Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel written by George Orwell in 1948 and published the following year (the title of the novel seems to come from a reversing of the last two numbers of the year he was writing it). It is a political satire whose main target is the Stalinist USSR, but it can also be seen to satirize any totalitarian society, such as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Francoist Spain, or even contemporary neoliberalism and the intrusive state apparatus that protects today’s capitalist class.
Given the current geo-political climate, I find it irresistible to compare Orwell’s Hell with ours today; and because this story is so rich with possible political interpretations, I will explore many of those here. Not all of these necessarily reflect my own personal political beliefs, but they’re here to show all the interpretive possibilities in such a literary masterwork.
Some right-libertarians like to misuse this novel, as well as Animal Farm, to suggest that Orwell was attacking socialism as a whole (while, adding to that, idiotically saying that Fascist or Nazi totalitarianism was also a brand of socialism, of which it was really the opposite). Actually, Orwell was committed to the ideal of democratic socialism; these two literary criticisms of Stalinism really show his anti-authoritarianism, not anti-socialism. His book, Homage to Catalonia, clearly shows his sympathies for a worker-ruled society.
In the 1930s, however, neither Stalin nor the leftist media, which propagandized for him, was very sympathetic to the Spanish Revolution, on the Republican side of which Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War; indeed, they denied that a socialist revolution was even going on there, because Stalin wanted to control the Spanish Republicans and purge them of Trotskyists and anarchists. Instead, Stalin’s meagre support of the Republicans against Franco‘s right-wing coalition of Nationalists was in the name of ‘defending liberal democracy’, not socialism, in order to appease Britain, France, America, and he hoped, get their help in fighting Nazi Germany later on. This Soviet betrayal of the Spanish leftists was what embittered Orwell against Stalin.
So, the ‘socialism’ that Orwell was criticizing in Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t really socialism per se; rather, Stalinism, as Orwell saw it, was a perversion of socialism, a bureaucratized bastardization of it, as symbolized by the Newspeak corruption of Oceania‘s ‘English socialism’ into ‘Ingsoc’ (this ‘socialism in England’, as opposed to worldwide socialism, suggests Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country‘). Similarly, Eurasia‘s political system is called ‘Neo-Bolshevism‘, implying a corruption of Leninism; and Eastasia‘s system is a kind of ‘Death-Worship’, or ‘Obliteration of the Self’. This religion-like quality brings to mind aspects of Juche in North Korea, with its infallible ‘Great Leader’, who does all the masses’ thinking for them. In other words, Orwell was satirizing authoritarianism, not socialism.
In fact, the Ingsoc short form resembles the Nazi short form for Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. This suggests the state capitalism of fascism rather than socialism, since all left-leaning Nazis (except Goebbels) were purged from the party when Hitler came to power, propped up by big business. Moreover, the first people put in Nazi concentration camps were leftists. So Big Brother’s moustache may not only represent Stalin’s, but also Hitler’s. Not only Big Brother, but also BIG BUSINESS IS WATCHING YOU.
Another interesting concept in this novel is doublethink, in which two contradictory ideas can be simultaneously true. It can be considered a corruption of the notion of Marxist dialectics, when contradictions in material conditions are contemplated, and a unity seen in the contradictions leads to a refinement of one’s philosophy, then to be contradicted and refined, again and again. But where dialectics bring out a refinement, or improvement, in philosophy, doublethink uses contradictions for the sake of self-serving politicians.
Winston Smith‘s name was deliberately chosen by Orwell, suggesting the character’s everyman quality through Smith, a common English surname, and his anti-totalitarian stance (Winston, i.e., Churchill…not that Churchill is any kind of hero to self-respecting leftists, mind you; and just as we shouldn’t idealize Stalin, nor should we ignore Orwell’s faults). Indeed, the juxtaposition, Winston Smith, could be seen as an example of doublethink in itself: Winston Smith indicating that, if you will, IMPERIALISM IS POPULISM; after all, for all of Orwell’s faults, he always despised British imperialism, of which Churchill was its personification at the time, despite his anti-fascism.
