Review: Animal Farm, by George Orwell

After sobbing my way through Nineteen Eighty-Four, I couldn’t not re-read Animal Farm, which, as it happened, I was assigned in high school. Back then, I wanted to believe it was more animal-rights than democratic-socialism treatise and, in a way, I think it still is. Since the moment I first became a vegetarian, at the age of six (no, neither of my parents were vegetarian at the time—ask me about when my mother tried to unsuccessfully sneak diced ham into my muffins—and yes, they both are now), I was sure that the world would come around; to this day, I believe that animal liberation will be the next great civil-rights struggle, at least in the West (after all, in most parts of the world, they still haven’t dealt with women). Peter Singer, in his 1975 book Animal Liberation (renowned, and rightly so, as the Bible of the animal-rights movement), notes that when British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft published her now-famous “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792, she was pilloried by an anonymous critic in a pamphlet called “A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes.” The author is now known as Thomas Taylor, a Cambridge scholar, and he satirized Wollstonecraft’s treatise by employing the slippery-slope argument—if we’re to grant rights to women, what’s to stop us from granting rights to *snicker* animals? And so on and so forth.  

My point is, what is once outlandish will invariably become accepted in due time, and the same, I wholeheartedly believe, goes for animal rights. The problem, of course, is that unlike the female population of Britain or the Russian proletariat, animals do not have a voice; they must rely on humans to take up their cause for them. And lest anybody think I’m one of those loons who can’t distinguish between animals and humans—if I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked “So, like, if there were a dog drowning, and then there were a baby drowning and, like, you could only save one of them, which one would you go for??”—I readily admit that animals do not have the brains, either. It’s an irrelevant point, though. We have a moral responsibility to protect animals because we can; because they are mentally unequipped to protect themselves. If we are to assert ourselves as the most advanced species on Earth—which of course we are—we have a “responsibility to protect,” if you will. We have an obligation, borne of our unique ability to moralize, to those who are not as lucky, who are at our mercy, and whose flesh is not imperative for our survival.

Anyway. I’ll always see Animal Farm as a harbinger of the “animal revolution” I’m sure is coming, if not for a couple hundred years. In a preface to a 1947 edition , in fact, Orwell himself wrote the following:

“. . . One day (I was then living in a small village) I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge cart-horse 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.

I proceeded to analyse Marx’s theory from the animals’ point of view. To them it was clear that the concept of a class struggle between humans was pure illusion, since whenever it was necessary to exploit animals, all humans united against them: the true struggle is between animals and humans.”

But yes, I know this isn’t the real point of the book. The point is allegory and satire of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Molotov and the high hopes for the Russian Revolution that were betrayed not by competing ideas but, as Aeschylus would put it, by the savagery of man. And despite how ingrained the book’s become in literary and political culture, it would behoove us all to remember just how clever, incendiary, and daring it was at the time it was written. Not to mention its merit as a piece of literature: As critics have forever pointed out, high school students the world over, who are not exactly well-versed in the intricacies of Soviet politics, adore the book—possibly because it’s so short (ha), but more likely because of Orwell’s truly awesome skill as a storyteller. Prize boar Old Major’s Marxism-adapted-for-the-animal-kingdom is brilliant, as are almost all of Orwell’s analogies (puppies raised in seclusion by Napoleon as Stalin’s secret police; Old Major’s skull at the foot of the flagpole as Lenin’s preserved corpse on display in Red Square; the card game and drinking between pigs and humans as the first meeting between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at the Tehran Conference in 1943). As Orwell points out, before World War II, Europeans were frighteningly unaware of the true nature of the Soviet (and, for that matter, Fascist) regime:

“. . . One must remember that England is not completely democratic. It is also a capitalist country with great class privileges and (even now, after a war that has tended to equalise everybody) with great differences in wealth. But nevertheless it is a country in which people have lived together for several hundred years without major conflict, in which the laws are relatively just and official news and statistics can almost invariably be believed, and, last but not least, in which to hold and to voice minority views does not involve any mortal danger. In such an atmosphere the man in the street has no real understanding of things like concentration camps, mass deportations, arrests without trial, press censorship, etc. Everything he reads about a country like the USSR is automatically translated into English terms, and he quite innocently accepts the lies of totalitarian propaganda. Up to 1939, and even later, the majority of English people were incapable of assessing the true nature of the Nazi regime in Germany, and now, with the Soviet regime, they are still to a large extent under the same sort of illusion.”

Looking back at the most notorious appeasements of totalitarian regimes (Chamberlain at Munich in 1938; the “Big Three”—Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin—at Tehran), it seems unthinkable that these respective dictators were received as legitimate by democratic Western nations. Sure, you can play the “realist” card and argue that Hitler was technically democratically elected (at least initially); or maintain that a responsible leader must deal with the world as it is, not as she’d like it to be; or claim that without the USSR we’d all be speaking German, falling into the whole the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend trap. But frankly, I agree with Orwell that the real problem was simply that European democracies had their heads in the sand. (With the laudable exception of France, who always recognized the threat Germany posed to its, and the world’s, security.) And it’s not even just the West—how are we to make sense of the fact that a majority of Russians view Stalin favorably?

I guess all I’m trying to really point out is that Orwell understands, and is able to convincingly articulate, the part of the human psyche that allows corrupt governments to hoodwink their populations en masse. Fear plays a role, sure, but it’s not just that. Reading Animal Farm for the second time, it really hit me that the animals didn’t rise up and overthrow Napoleon not because they couldn’t (the scene when Boxer fends off and ultimately decides not to kill one of Napoleon’s guard dogs proves that the animals certainly had the strength to revolt), but because they didn’t want to. Coming off of a life of perpetual misery and slavery, “animalism” provided a raison d’être for creatures unsure of their place in the world and what to do with the freedom that was suddenly and almost inexplicably theirs. Once adherence to the ideology was fully effected, a self-proclaimed leader like Napoleon was able to take the reins and bend everything to his will by playing on that sense of collective purpose. As long as the shifts were gradual, the animals were able to adjust to, and justify, their new, slightly-altered reality. Animal Farm, in effect, explains twentieth-century history: Stalin’s reign in the USSR, Hitler’s in Germany, Mao’s in China, and so on and so forth. So yes, some—like my own mother, for instance—may call Orwell simplistic, but you can’t really be accused of falling prey to a cliché when you’re the one who came up with it. Or at least first thought to write it down.

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3 Responses to Review: Animal Farm, by George Orwell

  1. Properly put from an amazing blogger

  2. Come on, tell me how you really feel.

  3. a far better criticism comes from the austrian school of economics. for example mises, omnipotent government, planned chaos.

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