A Fairy Story * George Orwell * Farmyard Dystopia * 1946
Suck on that, Stalin.
That should be the official subtitle of this book, and pretty much sums up what is going on here. Animal Farm is an allegory that mirrors the rise of Soviet Russia and its transformation from a government of idealistic revolutionaries to that of a totalitarian nightmare run by a monster. It tells a story about anthropomorphized farm animals who overthrow their cruel human owners and assume control of their own farm. The idea is that they will turn the farm into an animal paradise where they all live free and happy by the fruit of their own labor. This animal society is broken down into various classes, each represented by a different kind of animal. These classes seem to be organized by intelligence. The smartest critters, the pigs, assume leadership and supervision duties, and as such begin to set up the new society to benefit themselves at the expense of the rest. Slowly, surely, inevitably, the pigs contrive to take complete control of the situation and make themselves masters over the rest. All the products of the other animals’ work goes to the benefit of the pigs. Since we’re talking about a well-known book with an obvious meaning I’ll tell you how it ends. The pigs suck. They succeed in twisting the origin of the revolution to suit their needs, which turn out to be just as bad (or worse) than the oppression that the humans inflicted. The rallying cry “four legs good, two legs bad” turns into “four legs good, two legs better” while the most important commandment of the revolution changes from “all animals are equal” to “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” And then all the pigs are walking around on their hind legs acting like humans and being dicks and you finish the book and go “huh.”
Animal Farm, as an allegory, hits pretty much all the necessary notes to demonstrate why the totalitarian state is bad for humans. That seems like a self-evident and dumb thing to have to say, but at the time I suppose it seemed like a necessary point to highlight. World War II was fought against a totalitarian state run amok, and the Allies won, but in large part because we allied ourselves with another totalitarian state. That whole state of affairs was problematic, and shortly after the conclusion of the war it became apparent to most everyone else as well. I suppose that’s why I’m finding it difficult to write about this. I don’t think anyone, even right after the war, was looking at the Soviet Union and thinking “yeah, we’re in for years of cooperation and prosperity with our new best friends, the Communists!” Which isn’t to say that something like Animal Farm is a waste of time, but boy is it pretty self-explanatory.
Reading this thing is an exercise in frustration, especially since it’s obvious Orwell is writing about actual things that happened in the world. Willful ignorance is the worst. Yet that’s what this story is all about. It’s the story of the misappropriation of Marxism by the Communists. Obviously it’s a pretty dire assessment of humanity’s ability to organize itself in a way that isn’t detrimental to most people, but the sad fact is that Animal Farm mirrors history. You’re right, book, Napoleon the pig (ha-ha on the name, by the way) doesn’t have particularly good ideas and isn’t creative and doesn’t have the best interests of the citizens at heart, but he does have a pack of vicious fucking dogs that will straight up murder you if you disagree with him. Yet even that shouldn’t be enough to oppress the majority of critters on the farm, which is why Orwell depicts pretty much every tactic that Stalin used to cement his own power. Most of these rely on the citizenry to decide for themselves to remain ignorant and dumb, which is frustrating. That’s also the intent, of course.
So is there a point to reading this book in the modern world, then? Or is it just a relic from post-war Europe? Well, as someone who is fairly adamant that it is important to understand history and human nature I would say that yes, every opportunity to look at the terrible things we are capable of is one to be taken. Animal Farm is probably less vital than 1984 when it comes to understanding the consequences of embracing totalitarian regimes, but holds the advantage when it comes to referencing historical analogues. That, more than anything, should be made clear. Animal Farm is a true story. The actions of the piggies and sheepies and horsies played out on a much larger scale, with wide-ranging consequences which are still being dealt with right now. Putin (who is such a Napoleon) and his policies are entirely a product of the history that Animal Farm is referencing. The processes enacted by the pigs are abhorrent, but entirely human. We are totally capable of such things, regardless of the system under which we live. So that’s the point. Don’t be a dumb sheep. Or a willfully ignorant horse. Or a bitter old donkey. Wake up, sheeple, and be a Snowball.