Animal Farm is a novella written by George Orwell and published in 1945. Written in the form of a ‘fairy story’ with talking farm animals, it is a satirical political allegory of the first twenty-five years or so of Soviet Russia. It has been said that almost every detail of the story allegorically represented something of political importance from early Soviet history.
Orwell was prompted to write Animal Farm (and Nineteen Eighty-Four) by his disquieting experiences as a Republican soldier in the Spanish Civil War, fighting with the POUM, an anti-Stalinist Marxist group who were slandered by the Stalinists as Trotskyist, and, more fantastically, as sympathizing with Franco. In Homage to Catalonia and numerous letters, he wrote of how inconsistently the USSR was ‘helping’ the Republican side, who should have been their allies as fellow leftists. Stalin seemed more interested in making alliances with the capitalist West (i.e., England, France, and America, whose ‘neutral,’ non-interventionist policy actually aided the Fascists) against the growing threat of Naziism, and in crushing any manifestations of Trotskyism among the Spanish communists, than in helping his comrades in Spain. Hence, the leftist media, following the Stalinist agenda, denied the socialist revolution going on in Spain at the time, insisting instead that the struggle against Fascism was about preserving ‘liberal democracy’. Indeed, what Stalin really wanted was to crush the Spanish revolution. Hence, Orwell’s bitterness against the USSR. Now, let’s look at the allegory of Animal Farm.
Mr. Jones, the owner of the Manor Farm, represents Tsar Nicholas II and the Russian capitalist class. The Manor Farm, therefore, represents Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries, up until World War I.
Old Major, an aging pig that hasn’t long to live, represents Karl Marx and, to a lesser extent, Lenin (later in the story, Old Major’s skull is reverently put on public display, recalling Lenin’s Mausoleum). So his speech, in which he describes the deplorable state of the overworked, underfed farm animals, represents the conditions of the disenfranchised working class in 19th century England, as described in Capital, as well as autocratic, tsarist Russia in Lenin’s writings. Old Major’s prophecy of a day when the animals will revolt against Jones and take over the farm represents Marx’s prophecy of the eventual collapse of capitalism and the workers seizing control of the means of production in a communist revolution.
When Old Major warns of the danger of the animals adopting human vices, and becoming as oppressive as man is after emancipating themselves, this can be seen as a reflection both of Orwell’s and Marx’s later anti-authoritarian stance (in the Grundrisse and The Civil War in France), as opposed to his more statist stance in The Communist Manifesto.
After Old Major dies, the animals prepare for the day of revolution, with the pigs in leadership positions; this represents how, after Marx died, Lenin and his vanguard party, the Bolsheviks, led the working class in Russia in preparation for revolution there.
Jones is kinder to Moses, a raven that promises ‘Sugarcandy Mountain’, a kind of animal heaven, to all hardworking animals on the farm. Moses thus represents the Russian Orthodox Church, an authoritarian structure propped up by the tsar and ruling class, to placate the frustrated workers and keep them under control.
Finally, on a day when Jones has got too drunk to remember to feed the animals, they rebel against the farmhands and kick them off the farm. Even Jones and his wife run off, with Moses flying close behind her. This moment represents the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power.
The feeling of freedom is exhilarating for the animals, as it must have been for the Russian communists in 1917. The animals change the name of the farm, from the Manor Farm, to Animal Farm. A green flag, with a white hoof and horn crossing each other, is hoisted on a flagpole; it obviously represents the red communist flag, with the hammer and sickle.
The pigs being the smartest of the animals, just like the educated Bolsheviks, have the animals go into the fields to begin the harvest after the pigs have milked the cows. Later, it is discovered that the milk has gone missing. The Seven Commandments, painted on the barn wall, suggest a religious-like idealism for the new values of ‘Animalism,’ which represents communism, but which may also be a pun on anarchism, since full communism includes a withered-away state; also, the Bolshevik bureaucracy hadn’t developed in Russia yet. Finally, there was Nestor Makhno‘s anarcho-communist Free Territory in the Ukraine.
Not accepting defeat easily, the humans mount a counter-attack, just as the capitalist class did in Russia in 1918. The Battle of the Cowshed, which involves men from other farms helping Jones retake his farm, thus represents the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922, in which the White Army of the capitalist class included help from capitalists from other countries, like the US. The farmers lose the Battle of the Cowshed, being chased off the farm thanks in particular to the bravery of the pig Snowball; just as the White Army lost the Russian Civil War thanks to the leadership of Leon Trotsky (whom Snowball represents) and the Red Army.
