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70 years since the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four: "But if there was hope, it lay in the proles"
Nineteen Eighty-Four was 'an outpouring of human frustration and anxiety at the moment of passing from a world war into the Cold War,' image by Frederic Guimont/Free Art Licence (Click to enlarge)
George Orwell's last and most famous novel is still the go-to source, 70 years on, for anti-authoritarian imagery. But the socialist author's 1949 dystopian masterpiece is also widely misrepresented.
A revolution in Britain and America has degenerated into a science-fiction Stalinist nightmare under the figurehead of "Big Brother." Advances in surveillance, psychology and political science have made human will "infinitely malleable" - or so the ruling "Party" holds.
Perpetual scarcity and war, and the constant snooping of the "Thought Police," maintain the power of privileged bureaucrats. Anyone could be an informant. Alienated functionary Winston Smith rebels, joined by youthful heretic Julia.
There's great entertainment. The characters may lack depth, but sex, conspiracy, torture and terror sustain a straightforward plot.
In truth, the story is just a vessel. An outpouring of human frustration and anxiety at the moment of passing from a world war into the Cold War was the point.
It is not an invective against socialism. "The Party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement ever stood." Nor is it an assault on technology, despite abundant lazy parallels drawn today.
Orwell wrote most of the novel between 1947 and '48. In World War Two, workers across the globe had endured years of austerity, repression and propaganda. Orwell also felt disappointed by the limitations of the 1945 Labour government's reforms.
Now the irreconcilable social systems of the market and planned economies were locked in hostile stalemate. Capitalism seemed spent, but socialist world revolution had stalled after isolation and Stalinist derailment. Meanwhile, the great powers had carved the planet into sprawling spheres of influence.
'Ministry of Truth'
Winston works in the "Ministry of Truth" rewriting archive press articles to match the changing positions of the Party. The abolition of history is a central concern in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Marxists sometimes call the revolutionary party the memory bank of the working class. Part of its responsibility is guaranteeing the lessons of history. In this sense, Nineteen Eighty-Four's Party is a pure inversion, imagined as the logical perfection of Stalinism's airbrush.
In his life, Orwell railed against the lies of the Moscow show trials - indeed, any political distortion. He had also worked for the BBC during the war. The novel's infamous torture chamber, "Room 101," was the location of the military censor in Broadcasting House.
In the novel, other ministry staff produce propaganda, or work on the official language of "Newspeak." This destroys and perverts vocabulary "to narrow the range of thought," another theme.
In his provocative 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell argues that direct, meaningful language helps prevent "foolish" political thinking, whereas dishonest political language encourages it. Nineteen Eighty-Four argues the same in the negative.
This is too often presented as a crude assertion that language itself can liberate or imprison. In fact, the novel dismisses "play on words" as capable of mass thought control - immiseration and repression are essential.
But combined with erasing history, and the mystical self-delusion of "doublethink," the Party is certain Newspeak will end "thoughtcrime," at least within the bureaucracy. Of course, like all aspects of the caricature world Orwell depicts, this is polemic, not prophesy.
So what force can prevent it? "The proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength," thinks Winston.
However, Nineteen Eighty-Four also seems deeply cynical about the capacity of workers to grasp and overcome their position in society. The "proles" are cartoonish, biddable imbeciles - both in the eyes of the Party and experience of Winston.
This bears no relation to the real working class. But it is not some special mental or moral faculty which gives workers the power to make change. It is their role in mass production of goods and services. Workers' collective action can shut society down, and the workplace breeds collective consciousness and organisation.
The main satirical target does seem to be the smug and fanatical egos which populate the Party. Indeed, in a 1944 letter, Orwell complained that England's intellectuals "are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history."
In another 1946 essay, James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution, Orwell fretted about "the power worship now so prevalent among intellectuals." Senior Party official O'Brien maintains simply that "the object of power is power."
So perhaps Nineteen Eighty-Four is rather warning those place-seekers who circumvent the working class, or hunt for shortcuts in changing society: be careful what you wish for.
In fact, the whole barbarous project fails. The novel's appendix on the principles of Newspeak is written from an undisclosed future time which views that bygone society's glaring contradictions as untenable.
So Nineteen Eighty-Four believes a better future is possible, or at least that police-state tyranny will not last. It just sees no clear route forward.
Orwell's own political views were intelligent but impressionistic. He was an ardent opponent of Stalinism, but not a Trotskyist.
He did, however, support some Trotskyist initiatives, and read the British Trotskyist newspaper at the time, Socialist Appeal. Winston even seeks out a rumoured resistance, adherents of "Emmanuel Goldstein," an open analogue for the person (if not quite the approach) of Leon Trotsky.
Orwell had been a revolutionary combatant in Catalonia, but increasingly fell into political demoralisation. A shame Winston's world didn't have workers like those Orwell fought alongside in the Spanish Civil War.
And it's a pity Orwell didn't penetrate the social and material substance of world events as deeply as he did their language and psychology. Nevertheless, his hallmark lucid prose transmits ideas firm and jolting as a rivet gun.
Nineteen Eighty-Four's cry of despairing individual defiance against the crashing waves of vast, impersonal forces has resonance for many today. It gave us a lexicon of authoritarianism whose overuse and misuse are testament to its insight.
And despite the novel's pessimism, Winston is right: the workers have the power. Whether taking the wealth off the capitalists, or ousting a repressive bureaucracy, they need "only rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies."
In The Socialist 5 June 2019:
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