Ben Pimlott: Introduction to Nineteen Eighty-Four

It is easy to see why George Orwell’s last novel, published in June 1949 seven months before the author’s death, was such an instant success. First, it is a wickedly disreputable yarn that takes adolescent fantasy – of lonely defiance, furtive sex and deadly terror – to a shockingly unacceptable extreme. Second, and more important, this singular tale was widely read as social comment, and even prophecy.

That it should have been so regarded is not, perhaps, surprising. Drabness, shortages, government red tape were a way of life not just in the novel but in the Britain where it was written. At the same time, totalitarianism was a stalking fear. Nazi Germany in the recent past, Russia and China in the present, framed the Western political consciousness. There was a sense of grimly staring into a crystal ball at a just-imaginable near-distance.

Today it is impossible to think of the novel in quite the same way. It is a mark of the author’s astonishing influence that, as the historical 1984 approached, the date on the calendar was discussed throughout the world almost with trepidation, as though it were a kind of millennium. But that is now over, and some may wonder whether the novel has exceeded its shelf life. For how can a story about a future that is past continue to alarm its readers?

There are certainly aspects of the novel which tempt the modern critic to be condescending. Not only has the supposed warning been largely wrong within its time-span (there has, so far, been no third world war or Western revolution, and totalitarian systems are not more but less common than forty years ago). The novel’s literary weaknesses can now be seen in clearer focus. If Nineteen Eighty-Four is an accessible novel, that is partly because of the lucidity of Orwell’s writing. But it is also because of a lack of subtlety in his characterisation, and a crude plot.

The latter may be briefly summarised. The novel is set in the year 1984 in London (‘Airstrip One’) in Oceania, a superpower controlled by the restrictive ‘Party’ and led by its symbolic head, Big Brother. Within this state there is no law and only one rule: absolute obedience in deed and thought. Oceanian society is divided hierarchically between a privileged Inner Party, a subservient Outer Party, and a sunken mass of ‘proles’. The hero, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party and is employed at the Ministry of Truth (that is, of Lies) as a routine falsifier of records. Despite overwhelming pressure to conform to the system, Winston secretly reacts against it. He is approached by another minor official, Julia, who recognises a kindred spirit. Emboldened by love, they ask a high-ranking Inner Party bureaucrat, O’Brien, to put them in touch with an opposition force called the Brotherhood, supposedly led by Big Brother’s arch-enemy, the Trotsky-like Emmanuel Goldstein. The encouragement they receive from O’Brien, however, turns out to be a ploy. They are arrested and separated. Both are broken under interrogation and betray each other. Released before his final liquidation, Winston discovers that he has learnt to love Big Brother.

This works well, at one level, as entertainment. But it has limitations as art. The narrative lacks development, the dialogue is sometimes weak, and most of the people are two-dimensional, existing only to explain a political point or permit a side-swipe at a species in the real world. Among the novel’s minor figures, a woman singing as she hangs out washing cheers us, and we are haunted by the mournful image of Winston’s long-disappeared mother.

But the hero’s Outer Party acquaintances – the fatuously eager Parsons, for instance, or the zealot Syme – are merely caricature political activists; while most of the proles, with their dropped aitches and jumbled cockney clichés, seem to come from a pre-war copy of Punch. Mr Charrington, the junk-shop dealer who rents Winston a room as a love-nest and turns out to be a Thought Policeman wearing make-up, is plucked from a hundred cheap thrillers.

Of the three main characters, the sinister O’Brien is an intellectual construct: not a flesh-and-blood human being at all, but the ultimate, black image of totalitarianism. Winston and Julia are more substantial. Aspects of Winston have been encountered in Orwell’s earlier novels. He is a loner and a loser, a prospectless member of the lower upper-middle class, filled with impotent rage at those who control his life. We are depressed by Winston’s plight, and when he is elevated by love and political commitment we wish him well. Yet he never rises much above his own self-pity, and it is hard to feel the downfall of this unprepossessing fellow as a tragedy.

Julia is altogether a more sympathetic and pleasing creation. Perhaps she contains something of Orwell’s first wife, Eileen, who died in 1945. Certainly Julia has a solidity and a touch of humour that are lacking elsewhere. The biggest relief is to discover, just as we are about to be suffocated in Oceania’s slough of despond, that politics bores Julia stiff:

‘I’m not interested in the next generation… I’m interested in us.’
‘You’re only a rebel from the waist downwards,’ he told her.
She thought this brilliantly witty and flung her arms round him in delight.

Yet Julia contains a contradiction. As well as the most engaging character in the book, she is also the least appropriate. Unlike the morose Winston, she is a free spirit. ‘Life as she saw it was quite simple,’ the author recounts. ‘You wanted a good time; “they”, meaning the Party, wanted to stop you having it; you broke the rules as best you could.’

