George Orwell Warned Us, But Was Anyone Listening?

He knew that sheep-like assent to injustice is all that's necessary for a 1984-like tyranny.

George Orwell / Public Domain

Seven decades ago on June 8, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four exploded on the cultural front—fittingly enough, just two months before the Soviet Union’s first successful atomic test that August, which broke America’s nuclear monopoly. Orwell’s warning was urgent—and timely. Almost overnight, in the wake of the surrender of Germany and Japan that ended World War II in 1945, a new war—the so-called Cold War—had emerged. (Orwell is often credited with coining the term.)

The Cold War pitted the capitalist West against the communist East, above all the United States against the USSR (and soon China). Just three weeks before the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Soviet Union lifted the Berlin Blockade, thereby avoiding a potentially deadly showdown with the West that might have triggered World War III. Two weeks later, on May 23, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was officially established, effectively ending prospects in the near future of German reunification. On the very day of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s publication, June 8, fears swept through liberal America of a growing Red Scare when a leaked document named numerous celebrities as Communist Party members (e.g., Helen Keller, Dorothy Parker, Fredric March, Danny Kaye, Edward G. Robinson). That same month, the communist armies of Mao Zedong captured Shanghai, and less than six months later on October 1, declared victory in the civil war against the American-backed Nationalists and the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

What educated person is not at least vaguely familiar with the language and vision of Orwell’s novel—even if he or she does not recognize the source? Indeed the very ignorance of the source represents an inadvertent tribute to the power of Orwell’s language and vision. Like Shakespeare’s poetry (“All the world’s a stage,” “To be or not to be,” “This above all: to thine own self be true”), so deeply have some of Orwell’s locutions become lodged in the cultural lexicon and political imagination that most people no longer recognize their author, let alone the source.

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Today, as in the case of Shakespeare, hundreds of millions of people mouth Orwell’s coinages and catchphrases, such as “Big Brother” and “doublethink”—including his name as proper adjective, “Orwellian” (i.e., nightmarish, oppressive). And that’s just in English. Tens of millions more recognize and repeat them in foreign translations, as I [Rodden] discovered in our travels and teaching in the communist East Germany as well as in Asia. Rudimentary acquaintance with such locutions is regarded as a sine qua non of cultural literacy in English—even today, when prolefeed (mindless chatter) floods the print columns and dominates the airwaves. 

Conception and Composition

Nineteen Eighty-Four represents Orwell’s Orwellian vision—in the form of a fictional anti-utopia (or “dystopia”)—of what a nightmarish, oppressive future might hold. It projects a world 35 years away—half the biblical lifespan of three score and ten. Having completed his novel by the end of 1948, Orwell flipped the last two digits to underscore his anti-utopian theme of a world turned upside down and inside out. Or so many scholars have reasonably claimed. The date resultant from the flipped digits also gave the novel its immediacy. Previous anti-utopias, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), had cast their ominous scenarios far into the future, which lessened their dramatic impact and tended to render them entertaining thought experiments. (Huxley’s action is set in the 26th century.) By contrast, Orwell’s dire future is too close for comfort—and depicts the planet in the immediate aftermath of a global nuclear war that has nearly annihilated the human species. His vision thus projects a world in which middle-aged readers in 1949 might find themselves in old age—and certainly their children and grandchildren were likely to witness it. (If he had lived, Orwell himself would have still been just 80 years old on April 4, 1984, when the story opens.)

This horrific near-future is controlled by three rival totalitarian regimes (headquartered in America, Russia, and China) that crush all vestiges of freedom and liberty, wage perpetual warfare against one another, reduce their societies to primitive levels of existence, and propagandize the populace into zombies. The physical setting is the ravaged Great Britain, now known as Airstrip One (sections of which were still in rubble after Hitler’s bombing campaigns). Airstrip One is an outpost of the empire of Oceania (a.k.a. America—or perhaps “Amerika,” as anti-American critics of the 1950s began to write). War has raged between Oceania and its rivals, namely Eurasia (the USSR and its satellites) and Eastasia (China), continuously throughout the four decades since the close of World War II.

The plot is straightforward. Winston Smith is the hero—or antihero. (The name both evokes Britain’s much-admired wartime leader, the former prime minister Winston Churchill, and universalizes the protagonist as an Everyman. The novel’s original title, The Last Man in Europe, also sought to wed the individual and the universal.)

