By Robert Ellwood on Peaceable Table
George Orwell's famous short novel, Animal Farm, is generally, and rightly,
considered a satire of the Russian revolution and its subsequent takeover by
bureaucratic elites of the Communist party. These ruthless officials then
maintained themselves in a privileged position through police-state tactics
mixed with rousing propaganda, leaving the masses about as enslaved as before,
except they could now sing about their freedom. (It goes without saying, at
least for those who know much about George Orwell, that this remarkably honest
and independent thinker was just as telling against institutions of his own
ancestral England; he despised cant and hypocrisy whether from East or West,
North or South.)
In the story the animals of Manor Farm join together and overthrow the
exploitative regime of Farmer Jones, and begin operating the farm themselves
under the name Animal Farm. But step by step the pigs, considered the most
capable and intellectual of the new stakeholders, concern themselves with
filling out endless forms and other paperwork rather than physical labor, take
the best food for themselves because of their need for intellectual vigor,
betray and destroy the heroes of the revolution, and finally don clothes and
move into Farmer Jones' own house, restoring the name Manor Farm.
Animal Farm was written in 1943. Orwell had a hard time finding a publisher,
because Britain was then allied with the Soviet Union against Hitler, and the
satire was sensitive. Four leading publishers turned it down; one, though their
readers were enthusiastic, ran it by the Ministry of Information. A Ministry
Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.
The book was finally published in August 1945, three months after the end of the
war in Europe, and as the Cold War was just beginning to appear on the horizon.
Orwell himself looked at the parable in a somewhat different light from the Information Ministry official, though others have also regretted the choice of pigs as the "heavies." He said, in a later preface intended for an émigré Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm:
I proceeded to analyze Marx's theory from the animals' point of view. To them it was clear that the concept of a class struggle between humans was pure illusion, since whenever it was necessary to exploit animals, all humans united against them: the true struggle is between animals and humans.
This comment is reminiscent of the Animal Kinship Committee's booklet "Are Animals Our Neighbors? Taking the View From Below." The question is not "How do those in power see the situation" but "How do the victims see it?" They will be honest. As the story begins, Old Major, pig and revolutionary prophet to the animals, could not have put it more plainly:
Now comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it, our lives are miserable, laborious and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty. No animal in England knows the meaning of happiness or leisure after he is a year old. No animal in England is free. . .
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. . .You cows that I see before me, how many thousands of gallons of milk have you given during this last year? And what has happened to that milk which should have been breeding up sturdy calves? Every drop of it has gone down the throats of our enemies. . .
And much more in the same vein. All is summarized in the animals' Seven
Commandments which the pigs write up after the successful Revolution. They
include: 1, Whatever goes upon two legs in an enemy; 2, Whatever goes upon four
legs, or has wings, is a friend; and finally, 7, All animals are equal.
In the early days of liberty, these principles are really and joyfully lived
out, though not always in a self-aware manner. For example, the sheep, like true
believers in many a cause, reduced these words to thoughtless cant, and "often
as they lay in the field they would all start bleating 'Four legs good, two legs
bad! Four legs good, two legs bad!' and keep it up for hours on end, never
growing tired of it." This mindlessness puts their new liberty in danger.
We see the animals' point of view. But let us, for just a moment, recall
Farmer Jones' viewpoint. In his own mind, he does not murder the animals for
their flesh, he slaughters, or perhaps harvests their meat. He does not sell or
eat the flesh of pigs, cows, or sheep, but rather he dines on, or trades in,
pork, beef, mutton, and their subvariants such as hams and steaks. His language
expressed his numbness and self-deception. Unfortunately, these traits can
return, for the animals' honest language can morph into its opposite. The clever
pigs, by the time they re-established a tyrannical regime very like the original
one, had also taken up Jones' viewpoint, though veiling their words with the
language of liberation (and, of course, unconsciously showing their own bad
faith): they changed the last Commandment to "All animals are equal, but some
animals are more equal than others."
Orwell himself was very interested in the way in which language, in
particular choices of words and the employment of euphemisms for unpleasant
topics, affects not only how we communicate with others but, more profoundly,
how we think in the privacy of our own minds. For the language we use easily
becomes interiorized, so that we talk to ourselves also in whatever degree of
bluntness or euphemism we wish, and forget how to think in any other way.
Orwell's best-known novel of all, 1984, is about a dystopia that communicates in
Newspeak, a language so cunningly devised that it was impossible not only to
talk, but even to think, anything contrary to the official ideology. In it,
propaganda is always truth, and war is always peace.
Newspeak may not yet have taken hold everywhere, even though it is now
decades after 1984, but its footprints are more than evident in many spheres. In
a fine 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," Orwell made such
observations as that, "The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass
of Latin[ate] words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines
and covering up all the details." We are familiar with such military and
bureaucratic expressions as "surgical strikes," "soft targets," "enhanced
interrogation techniques," "pacification," "acceptable losses," and the
unforgettable "mistakes were made." Those who carry out or support the goals of
the military or bureaucracies in question do not talk, even to themselves, about
the massacres or torture they are committing or defending.
I would however suggest that nowhere is Newspeak more active today, as it has
been for a long time, than in the relationship of the English language to farmed
animals and the products stolen from them. One can think to oneself as well as
tell others -- especially one's children -- that packaged and processed meat is
something in a Food Group, and not think at all about the quivering flesh with
its streaming gore hanging up on the hook. One can go through life without
really knowing, because one does not really want to know, that beef is taken
from the corpse of a brutally killed dead cow, or pork from a dead (or dying)
pig. Our dual English heritage makes it easy: the names of several of the flesh
products on our table are from Norman French, while the corresponding animals
bear Anglo-Saxon names. But the real point is that the Newspeak euphemism makes
it easier--even "natural"--to eat them, just as it is easier to "pacify" or
"liquidate" humans we consider enemies than to murder them.
Orwell was far-sighted. We ought to look at things from the animals' point of view, and turn Newspeak back into honest Plain Speech.