Orwell’s portrait of a totalitarian society, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, is more revered than his story about how one came about, “Animal Farm”. “Animal Farm” is almost regarded as a children’s book, but seeing how something is made is just as important as seeing how something works. Does it have the same literary merit? It’s a rather heavy-handed metaphor, but doesn’t lose power for that.
What surprised me the most, after re-reading it many years later, is that Orwell believed in HBD, as we call it these days. But that shouldn’t be surprising. Everybody believed in it back then. Even communists- or especially communists- believed it in terms of the revolutionaries, who were smart and knew what was going on, and everybody else, who was not quite as bright and should be grateful they had the revolutionaries to tell them what to do. This is the implicit sort of HBD that the current elite believes in. The animals have widely varying levels of intelligence and ability, which play out in their manipulation by the leaders of the revolution.
The story is a straight takeoff on the Russian Revolution from a Trotskyite standpoint. Not formally a Trotskyite, Orwell makes it clear he sympathizes with that viewpoint.
The story begins with a wise old pig making a speech to the animals in the barn, that he is old and will soon die but sees a future in which the animals are not subjected by the humans. This brings up the first religious metaphor. Orwell repeatedly compares Stalinist communism to religion, or something close to it, and this is a pretty heavy insult as Orwell loathes religion.
The pigs then lead the animals in a song about the life of animals freed from human bondage. The song is important- the song provokes the revolution, not anything, or not very much by the way of logical argument. The commandments come after the revolution.
Not all animals go along. Those that don’t are types based on hostile groups Orwell disliked- the religious, the status-conscious, the criminal. The most poignant character is Boxer, the plow horse, who believes in and works hard for the revolution but never understands what is going on or how he is being used.
The pigs institute Sunday meetings, another comparison to religion. They also institute various committees, which don’t accomplish anything because the animals on them don’t have intelligence or organizational abilities. This looks like another Orwell recognition of HBD. I think what he really hoped for was that people like himself, educated members of the British upper-middle class, would come together to organize a more sober, rational and level-headed sort of communism rather than the thuggish, mob-oriented politics of Stalin.
The HBD continues. The pigs write seven commandments on the side of the barn. The animals receive instruction in reading, but few make any progress. Because they can’t read and can’t memorize the commandments, the commandments can regularly be changed to suit the needs of the leaders. Much is made of the constant changing of Soviet history, but Orwell seems to acknowledge that most people aren’t paying much attention to the news or what the government says and wouldn’t notice if it was different from last week.
Snowball clearly is supposed to represent Trotsky, and Napoleon Stalin- fairly insulting because Napoleon seems to be regarded in English culture as a buffoonish figure. Their struggles and their attitudes towards the outside world mirror those of their models.
A big conflict between Stalin and Trotsky was whether to build up communism in Russia and then try to export it, as Stalin wanted, or immediately try to instigate revolutions in other countries, as Trotsky wanted. I think Trotsky was right, because after the Russian Revolution people elsewhere could see what was coming and took harsh measures against communist revolution. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, communists attempted revolution in Germany, but were defeated by Germans who eventually formed the Nazi Party. The Spanish Civil War was the first time communism waged full-scale warfare against serious opposition, and it lost. Communism created Nazism and fascism, and never had a serious chance in the developed world. The German experience shows Stalin may have been right, but in more vulnerable places it might have had a better chance, and in later years it had no chance at all.
Orwell didn’t want democracy, he wanted Trotsky. He thinks things would have worked out fine with Trotsky, although he never said this explicitly. In the story what allows Napoleon to succeed is the acceptance of Boxer, the hard-working, loyal, and stupid plow horse, who obviously represents the mass of laborers. Orwell met a lot of these people in the Spanish Civil War, and while he loved them he seemed also to pity them. Orwell was as much of a dupe as anyone in that conflict though, he had friends murdered and imprisoned and only just escaped with his own life. And yet for all that he never really questioned communism.
A Stalinist would probably dismiss Orwell as a bourgeois intellectual, and he might be right. Orwell didn’t have any objection to the harsh suppression of communism’s opponents, in fact he was quite approving of it, especially with regards to the church. Whether he would have had the stomach for it himself is doubtful.
Once Napoleon takes over, things steadily decline in incompetence and corruption. The only real success the animals have is in driving off the farmer and his allies when they try to come back. The trouble is the animals have an emotional attachment to the revolution that keeps them loyal despite all the bad things that happen.
The fate of Boxer is prophetic. He is promised a pension, but the economic collapse of the farm prevents it. He is promised health care, but that too is unaffordable. Socialism is based on promises, and a promise is something you haven’t received yet. Viktor Suvorov wrote that communism survived because the leaders promised things would be great in 25 years, but they knew they would be dead by then and didn’t care. Then a new crop would take over, say the current group had all been crooks, and promise things would be great in 25 years, and the cycle continued.
The cycle of social democracy is coming due. We have not had a regime change, so the promises of the 1930’s, the 1960’s and later are all still due. The blue states are in the midst of or facing the cycle now- municipal bankruptcies in California, and the whole Illinois state pension plan.
As soon as Napoleon had children, the farm becomes an aristocracy. Britain is certainly a sort of hereditary oligarchy, but its class system is more refined. The US also has a class system, but it is a little more subtle.
Orwell’s fatal personal flaw- besides being a nihilistic communist revolutionary at base- was that he was intellectually honest. He has never been forgiven for this, or for illustrating the lies on which socialism of all kinds is based, because all socialism is fundamentally Stalinist.