In terms of making me feel like I’m actually doing something with my life, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was a pretty good deal.
Here’s what I mean by that. It was short—at 128 small pages, I read most of it in a single weekend. It is easy to read—written in a clear, simple style. And it’s a classic—ranking just under “1984” on the list of famous Orwell books. In other words, I read a classic over the weekend and understood it.
Wish I could do that every weekend.
But seriously, “Animal Farm” is a pretty good read. Orwell writes with a down-to-earth simplicity that fits the book’s parable-like fairy tale genre. First published in 1946, in the aftermath of Nazi Germany and on the brink of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, Orwell launches a scathing attack on totalitarianism in no uncertain terms in one of the most simple contexts imaginable—a farm.
The plot is simple but effective. It begins on Mr. Jones farm. One night, one of the old hogs gathers all of the animals and tells of a coming revolution. He predicts that one day the time will come for all animals to rise up, overthrow their oppressive human rulers, and establish their own utopia where all animals live in harmony with each other, reap the full fruits of their labor, and enjoy an abundance of food and rest. Soon after the old hog’s death, on a night when Jones was especially drunk and careless with his animals, two younger pigs lead a revolution that ousts the farmer and gives the animals control of the farm.
Everything goes wonderfully, at first. Led by the pigs, the animals collectively work hard for the benefit of each other and quickly establish their own laws of “Animal Farm” to ensure equality and further their cause around the world. They rename the farm “Animal Farm,” fly their own flag, and sing their own national anthem, “The Beasts of England.” Yet the dreams of a world of animal equality and abundance for all turn out to be nothing more than that—just dreams.
This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. The genius of “Animal Farm” lies in the way Orwell steadily chronicles the degeneration of Animal Farm from a happy, prosperous utopia to a cruel dictatorship in which even all of the great hallmarks of the revolution have been abolished.
The most frightening thing about this process is the great deception that the pigs must use to keep Animal Farm in order. They use their superior intelligence to direct the operations of Animal Farm, defeat those who oppose it, and enforce the commandments. Yet their benevolence, while possibly genuine in the beginning, ends up becoming no more than a veneer and tool for their own selfish ends. In order to legitimate their power and become benevolent rulers in the eyes of the animals, they constantly refine, update, and spin reality to suit their political ends. This means turning the historical heroes of Animal Farm into villains, making empty promises about technological advancements, “revising” the laws of Animal Farm from absolutes to softer and more abstract principles, and framing those who dissent against their superior knowledge and wisdom.
At first, two pigs lead the farm in a manner similar to figureheads of political parties, until one backstabs the other, casts him out of Animal Farm as a traitor, and steals his ideas. At first, humans are entirely evil to the animals, yet as the leading pig sees the economic advantage of interacting with humans and imitating their ways, he finds ways to relax the rules and—contrary to everything Animal Farm stood for at its inception—he eventually become indistinguishable from the men they overthrew in the first place.
As for the rest of the animals on the farm, in the end, “the last state has become worse for them than the first.”
As an American who sees himself fundamentally as a free man, this is perhaps the greatest reason I appreciate George Orwell. He understood the temptation of power—and how men will inevitably succumb to it. The pursuit of power may begin with good intentions. I suspect that most of the time it does. Yet in the end, those who think they know best will force what they think is best on the masses. And who should argue? They are more intelligent and more politically savvy, after all.
If such is the case, though, it means that when it comes to governing, it is impossible to make everyone equal. The old Marxist adage, “from each according to his ability to each according to his need,” proves faulty in Animal Farm despite an incredible degree of sacrifice and selflessness on the part of many of the animals. To paraphrase the last commandment of Animalism: everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.
Orwell never offers readers much hope of a solution. I think that was by design, because it seems the purpose of “Animal Farm” is to dash our hopes of utopian thinking and come to grips with the reality that man will always struggle for power. The system of government does not matter. There will always be oppression. We will always have the poor with us. As such, when it comes to the state, it’s a matter of trying to choose the lesser of evils, and Orwell makes it clear in “Animal Farm” that totalitarianism—and anything that could lead to it—is always the worst.