Some great works of political satire have been written over the years. So many that it is hard to know which ones to read first. To help you in your reading I have included 5 examples of political satire books that everyone should read.
Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)
The farmyard fable is a tradition of English literature, which George Orwell employed for his satire of the Stalinism, Animal Farm. The book uses satire to tell the story of the Russian Revolution through the lens of a farm where the animals have risen up against the humans and taken over. The revolution then falls to tyranny as a Pig named Napoleon’s lust for power destroys all the principals of equality it was built on.
Such was the impact of this novel that in the USSR it was illegal to name a pig Napoleon and phrases coined in the novel, such as “we are all equal but some of us are more equal than others” have become shorthand for when a revolution aimed to bringing freedom descends into tyranny.
Orwell was a lifelong socialist, but he wanted to warn the British left of the dangers of authoritarian socialism. In Animal Farm he uses satire effectively to take the complexities of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism, to paint a stark picture of how revolutions can go wrong.
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
Joseph Heller’s novel takes aim at the pointless waste of life that is war and the bureaucracy of military-industrial complex. The novel follows Yossarian, a World War 2 bomber pilot stationed on an island called Pianosa. It dramatizes several events where Yossarian is caught between bureaucratic processes in a Catch 22. When we first meet Yossarian, he is in the hospital for jaundice, but the doctors are refusing to treat him until the jaundice fully sets in, but they won’t release him because he has jaundice. Yossarian is stuck as his life is ruled over by processes beyond his control.
Heller uses humour to expose what is wrong with war, religion and bureaucracy in America. He exaggerates the convoluted, contradictory and self-defeating aspects of the American military to make a point about the futility of war and how it ultimately adds up to the waste of human life. This is one of those novels when you have to laugh so that you don’t cry.
I Am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert (2007)
Stephen Colbert is a master at sending up conservatives via his comedy personality as a right-wing pundit. His show, the Colbert Report, was a mainstay of Comedy Central between 2005 and 2014, and in 2007 he put the character’s take on what was wrong with America (mainly liberals) into book form. Covering topics such as the homosexual agenda, race and immigration, Colbert satirises the hysterical tone of right-wing American politics.
Colbert’s right-wing pundit character was a parody of American conservatives before they became a self-parody. Recently, Fox and Friend’s host Pete Hegseth denied the existence of germs saying: “I can’t see them, therefore they’re not real.”
The right in America have become some kind of scary, crazy joke, led by a reality TV version of Mussolini. The crazy pronouncements of Colbert now look tame and moderate next to a right that has openly embraced conspiracy theories and fake news. It’s terrifying that the world has become madder than the mad world of Stephen Colbert.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935)
The idea of a US demagogue is powerful and scary. America has always thought of itself as a freedom loving nation, immune from the lure of authoritarianism. Yet there is a streak in American culture that is fanatical in its worship of flag, military and Americana. Could support for a dictator lurk beneath the surface that prides itself in its liberty?
That’s the idea behind Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here. The novel follows the rise of Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip an authoritarian who becomes President of the United States by appealing to patriotism and a return to traditional values. To say that this book is relevant in the age of Donald Trump is an understatement.
The novel was mainly aimed at satirising Louisiana governor Huey Long, who was preparing a run for president before he was assassinated in 1935. Although it’s satire of the weaknesses of American democracy are still relevant today.
The character of Buzz has a few crucial differences to Trump, he has a street protest movement similar to Hitler and the SS, which Trump doesn’t have. However, other parallels exist, such as the main character being a journalist, a profession that Trump hates. I hope that Lewis’s fiction is not America’s future.
Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes (2012)
Would we recognise Hitler for what he is if he walked amongst us? That’s the premise of German satirical novel Look Who’s Back. Hitler wakes up in modern Berlin, unaware of anything that has happened since 1945. As he continues to spout his Nazi views, he is mistaken for a method actor or comedy character, eventually finding success on YouTube and re-entering politics.
The novel pokes fun at contemporary alt-right extremists who are able to find an audience for their hateful views via social media. It also satirises our inability to see the true awfulness of extreme right politics and our mistake in assuming what we are seeing is an attempt at humour. Hiding behind a Family Guy-esque shock humour is a known tactic of the far-right. It’s sad to say that if Hitler was alive today, most people probably would dismiss him as a social media provocateur and not see the threat he poses to the world.
The list above covers a wide range of novels from different countries and periods in history. They all have something to say about today as well as the time they were written in. Even the old books have contemporary relevance as we can learn from the past to avoid repeating their mistakes.
Satire is an effective way of communicating complex political ideas in an accessible and impactful way. What I have included above are a few examples of books that I think are excellent. Let me know which political satire novels you enjoy in the comments below.