Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, or 1984 as it is often published, is by George Orwell and was first published in 1949. It is one of the most famous books of the Western canon and, I think, one of the more disturbing. This is one of my 'last minute' reads: it's been a re-read on my Classics Club list, but having been greatly depressed by my first read in 2012 I always put it off (though I did find it in excellent novel), however when I kept seeing references to it these past few weeks (which I'll write about later) I decided to give it another go.
The first thing I learned when I re-read it was that I had got it wrong. I thought, in my clumsy first-read, that it represented a far-right dystopia; it's not. It's a far-left dystopia, and political system is known in the book as Ingsoc: English Socialism.
Orwell himself was a socialist - a democratic socialist - which differs from the Marxist-Leninist or 'Soviet Model' as it could be called. Democratic socialism combines a democratic political system and a socialist economic system, which involves the state ownership of means of production rather than private ownership. The Soviet model was based on an authoritarian state, whereas democratic socialism is more from a grass-roots level (Orwell writes about this in The Lion and the Unicorn, 1940, and Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933). In 1984 Orwell explores and condemns the authoritarian Soviet model inspired by Germany's Adolf Hitler, Spain's General Franco, and the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin.
|Manuscript of the first page (1947).|
The novel begins with the famous sentence,
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
In the next sentence we meet the protagonist, Winston Smith, a middle class man or, in the novel's terms, a member of the 'Outer Party' (the upper class ruling elite are members of the 'Inner Party', and the lower class are the 'Proles'). England is no longer England but 'Airstrip One', and it is a part of Oceania, which also includes the Americas. Other regions are Eurasia (Russian) and Eastasia (including China and Japan). As with the other citizens or 'comrades' in the book, Winston is watched perpetually by Big Brother, personified in a poster looking rather Stalin-esque (others have drawn comparisons with Lord Kitchener, as in the "Your Country Needs You!" poster) with the caption, "Big Brother is Watching You". Everything is controlled by the Inner Party: history, language (the party are developing 'Newspeak', a language that will eventually replace 'Oldspeak' and will necessarily limit freedom of thought and expression), news, entertainment, art, and literature, propaganda, and even relationships, as well as the usual suspects: the economy, defence, education, and justice. Even thinking the wrong thoughts is a crime - in the novel's terms, a "thoughtcrime". This is one reason why 1984 has been referred to a little more than usual in the Press - in a meeting planning the Counter-Extremism Bill (May 2015) Prime Minister David Cameron said,
For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance.
Certain newspapers, such as The Mirror, have drawn compassion with the possible implications of this and 1984's 'thoughtcrime'.
This level of totalitarianism is quite obviously oppressive and Winston attempts rebellion, firstly by keeping a diary and secondly by partaking in activities that are not approved by the Party. Whilst his story and fate are compelling, poor Winston is not the most interesting part of 1984. In the novel Orwell has envisaged a world order - a political and geographical landscape, a new political system, and carefully drawn its effects for a whole cast of characters including Winston: for that alone it is a deeply impressive book. The results of political doubt within this authoritarian totalitarian state is terrifying, and led V. S. Pritchett to write for the New Statesman (18th Nune 1949):
Nineteen Eighty-Four goes through the reader like an east wind, cracking the skin, opening the sores; hope has died in Mr Orwell’s wintry mind, and only pain is known. I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put down.
Today the fear from it has grown as some elements of the tale have apparently manifested. On a very superficial level we have programmes such as Big Brother (Endemol) and Room 101 (BBC), but of course it runs deeper with concerns over CCTV and fears of press control and influence (the famous example being The Sun newspaper's declaration "It's the Sun wot won it" after the Conservative victory in 1992). There are alarming hints of elements of 1984 in modern life, but George Orwell's dystopia has not (yet?) been realised.
|George Orwell by Ralph Steadman (1996).|
Most recently Orwell has once again been invoked in discussions about the new Labour Leader (and thus Leader of the Opposition), Jeremy Corbyn. As Robert Colls (author of George Orwell: English Rebel, 2013) writes for the New Statesman (9th October 2015):
Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy's dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a "burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive". Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and "squashily pacifist" leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of "that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat". And though Corbyn, as "a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist" (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see "The Lion and the Unicorn", 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn't just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.
There is a sense, as Robert Colls goes on to write, that this not only misrepresents Corbyn but Orwell too (and, as Colls kindly notes, Corbyn isn't so badly dressed, "He just doesn't look like Chuka or Tristram"). Corbyn has struck fear into the hearts of the right wing, and in assuming 1984 was a warning against socialism of all kinds, Orwell is cited time and again as a missive against socialism. One thing is clear - 1984 is one of the most famous books ever published but it may also be easily misunderstood and misrepresented. One may get an idea, a good idea, of what it is about and bring it up where relevant, but its ideas and history and Orwell's own idea of socialism is not so straightforward. One must read it - and make up one's own mind.