reputation as a literary classic of “children’s literature”, but also in many ways very political and even revolutionary in its underlying message. It is no surprise, for example, that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine regards it as one of his favourite novels, while Mary Phillips praised the film in Socialist Review in 1978. As Phillips wrote, Watership Down showed that “rank and file rabbits rool okay…and what’s more they get a bit of support from other animals after a canny bit of solidarity work… Benjamin Bunny and Peter Rabbit ain’t got nothing on Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig.”

Though Adams does not appear to have been a socialist himself, even he seemed to acknowledge this radical dimension to the novel, cheerfully once admitting that “the Marxist interpretation of Watership Down makes me laugh sometimes!”

The politics of Watership Down manifest themselves on a number of levels. Firstly, there is the relationship of the human world to the natural world, between man and nature. At the outset of the novel, for example, a construction firm brutally destroys the rabbit warren at Sandleford with mechanical diggers and poison gas in order to clear the way for a new housing development. Adams’s concern for the natural environment in Watership Down shines brightly, with its vivid and powerful warning about dangers to the planet posed by capitalist accumulation and the relentless pursuit of profit before everything else. “There’s terrible evil in the world”, one rabbit says. Another answers him: “It comes from men…men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.”

The reader instinctively identifies with the perspective of the victims of all this — in particular rabbits. Adams constructs a language (Lapine) and an elaborate religious ideology for the rabbits, with a god (Frith) who first created the world, with all animals originally more or less equal and happily living alongside each other in peace and tranquillity.

However, because the rabbits bred and multiplied faster than the other animals, they began to disrupt this natural harmony. Frith then decided to “bless” each animal with distinctive gifts, giving to the fox, the stoat and the weasel “the cunning and the fierceness and the desire to hunt and slay and eat the children of El-ahrairah”, the rabbit prince, in order to control rabbit numbers. El-ahrairah was given powerful back legs to enable rabbits to outrun their predators. As Frith put it:

“El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”

This religious world view promising “the great indestructability of the Rabbits” represented a source of hope for these oppressed creatures besieged by natural predators and enemies (elil) in the animal world alongside acts of often inexplicable barbarism towards them by human beings.

Religion then serves as “a heart in a heartless world”, as Marx would have put it, with stories of El-ahrairah’s cunning and resourcefulness in the face of adversity, a source of inspiration and a guide to action. El-ahrairah is a heroic figure representing resistance to authority and a trickster figure akin to Brer Rabbit. “What Robin Hood is to the English and John Henry to the American Negroes, Elil-Hrair-Rah, or El-ahrairah — The Prince with a Thousand Enemies — is to rabbits.”

Yet if this religious ideology presents all rabbits (apart from their “prince” El-ahrairah) as equal children of Frith, in material reality the world of the rabbits we encounter in Watership Down is riven from top to bottom by class division and authoritarian and patriarchal systems of domination. In an average warren, there is typically a Chief Rabbit at the top, a wider aristocratic ruling officer class — the Owsla — and then the rank and file rabbits known as outskirters. Physical size, strength and martial skills are prized and key attributes in determining one’s place in this class hierarchy.

Female rabbits (does) are the lowest of the low, an oppressed layer of this class society. Tellingly, the main heroic figure in Watership Down, Hazel, comes not from the officer class but from the rank and file — and Adams shows that another rank and file rabbit, Fiver, though physically one of the smallest and weakest of the rabbits, possesses greater prophetic wisdom, intuition and insight than the Chief Rabbit at Sandleford when warning of the potential looming danger to the warren.

In Watership Down, Adams portrays different forms of individual responses among rabbits to the injustices of the world outside the warrens, from submission and acquiescence to resistance and fighting back. Most rabbits display a mixture of both ideas, what Gramsci would call “contradictory consciousness”, as to the question of “what is to be done” at each point.

What is fascinating is how these responses are also taken to extremes at a collective level by different warrens that the band of wandering wild rabbits around Hazel encounter on their journey. So, for example, one warren they encounter early on, Cowslip’s warren, is an artificial partly man-made construction, where the rabbits have chosen a life of relative comfort but at the cost of submission to one particular farmer, who feeds them and protects them from other animals but in return sets traps and snares to kill individual rabbits from the warren whenever he feels necessary for his own purposes.

Adams also shows the other extreme kind of warren, Efrafa, a militaristic dictatorship led by the ferocious tyrannical figure of General Woundwort, who has chosen to fight and match in brutality the natural predators in the outside world. In Efrafa rabbits under General Woundwort have little to fear from the outside world — but this comes at the price of living in fear inside the warren itself.

Adams’s work is remarkable for its portrayal of how social being determines consciousness inside each different warren, and how what might be called the economic base shapes a distinctive ideological and political superstructure.

Finally, running through Watership Down are questions relating to the importance of organisation and leadership. Under Hazel’s leadership the tiny group of original renegades recruit other rabbits to their cause and slowly build up a disciplined combat organisation able to meet the challenges they face. “They had become warier, shrewder, a tenacious band who understood each other and worked together…they had come closer together, relying on and valuing each other’s capacities.”

Yet the band of rabbits also reach out to seek allies, and establish what might be called united fronts with other wild animals wherever possible, including a mouse and most importantly a seagull called Kehaar, and these also prove critical to their survival.

Finally, Watership Down shows how ideas change through struggle. Most notable here is the change in Bigwig, who we first meet as a typical sergeant-major type in the Sandleford Owsla. Though a brave and courageous fighter, he is not a natural ally for rank and file rabbits. Yet when Hazel prepares to lead the rebellion at the start of the novel, he realises the importance of splitting the “army” and takes the risk of trusting and working with Bigwig.

“It crossed his mind that although Bigwig would certainly be a useful rabbit in a tight corner, he would also be a difficult one to get on with. He certainly would not want to do what he was told — or even asked — by an outskirter. ‘I don’t care if he is in the Owsla,’ thought Hazel. ‘If we get away from the warren, I’m not going to let Bigwig run everything, or why bother to go?’”

Under Hazel’s democratic and non-elitist model of leadership the band of rabbits — including Bigwig — become a “gang of vagabonds” with a new sense of comradeship and equality. Whether they ultimately succeed in establishing a warren based on the socialist principle of “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” should be left for readers to discover for themselves.