Orwell’s nineteen eighty-four and England’s intelligentsia (2)
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The essay “In Front of Your Nose” is devoted entirely to the prevalence in democratic countries of the state of mind satirized in Nineteen Eighty-Four as doublethink (which I have called “proto-doublethink”), required for, for instance, holding the belief that the economic theories applied in Soviet Russia result in a healthier economy than does capitalism, while having witnessed that Russian soldiers were ill-equipped and under-fed during World War II. Orwell argues that such beliefs can be held almost indefinitely, that is until they are tested in the battle field or in science. He therefore concludes that the maintenance of this state of minds relies on the assumption that one’s assertions will never be tested:
In private life most people are fairly realistic. When one is making one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidian world where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradictions and absurdities I have chronicled above, all finally traceable to the secret belief that one’s political opinions, unlike the weekly budget, will not have to be tested against solid reality. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 125)
This is where the falsification of history and “proto-Newspeak” come in. As Orwell argued above, testing one’s political beliefs against reality would cause the contradictions contained in those beliefs to come to the surface. However, these contradictions must be maintained if power is to be maintained, as it may be assumed that a people would never hand over power to somebody claiming to want it solely for the sake of power itself. It would always have to be “for good of the people.” Therefore, if the contractions cannot be done without, “solid reality” will have to be sacrificed.
It is no coincidence that Nineteen Eighty-Four’s protagonist works for the Ministry of Truth and spends his days bringing history in accordance with the Party line. If reality is not documented in some permanent manner but becomes dependent on what the person yelling the loudest claims to be the truth, there is nothing against which to test one’s political beliefs. Rather, it becomes a matter of faith in the person making such claims.
Another way of making it impossible to test political statements is by phrasing them in so vague a manner as to make it impossible to ascertain against which criteria they are to be tested. “In Front of Your Nose” was published in the Tribune on March 22, 1946. Only a few weeks later, in April 1946, “Politics and the English Language” was published in Horizon, in which Orwell wrote (as quoted above) “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated hen-house” (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 130).
He is referring to the “line[s] of type cast solid” used by the man in the cafeteria in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Somehow, according to Orwell, one becomes less human when one speaks in the phrases prepared by other people than when one chooses one’s own words. Orwell says in “Politics and the English Language” that “one often has the curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell describes the speaker in the cafeteria in the following manner: “His head was thrown back a little, and because of the angle at which he was sitting, his spectacles caught the light and presented to Winston two blank discs instead of eyes” (Orwell 1984, 50). Apparently, choosing one’s own words and voicing one’s own opinion are, for Orwell, conditions sine qua non for being human. Following this line of reasoning, the kind of language invented and used by the Communist Party is in itself contradictory to its proclaimed goal to bring about a Utopia for all humanity.
Meaninglessness is not only achieved by tacking together ready-made phrases. Communist language has a whole vocabulary consisting words whose meanings depend entirely on the connotations loaded into them by Party doctrine. Quite frequently, this is caused by the fact that they have been literally translated from other languages (usually Russian), while they would otherwise never be used in a similar context in English. Orwell lists the swear words hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lacquey, flunky, mad dog and White Guard. Sometimes words are newly created by abbreviating existing words. In the Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell explains the practice of abbreviation as follows:
It was perceived that in thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it. The words Communist International, for instance, call up a composite picture of universal human brotherhood, red flags, barricades, Karl Marx, and the Paris Commune. The word Comintern, on the other hand, suggests merely a tightly-knit organization and a well-defined body of doctrine. It refers to something almost as easily recognized, and as limited in purpose, as a chair or a table. Comintern is a word that can be uttered almost without taking thought, whereas Communist International is a phrase over which one is obliged to linger at least momentarily. (Orwell 1984, 264)
The process is such that the effect becomes a cause and so on indefinitely. Political factions divide the political realm into two camps. The public is forced to align itself with one of them, as nothing lies in between. The choice must be absolute – so as not to aid the other camp – which means that anything one’s party says must be believed. This requires the relinquishment, at least to a certain extent, of one’s critical faculties through “proto-doublethink.” The process is facilitated by vague language use: hearing someone make a statement in the kind of language described above evokes far fewer questions than hearing someone make a pointed, unambiguous statement. But it cuts both ways, as the political supporter need not question his own ideas, either, while discussing them, as long as he allows his words to be chosen for him. The final result is a nation, or world, of “eyeless dummies.”
