Saturday, January 24, 2009

Notes on 1984

1984 is more of a cultural phenomena than a work of great literature, but since a generation has past since the actual 1984 perhaps it can be examined without political / mythological blinders.

I can remember that when 1984, the year, arrived we were treated to a deluge of books and articles, TV specials etc., about the book and the phenomena, and it had been steadily growing for years. I can remember when 1984 references were much more common than they are now. The year has come and gone and it lost its “cachet” so to speak. In fact I took the novel in High School, (Grade 12)!

Still from 1954 BBC Film of 1984

There are not very many critiques of 1984 from the point of view of Science Fiction, but there are a myriad of critiques from a political point of view.

To get this out of the way first. It is a wearying, but basically an omnipresent view that Orwell’s novel is an attack on Socialism. This view is of course has been and is very “Politically Correct”, and depends on a studied, deliberate and willful effort to ignore what Orwell said about his novel. The mental discipline required to hold this opinion is quite formidable and depends on a carefully cultivated ignorance into which contrary facts may not intrude. For example:

1984, like Animal Farm, was a deep embarrassment to
leftists. Orwell, a socialist disgusted and disillusioned by the excesses of Stalin's regime, wrote both works in protest. Despite many attempts to re-spin 1984 as being "really about the alienation in all modern societies," the references to socialism in 1984 are pervasive. Oceania (the Americas and British Empire) is ruled by a system called Ingsoc (English Socialism), and Eurasia (Russia and Europe) is ruled by Neo-Bolshevism. The lessons of 1984 might be applicable to any totalitarian system, but the novel is first, last, and foremost about socialism.1

No doubt what Orwell had to say is irrelevant since our quoted writer “knows” that the “the novel is first, last, and foremost about socialism”. No doubt hoping that by repeated emphatic, statements to convince himself and his readers. Our author forgets that Orwell died a convinced Socialist. Would it not be more accurate to say that “the novel is first, last, and foremost about Stalinism”? One of the reasons that the novel is a “deep embarrassment to leftists” is that certain intellectuals insisted and still insist that it is a deep embarrassment to the entire left of the political spectrum, but of course deny that Nazism and such novels as The Iron Heel are a “deep embarrassment” to the right of the political spectrum, or to capitalism. This is obviously pure polemics, and its use is to score debating points.

Orwell’s comments in the novel about systems of exploitation and ruling classes in the past are of course ignored, including the rather frightening idea that to Orwell the society of 1984 is the “perfect” class rule, in which the ruling class has apparently found a “perfect” way to stay in power forever. O’Brien seems to be almost frighteningly clear eyed about what this new society is actually trying to do. Just how is that “Socialist”?

I’m referring to all that stuff about staying in power, the endless crushing of people; boot in the face forever stuff. Sounds not very “Socialist”, but has certain affinities to Fascist ideas about endless struggle, and only struggle making life worth while.

In 1949 in a letter to the New York Times about his novel Orwell said:

"My recent novel [1984] 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 ... which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism. ...The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”2

But then Orwell’s novel, like his work Animal Farm, served an extremely useful purpose in the Cold War of being used not just to attack Stalinism but the “left” in general, (which could include anyone to the left of extreme conservatives). That Orwell was less than enamored with capitalism was of course forgotten down the memory hole. (How Orwellian!)3

A side issue is why Orwell named the novel 1984. One story is that Orwell originally was going to call it 1948 but was talked into calling it 1984 to give it an less immediate and more prophetic tone. Another story was that Orwell was debating whether to call the novel The Last Man in Europe or 1984 and was told to go with what was then considered a more marketable title. Its also possible that the title was a tribute to the Jack London novel The Iron Heel, which is about a Fascist like movement taking power, in 1984!, and delaying the onset of a Socialist world for centuries. Which casts an interesting light on the supposed anti-socialism of Orwell’s novel.4

Regarding the prophetic value of 1984. Well let’s just say 1984 is not very prophetic. The society described in 1984, with its run down buildings, shortages of everything, like razor blades, shoelaces, and its dreadful gin and tobacco is obviously modeled on a view of Stalinist Russia, although it also carries more than a small resemblance to ration ridden Britain of the war and post war period. So much for seeing what the real 1984 would be like.

