The Animal Farm – George Orwell
Writing under the pen name George Orwell, Eric Blair was a British political novelist and essayist whose pointed criticism of totalitarian governments and British colonial ambitions made him one of the most important chroniclers of his times. He is best known for his dystopian novel, 1984 and the allegorical novella, Animal Farm which satirizes conditions in Stalin ruled post revolution Russia. Together, these two books have sold more copies than any two books by any other 20th century author. Such was Orwell’s sway over English thought that some of his neologisms like Cold War and Big Brother entered common use even during his time. Orwell served with the Imperial Police in Burma which gave him close knowledge of British imperial practices in its colonies. Along with this, the snobbery and the class consciousness that he encountered during his days at Eton persuaded him to speak strongly against social elitism and class divisions.
Orwell differed from the other socialists of his time in not being enamoured of the Soviet brand of socialism as practiced by Stalin and his cohorts. While fighting for the socialist cause during the Spanish Civil War, Orwell became aware of the dangers of an extreme form of totalitarianism into which communism could easily degenerate. In order to fully understand the Animal Farm, it is necessary to understand, at least in its most rudimentary form, Soviet history with the events leading up to the October Revolution and beyond.
The abdication of Tsar Nicholas took place in Feb, 1917. The socialist Alexander Kerensky, assumed control but he was ousted in the following October and Vladimir Lenin came to power as Commissar. Though Lenin had the interests of Russia and Russians uppermost, after his death, his aides led by Stalin, began jockeying for power. Trotsky was Stalin’s rival in the quest for power. Trotsky was popular with the people of Russia and he believed more in involving the common people of Russia as a true socialist. Stalin, on the other hand, was taciturn and believed in consolidating power through strategic backroom moves. He was better prepared for Lenin’s death when a power vacuum was bound to occur. Moving fast, Stalin formed an alliance against Trotsky. Trotsky was removed from all his positions of power and expelled first from Moscow, then from the Communist Party and finally from Russia itself in 1936. Trotsky fled to Mexico which did not prove safe for him as he was assassinated there on Stalin’s orders in 1940.
The killing in 1934 of Stalin’s ally Kirov was the trigger for the famous Communist party purges. Mock trials were held of Stalin’s opponents who were considered to be siding with Trotsky. They were declared enemies of the people and summarily executed. Stalin did not devote any time to governance and the state faltered. Infrastructure belonged to the Tsarist era and productivity was at rock bottom. People were scared to protest as Stalin used his secret police to silence dissent. Starvation deaths were common but a muzzled media were not able to report them. All problems were declared to be the result of Trotsky’s plotting and many people actually believed this. Only after the death of Trotsky, when the problems persisted did the populace introspect. But by then the spectre of the WWII was on them.
Animal Farm is set in the form of an allegorical fable with most characters representing historical people or ideas. Old Major, a prize-winning boar has called for a meeting of all animals in the Manor Farm for a meeting in the barn. He has had a dream in which all the animals live together free of all human control and he wants all of them to work towards making that dream come true. His vision of this paradise is enshrined in the song called “Beasts of England” that he goes on to teach the animals. Old Major is able to inspire all the animals but when he dies just three days after the meeting, three young pigs – Snowball, Napoleon and Squealer – take the initiative to formulate his main principles into a philosophy called Animalism. Fired by this radical philosophy, the animals launch an attack on their owner, the farmer Mr Jones, and chase him off his land. The Manor Farm is renamed the Animal Farm and the animals pledge to turn Old Major’s dream into reality. One of the animals most devoted to the cause
is the cart-horse Boxer who swears to work harder to make the farm produce more. He recommends his personal maxim “I will work harder” to all the animals of the farm.
During the early stages, the Animal Farm makes spectacular progress. Snowball teaches the animals to read while Napoleon trains a group of puppies in the fundamentals of Animalism. Soon Mr Jones re-appears at the farm intending to take it back from the animals. The animals are so united, they are able chase him off the premises again, capturing his abandoned gun in the process. With the passing of time, differences crop up between Snowball and Napoleon that turn acrimonious and soon they are struggling to gain authority and power over the animals in the farm. Snowball has the scheme to build a windmill that will provide the farm with electricity and modernize it but Napoleon opposes the scheme tooth and nail. It is decided to put the plan to vote. Snowball passionately argues in favour of it but Napoleon shows what he capable of by summoning the puppies that he has been training, to attack Snowball. Snowball is chased away from the farm and Napoleon assumes total control over the Animal Farm and discontinues
the practice of putting matters to vote. He declares that pigs alone have the right to decide for the animal farm as they are a superior class.
