Animal Farm at 75 ‘still as relevant as ever’

Controversial: Four publishers rejected the book over worries about the UK-USSR alliance.

Is Animal Farm still relevant today? As Orwell’s classic celebrates its 75th birthday, some commentators warn its anti-totalitarian message remains grimly pertinent to the modern world.

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Clover (a mule) and Benjamin (a donkey) stare suspiciously at the slogan, painted haphazardly in white on the walls of the barn. In their memories, the directive did not mention a “but…”.

Despite that, after a few moments, they brush aside their concerns. After all, they do trust their leader.

This is a scene from George Orwell’s classic novel Animal Farm which, yesterday, celebrated the 75th anniversary of its publication.

The book tells the story of a group of farmyard animals that overthrow their human master and replace him with a collective leadership of pigs. At first, the pigs promise they will create a new society where every animal is rewarded equally for their hard work.

However, the pigs soon begin to forget their pledge and a life of brutal repression returns to the farm. By the end of the story, lead pig Napoleon is indistinguishable from his human predecessors.

When Orwell wrote Animal Farm in the 1940s, he was thinking about real-life events in Russia. Snowball, the original architect of the anti-human uprising, is moulded on Trotsky. His challenger, the totalitarian Napoleon, represents the dictator Stalin.

It has been a long time since Stalin ruled over Russia. But, for some commentators today, the scenes described in Animal Farm remain strangely familiar.

American journalist Jonathan Russo believes the book “perfectly describes life in the era of Donald Trump”. He argues that the way the pigs maintain control of the farm is eerily similar to the way that Trump maintains his power today.

Trump, like the pigs, is fond of a feel-good slogan. It is easy to imagine his catchphrase – “Make America Great Again” – scrawled alongside “four legs good, two legs bad” on the side of the barn.

And just as the pigs created imaginary threats to ensure loyalty in the farmyard, Trump is not afraid of warning Americans of the dangers he says they face without him – from “Mexican criminals” to “nasty” Kamala Harris.

Orwell even appeared to anticipate the phenomenon of fake news. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary who used “alternative facts” to falsely inflate the size of the crowd at the president’s inauguration, is reminiscent of Squealer, Napoleon’s “spokespig” and the farm’s minister of propaganda.

It is not just in the US that people are making the connection to Animal Farm.

For citizens of Belarus, fake news is a familiar story. After elections on 9 August, authorities proclaimed President Lukashenko had won 80% of the vote. Outside observers say the poll is a sham.

Moreover, just as Snowball was chased out of the farm by Napoleon’s attack dogs, opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee to Lithuania for her own safety.

And, in South Africa, after armed forces officials were caught smoking – despite local lockdown laws banning the sale of tobacco – #animalfarm has become a rallying cry for those who believe the country is overrun by corruption.

So, is Animal Farm still relevant today?

“Four legs good, two legs better”

Yes say some. It may be 75-years-old, but Animal Farm remains one of the most brilliant analyses of unchecked political power. Orwell anticipated some of the most defining phenomena of the 21st-Century political arena: fake news, misdirection, and authoritarian rule. It is no surprise that people all around the world are turning to his book for guidance.

Orwell was not a fortune teller, say others. If you search hard enough, anything could be relevant. Animal Farm was written about the horrors of life in Russian gulags in the early 1900s, not about 21st-Century USA, Belarus, or South Africa. It is meaningless to use one book to compare three such vastly different countries on three different continents.

You Decide

  1. Is it useful to compare real life and fiction?
  2. Does absolute power always corrupt?

Activities

  1. Animal Farm is an example of allegorical fiction, where a story is used to deliver a message about real-world events or issues. Write your own short story or fictional scene which delivers a message you think is important.
  2. The pigs in Animal Farm use slogans and songs to persuade the other animals to remain loyal. Choose two or three slogans that you have heard politicians use in your country. Then write half a side explaining whether or not you think they are persuasive.

Some People Say...

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

George Orwell (1903-1950), English author and journalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most agree that 20th-Century dystopian fiction has come firmly back into fashion. After Donald Trump was elected US president in 2016, publisher Penguin Random House saw sales of George Orwell’s 1984 rise by an astonishing 9,500%, propelling it to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. And when Margaret Atwood sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale was released in the UK last year, one copy was sold every four seconds in its first week on the shelves.
What do we not know?
Exactly why people like to read dystopian fiction. Some academics believe that dystopian novels help people interrogate the world around them; classics such as Animal Farm provide both a warning, but also a comforting reminder that humans have faced totalitarianism in the past – and overcome it. Others say it is simply a form of morbid escapism.

Word Watch

Napoleon
Napoleon the pig brutally overthrows all of his rivals to declare himself the supreme commander of Animal Farm. Eventually, he starts to walk on two legs and play cards.
Snowball
A committed believer in equality, and one of the original pig commanders of Animal Farm. He is chased away from the farm by Napoleon, who then steals his idea to build a windmill and claims it as his own.
Trotsky
A Russian revolutionary, politician, and communist. He was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 following the rise of Joseph Stalin.
Totalitarian
When a political system or leader requires complete subservience to the state. In a totalitarian system, people are not allowed to express their own opinions.
Stalin
Joseph Stalin was the president of the Soviet Union from 1929 to 1953. He transformed the country from a peasant society into an industrial superpower. However, he was a brutal leader and millions of his own citizens died during his leadership.
Kamala Harris
US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate. If elected, she will be the first female vice president of the USA.
Alternative facts
The phrase was coined by Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, who said Spicer’s statement about the inauguration crowd was not false, but rather “alternative facts”.
President Lukashenko
Alexander Lukashenko has been the president of Belarus for 26 years. He holds the dubious title of “Europe’s last dictator”.
Sham
A thing that is not what it is stated to be.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya
The stay-at-home mother only became a candidate in the election after her husband was arrested and blocked from registering.
Gulags
Forced labour camps established by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, housing both small-time criminals and political prisoners.

Subjects

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