2.3 The implications of proto-Newspeak and proto-doublethink
If vague or sloppy language use makes one into an eyeless dummy, does clear and honest language, according to Orwell, make citizens think critically? In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell wrote:
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find – this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify – that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years as a result of dictatorship. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 137)
He then goes on to say: “[I]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 137). But if the use of euphemisms, blanket terms and indiscriminate swearwords limits the opportunities to take thought, renders accusations unanswerable and thus increases the power of the party in control of the language use, can the opposite also be said? In other words, does honest and precise language use make the subjects of a political regime more aware and therefore more critical, and is power thus shifted from the political power in force to the people?
It seems that Orwell thought this was the case:
Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration […]. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 128; my emphasis)
This is his justification for an essay on dishonest, slovenly and stale language. His essay “Propaganda and Demotic Speech” throws another light on his objection to stale, meaningless and how-brow language. In this essay, written in 1944, Orwell argues that propaganda could be made more a effective means of rallying pro-British (and anti-Nazi) enthusiasm if the language used in speeches, on posters and radio broadcasts were closer to spoken language, and preferably closer to the spoken language of the common man. In support of this argument, he remembers a news broadcast he heard in a pub where “a gang of navvies were eating their bread and cheese.” The men went on solidly eating their dinner during the broadcast, until the announcer interrupted his BBC English and slipped into English as normally spoken when he quoted a soldier. According to Orwell, the colloquial language visibly grabbed the men’s attention. His point is that if you want to get something across to the people of England, you should use the language of the people instead of the pretentious diction of most politicians and newsreaders, which emphasizes the distance between the social classes and causes listeners to tune out.
As Orwell argues in “Politics and the English Language,” however, language should not only be as honest and simple as possible for purposes of propaganda, but for general political purposes as well.
In his essay “Why I Write” (1946), Orwell wrote: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.” It is important to define what Orwell meant when he called himself a democratic Socialist. Which features did his ideal society include, and which did it explicitly not include?
2.4 The politics of 1948
Following the General Election of July 1945, the first election in ten years, in which the Labour Party led by Clement Attlee was hugely victorious over Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party, Orwell’s “democratic Socialism” may have seemed within reach. Orwell covered the Election for The Observer, and seemed mildly optimistic about the results. T.R. Fyvel, a fellow reporter and friend, explains what happened next as follows:
As for Orwell, I thought that he might now see some of the democratic socialism enacted for which he had asked in The Lion and the Unicorn. Yet after the six long years of war which had seen so many setbacks, it had become harder to summon up political enthusiasm. Still, like most people around him, Orwell looked pleased at the Labour victory. But three weeks before Animal Farm was due out, the Americans dropped their atom bombs upon Japan. Like everyone else, Orwell was profoundly affected by this awesome, disastrous start to the nuclear age. Most people, like myself, managed to put it out of their minds, but one can see from his letters and writing that the thought of the nuclear devastation which he always saw ahead filled him with dark forebodings which never left him. (Fyvel, 132)
On October 26, 1945, the Tribune published Orwell’s essay “You and the Atom Bomb,”[i] in which it is evident that Orwell considered the rise of a small number of authoritarian superpowers to be imminent. Therefore, while otherwise his concerns for post-war Britain might have been appeased by the Labour Party’s election to power, his concerns became more urgent. The focus of his concerns became more general as well, being not only on the ideological threat that lay in the failure to recognize the dictatorial nature of the Soviet Union, but also on the dangers of having a few ultra-powerful super-states only. After all, with the prospect of the Soviet Union developing an atomic weapon of its own, and the cold war Orwell predicted would result from having a few such super-powers,[ii] the political climate in smaller nations such as the United Kingdom seemed irrelevant, as such nations would soon be forced to “choose sides.”
