While on my daily walk I happened upon a box of free books and sitting atop the stack was a paperback copy of George Orwell’s 1943 Animal Farm. I first read Animal Farm in the mid-sixties while in high school and remember it fondly. In the form of a fairytale, it tells a story about animals on a farm in England that revolt against their human masters and attempt to set up a utopia; over time, a cruel animal hierarchy arises to replace the cruel human hierarchy it displaced.
The first paperback edition was published in 1956, but the copy of Animal Farm I found was published in 1996 and included a new introduction by New York Times columnist Russell Baker. Baker, who died in his mid-nineties in 2019, was a highly respected, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of great humor and insight, and his columns were often a subject of conversation at the dinner table while I was growing up.
At the time of writing his introduction, Animal Farm appeared almost quaint to Baker. The Soviet Union had collapsed and Communism, once seen as vying to take over the world, was on the wane. This was the era when political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously declared “the end of history,” the culmination of the battle between political forces, democracy declared the winner. Today, a mere quarter-century later, it’s Baker’s introduction that seems quaint.
“Well, here we are in that future that so many writers fifty years ago could only guess at, and what do we see? They were ludicrously wrong about the amazing efficiency with which totalitarians would destroy individualism,” Baker writes. “Why did they get it wrong?….the fearful efficiency of the totalitarian state turned out to be an absurd myth.”
Baker’s words fly in the face of 21st Century China, where its Uighur people are rounded up by the millions, placed in “re-education camps” and subjected to 24-7 total surveillance. Vladimir Putin crushes his opponents with death or prison and while declaring Russia a democracy, outlaws any viable political opposition. Eastern Europe is falling back into the control of autocrats and dictators. Brazil, India and Turkey are ruled by right-wing zealots. And, not least of all, America itself is reeling from a surge of anti-democratic, right-wing fanatics determined to preserve their political power at any cost.
Orwell, who followed up anti-Bolshevik Animal Farm with his anti-authoritarian masterpiece 1984, relied upon his understanding of human nature rather than simple political prognostication. He understood that human desire for power and all that flows from it – religion, law and politics – dictates the course of history.
The rise of Donald Trump and the evolution of the Republican Party into anti-democratic authoritarianism not only prove Russell Baker of 1996 naive, but all of us who mistakenly believed that human society had moved past its totalitarian inclinations. Utopia is a word coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516 meaning “no place,” which is to say “never existed.” Whether Communist, Democratic, Fascist, or Royal, utopian politics is secondary to desire, Orwell’s realization of Animal Farm.
At our core, human beings are animals, driven by instinct and biological need to overcome our animal nature, imagination prompts us to exercise power in creative and often terrible ways. “All animals are equal,” reads Animal Farm’s original commandment, later amended with “but some animals are more equal than others.”