Animal Farm (George Orwell)

Written between November 1943 and February 1944, but not published straightaway, because of the USSR’s status as an ally in the Second World War. Orwell was a socialist writer, so the fact that he chose to do such a savage critique of the Soviet Union may come as a bit of a surprise to the present-day reader. One might have expected him to choose the far right, rather than the far left. But he personally felt that Soviet Russia had itself become a brutal dictatorship, and that its original ideals had become perverted. I personally don’t believe any of the original Bolshevik leaders who overthrew the Tsar had any ‘ideals’ other than a brutal, bloody dictatorship that would impoverish the majority of its citizens. And so it proved! Socialism can only work in a racially homogenous nation with no ethnic Trojan horses. (Scandinavia in the 1960s probably came closest to the Socialist ideal)

The inspiration for the novel came from a real-life episode. Orwell had just left the BBC, in 1943, and was uneasy about some propaganda he could see distributed by the then “Ministry of Information”. He says: “I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge carthorse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.” Animal Farm was subsequently published in England in 1945, just after the war, and ironically it quickly became a great commercial success when it did finally appear, partly because the Cold War so quickly followed the Second World War. However the book was immediately banned in the USSR and other communist countries. To this day it is still banned or censored in some places; the United Arab Emirates, Cuba, North Korea, and China.

In his story George Orwell chronicles the rising to power of Joseph Stalin, who is depicted by the pig “Napoleon” in the novel. The story parallels his emergence as a natural leader, and gradually follows his rise to power as a dictator. Near the beginning of the novel, the farm animals overthrow their oppressor, the farmer “Mr Jones”. This is a direct analogy to the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, when the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, who had abdicated in February, was executed by the Bolsheviks along with the rest of his family, in July 1918. Interestingly, Orwell said the drunken farmer Jones, who neglects his animals, was based on the real life Tsar Nicholas II. But their democratic coalition of animals, all with a vision of independence, comfort and freedom from constraints, is gradually broken down.

There is straightaway a consolidation of power among the pigs, who do no work because they are the “brainworkers” with what is tacitly agreed as superior intelligence. Just as the Soviet intelligentsia did, the pigs establish themselves as the ruling class in the new “free” society. In Animal Farm they then immediately begin to manipulate and control the new state for their own benefit. “For the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement …I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone and which could be easily translated into other languages.” At the start of the novel, “Major” a middle white boar, has a dream, which he relates to all the animals, in a lengthy impassioned speech. It is a dream of the future, and of “freedom” for all creatures. A tall order indeed.

It captures their imaginations, and inspires their actions from then on. Major is based on a combination of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, two of the worst agitators in European history. Their legacy is about 100 million people killed by the regimes they inspired. The other main character at the start of the novel is the pig, “Snowball” who is based on Leon Trotsky (he who made up the phony word racism in 1927). Just as in the Soviet Union, these two characters vie for power, with “Napoleon” using subterfuge and manipulation to his own ends. He arranges false confessions, show trials and executions to enforce his power, frequently changing history as the story unfolds. “Squealer” is a pig who works on behalf of Napoleon, employing various devious means to misrepresent and confuse the animals. He is apparently based on Molotov. Squealer speechifies, using elaborate philosophical ideas which the animals cannot really follow, often using the Socratic dialogue to get the answer he desires. And this is always used to justify the pigs’ greedy and unprincipled behaviour; anything which is self-serving and goes against the original ideas of fairness.

Squealer works on the animals so that they accept a slogan which is almost the direct opposite of its original, “Four legs good, two legs bad” becomes “Four legs good, two legs better” overnight, as bleated by the impressionable, keen to follow, sheep. The reason for this is clear from the story. And “Snowball” (based on Trotsky) is a malicious comrade eager to dominate, using any violent means available to achieve his ends. Nobody knows who they can trust any more. The irony is at its highest in the depiction of corruption; the tyranny and hypocrisy of the pigs as led by Napoleon. The food rations get increasingly smaller, yet it is “proved” to them that they are all much better off than they were formerly under Farmer Jones. The animals’ ideology of liberation and equality gradually disintegrates. The rules change secretly, slowly, silently so nobody is sure what is the truth any longer.

History is rewritten; memories become unreliable; the brainwashing is slow and subtle. The animals can read, but there is little documentation, except for seven commandments, painted on the barn wall. Yet over time, each of these is amended, to the advantage of the pigs, until in the end there are no words showing at all, and the final famously nonsensical maxim is spouted without question: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Another character indicated by George Orwell is his depiction of Adolf Hitler, as one of the farmers, “Mr Frederick”, who wants to take over the renamed “Animal Farm.” But there are many minor characters whom we all recognize in our own lives. And also, the brilliance of this novel is that those characteristics of scheming, dishonesty, cynicism, and underhanded ways of achieving a particular end, are not confined to politics. And also, the brilliance of this novel is that those characteristics of scheming, dishonesty, cynicism, and underhanded ways of achieving a particular end, are not confined to politics. It is profound.


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