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Orwell's Nightmare

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face . . . Forever.”

Surely no date has ever been awaited with such foreboding as 1984. The reason is George Orwell's novel of the same name which paints a nightmarish picture of a world divided into three huge superstates: Eastasia, Eurasia, and Oceania. It is a world characterised by dreary squalor, permanent warfare, spying telescreens, the "thought police", and Big Brother:

“The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible and glittering – a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons – a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting – three hundred million people all with the same face.”

In Oceania all hopes of social change, revolutionary or otherwise, have been systematically eliminated by the all-powerful totalitarian state. History has come to a stop.

George Orwell was born Eric Blair in Mothari, India, in 1903. He was educated at Eton and held a variety of jobs including an Imperial policeman in Burma, a private tutor, a school teacher, and a bookshop assistant, He is best remembered however as a writer and social commentator who presented, analysed and advocated political ideas. In 1947 in a short essay called Why I Write, Orwell spelled out his aims and motives as a writer:

“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.”

Not a bad starting point, but what were the political ideas Orwell advocated? They are difficult to pin down with any precision as Orwell did not wish to be compromised by commitment to a doctrine or programme – a subject he wrote about in the essay, Writers and Leviathan. His "socialism" was in fact little more than a moral stance, a call for "justice" and "liberty" and for a more humane and decent world. He attempted to live up to these convictions and in the Spanish Civil War enlisted in the POUM (Workers' Party of Marxist-Unification), a popular militia fighting at the Front. Eventually, political expediency led to the POUM being denounced by the Communist Party as a "fascist fifth column". Persecution and executions followed, forcing Orwell and his wife to escape into France. It was these experiences (vividly recaptured in the autobiographical Homage to Catalonia) that led to both Orwell's anti-Communist Party attitude and his distrust of "intellectuals".

Orwell's writing life lasted less than twenty years. His book output was relatively small although it was bolstered by his numerous essays and journalism. In January 1950, aged 46, he died from tuberculosis from which he had suffered for some time. Since his death his growing reputation as a writer stemmed largely from his last two novels, Animal Farm and 1984 – both satires on totalitarianism. In a recently published book (George Orwell: The Road to 1984), P. Lewis says

“One of the many paradoxes about him is that thirty years after his death, his work is more alive than in his lifetime . . . He is increasingly read, becomes more influential and remains perfectly relevant.”

The novel 1984 is an extremely influential book. It has appeared in more than sixty languages, its sales are in the millions, it has been put on the curricula of schools and colleges and was turned into a film and a television play (the latter, in 1954, caused one of the BBC's biggest controversies). The book's appeal stems from its dramatic treatment of important ideas; 1984 has influenced the way in which people think about society and the future. It has introduced into everyday speech a number of words and concepts: even people who have never read the book are familiar with "Big Brother", "Doublethink" and "Newspeak".

One of the main themes in 1984 is the use of language to corrupt and distort thought. History is written in the Ministry of Truth, facts inconvenient to the regime are pushed down the memory hole, and Newspeak is the official language rendering certain modes of thought impossible. All of this is epitomised in the three slogans of the Party: "War is Peace", "Freedom is Slavery", “Ignorance is Strength". Today, the very term "Orwellian" has become an adjective to describe any institution or event which evokes oppression and organised lying. You may wonder why it is not used more often.

Since its publication in 1948 the novel 1984 has generated diverse theories to explain why Orwell should have written such a book. According to one view, 1984 is a deliberate and powerful attack on "socialism". Isaac Deutscher (the biographer of Trotsky) referred to the novel as an "ideological weapon in the coldwar". While the novel has been used with great enthusiasm by the opponents of socialism, there is good evidence to show that even by Orwell's confused notions this was not his intention. When controversy surrounding the novel began he stated explicitly:

“My novel Nineteen Eighty Four is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the Labour Party (of which I am a supporter), but as a show up of the perversions to which a centralised economy is liable, and which have already been partly realised in Communism and Fascism . . . . I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences” (Letter to F. A. Henson, l6 June 1949. CEJL, Vol 4, p. 564.)

