George Orwell and the timelessness of ‘Animal Farm’

An Orwellian view of this situation on one hand exposes the faultlines of capitalist accumulation, and on the other hand, also warns against any form of despotism.

george orwell

‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’- this statement has become a political proverb that has penetrated the common parlance and used extensively to describe conditions in different societies. Orwell’s Animal Farm, much like this statement, has also retained its significance over time, and read and interpreted extensively, making it one of the timeless political commentaries of the post World War era.

Published first in 1945, Animal Farm unfolds as a fable woven around toiling animals in a farm. Frustrated with their alcoholic, lazy and cruel master Mr. Jones, and encouraged by the vision of an old, wise pig- Old Major, they rebel against the farm owner and drive him off the farm. This new-found liberty and ownership of farm resources leads to swift development and prosperity of the animals. The leaders of the rebellion, two pigs, called Napoleon and Snowball take charge of the new form of government in the farm. Espoused by Old Major, the animals lay out and adopt ‘Seven Principles of Animalism’ based on the notions of equality, and non-accumulative behavior. However, the ideological differences between Napoleon and Snowball lead Napoleon to get Snowball attacked and chased out of the farm. The pigs, who are in command at this time gradually start behaving like the old farm owner- walking on two legs, sleeping in bed, drinking alcohol and striking deals with exploitative farmer-traders. The animals finally witness the degeneration of the principles of animalism, to an extent that they could no longer make out the difference between their principal enemy- the man and their current masters- the pigs.

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Widely read as a ‘fairy tale’, this work has predominantly been understood as a critique of Soviet Union under Stalin, commenting on the degeneration of a perceived socialist state into totalitarianism. Orwell, an English writer, found it extremely difficult to get this work published at a time when Britain was a committed ally of Soviet Russia. Once this work was out though, it witnessed a seamless appropriation by the right wing to extend a blanket criticism of communism. The right wing propagandists from US in particular made active attempts to popularise this work, translate it, adapt it into movies, curriculum and so on, and infuse it into the popular conscience that a rebellion of the masses is bound to get corrupted, with the leaders assuming the same positions that they fight against. Orwell’s essays were also invoked to highlight his rejection of Stalinist socialism and the perversion of communist principles into totalitarian regimes. It is indeed true that Animal Farm is an allegory directly commenting on contemporary series of events in the Soviet. The farm animals, a symbolic of the proletariat, led by the pigs- the Bolsheviks, under the intellectual guidance of the Old Major- symbolic of Marx, revolt against an oppressive system where their sustenance is solely dependent on the expenditure of their labour and the whims of the owner. The two main leads, Napolean- seeming to symbolize Stalin and Snowball- symbolising Trotsky, however get into a rival ambition for power, where Napoleon conspires to drive Snowball away and ultimately becomes a dictator with accumulated wealth and power, while the masses are left to toil once again.

While the right enthusiastically uses Animal Farm as a propaganda tool against an interventionist state, the supporters of Stalin’s regime dub it as Orwell’s absolute cynicism and even tag him a ‘liberal democrat’. To perceive Orwell and Animal Farm in any of these terms is a discredit to his engagement with left and left politics. While Animal Farm does present Orwell’s disillusionment with a brand of left politics and his support of individual freedoms, Orwell cannot be sidelined as someone in opposition of the left. Orwell was a committed egalitarian and his criticisms sprouted from his own experiences as a participant of the Spanish civil war and due to his understanding of the working class as a heterogenous group that must only be collectivised from below. Orwell’s criticism of totalitarianism, visible in Animal Farm and 1984, must not be perceived as a blanket criticism of revolution or revolutionary thought. He, infact wrote multiple essays hailing socialism and egalitarianism. His commitment to working class issues is also visible in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, written on the conditions of coal miners. In Animal Farm too, the conditions that led the animals to revolt against the farm owner lucidly demonstrate the malicious character of capitalist relations. Their revolution might have failed to create everlasting prosperity for them, but to say that their condition would have been better sans a revolution would be baseless and absurd. Orwell presents a scenario of the degradation of the principles of Animalism in a way that the original principles are shown to be gradually and purposely corrupted by politically ambitious forces, but the integrity of the original principles is never put to doubt.

Just like we witness the usage of progressive vocabulary to represent diagonally placed ideas, we see the use of Animal Farm as propaganda literature across the political spectrum. The merit of this work lies in its absolute simplicity and straightforwardness. The symbolicism, the imagery, the metaphors and the language of this work is so direct that it makes the reader view multiple societies laid open on the pages of the book, without putting much labour into comprehending it. It is not to mean that there are no complexities in the thought that went behind this writing. As the right has attempted to do, this book can actually be read and interpreted plainly in accordance with one’s own biases. But, to grasp the politics of this piece of literature, a peak into Orwell’s overall thought and practice is necessary. The brilliance of Orwell’s satirical honesty is revealed through the timelessness of this classic.

In a pandemic-ridden world where the working classes across borders are struggling to survive, a section of the capitalist class can still be seen appropriating super profits. The gap between the ‘more equal’ and ‘the rest’ has been laid wide open. The left also can analyse why the production relations have crumbled, but cannot fully answer what is to be done when production processes themselves come to a halt. Further, we witness an attempt by fascist regimes to use the pandemic as an opportunity of expanding their power and shutting all dissenting voices. An Orwellian view of this situation on one hand exposes the faultlines of capitalist accumulation, and on the other hand also warns against any form of despotism. Orwell will remain relevant so far as the right exists and the left refuses to reflect on any possible perversions that it may fall into.

The Autor is a Masters in Development Studies. Views expressed are personal. 

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