We are grateful for Julia. But we are left wondering how this public-schoolboy’s fantasy ideal of uncomplicated, healthy, outdoors femininity could possibly have survived the mind-rotting propaganda of the Party. Or, if she could survive, why not others? Winston (‘the last man in Europe’) just about makes sense as an unreformed relic of the old era, but Julia looks like proof that the methods of the new age do not work. Yet a theme of the book is that they are inescapably ineffective. In the novel’s own terms, Julia seems an anachronism: her clandestine affair belongs to a country under occupation, the land of Odette, rather than to one totally controlled.

Julia (for all this inconsistency) breathes life into the novel; but her presence alone would barely sustain a short story. If there were nothing to the novel apart from the characters and the narrative, it would scarcely be read today except as a curiosity. In fact, there is a great deal more. What makes it a masterpiece of political writing – the modern equivalent, as Bernard Crick has rightly claimed, of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan – is the extraordinary texture of the backcloth. Disguised as horror-comic fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four is really a non-fiction essay about the demon power. It works for us in the same way that Emmanuel Goldstein’s heretical book, analysing and attacking the political system, works for Winston:

In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible to set his scattered thoughts in order… The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.

As elsewhere in Orwell’s writings, the deceptive, collusive amateurism of the author’s style lulls us into the realisation not only that he is right, but also that he is saying what we always thought but never managed to formulate into words.

As satire Nineteen Eighty-Four has been hard to place. Some have seen it as an attack on Stalinism, or on totalitarianism in general, or on the directive tendencies (at a time of Labour government) of British state socialism. Others have read it as an assault on the pretensions and illiberalism of Western left-wing intellectuals. Others, again, have explained it as a feverish tubercular hallucination, as a lampoon of prep-school life or (what might be the same thing) as a sado-masochistic reverie. Probably it contains elements of all these. Yet it is more than just a satirical attack, and much more than the product of febrile imagination. Though it contains a kind of earning, it is not prophecy (which Orwell knew, as well as anybody, to be impossible and meaningless). Neither is it much concerned with contemporary events. It is a book about the continuing present: an update on the human condition. What matters most is that it reminds us of so many things we usually avoid.

The book shocks where it is most accurate. We are unmoved by embarrassing descriptions of Winston’s encounters with the proles – which seem to say more about the author’s own class difficulties than about social apartheid in a real or threatened world. But the account of a system based on ideological cant and psychological manipulation immediately affects us. The dream-like misappropriation of reason touches our rawest nerve. It is no accident, indeed, that many word and concepts from Nineteen Eighty-Four that are now in common use by people who have never read the book – for example, Newspeak, thoughtcrime, Big Brother, unperson, doublethink – most relate to the power of the state to bend reality. At the core of the novelist’s perception is doublethink, defined as ‘the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them’. Like many of Orwell’s aphorisms, this seems at first absurd and then an aspect of everyday political life.

In Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, an earlier novel which also explored the theoretical limits of totalitarianism, the author showed the moral annihilation produced by an ideology in which the end is allowed to justify any means. Orwell’s innovation is to abolish the end. Where other ideologies have justified themselves in terms of a future goal, Ingsoc, the doctrine of the Party in Oceania, is aimless. As O’Brien explains to Winston, ‘we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power.’ But power for what? O’Brien’s answer tells us what we already know about oppression everywhere: ‘The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.’ Oceania is a static society running on an equilibrium of suffering. ‘If you want a picture the future,’ says O’Brien, ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’

Nineteen Eighty-Four draws heavily on James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution, whose image of a world divided into three large units, each ruled by a self-elected elite, is reflected in Goldstein’s Theory of Oligarchical Collectivism and in the division of the world into the three superpowers of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, continually at war with one another. But there is also much, indirectly, of Sigmund Freud. The furnace of Orwellian society, in which everything is done collectively yet everyone remains alone, is the denial of the erotic. It is this that fires the prevailing moods of ‘fear, hatred, adulation and orgiastic triumph’. Sexual hysteria is used deliberately to ferment a sadistic loathing of imagined enemies and to stimulate a masochistic, depersonalised love of Big Brother.

Nobody, not even the sceptical Winston, is immune. Mass emotion, the author repeatedly reminds us, is almost irresistible. The ‘Two Minutes Hate’ is one of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s most notorious inventions. The author shows his hero, in the midst of this organised mania, unable to stop himself joining in. Winston manages to turn the ‘hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness’ that ‘seemed to flow through the whole group like an electric current’ into hatred for the girl sitting behind him (who later turns out to be Julia). ‘Vivid, beautiful hallucinations flashed through his mind. Her would flog her to death and cut her throat at the moment of climax.’ Why? Because ‘she was young and pretty and sexless, because he wanted to go to bed with her and would never do so…’. Such private hatred, Orwell makes clear, is the purpose of Oceania’s Puritanism. Sexual happiness is the biggest threat to the system and Julia’s code (‘What you say or do doesn’t matter; only feelings matter’) is much more dangerous than Winston’s intellectual doubts. ‘We shall abolish the orgasm,’ says O’Brien, with his usual knack of getting to the heart of things. ‘Our neurologists are at work on it now.’