As members of the Outer Party, Winston and Julia are in a position analogous to the middle class (the Inner Party being the ruling class state capitalists, and the ‘proles‘, or proletarians, being the working class). Oddly, the Outer Party members are the most repressed in this society, since they are the biggest potential threat to the Inner Party. The proles, on the other hand, are given more lenience, since they, in their ‘low-class’ ignorance of political matters, are more easily controlled through pleasurable distractions (pornography, beer, football, etc.).
This acute repression of the middle-class Outer Party seems to presage the near-annihilation of the middle class by neoliberalism over the past thirty to forty years. Though Orwell’s novel has only a totalitarian state as the collective antagonist, we must remember the principles of doublethink. Since WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, then, if you will, the FREE MARKET IS STATISM, too.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, deregulating capitalism and giving tax cuts to the rich allows them to accumulate obscenely large amounts of wealth, enabling them to buy corrupt politicians; elsewhere, they can use free trade deals (more deregulation) to get cheap labour overseas instead of paying local, unionized labourers; and endless imperialist war means profits through the sale of weapons, and through the plundering of Third World resources. All of this results in more private property that needs protection, hence the state expands rather than contracts, contrary to the fantasies of right-libertarians. The ‘free market’ (of which there really is no such thing, anyway) creates crony capitalism, or another kind of state capitalism.
Winston Smith’s job in the Ministry of Truth–whose short form, Minitrue, suggests the half-truth nature of the propaganda it spreads (TRUTH IS LIES, if you will)–is to eliminate all elements of the past considered politically troublesome to the Inner Party. He will eliminate all evidence of the existence of anyone guilty of thoughtcrime, those now rendered unpersons, just as Stalin used to take old photos including people considered enemies of the state and eliminate them from the pictures, so no memory of the hated people remains.
Similarly, today’s capitalist class can rely on us to forget the past provocations (e.g., the CIA giving money and weapons to Bin Laden and the mujahideen in the 80s, America and other Western countries aiding Iraq by helping develop chemical weapons during the Iran/Iraq War, the US creating the conditions out of which ISIS arose) that have led to the ‘War on Terror‘. Instead of blaming Western imperialism, we blame Muslims, just as the people of Oceania spit out their hostility to Emmanuel Goldstein during the Two Minutes Hate, then swoon in ecstatic adoration of Big Brother, whose Inner Party is their real oppressor.
Interestingly, the remaining part of the globe that isn’t a part of Oceania, Eurasia, or Eastasia–the disputed area where most of the war is going on–is most of Africa, much of the Arab world, and all of southeast Asia, or the Third World, which is the area most oppressed by Western imperialism today. How little things change.
The people of Oceania shout so loudly at the video of Goldstein–a Jew just like Leon Trotsky, so hated by Stalin; yet also a man representative of all the Jews, so hated by Nazis and today’s antisemites among the conspiracy theorists–that not one word of his can be heard. This is like how so many people today, so committed to one ideology, hate its antithesis so virulently that they won’t listen to its despised ideas. The ruling class, like the nomenklatura or the fascist totalitarian state, always makes sure we hate the wrong people.
The cult of personality surrounding Big Brother–just like that of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, or even, arguably, Obama–makes him into a Godlike figure in opposition to the ‘devil’ Goldstein. Here we can see a critique even of religious authoritarianism: Jesus is Lord, but the liberal left are the spawn of Satan; Allahu Akbar, but the West is the Great Satan; etc. Accordingly, we aren’t even sure if Big Brother exists (or Goldstein, for that matter), as with God or the Devil. Big Brother is like a kindly older brother who protects us from bullies, but we sometimes forget that an older brother himself often bullies us, too.