Before this battle, the pig Napoleon has already secretly taken in a litter of puppies to rear them. This represents the secret machinations of Stalin (Napoleon) and his rise to power. Later, we learn that not only the milk but also the apples are being eaten by the pigs rather than shared by all the animals. This privilege represents the continuing bureaucratization of the Soviet Union, with the Bolsheviks creating a hierarchy of power, as well as advocating working with reactionary unions and bourgeois parliaments (though only when considered justified and necessary), the kind of thing that German and British Left Communists were complaining about even under the rule of Lenin, who dismissed his critics as having ‘an infantile disorder‘.
Mollie doesn’t like living on Animal Farm; she prefers the old days when men ran the farm and gave her sugar and ribbons for her mane, to make her look cute. She’s been caught by her animal comrades taking secret gifts from humans, and she eventually leaves Animal Farm to live on another farm. She represents how women can be as bourgeois as men; and even though Orwell was unlikely to have known Ayn Rand, Mollie can be seen to represent such pro-capitalist women, who left Russia with their noses firmly out of joint.
Ideological struggles begin to grow between the pigs. Snowball advocates encouraging animals all over the farms of England to revolt against their human masters; for if all farms become like Animal Farm, there will be no need to defend them against humans, since the revolution will be complete. Napoleon, on the other hand, prefers focusing on protecting Animal Farm alone, getting firearms and learning how to use them. This discord represents the ideological rift between Trotskyism and permanent revolution on the one side, and Stalinism and ‘socialism in one country‘ on the other.
Similarly, Snowball proposes building a windmill to provide electricity for the farm; this, he promises, will reduce the workload for the animals and make their lives much easier. In this, we see that Snowball, though mostly based on Trotsky, also has a bit of Lenin in him, since Lenin wanted to promote electrification in the USSR; one need only read Lenin’s writing, ‘Communism and Electrification’, from 1920: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” [Lenin’s emphasis] (Tucker, p. 492-495). As S.A. Smith says in The Russian Revolution: “Productivism was evident in Lenin’s enthusiasm for electrification, which he avowed would ‘produce a decisive victory of the principles of communism in our country’ by transforming small-scale agriculture, by eliminating drudgery from the home, and by dramatically improving public health and sanitation.” (p. 104)
(Incidentally, I find it interesting how Lenin, represented slightly in Old Major and here in Snowball, doesn’t have his own pig to represent him in full. Odd.)
Napoleon rejects Snowball’s idea, even pissing on his windmill drawings; but after having his now-fully-grown dogs (which represent the secret police of the USSR) chase Snowball off the farm, he later pretends that the windmill was his idea all along.
The chasing off of Snowball represents the exile of Leon Trotsky after he lost the power struggle with Stalin in the mid to late 1920s. Napoleon’s adoption of the plan to build the windmill, and the three attempts to build it, represent Stalin’s three Five-Year Plans to industrialize the Soviet Union, carried out mostly during the 1930s.
The animals are getting suspicious of the pigs, as were many communists of the bureaucracy in the USSR. Napoleon is now doing business with humans, namely, Mr. Whymper, trading hay, some of the wheat crop, and the chickens’ eggs for urgently needed things in order to build the windmill…but later on, also to obtain such things as booklets on brewing and distillery, for liquor. Weren’t the animals forbidden to drink alcohol, according to the Seven Commandments? Wasn’t the whole reason for ridding themselves of their human masters that the animals were to keep all the products of their labour? Weren’t all humans the enemy (‘four legs good, two legs bad’), never to be associated with?
The end of the regular animal meetings on Sunday mornings represents the fading of the influence of the Soviets, or workers’ councils, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat‘ replaced by a dictatorship of the vanguard. Napoleon doing business with the humans represents Stalin doing business with American capitalists like Ford Motor Company.
During one bitter winter, the animals’ food falls short, and they are faced with starvation. This represents the Great Famine of 1932-33.
Unwilling to part with their eggs, the chickens revolt against the pigs, and are rounded up by the dogs. The chickens, along with other animals said to be guilty of ‘treason’ against Animal Farm, are executed. This killing represents the Great Purge of the 1930s, which killed such high-profile communists as Nikolai Bukharin, and also Stalin’s use of state terror to keep his people in line. Napoleon even has the song ‘Beasts of England’ replaced with one praising him.
