From Hitler to Hussein, the rise and fall of dictators has captivated historians and writers alike for centuries. British novelist George Orwell (1903-1950) was no exception. In his 1946 allegory Animal Farm, Orwell satirized the 1917 Russian Revolution and the subsequent decades of totalitarian Soviet oppression. The story takes place on a fictional farm where the maltreated animals rebel and overthrow their human overlords. They establish a seemingly utopian society where they work for and are governed by themselves; however, it doesn’t take long for the farm to deteriorate into a totalitarian state with a ruler who can only be described as a tyrant. The most pivotal factor responsible for this outcome is propaganda. Through the use of propaganda in the book, Orwell argues that a government’s power to control its people’s knowledge and views is that government’s capacity to manipulate and oppress.
The first way that Orwell demonstrates the insidious power of propaganda is through the carefully crafted language used by the farm’s pigs, who incrementally assume all power and control over the other animals. For example, in chapter three, Squealer, who is essentially the mouthpiece of the despotic Napoleon, declares that “the Seven Commandments could in effect be reduced to a single maxim, namely: ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ ” (Orwell 34). This slogan is one salient example of oversimplification as well as “us vs. them” rhetoric—both propaganda ploys that Squealer uses to extract support from the animals. Another example of Squealer’s deliberate language is found in chapter nine, when the pig consistently refers to the animals’ shrinking shares of food “as a ‘readjustment’ of rations, never as a ‘reduction’ ” (112). In this passage Squealer utilizes a form of propaganda know as euphemism, where a word that clearly represents something negative is replaced by a word with a more neutral or even positive connotation. Squealer does this in order to prevent the animals from realizing the true severity of the food crisis, which might have led to some discontent among the animals about how things were going on the farm. One last instance of propaganda in Squealer’s language is his oft-reiterated appeal, “ ‘Surely there is no one among you who wants to see Jones back?’ ” (36). Squealer makes this query over and over throughout the book: first to defend the pigs’ hoarding of the milk and apples in chapter three, later to support his claim in chapter five that Snowball was actually a traitor, and towards the end to justify the pigs’ practice of sleeping in the humans’ beds. In all of these scenes, the question is a thinly veiled attempt to instill fear in the animals in order to make them comply with the pigs’ schemes. In conclusion, Squealer’s intentional language—his slogans, his euphemisms, and his appeals to fear—supports Orwell’s argument that propaganda gives those in authority the power to manipulate their people.
A second and arguably more obvious illustration of this is the pigs’ practice of altering the history of the farm. One early instance of this occurs in chapter five after Snowball has been forcibly expelled from the farm, when Napoleon suddenly changes his mind and decides that he actually supports the idea of the windmill, which had originally belonged to Snowball. The animals are taken aback, but Squealer quickly explains that the proposition of the windmill had actually been Napoleon’s from the beginning, and that “the plan which Snowball had drawn on the floor of the incubator shed had actually been stolen from among Napoleon’s papers” (Orwell 57). This claim directly contradicts what the animals’ past experiences and knowledge, but they buy it completely because of the convincing manner in which Squealer presents it. Another example of this is when in chapter six, Napoleon announces that Animal Farm will begin engaging in trade with its human neighbors. The animals seem to remember passing resolutions against these sort of dealings after the toppling of Jones, and the smarter ones are vaguely suspicious. However, Squealer denies these recollections and challenges the animals, “ ‘Have you any record of such a resolution? Is it written down anywhere?’ ” (64). Obviously none of the animals recorded it since none but the pigs can write, so they accept Squealer’s argument without objection. This is an audacious and risky maneuver on Squealer’s part that nevertheless succeeds due to his cunning propaganda, which subtly silences any unrest among the animals caused by the pigs’ questionable decisions. The last and probably most significant situation in which the pigs change the history of the farm pertains to the memory of Snowball. In chapter four, Snowball valiantly leads the animals in the successful vanquishing of Jones and his men at the Battle of the Cowshed.
