Orwell and the totalitarian myth
In 1946, three years after beginning Animal Farm, Orwell wrote “It is not easy to believe in the survival of civilisation…” and a year later “If you had to choose between Russia and America which would you choose?” Like many of his contemporaries, Orwell feared that the world would fall apart into two or three super-states, each holding the atomic bomb and that within each state there would be a strong authoritarian strand. This was the result of the realisation by scientists and others of the potential for destruction of the atomic bomb and of the emergence of the ‘cold war’. Both Animal Farm and 1984 have been used to promote viewpoints with which Orwell had no sympathy; for example, that both books are pro-Russian. In the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, Orwell said that “Nothing has contributed as much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated…for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential…”
Later Orwell wrote of 1984 “My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British 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 be partly realised in Communism and Fascism.” Yet his vision of power politics seemed convincing. His vision of official ‘allies’ and ‘enemies’, who have become stereotypes has happened since he wrote. The idea of a world divided into three blocs (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia) of which two are always at war with the third is too close for comfort. It is sometimes possible to believe that, in Orwell’s words “what had been called England or Britain had simply become Airstrip One”. But there is little doubting the allegorical nature of both Animal Farm and 1984 and it is significant that Orwell took as his model of a controlled and military society from Soviet Communism, even including detailed elements of its past such as the conflict between Stalin and Trotsky in his fictional account of the conflict between Big Brother and Goldstein.
So what does 1984 say to us in 1984? On 19th June 1941, three days before Hitler invaded Stalin’s Russia, Orwell published an article called ‘Literature and Totalitarianism’ in The Listener. In it he wrote that “Totalitarianism has abolished freedom of thought to an extent unheard of in any previous age. And it is important to realise that its control of thought is not only negative but positive. It not only forbids you to express – even to think – certain thoughts, but it dictates what you shall think, it creates an ideology for you, it tries to govern your emotional life as well as setting up a code of conduct. And as far as possible it isolates you from the outside world, it shuts you up in an artificial universe in which you have not standards of comparison. The totalitarian state tries, at any rate, to control the thoughts and emotions of its subjects at least as completely as it controls their actions.”
The society in 1984 in many of its essential features resembled this critique of totalitarianism: no freedom of thought, control of personal belief, creation of right opinions, isolation from the outside world with a concomitant stereotyped view of that world and an insulation from any issue requiring thought. Hence, Winston Smith’s belief that salvation lay with the ‘proles’ whom the Party sees as “natural inferiors…like animals”. Orwell agrees. They are the redeemers, “the people who had never learned to think but who were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world….out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come”. Orwell posited revolution into apathy and revolution out of apathy: a reassertion of personhood, of humanity and of true feeling, awareness that issues were not clear-cut, that people were not either good or bad but a combination of the two. But he is not making a prediction and wrote in 1949 that: “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe that something resembling it could arrive” and that “This is a novel about the future….it is in a sense a fantasy.”
There are three layers in 1984. First, there is the internal structure that, like Orwell’s other fiction sees a hero-victim moving through a squalid world trying to find, achieving sight of but failing to hold on to the possibility of a better life. Secondly, there is a structure of argument in which Orwell describes and examines the nature of totalitarianism. Finally, there is a structure grounded in method ranging from fantasy to satire and parody through which the cruelty and repression of society are explored. It is the structure of argument that is central to Orwell’s value as a theorist of power and its abuse. He believed 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.” It is this I want to follow through in more detail. It was the atomic threat that Orwell saw as the cause of totalitarianism. He wrote in October 1945 “The great age of democracy and self-determination had been the age of the musket and rifle….we have before us the prospect of two or three monstrous super-powers, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds, dividing the world between them.”
The idea of an atomic war in the 1950s – a scenario explored in 1984 – was common enough in the mid- and late-1940s. It was seen as virtually inevitable once more than one state possessed atomic bombs by several writers including James Burnham in The Struggle for the World on whom Orwell wrote two substantial essays in the years he was writing 1984. Burnham believed that the United States, while in sole possession of the atomic bomb, should move to prevent any other nation of any size from acquiring it. Orwell considered the various possibilities emerging from Burnham’s thesis: “he is demanding, or all but demanding, an immediate preventative war against Russia”. He argued that this would be a crime and would solve little. The other possibility was a cold war until several nations had the atomic bomb, then almost at once a war would wipe out industrial civilisation. Orwell, however, took a deterrent view: “The fear inspired by the atomic bomb and other weapons yet to come will be so great that everyone will refrain from using them. This seems to me the worst possibility of all. It would mean the division of the world among two or three vast super-states….the crushing out of liberty would exceed anything that the world has yet seen. Within each state the necessary psychological atmosphere would be kept up by complete severance from the outer world, and by a continuous phoney war against rival states. Civilisations of this type might remain static for thousands of years.” We will not be released from the danger of the dangers he and others foresaw by the mere passage of the fictional date. It’s not that Orwell was wrong since, when it comes down to it 1984 is fiction, it’s just that his assessment of the global-political future was too simplistic.
What have emerged are not unitary super-states but a more complex form of military superpowers and military alliances. Reading the papers and listening to some political broadcasts, I sometimes think that Orwell’s vision has been realised: the monolithically presented images of ‘East’ and ‘West’ with China as the shifting ‘partner’ of either. The full political realities are very different. There is, for example, a coexistent and different hierarchy of economic power with Japan and West Germany as major forces; western society is pluralist in character and, unlike in 1984, the East appears to be moving in that direction although their pluralism is institutionalised and bureaucratised.