The psychic balance between private misery and the acceptance of official cruelty in Nineteen Eighty-Four did not so much anticipate the future as help to shape the way others- including survivors – would describe totalitarianism. Works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The First Circle, for example) show clearly the imprint of Orwell’s notion of a stable, purposeless evil, into which victims and persecutors are mutually locked. It is Nineteen Eighty-Four’s account of the plasticity of reason, however, that has had the sharpest impact. The full horror of the book begins when it becomes plain that everybody in Oceania, even among members of the cynical-yet-fanatical Inner Party, is in flight from logic. Doubtless Orwell was thinking of Stalin’s attempt to make the laws of genetics accord with Marxism-Leninism, when he presented Big Brother as master of the universe:

‘What are the stars?’ said O’Brien indifferently. ‘They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out… For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometres away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?’

This, of course, is madness. But who is to determine what is mad and what is sane in a society where all, including the thought controllers, learn to believe that two and two can equal five? Orwell reminds us how shaky is our hold on objective knowledge, and how uncertain our grip on the past.

Primo Levi – who lived through Auschwitz to become the finest writer on the Holocaust – has described in The Drowned and the Saved how Hitler contaminated the morality of his subjects by refusing them access to the truth. He concludes that ‘the entire history of the brief “millennial Reich” can be reread as a war against memory, an Orwellian falsification of reality…’. Oceania’s unceasing war on memory, in which every shred of evidence that conflicts with the latest official line is systematically destroyed and a false trail is laid in its place, is one of the novel’s most ingenious and terrifying devices.

Another is the assassination of language. Accurate history is one essential vessel of liberty, perhaps the most essential, and Nineteen Eighty-Four can be seen as a charter for historical scholarship. A second is linguistic purity. Language is testimony: it contains geological strata of past events and out-of-fashion values. Orwell was making an observation that is as relevant to the behaviour of petty bureaucrats as of dictators, when he noted the eagerness with which truth-evaders shy away from well-known words and substitute their own. In Oceania the Party has created a sanitised language, Newspeak, to take the place of traditional English with its uncomfortable associations. This ideological Esperanto is composed of short, clipped words, ‘which aroused the minimum of echoes in the speaker’s mind’, and which will eventually render the faming of heretical thoughts impossible,. Orwell gives real-world examples of Newspeak: Nazi, Gestapo, Comintern, Agitprop. There are many others. Thus Levi notes how, in Hitler’s Germany, phrases like ‘final solution’, ‘special treatment’, ‘prompt employment unit’ disguised a frightful reality. We could make our own additions from the age of nuclear terror: overkill, the verb to nuke, the semi-jocular star wars.

Doublethink, Newspeak, crimestop (the faculty of ‘stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought… In short… protective stupidity’) are hardy perennials in any authoritarian or totalitarian state, which helps explain why the novel, secretly distributed, has been so keenly appreciated in Eastern Europe. At the same time, they also refer to aspects of any bureau, corporation or political party in a democracy, not to mention any jargon-ridden profession or orthodoxy-driven academic discipline. They are predictions only in the sense that any polemic predicts a dire consequence if its injunction is not heeded.

Nevertheless, Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its very specific date, does have an historical reference point. It is not by chance that Orwell calls the Party ideology Ingsoc, and presents it as a perversion of English socialism. Some have seen it as an indictment of the Labour government of Clement Attlee. In fact Orwell, who continued to think of himself both as a democratic socialist and as a Labour Party supporter, was not greatly interested by the fast-moving politics of the mid-1940s, and much of the time during the gestation and writing of the novel (interrupted by a long spell in hospital with tuberculosis) he spent far from London political gossip at his farmhouse on the island of Jura.