Napoleon is doing business with Whymper and other farms, making deals with Frederick‘s farm and Pilkington‘s (or trying to), as Stalin did with Nazi Germany (i.e., the non-aggression pact, purging the USSR of Jews, etc.) and tried to do with England. Clearly, Animal Farm isn’t so much different from other farms, as Stalin’s regime was much like any other.
The Seven Commandments are being increasingly modified, and thus discarded: the pigs are sleeping in beds, they have given themselves licence to kill any animal that is a threat to them, and they can even get drunk if they like.
Orwell is often criticized on the grounds that he never set foot in the Soviet Union; but his observations were largely confirmed by Milovan Djilas (who personally met and worked with Stalin on several occasions) in such books as The New Class and Conversations With Stalin. A new Russian elite was replacing the old, tsarist one; capitalist imperialism was traded in for Soviet imperialism. This would explain such things as the meagre help Stalin gave the Spanish communists and anarchists in the late 1930s.
In Conversations With Stalin, Djilas noted, “It is time something was said about Stalin’s attitude toward revolutions, and thus toward the Yugoslav revolution. Because Moscow abstained, always in decisive moments, from supporting the Chinese, Spanish, and in many ways even the Yugoslav revolutions, the view prevailed, not without reason, that Stalin was generally against revolutions. This is, however, not entirely correct. He was opposed only conditionally, that is, to the degree to which the revolution went beyond the interests of the Soviet state. He felt instinctively that the creation of revolutionary centres outside of Moscow could endanger its supremacy in world Communism, and of course that is what actually happened. That is why he helped revolutions only up to a certain point–up to where he could control them–but he was always ready to leave them in the lurch whenever they slipped out of his grasp.” (pp. 92-93)
Now, the erosion of animal rights needn’t symbolize only the erosion of workers’ rights in the USSR: this erosion can also represent such things as the change from liberation movements in the 60s and 70s into such mutant forms of today as political correctness, postmodernism, social justice warriors, and identity politics. The struggle against racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., was carried out with much more solidarity forty years ago than it is today. Interestingly, forty years ago, neoliberalism hadn’t quite gotten off the ground yet, either. Hmm…
The decision by farmers led by Mr. Frederick to go in and take back Animal Farm for human control results in the violent Battle of the Windmill, so called because the second windmill has been dynamited (by Mr. Frederick and his men). This battle represents the Nazi invasion of Russia during the Second World War, since Frederick represents Hitler, who, contrary to right-libertarians’ portrayal as a ‘socialist’, was as much a whore to big business as any other capitalist politician. The violence of this battle corresponds to that of the Battle of Stalingrad, often considered the bloodiest battle in military history.
A third windmill is finally built, at the cost of Boxer‘s life: its construction represents the completed transformation of the Soviet Union from an agrarian country to an industrialized superpower. But all the benefits of the windmill go to the pigs, who are now wearing clothes and walking on their hind legs! No longer do the sycophantic, mindless sheep bleat ‘four legs good, two legs bad’; now, it’s ‘four legs good, two legs better‘! The Seven Commandments have been replaced with one: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ This chilling commandment can be seen to represent not only the New Class, the nomenklatura of the Soviet bureaucracy set up and bloated by the Leninists and Stalinists, but also the reverse discrimination championed by politically correct-thinking social justice warriors.
That said, however, Orwell was not trying to attack all forms of leftism, as the right-libertarians like to think. Indeed, the political right is fond of misusing Orwell for their own propagandistic purposes, as this CIA-funded cartoon movie of Animal Farm shows. This movie’s depiction of the Soviet Union, as with every right-wing distortion of socialism, paints a much darker portrait of Stalinism than even Orwell had intended.
Ironically, the Stalinists and Maoists also seem to think Orwell was opposed to all of socialism. Actually, he was opposed only to authoritarian forms of socialism, as well as to Fascism.
Now, sometimes Orwell’s antipathy to the USSR went too far, and the attitude he had towards blacks, gays, and Jews does him no credit at all. Furthermore, one shouldn’t be too negative towards Stalin. After all, his Red Army marched into Berlin and defeated the Nazis. And his transformation of Soviet Russia, from a backward agrarian country into a modernized superpower, within just a few decades, can only be described as impressive.