This brings us to Orwell’s opinion of the Soviet Union, and its international arm, the Communist Party. In or around 1938, Orwell wrote to the poet Stephen Spender:
You ask how it is that I attacked you not having met you, & on the other hand changed my mind after meeting you. I don’t know that I had exactly attacked you, but I had certainly in passing made offensive remarks [about] “parlour Bolsheviks such as Auden & Spender” or words to that effect. I was willing to use you as a symbol of the parlour Bolshie because a. your verse, what I had read of it, did not mean very much to me, b. I looked upon you as a sort of fashionable successful person, also a Communist or a Communist sympathizer, & I have been very hostile to the CP since about 1935,16[iii] and c. because not having met you I could regard you as a type & also an abstraction. (Orwell and Angus 2000A, 312; my emphasis)
In 1945, Orwell wrote to the Duchess of Atholl17[iv]:
Certainly what is said on your platforms is more truthful than the lying propaganda to be found in most of the press, but I cannot associate myself with an essentially Conservative body which claims to defend democracy in Europe but has nothing to say about British imperialism. It seems to me that one can only denounce the crimes now being committed in Poland, Jugoslavia, etc if one is equally insistent on ending Britain’s unwanted rule in India. I belong to the Left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 30; my emphasis)
Orwell is not entirely clear about the point in time that he first began to realize the nature of the Soviet system. In the letter to Spender quoted above, he cites the year 1935 as something of a turning point, while in his 1940 letter to Humphry House he writes: “It is as Nietzsche said about Christianity […], if you are all right inside you don’t have to be told that it is putrid. You can smell it – it stinks. All people who are morally sound have known since about 1931 that the Russian régime stinks.” What is probably more telling than the dates Orwell refers to is that, although he clearly inclined to the Left from the time that he first started to write, he never wrote anything in favor of the Soviet regime. It would then seem that there never was any one incident that turned Orwell away from Communism: it just stank. The one objection he voiced over and over again is that the basic theory of Socialism, i.e. all men are equal, was undermined by subsequent theories, such as “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” which de facto meant a “dictatorship of theorists.”[v] As explained above, what Orwell refers to as “democratic Socialism” is a libertarian concept, meaning that the emphasis is on democracy and liberty; it is thus in direct contrast with the Soviet interpretation of Socialism, which involves the dictatorship of the proletariat, collectivization of farm lands and a repressive regime. Democratic Socialism refers to a society in which class distinctions have been truly abolished, and have been abolished from the start. The major difference therefore lies in the importance attached to means and ends. Orwell did not “buy” the excuse made for Soviet policies that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” when there was no omelette to be discovered. In his essay “Catastrophic Gradualism” he described the way in which Communist and Socialist sympathizers tried to fit the dilemma of Soviet totalitarianism into their ideal of an equalitarian state.