Yet the novel can certainly be seen – like its predecessor Animal Farm – as a contribution to the debate within socialism. Like Animal Farm it does not look forward to future controversies but harks back to pre-war ones. The most important political experience in Orwell’s life (described in Homage to Catalonia) was the Spanish Civil War, in which the author was wounded fighting for the revolutionary POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) militia. Orwell came back from Spain bitterly hostile towards Moscow-led communism, whose influence on the progressive British intelligentsia continued to be pervasive. He was less surprised than many on the Left by the Nazi-Soviet pact in August 1939 (to be followed by the German invasion of Russia in 1941, which brought Stalin into the war on the side of the Allies, and then by the cooling of Allied-Soviet relations, which turned Russia back into a potential enemy of the West almost as soon as the war was over). The cynicism and impermanence of big power alliances is a feature of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Oceania is not, in any sense, a socialist society. On the contrary, A cardinal example of doublethink is that ‘the Party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement ever stood, and it chooses to do this in the name of Socialism’. Oceania cannot therefore be taken as an argument for socialism’s failure. The point is not the achievement of socialist promises, but their rejection and distortion. Some may hear an echo of Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in Goldstein’s account of how ‘in each variant of Socialism that appeared from about 1900 onwards the aim of establishing liberty and equality was more and more openly abandoned’. Yet Orwell is no less critical of anti-socialists. By the 1940s, says Goldstein, ‘all the main currents of political thought were authoritarian… Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation.’ If Airstrip One is a version of austerity London (as Michael Radford’s interesting film of the novel suggests), then Labour socialism is scarcely singled out for particular criticism. Indeed, Goldstein also makes clear that th systems on the other superpowers, Eurasia and Eastasia, are practically identical.

Orwell’s attack is not on socialism, but on credulous or self-serving people who call themselves socialists, and on some of their illusions. One illusion – still part of platform rhetoric – is that, whatever obstacles and setbacks may be encountered on the way, the working class will eventually and inevitably triumph. Orwell turns this on its head. In Oceania the relative freedom of working-class people is merely a symptom of the contempt in which they are held. ‘From the proletarians,’ declares Goldstein, ‘nothing is to be feared.’ They can be granted intellectual liberty, he adds (with a kick in the groin for the liberal, as well as socialist, assumptions), ‘because they have no intellect’.

Yet the proles have an important place in the novel If there is hope, Winston ruminate, it lies with them. Is there hope? The surface message of the novel seems to be that there is none. Oceania is a society beyond totalitarianism. Even in Auschwitz or the Gulag a community of sorts could continue to exist and heroism was possible. But in Oceania heroism is empty because there is nobody to save. Hope flickers briefly and then it is extinguished: Winston’s attempt to preserve his identity is a mere spitting in the wind. Physical resistance to the Party’s terrorism is self-defeating. Orwell underlines Koestler’s argument in Darkness at Noon that to fight oppression with the oppressor own methods is a moral capitulation. He uses O’Brien, while apparently testing Winston’s resolve as a fellow-conspirator, trap the hero into a monstrous pledge:

‘If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face – are you prepared to do that?’

Later, O’Brien the interrogator asks Winston:

‘And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and cruelty?’

He has only to turn on a tape of the earlier conversation to make his point.

For all this, however, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a far from despairing book. As an intellectual puzzle it is almost watertight: every facile answer or objection is cleverly anticipated and blocked off. But the grotesque world it portrays is imaginary. There is no reason to read into the blackness of Orwell’s literary vision the denial of any real-life alternative. The novel, indeed, can be seen as an account of the forces that endanger liberty and of the need to resist them. Most of these forces can be summed up in a single word: lies. The author offers a political choice – between the protection of truth, and a slide into the expedient falsehood for the benefit of rulers and the exploitation of the ruled, in whom genuine feeling and ultimate hope reside.

This the novel is above all subversive, a protest against the tricks played by governments. It is a volley against the authoritarian in every personality, a polemic against every orthodoxy, an anarchistic blast against every unquestioning conformist. ‘It is intolerable to us,’ says the evil O’Brien, ‘that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four is a great novel and a great tract because of the clarity of its call, and it will endure because its message is a permanent one: erroneous thought is the stuff of freedom.

Professor Ben Pimlott was a leading historian and political biographer of post-war Britain. His works include lives of Hugh Dalton (1985, winner of the Whitbread Prize for biography), Harold Wilson (1992), and a study of Queen Elizabeth II (1996). His other books include Labour And The Left In The 1930s (1977), The Trade Unions In British Politics (with Chris Cook, 1982), Fabian Essays In Socialist Thought (1984), The Alternative (with Tony Wright and Tony Flower, 1990), Frustrate Their Knavish Tricks (1994) and Governing London (with Nirmala Rao, 2002).

He wrote about Portugal’s ‘Carnation Revolution’ in the 1970s (work which drew comparisons with Orwell in Catalonia), and during the 1980s he was a prolific essayist and book reviewer for the New Statesman, The Guardian and The Independent. He was also a political commentator at times for The Sunday Times, The Times and the New Statesman, where he was political editor in 1987-88. Chairman of the Fabian Society in 1993, he joined the politics and sociology department at Birkbeck College in 1981, and was Warden of Goldsmiths College until shortly before his death in 2004.