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:
Is Big Brother watching? If you are tired of Gov’t…tired of Big Business…tired of everybody telling you who you are and what you should be…then now is the time to speak out…. Display disgust and declare your independence…. Wear a Big Brother Is Watching Shirt today, Tee shirt $10/…Canadians remit $US. Big Brother is Watching LTD, Neenah WI…
Orwell thought the problem of domination by class or caste or race or political machine more atrocious than ever. It demands solution. Because he was from the upper middle class and knew from his own prejudices just how unreal the lower classes can be to upper-class radicals, a central theme in all his work is the separateness and loneliness of the upperclass observer, like his beloved Swift among the oppressed Irish. Everyone knows by now that he was born in India, that he was brought up to the gentility, snobbery, and race-pride of the British upper classes, especially in the more anxious forms of class consciousness dictated by genteel poverty. He was put through the scholarship mill for Eton and revolted against the system by not going on to Oxford or Cambridge, choosing instead to become a policeman in Burma.
After five years of this, furiously rejecting British imperialism, he threw himself into the life of the Lumpenproletariat in Paris and London, the “people of the abyss” as his admired Jack London put it. In England he lived the life of a tramp for months at a time in spite of his weak lungs, and after publishing his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), he went out to the mining districts of the North to do his extraordinary firsthand investigation of working-class life and poverty, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).
Hostile critics of 1984 have eagerly picked on the fact that despite his attempt to immerse himself in workingclass life, Orwell did not commit himself to socialism until he returned to England in 1937, after being wounded in the Spanish Civil War and hunted by Loyalist police for having fought with the proscribed anti-Stalinist POUM. It was the wonderful fraternalism of the anarchists and other obstinate idealists on the left that gave Orwell his one image of socialism as a transformation of human relationships. In Catalonia, for a brief season after Franco’s revolt in 1936, the word “comrade” really meant something. In Homage to Catalonia Orwell recited with wonder the disappearance of the usual servility and money worship. What a glorious period that was—until the nominally socialist government in Madrid, instigated by the communists, frustrated every possibility of social revolution from within. Even before Franco conquered in 1939, the old way of life had been restored in Catalonia.
Orwell never forgot what he had seen in Catalonia. This was more than “socialism with a human face,” it was socialism as true and passionate equality. Socialism, he wrote near the end of his life, can mean nothing but justice and liberty. For Orwell socialism was the only possible terminus—where? when?—to the ceaseless deprivations suffered by most human beings on earth. But since he equally abominated the despotisms still justified by many English and American left intellectuals, he made a point in 1984 of locating the evil in the thinking of the leading Thought Policeman, O’Brien.
Political intellectuals on the left, the ex-left, the would-be left, the ideological right, can be poison. By the time he summed up all his frustration and rage in 1984, Orwell had gone beyond his usual contempt for what he called “the boiled rabbits of the left.” He was obsessed by the kind of rationale created by modern intellectuals for tyranny by the state. O’Brien’s speeches to the broken Winston Smith in the Thought Police’s torture chamber represent for Orwell the core of our century’s political hideousness. Although O’Brien says that power seeks power and needs no ideological excuse, he does in fact explain to his victim what this power is.
The power exerted and sought by political intellectuals is that they must always be right. O’Brien is frightening because of the way he thinks, not because of the cynicism he advances. Dostoevsky in The Possessed said of one of his revolutionist “devils”—“When he was excited he preferred to risk anything rather than to remain in uncertainty.” O’Brien tells his victim: “You are a flaw in the pattern, Winston. You are a stain that must be wiped out….It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.”
Every despotism justifies itself by claiming the power of salvation. Before salvation by the perfect society, there was salvation by the perfect God. One faction after another in history claims to represent perfection, to the immediate peril of those who do not. My salvation cannot tolerate your disbelief, for that is a threat to my salvation.
O’Brien tortures Winston Smith because of O’Brien’s necessary belief that the mind controls all things. There is in fact no external reality. The world is nothing but man and man nothing but mind. Winston, not yet electro-shocked into agreeing to this, protests from his rack: “The world itself is only a speck of dust. And man is tiny—helpless! How long has he been in existence? For millions of years the earth was uninhabited.” O’Brien: “Nonsense. The earth is as old as we are, no older. How could it be older? Nothing exists except through human consciousness….Before man, there was nothing. After man, if he could come to an end, there would be nothing. Outside man there is nothing.”