The vices of Bolshevik rule tend to be exaggerated, too. Not all of Leninist authoritarianism can be so simplistically reduced to government corruption. Much of the bureaucratization, especially in the wake of the Russian Civil War, was inevitable, as S.A. Smith observes in The Russian Revolution–A Very Short Introduction: “The massive problems of recruiting, feeding, and transporting the Red Army, of squeezing grain from an unwilling peasantry, and of overcoming parochialism and inertia at the local level created irresistible pressures to centralize decision-making at the apex of the party. Moreover the constant emergencies of war fed the pressure to take instant decisions and to implement them forcefully, with the result that the party came increasingly to operate like an army.” (p. 66)
What’s more, polls have been taken in Russia, repeatedly indicating that the majority of Russians would prefer a return of the USSR. Surely, Soviet Russia wasn’t as bad as Orwell was portraying it. All this said, though, apart from the collectivization of the farms, was the USSR genuinely socialist?
Orwell’s opposition to the USSR was based on the Stalinist reality that he’d experienced in Spain (i.e., the repression of the POUM), and it wasn’t a condemnation of socialism as a whole. Consider what he had to say about anarchist Catalonia:
“It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal…All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” (Homage to Catalonia, from Orwell In Spain, pp. 32-33)
“As far as my purely personal preferences went I would have liked to join the Anarchists.” (Homage to Catalonia, p. 116–not from Orwell in Spain)
These are hardly the words of an anti-socialist.
His point about the pigs being indistinguishable from the humans was that the Soviets were indistinguishable from Western capitalists. Soviet ‘socialism’ was really just state capitalism, with the state–rather than the workers–controlling the means of production. This is why the Marxist state never withered away, or even approached such fading.
As Milovan Djilas explains in The New Class: “In the course of industrialization, the property of those elements who were not opposed to, or even assisted, the revolution is taken over. As a matter of form, the state also becomes the owner of this property. The state administers and manages the property. Private ownership ceases, or decreases to a role of secondary importance, but its complete disappearance is subject to the whim of the new men in authority.” (p. 30)
The pigs’ meeting with the humans at the end of the story represents the Tehran Conference of Stalin with Churchill and Roosevelt. Calling the farm ‘the Manor Farm’ (note the pun on man in Manor) again shows the reality of state capitalism rather than real socialism. Napoleon and Mr. Pilkington accusing each other of cheating when they both play the ace of spades simultaneously is an anticipation of the troubles of the Cold War.
Now, Orwell’s criticism of authoritarianism isn’t limited to the bullying of the Stalinists. He was also pointing out the weakness and conformity of the animals, who blindly follow whatever propaganda the pigs throw at them. Boxer, though loveable, isn’t very smart. His motto, “I will work harder,” is noble, but foolish. His getting up earlier and earlier in the morning to lift heavy rocks for the building of the windmills is what causes his death. Even more foolish is his saying, “If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right.” We mustn’t idealize our leaders, or be too willing to sacrifice ourselves for them, expecting a reward that will never come. Boxer never gets the retirement he’s deserved.
And whenever a commandment on the barn wall is altered, the animals passively accept it, imagining they have just forgotten that it has always said what it only now says. Indeed, those in authority often exploit our tendency to forget what has happened even as little as, say, ten years ago; thus, they trick us into making the same mistakes we’ve made so many times before.
Part of ending authoritarianism is the vigilance of the people to root it out whenever it’s seen. There will always be power-hungry people out there, ready to subvert justice for their own selfish ends. We, the people, have to keep watch against such demagogues, never letting their guile get the better of us.
Indeed, a similar corrupting of the ideals of personal liberty can be seen in the rise of contemporary neoliberalism. In the 1970s and 80s, right-libertarians (a kind of ‘Old Major’ in their own right) promoted the idea of the ‘free market,’ insisting that too much government regulation was bad for the economy, and akin to Stalinism. Deregulation and tax cuts ensued, allowing the rich to grow into the super-rich of today.
Ironically, instead of resulting in greater liberty, all we’ve seen is the kind of centralization that comes from capitalist accumulation, which Marx wrote about in Capital. Instead of less government, we have more of it, thanks to the excessive influence that the super-rich have over politicians (consider Hillary Clinton’s ties to Wall Street).
With the growing of capitalism has come the growing of imperialism and the ‘War On Terror.’ Now the state interferes with our lives more than ever, but the right-libertarians propagandize that the problem is too much ‘socialist’ government, rather than too much capitalism. Today, Napoleon and the pigs aren’t the state capitalists of the USSR; now, they’re all just plain capitalists, pretending to be anti-statists.
Today, Orwell’s story is more relevant than ever, if for reasons totally different from the original ones.
S.A. Smith, The Russian Revolution: a Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002
Robert C. Tucker, The Lenin Anthology, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1975