As Isaac Asimov said in a review of 1984:

Orwell had no feel for the future, and the displacement of the story is so much more geographical than temporal. The London in which the story is placed is not so much moved 35 years forward in time, from 1949 to 1984, as it is moved a thousand miles east in space to Moscow.5

The story in the novel is a repeat of the Russian Revolution, with Big Brother having a moustache like Stalin, and Emmanuel Goldstein not just being a version of Leon Trotsky but looking like him complete with goatee. In fact Orwell has a real difficulty imagining a realistic future, in this case everything is always breaking down and everything including electricity is intermittent and rationed. And there is an omnipresent black market, shades of not just Stalinist Russia but wartime and post war Britain. In other words it is indeed 1948 and its Stalin’s Russia.

A classic example of that is this from 1984:

Winston fitted the nib into the penholder and sucked it to get the grease off. The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink pencil.6

This is of course the exact reverse of the truth. Old style pens scratch and the “ink pencil”, probably a ball point pen, does not! This passage does of course indicate a sort of nostalgia for the “good old days”.

Certain criticisms by Asimov do not work for example Asimov’s statement that no can be observing everyone through the two way telescreen at all times is irrelevant. The point is that at any one time someone COULD be observing you doing whatever and you can not be sure when you are being viewed or not viewed. So you would not need to be viewed all the time. So the argument that you would need c. five people to view each person and hence the system would be unworkable doesn't wash. All you would need is each person thinking that they might be being watched at any time. This would require a small group of watchers watching people randomly so that no one could be sure they wern't being watched at any particular time. Orwell was perfectly aware of this. This could potentially be very effective has a means of oppression.

As for Asimov’s criticism that having a system of volunteer spies not working because everyone would eventually report everyone is beside the point. The fact is Stalinist Russia had such a system and so did Nazi Germany and also the Stasi of former East Germany had something similar; so it can work. Asimov is right though in all those cases the system had a tendency to create an overwhelming amount of paperwork and files that tended to bog down the work of the secret police.

As for prophecy Orwell seems to be unable to conceive of computers for record keeping and the writing machines he does conceive of are rather crude for the real 1984. Orwell’s people use razor blades for example: electric razors don’t seem to exist.

Orwell doesn't seem to have been aware that such systems that he described in 1984 are by their very nature self destructive. For example it appears that corruption is rampant and everything either doesn't work or breaks down. Yet amazingly the telescreens work perfectly and the Thought Police and various ministries work without corruption. We now know that corruption, nepotism was very common and got increasingly common over time in the Communist party of Russia; indeed it got common in all Communist one party states to say nothing of regimes like Nazi Germany.

Orwell’s idea about Newspeak, a language that constricts meaning to the point of making heretical thought impossible is of interest. It is also extremely unlikely. Just how do you prevent the meaning of words being modified or changed over time? How would you for example prevent the technical vocabulary of Newspeak from bleeding into everyday words? Just how would you enforce rigid definitions of words and prevent modification through everyday use? It won’t work.

Then there is of course O’Brien’s fulminations. We are supposed to be awed by O’Brien’s statements and be terrified by their “awesome” implications.

For example:

When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will.7

This after O’Brien has began to torture him and of course Winston afterwards “freely” converts after extensive hideous physical and mental torture. O’Brien thus proves that the possession of virtually unlimited power over someone provides an ample scope to inflict these sorts of intellectual stupidities on helpless victims.

Or another example:

O’Brien silenced him by a movement of the hand. “We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. here is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation – anything. I could float off this floor like soap bubble if I wished to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about laws of nature. We make the laws of nature."


“Nonsense. The earth is as old as we are, no older. How could it be older? Nothing exists except through human consciousness”8

O’Brien has a whole string of similar stupidities all dependent on the fact that Winston is his helpless victim. Of course O’Brien cannot really believe his idiocies otherwise he would be insane with monomania. It is to be wondered at, if O’Brien really believes this nonsense why is he torturing Winston? If reality is all in the head, why bother?