Winston Smith is a small fry. He is not so menial as the mindless peasant-like serfs of the regime, the “proles” (or proletarians). Rather, he is an Outer Party member of the tyrannical ruling party. Secretly, however, Winston is a dissident, hoping to serve the seditious Brotherhood, an underground rebel group resolved to overthrow Oceania’s absolute ruler, Big Brother, and his governing henchmen, the Inner Party elite. (Orwell leaves it ambiguous as to whether the never-glimpsed Big Brother really exists—or is just the regime’s public face.)

Smith’s rebellion takes the form of keeping a private journal of his true opinions (including entries such as “Down with Big Brother!”) and carrying on an extramarital sexual relationship with another Outer Party member, Julia. Any conduct of a private life is illegal in Oceania. So too is non-marital sex, indeed even sex within marriage that is not for procreation. (Sex is referred to as “our duty to the Party.”)

Winston and Julia do not have, or seek, a Shakespearean “marriage of true minds.” Their affair, at least in the beginning, is not a love story at all. Sheer lust—born of the animalistic urge to copulate and a visceral satisfaction in defying the Party’s edicts—drives them. As their relationship unfolds, it becomes more tender and multifaceted. (A few scholars have suggested that the juvenile “sedition” by Winston and Julia in the form of sexual rebellion—which essentially amounts to making out in a park and spending the night in a rundown hotel room— represents a projection of Orwell’s own immature, adolescent sexual fantasies and frustrations.) 

Winston is an intellectual of sorts, though his day job confines him to work as a propagandist hack at the Ministry of Truth. He is mesmerized by anything that recalls the “old world,” the long-ago, near-forgotten days before Oceania, the era of the ancien regime, signified by such useless objects as an old-fashioned notebook with rich, creamy paper or a coral glass paperweight. Born before the age of perpetual war, he has vague memories of yesteryear, a time before the triumph of the Party.

Eventually he and Julia are captured by Big Brother’s secret police—known as the Thought Police—a far more menacing version of Hitler’s Gestapo and the USSR’s NKVD (the Stalinist predecessor to the better-known KGB). Thanks to a clever game of entrapment, the Thought Police have been apprised of the couple’s treason from the beginning—and they simply waited until their preferred moment to pounce. Winston is tortured in Room 101 by the diabolical O’Brien, an Inner Party bigwig whom Winston has naively trusted as a Brotherhood dissident. “Do it to Julia!” Winston cries out, an act of betrayal symbolizing his dehumanization. (Julia has already voiced the same sentiments, having capitulated apparently without extensive torture.) As the story closes, the brainwashed Winston awaits execution, little more than a vegetable. The book’s final sentence—“He loved Big Brother”—captures in four words his condition: unconditional surrender.

Artistry and Impact 

When Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four in June 1949, he was already a very sick man. His lifelong struggle with pulmonary tuberculosis had been aggravated by the strain of revising his masterwork and typing it himself. He had been in and out of sanatoria in Scotland and England during the previous two years, and his weak lungs had collapsed not long after completing it. Lying in a London hospital ward, he was a man on his deathbed. Despite the exciting literary projects that his ever-sharp mind was busily devising (and his marriage in October 1949 to a lovely 31-year-old Sonia Brownell), neither his literary aspirations nor his marital dreams of happiness would save him. By January 1950, just seven months after his book’s appearance, Orwell died at the age of 46.

The proximity of his last work’s publication to Orwell’s death date—and its contributing role in worsening his health resulting from the stress and strain of finishing it—have induced some readers to charge that it was the dark, vengeful parting testament of a bitter, dying man. They read the book not as a critique of the post-World War II realities prevailing in the outer world, but rather of the psychological realities governing Orwell’s inner world. The “nightmare” was within, not without; the horror was Orwell’s own physical suffering and psychological condition.

Following this line of thinking, a few critics—particularly Stalinist and leftist intellectuals who opposed Orwell’s ingenious satire of state socialism (remember the name of the Party is Ingsoc = English Socialism)—have in effect conducted psychological autopsies of Orwell (based on interpretations of letters, journalism, and fiction). So armed, they have proceeded to dismiss Nineteen Eighty-Four as a despairing self-portrait, a vision of Orwell’s desperate, “anti-utopian” inner life. Illness engulfed him. Death was in the air.

