His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he even begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.
“Why I Write” (1946)
The system of organized lying on which society is founded.
Outline for 1984 (1943)
“Not one of us,” said the Labour party secretary in Limehouse. I was a reporter in wartime England interviewing him on Labour’s plans for the postwar society, and had asked him what he thought of George Orwell, a name then better known to Americans on the anti-Stalinist left than to most English and American readers before Animal Farm and 1984 made him world-famous. Orwell had been writing the “London Letter” for Partisan Review, and he had written in Homage to Catalonia (1938) what I fondly thought of as our version of the Spanish Civil War: homage indeed to the Spanish anarchists and to the proscribed POUM, in which Orwell had served, with other unaffiliated British radicals sympathetic to the Independent Labour party; unyielding bitterness about the Stalinist apparatus in Spain that had helped give victory to Franco by its frustration of the spontaneous Spanish revolution and by its attempt to kill opposition on the left.
To the solid trade union official representing the Labour party in Limehouse, George Orwell the novelist and book critic, a columnist for Aneurin Bevan’s left-wing Tribune, was just an intellectual and perhaps a class enemy as well. Without having read his books, the official knew that Orwell was an old Etonian and had gone to Burma as a member of the Indian Imperial Police. It was bitter winter, early 1945. Allied forces had not yet crossed the Rhine. The reconstruction of society that I heard so much of in British Army discussion groups—morale after Dunkirk was so low that the War Office, in a phrase inconceivable to Americans, announced, “We are going left with the troops,” and instituted the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, hard-hitting discussions officially part of the weekly routine—of course depended on the defeat of Hitler and in the postwar elections a Labour victory that seemed unthinkable in the face of Churchill’s dominance. “Let Us Face the Future” was the title of Labour’s program in the 1945 elections. A common regret of the period: “If only Churchill were Labour!” Even as winter yielded to the glorious spring of 1945 and the first Michaelmas daisies sprouting in the bombed damp earth were shown on morale posters reading “Renascence,” much of the grime, violence, and deadly fatigue that were to go into 1984 remained all too familiar on the streets of wartime London.
In Orwell’s novel thirty rocket bombs a week are falling on the capital; nothing more is said of them. Like the “atombomb” that explodes over Oceania’s “Airstrip I”—England—and by destroying a church provides a hiding place in the belfry for the lovers in an “almost deserted stretch of country,” all these bombs are abstractions in a book that, except for the hardships of daily living borrowed from the 1940s, is meant to be an abstract of a wholly political future. Orwell was an efficient novelist not particularly interested in fiction; he used it for making a point. Bombs in 1984 symbolize Orwell’s pent-up rage about everything in the political world from the mass unemployment of the 1930s (which continued well into the war period) to the ignorance of the left intelligentsia justifying Stalinism because the Russian people were pouring out their blood. By 1948, when Orwell was finishing the novel he had conceived in 1943, he was also maddened by the postwar division of the world, the atom bombs on Japan, and England’s dependency on America. The ex-radical neoconservative proponents of America-as-ideology now trying to claim Orwell overlook the fact that England’s currency in 1984 is American. England is Oceania Airstrip I. We know whose airstrip it is.
Winston Smith and his fellows in the Ministry of Truth spend their days rewriting the past: “Most of the material you were dealing with had no connection with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connection that is contained in a direct lie.” Not Orwell’s novel is fiction but the world itself. Fiction as deliberate abstraction from life is what this terror society lives on. By political fiction Orwell means a society that has no meaning. A collectivized insanity is what a wholly tendentious politics has reduced us to. We have become the vacuum. Appearance has replaced reality, and appearance is just propaganda. In this future emptiness any two of the three great powers dividing the world (Orwell was grimly sure there would soon be two) may be officially but only symbolically at war. This is a war without end, because it is probably being waged in the “Ministry of Peace.” Or if it is really going on, like the present war between Iran and Iraq, the belligerents may not recall why they went to war. Truckloads of enemy prisoners are regularly shown to London, but they may not be prisoners or even enemies. Bombs do occasionally fall on the city, but like Somoza or Assad, the rulers of this society probably bomb their own people to keep them cowed.
By V-E Day more than ten thousand rocket bombs had fallen on Britain; it would have been knocked out of the war if the enemy’s bases had not been captured in time. The thirty bombs falling each week in 1984 are symbols of the routine terror that Orwell imagined for the end of the century. Politics for him had become the future as complete domination. Pervasive injustice had certainly become his vision of things. In 1984 only the utter disregard of the masses by the Party (a theme fundamental to the book but not demonstrated as fully as the devastation of language and the elimination of the past) shows Orwell’s compassion struggling against his shuddering vision of the future. “Work and bed,” I used to hear English factory workers complain. “Might as well be dead.” The deadly fatigue of 1939–1945 is captured in one line about Winston Smith’s neighbor Mrs. Parsons. “One had the impression that there was dust in the creases of her face.”
