* but some animals are more equal than others.
I just finished reading Animal Farm. It is a book that I always wanted to read but for some reason I never got around to it; until now, that is. This is not my first Orwell book: I read 1984 when I was 19 and enjoyed it a great deal. In some ways that book gave me the tools that I needed to decipher the world of today, a post-truth world in which doublethink and newspeak are the new norm. Orwell's work always resonates with me, not least because of his opposition to authority and outspoken support of libertarian socialism. His works of fiction are even more powerful than his essays, I think, because they abstract from the particular and, in doing so, give a timeless setting to his anti-authoritarian views. The message is purified, distilled, and, as a result, much more impactful.
At its core, Animal Farm is a brutal attack on any form of totalitarianism, especially when in disguise. On the surface, it's a satire of Stalin's USSR, but the message it so brilliantly portrays is universal and is there to remind us of how popular revolt can go astray if power is allowed to be concentrated in the hands of a few leaders. If I was to reduce the message of Animal Farm in one sentence, I would quote John Dalberg-Acton, an English Catholic writer and politician of the 19th century, who wrote in a letter to a friend the following words: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is the part of the letter that is widely known and quoted, but what follows is as penetrating. He continues: "Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it."
I am sure that Orwell would have agreed to much, if not all, of what John Dalberg-Acton was writing. There is in Animal Farm, and in all of Orwell's work, a deep distrust of authority and the effects that power has on otherwise perfectly decent people. What starts as a sacrosanct revolt by the oppressed animals of Manor Farm ends up in the worst form of tyranny perpetrated by animal on animal, so heinous that it is basically indistinguishable from the previous tyranny of Man. At the very end of the book, the animals watch in disbelief from outside the farmhouse at the dinner party held by Napoleon (a clear representation of Stalin) to celebrate the new alliance between men and pigs. They stare and stare until they can no longer distinguish between the two: "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." The pigs have completed the transformation from oppressed to oppressors. They have adopted the customs and traditions of the ruling class: they wear clothes, sleep in comfortable beds, drink alcohol, and even walk upright.
The basic question that Animal Farm (or the history of Soviet Russia if you prefer to be grounded in reality) raises is simple:
Why did the revolution fail?
Different people will give different answers to this question, I am sure. I will give mine, and I will warn you that it is not particularly original. The revolution fails because the intellectual vanguard that initially educates the workers on their state of subjugation and guides them towards revolutionary politics slowly becomes accustomed to its privileged role and, by the mechanism enunciated in Dalberg-Acton's maxim, slowly but surely becomes the new elite. If power corrupts, you cannot trust anyone, no matter how passionate and sincere, to assume a leadership role.
This argument of course gives the revolution's leaders (the pigs in the case of Animal Farm, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin in the history books) the benefit of the doubt. It assumes that they indeed started with good intentions, being gradually drawn to positions of power because of their political prestige within the revolutionary movement (perhaps without even realizing it at first), and were eventually corrupted by the privileges that come with it. It is perfectly possible, however, that at least some of them might have been cynically riding the wave of popular revolt to seize state power and "beat the people with the People's Stick", to use a widely quoted metaphor by Russian revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. We cannot know how much of that initial sentiment from the revolution's leaders was indeed spontaneous or rather tragically opportunistic, but it hardly matters, given that the end result is the same.
Bakunin wrote extensively on this topic at a time when Marx was still alive, insisting that revolutions must be led by the people directly while any "enlightened elite" must only exert influence by remaining "invisible, not imposed on anyone and deprived of all official rights and significance". Not surprisingly, Bakunin was vehemently opposed to what was later called Vanguardism, an important concept of Lenin's theory of revolutionary struggle according to which the most class-conscious and politically advanced sections of the proletariat should educate the masses and lead the revolutionary movement. He writes: "If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself".
