George Orwell’s novella, Animal Farm, was first published in 1945, a time in which the world was coming out of decades of war and in which the regimes of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler were being exposed for the atrocities they were. But the lessons it taught are just as timely today.
In my high school junior literature class, Animal Farm was at the top of the list of favorites for my students. Not because of its content, particularly, but because it was shorter than other books, included animals, and was a relatively easy read.
The discussions that came out of it, though, were anything but easy.
Every year, at the beginning of the book, my students empathized with the farm animals. They voiced that the animals had every right to stand up for themselves. That their motives were in fact virtuous.
By the end of the book, however, they were not as sympathetic. They were actually quite horrified by the turn the story had taken.
Animal Farm fit quite nicely into my history classes too. It illustrated, very prophetically, how the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, and later the rise of communism in Russia and China, could actually occur.
Invariably, my students asked the same questions. “Why did the pigs become the very thing they were trying to overcome? “Why did the other animals follow along?”
The answers were always the same. First, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This quote, attributed to Lord John Edward Acton, brings into sharp focus mankind’s, and in the case of Animal Farm, animal-kind’s propensity to abuse power once it’s obtained.
To answer the second question one only needed to quote from the story itself, “They [the animals] had come to a time when no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling dogs roamed everywhere, and when you had to watch your comrades torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes.”
In the beginning of the story, “Four legs good, two legs bad,” was the unifying narrative. By the end of the story, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” became the stark reality.
That’s the danger inherent in man’s quest for dominance and power. What starts out with virtuous intent, oftentimes, as history has repeatedly shown us, devolves into tyranny. But by then it’s too late.
The first casualty of totalitarianism is freedom of thought, followed quickly by freedom of speech and movement, with the ultimate goal of absolute control.
To borrow from Animal Farm, “No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”
This slow boil approach desensitizes the masses, or as Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University (Belgium) explains in his book, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, “Totalitarianism has its roots in the insidious psychological process of mass formation.”
What is mass formation? Ghent explains it as, “a kind of group hypnosis that destroys individuals’ ethical self-awareness and robs them of their ability to think critically.”
He then describes the shocking behaviors of a “totalitarized” population, which include:
- an exaggerated willingness of individuals to sacrifice their own personal interests out of solidarity with the collective,
- a profound intolerance of dissident voices, and finally,
- a pronounced susceptibility to pseudo-scientific indoctrination and propaganda.
Just like in Animal Farm, societies afflicted with mass formation that go unchecked ultimately reach the same chilling conclusion: a complete overwhelm of the ideals of freedom, equality, and liberty in exchange for absolute power.
By the end of Animal Farm, the pigs had become indistinguishable from the human farmers whom they had replaced.
The same can be said of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 Russia, the German Revolution following World War I, the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, and more recently the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela that ended in the formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez in 1999.
Only one Revolution in history resulted in something different. Only one Revolution paved the way for the formation of a system of government that protected, first and foremost, the freedom and liberty of its citizens while safeguarding their rights by limiting the power of the government over them. Only one.
But like any country, The United States of America is only ever as strong as the people willing to uphold and defend it.
What can we learn from Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farm? Quite a lot really. But the most important lesson is this: Freedom and liberty are not a given, they are, in fact, a responsibility.
The founding generation understood this. That is why they worked so deliberately and so diligently in establishing the foundations for this country; to put in place safeguards, like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, designed to protect against the encroachment of government and the dilution of the liberty they had fought so hard to secure.
Once secured, it then became the responsibility of every generation after to take up the mantle, not only to ensure their sacrifices were not in vain, but also to preserve and advance those same freedoms, liberties, and rights for every generation that follows.