At present this theory [the Theory of Catastrophic Gradualism, i.e. “nothing is ever achieved without bloodshed, lies, tyranny and injustice, but on the other hand no considerable change for the better is to be expected as the result of even the greatest upheaval”; WHF] is most often used to justify the Stalin régime in the USSR, but it obviously could be – and, given appropriate circumstances, would be – used to justify other forms of totalitarianism. It has gained ground as a result of the failure of the Russian Revolution – failure, that is, in the sense that the Revolution has not fulfilled the hopes that it aroused twenty-five years ago. In the name of Socialism the Russian régime has committed almost every crime that can be imagined, but at the same time its evolution is away from Socialism, unless one redefines that word in terms that no Socialist of 1917 would have accepted. To those who admit these facts, only two courses are open. One is simply to repudiate the whole theory of totalitarianism, which few English intellectuals have the courage to do: the other is to fall back on Catastrophic Gradualism. The formula usually employed is “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” And if one replies, “Yes, but where is the omelette?”, the answer is likely to be: “Oh well, you can’t expect everything to happen all in one moment. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 16)
In an editorial to Polemic, he writes: “So we arrive at the old, true, and unpalatable conclusion that a Communist and a Fascist are somewhat nearer to one another than either is to a democrat” (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 160). Orwell’s criticism of the Soviet Union was thus similar to his criticism of Nazi Germany, as in both cases his strongest objection was to the repressive nature of the regime in place. Orwell wrote in his essay on James Burnham:
English writers who consider Communism and Fascism to be the same thing invariably hold that both are monstrous evils which must be fought to the death: on the other hand, any Englishman who believes Communism and Fascism to be opposites will feel that he ought to side with one or the other. The reason for this difference of outlook is simple enough and, as usual, is bound up with wish-thinking. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 175)
During the 1930s and ’40s, the world had increasingly been divided into rigidly delineated camps, but with the first use of the atom bomb by the United States on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, George Orwell predicted the rise of two or three “super-powers” in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb,” as it only seemed to be a matter of time before the Soviet Union would be able to produce the bomb for itself. In the face of the threat of a world divided into states that professed to be each other’s opposites while in effect being two versions of the same thing, Orwell considered it vital that the world become aware of the fact that Russian Communism was not a viable alternative to capitalism. People looking at the Communist Party for a way of ending oppression of the poor would, according to Orwell, in effect be consenting to oppression of all, instead.
His main warning with respect to Soviet Communism was therefore that, as it was essentially the same thing as Fascism, it was not a viable alternative, although it may have presented itself as one. Its main danger – in places where it was not yet an established force – was that people who believed in the ideals that had once stood at its foundation would swallow its totalitarian methods. By underlining that “a Communist and a Fascist are somewhat nearer to one another than either is to a democrat,” he was pointing to a real alternative, i.e. democracy, rather than an apparent one.
However, in his essay on James Burnham, he is less forgiving, or more accusing, of English Socialist intellectuals. Here he says:
It was only after the Soviet régime became unmistakably totalitarian that English intellectuals, in large numbers, began to show an interest in it. Burnham, although the English Russophile intelligentsia would repudiate him, is really voicing their secret wish: the wish to destroy the old equalitarian version of Socialism and usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip. Burnham at least has the honesty to say that Socialism isn’t coming; the others merely say that Socialism is coming, and then give the word “Socialism” a new meaning which makes nonsense of the old one. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 179)
In other words, English intellectuals were attracted by Soviet power politics. This power hunger may not have been equally strong in all English Socialist intellectuals, but it does offer an additional explanation of the ban on criticism from within Left, the extreme repression of alternative Socialist and anarchist movements – whose goals were, in theory, quite similar to those of Soviet Communism – and the eagerness to defend the sometimes barbarous methods applied by the Soviet Union.
What Goes Around Comes Around
3.1 Orwell’s warning
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Orwell’s political outlook underwent a sudden change. He had been strongly opposed to the oncoming war until 1939, when he had a dream in the night before the conclusion of the Russo-German pact, in which England was at war with Germany.[vi] This dream awakened in him the realization that it would be a relief when the long-dreaded war finally came as well as an awareness of his desire to participate in the war when it came.[vii] The reasons he gave for his support of the war if it came were, first and foremost, the strong – middle-class – patriotism that had been instilled in him and, second, the fact that he saw no alternative to fighting Fascism other than surrendering to it. This newly discovered patriotism did not, howedo away with his Socialist sentiments. He was very careful to explain to his readers thpatriotism was not the same thing as nationalism.