That is the enemy in 1984, and against it the exhausted and dying English radical, in the great tradition of English common-sense empiricism, is putting forth his protest that the world is being intellectualized by tyrants who are cultural despots. They are attempting to replace the world by ideas. They are in fact deconstructing it, emptying it of everything that does not lend itself to authority which conceives itself monolithically, nothing but consciousness.
George Orwell’s explicitly old-fashioned view is that reality does start outside of us; it is in fact political. Because we are never really alone, whatever introspection tells us, power is always exerted in the name of what we have in common. Life is lived, little as some of us recognize it, as manufactured and coercive loyalties, unmistakable threats and terrible punishments, violent separations from the body politic. The sources of social control and domination are swallowed up in our anxiety, which in an age of psychology deludes itself as being wholly personal, and are embedded in a consumer society professing the elimination of all wants and having no other goal but satisfaction. Actually, we are creatures of society, which is why the tyrant state arises in answer to some mass deprivation. Then the tyranny that afflicts us in our name attempts to reconstitute us by forces so implacable that we internalize them. This is the aim of the Party in 1984.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is in one respect an exception to the methodical social documentation that was Orwell’s usual method. The most powerful details in the book relate to our identification with compulsion. The book is a prophecy, or, as Orwell said, a warning about a future terrible because it rests on a fiction and so cannot be substantiated. It would never occur to Orwell’s unwearied enemy on the British left, Raymond Williams, that every pious mouthful he still utters about “Socialism” in the merest abstraction couched in the in-house vocabulary of a religious sect. Orwell’s attack on O’Brien as the Grand Inquisitor of an enforced solipsism has not been widely understood. Unlike nineteenth-century individualists, who still had some perspective on the society that was forming around them, we no longer recognize the full extent of the social controls for which we more and more live. Orwell would have enjoyed the irony. Our media culture confirms Einstein’s belief that the history of an epoch is represented by its instruments. Yet nothing in the sensationalist discussion of Orwell’s novel has been so mindless as television’s pointing with alarm at the telescreen in 1984 peeking into our bedrooms. You would think that the telescreen had invented itself.
Orwell had the peculiar ability to show that social coercion affects us unconsciously. It becomes personal affliction. In Down and Out in Paris and London and Out in Paris and London and in The Road to Wigan Pier he showed poverty not just as destitution but as the crippling of the spirit. In Homage to Catalonia and in 1984 he demonstrated the extent to which a state at war must hold its own people hostage. What is not abstract in 1984 is that Winston and Julia make love under the eyes of the State, that Winston in the Ministry of Truth rewrites the past, day after day, all day long, and flogs himself to work only with the help of the Victory Gin given out at lunch with the watery stew and ersatz bread. Winston and Julia make love to the sounds of a proletarian woman in the yard singing as she does her wash. But the moment the lovers are arrested, “Something was being dragged across the stones. The woman’s singing had stopped abruptly. There was a long, rolling clang, as though the washtub had been flung across the yard, and then a confusion of angry shouts which ended in a yell of pain.”
Orwell’s passion for the social detail—politics is how we live, how we are forced to live—was of the kind that only resistant solitary minds are capable of. “Not one of us,” indeed. The social coercion that most people are no longer aware of became his fated subject because he took coercion as his personal pattern. The clue to his blunt style, with its mastery of the single sentence meant to deliver a shock, is its constant aggression on the reader. Orwell is always telling the reader how innocent everyone is about the reality of society. Orwell’s speciality is his awareness of limits in all things, not least the limits of his own talent and interest. “Truth” is his writer’s ace in the hole, not imagination. Only Orwell, shot through the throat, would have made a point of saying in Homage to Catalonia, “I ought to say in passing that all the time I was in Spain I saw very little fighting.”
He clearly made up his mind very early that his ability as a writer was his ability to absorb truth in the form of pain and to give it back. In “Why I Write,” a 1946 statement at the head of his Collected Essays,. Journalism and Letters, he said that even as a boy “I knew that I had a facility with words and power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.” Writing he imagined as a “continuous” story about himself, “a sort of diary existing only in the mind.” When he began writing actively, it consisted for him as “a descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from the outside,… [it] always had the same meticulous descriptive quality.”
