In high school, I hated reading assigned novels for English class. I imagine it was a streak of inner rebelliousness which persists to this day. Why should I let someone else decide which messages are important? I could certainly decide for myself. Because I viewed the reading of assigned literature as a waste of time, I missed out on some incredible books. While accurately expressing the message and themes, the Cliff’s Notes on ‘Lord of The Flies’ did not adequately capture Ralph’s slide from democratic idealism to despair. ‘Lord of The Flies’ is now my favorite work of fiction, as it warns of mankind’s inherent savage nature, and reinforces society’s role in driving humankind toward higher aims and the greater good.
There is a beast inside all of us. The key is learning to tame it, and recognizing those rare instances when unleashing the beast is the only way to survive. ‘Life of Pi’ is another of my favorites. It’s an amazing exploration of how religion influences human thought and actions. Pi wanted to know everything he could about all religions – his open-mindedness and quest for truth became a beautiful tale of stamina and survival. And when the passive, meek Indian boy was faced with a “kill or be killed” moment, God turned him into a fucking tiger. A major theme of the book is that we all have an inner beast – an inner tiger.
Though I use them as illustrations of mankind’s animal nature and the process by which healthy societies tame it, this essay is about neither of those books. I use those two examples as an introduction of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’ When it was written in 1943, WWII was at full throttle in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. Much of the West displayed an open love for the Soviet Union, as its armies skillfully and repeatedly crushed German offenses. There was also a reverence for the “revolutionary spirit” of Stalin’s country and people. The bloody Bolshevik Revolution had toppled the ruling family, and intended to establish a socialist democracy in its place. The king had been overthrown, and the people got their turn to rule. As a British Officer involved in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s (in which the Soviets were heavily involved), Orwell was perhaps the first prominent Westerner to shine a negative light upon Stalinism. He had seen enough of Stalin’s brutal assault on dissent to understand that the USSR had devolved into something which was neither democratic nor socialist. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union had morphed into a fascist regime arguably as brutal as the Nazis they fought. With a fairly brief, but viciously cutting fable, Orwell exposed the Soviet Union for what it truly was – a totalitarian state determined to consolidate power and crush dissent.
As a quick synopsis, let me outline the story for those of you who have either not read it or haven’t picked it up in a few years. The tale is set on Manor Farm – an English country farm run by a careless and complacent drunkard named Mr. Jones. The animals were poorly kept, overworked, and frequently hungry. Mr. Jones represents the Russian Czar prior to the revolution. Using clear but clever anthropomorphization, Orwell paints meaningful human traits upon the animals planning a revolt. They are led by Old Major, an elderly, patriarchal purebred pig meant to represent Marx, Lenin, or a combination of the two. Ultimately, the animals revolt and drive the humans from the farm, achieving their goal of running the farm themselves. It begins as a true socialist experiment, and the animals are delighted to work toward the common goal of ensuring the farm’s success. Things go quite smoothly at first, and everyone is happy. Old Major dies of natural causes, and two competing younger pigs begin leading the farm.
One of the pigs is Napoleon, who is clearly meant to represent Stalin. Napoleon isn’t as intelligent or well spoken as his counterpart Snowball (who represents Trotsky). But Napoleon is subversive, power hungry, cunning, and unscrupulous. Snowball is inventive, well-spoken, idealistic, and spends his time planning ways to improve life for all the animals on the farm. Snowball is clearly a progressive. The two pigs disagree on virtually everything. Snowball designs a windmill, which will dramatically decrease labor necessary for the farm to succeed. Napoleon is against it. In an attempted raid by the humans to retake the farm, Snowball fights valiantly and is wounded. The animals rebuff the attack, and Snowball is honored as a war hero. Despite this, Napoleon, who has bred and trained vicious young dogs (representing the Soviet secret police), uses them to run Snowball off the farm, banishing him into exile.
Over the next few seasons, Napoleon exploits the biases, poor critical thinking skills, illiteracy, and vanities of the remaining animals to establish a totalitarian police state in which he obtains unquestioned authority. The individual flaws of the animals allow them to be manipulated into an existence worse than the one they experienced under Jones, yet they persist in the belief that their current lives are actually improvements.
Mollie, a beautiful show horse who loved human adoration and wearing ribbons in her mane, runs away from the farm when she realizes her vanities will not be fed and her ego will not be stroked. She represents the bourgeoisie class of Russians who fled after the revolution. Like Mollie, their country meant much less to them than sustaining their lavish lifestyle.
