The venerable 1946 classic, Animal Farm, is a smooth, lyrical satire warning us against our idealism and against ourselves. In it, George Orwell tells the story of a farm animals’ successful attempt to take over their farm and the subsequent forcible expulsion of humans from the property. The rebellion and its violence are justified: all their known generations have toiled on the land they now claim, their only reward a meager subsistence at best—the whip and the glue factory an ever present threat.
Why then do we continue in these miserable conditions? . . . It is summed up in a single word—Man. Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger an overwork is abolished for ever.
Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is the lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.
The logic is so obvious that, unless you somehow believe (as some do) that humans are destined to rule the world, you want to help the animals kick us off the planet. Or at least the men. Further, the animals must remember that
in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him. . . . [D]o not accept his vices. No animal must ever live in a house, or sleep in a bed, or wear clothes, or drink alcohol, or smoke tobacco, or touch money, or engage in trade. All habits of Man are evil. And, above all, no animal must ever tyrannise over his own kind. Weak or strong, clever or simple, we are all brothers. No animal must ever kill any other animal. All animals are equal.
Even if you haven’t read the book, you can probably predict where this is going. Despite the high-flown ideals, power eventually corrupts the pigs who, by virtue of their superior mental abilities, manage the affairs of the farm for the other animals. Their excesses, double speak, and abuses are meant to evoke the communism of the Soviet Union (to which Orwell was responding), but I am also reminded of our current government’s ability to frame the terms of the debate (e.g., “you’re either with us or against us”).
For me, one of the novel’s best moments comes when the regular farm animals wonder and fail to remember, as we often forget the history of our nation and the world, whether their lives were better or worse after the rebellion than before. “Only old Benjamin [the donkey] professed to remember every detail of this long life and to know that things never had been, nor ever could be much better or much worse—hunger, hardship, and disappointment being, so he said, the unalterable law of life.” Cynical perhaps, but Benjamin’s words speak strongly to my own sensibilities. I will always hope for and work for a better world; I do not expect it to ever happen.