By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled “good” or “bad.” […] By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and the particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. (Orwell and Angus 2000C, 362)
He also emphasized his view that patriotism is the opposite of Conservatism, because it is the “devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same,” a “bridge between the future and past” (Orwell and Angus 200B, 103).[viii] Rather than adjusting his political goals to his patriotic sentiments, Orwell fitted his patriotism into his revolutionary ideal. In fact, at that time he considered a Socialist revolution in England a necessary condition for winning the war, in view of the “inefficiency of private capitalism.” On the other hand, England’s involvement in the war was, in Orwell’s perception, the only thing that could end the “drowsy years” and push England into revolution. As Orwell put it: “We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war.” What had been missing in the Socialist movement in England was the recognition of the strength of patriotism and its pervasiveness in English society. In “England Your England,”[ix] Orwell explained how, despite the vast differences between the different social classes and regional populations, patriotism “runs like a connecting thread through all of them.” Consequently, a shared danger, as World War II presented, could also bring inter-class solidarity and could open the door to a Socialist revolution.
As mentioned in the Introduction, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a work of tragic satire. The method by which a tragic satire issues its warning that we have been making too light of a serious situation is by highlighting the contrast between the way we have looked at the problem so far and its actual gravity. This contrast may be emphasized by allowing the reader to identify with a protagonist who represents, to a certain extent, the underlying satiric norm and who – hopefully – appeals to our own sense of what is right. Another way of underscoring the danger is through exaggeration. The circumstance that the reader is being warned of will still be recognizable to the reader, but it is brought to the foreground and is treated in such a way so as to become fearful and contemptible. Just as Big Brother directs his subjects’ hatred toward Emmanuel Goldstein, Orwell directs the reader’s hatred toward Big Brother and the system he represents.[x]
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell employs both devices. First, there is the protagonist, Winston Smith, who has a very faint memory of a different society and cannot accept the yoke of Big Brother. Second, there is the story line, which is romantic in the sense that love and escape are still to be found in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and in the illusion that political rebellion is still possible when all political freedom has been relinquished. Orwell allows both his protagonists and his readers to retain their belief in this illusion until all its aspects disintegrate in the hands of Big Brother.
In addition, as O’Brien explains in Chapters 2 and 3 of Part 3, Big Brother’s regime is similar in its methods to that of the Russian Communists and the German Nazis, but, by wanting to have absolute control over the thoughts of its subjects, it takes totalitarianism one step further. Heresy is no longer possible as it was under the totalitarian regimes of the early and mid-twentieth century. Big Brother allows no one to die a martyr. In addition, Big Brother’s regime it is more honest with itself about it objects. Unlike the leaders of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, Big Brother does not pretend to have any intentions of ever relinquishing power, nor does he pretend to be acting for the sake of some higher cause, like a truly Socialist state. The power structure of Oceania is a more extreme, more outspoken form of the power structures of the totalitarian states, and of the Communist and Fascist ambitions present in a number of democratic states, that existed during the 1940s.
The evidence for the fact that Nineteen Eighty-Four is indeed a satire and not a tragedy largely lies in the character of Winston Smith and in the story line. If Orwell were not calling on his readers to prevent such a political regime from gaining power, he would not have had any reason to make his protagonist so unhappy with the life he was living because of the regime in power. Also, the romance between Winston and Julia is nothing more than two people looking for love and a little covert freedom and privacy in a world where all these concepts have been erased. The things they seek are the things we all cherish and that are still enjoyed by most people in the Western world; they are part of the underlying satiric norm.