Conclusion? The book depicted his future, not ours.

Did Orwell’s anti-utopia merely express the fevered imagination of a dying man? We know that Orwell certainly did not behave as someone in despair during or after he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. All signs were that he passionately wanted to live. His list of literary projects, his marriage, his ongoing engagement with current events during what turned out to be his last months, reflect that hope. His chatty letters, humorous conversations, and ever-sharp pen represent further evidence. He told one friend, half-seriously, that he could not die because he had more books to write; that is, he believed that, so long as he had work of significant value still left to contribute to humankind, he would recover sufficiently to putter along in a semi-invalid state, at least capable of living a physically undemanding life for several more years. Nor are his decisions to marry and his insistence on keeping and raising his five-year-old son (a boy whom he had adopted a few years earlier) the acts of a man soured on life, curdled by hopelessness, a misanthrope expecting to die.

Contentions about Orwell’s illness and the “pathological” subtext of Nineteen Eighty-Four are also often adduced by literary critics to buttress their characteristic claims about its purported artistic flaws, such as wooden characters, pedestrian plotting, and poorly conceived and executed themes (e.g., sex as rebellion). Yet these indictments fail to grasp the genre in which Orwell—following great writers ranging from Plato to Thomas More to H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley—is writing: the satirical utopia. Philosophers refer to this sort of error as a “category mistake.” The category of Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the realistic or experimental novel, but rather the utopia. 

Like virtually all utopian or anti-utopian satires, Nineteen Eighty-Four presents drab, flat characters living in a grim world. Their journeys are predictable because their freedoms are narrow, often nonexistent and merely imagined. You cannot judge this book by the conventional criteria signaling a “good” novel. Even the main characters are not three-dimensional figures.

That is how it should be. What would you expect? In a world like this, it would be inconsistent, if not contradictory, to portray human beings who are not stunted and who live exciting lives with unexpected plot twists and turns.

Yet there is a hero in this anti-utopia, and Orwell’s magnificent portrait exemplifies its consummate artistry. The multidimensional, richly drawn “hero” is none other than the setting—that is, the empire of Oceania itself. Its history, its corrupt and tyrannical ruling Party, its oppressive and terrifying technology, its ingenious propagandistic language (“Newspeak”), its hatred of the body and sexuality (Julia belongs to—and pretends to support—the Junior Anti-Sex League): all this makes it a rounded, fascinating, creatively elaborated “character.” And there is no room for any other. Because Oceania is omnipotent and omniscient, it determines that its citizenry—whether prole or Party leader—is a cipher. The setting is, as it were, the (pseudo-Marxist) substructure; the superstructure of character and plot are determined by and beholden to it, utterly secondary and “super-fluous” by comparison. 

Orwell created an unforgettable, terrifying character—Oceania—and showed its “development” (in the spheres of technology, language, warfare, geopolitics, state torture, social relations, and family and sexuality) with astonishing inventive prowess. That development is manifested above all in Oceania’s range of technological gadgets, Newspeak neologisms, and Party slogans and catchwords.

And that is why Nineteen Eighty-Four is a gripping “novel.” That is, moreover, why it not only became a runaway bestseller in the early Cold War era, but also why it has exerted a cultural impact greater than any work of fiction in the 20th century.

Unlike the literary scholars of later decades, the newspaper and magazine reviewers of 1949-50—who were addressing the general public—lauded the book almost without exception. The-Book-of-the-Month Club adopted it as their main choice for June; Reader’s Digest abridged it. Those two events guaranteed that the book would reach millions of readers. Equally valuable boosts appeared in the review pages of Life and Time, which at mid-century stood at the peaks of their influence. Now too the leading left-wing weeklies of the time, which had supported Stalin and the USSR throughout the 1930s and World War II—such as The Nation and The New Republic, both of which had denounced Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) for political reasons—joined the bandwagon. Nor were the leading literati hesitant with their kudos. For example, the editors of the premier intellectual journal in America at mid-century, Partisan Review, honored Orwell with the first Partisan Review Award in 1949.