Orwell remains the best commentator on his own work because he could never modify the sense of fatality behind it. Without grandiosity and without apology, he knew himself to be, vis-à-vis the unending storm of political compulsion and terror, in an exceptionally vulnerable position. “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.” But this sense of fate made him perhaps one of the few lasting writers produced by the 1930s. Unlike Silone, Malraux, or Koestler, Orwell was never a true believer and so had nothing to repent of.
Like the stronger and more drastic Solzhenitsyn, Orwell knew why literature in the face of totalitarianism will be documentary. He knew how to face a reality entirely political. In a way, he knew nothing else. But unlike the communist writers formed by the 1930s, Orwell also knew that good writing must be entirely consistent, that the merest touch of eclecticism or a message is fatal. Literature in an age of political atrocity, as the exiles and dissidents from Eastern Europe are showing us, may take the form of fable, but the fable is designed to embarrass, to impart a sense of infliction. Orwell’s sense of literature always focused on the unbearable detail. In life as in his books, he delighted in extreme gestures. In the bitter postwar winter of 1946, when fuel was scarce, Orwell actually chopped up his son’s toys. But anyone who thinks that the extreme gesture in our day is found more in private life than in our relation to the state has not been aware of the Holocaust, the Gulag, and the latest from the war between Iran and Iraq. This Orwell foretold in 1984, just as brooding on Stalin as Big Brother he also imagined Khomeini. In Brazil I heard a government minister say, “We have a hundred million people in this country, most of whom we do not need.” More and more leaders of the third world talk that way. In private many of us dream that for the billions of the third world.
Orwell admitted that he was too ill when writing 1984 to round it all out. But of course it succeeds, it threatens, it terrorizes, because it represents a wholly oppositionist point of view that calls for the downright and repeated emphases of the great pamphleteer rather than the subtly developing action within a novel. Orwell’s marked tendency to directness, flatness, laying down the law, along with his powerful anticipation of fact, belongs to a radical and adversary tradition of English pamphleteering not practiced by American writers—the tradition of Swift, Tom Paine, Hazlitt, Blake, Cobbett, Chesterton, Shaw, founded on some enduring sense of injustice, on the need to break through those English class prejudices that Orwell called “a curse that confronts you like a wall of stone.” Edmund Wilson used to say that the English Revolution took place in America. In Britain literature has been the revolution. Orwell represents this for the first half of our century as none of his countrymen do. As always, the revolution stays in just one head at a time.
Nevertheless, the great pamphleteers are the great issue raisers. Issues became Orwell’s writing life, which is why even when he was near death he could never resist accepting still another book for review. His “I Write as I Please” column for the Tribune makes up the central section of his work; the four volumes of his collected essays, letters, journalism are more interesting to me than his novels. Nineteen Eighty-Four, novel or not, could have been conceived only by a pamphleteer who in his migratory life insisted on keeping his extensive collection of English pamphlets. His way of writing is always more or less an argument. He writes to change your mind. Socialism, which had meant justice and liberty, in its regression now forced him to choose liberty in 1984 as the response of “the last man in Europe” (the original title for the book) to the State’s organized atrocities against a man alone.
But that is not the whole story behind 1984, as Orwell bitterly insisted, just before he died, against all those attempting to turn him into a defender of the system he described in The Road to Wigan Pier. “We are living in a world in which nobody is free, in which hardly anybody is secure, in which it is almost impossible to be honest and to remain alive….And this is merely a preliminary stage, in a country still rich with the loot of a hundred years. Presently there may be coming God knows what horrors—horrors of which, in this sheltered island, we have not even a traditional knowledge.” Rosa Luxemburg, the critic on the left most trenchant on Lenin’s despotism, warned before she was murdered in 1919 that true victory lay “not at the beginning but at the end of revolution.” The true radicals are those who conceive the beginning but cannot bear the end. Ignazio Silone as an exile in Switzerland used to lament: “We are the anti-fascists, always anti! anti!” Orwell’s problem was no doubt that, like so many of us, he knew best what he was against. All the more reason to take him seriously at a time when it has become unfashionable and even dangerous to be “against.”
June 14, 1984