The object of criticism is referred to as the butt of the satire. It should be pointed out that a work of satire may be criticizing several, related or separate, tendencies in a society. These objects of criticism may be independent of one another or subordinated to one another.[xi] The main warning issued by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four seems to be against the dangers of handing over power to a small, centralized group, a danger ignored by the majority of Western Socialists of Orwell’s time. The main butt of the satire at hand is therefore the willingness of the intellectual community to relinquish its right, or abandon its obligation, to exercise its critical faculties, and its ensuing failure to recognize the Soviet Union’s true nature. However, Orwell goes on to dissect the system underlying this power, the various “tools” used by Big Brother to retain and increase control and delude his citizens. These points of criticism are subordinated to the main butt of the satire, as their meaning depends on the larger context of the novel. Like the main butt of the satire, these subordinated points of criticism are based on an implied positive. In other words, Orwell criticizes intellectual blindness and dishonesty because he feels intellectuals should have integrity, be outspoken and be honest: they should be Daniels. Similarly, he warns his readers against the manipulation of language based on an idea of how language should ideally be used. This implied positive, referred to as the satiric norm, is contrasted with the butt of satire, thus creating satiric effect.
In a letter to Francis A. Henson of the United Automobile Workers, answering questions on Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell wrote:
My recent novel 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 to which a centralised economy is liable and which have already been partly realised in Communism and Fascism. I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasise that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 502) (extract from the original letter; my emphasis)[xii]
In December 1948, Orwell had written to Roger Senhouse complaining about a draft version of a blurb for Nineteen Eighty-Four, explaining that what he had intended to discuss in the novel was “the implications of dividing the world up into ‘Zones of influence'” and the “intellectual implications of totalitarianism” (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 460).
That Orwell considered that these “intellectual implications” would, as discussed in Chapter 2 above, eventually result in a loss of self and thus in a loss of humanity re-emerges in the fact that the alternative title considered for Nineteen Eighty-Four was “The Last Man in Europe.”
3.2 The proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four
If, however, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a satire and Orwell is warning his readers about the “intellectual implications of totalitarianism,” why does he leave the proles, representing 85 percent of the population, untouched by Big Brother’s brainwashing tactics?
In the cafeteria scene from quotes above, the following conversation takes place between Syme and Winston:
“Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”
“Except -” began Winston doubtfully, and he stopped.
It had been on the tip of his tongue to say “Except the proles,” but had checked himself, not feeling fully certain that this remark was not in some way unorthodox. Syme, however, had divined what he was about to say.
“The proles are not human beings,” he said carelessly. (Orwell 1984, 50)
When Winston sets out to discover what the world was really like before the Revolution, haunted by his own words “If there is hope, it lies in the proles,” he approaches an old prole in a “drinking-shop (‘pubs,’ they called them).” He notes that it is quite a rare opportunity to be able to speak to someone whose mind was formed before the revolution.
As Winston stood watching, it occurred to him that the old man, who must be eighty at least, had already been middle-aged when the Revolution happened. He and a few others like him were the last links that now existed with the vanished world of capitalism. In the Party itself there were not many people left whose ideas had been formed before the Revolution. The older generation had mostly been wiped out in the great purges of the fifties and sixties, and the few who had survived had long ago been terrified into complete intellectual surrender. If there was any one still alive who could give you a truthful account of conditions in the early part of the century, it could only be a prole. (Orwell 1984, 78)
Why has the proles’ intellectual life remained untouched by Big Brother’s regime? Why hasn’t Big Brother ever taken an interest in them? The most obvious explanation is Orwell’s romanticized view of the English working class as the backbone of English society. Particularly in The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell linked to the poverty and the simple lifestyle of the English working class a basic common sense that was not easily affected by complicated socio-political theories and was mostly concerned with day-to-day affairs, such as economic comfort and the communities in which they lived. It is therefore possible that Orwell is merely arguing that the working class is essentially a different race (“the proles are not human beings”), and that they have not been brainwashed because they lack the intellectual capacity necessary for complicated processes like doublethink. Big Brother therefore might not consider them a threat to begin with, and may consequently have decided to leave well enough alone.
