Century of Books

My project to read the top 100 English-language books of the twentieth century.

Location: San Francisco, United States

I am an Australian writer and blogger living in San Francisco. Visit my professional site at caitlinfitzsimmons.com, or my travel and food blog at Roaming Tales or my personal blog at The Niltiac Files. I am also on Twitter as @niltiac. See the full list of books or visit me on BookCrossing.

28 January 2007

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I first read Animal Farm for English class in high school, back when I was fifteen years old. We were told of course that it was based on the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinist Russia, but I was yet to formally study Russian history. Re-reading it now, it is striking how closely the plot of Animal Farm follows Soviet history. Orwell invents almost nothing and all his characters are either modelled on real historical figures (eg. Napoleon is Stalin and Snowball is Trotsky) or broader social groups (eg. Boxer is the working classes, while Mollie is the bourgeoisie). At the time of Animal Farm's publication, Stalin was a crucial ally in the war against Nazi Germany and fascism and it was considered very impolitic to criticise him. The novel was almost not published because of the prevailing political mores and the self-censorship of British publishers at the time.

Clearly, it was not many years later that criticising Stalin and Soviet Russia became decidedly less controversial in the West. However, the novel did not lose its ability to disturb the Powers That Be, especially in the United States, when publishers learned that Orwell intended the novel to apply to the inherent dangers of all revolutions and not just the particular case of Russia.

Despite the close parallels to Soviet history, the novel clearly has broader relevance. The central lesson of Animal Farm is that power corrupts and the citizens of a country need to be eternally vigilant about loss of freedom or civil rights. Governments should be trusted only as far as is absolutely necessary and be held to regular account. This does not apply only to revolutions, for the situation was not much better under Mr Jones in the novel or the Romanovs in real life.

We all have a duty to vote and to engage with the political process at all levels. The alternative is the erosion of freedom and the encroachment of tyranny. Britain is now a full-on surveillance state, with one CCTV camera for every 14 people. Just as the pigs of Animal Farm would cry "you don't want Jones back, do you?" to justify any decision, from appropriating the apples to abolishing weekly meetings, our governments frequently use the threat of terrorism or criminality to justify restricting our freedom.

Of course, I'm not trying to say that Blair is Stalin or anything of the sort; what I am saying, is that we shouldn't just accept something like ID cards with the blithe argument that "if you're not a terrorist or a criminal, you don't have anything to worry about". I know of too many cases where police have planted evidence (eg. in the 1970s the police would raid hippie houses and if they didn't find any drugs, they would plant them, reasoning that they must have hidden them) to be that trusting. And I know too much about technology to believe that the government has the know-how to keep a central database of every citizen's private information secure from hackers, some of whom may be the very criminals and terrorists we're supposed to be protected from.

Since I've already read this, I'm still at 37 down, 63 to go...