“All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.”
Orwell’s Animal Farm didn’t cross my path while I was in school – I suspect Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men took the spot it would have occupied. Having just finished the book it’s clear to me that I have been missing out all these years.
As well studying pre-Soviet Russia right through to the end of the Cold War in GCSE History, I also had the great pleasure to be learning Russian at the same time which has given me a somewhat broader appreciation of Russian culture and the plight of its people. Animal Farm is an allegory on dictatorship, and deliberately mimics life in Russia under Stalin’s reign with chilling accuracy. What I found remarkable was the way in which the book so effortlessly triggered my own recollection of historic events as the plot unfolded.
Leader of the animal revolution, Napoleon, says that all animals are equal, he promises that industry will free the animals from labour and he claims to take on the “burden” of leadership for the good of the all others. What is clear, to you and me, is that Napoleon is a lying, calculating dictator who is only interested in his own prosperity.
Slowly but surely, the animals are beaten into believing, emphatically, that their lives are better under Napoleon. When, in reality, they are merely slaves to a new master. Almost all the farm animals struggle to read or writing, which allows Napoleon and the pigs to so easily trick them. Classism, demonization, purges, propaganda and historical revisionism all crop up, and the manner in which the animals are coerced and controlled truly brings home to importance of education and stories.
It is one thing to know of a writer, it’s quite another to know what he is about. It wasn’t until reading Nineteen Eighty-Four quite recently that I have begun to understand the genius of Orwell. It isn’t simply the political and ideological messages at the heart of his books, but it is his mastery of literary revelations, and the points they make, that send spasms of fear through my body. The pigs emerging from the farmhouse on two legs is one such vivid image that chilled my blood.
From our current position in history many agree that Orwell’s political reasoning behind Animal Farm was correct all along. But after reading his account of the social and political climate the book originally inhabited, I have even greater respect for the man. He travelled widely and saw first-hand the harshest acts of humanity. When the intellectuals that should have been the champions of free speech denied it, he resisted. When all were consumed by the Soviet myth, regurgitated by the press without thought, he questioned it. In this digital age, where information and misinformation flow so freely, we should remember that the wail of a thousand voices may yet be silenced by the wisdom of one.
Animal Farm continues to have tremendous importance today, especially with regards to the changing political landscape. Whether it touches you or not, it is a seminal reminder of our need to preserve free speech if we want to live in a free a society.