Animal Farm
George Orwell, 1945

Tired of being exploited, the animals on an English farm revolt against their human oppressors and seize the farm for themselves. But the pigs who assume the supervisory roles quickly show signs of becoming a new oppressor class.

It's hard to have a fresh reaction since I already pretty much knew the book by heart. For years it was the standard text used in American schools to introduce the concepts of satire, allegory, and sometimes even symbolism itself (though that honor more often went to Lord of the Flies). In my experience, it doesn't entirely take — more often than not, when I'm tutoring SAT students and we come across a question that asks whether something is satirical or not, they confess that they don't actually know what satire is.

I usually tell them something like this: while parody makes its target look ridiculous purely for the sake of comedy and to wound those it's making fun of, satire does so in order to persuade the audience not to be like the target. That means that when you're analyzing a satire, it's pretty important to figure out both who the target is and who the audience is. And I would contend that, despite what generations of English teachers have maintained, the target of Animal Farm is not Joseph Stalin and it's not the USSR. Yes, the primary message of the book is that the USSR is a totalitarian nightmare and Joseph Stalin is an evil dictator. But it's pretty unlikely that Stalin was wounded by these allegations. And while it might seem that representing Stalin as Napoleon the pig would qualify as ridicule, Orwell doesn't use this device to cut Stalin down to size — on the contrary, he builds Napoleon up into a terrifying monster who gains the respect of the neighboring human farmers.

So who does look ridiculous in Animal Farm? Anyone who goes along with the transparent lies put forward by the regime. The main targets, therefore, are the willfully blind Westerners who insisted that the Soviet Union was a glorious workers' paradise even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the masses lived miserable lives of deprivation and overwork in order to support a small elite, just as they had before the revolution. "Don't be like Stalin" is a pretty stupid message to put in a book; so few people have the opportunity that the maximum potential audience for such an effort would have been a few dozen autocrats. But "don't be like those idiots who support Stalin" — now we're getting somewhere.

Stalin twice benefitted from the maxim that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. First, a big chunk of the left embraced him as an enemy of capitalism, and this quite rightly drove Orwell crazy. Bad enough that the Soviets themselves, in claiming to be socialist, made socialism look like a species of tyranny — far worse to have socialists in the West declaring that, yup, Bolshevik communism is exactly what we want to bring here!
And then came World War II and a much bigger wave of popularity for Stalin, as virtually the entire democratic world embraced him as an enemy of fascism. So unthinkable was it to condemn an ally — the ally largely responsible for turning back Hitler! — that Orwell had to wait until the end of the war to get Animal Farm published. Orwell was bitter about this, but in the postwar period conditions were perfect for something like Animal Farm to be not just successful, but genuinely valuable. Contrast it with the scene in Manhattan in which a couple of Upper East Side types burble to the Woody Allen character about a "devastating" satirical op-ed in the New York Times. "Really biting satire is always better than physical force," one of them insists, and even before the Allen character points out that "No, physical force is always better with Nazis," it's clearly a preposterous assertion: anyone who'd be reading the Times would already agree that neo-Nazis are scum, so the writer would just be preaching to the choir, and in the unlikely event that a neo-Nazi did happen to read it, it's not as though he would cry, "The scales have fallen from my eyes!" and get his swastika tattoos lasered off. The target of a satire and the target audience for it are rarely the same. That goes for any sort of persuasive enterprise. I remember that someone once jumped into a Usenet discussion I was participating in to complain, "Why is everyone investing so much energy in trying to change her mind?" As if that were the point! As if later this year we'll all be watching the presidential debates and one of the candidates will make a really telling point and the other will slap his forehead and say, "How could I have been so blind? You're right! I drop out!" The arguments are an attempt to win over the people watching at home, not the ones standing on the stage.

Therefore, making an argument is only worthwhile if you think that the people out there in the audience are more open to persuasion than your actual opponents. What made Animal Farm so timely is that it was published at a point that support for Stalin was very wide, but not very deep. Orwell actually did have a reasonable expectation that a mere book would be enough to change some minds, that thousands of readers would pick up his fable thinking that Uncle Joe was an okay guy who ran a tight ship and put it down as committed enemies of Bolshevism. And indeed support for the USSR in the West turned out to be very shallow, evaporating as WWII segued into the Cold War. But during the Cold War there weren't too many people sitting on the fence where the Soviet Union was concerned, which would seem to make Animal Farm kind of pointless. Either you already believed what Orwell was trying to say, or else you were a hard-line communist who could never be convinced. Really, the only people who could actually be influenced...

...were children! I said up top that for years Animal Farm was used in American schools to teach the concept of allegory. And Animal Farm is indeed a completely transparent allegory. It could hardly be clearer that Old Major is Marx and Lenin, Napoleon is Stalin, Snowball is Trotsky, Boxer is the proletariat, the dogs are the KGB, and on and on... at least, it could hardly be clearer if you've heard of Marx and Lenin and Stalin and Trotsky. But seventh-graders haven't. So they learn Animal Farm backwards. It's not "Hey, Snowball's just like Trotsky!" — it's "Okay, remember Snowball from Animal Farm? Well, there was this guy named Trotsky who was a lot like him!" Orwell's satire, in short, has become the textbook out of which the Russian Revolution is taught. Kids are indoctrinated with Orwell's spin. What's that someone said about how he who controls the past controls the future...?

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