The notion, ‘Who controls the past…controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,’ is pregnant with thought-provoking interpretations. It expresses the essence of propagandistic white-washing of the past. The current regime is free to vilify whoever was in power previously, comparing the present state of affairs favourably to that of the past by showing only the light side of now and only the shadows of yesterday. And in perpetuating this propaganda, the current regime will ensure that future generations have the ‘correct’ opinions.
Consider how synagogues, churches, and mosques have all blackened the memory of their pagan or secular predecessors or enemies, to ensure that the flock remains faithful. And not only did Stalin’s regime denigrate the names of ‘revisionists’ and ‘reactionaries’ like Trotsky to ensure the survival of his rule, but today the capitalist class portrays socialist states like the USSR (misusing Orwell, as we know) as evil dictatorships to discourage any reconsideration of socialism in today’s neoliberal society.
Similarly, the memory of the Black Panther Party is vilified to deter anyone in the struggle against white racism. Conservatives stereotype feminists as all being like Andrea Dworkin or Catherine MacKinnon to discourage any move away from traditional sex roles; while, on the other side of the coin, radical and third wave feminists propagandize about the past and about ‘patriarchy’ to justify moving in the direction of gynocentrism. And apologists of Western imperialism exaggerate the jihadist history of Islam to deaden sympathy for Muslims. The list of examples can go on and on.
Everywhere in Airstrip One, a deliberately dull choice for a name for England, there are telescreens, or two-way televisions through which the Inner Party and the Thought Police can watch everyone 24/7 in order to catch ‘thought criminals’. Today’s telescreen is the ubiquitous internet surveillance, through not only the NSA and other government organizations out to get any subversive types they can find, but also through capitalists who monitor all our online shopping and other interests to present us with products they hope we’ll waste our money on and fatten their wallets. Consumerism distracts us from activism.
Marriages and other relationships are bereft of affection in Orwell’s Hell, as they are in much of today’s society, with almost half of Western marriages ending in divorce. People would rather stare at a smartphone, tablet, or computer than communicate face to face with people; the emotionless conversations of all Outer Party members, including the public chats of Winston’s and Julia’s, reflect this grey reality. And while Winston is already guilty of thoughtcrime from the first word he’s written in his journal (actually, from when he bought it), it’s not until he and Julia have become lovers, copulating for their mutual enjoyment (‘sexcrime’) instead of for the sake of producing offspring for the state (‘goodsex‘), that they are finally arrested.
And when they are arrested, the symbolism is powerful. Winston and Julia–made to hold their hands behind their heads–are completely naked in the second-floor room of Mr. Charrington’s shop (he secretly working for the Thought Police). The lovers’ nakedness symbolizes their vulnerability and powerlessness, their secrets all known while their fully-clothed intruders needn’t worry about their own secrets being known.
Held in the Ministry of Love (a place of torture), Winston sees not only the usual police rough-housing of prostitutes and other common criminals among the proles, but also the detainment of Tom Parsons, a character known for his sycophantic adherence to Big Brother. Even a bootlicker like him can be a thought criminal! Parsons, a man who happily incorporates the corruption of English known as Newspeak into his speech, has been betrayed by his own daughter, a member of the Party Youth, who are like the Hitler Youth, or like today’s Social Justice Warriors, typically being young university students who have been fully indoctrinated in political correctness by the mainstream corporate media and the corporately controlled universities.
Newspeak is in itself a fascinating concept. Syme speaks of the beauty of the destruction of language. If no words exist for a concept, for example, freedom, then that idea won’t exist anymore, either. This is comparable to how political correctness tries to eliminate bad ideas by doing away with all those words associated with unacceptable ideas. Apparently, if we dispense with words associating a job with only one sex–businessman, stewardess–and replace them with ‘gender-neutral’ language–businessperson, flight attendant–social attitudes will change such that people won’t be tricked into thinking that these jobs are exclusive to one sex or the other (Never mind that at least a whole generation using politically correct English has gone by, and there are still far more businessmen than businesswomen, and far more female flight attendants than male ones.). Similarly, if we do away with ‘ableist’ language–‘retarded’ as a synonym for stupid–it seems that people will stop showing contempt for mentally handicapped people (Never mind that the still-used words idiot, cretin, imbecile, and moron were once words used for mentally disabled people.).