Orwell could not have foreseen how the elements of political autonomy and diversity within very narrow margins in the Warsaw Pact, within the broader margins of NATO are radically qualified by the nature of modern nuclear-weapon systems. The atomic war of 1984 was damaging not disastrous. The result is the ‘perpetual limited war’ in which the super-states are unconquerable because the rulers cannot risk all-out atomic war. Orwell certainly underestimates the effects of atomic war. Nations have never made a tacit agreement not to use the nuclear bomb as Orwell believed they would. On the contrary, the predominant policy had been one of mutual threat: the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine of the 1960s and 1970s. There has not been technical stagnation but the upward spiral of increasingly sophisticated weapons systems.
It is easy to argue from this to the Orwellian super-state. But this is not inevitable. The monopoly of nuclear weapons by major industrialised states has not prevented major advances towards autonomy in the old colonial world, the so-called movements for national liberation. Orwell’s projection is particularly unreal here. The rest of the world has not become a passive quarry of mineral and cheap labour. Yes, there has been economic intervention in the affairs of the Third World by the superpowers and by national corporations and attempts at destabilisation have occurred but not through the ‘perpetual war’ Orwell envisaged. The notion of ‘the Party’ as a singular structure has proved to be far less valid that Orwell believed. The political monopoly of the Party gives it legitimacy as does the consensus that supports this monopoly. It is significant that during the recent Solidarity crises in Poland different parts of the hitherto effective ruling group were shown, under pressure, to have crucially variable interests. The recent succession of Chernenko in the Soviet Union showed a similar diversity of viewpoint.
It is interesting that what has really survived is Orwell’s understanding of propaganda and thought-control. But even he would have been surprised by the sophistication of this today. In 1946, he had written that “the immediate enemies of truthfulness and hence of freedom of thought are the press lords, the film magnates and the bureaucrats.” The slogan in 1984 is ‘Ignorance is Strength’ is a central proposition for government today. This was understood by nineteenth century radicals with their slogan ‘Knowledge is Power’. There is little doubt that he who controls information possesses power. It is difficult to argue against ‘cotton wool’ and if you do not possess ‘the facts’ then it is difficult to argue at all. Orwell saw clearly that history could easily be selected and packaged to show the present as inevitable, the action justifiable and the ruling future as desirable. He wrote in 1947 that: “Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue.”
The essence of totalitarianism is that it distorts the past to justify the present. Truth becomes an expensive luxury. It is expediency that determines action and that expediency justifies all. In his interrogation of Winston Smith, O’Brien stated that: “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” All else is meaningless since it not only lacks meaning but does not have any rational form at all. Acceptance of that power is taken as read. Resistance is irrelevant since it is un-coordinated and essentially individual. O’Brien again “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power….Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of our own choosing.” But is O’Brien wrong? Orwell believes that the individualism of the proles will one day lead to a new revolution: “What mattered, Winston Smith thought, were individual relationships; a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man, could have value in itself. The proles ….were not loyal to the Party or to a country or to an idea, they were loyal to each other”. Unhappily the evidence of history comes down strongly against this vision. Europe may have been convulsed by workers’ movements but they have been marked by their almost complete failure: from Hungary in 1956 to Poland today. A recent comment by Irving Howe stated that: “Orwell’s treatment of the proles can be questioned on….fundamental grounds. The totalitarian state can afford no luxury, allow no exception; it cannot tolerate the existence of any group beyond the perimeter of its control; it can never become so secure as to lapse into indifference…To do so would be to risk disintegration. It must always tend towards a condition of self-agitation, shaking and re-shaking its members.”
The picture Orwell painted in 1984 struck most responsive readers as an unprecedented torment when it was published in 1949. Frederic Wasburg, whose firm published it, stated that: “This is amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read. It is a great book but I pray that I may be spared from reading another like it for years to come”. V.S. Pritchett in the New Statesman said: “I do not think I have ever read a novel more terrifying and depressing”. Has 1984 today lost its sinisterness, its vision of the horrible? Some people believe that as its predictions have not be borne out, that it has simply not worn well; its vision, once so compelling has turned out to be too far-fetched and too crude to disturb the reader still. I don’t agree with this view and still feel that Orwell is making a statement for individualism against collectivism and bland uniformity. Winston Smith may well come to love Big Brother and he may betray Julia and himself but the words of 1984 still possess immense power, its images of horror and corruption a real vision. But the horror and corruption may seem diminished in these days of ‘video nasties’ and pornography, terrorism and distrust, electronic surveillance and push-button information, a subject perhaps dealt with better by Aldous Huxley. These themes and emphases mark 1984 out as a class expression of anti-totalitarianism. Rousseau in his Discourse on Political Economy, written, in the mid-eighteenth century to supply the basic guidelines of the ideal political order argued that “If it is good to know how to deal with men as they are, it is much better to make them what there is need that they should be. The most absolute authority is that which penetrates into a man’s inmost being and concerns itself no less with his will than with his actions. It is certain that all people become in the long run what the government makes them: warriors, citizens, men when it so pleases; or merely populace and rabble, when it chooses to make them so.”
Orwell gives the clearest possible statement of this view. Winston Smith becomes what the government makes him. But the government ignores the proles, their feelings an irrelevance in the ideology of the State. Seizing power and staying in power can both be a brutal business. Totalitarianism is neither pretty nor benign. It was the peace that tyrants brought, after all, that was once called the peace of the grave. Byron wrote
“Mark! Where his carnage and his conquests cease!
He makes a solitude and calls it, peace.”
And Andrew Marvell almost two centuries earlier
“The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas,
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.”
Such is the power of thought!