Tuesday, 14 May 2013


George Orwell 1984 (1949)

I read this a while ago, and although I recall it being pretty special, I don't think I realised quite how great - perhaps even essential - is Orwell's masterpiece. Since the first sitting, I've read at least two of the novels from which Orwell drew inspiration - Huxley's Brave New World and Zamyatin's We. They're both wonderful, but I don't recall either being anything like so rich, convincing, or even plausible as this. Well, not plausible exactly - the Oceania of Big Brother with its telescreens and floating fortresses isn't necessarily any more believable than the scenario of any other science-fiction dystopia, because the notion of a government which watches its people and stamps down on the disgruntled hardly requires stratospheric flights of imagination. Where 1984 succeeds with such terrifying versimilitude is in so thoroughly mapping out the psychology of its world, and it is in this respect that its truth seems more enduring than were those futures described by its forerunners. Orwell's visions may have outlived the regimes from which it was extrapolated, but not their flawed psychology.

For some reason I had the impression of Orwell having been slightly right-wing, although happily I seem to be wrong. Politically he was, it seems, a democratic socialist, and so 1984 focusses on the mechanism of a totalitarian state, rather than the specific ideologies which may have given it initial form - drawing source material from both Stalin's Soviet Union and Germany under the Nazis. Big Brother's regime, like precedents in the novels of Huxley and Zamyatin, maintains power for the sake of power, but underscores its control with the philosophy of doublethink whereby reality is only perceived in line with that which is permitted by the Party. The logic dictates that with the individual having no evidence for the empirical existence of anything outside itself, that which the Party decrees to be true is therefore true because the individual can only exist in the context of the party, therefore four fingers held aloft and described as being five are five fingers - as distinct from being five fingers just for the sake of argument and not having one's toenails pulled out. Orwell puts it better, but I believe that's the general idea.

This amounts to the political supremacy of ideology over people - even a batshit insane ideology over people; and 1984 has endured so well as a novel because its ideology is an abstract rather than an obvious historical parody, and in any case it focusses on the methodology rather than drive of social conditioning and control:

Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime, and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by versificator.

The idea is expanded upon in The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, 1984's book within a book:

Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly.

None of which should strike anyone as unfamiliar, and all of which is quite naturally designed to keep the population stupid.

It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings. All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working-hours or shorter rations. And even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances. The larger evils invariably escaped their notice.

Dole scrounging illegal paedo asylum seekers coming over here and taking our jobs, anyone?

Unfortunately, whilst the last thirty years has doubtless prompted a few reactionary arseholes congratulating themselves that Orwell's 1984 never happened thanks to the free market or really massive pennies or some such cobblers, actually it kinda sorta did when you think about it; and that's why this novel is as important now as it ever has been.


  1. I take it from that that you've not read Orwell's essays. You really, really should. They're the best combination of political writing and literary criticism you'll ever come across, and much of the thinking behind 1984 is outlined in essays like his Notes On Nationalism, Politics And The English Language, and his reviews of James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution and Koestler's Darkness At Noon.

    Reading those essays is one of the great formative experiences of my life -- I wouldn't write, or even think, in remotely the same way without them.

  2. I should like to second Andrew's suggestion about reading Orwell's essays. If nothing else, Orwell's prose is a model of clarity, in both thought and expression; an example to us all.

    I would also recommend, if I may, "1985" by Anthony Burgess. The first half is a lively and original analysis of "1984", the second half is an imaginative update on Orwell with a vivid dystopian portrait of the UK.

    Lastly it may be superfluous to remark but as far as Orwell was concerned his story had already happened. He wanted to call the book "1948".

  3. Recommendations very much noted and appreciated whilst I've suddenly remembered the line that occurred to me but which I forgot to include, namely that it isn't exactly a work of fiction by the ordinary definition. As for 1985, I had a conversation about that book with someone only a few months ago so it's been on the radar ever since - just as soon as the present to-be-read pile goes down a little.