Bakunin's critique of Marxist ideas was substantial, and it is important to appreciate, I think, the red thread that connects Marxist ideology to the tragic Soviet experience. This is something that is not made explicit in Orwell's book, in which Marx is most likely embodied in the character of Old Major, the aged boar who provides the inspiration that fuels the rebellion. Old Major lays down the principles upon which a fully egalitarian animal society ought to be based. These principles resemble Marx's own description of the ideal communist society: a free, egalitarian society without social classes and government. But what the book doesn't show is the way Marx (Old Major) thought that the transition between capitalism and communism should take place. This is important because it lays the theoretical foundation upon which the pigs later establish their iron rule.
While both Marxists and anarchists (like Bakunin) share the same final goal of a communist society, they strongly disagree on how to achieve this goal. Anarchists believe that the classless, stateless society should be established by the direct action of the masses, while Marx did not believe this possible and argued for what he called the dictatorship of the proletariat, an intermediate stage between a capitalist economy and a communist economy, whereby the post-revolutionary state seizes the means of production and forcefully suppresses the capitalist class.
Bakunin was understandably suspicious of this step and warned that Marxists "maintain that only a dictatorship - their dictatorship, of course - can create the will of the people, while our answer to this is: No dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation, and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it; freedom can be created only by freedom, that is, by a universal rebellion on the part of the people and free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up". Lenin was certainly a right-wing deviation of mainstream libertarian Marxism (and he was so regarded by other Marxist theorists like Rosa Luxemburg as well as the Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and members of the Socialist International who Lenin later denounced as "infantile leftists"), but it is hard not to conclude, especially with the benefit of hindsight, that orthodox Marxism carries the seeds of its own destruction.
The authoritarian socialism that was advocated by Lenin is kind of an oxymoron. At its core, socialism has always been understood as worker's control over production. There can be none if power is centralized, for the actual decisions over what is produced and how always come from above in such a system. In fact, the Soviet Union was as remote from socialism as you can imagine, and Lenin, and later Stalin, successfully managed to turn the Russian people into the kind of slave army that is so well depicted in Animal Farm. Of course, internally, the communist party had every interest in calling itself socialist, for in this way they could exploit the moral appeal that socialism still had among the masses. Again, this psychological mechanism is masterfully portrayed by Orwell: the animals work long hours and receive little food but they are happy because the farm is owned and operated by animals. It's only at the end that they realize that they have just traded one evil master for another.
Incidentally, Lenin was aware of this. He openly described the Soviet Union as "state capitalist", and socialism as “nothing but state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people”. The perversion of socialism is deliberate and serves a clear purpose: to justify the oppressive state apparatus in the eyes of the people. In the book, the pigs compulsively rewrite the old principles of Animalism to fit their current role as privileged rulers of the farm. When the other animals protest, and it is no longer possible or desirable to shut them up with violence, sophistic arguments are given to try and defend the corrections. This way, "No animal shall kill another animal" becomes "No animal shall kill another animal without cause", "No animal shall drink alcohol" becomes "No animal shall drink alcohol to excess", and so on. When it is no longer possible to seriously uphold the old animalist principles, the pigs just rewrite them. The same did Lenin with socialism. When it was clear that the Soviet Union was anything but socialist, he just changed the definition. This is a common technique used by totalitarian institutions: to intentionally misuse words until they are completely evacuated of meaning. It's one of the many uses of propaganda.
At a time when freedom of speech, press and assembly are under attack on all fronts, we must remember that these are the most sacred rights of all. These rights are not written in stone; they were won by blood, over centuries of popular struggle, and they are among the few things that stand between us and absolutist ideologies. Totalitarian institutions view freedom as the freedom of the conformist, while freedom should always be understood as the freedom of the dissenter. As obvious as this sounds, we must never forget this simple truth.
I will leave you with the undying words of Rosa Luxemburg, who had the intellectual honesty to attack undemocratic tendencies present in the Russian Revolution despite being an ardent Marxist revolutionary herself. She writes:
"Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins. [...] Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all."