What Orwell would not transfer from 1945 to 1984 was the positive and liberating aspect of wartime controls. England was in many respects more fully mobilized for war than Nazi Germany. A general improvement in national health and social services convinced many people that such efficiency called for widespread nationalization. An impatient drive for a better life increasingly filled the atmosphere as Germany finally went down to defeat. To the amazement of many people in the “movement,” this brought the Labour party to power with the greatest majority in the history of British socialism. Orwell’s writings of the period reflect little of this. It is true that he was ailing with the lung disease that was to kill him in 1950, that his wife Eileen had died in March 1945 when he was in Germany as a correspondent, that he was still writing for the left-wing Tribune. It is also true that the author of the wickedly brilliant satire on Stalinism, Animal Farm, continued to proclaim himself a supporter of the Labour party and a libertarian Socialist.
Nevertheless, the bread-and-butter issues that brought Labour to power did not get into the novel that made Orwell’s name a symbol for the fear of socialism. The tyranny in this book is called “Ingsoc,” English Socialism. Like so many Americans on the left, Orwell was more concerned with what Russia portended for socialism than with the actual struggles of the working class. “Socialism” in America is just a rumpus between nostalgic and former radicals. In England it was a national movement, a government in power, an aroused consciousness. What was more on Orwell’s mind, despite his undiminished sympathy for Labour, was the issue of domination which he knew so well from his upper-class background, though he derived, he said, from the lower part of it. Or as Lenin put it, Who Whom?—who’s going to run the show and drive the rest of us?
Socialism to George Orwell, as to the utopian reformers and idealists of the nineteenth century, was not an economic question but a moral one. The welfare state little interested Orwell. He was naive, or perhaps just literary, when he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, his documentary of British poverty in the Thirties, “economic injustice will stop the moment we want it to stop, and no sooner, and if we genuinely want it to stop the method adopted hardly matters.” To the twenty-six-year-old Karl Marx writing in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), the purpose of socialism was to end, for once in human history, the economic struggle for existence that has always kept man from “reappropriating” his essence. Exactly a century later Orwell wrote in a book review, “The real problem of our time is to restore the sense of absolute right and wrong when the belief that it used to rest on—that is, the belief in personal immortality—has been destroyed. This demands faith, which is a different thing from credulity.”
Just at the moment when twentieth century technology had shown itself capable of feeding the hungry, when everything in sight justified Marx’s testimony in The Communist Manifesto to the power of new productive forces and Whitehead’s praise of “the century of hope” for “inventing invention,” socialism in its original meaning—the end of tribal nationalism, of man’s alienation from his own essence, of wealth determining all values in society—yielded to the nightmare of coercion. What drove Orwell into an opposition all his own, what made for the ominousness of 1984, for a deadliness of spirit that fills the book and helped to kill him at forty-six, was his inability to overlook the source of the nightmare. Lenin had seized the state in the name of the long-suffering working class. Thomas Hobbes in 1651 had called Leviathan “the mortal God.” He ascribed its power over men to their fear of violent death at each other’s hands in the brute state of nature. Fear causes men to create a state by contracting to surrender their natural rights and to submit to the absolute authority of a sovereign. By the social contract men had surrendered their natural liberties in order to enjoy the order and safety of the organized state. But under the total domination of the socialist state men could be just as afraid of violent death at each other’s hands as they had been in the state of nature.
“Socialism” was not a fetish to Orwell. He would not have been as contemptuous of social democracy as Arthur Koestler, who mocked Clement Attlee for saying to the great crowd cheering Labour’s astonishing victory in July 1945, “Don’t expect too much of us. We’re batting on a very sticky wicket.” Orwell was repelled but fascinated by the progress of James Burnham from extreme left to extreme right. With his dislike of absolutist intellectuals, he would not have been astonished to see the ease with which so many former radicals have managed to overcome their disillusionment in the arms of the Pentagon, the CIA, the National Security Administration, and other current examples of how to get “the State off our backs.” No great admirer of the United States, which he never cared to visit, Orwell would have made note of the fact that last year the average American household watched television for seven hours and two minutes each day, that households with cable now watch fifty-eight hours a week, and that in this year of 1984 readers of a liberal weekly could read the following: