I believe that this dictum is borne out to an extent, as suggested by several examples present in the novel. These include violence amongst supposed comrades, deceit and betrayal amid leaders and workers, and most importantly, intelligence, which is the key to corruption. Orwell’s scathing satire of the Russian Revolution and his dark dystopian vision of a population under complete surveillance and control have informed generations of readers of the threat of tyrannical governments. Thus, the statement “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is carried out to a degree throughout the events that occur in this political allegory.
‘Animal Farm’ is a fable because its characters are animals, each with his own personality and human characteristics. The animals think, talk, obey, disobey, aspire, fight, and respect their leaders – just like men, but the animals are used to expose the follies and failings of humans. Everything is meaningful and has some purpose; situations, relationships, scapegoats, and friends are all developed to make a point. The law-abiding, simple animals in the story only want peace, which is impossible under the harsh and merciless pigs that rule. Squealer’s rationalising, persuasion and defensive tactics point out the hazards of propaganda. Through him, Orwell warns, “Keep the truth away from the people, tell your lies boldly and persistently, and people can be made to believe anything.”
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As a fable, the story is warm, amusing, and friendly on the surface. Still, underneath, there is great meaning, for it becomes a political fable on the story of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal of the people. ‘Animal Farm’ opens with the news that old Major, “the prize Middle White boar”, has called a meeting to share a dream that he’s had. As he explains his dream to the other animals, he points out to them that “Man is the only creature that consumes without producing,” and he encourages them to “work night and day, body and soul, for the over-throwing of the human race”. In short, he explains that men have been taking advantage of them for years and that it is time for the tyranny of man to end. His message boiled down to a word: “Rebellion.”
Orwell gives us through old Major’s speech a simplified version of the beliefs of communism, which were put down by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in ‘The Communist Manifesto’. The basic idea of the ‘Manifesto’ was that the capitalist economic system was seriously flawed. The workers never saw the products of their labour because the capitalists – the people who owned the means of production – claimed the profit for themselves. Marx suggested that if common workers could overthrow the capitalists and claim the means of production for themselves, then all the world workers could live in peace with one another. The ‘Manifesto’ famously ends “, The common workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, Unite!” Old Major essentially ends his speech the same way with his final call to “Rebellion!” Yet, both Marx and Old Major are better at criticizing the existing system than proposing a new one.
At the story’s start, the already existing inequality is recognised as Orwell describes how each character enters the barn. The pigs are aggressive, want to seize control, and are the first to enter, giving them the ‘leader’ role almost immediately. However, the two cart-horses, Boxer and Clover, walk-in very slowly and “settle down their vast hairy hoofs with great care lest there should be some small animal concealed in the straw”. This sentence portrays the horses as loving and caring animals, contrasting the pigs and giving the impression that they only care about others. Although turning out to be very stupid, they are loyal, hardworking, and inspiring to other animals on the farm. Old Major’s speech was so persuasive that all the animals agreed, apart from Benjamin the cynical donkey who is certain that “life will go on as it has always gone on – that is, badly.” At least in the case of ‘Animal Farm’, Benjamin’s cynicism proves much more justified than Old Major’s dreams.
After Old Major’s death, we are introduced to Snowball, who, with the other pigs, takes charge of spreading Old Major’s message on the farm. We learn, “Snowball was a more vivacious pig than Napoleon, quicker in speech and more inventive, but was not considered to have the same depth of character”. It is hard to know exactly what the narrator means by “depth of character”. If he means anything like moral character, then it becomes clear that Snowball is no more lacking than Napoleon as the story goes on. Napoleon doesn’t play much of a role in the initial rebellion, which happens largely by chance, yet he’s introduced, along with Squealer, as one of the most intelligent pigs around. The narrator describes him as “a large, rather fierce-looking Berkshire boar, the only Berkshire on the farm, not much of a talker, but with a reputation of getting his way”. However, Snowball seems to be a better public speaker and is also better at winning popular favour. Yet it’s Napoleon, the more treacherous and cunning of the two pigs, that manages to get his way.
That power corrupts is almost an inevitable conclusion of ‘Animal Farm’. When the pigs take over, they claim their goal is to preside over a farm of equal animals, all working together to support one another. Yet power quickly proves to be too much for a pig. Small privileges quickly bloom into full-scale corruption, and the pigs begin more and more to resemble those whom they claim to replace. However, before the whole farm was corrupted, the pigs took power after the Rebellion because they claimed that they were the most intelligent animals on the farm. Yet, it soon became clear that intelligence and good intentions need not go hand in hand. The pigs are reliant on the ignorance of the other animals and their inability to see how the principles of Animalism are becoming corrupted. Many examples of the animals’ exploitation are easily recognised in the book, such as when the pigs steal all the fresh milk from the cows, but the less intelligent animals don’t seem to notice. Also, Napoleon tends to scheme quite a lot, which is the tipping point of corruption on Animal Farm…
When all the animals were beginning to read and write, Napoleon took nine puppies from their mothers at birth and raised them himself. No one knew exactly what he was doing until the dogs suddenly appeared, fully grown, to chase Snowball off the farm. When the dogs returned to him, “It was noticed that they wagged their tails to him in the same way as the other dogs had been used to do to Mr Jones”. Napoleon may not have had as many ideas as Snowball, such as the windmill, but he had a taste for power and learned from the best. In this case, Mr Jones. After Snowball was chased off by Napoleon’s vicious dogs and turned into a scapegoat, it was easy to over-correct Napoleon’s propaganda. It imagined Snowball as a great and noble pig.
In the early chapters, though, it is clear that Snowball has as many faults as he does strengths. For example, though Snowball played an important role in the Rebellion and helped create the Seven Commandments, he also reduced the commandments to the simplistic line “Four legs good, two legs bad”. The very simplicity of the line later allowed the sheep to bleat it over Snowball’s speeches. Also, when the other animals protested the pigs taking all the milk for their mash, Snowball united with Napoleon in claiming that the milk was necessary for their brainwork. In other words, though Snowball wasn’t around when the pigs turned Animal Farm into a dictatorship, he went along with the first steps before he got kicked out.
At the very beginning of ‘Animal Farm’, it is easy to laugh at Squealer’s professed ability to “turn black into white”. Yet as time goes on, it becomes clear that Squealer’s cleverness can be used in very harmful ways. The pigs take advantage of other animals’ lack of intelligence and gradually brainwash, deceive, distract, and dupe them into a life of hardship and toil as short and miserable as their life before the Rebellion. Following Snowball’s expulsion, Squealer and Napoleon trick the animals into believing that the windmill was Napoleon’s idea and that Snowball’s riddance was a “sacrifice” that Napoleon had to make. As Napoleon gets more and more similar to a dictator, he breaks each of the Seven Commandments one by one, and the cleverest of the stupid animals find it just a little bit odd.
After each suspicion, they wander to the wall where the Commandants were written and find that their mind has been playing tricks on them. However, this is not the case. For example, when Napoleon went on a killing frenzy, he also changed the Commandment “No animal shall kill any other animal” to “No animal shall kill any other animal without cause”. The animals, therefore, think of it as ‘okay’ for Napoleon to kill animals who have disobeyed or betrayed him, but they have forgotten the true meaning of Animalism. Some animals had even forgotten how the years before the Rebellion used to be and see now as the better way to live because they are just taking the pigs’ word for it, especially Squealer’s.
Also, in the later chapters of ‘Animal Farm’, the pigs come across a case of whisky in the farmhouse’s cellar. The next morning, Squealer calls the animals together and announces that Napoleon was dying, but, of course, he was only drunk. And later, when Napoleon overcame his hangover, he announced that alcohol drinking was to be punished by death. Nonetheless, when Boxer was severely ill, the pigs traded him to a Horse Slaughterer for more whisky and got drunk…again. This is another sign as to how similar the pigs are getting to the once enemies, humans. So deception is used to gain power. The pigs deceive the other animals about the past, convincing them that certain events did or did not occur. They deceive them also in the present, pretending that their situation is better than it really is. And they deceive the farm animals as far as plans for the future, ensuring their dreams will come true.
The progression of violence from battles between animals and humans to abuse within Animal Farm itself is the most significant outcome of the pigs’ corruption. And because of the strength of the working-class animals, particularly Boxer, the potential for violence against the pigs presents a constant potential for rebellion. Thus, violence in ‘Animal Farm’ is also a tool of political oppression. Not only do we see actual violence used to kill and to exile enemies of the leadership, but equally important is the threat of violence. If any animals rebel or question the pigs’ leadership, they can expect to face violence as a punishment. But of all the tools the pigs have with which to oppress the other animals, their own intellect is their greatest means of control. The hierarchy of intelligence in the animals on the farm ultimately becomes the hierarchy of power – except for Snowball, who was expelled by violence. However, Orwell shows that, in the end, brute force is more important than intellect.
Despite all the bloodshed and brainwashing, pride serves to unite the animals as a common group; in this way, it is something related to camaraderie. The animals pride themselves in banding together to overthrow their oppressive leader, and their communal feeling benefits everyone. Yet Napoleon, an extremely vain pig, quickly learns how to use the animals’ pride as a tool of manipulation. They are also so proud of the animal-run farm that they are blind to its failure and corruption. And as the book is written from the animals’ point of view, there is a lot of irony relating to their pride: “And yet the animals never gave up hope. More, they never lost, even for an instant, their sense of honour and privilege in being members of Animal Farm. They were still the only farm in the whole country – in all England! – owned and operated by animals. Not one of them ever ceased to marvel at that.” And while the pigs use pride to control the other animals, their own pride controls them in much the same way.
To conclude, old cynical Benjamin was most accurate when he said that life would always go on badly; however, I believe that absolute power does not always absolutely corrupt. When Jones had control over the farm, he did not slaughter the animals, overwork them, or even ever betray them – even though he was irresponsible at times. I think the animals, who had never acted like humans or practised human traditions, were taking advantage of their leadership, and only intelligence corrupted them. The less clever animals did not understand the pigs’ intentions, allowing them to exploit them shamelessly. Therefore, the pigs turned out to be a worse version of Jones and having been animals once themselves, they knew every way they could exploit and deceive them further.