Contemporary Reception and Relevance

Nineteen Eighty-Four remains widely read today—and ubiquitously quoted and cited. In fact, during the spring of 2017, in the wake of the inauguration of President Donald Trump—and controversies about the “alternative facts” that his aides marshaled as evidence of record attendance figures at the event—the book achieved the remarkable, unprecedented feat of skyrocketing to number one on fiction bestseller lists. This occurred an astonishing 67 years after its original date of release. Nothing of this kind had ever happened to another book in publishing history. And, in the case of Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was the fourth time that it had topped the bestseller lists: first in 1954, in the U.K., after a BBC-TV adaptation sent sales soaring; second, throughout the English-speaking world during the so-called countdown to 1984 between October 1983 and April 1984; and third, in 2003, as the centennial commemorations of Orwell’s birth dominated the headlines and airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic.

In fact, it is fair to say that Nineteen Eighty-Four has never not been a bestseller and a publishing phenomenon. According to the website Ranker.com, the work has sold more than 25 million copies since 1949. More than a half century later, Manchester Guardian readers voted Nineteen Eighty-Four the most influential book of the 20th century. Waterstone’s, a British bookstore chain, has ranked Orwell’s dystopia as the second most popular book of the 20th century (behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings). That is an amazing feat in its own right, given that most people understandably do not particularly enjoy reading (let alone rereading) nightmarish stories of torture, betrayal, and brainwashing. The book’s ascent to the top of fiction bestseller lists in 2016 and 2017, along with the ceaseless invocation of Orwell’s catchwords to characterize the Trump administration, induced Signet, Orwell’s American publisher, to rush out a new print run of 500,000 copies. Expectations are that total sales will pass 30 million by the time of the 2020 election in the United States.

Between Prophecy and Warning 

Some critics do not fault the book on artistic grounds, but rather judge its vision of the future as wildly off-base. For them, Orwell is a naïve prophet. Treating Orwell as a failed forecaster of futuristic trends, some professional “futurologists” have catalogued no fewer than 160 “predictions” that they claim are identifiable in Orwell’s allegedly poorly imagined novel, pertaining to the technical gadgetry, the geopolitical alignments, and the historical timetable.

Admittedly, if Orwell was aiming to prophesy, he misfired. Oceania is a world in which the ruling elite espouses no ideology except the brutal insistence that “might makes right.” Tyrannical regimes today still promote ideological orthodoxy—and punish public protest, organized dissidence, and conspicuous deviation. (Just ask broad swaths of the citizenry in places such as North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and mainland China.) Moreover, the Party in Oceania mostly ignores “the proles.” Barely able to subsist, they are regarded by the regime as harmless. The Party does not bother to monitor or indoctrinate them, which is not at all the case with the “Little Brothers” that have succeeded Hitler and Stalin on the world stage.

Rather than promulgate ideological doctrines and dogmas, the Party of Oceania exalts power, promotes leader worship, and builds cults of personality. In Room 101, O’Brien douses Winston’s vestigial hope to resist the brainwashing or at least to leave some scrap of a legacy that might give other rebels hope. “Imagine,” declares O’Brien, “a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” That is the future, he says, and nothing else. Hatred in Oceania is fomented by periodic “Hate Week” rallies where the Outer Party members bleat “Two Minutes Hate” chants, threatening death to the ever-changing enemy. (Critics of the Trump rallies during and since the presidential campaign compare the chants of his supporters—such as “Lock Her Up” about “Crooked Hillary” Clinton and her alleged crimes—to the Hate Week rallies in Nineteen Eighty-Four.)

Yet all of these complaints about the purported shortcomings of Nineteen Eighty-Four miss the central point. If Orwell “erred” in his predictions about the future, that was predictable—because he wasn’t aiming to “predict” or “forecast” the future. His book was not a prophecy; it was—and remains—a warning. Furthermore, the warning expressed by Orwell was so potent that this work of fiction helped prevent such a dire future from being realized. So effective were the sirens of the sentinel that the predictions of the “prophet” never were fulfilled.

Nineteen Eighty-Four voices Orwell’s still-relevant warning of what might have happened if certain global trends of the early postwar era had continued. And these trends—privacy invasion, corruption of language, cultural drivel and mental debris (prolefeed), bowdlerization (or “rectification”) of history, vanquishing of objective truth—persist in our own time. Orwell was right to warn his readers in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of Hitler and the still regnant Stalin in 1949. And his alarms still resound in the 21st century. Setting aside arguments about forecasting, it is indisputable that surveillance in certain locales, including in the “free” world of the West, resembles Big Brother’s “telescreens” everywhere in Oceania, which undermine all possibility of personal privacy. For instance, in 2013, it was estimated that England had 5.9 million CCTV cameras in operation. The case is comparable in many European and American places, especially in urban centers. (Ironically, it was revealed not long ago that the George Orwell Square in downtown Barcelona—christened to honor him for his fighting against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War—boasts several hidden security cameras.)