O’Brien’s philosophical justification for his stupidities is the notion of doublethink the idea of holding two contradictory notions in your head at the same time. Of course people do that sort of thing all the time. But in extreme cases such contradictory thinking would produce disordered thinking even insanity. In O’Brien’s case he uses the notion of doublethink to excuse extreme disordered thinking i.e., willful stupidity. The fact that he has to torture Winston to make Winston accept his insane pontifications is proof that O’Brien’s idea of reality being all in your head is wrong. O’Brien is able to inflict such nonsense on Winston only because he has extreme coercive power over him, if O’Brien was the victim would he magically be able to wish the torture away has being all in his head? I think not! Of course O’Brien never explains how doublethink enables you to not just have two contradictory notions in your head at the same time; but how do you avoid tension between them? How do you avoid situations about having to choose one idea over the other?

O’Brien’s verbal vomit is only terrifying because he has power over another human being and is able to terrorize that human if he refuses to accept his ravings. Otherwise it is intellectually empty.

At the end after torturing Winston most hideously O’Brien breaks him, which is hardly surprising. O’Brien makes some idiot comment about Winston no longer being human because of the way he, Winston, looks physically. This is of course shoddy nonsense. It is O’Brien who has done this to Winston which of course means that O’Brien is less than human. It is fascinating that O’Brien continually says that Winston is responsible for what is happening to himself and that he, O’Brien, is carrying out the "Party's" will. What a fascinating evasion of responsibility. Why such cowardice? After all this is from a man who claims reality is all in the head.

It is curious that Orwell in his novel seemed to be unable to conceive of people being able to resist the tortures of the Thought Police even though the techniques used are very similar to techniques attributed to the NKVD and Gestapo,9 which some people were able to resist. Orwell seems to have a pretty negative view of people.

The aim of the Thought Police torture to convert the unbeliever seems to be similar to the arguments and ideas of the Moscow Show trials of the 30’s where the accused confessed their guilt and admitted their crimes and at the same time said they believed that the Party / Stalin was always right. Once again Orwell does not predict the future but recapitulates the recent past.

Of course Orwell didn't anticipate that after Stalin died the whole system would thaw. It appears that O’Brien’s vision of a boot stamping into a human face forever could not be maintained without tearing everything apart and generating to much instability. The systems rulers decided to turn down the pressure by several notches in order to have some stability instead of risking an explosion.

Its of interest that in Orwell’s novel the “Proles” are looked upon with barely disguised contempt by everyone including the author, yet they are left relatively, (at least compared to party members), “free”. This is obviously going to be a source of future conflict because given the continual terror in the “Party”, the rampant shortages and corruption to say nothing of the overall general decay just how is the emergence of some sort of “middle layer” to be avoided that would eventually challenge the “Party”. Despite O’Brien’s philosophical idiocies nothing he says indicates that the “Party” is immune to decay or that it can avoid presiding over a decaying and failing regime.

Regarding the idea that the regime needs war to burn up surplus production? Well building pyramids would do the same thing, to say nothing of a simple steady increase in population or another of a myriad of substitutes that are more easily controlled.

The idea that a society would need to endlessly rewrite history and spend enormous effort to do so is a simple waste of resources. It is of course simply not necessary people simply don’t require that degree of manipulation to be convinced. This of course owes itself to the Stalinist Russian practice of writing people out of history. For example removing Trotsky from photographs. However the massive continual effort portrayed in 1984 to rewrite history is a simple waste of time.

The fact is has Asimov says:

He [Orwell] did not have the science fictional knack of foreseeing a plausible future and, in actual fact, in almost all cases; the world of 1984 bears no relation to the real world of the 1980’s.10

1. Two Literary Non-Mysteries, Steven Dutch, Here

2. 1984, Wikipedia, Here

3. See The Cruel Peace, Fred Inglis, HarperCollins Pub., New York, 1991, pp. 103-106, for a overview of the Cold War uses of 1984.

4. Ibid. Footnote 2.

5. Asimov on Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov, Avon Books, New York, 1981, p. 249.

6. 1984, George Orwell, The New American Library, New York, 1949, pp. 9-10.

7. Ibid., p. 210.

8. Ibid., p. 218.

9. The Russian and German Secret Police during the Stalinist and Nazi eras.

10. Asimov, p. 259.

Pierre Cloutier

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