A satire is a work which uses humour, irony or wit to highlight the vices, follies and pretensions of individuals, institutions, communities or ideas. Animal Farm satirises the breakdown of political ideology and the misuse of power in the ingenious form of a beast fable. The major players are animals but their failings are all too recognisably human. They begin with an idealistic attempt to form a new society, liberated from the tyranny of humans and founded on the principle of equality and freedom for everyone, but it all goes wrong as the pigs take over. Backed up by the brute power of the dogs, they appropriate all manner of comforts and luxuries for themselves, while reducing the other animals to the same condition of slavery that they suffered under humans.
Broadly speaking, Animal Farm satirizes politicians, specifically their rhetoric, ability to manipulate others, and insatiable lust for power. Despite his seemingly altruistic motives, Napoleon is presented as the epitome of a power-hungry individual who masks all of his actions with the excuse that they are done for the betterment of the farm. His stealing the milk and apples, for example, is explained by the lie that these foods have nutrients essential to pigs only. His running Snowball off the farm is explained by the lie that Snowball was actually a traitor, working for Jones. Napoleon and the other pigs legitimize their transgressions of the Seven Commandments by changing the original language. Whenever the farm suffers a setback, Napoleon blames Snowball's treachery — which, of course, is untrue. Napoleon's walking on two legs, wearing a derby hat, and toasting Pilkington reflect the degree to which he (and the other pigs) completely disregards the plights of the other animals in favor of satisfying their own cravings for power. Thus, Animal Farm satirises those who espouse the most virtuous ideas to become the worst enemies of the people whose lives they are claiming to improve.
Orwell, however, also satirizes the different kinds of people whose attitudes allow rulers like Napoleon to succeed. Mollie is like self-centered people who lack any political sense or understanding. Boxer is likened to the kind of blindly devoted citizen whose reliance on slogans ("Napoleon is always right") prevents him from examining in more detail his own situation. Even Benjamin, the donkey, contributes to Napoleon's rise, through his cynical dismissal of facts.
Orwell's novel also strikes a satiric note against religion being the "opium of the people" (Marx). Moses the raven's talk of Sugarcandy Mountain is initially dismissed by all. But as their life worsens, however, the animals begin to believe his theory of a paradise elsewhere. The pigs allow Moses to stay on the farm because they know that his stories will keep the animals docile.
Another satiric theme is the way in which people proclaim their allegiance to each other, only to betray their true intentions at a later time. This theme is dramatized in a number of relationships involving the novel's human characters. Frederick's buying the firewood from Napoleon seems to form an alliance that is shattered when the pig learns of Frederick's forged banknotes. The novel's final scene demonstrates that, despite all the friendly talk and flattery that passes between Pilkington and Napoleon, each is still trying to cheat the other.
The novel exposes the perversion of political ideals and the corruption of power which occur all too regularly in human societies. Most obviously perhaps, it functions as an attack on Stalinist Russia, where the original Communist Revolution degenerated into war, interior power struggles and the emergence of a grim totalitarian regime under Josef Stalin. However, the satire of Animal Farm is not tied to any one time or place. Its lessons are universal, and conveyed in memorable fashion, and as such it endures as a powerful and relevant literary work.