As Orwell spent more and more time with the down-and-outs of England, he became convinced that the only remedy for the invidious problem of poverty lay in socialism, a political and economic philosophy arguing that only when the state controls the means of production and distribution will all members of a nation share its profits and rewards. Unlike capitalism, the philosophy holding that a nation’s means of production and distribution should be privately owned and controlled, socialism argues that only government regulation of a nation’s economy can close the gap between the rich and the poor. Although he was not a virulent anti-capitalist, Orwell did think that only with the gradual introduction of socialist ideas and practices into British life would the poor eventually come to share in the fruits of their nation’s prosperity.
As he explained in his Preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, “I became pro-Socialist more out of disgust with the way the poorer section of the industrial workers were oppressed and neglected than out of any theoretical admiration for a planned society.” After fighting against fascism (an oppressive system of government in which the ruling party has complete economic control) in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell dedicated himself to exploring political questions in his writing. As he explains in the essay “Why I Write,” “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, againsttotalitarianism and for democratic socialism.” His detestation and fear of totalitarianism — an even more extreme form of fascism in which the ruling party has complete control over all aspects of a people’s lives — thus informed much of his literary output.
Orwell examined socialism in a number of his nonfiction works but was prompted to write Animal Farm by what he saw as a prevalent — and false — belief that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a step toward socialism for millions of poor and oppressed Russians. Orwell felt that Stalin’s brutal rise to power was not only barbaric, but a betrayal of the socialist principles for which Lenin, Trotsky, and he had presumably revolted. In hindsight, this seems obvious, but in the world of World War II Europe, such an attack on Russia was willingly stifled by many British leftists who wanted to believe that Russia was indeed moving toward a true union of socialist republics. The fact that Russia was — like England — fighting Hitler also made Orwell’s position more unpalatable to leftist thinkers. Still, he felt that the U.S.S.R. was not progressing toward socialism but totalitarianism: “I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any ruling class.” Convinced that “a destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement,” Orwell began thinking about how he could best communicate his opinions on socialism and Stalin.
His thoughts were ignited when he happened to see a village boy whipping a cart-horse. At that moment, Orwell received the inspiration he needed to formulate his ideas into Animal Farm: “It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we would have no power over them, and that men exploit animals” as the government in a totalitarian state exploits the common people. Now Orwell had a plan for his novel which would both argue the need for a true socialist government and warn the world of the ways in which socialist ideas threatened the will of these in power who wish to control other people. His book would demonstrate the ways in which — despite all of their socialist propaganda — the leaders of the Russian Revolution (especially Stalin) had created in a system even worse than its previous one and sound an alarm to all English readers about the dangers of believing in the Soviet myth. (For a more detailed examination of how the events of the novel parallel those of the Russian Revolution, see the Critical Essays.) After a number of rejections from publishers, the novel was finally accepted by the small publishing firm of Secker and Warburg and proved to be a tremendous success, both in England and the United States. After Nineteen Eighty-Four, another novel that portrays life under an oppressive government, Animal Farm is Orwell’s most renowned work.
Of course, the novel’s meaning is not rooted solely in its portrayal of the Russian Revolution. The novel asks its readers to examine the ways in which political leaders with seemingly noble and altruistic motives can betray the very ideals in which they ostensibly believe, as well as the ways in which certain members of a nation can elect themselves to positions of great power and abuse their fellow citizens, all under the guise of assisting them. The novel also presents the subtle ways in which a group of citizens — of a farm or a nation — can be eventually led by the nose into a terrible life ruled by a totalitarian regime. In “Why I Write,” Orwell describes Animal Farm as “the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” His political purpose — presenting a model of socialism gone wrong — is found in the way that the novel’s animals reflect different kinds of humans and their struggles for freedom and power. Orwell felt that a farm where “All Animals Are Equal” would solve many social and economic problems — but he also knew that such a system would be difficult to maintain, since some animals would act on the principle that “Some Are More Equal Than Others.”