Cameras are just one, almost old-fashioned technology that violates our privacy, and our freedoms of speech and association. The power of Amazon, Google, Facebook, and other web systems to track our everyday activities is far beyond anything that Orwell imagined. What would he think of present-day mobile phones?

On the other hand, the basic ideas of “alternative facts” and “fake news”—our updated, revved-up forms of disinformation—were not foreign to Orwell. Working at the BBC as a news producer—a fancy term for war propagandist—he heard some of the Axis powers’ propaganda as well as that of his own side (even if he kept his own hands fairly clean). He justifiably feared that the very concept of objective truth was fading from the modern world. Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth is to rewrite or “rectify” history, so that it follows the current party line, whatever it may be at that moment.

Orwell himself saw all this happen when he read Catalan newspapers as well as British ones during the Spanish Civil War, several years before joining the BBC. Condemning press distortions, above all how several English newspapers reported the war, he wrote: “I saw great battles where there had been no fighting and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed…. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines.’” Given the gridlock in American politics, and the never-ending verbal warfare between news outlets on the Right such as Fox News and on the Left such as MSNBC, Orwell appears all too accurate in his “predictions.”

One of the features of the world of Oceania reflecting Orwell’s prescience is its official language, Newspeak, an argot resembling a kind of Morse code that satirizes advertising norms, political jargon, and government bureaucratese. The purpose of Newspeak is to limit thought, on the view that “you can’t think what you lack the words for.” Ultimately, this impoverished language seeks to narrow and control human thought. (Does Twitter represent a step in that direction?) Purged of all nuance and subtlety, denuded of variety, and reduced to a few hundred simple words, Newspeak ultimately promises to render all independent thought (or “thoughtcrime”) impossible. If it cannot be expressed in language, it cannot be thought. And anything can fill the vacuum, such as 2 + 2 = 5. That is the equation—a perfect example of “doublethink”—which O’Brien indoctrinates Winston to accept in Room 101 and which marks the final step of the latter’s brainwashing. As the Party defines it, “doublethink” consists in holding “two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” In 2018, Trump’s lead lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, declared in a TV interview: “Truth isn’t truth.” A few months later, a talking head defended a critical news report on the grounds that, just because it is “not accurate doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

It testifies both to the brilliance of Orwell’s vision and to the bane of our times that Nineteen Eighty-Four retains so much relevance.

Lessons—and Unlessons

The ultimate lesson—or perhaps “unlesson”—of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that, yes indeed, for terror and tyranny to prevail, passive assent to injustice is all that is necessary. Ignorance Is Strength! And vigilance, therefore, is requisite.

We citizens of anno 2019 are faced hourly with frightening reminders that Orwell’s warnings are evergreen—or rather, ravenblack. The cautionary warnings are simple yet not easy. Let us consider a pair of them.

Be very careful of the power of government, especially as it spreads its tentacles into your private life—for example, as has happened with the snooping of the National Security Agency, which makes Winston’s terror about the Thought Police all too real, given their technical wizardry at penetrating into our daily habits and quotidian transactions. 

Ditto with the power of those inadequately regulated or supervised corporate entities such as Facebook: that is, watch over your liberty and your right to dissent from social norms, above all the overwhelmingly powerful conformist pressures legislated by the forces of mass culture controlling our lives. 

Whether he dons his official robes of Big Government authority or his commercial cloak of Consumer Service, the spectral figure known as Big Brother hasn’t disappeared. Instead he has morphed and mutated into ever more insidious, often digital, forms and formats. Given those realities in our outer world, unless and until the conditions of the modern and postmodern world that have formed present-day humanity fundamentally alter, the warnings of Nineteen Eighty-Four will surely remain ever-ebony—just as they have proven to be throughout the past seven decades.  

John Rodden has written on Irish history in The Review of PoliticsThe Midwest Quarterly, and other publications. John Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University.

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