In today’s world, we hardly need a totalitarian state to condemn someone for thoughtcrime. Merely use the ‘wrong’ vocabulary, or tell a politically incorrect joke, and the masses will go mad on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, doxxing and shaming you, or destroying your career and reputation by spreading the word about what a ‘bad person’ you are. Though today’s militarized police are certainly frightening, we the common people are our own Thought Police. And remember: “Thoughtcrime does not entail death, thoughtcrime IS death”.
Winston’s next shock is seeing O’Brien, the man who gave him Goldstein’s book (The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a parody of Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed), come into the room. But the greatest shock is knowing that O’Brien hasn’t been helping the resistance (which, incidentally, is called The Brotherhood), but has been working with the Thought Police all along. Like O’Brien, so many of us only seem to be against the system: ‘anarcho’-capitalists, who oppose the state, but support an economic system that can’t exist without the state; bickering leftists who get hung up on minor ideological differences instead of building solidarity, and betray each other in the manner described in the above paragraph; or ‘Democratic’ leaders like Obama who at first claim to want to ‘spread the wealth around’, then end up serving the same ruling class as eagerly as the Republican Party.
Along with the physical torture that O’Brien subjects Winston to, there is also psychological manipulation in the form of gaslighting. This includes bullying Winston into acceding that 2 + 2 = 5. Those in power can coerce or trick us into accepting all kinds of nonsensical beliefs, including the notion that more capitalism (the ‘free market’) is the solution to the evils of our current capitalist system, which apparently is so merely because the state is involved in it. Just minimize or remove the state and its regulations, and capitalism will be ‘purified’, demagogues like Ron Paul tell us. This is also what the Koch brothers have always said; and instead of liberating society, all their political influence has intensified our troubles. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.
O’Brien burns pictures of the unpersons Aaronson, Jones, and Rutherford by dumping the photos down a memory hole, saying the men never existed, the lack of extant evidence of their existence being ‘proof’ of their never having existed. That they still exist in Winston’s mind is evidence only of his ‘mental illness’. This is like how authoritarian societies of all kinds, whether left or right-wing, disregard all memory of past offences, pretending they never happened, then pretend that defiant people are mentally ill (i.e. oppositional defiant disorder). “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–forever,” O’Brien tells Winston.
Finally, Winston must be brought to ‘love’ Big Brother. Of course, to love Big Brother is to be a traitor to oneself, as loving Stalin was betraying the working class (from the anti-Stalinist point of view, at least), or loving Hitler was betraying Germany. To make Winston betray himself and Julia, he is brought to Room 101, with the cage of hungry rats strapped to the front of his face.
Earlier in the novel, he shrieked at the sight of a rat in Charrington’s second-floor room, when he was with Julia; later, Charrington revealed himself to be a rat, having informed the Thought Police of Winston’s and Julia’s affair. Now, Winston sees terrifying rats right before his face.
While, on the surface, his fear is of having his face destroyed by the rats, on a deeper level, his fear of them symbolizes his fear of himself as a rat, about to betray Julia. Seeing those rats is Winston looking at his own mirror reflection (all of which raises the question of how self-conscious Orwell may have been of his own ratting out of pro-Stalin communists). Those in power, whether they be Stalinists, fascists, religious fanatics, or capitalists, always stay in power by making us betray ourselves. Winston the anti-authoritarian is Churchill the imperialist.
We all long for freedom, but when the pressure is on, when we’re taken out of our comfort zone, our spirit is broken, sooner or later, as Winston’s is. We lack the necessary backbone; we are too complacent, especially in the First World; we lack true revolutionary potential. We all give in, and then everything is all right, we’re finished with the struggle, and we resume our obedient following of authority.
We love Big Brother.