George Orwell once wrote: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been [...] against totalitarianism.” Animal Farm, Orwell’s tale of the titular farm animals’ takeover of a provincial English farm and their development of a totalitarian state there, is no exception. Totalitarianism is a form of government in which the state seeks to control every facet of life, from economics and politics to each individual’s ideas and beliefs. Different totalitarian states have different justifications for their rule, but Animal Farm suggests that all totalitarian regimes are fundamentally the same: those in power care only about maintaining their power by any means necessary, and they do so by oppressing the individual and the lower classes.
While Animal Farm is, most directly, a pointed critique of the USSR, the totalitarian regime established by Joseph Stalin in the early 20th century. However, the book also implies at various points that the USSR was not—and indeed, isn’t—the only totalitarian regime worth critiquing. At the beginning of the novel, Mr. Jones’s running of Manor Farm reads as similarly totalitarian and despotic to Stalin’s regime. Mr. Jones spends his time drinking and hires corrupt, unfeeling cronies to run the farm while his animals toil their lives away, only to be slaughtered or otherwise killed gruesomely when they’re no longer useful to him. The animals’ lives are short and guaranteed to be lived in hunger, while Mr. Jones lives in relative luxury and believes that the natural order of things is that he, as a human, should be the one in charge of his animals. After the animals overthrow Mr. Jones and Napoleon the pig takes over the farm, the animals themselves begin to emulate this oppressive hierarchy despite basing their initial uprising on the notion that all animals are equal. At the end of the novel, it’s possible to see that if the other farmers who visit Napoleon’s Animal Farm aren’t yet running totalitarian farming establishments already, the hunger to do so is definitely there—Mr. Pilkington notes that it’s commendable that Napoleon manages to eke so much labor out of his animals while providing so little in the way of food and other care. This makes it clear that the tendency for a government or organization to lean toward totalitarianism is often present, even if it’s not always evident in practice at a given time. In other words, Napoleon as a totalitarian dictator isn’t an anomaly—he’s part of a much larger tendency of powerful leaders to consolidate and hoard as much power as possible.
The way that Napoleon, Stalin, and other leaders, fictional and real, achieve these totalitarian states is by controlling every aspect of life in their state. Napoleon demonstrates that this is particularly achievable through offering education and elite job training to some, while denying those opportunities to many—while also assuring the “many,” through propaganda and pro-state events, that things are as they should be. While the pig Snowball takes it upon himself to attempt to educate everyone on Animal Farm, Napoleon insists that it’s not worth it to educate the animals who are already adults and instead, it’s better to focus on educating the youth. This does several things. First, by having an uneducated adult population, Napoleon ensures that those adults won’t be able to teach their offspring to think and potentially push back on him. Those adults also won’t be able to push back themselves, both because of their own illiteracy and because of how little power they have to begin with. Then, while Napoleon uses “youth” to describe who he wants to educate, the youth are at first just the dogs’ nine puppies and later, are just the 31 piglets he fathered. Educating the puppies turns them into nine vicious adult dogs that mirror the Soviet secret police and go on to help Napoleon maintain his rule, while the young pigs represent an educated and powerful ruling class. Essentially, when Napoleon mentions educating youth, he very purposefully doesn’t include the young chicks, ducklings, calves, or foals in the term, thereby relegating them to a position in society where they’re unable to advocate for themselves or for change—or indeed, even to understand that speaking up is something they can or should do.
In addition to controlling education and advancement opportunities, the novel also illustrates the role of propaganda in a totalitarian state. From Napoleon’s initial takeover of Animal Farm to the very end of the novel, he skillfully deploys propaganda in the form of the Seven Commandments themselves, as well as the skilled orator pig Squealer and the pig Minimus, who composes songs and poems that praise Animal Farm and Napoleon. Importantly, much of what the pigs write and say to the other farm animals comes in the form of absolutes, as when Old Major says initially that animals should never concede that they might have common interests with men, or when Squealer insists that the pigs need all the food they can get—or else Mr. Jones will surely return. Importantly, the exhausted and uneducated animals have complete trust that Napoleon has their best interests at heart—something Squealer reminds them of constantly—in addition to the inability to recognize the pigs’ propaganda efforts for what they are. In this way, Napoleon creates a cult of personality around himself that is fueled by fear, ignorance, and the deeply-held belief that Napoleon’s version of Animal Farm (while still short on food and requiring hard work) is the best possible scenario.
Animal Farm offers no real remedies for overthrowing totalitarianism. Indeed, the end of the novel, in which both pigs and humans are revealed to be equally corrupt and interested in presiding over totalitarian states, is extremely grim. However, the very existence of the novel itself allows readers to understand how a totalitarian state comes into being, gains power, and holds onto it. Knowing how this process happens and has happened historically, as well as recognizing one’s own power to not let this happen in the first place, the novel suggests, are the best thing readers can do to guard against totalitarianism in their own lifetimes.
Totalitarianism Quotes in Animal Farm
“Why then do we continue in this miserable condition? Because nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings.”
“Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished for ever. Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.”
“Remember, comrades, your resolution must never falter. No argument must lead you astray. Never listen when they tell you that Man and the animals have a common interest, that the prosperity of the one is the prosperity of the others. It is all lies. Man serves the interests of no creature except himself. And among us animals let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.”
THE SEVEN COMMANDMENTS
1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
3. No animal shall wear clothes.
4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
7. All animals are equal.
“I will work harder!”
Nobody stole, nobody grumbled over his rations, the quarreling and biting and jealousy which had been normal features of life in the old days had almost disappeared.
“Four legs good, two legs bad.”
“Comrades!” he cried. “You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike milk and apples. Milk and apples (this has been proved by Science, comrades) contain substances absolutely necessary to the well-being of a pig. We pigs are brainworkers. The whole management and organization of this farm depend on us. Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples.”
At this there was a terrible baying sound outside, and nine enormous dogs wearing brass-studded collars came bounding into the barn. They dashed straight for Snowball, who only sprang from his place just in time to escape their snapping jaws.
“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?”
If a window was broken or a drain was blocked up, someone was certain to say that Snowball had come in the night and done it, and when the key of the store-shed was lost, the whole farm was convinced that Snowball had thrown it down the well. Curiously enough, they went on believing this even after the mislaid key was found under a sack of meal.
If she herself had had any picture of the future, it had been of a society of animals set free from hunger and the whip, all equal, each working according to his capacity, the strong protecting the weak [...] Instead - she did not know why - they 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.
At the foot of the end wall of the big barn, where the Seven Commandments were written, there lay a ladder broken in two pieces. Squealer, temporarily stunned, was sprawling beside it, and near at hand there lay a lantern, a paint-brush, and an overturned pot of white paint. [...] None of the animals could form any idea as to what this meant, except old Benjamin, who nodded his muzzle with a knowing air, and seemed to understand, but would say nothing.
Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer—except, of course, for the pigs and the dogs.
“Four legs good, two legs better!”
ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.