Animal Farm

My youngest son and I were discussing communism and capitalism not long ago. I don’t know if you realize it, but there is a lot of anti-capitalism sentiment out there. Young people are frustrated with the greed of capitalism. But, as I told my son, no economic system is going to be perfect, because no individual or group of people is perfect. Those at the top in communism are just as oppressive (more so, in my opinion). Nothing illustrates this better than Animal Farm by George Orwell, a combination fable, allegory, and satire about the Russian revolution of 1917 and Stalin’s takeover.

But even if you’re not familiar with the details of the Russian revolution, Animal Farm is a good illustration of what often happens when oppressors are overthrown: the formerly oppressed become the new oppressors.

In the book, Manor Farm is owned by a careless man who likes to drink a lot: Mr. Jones. One night the old boar, Old Major (Marx/Lenin), calls all the animals of the farm to a meeting. He encourages them to overthrow Jones and adopt animalism (communism), where they work for themselves.

Old Major passes away, and soon the animals’ opportunity comes. Jones forgets to feed them for several days. The animals don’t really plan an organized revolt, but they are so hungry and fed up, they drive Jones and his men off the property with great rejoicing (the revolution).

Two pigs, Napoleon (Stalin) and Snowball (Trotsky) become the leaders. The farm’s name is changed to Animal Farm. Seven commandments of Animalism are adopted, like “No animal shall sleep in a bed,” “No animal shall kill another animal,”etc. But the most important is “All animals are equal.”

The pigs teach themselves to read from a child’s primer in the house. Snowball tries to teach the other animals to read. They adopt a green flag with a horn and hoof emblem. Napoleon takes the newborn litter of puppies to train them. Snowball and Napoleon clash sometimes, but things come to a head when Snowball proposes that they build a windmill and outlines all the improvements it will bring. Napoleon disagrees and downplays the idea. But then Napoleon brings out the dogs he has been training into his own personal guard. They turn on Snowball and chase him off. Then Napoleon declares the windmill was his idea, which Snowball had stolen. Snowball is conveniently blamed for everything that goes wrong.

Since the pigs are the smartest an therefore the leaders, they take up residence in the house. They take the best food and all the milk, because of course they need to be in top form for all the decisions they have to make.

One by one, the promises made to the animals in the early days are broken. The pigs’ spokesman, Squealer, comes out and explains away anything that looks untoward. When the animals object to anything, they’re reminded, “We’re better off than when Jones was here” and “You don’t want Jones to come back, do you?” If any animal object too much, some reason is found for those animals to be executed. When the rest think they remember something about animals not killing each other, some who remember how to read go to check the seven commandments that had been painted on the barn wall. Now the sixth commandment reads, “No animal shall kill another animal without cause.”

When the pigs are discovered to be sleeping in beds in the farmhouse, the barn wall reads “No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.”

And as the pigs become more and more like the human oppressors, the barn is found to say, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Wikipedia says that Orwell wrote in an essay “Why I Write” “that Animal Farm was the first book in which he tried, with full consciousness of what he was doing, ‘to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.'”

I hadn’t realized until now that this book first came out in 1940s, when the UK and the Soviet Union were allied against Germany. Publication was delayed, and the book “became a great commercial success when it did appear partly because international relations were transformed as the wartime alliance gave way to the Cold War” (Wikipedia).

The Wikipedia article details many more of the symbolic details and allegoric references.

Some of the most noteworthy quotes from the story:

Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?

The needs of the windmill must override everything else, he said. He was therefore making arrangements to sell a stack of hay and part of the current year’s wheat crop, and later on, if more money were needed, it would have to be made up by the sale of eggs, for which there was always a market in Willingdon. The hens, said Napoleon, should welcome this sacrifice as their own special contribution towards the building of the windmill.

But the luxuries of which Snowball had once taught the animals to dream, the stalls with electric light and hot and cold water, and the three-day week, were no longer talked about. Napoleon had denounced such ideas as contrary to the spirit of Animalism. The truest happiness, he said, lay in working hard and living frugally.

Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer–except, of course, for the pigs and the dogs.

I had read this book back in high school and remembered the overall story, but had forgotten a few particulars. Orwell did a masterful job. Reading the book as an adult, it’s easy to recognize the “spin” that leaders and their influencers can put on events. I don’t advocate mistrusting all political leadership, but it’s wise to be aware and wary.

I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Ralph Cosham. This will count for a classic about animals for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

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