Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Animal Farm

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, July 8, 2001

“Comrade,” said Snowball, “those ribbons that you are so devoted to are the badge of slavery. Can you not understand that liberty is worth more than ribbons?”

Animal Farm is billed as “a provocative novel”, but that just underestimates our ability to be completely blind when faced with uncomfortable ideas.

RecommendationPurchase Now!
AuthorGeorge Orwell
Length144 pages
Book Rating9

Animal Farm” is often read as a critique against Soviet communism, which it is and was clearly meant to be. But it is much more general than that. It is a warning that all who desire to be political leaders are suspect. George Orwell, after all, is the man who said, “That rifle on the wall of the laborer’s cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there!”

Some—probably most—events in the book are clearly taken from the Russian experience. The animals all address themselves as “comrade”, for example. And the fight between Napoleon and Snowball seems a near parallel to that between Stalin and Trotsky. But others seem to be taken directly from the American experience. The animals are Irish and English, kicking out their English overlord.

Beasts of England, beasts of Ireland,
Beasts of every land and clime,
Hearken to my joyful tidings
Of the golden future time.

Soon or late the day is coming,
Tyrant Man shall be o’erthrown,
And the fruitful fields of England
Shall be trod by beasts alone.

He set it in England, not Eastern Europe, specifically to distance it from the Russian experience in my opinion, and to set it in his readers’ home country. While on one level it was important to him to let the socialist movement know that Russia was not a successful implementation of socialism, I think he also wanted to warn all of us of the dangers of politicians who claim to have our best interests at heart. The lyrics above apply more to the United States, the colony of England, than to Russia. And the attack on the animal’s windmill seems to me to apply more to the English attack of 1812 on the American capitol, burning it to the ground, than it does to Hitler’s attack on Russia. The Russians never had the opportunity to restore friendship with Hitler, and as Communists never restored friendship with West Germany (and certainly not by 1945, when Orwell finished “Animal Farm”).

But the United States did restore themselves to friendly terms with England. And the vacillation between Mr. Pilkington and Mr. Frederick has, at one level, a similarity to Russia’s “neighbors” England (Mr. Pilkington) and Germany (Mr. Frederick), but to me it more closely resembles the United States’ vacillation between France and England.

The fear and desire for ribbons and medals is common to both Russia and the United States, where at one time we were against anything that resembled royalty, even to the point of prohibiting it in our constitution. (“No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign State.” Individual states are similarly prohibited from granting titles.)

And then there are the seven commandments, the things that separate animals from tyrants, that make all animals equal. Slowly, over the course of the novel, each of the commandments gets reinterpreted, much in the same way that seemingly obvious parts of the United States Bill of Rights get re-interpreted in complex ways to allow, for example, two trials for the same offense (“they really meant, no more than one trial for each state and an extra one at the federal level”), or the free exercise of religion (“but not if their religion also involves safe but unapproved plants”), freedom of speech (“but not if it supports a political position”), free assembly (“but they never meant to allow minorities to hang out together”), self-defense (“that’s not an individual right, that’s a right of the government to defend itself against individuals”), and so on.

The general tone of the story, however, is that after any revolution, some group will try to take power again. Some people will desire to be politicians, and re-institute a privileged class. In Russia it was the communist party. In the United States, it was the two-party system. When there is a popular revolution, the basic line of development will usually be similar: revolution, popular acclaim, political maneuvering, and the rise of a new politically privileged class. Similarities to any revolution will be found in the pages of “Animal Farm”. He pulled some of his experience from his time in Spain, as well as the more obvious parallels with Russia and with the United States. I have even read an editorial by a Jamaican claiming that “Animal Farm” more closely parallels their revolution than the Communist one.

There is, especially, the fear of a government-controlled education system, which by its nature will indoctrinate the young in a manner that perpetuates the weaknesses of the government. The animal government can rewrite the seven commandments with impunity, because the animals don’t pay close attention to either the commandments or the government.

Orwell’s deep mistrust of political power comes shining through in this fable. “Animal Farm” is a critical look at anyone who wants to keep us down “for our own good”. It is brilliantly written and easy to read on many levels—fairy tale, anti-communist satire, and a satire of democracy in general—and I believe it should be required reading in any government-controlled school in any English-speaking democracy.

Animal Farm

George Orwell

Recommendation: Purchase Now!