Since the 2016 United States Presidential election, the concepts of Nationalism and Populism have received a lot more attention and consideration. Especially when the President of the United States openly declares himself a Nationalist. It is not only in the United States that candidates and ideologies who lean to the right have been gaining traction. The United Kingdom now has a highly conservative Prime Minister who is using populist tactics in order to maintain power. Additionally, both the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister and the United States’ President threaten the norms of Parliamentary and Republican liberal democracy by disregarding convention and – at the very least – skirting legality.
It is not within just the two most well known democracies either. Europe, overall, has seen a resurgence in nationalist parties in recent years. Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Switzerland all have Nationalist ruling parties and some seventeen governments, including the four previously mentioned, have some Nationalist party representation. Representation by Nationalist and Populist parties is present not just in Europe. Every single continent (and I included Antarctica as representatives of Nationalist governments have people doing research there) as well as supranational organizations have at least one nation where a National Populist party is in power, and all have some form of national populist representative in government.
One of the defining characteristics of both Nationalism and Populism is not just the ideology they identify with; adherence to a national identity and a belief in speaking for “the people”, but almost more importantly the relationship to the ideology to which they are opposed. Although the adversarial relationship between these ideologies may seem to be a new phenomenon to us, it is a recurring feature going back to at least the introduction of modern Nationalism and Populism in the late 19th and early 20th century. The ideologies most associated, as the antebellum to these two worldviews are Socialism and Communism. More specifically, the opposition to socialism is a precursor to Communism and the eventual decline into a totalitarian state.
By emphasizing the Orwellian nature of Socialist, Democratic Socialist, or any flavor of Socialist or Communist thought, Nationalists and Populists attempt to draw crudely the dissimilarities between the ideologies. The best and easiest way to invoke this Orwellian narrative is by returning to the source material. Nationalists/Populists refer back to the works of George Orwell, most specifically the novels 1984 and Animal Farm.
It is usually 1984, to be fair, that gets the lion’s share of the attention. This is most likely because of the catchier terminology and buzzwords (Facecrime, thoughtcrime, doublespeak, “Big Brother is watching.”) and because it’s an outstanding movie. Also, attempting to explain the allegories and symbolism in Animal Farm is a more nuanced process which, when done correctly, would likely destroy the analogy National Populists are attempting to make.
I have previously reviewed 1984 and there is a plethora of articles, treatises, and entire doctoral dissertations as to the enduring qualities of Orwell’s seminal work. Animal Farm, while arguably simpler in tone and a much faster read, does explore these themes and utilizes allegory and symbolism largely.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a metaphorical retelling of Russia’s October revolution and its turn from Bolshevik revolution to Communist administration to totalitarian regime. With Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin – along with the rest of the Soviet inner circle – portrayed as literal swine. There are ferocious dogs used as lackeys by the pigs who have no compunction to actually tearing any dissenters (and there end up being many) to pieces. The story even portrays the primary flaw in the consideration of bringing communism to the farm (Russia) in the metaphor of the windmill. The windmill represents lack of an industrial base being one of the causes of both the ultimate failure of Marx’s theories attempted on an agrarian as opposed to industrial society as well as Stalin’s genocidal push to create forcibly an industrial base around which a proletariat could take shape.
In this short work, Orwell deftly displays the steps used in the quick descent from joyful revolution, as the yokes of oppression are cast off the beasts at Manor Farm, to the crushing desperation as the animals confine themselves to a worse servitude. He demonstrates how any despot uses the fear of the outsider and their potential connection to the former oppressor to enforce control. Changing the narrative and ensuring education and critical thinking are removed from everyday life achieves the slow and methodical destruction of history. Oppressed workers are convinced it is their own failings, which result in disappointment and a belief stricter adherence to doctrine, and the need for harder work to eventually achieve the final goal. Finally, the animals reach an understanding that, although true and full equality and the goals of society may not be achievable now, it is achievable with enough work at a “soon” merely delayed and not completely derailed.
None of this, however, is dependent on enacting a socialist society. In actuality, a communist one is not required either. Although Orwell’s Manor Farm is set in the socialist England of the 1940’s and he is directly criticizing Soviet communist structure, these steps can – and indeed have and are – be taken in any society. Neither the left nor the right is immune to a laxity in vigilance.
Animal Farm, as Orwell has created it, gives us an extremely rich and tightly crafted modern fairy tale of talking animals, noble goals, and heroic quests. Like all fairy tales, we should not focus on the trappings of the fairyland. It doesn’t matter if we are reading of princess in high castles, talking frogs, or fairies lighting up the Elizabethan nights. These are just the richly embroidered adornments used to make the lesson more palatable. Those attempting to fool us with the embroidery often obscure the lesson – just as the pig Napoleon does within the story to the facts of the “Battle of the Cowshed”.
We must remain vigilant. We must question the facts presented to us and spend the time to analyze them critically. We must be continually willing to do all of this despite the costs. Orwell in Animal Farm repeats these lessons, as he did in 1984, as well as in his nonfiction works such as Notes on Nationalism.
Orwell does not presents us an easy task. It takes strength of courage and fortitude of will. We must be able to admit to our own flaws and demand others admit their own as well. Because, whether it is a democracy, a parliament, socialism, or a republic, what Orwell has given us is a tool for our freedoms and our way of life to – as Benjamin Franklin was supposedly asked regarding the Democratic Republic he helped birth – keep them.