Napoleon appropriates the windmill idea as his own and gets all the animals, especially Boxer, to work hard to complete it. One day, during a storm, the windmill topples. The human farmers say that the windmill toppled as its walls had been made too thin but Napoleon accuses Snowball of having wrecked it in revenge. Napoleon creates the spectre of Snowball to purge the farm of all the animals which are perceived to be sympathetic towards Snowball. As part of the great purge, show trials are held and all the animals found guilty meet death at the hands of the ferocious dogs that Napoleon keeps. Napoleon goes a step ahead and rewrites the history of the farm making Snowball a villain. Napoleon takes on human characteristics and sleeps on a bed, drinks whiskey and engaged in trade with other farmers. These are actions that go against the original principles of Animalism but Squealer who is in charge of propaganda puts spin on it and justifies the action of Napoleon saying it is for the common good. The animals are, in fact, cold, hungry and overworked but they accept Squealer’s lies as the truth.
Mr Frederick, a farmer who lives nearby cheats Napoleon and then launches an attack on the farm and destroys the windmill which had been rebuilt at considerable expense. This is followed by a fight between the farmers and the animals in the farm. The farmers are driven back but Boxer is grievously injured. He still toils hard. One day, Boxer disappears from the farm. Squealer, in his dissembling ways, announces that Boxer has died in a hospital praising the rebellion till his last breath. The truth is that Boxer has been sold to raise money to fund Napoleon drinking habit.
Years later, it was seen that the pigs which are still in control resemble humans more and more. They wear clothes, carry whips and walk upright. In course of time the Seven Commandments of Animalism are supplanted by a single one that says “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. The common working animals are ill fed, sick and dispirited. One night, Napoleon entertains a farmer at dinner and announces his intention to join the human farm owners in their fight against the human and labouring classes. He changes the name “Animal Farm” back to “Manor Farm” as he feels that is the right one. The common animals look through the windows at the partying animals and humans but cannot say which are humans and which are pigs. They have become the same.
Manor Farm is very badly run by the farmer, Mr Jones. A wise old pig which has a dream of a farm run by all the animals collectively tells the animals of his dream. This pig, Old Major, encourages the animals to rebel against farmer’s tyranny and his neglect and run the farm themselves but never losing sight of the guiding principle of equality. All animals on the farm should have equal rights. Within three days, Old Major dies. The pigs assume the leadership role simply because Old Major was a pig too, casting aside the principle of equality right at the outset. Soon the frontline leaders, Napoleon and Snowball come into conflict for which the immediate trigger is the construction of a windmill. It points to the deep contradictions that lie beneath the façade of Animalism.
Though most animals support Snowball’s plan for a windmill, Napoleon opposes it and has Snowball chased off the farm by his squad of killer dogs that appear from nowhere. Napoleon becomes the chief authority in Animal farm. Everything that goes wrong is blamed on Snowball. The pigs exploit all the other animals while they lead the high life. Life in the farm for all the other animals become worse but they are fed propaganda by Squealer that it is all for their good. The pigs make bad decisions in dealing with neighbouring farms that end in the faithful Boxer, a work horse getting injured. Instead of getting it treated, they sell it to a glue factory owner. More and more, the pigs look like humans – they wear clothes, walk upright and persecute the animals.
Napoleon is an utterly corrupt opportunist who turns situations to his advantage. He does precious little to make the revolution against farmer Jones succeed - neither in formulating the ideology or participating in the bloody struggle that follows later nor in trying to help set up the society in its early days. It is only in training the puppies that he shows some interest. No one knows what he is doing with them until they show up ferocious and blood thirsty. They are his private army or a kind of secret police and using them he settles scores with his rivals for power. Napoleon brooks no opposition and his ways strike fear in the hearts of the other animals. The internal rebellion is put down with such ruthlessness than “the air was heavy with the smell of blood”.
Napoleon has been modelled on Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator, who had unleashed a reign of terror in Russia, exterminating foes and critics or anyone else who questioned his authority. While the rest of the Western world progressed, Russia hid behind the Iron Curtain and only such news as was favourable to Stalin saw the light of day. If there was no favourable news, it was created by the propagandists who like Squealer put a spin on language. The name Napoleon was also not chosen arbitrarily. He was the 18th century French general who in the name of banishing monarchy crowned himself emperor. The Napoleon of Animal Farm can stand for any of the great schemers or dictators that the world has seen. In him we can see shades of Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Pinochet, Pol Pot or any of the other tyrants who shared the same characteristics of love of power and ruthlessness.
