In the preface to his Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell says that his reason for writing the novel was to reveal what he believed to be the Soviet myth underlying Socialism – the political and economic model that he wholeheartedly embraced. According to Orwell, nothing had caused greater harm to the Socialist movement in England than that the majority of English people so blithely accepted the ‘lies of totalitarian propaganda’, apparently incapable of assessing the true nature of either the Nazi or Soviet regimes (Orwell, 112).
Propaganda, defined for this essay as ‘opinion management’ (Welch, 3), is oft associated with falsehood and lies, even though in reality, propaganda is ethically neutral (Welch, 17). Much of the ‘bad’ propaganda, like we have come to associate with the likes of Hitler and Stalin, is down to marketing of the utopian dream (Roemer, 103). Perhaps the reason that this type of propaganda gets such bad press is that, etymologically, utopia is both a ‘good place’ that is ‘no place’ (Vieira, 4)? After all, if the utopian dream carries with it both the affirmation of possibility as well as the negation of its fulfilment, then it ought to come as no surprise that attempts to put utopian ideals into practice will fail. But, as Orwell laments, such failure often does come as a surprise, not the least because people did not wish to see coming (Orwell, 111). So if ‘bad’ propaganda aims to sell us the impossible dream then what might we do to get a better grip on it? David Welch (17) suggests that to make more informed decisions about propaganda, we must gain a better understanding of its nature and process. I suggest that in achieving this worthy goal, Orwell’s novel may offer us valuable assistance.
Animal Farm recounts the rise of Soviet communism in the form of an animal fable wherein a democratic coalition of animals urged by Old Major, a prize-winning boar, over-throw their human oppressor, Mr Jones. Old Major kicks off the revolution by singing a catchy song entitled Beasts of England – bringing ‘joyful tidings’ of a ‘golden future time’ when the ‘fruitful fields of England’ shall be ‘trod by beasts alone’. Propaganda works best by reducing shared cultural ideologies and cosmologies – especially in regards to a lost Golden Age – to its lowest common denominator, that which is marketable for mass consumption (Welch, 10). Old Major knew this; he markets his vision of an English Arcadia, a lost utopian pastoral dream, to a mass of animals all too willing to consume this ‘new outlook on life’ (Orwell, 9).
The takeaway point is that propaganda works best when it sharpens and focuses existing trends and beliefs (Welch, 11). It is no accident that Old Major chooses a night when Mr Jones is too drunk to feed the animals to suggest his glorious alternative. By appealing to the animal’s dissatisfaction with their ‘miserable, laborious, and short’ lives when their stomachs are empty (Orwell,3- 5), Old Major not only focuses their generalised complaints on a specific cause but also encourages them to embrace an apparent solution. Old Major also knows that propaganda works best when it focuses on simple, strong, easily identifiable (black and white) emotions such as love/hate (Welch, 8). He directs the animal’s now heightened sense of injustice to its ‘single’ root cause – ‘Man’ – ‘the only really enemy we have’ (Orwell, 4). After this, Old Major has little more to say except to warn the animals that they must never become like Man (Orwell, 6).
The takeaway point here that there must be a meaningful correlation between the inspirational hopes generated by utopian propaganda and the citizens’ everyday reality; get the mix wrong and reader/listener disconnects (Vieira, 8 and Welch, 17). But get the mix right – pitch to a hungry animal that his life is one of ‘misery’ and ‘slavery’, then he will not only connect but connect strongly; the ‘soil of England is fertile’ and the ‘climate is good’, right? Then it only makes sense that such a place is ‘capable of affording food in abundance’, if only the animals put their backs into it. The principal energy of utopia is hope – a reaction to an undesirable present combined with an ardent desire to tackle all impediments to achieve that imagined alternative (Vieira, 6). Yet when, as is inevitable, the alternative itself carries impediments – i.e. there would be no sugar after the Rebellion (Orwell, 10) – then it is imperative to let no one (not even the pigs, who are undeniably ‘brilliant talkers’) brush aside these concerns. Elsewise, a dangerous precedent is set, one that will be difficult if not impossible to reverse, as the animals discover to their dismay. The question of whether or not they would continue to have sugar may not have been key to the future success of Animal Farm but when they later raise more important concerns – i.e. why the pigs should be the only ones to enjoy the best food, apples and milk – they are ever more easily brushed aside. Even though it may not be justifiable the pigs get all the good food – especially when this violates a basic tenet of Animalism – i.e. all animals are equal – these hapless animals quickly find that they have ‘no more to say’ (Orwell, 23).