Boxer, a huge, strong, but dumb stallion, is the hardest working animal on the farm. The farm literally depends on Boxer’s labor and dedication to survive. He wakes up earlier than the rest to begin the day, works later, and expends every ounce of his strength in difficult tasks. He never questions Napoleon’s leadership, and lives by two mottos: “Napoleon is always right,” and “I will work harder.” His body is worn down over the years, and begins to fail him. Instead of being sent to the retirement pasture as promised, Napoleon sees an opportunity to further enrich himself. Under the guise of sending him to the vet, he instead sends Boxer to the knacker to be killed, boiled, and made into glue. As boxer is hauled away, the animals shout to him to get out of the wagon – that it is a trick. Worn down by labor and age, his once powerful legs cannot kick open the doors, and onward to the knacker he goes. Boxer represents the Soviet laboring class. Laborers under Stalin were to be illiterate, loyal, hard-working, abused, and tossed aside when they were no longer useful.
Squealer, a smaller, conniving pig aligned with Napoleon, functions as his propagandist. At every turn, he works to convince the animals of their usefulness and that their lives are better than they were under Jones. He cleverly and slowly alters the laws of the farm to reflect the needs of the pigs in charge. Over time, the previously democratic society becomes entirely different, but it happens so slowly that the feeble-minded and weak-willed animals fail to notice. At its founding, the most important law of the farm was “All animals are equal.” By the end of the book, it has become “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
In the end, the pigs who rule the farm begin walking on two legs and joining with humans from other farms to enrich themselves on the backs of the laboring animals. They sleep in the human beds of the manor house, and use the farm’s profits to buy liquor and other luxuries for themselves. The pigs literally become what they overthrew in the first place.
What messages should today’s audience take away from Orwell’s brilliant satire piece? First, modern readers need to realize that Vladimir Putin is a staunch Stalinist. He cut his teeth in the Stalinist USSR, and understands that in order to maintain power in his model of government, there is no room for dissent. He must own and control the media. He persecutes dissenters into self-censorship. Imprisonment and murder are the next steps if that proves ineffective. He cannot allow free or fair elections. A free press and informed populace would literally be his downfall. In short, today’s Russia is yesterday’s Stalinist Soviet Union.
The second message is that a democratic society will inevitably be open to dark forces. Free speech and a free press mean that propagandists are ever able to prey upon those who cannot think critically. Therefore, education of the populace is crucial to sustaining a democracy. An overly capitalistic society will experience rampant corruption, while an overly socialist one welcomes power abuses and a slide towards totalitarian rule. Do not forget that Orwell was a democratic socialist who wrote his book as a warning to all, including the like-minded. Elected officials who tend the machinery of democracy must possess idealistic minds, so that their government may remain virtuous and serve the needs of the citizens. The people they serve must recognize and call out corruption as it occurs, lest it fester into a fatal infection.
Finally, ‘Animal Farm’ illustrates the importance of a balanced society. Without some leisure time and money to spend, the proletariat cannot think, stimulate the economy, or drive innovation. If one’s existence is defined by securing the food, clothing, and shelter necessary for survival, then one cannot contribute to the political discourse. This is the aim of totalitarians who suppress women, the poor, and minorities. But once that oppression reaches a critical mass, revolution is the inevitable and necessary result. To resist totalitarianism is to promote peace in future generations. The spirit of democracy lives within us all. A balanced, stable society recognizes this fact, while still rewarding innovation and ingenuity. Healthy societies fiercely protect human rights, and relentlessly work for progress. A society which does not recognize this isn’t merely stagnant, it is actively sliding backwards into the darkness.
Keith Pochick, M.D.
Contributing Editor: Keith Pochick
Keith Pochick is a residency-trained Emergency Physician and Freelance Writer in North Carolina. He mostly explores ways to maintain humanism in medicine and the importance of promoting health of doctors and healthcare workers. An avid, albeit amateur American History buff, he currently thinks and writes about sustaining America’s identity and ideals. He is married to a pediatrician, and spends his free time cleaning his own gutters and coaching a 4th grade hoops team. Though he cut his teeth on Led Zeppelin, at times he will sing along to Taylor Swift songs in his minivan, even when no one else is in there. He has found Taylor Swift songs to be catchy as hell.