Animal Farm: Rediscovering socialism
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a damning fable of the USSR in the mid-twentieth century, while in 2015 Europe is witnessing a surge of left-wing support. Can socialism make a comeback?
‘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.’
So ends George Orwell’s 1945 novella, Animal Farm, an allegorical ‘fairy story’ which criticises the devastating corruption and hypocrisy of the Soviet Union (USSR) under the Communist dictator Joseph Stalin.
Stalin began as a revolutionary socialist who played a key role in overthrowing the Russian monarchy in 1917, an event which is mirrored by the rebellion against Jones in Animal Farm. Like socialism, ‘Animalism’ presents an idealistic vision of an equal society with a fair distribution of wealth and labour.
Stalin quickly rose through the political ranks, and eventually took power after exiling his more idealistic opponent, Leon Trotsky. In the novella, the powerful pig Napoleon uses similar tactics to get rid of his rival Snowball.
But the horrors of Stalin’s USSR were not fiction: tens of millions of people were killed, from ordinary workers to members of the government who Stalin believed might oppose his leadership.
Many cite the USSR and other failed Communist states as proof that socialism cannot work in practice. However, throughout Europe, parties with socialist principles have witnessed a surge of support. In Greece, for example, the left-wing coalition Syriza spent the first half of 2015 attempting to negotiate its way out of right-wing austerity policies, an ambition which was supported by 60% of its voters in a referendum in July.
More recently, the UK’s Labour leadership race has witnessed the rising popularity of the ‘veteran’ left-wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn, who argues in favour of ending austerity, nationalising railways, and scrapping the UK’s nuclear programme. As Corbyn’s poll numbers climb, the possibility of a socialist opposition party has become increasingly likely.
‘More equal than others’
Somewhat ironically, Animal Farm is a story about human nature. One interpretation of the novel argues that humanity’s love of power and greed will always be its downfall, and socialism is doomed to fail because of it. However good-hearted the intentions of ordinary workers, it only takes a few powerful people to exploit and oppress them.
But society has learned from the mistakes of the twentieth century, socialist supporters argue. Orwell was criticising the corruption of an elite who had hijacked socialism for their own ends. Jeremy Corbyn and Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras are democrats who can be voted out again if people change their minds. Economic inequality is rising, and many feel a growing desire for change — socialism might be the answer.
- Why did Orwell originally give Animal Farm the subtitle ‘A Fairy Story’?
- Is socialism doomed to fail?
- Write a modern-day version of Animal Farm, using a current political story as your inspiration.
- Plan an essay on the role of socialism in Animal Farm.
Some People Say...
“Man is the only creature that consumes without producing.”George Orwell, Animal Farm
What do you think?
Q & A
- Isn’t the Soviet Union over?
- It’s true: in 1991, the Soviet Union officially collapsed and 15 independent countries were established — including Russia. But like all of history, there are lessons which can be learnt, and Animal Farm does a particularly effective job of articulating the hypocrisy and tyranny of Stalin’s regime.
- Could Corbyn become prime minister?
- At the time of writing, he is leading the Labour leadership polls with 42% of the votes — a huge number for a race with four contenders. But while he is popular with Labour voters, he’s unpopular with Labour MPs — some even fear that the party could split under his leadership. Even if he won, few believe he would last until the general election in 2020.
- This political system is the most revolutionary and authoritarian form of socialism, in which everything is owned by the people, managed by the state, and distributed according to need. In theory, this removes the need for unequal class systems. In practice, it has led to low motivation and widespread poverty.
- This is the ideology from which Communism was born. Socialists oppose capitalism, in which individuals’ wealth determines their quality of life. Under socialism, the government is responsible for reducing inequality. This has various interpretations; free healthcare and education are socialist ideas used in capitalist countries.
- Tens of millions
- It is unclear how many people were killed; estimates range from 34 to 59 million.
- After the 2008 financial crash, most countries reduced spending to avoid disaster. But how far should austerity measures go? Right-wing politicians argue that governments should not spend more than they earn, and cut spending accordingly. The left argues that economies cannot grow if cuts lead to inadequate public spending.