With any utopia comes issues of power (Pohl, 51). Hence it should come as no surprise that propaganda is often used as an instrument by those wishing to secure or retain power in times of stress and turmoil (Welch, 4). This is most certainly the case in Animal Farm. After Old Major dies, the initial democratic coalition quickly gives way to consolidation of power in the pigs. After all, not only are they more clever than the other animals (they are ‘brilliant talkers’), but they also know how to read. Later, rivalry between Trotsky and Stalin after the death of Lenin is symbolised by the struggle for pre-eminence between two pigs, Snowball (Trotsky) and Napoleon (Stalin). In both cases, historical and fictional, utopian idealism falls by the wayside when the thirst for power rears its ugly head. Yet even though the animals were ‘silent’ and ‘terrified’ when Snowball is viciously expelled from the farm by Napoleon’s dogs (Orwell, 35) for no good reason, they were not yet finished with power plays.
Inherent in most utopias is the need for strict state/government regulation of every aspect of life (Pohl, 51). If each cloud has a silver lining, then each bright, shiny utopia has a ‘dark side’ – flying too high must, eventually, lead to a fall (Vieira, 14). Not only that, but if the citizens themselves are to fly high – maintain those impossible utopian standards, then a rigid set of laws are a must to keep them in line. How else will their ‘unreliable and unstable’ natures be repressed – the most pernicious not which is pride (Pohl, 57). Although forewarned that they might need to sacrifice some of their eggs for the common good, when the hens learn this will mean all of their eggs, they cry ‘murder’ (Orwell, 49); luckily only nine hens die as the result their ‘determined effort to thwart Napoleon’s wishes’. But still, this is not the end. The cruel methods by which Stalin eliminates the rest of his‘enemies’, is parodied by the fallacious confessions and cruel executions of all those whom Napoleon has come to distrust.
Life for everyone but the pigs, deteriorates.
Disillusionment sets in.
Finally, Napoleon invites a human farmer named Mr Pilkington to dinner and declares his intention to ally himself with his human neighbours against the working classes in both the human and animal communities. Worse, Animal Farm must revert back to its original name, Manor Farm. Watching this meeting through the farmhouse window, the common animals are no longer able to tell which are the pigs and which are the human beings – the only warning given to the animals by Old Major having been (sadly) ignored.
Undoubtedly, the promise of a Paradise on Earth is appealing; all the more because the masses to whom it is being marketed are generally ‘politically apathetic’ yet prone to ‘ideological fanaticism’ (Welch, 10). Undoubtedly, this is the case in Animal Farm. Even after all that has happened, at the end of the day the animals never give up hope – not for ‘even an instant’ do they lose their ‘sense of honour and privilege’ in being members of Animal Farm (Orwell, 85). Yet if they had realised that ideology is only a system of ideas and ideals (OED, n, 1), that ideals exist only in the imagination (OED, adj. 2), and that ideas are only thoughts and suggestions of possible courses of action (OED, n, 1), the animals story might have turned out markedly different. Instead of allowing their opinions to be managed such that they blithely accept utopian propaganda as their blueprint to bliss, they should instead have viewed it as a strategy for evaluating the reality of the present as well as one possible programme for gradual (responsible) change (Vieira, 21).
Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1993.
Pohl, Nicole. ‘Utopianism After More: The Renaissance and Enlightenment’, (51-78). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Roemer, Kenneth M. ‘Paradise transformed: varieties of nineteenth-century utopias’, (79-106). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Vieira, Fatima. ‘The concept of utopia’, (3-27). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Welch, David. ‘Opening Pandora’s Box: Propaganda, Power and Persuasion (3-18). Propaganda, Power and Persuasion: From World War I to WikiLeaks, ed. David Welch. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014.