What were these totalitarian ideas which Orwell was attacking? Firstly, they were the ideas of the "intellectuals", especially those on the left wing, who were prepared to distort history and obscure the truth in order to further their own ends:

“The truth is, of course, that the countless English intellectuals who kiss the arse of Stalin are not different from the minority who give their allegiance to Hitler or Mussolini . . . All of them are worshipping power and successful cruelty. It is important to notice that the cult of power tends to be mixed up with a love of cruelty and wickedness for their own sakes.” (Raffles and Miss Blandish, 1944. CEJL, Vol 3, p.258.)

Secondly, they were the tendencies Orwell saw around him in 1948 – in particular the growth of central state power. Fascist Germany had been defeated but there was state-capitalist Russia, and a nationalising post-war Labour government in Britain.

Others have attempted a psychoanalytical explanation of the novel, believing it to be the cry of a disillusioned and dying man. An examination of Orwell's earlier writings shows quite clearly that this is not the case. 1984 is the fruition of a number of ideas and preoccupations which Orwell had been developing for a number of years. As his friend R. Rees says, ". . . he succeeds in packing into 1984 nearly all the ideas of his previous books". It is interesting to see how Llew Gardner of the Daily Worker (18 December, 1954) managed to combine both of these theories to attack Orwell (obviously unhappy to see the ugly face of Russian "communism" so accurately portrayed:

“When he wrote 1984, the anti-socialist work that shocked the nation on television, George Orwell was sick in body and mind, a fast dying man.”

This must have a familiar ring to it, especially for the numerous Russian dissidents who are sent to hospitals for "psychiatric treatment".

Most ridiculous of all is the use of 1984 as a yardstick to measure future developments. For example, in September 1974, the Daily Telegraph magazine produced a special issue devoted to the novel. It had in bold print on the cover: "George Orwell predicted complete oppression by 1984, and a soul-less society, without love or freedom". A recent article in New Scientist by C. L. Boltz ("1984: A Passed Future") criticises Orwell for, among other things, not foreseeing the growth of feminism and the revolt of the young. This type of explanation not only misses the point of 1984 but attempts to turn Orwell into something he never claimed to be – a prophet. On the contrary, he said:

“I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive.” (Letter to F. A. Henson.)

Certain important criticisms must be made of 1984 arising from Orwell's limited understanding of the nature of class and power in society. For example, what are we to make of his vision of the "proles"? Can the class struggle be subdued so that nobody ever protests about the appalling conditions in Oceania? Most serious of all, can we really be expected to accept the central argument of the book that "power", as an end in itself, is the motive force of the whole social system?

Every study of Orwell sooner or later discusses his obsession with his own social background and upbringing. In The Road to Wigan Pier he describes himself as a member of the "lower upper middle class". Commentators talk of the “transformation" of Blair into Orwell as the rejection of his upbringing and the search for a new social identity. This may explain Orwell's attachment to what he considered "the working class". Yet Orwell never understood what class meant. Class is an economic condition, an objective social relationship, derived from an individual's relation to the ownership and control of wealth production. There are only two classes in capitalist society, those who possess but do not produce (capitalists) and those who produce but do not possess (workers). There is no choice in the matter; there are no alternatives. If you work for a wage or salary you are a member of the working class. It follows from the existence of a class-divided society that the two classes pursue antagonistic interests: there is a continuous class struggle. Yet although production continues in the class-divided society of Oceania with the "proles" doing all the necessary work social unrest, the other side of the coin, has disappeared. Orwell never explains why there are no more strikes, no more stoppages, no more disputes. Finally, it is because of Orwell's inability to explain class that he is unable to detect the real material force behind capitalist society – the relentless pursuit of profit.

Despite this criticism 1984 remains an important and stimulating book. And as for Orwell? We can apply the epigraph he uses for one of his own characters, George Bowling, in Coming Up for Air:

“He's dead, but he won't lie down.”