It didn’t occur to me until I re-read George Orwell’s Animal Farm that I have an Orwellian lesson to teach and a warning to issue. The lesson is simply one of the miseducation of Americans. After reading Animal Farm for the first time since I was in grade school, I realized how ironic it was that most children in America read this book in school. I read Ann Patchett’s forward of the book’s 2003 centennial edition after reading the book, and then it became clearer to me the source of this irony. She writes:
“We live in an age, in a country, where the right to question authority is so much a part of our societal fabric that the remainder to do so comes on bumper stickers. Perhaps we are far enough away from the publication of Animal Farm, with enough generations having been permeated by its logic, that it’s time to ask ourselves the question: to what extent did Orwell create us? The book is no longer a red flag shot out toward fascist regimes, but an introduction to fascism and totalitarianism.”
That Patchett so brazenly claims that the “we” know so deeply our right to question authority, when many just recently nodded with approval as the US government launched an invasion and occupation of two countries on blatantly false pretenses, is hysterical. But more, by narrowing its lessons to the horrors of fascism and totalitarianism, she and the American school teachers who teach Animal Farm miss half the story.
Orwell is clearly warning us against fascism and totalitarianism, but he is also taking a deadly stab at capitalism. After all, he is not just showing the horrors of what happened in the Soviet Union following the revolution, but he is in effect equating the Soviet Union with its neighboring capitalist societies.
This becomes clearly spelled out at the end of Animal Farm, but even before the end Orwell paints an unseemly image of the farm’s neighbors, Mr. Pilkington of Foxwood and Mr. Frederick of Pinchfield – the two neighbors of the Soviet Union, England and Germany, respectively, or what we may generally refer to as the Allies and the Axis in the context of World War II. Mr. Frederick and his men storm Animal Farm (Germany invades the Soviet Union), and toward the end of the war Napoleon/Stalin and his pigs form a cozy alliance with Mr. Pilkington, the Allies.
There they are sitting together snuggly by the dining room table in the farm house, Napoleon, the other pigs, Mr. Pilkington and his farmer friends. Mr. Pilkington stands to give a toast, exclaiming how pleased he is that any mistrust and animosity has come to an end.
“Too many farmers had assumed, without due enquiry, that on such a farm [one owned and operated by pigs] a spirit of license and indiscipline would prevail. They had been nervous about the effects upon their own animals, or even upon their human employees.”
But, he explains, all these fears have been dispelled. From their visit to the farm that day they witnessed an exemplary discipline and orderliness on the farm. The animal workers on Animal Farm did more work and received less food than even on their own farms – and this would surely be introduced in their own farms!
Pilkington was toasting to the pigs and once again dismissed the differences between them:
“Was not the labour problem the same everywhere?”
“If you have your lower animals to contend with, we have our lower classes!”
Those at the table roared. Pilkington once again congratulated them “on the low rations, the long working hours, and the general absence of pampering which had been observed on Animal Farm.”
The friendship was sealed. The ruling classes on both farms not only came to an agreement, but it became difficult to tell the difference between them. And it is on this note that Orwell chooses to end:
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
By the end of World War II, for Orwell the Soviet Union had failed in its attempt at the socialist project, not only because it had turned into a horrific dictatorship, but because it had become even more oppressive and exploitative than its capitalist neighbors. This is not a surprising conclusion from an author who was a life-long, committed anti-imperialist and socialist.
An Orwellian warning is simple: Absolutely don’t blindly listen to what your leaders tell you. At this historical moment of popular uprisings and revolutions, don’t listen to the fear-mongering regime that is telling you of foreign agents causing unrest. Don’t listen to political leaders telling you that the only solution to the economic crisis is lower wages, less security for workers. Only listen to the heart that guides you to justice.