However, after Snowball’s expulsion from the farm in chapter five, the animals’ collective memory of their former leader is gradually corrupted by Squealer’s propaganda. First, in chapter five, Squealer ambiguously hints that “ ‘the time will come when we shall find that Snowball’s part in [the battle] was much exaggerated’ ” (55). Then, in chapter seven, Snowball abandons all subtlety and announces that newly-discovered documents left by Snowball have proved that “ ‘he was Jones’ secret agent all the time’ ” (79). Later in chapter eight, the animals learn from Squealer that Snowball had never, in fact, received the honor of Animal Hero, First Class after the battle—this misconception held by the animals could be traced to “a legend which had been spread some time after the Battle of the Cowshed by Snowball himself” (97). And finally in chapter nine, Squealer declares outright that Snowball had not just been a traitorous secret agent and betrayed Animal Farm during the battle, but Snowball himself “had actually been the leader of the human forces” (117) in the attack on the farm. It is plain as day that Squealer gradually and incrementally chips away at Snowball’s honor and reputation among the animals until, by the end, Snowball comes to be regarded as the absolute antithesis of the farm. He is said to be responsible for stolen items, poor harvests, and even the destruction of the windmill—“whenever anything went wrong, it became usual to attribute it to Snowball” (78). In other words, Snowball becomes Napoleon and Squealer’s scapegoat, blamed for any and every mishap and calamity, whether real or imagined. From the ruling pigs’ point of view, this convenient state of affairs kills two birds with one stone—not only can the pigs do no wrong (since any misdeeds are quickly blamed on Snowball), but also the unequivocal condemnation of Napoleon’s rival as a traitor of the worst breed allows Napoleon to solidify his power and weed out the competition. This is all accomplished by changing the animals’ views of the past—the very picture of, as the idiom goes, “history being written by the winners.”
The last and most concrete manner in which the pigs use propaganda to further their own agenda is the changing of the Seven Commandments. Originally composed in chapter two, some of the more specific Commandments read: “No animal shall sleep in a bed. No animal shall drink alcohol. No animal shall kill any other animal” (Orwell 24-25). However, the animals soon begin to notice things amiss. In chapter six, the news leaks out that the pigs (who have moved into Jones’ vacated farmhouse) are sleeping in the beds. The smarter animals feel faintly concerned about this and consult the Seven Commandments, but they find that commandment number four actually states, “No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets” (67). Later, the animals learn that the pigs have obtained wine and held a raucous party after which Napoleon nearly dies of a hangover. Again, the smarter individuals seem to remember that the Seven Commandments forbade alcohol, but when they look at the wall of the barn on which the Commandments are painted, they find only, “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess” (109). It all comes to a head when, in chapter seven, Napoleon and his dog enforcers perform a massive crackdown in which scores of animals are executed for various alleged crimes against the state. The bloody massacre downright appalls the farm, and this time practically all of the animals have the distinct feeling that the event violates their memories of the earliest guidelines laid down for Animal Farm. As a body they gather below the Seven Commandments on the wall, but they discover that the commandment in question actually proclaims, “No animal shall kill any other animal without cause” (91). In all three of these scenes, it is blatantly obvious that the commandments have been altered from their original forms. The means by which this occurs is revealed at the end of chapter eight, when in the middle of the night Squealer is caught outside the barn with a ladder and bucket of white paint, rewriting the Commandments. This is possibly the most insidious incidence of propaganda in the book, but it is indisputably successful in accomplishing its goals; namely, to absolve the pigs of all responsibility for their questionable behavior, and thus to uphold the idealistic view of the farm and its rulers as infallible and exemplary in all things.
Orwell utilizes Squealer’s carefully calculated language, the pigs’ practice of progressively mutating history (or the animals’ perceptions of the past), and Squealer’s repeated modification of the Seven Commandments to make his case that when a government has dominion and sway over people’s knowledge and perspectives through propaganda, that government has essentially free rein, and can manipulate, mislead, and oppress its people, all with relative impunity. This argument reflects Orwell’s apparent fascination with the rise and fall of Soviet Russia as well as the ideology behind communism, both of which heavily influenced Animal Farm. In the context of the arguments explained in this essay, the most important takeaway from the book is this: that the people of any state must be constantly on guard so that their government can never assume dominion over information and thought, and that they must never willingly surrender control of public opinion to their leaders. If they do so, they run the risk of falling victim to the kind of utter tyranny exercised by the pigs in Animal Farm—and, for that matter, by every other dictatorial class in history.