Animal Farm was George Orwell's penultimate novel, first published in 1945, four years before his arguably most famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. As with Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm is a critique of Stalinism.
Despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, there is a belief that socialism is a single movement with the same (or very similar) goals and methods. Reading Orwell is an excellent reminder that this is not the case: George Orwell himself was a socialist, leaning towards what's called Democratic Socialism; a political democracy alongside the social ownership of the means of production (I also think Robert Tressell writes particularly well on this in The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, 1914) and nationalisation of certain industries (rail companies is a rather pertinent example of that at present in Britain), and believing in democracy, liberty, and equality among other things. In contrast with this is Stalinsim, which we learn a little of in Animal Farm.
The novel begins with the very best of intentions. If we use the Marxist understanding of society, a society is split into two: the proletariat, those who sell their labour but do not own the means of production, and the bourgeoisie who do own the means of production. In Animal Farm it is the farmers, led by Mr. Jones, who are the bourgeoisie, and the animals are the proletariat, exploited by their irresponsible owners. In terms of what was happening in Russia, Mr. Jones is a kind of Nicholas II whilst the animals are the Bolsheviks (founded by Lenin and Bogdanov). They live on Manor Farm (which turns into Animal Farm), neighbours of Mr. Frederick (representing Hitler's Germany) and Mr Pilkington (a Churchill / Roosevelt figure representing western capitalism) and, as in Russia, there on Manor Farm was a revolution: Old Major, a pig representing Lenin, shares with the other animals a dream he had, that all the animals work together without the oppression of humans. He teaches them a song that explains his vision; it begins,
Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland,
Beasts of every land and clime,
Hearken to my joyful tidings
Of the Golden future time.
Soon or late the day is coming,
Tyrant Man shall be o'erthrown,
And the fruitful fields of England
Shall be trod by beasts alone...
Soon after Old Major dies, Snowball (representing Trotsky), Napoleon (representing Stalin), and Squealer (Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's protégé), all pigs, lead the animals into a revolt and they establish what Orwell refers to as Animalism:
- Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
- Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
- No animal shall wear clothes.
- No animal shall sleep in a bed.
- No animal shall drink alcohol.
- No animal shall kill any other animal.
- All animals are equal.
However, what started as a beautiful dream slowly turns into a nightmare. It does, as I said, begin with the best intentions: the wiser animals attempt to educate the less intelligent creatures, all adhere to the fundamental principle of animalism - "All animals are equal", and everyone works hard for the common good. When Jones and his men attempt to reclaim the farm (the Battle of the Cowshed, representing the allied invasion of Soviet Russia in 1918), the animals once again win the fight, however Boxer, a horse representing Alexey Stakhanov (a coal miner extolled for his work ethic, himself representing the idealised working class), accidentally stuns a young boy (Boxer believes he has killed him, something he very deeply regrets). As time passes Napoleon and Snowball's views begin to differ from each other and they squabble: ultimately Snowball 'disappears', chased by Napoleon's puppies (clearly a representation of Stalin's security force and an example of state terrorism) and is turned into a 'folk devil' (which is on the lines of a scapegoat). With Napoleon now in charge, things disintegrate further and the rules change: the final commandment of Animalism now reads "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others", Squealer all the while justifying amendments with propaganda. Pigs now go upon two legs, and they are friends with humans. Corruption has won, power has seduced, and equality is lost.
This is a fascinating and engaging novel on the corruption of socialism in the Soviet Union. Orwell writes so well: people who haven't read Animal Farm occasionally mistake it for a children's book (and get ridiculed in the process), but what's striking about Animal Farm is that it does read as a children's book: an allegory with very simple, sometimes stark prose, but delivering a very adult message. Not so much "a fairy tale" (which was its ironic original subtitle) but a fable of a dystopian society perverted by those seeking power and domination in which the values Orwell held dear; democracy, equality, and liberty, were entirely lost. Once again, the 'proletariat' are misled by propaganda that promised to bring about change but ultimately did nothing of the sort: a phenomenon seen before from the extreme left, and one we're beginning to see now from the hard right and extreme right. It's a worrying read, but a necessary one I think.