If Napoleon is Stalin, Snowball is Leon Trotsky. Orwell fought side by side with a Trotskyist battalion during the Spanish Civil war. This corresponds to the time he planning the skeletal structure of Animal Farm. Orwell was at first impressed by Trotsky’s fervent championing of Communism. Snowball too throws himself into the attempt to spread Animism to the neighbouring farms and beyond. He works to improve the infrastructure in Animal Farm and plans to build a windmill so that that the farm is self sufficient in power and the animals can work towards improving their productivity. But in conditions that follow a revolution, when the republic is nascent, there is a lot of uncertainty around. The unscrupulous are out to grab power and Snowball’s eloquence is no match for Napoleon’s use of brute power.
Orwell was keenly aware of the ability of power to corrupt and Snowball is far from being idealized though he is presented in a far more positive light than Napoleon. At the beginning of the revolution, Snowball declares that pigs are most suitable to be leaders. He justifies the consumption of milk exclusively by pigs on the grounds that they do brain work for which special nourishment is required. In Snowball’s enthusiasm for the grand windmill there are suggestions of lurking megalomania that could have found expression had he come to power.
One of Orwell’s abiding interests was the study of how politicians manipulate language to serve their own ends. Squealer is the quintessential PR man in Animal Farm who abuses language and twists it around to justify Napoleon’s policies and actions to the common animals in the farm. One of his tactics is to simplify language radically and repeat it endlessly so that it brain washes the listeners. A great example of this is how he teaches the sheep to bleat “Four legs good, two legs better” in order to drown any debate. At other times he complicates language unnecessarily and obfuscates the issue that is being discussed. This way he confuses and intimidates the ordinary animals so much that they feel they are incapable of understanding anything without the help of the pigs. He justifies the consumption of milk and apples by the pigs exclusively saying they need it to keep their brains nourished so that they can take care of their comrades. What makes Squealer the perfect propagandist is his unwavering loyalty
to his leader and his lack of conscience along with his rhetorical skills. He is not called Squealer for nothing; his high pitched voice and his treacherous habit of betraying his fellow animals make him a perfect squealer.
Boxer is a work horse in Animal Farm and he is the most sympathetically delineated character in the novel. Boxer is an example of all that is exemplary in the working class: loyalty, dedication and a huge capacity for hard labour. Orwell also recognizes the failing that most working class seems to suffer from: a naïve trust in the noble intentions of the leaders of the revolution. They refuse to recognize the signs of corruption even when it is clearly visible. The exploitation of Boxer by the pigs as much or even more than by Mr Jones, is the symbol of the invisible labour that underpins the political drama being directed by the intelligentsia. Boxer’s death after years of faithful labour shows the extent of the pigs’ betrayal of the animals that look up to them for leadership and guidance.
Degeneration of Socialist Ideals in Stalin’s Russia
Animal Farm has been most widely read as the hard hitting critique of the history and the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Using the format of a fable, Orwell tells the story of the emergence and development of Soviet Communism. This allegory is about the rise to power of Joseph Stalin who became notorious as one of the worst dictators in history. The real life tussle for power between the ruthless manipulator Stalin and the idealist Trotsky finds resonance in the fight between the pigs Napoleon and Snowball. Just like Trotsky, Snowball is also expelled by Napoleon who unleashes the ferocious dogs on him. Another incident that has a close parallel in the history of the Russian Revolution is the show trials and summary executions by which Napoleon got rid of his enemies. Orwell strongly believed in socialist ideals but also felt that revolutions may be based on ideals of equality and freedom but from there they can sink down into a morass of greed and selfish interests very fast.
Is Class Stratification Unavoidable in Society?
Animal Farm comments on the tendency in human society to re-establish class structures even when outwardly they are based on a classless society. In the face of a common enemy all classes that are affected present a united front but once that enemy has been eliminated, they become internally divided. There is also a division between intelligentsia and labour that comes to the fore with the latter coming off the worse in the struggle for the upper hand.
The Animal Farm
The Animal Farm symbolizes Russia and the larger Soviet Union under the rule of the Communist Party. But it could well stand for any human society irrespective of its political orientation. The Animal Farm functions as a nation with its own government (run here by the pigs), its secret police (the dog squad) and a labour force (the common animals). To complete the picture, there are the hostile neighbouring farms with which there are often skirmishes.