George Orwell on the real meaning of Animal Farm: get rid of the pigs

Like most Americans, I was forced to read George Orwell's Animal Farm at some point in high school. And, like most Americans, I was taught as part of that public school English curriculum that the book, along with Orwell's 1984, was all about the evils of the Soviet Union. The implication here was that these authoritarian tragedies existed in diametric opposition to the the unique American-ness of our freedoms. Clearly, we were taught that Animal Farm says, it was foolish of the animals to overthrow the farmer, because everyone was happier under the farmer's iron fist. Because capitalism is good, see.

Hell, even the CIA pushed this interpretation.

In reality, Orwell himself was an avowed socialist and anti-fascist. And in a 1946 letter that he wrote to his friend Dwight Macdonald, which was republished in George Orwell: Life in Letters, Orwell expanded upon his intentions behind the noted animal allegory. Macdonald had written to Orwell that the anti-Stalinists were upholding the book as an example that "revolution always ended badly for the underdog." Orwell scoffed at this interpretation, saying that, "If people think I am defending the status quo, that is, I think, because they have grown pessimistic and assume that there is no alternative except dictatorship or laissez-faire capitalism." And he explained the actual point of his book, as he intended it:

I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job. The turning point of the story was supposed to be when the pigs kept the milk and apples for themselves (Kronstadt). If the other animals had had the sense to put their foot down then, it would have been all right. … What I was trying to say was 'You can't have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship.'

A footnote in George Orwell: Life in Letters also mentions that, after this exchange, Orwell was working on a BBC radio adaptation of Animal Farm, and expanded on that turning point moment in the script to make his message more clear. Unfortunately, those changes were cut before broadcast. (Because of course they were.)

Obviously, people can debate whether an author's stated intentions of a work can or should have any influence on the way that we interpret that work. I often think of Ender's Game in this regard. I was in 7th or 8th grade when I first read it, and it was that book, along with a bunch of Operation Ivy songs, that really made me commit to non-violence at a young age (I vividly remember even protesting the shooting range at Boy Scout camp one of those summers). Yet, right around that same time, Orson Scott Card did an interview with Salon in which he makes his intentions pretty damn clear that while, yes, Ender duped into literally committing genocide, it wasn't his fault, and anyway it was unambiguously good thing for him to do.

Our entry into the Korean and Vietnam wars reflect very well upon the American people. The motive was not imperialistic at all, but genuinely altruistic. We were willing to send our children off to war to protect, as we saw it — as we were told to see it — to protect the freedom of other nations. And like Ender, if we were lied to, we're still not responsible for the actions we took based on what we believed. 

The essence of good military command is to avoid violence. And in fact that's what Ender did — the least possible violence in order to achieve the necessary end. Ender's training was merely an exaggeration and echo of what we train all of our soldiers to do, always. We do the same thing with our police. But we try to teach them the proper channels in which that is to be used.

Whatever you think about the Death of the Author, I do think it's interesting to consider that Animal Farm was literally written as a blueprint for the next generation of liberationary insurgents — and yet, was still appropriated and neutered by the US education system. It was bastardized and warped into a warning that the proletariat can't take care of ourselves, that we need the landlords and the capitalist class in order to truly thrive, and that the class divide is just society's natural way of keeping everyone happy. It's a curious to juxtapose against the memetic pop culture symbolism of 1984. Big brother is bad, you see; we all agree on that. But the bosses and business owners who keep us in line as they reap the rewards of our labor? They're good, and we should not question them, but rather revere them for that goodness.

That's the kind of linguistic distortion that one might call a thoughtcrime. Possibly even Orwellian! Whatever it takes to make us forgot the most important lesson: get rid of the pigs.

[Related: "Big Brother Doesn't See Race" by Noah Berlatsky]