REVIEW: Animal Farm (1945)

A Book by George Orwell

As with many kids in The United States, I experienced your typical middle and high school reading and literature classes that seemed to always lean pretty heavily on somewhat subversive books. A lot of novels like Lord of the Flies, Z for Zachariah, The Wave, and multiple George Orwell classics still sit in my mind in a place of warm nostalgia, and likely caused me to shift so heavily into reading dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and controversial classic books. Animal Farm is one such book that I always enjoyed, first introduced to me a LOOONG time ago in a class where we had to choose a book from a big rack and do reports on them. Of course, a lot of the historical implications of the novel were lost on me at the time, aside from a vague notion that “this is about how bad communism is”. I’m sure the book entered the curriculum for just that reason, as a holdover from era of The Cold War politics as a cautionary tale to ensure kids love them some Capitalism. Animal Farm is one of those books, however, that seems to mutate and change each time one reads it, and with my keen interest on history, I love seeing that aspect that is laid into the allegory. This is, of course, one of those book’s I’d put in my “Elon Musk’s Books “Cool Guys” Pretend to Have Read” shelf, because just like with Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, this is easily one of those books highly susceptible people using it as “proof” of their right-wing political ideas despite the obvious tilt the other direction from orwell. I decided to read this once again and see if it still holds up for me.

While many (most of which likely have never read the book) look at Animal Farm as some kind of Earth-shattering indictment of Communism as a whole, it is honestly anything but that. For example, many Right-Wing Pundits like Jordan B. Peterson actively champion George Orwell as some kind of ultra-Capitalist that tried his best to warn everyone about the ills of Marxism and Communism. Seeing similar threads in books, such as Animal Farm, result in an incredibly myopic reading of the themes of the story, and lack the nuance of understanding the political climate of the time in which the book was written in as well as Orwell’s actual political beliefs. Animal Farm is just one of those books, much like almost all of Orwell’s writings, that seems to broadly champion whoever’s ideals that happens to be reading said book, and as such, many interpretations of it are out there. As the saying goes, however, all interpretations of the book are equal, but some are more equal than others. I share the opinion of many well more informed scholars and historians, that would argue that Animal Farm does not make a good example of the kind of anti-communist propaganda late night cable news would lead you to believe. It’s far too keen on the pre-revolution ideals behind “Animalism”, the book’s Marxism stand-in, and the ending involves the absolute deterioration of those ideals into a fully-Capitalist dictatorship run by a madman… er….pig. The Capitalists aren’t the “good guys”, they are in league with the villains.

“For somewhat complex reasons nearly the whole of the English left has been driven to accept the Russian regime as ‘Socialist,’ while silently recognising that its spirit and practice are quite alien to anything that is meant by ‘Socialism’ in this country. Hence there has arisen a sort of schizophrenic manner of thinking, in which words like ‘democracy’ can bear two irreconcilable meanings, and such things as concentration camps and mass deportations can be right and wrong simultaneously” – George Orwell, March 1948

If one were to look at some of his personal writings, Orwell seems to loathe Capitalist society (especially millionaires) as much as the trends he saw with Socialist communities, seeing them both as incredibly easy to corrupt. He is hard to nail down into a black and white “team sports” camp, which makes it easy for others to mis-use his words. In terms of Collectivism/Communism, you can see that he likes the idea of it, but in practice has just witnessed Josef Stalin bastardize it entirely, leading him to wonder if it’s possible to even achieve the utopian goal it is supposed to achieve. For example, in a rebuke of two separate books that came out at the same time and somehow came to extremely opposite opinions despite citing the same studies, Orwell wrote: “Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war.” No Jordan Peterson, George Orwell would not appreciate the mis-guided praise you heap upon him.

So, what is the book about then? Rather than exist as a monument to warn of the perceived “evils of Communism”, Animal Farm is a satirical allegory of the Rise of Josef Stalin with many of the characters representing actual historical figures. Napoleon represents Josef Stalin himself, Snowball is Leon Trotsky, Old Major is a combo of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx, Farmer Jones is Tsar Nicholas II, Squealer is Vyacheslav Molotov, and many more examples, both implicit and vague alike. Historical events are also referenced, such as The Battle of the Cowshed which represents The October Revolution, and the Battle of The Windmill which is a reference to the Battle of Stalingrad (or WWII as a whole). Things are boiled down for simplicity’s sake, and a lot of important people and places are “left out” of the narrative, but the story does well in summarizing the ins and outs of such a pivotal point in history fairly well. Even without the historical knowledge of all the who’s and what’s, Animal Farm is an interesting narrative of what happens to a community that allows a charismatic dictator to undermine the ideals and beliefs that the community is based on. By the end of the story, Napoleon has taken every aspect of what made “Animalism” what it is and done basically the opposite, enriching himself and all of his pig brethren at every step of the way.

The most interesting thing about Animal Farm is that it deliberately uses the same tropes and stylistic choices as many children’s fairy tales. Some version of the book even retain the original subtitle of “A Fairy Story”. It features talking animals as main characters, is a fairly short book, and the language is simple to understand – the hallmarks of books designed for younger readers. However, I would be hard-pressed to say that it is a “children’s book” due to the political ramifications and brutality found within. Then again, books like Watership Down are considered children’s books and that is every bit as disturbing as Animal Farm. The question arises – should it be recommended to children, which is something I say “YES” to in just about every way. Rather than being taken as a narrow “Communism bad” allegory, one really needs to look at it as a warning against authoritarianism, personality cults, and the slippery slope to tyranny – all things that have been happening a LOT lately. One doesn’t have to watch the news very long before one can bear witness to a multitude of people unable or unwilling to understand what is happening around them. They have easily become Orwell’s sheep, always chanting party slogans and never thinking for themselves, and that’s a bit more than scary.

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Overall, I was very glad to have read this in my advanced age of forty, some twenty-five years after I read it previously. I may even seek out the recent film that came out and perhaps the graphic novel that I have not kept up with, as this really is such a great story. For all my talk on how many mis-understand Orwell’s novels, I do think of one last little tidbit that makes me chuckle considering the above right-wing fanboyism for his works. After publication of Animal Farm, Orwell found himself in hot water with the British government. Not only was the book seen as a leftist political tract of sorts, but his association with Communist and Socialist organizations branded him a “threat to Queen and Country” which led to surveillance and government overreach that angered the author. This climate was what ultimately led to the creation of his classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, yet another book mischaracterized and misquoted by those that should know better. I’m sure, as a society, we are doomed to constantly repeat the mistakes that are lampooned here in this book, and in the end most will come to sympathize with Benjamin the Donkey as everything falls apart around them.

“Windmill or no windmill, life would go on as it had always gone on – that is, badly.”


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