When you first start studying Animal Farm, you might be overwhelmed by some of the political terminology used to discuss the novel. Trust me, you’re going to get so much more out of this book if you have an understand of some of these political ideas.
Today, we’re going to talk about democracy, socialism, communism, capitalism, fascism, and totalitarianism.
Let’s start with democracy because that’s possibly the form of government that is most familiar to you. In a democracy, power is vested in the people. In Australia, every few years we have the opportunity to vote for representatives in parliament who debate and pass laws on our behalf. I know know what you’re thinking, “Don’t we have a monarch?” True! And that technically makes Australia a federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy. It’s complicated. For all intents and purposes, we’re a democracy and we vote for our leaders. Orwell didn’t really like the monarchy and definitely despised the class divide that existed in Britain. In an essay titled The Lion and the Unicorn, he wrote: “England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, rule largely by the old and silly.” Democracy, according to Orwell, was the antidote to this privilege, putting power into the hands of ordinary people. He acknowledged that democracy wasn’t perfect but it was the best system of government they had. “In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are very powerful illusions. The English electoral system, for instance, is an all-but open fraud. In a dozen obvious ways it is gerrymandered in the interest of the moneyed class. But until some deep change has occurred in the public mind, it cannot become completely corrupt. You do not arrive at the polling booth to find men with revolvers telling you which way to vote, nor are the votes miscounted, nor is there any direct bribery.” Although he never met Winston Churchill, he’s probably agree with Churchill’s observation that, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Socialism and communism are two other important ideas Orwell explores in Animal Farm. These words—which are often used interchangeably— go back to The Communist Manifesto which was written by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Socialism is the idea that a society should own the means of production, such as factories and farms. Socialism was really a response to the Industrial Revolution, which saw a small number of industrialist grow very wealthy at the expense of widespread poverty and inequality.
Communism refers to a movement ultimately leading to a communist society in which the means of production is owned by the community, there are no social classes and, indeed, no government. Throughout history, there has never been a true communist society. Again and again, we’ve seen socialist movements rise up, take over and then become incredibly corrupt and authoritarian governments. That’s exactly what happened after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Animal Farm is very much Orwell’s response to the USSR’s descent into totalitarianism.
How do these ideas of socialism and communism relate to Animal Farm? Well, we know that George Orwell was a democratic socialist. In the essay Why I Write, he notes: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.” Orwell believed people should strive for a free and equal society. In The Lion and The Unicorn, he argued for the nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries; limitations of income; and reform of the education system along democratic lines. And while this might seem far fetched, remember that Orwell wrote this during the upheaval of the Second World War. It was entirely conceivable that there could be a ‘fundamental shift of power’ as well as an end to ‘class privilege and the rule of the old’.
Another important ideas to understand is capitalism. In a capitalist system, the means of production—the farms, the factories, the mines, the artisan bakeries—are privately owned. Businesses compete with each other to create employment, wealth and prosperity.
Socialism and capitalism are both ideas. The real world tends to be a little messy and I think many countries exist somewhere in-between these extremes. We call countries like this social democracies. A country like Australia, for example, has a capitalist system that creates employment and prosperity while spending taxes on social welfare, schools and healthcare.
Fascism is another idea you should be familiar with when studying Animal Farm. Fascism refer to authoritarian governments which are often controlled by a powerful dictator and a single political party. Fascist governments believe that only unity and military strength can help a nation endure war and economic difficulties. Examples of Fascist governments included Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. When Orwell was writing Animal Farm, Britain was at war with both of these countries, and fascism was a very real threat to democracies across Europe. In the Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell expresses his disdain for fascism: “Socialism aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equality of human rights for granted. Nazism assumes just the opposite. The driving force behind the Nazi movement is the belief in human inequality, the superiority of Germans to all other races, the right of Germany to rule the world. “
The final, and perhaps most important idea you need to be familiar with, is totalitarianism. Totalitarianism refers to any system of government where a single party rules without opposition. These governments typically maintain control through propaganda, the use of military strength, violence and terror, and mass surveillance.
To finish, a quick recap of some of the terms you’ll find useful when discussing Animal Farm:
- Democracy. A system of government where people have the power to elect representatives in government.
- Socialism. The idea that the state should own the means of production.
- Communism. A revolutionary movement that will lead to a communist state where people own and share everything equally.
- Capitalism. An economic system where privately owned businesses compete to create prosperity and wealth.
- Fascism. Refers to authoritarian governments which are often controlled by a single powerful dictator.
- Totalitarianism. A system of government where a single party rules without opposition, maintaining control through propaganda, the use of military strength, violence and terror, and mass surveillance.
An understanding of these political terms will help you discuss, engage with and appreciate the ideas in Animal Farm which is very much a cautionary tale about the danger of totalitarianism in all its forms.