Animal Farm, published in 1945, was the first hit in the famous one-two punch that closed Orwell’s career. The second, as you might already know, was 1984 (1949). Orwell’s scathing satire of the Russian Revolution, and his dark dystopian vision of a populace under complete surveillance and control, have informed generations of readers of the threat posed by tyrannical governments.
Yet there’s a catch: the thing about politically timed satires is that it’s much easier to accept them after the political moment has passed. Today, Animal Farm is a classic. Yet at the time it was written (1943-44), Orwell could hardly get it published. The Soviet Union was an ally in the fight against Nazi Germany in World War II. Though criticism of Stalin was not explicitly censored in the wartime British press, the general feeling, as Orwell himself puts it in his Preface, was that such criticism “ought not to have been published.” Orwell was seen as a bad sport. Stalin may have been bad but Hitler was worse, and as Faber & Faber (one of the publishing houses that rejected Orwell) pointed out, it was simply distasteful to depict Stalin as “a pig.”
Orwell came into direct contact with Stalin’s men while he and his wife were fighting in the 1930s the Spanish Civil War (a proxy war between the communists and the fascists). Orwell, a socialist, went to Spain to fight against the fascist takeover of the country, but he found himself nearly as disturbed by the antidemocratic tendencies of the communists he fought alongside. In the Preface to the Ukrainian edition, Orwell says that his time in Spain made him realize “how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries.” He set out to write Animal Farm with this idea in mind. He wanted to pull back the curtain on Russia, to reveal the Stalinist version of communism as a brutal farce, a betrayal of the socialist values Orwell held dear. As Orwell said, “it was of the utmost importance that people in Western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was" (source).
After seeing a young boy whipping a carthorse, Orwell had the idea to make his story a fable, to link it with proud tradition of Aesop and Jonathan Swift. As he puts it in his Preface, “It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.” The fable form allowed Orwell to depict the Soviet Union in simpler terms, to explain it clearly to common readers and to endow it with his own unique perspective. In short, the Soviet Union became Animal Farm.
With the onset of the Cold War, Orwell’s novel became a classic. It was the perfect criticism of communism. Yet Orwell himself was no knee-jerk anticommunist. A life-long socialist, Orwell could be just as critical of the West as he was of Soviet Russia. In the novel, Western leaders are depicted by human characters that treat the animals horribly. The major fear on Animal Farm is that things will go back to the way they were when the humans were in control. In short, Orwell’s satire is broader than just the Russian Revolution; he aims his rhetorical barbs at all forms of political tyranny, wherever it may be found. As Orwell said, “if liberty means anything at all, it means telling people what they do not want to hear” (Preface to the UK edition).
Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and said, “I’m going to be the President of the United States one day"? Or have you ever vied for a position of leadership at school, promising to give voice to your peers or improve the food in the cafeteria, if elected? Have you ever dreamed of leading your dance group? Or of being captain of the basketball team?
Boy, have we got the book for you. It’s a little dystopian (the opposite of utopian) novel called Animal Farm, and it is pretty much the best guidebook around, guaranteed to teach you what NOT to do when you get into power. Using barnyard animals, it provides (practically in bullet point form) over 200 years of knowledge about leadership and power, distilling all of the huge mistakes great leaders have made over time. And it does all of this in less than 200 pages. We are very earnest when we say go read this book right now. You won’t be sorry, future President.
In addition to being a guidebook, Animal Farm is a cautionary tale. At some point you might question the rules of society. At some point you might be inspired to make things better. Such inspiration might launch you into a leadership position. This novel says, “do it – enact change – but just remember to take it easy, and don’t let the power go to your head.” Animal Farm shows us how important it is to have passion when attempting to make things right and to revolutionize the world, but it also cautions us about how passion can lead to destruction when we assume a leadership role.