However, in the context of Orwell’s warnings against totalitarianism, this explanation discounts the fact that none of the totalitarian societies Orwell was concerned with (Communist Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy) left well enough alone when it came to the working class. In fact, the working class was the focus point of the USSR, and was almost equally important under Nazism and Fascism. The distinction lies in the difference between the political support from the working class in these countries on the one hand and in England on the other. Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini had been brought to power largely by the working class. In England, however, the major totalitarian threat came from a Communist Party mostly backed by the upper middle-class and the intelligentsia. In other words, the Russian, German and Italian working classes had “signed up” in advance for the treatment they later received. The English working class had not. This is not to say that there were no supporters of the Communist Party among the English working class; rather, according to Orwell, there were no orthodox supporters of the Communist Party (see the quotes on page 19 above).
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, power is structured as shown in the diagram below.
The Inner Party is compared to the brains of the body. It consists largely of original Revolutionaries and their confidantes. The Inner Party is the author of Oceania’s architecture and it has set out Oceania’s path for the future. Power is centralized here, and members of the Inner Party have the corresponding privileges. On the other hand, the Inner Party has suffered the most extreme purges of all population groups, and its members have frequently been “exposed” during show trials.
2. Winston belongs to the Outer Party. The Outer Party is compared to the hands of the body: it performs the work set out by the Inner Party. Members of the Outer Party are watched closely for evidence of unorthodoxy and are punished severely if they arouse any such suspicions, but they have a better survival rate than members of the Inner Party.
3. The proles provide the resources needed by the Inner and Outer Party. They provide cheap labor and are thus the backbone of Oceania’s economy. The proles have no power and no luxury, but they have the largest measure of personal freedom of the three groups. Apart from the liquidation of the incidental prole who has become too smart (and has thus become a potential member of the Outer Party class), no purges take place among the proles.
3.3 Satiric norm
The classes into which Orwell has divided Oceanic society correspond with three groups of Socialists he recognized in English society. According to Orwell, the power-hungry intellectuals referred to in the quote on Burnham on page 32 above, who only started to take a genuine interest in Socialism after the repressive nature of the Soviet regime had become visible to the outside world, had no interest in Socialism in its original meaning. They were interested in becoming the ruling class. Orwell describes this group as follows:
If one examines the people who, having some idea of what the Russian régime is like, are strongly Russophile, one finds that, on the whole, they belong to the “managerial” class […]. That is, they are not managers in the narrow sense, but scientists, technicians, teachers, journalists, broadcasters, professional politicians: in general, middling people who feel themselves cramped by a system that is still partly aristocratic, and are hungry for more power and more prestige. These people look towards the USSR and see in it, or think they see, a system which eliminates the upper class, keeps the working class in its place, and hands unlimited power to people very similar to themselves. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 178-179)
This group represents the direct danger of which Orwell intends to make his readers aware in Nineteen Eighty-Four.[xiii] As the Inner Party, we see the kind of rulers they will make if they are allowed to come to power. In Oceania, we see the kind of society they would build given the chance. And as this group consists of “teachers, journalists, broadcasters [and] professional politicians,” it traditionally represents the guardians of democracy, truth, liberty and critical thought. Based on that tradition, it has the people’s trust and thus the power to provide a moral justification of Soviet methods. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, we see that this group is not only a danger to society: it is also a danger to itself. Its members’ only chance at survival is becoming entirely orthodox, but being entirely orthodox entails a loss of humanity, a loss of self. In other words, this group has a choice between physical death or intellectual death, and it is unclear which is to be feared most. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell is therefore warning society’s power-hungry intellectuals that, even if they succeed, the power they gain will be false, because it will be centralized in one totalitarian ruler (like Soviet Russia had in Stalin), who will strip them, to the extent that they have not done so themselves, from any intellectual freedom they may have left.
The second group Orwell distinguishes are the Socialists who believe that means can be justified by ends. This group sees the world as divided into two camps, and has chosen the Socialist camp. This camp is effectively run by the Soviet Union and the International Communist Party. This group of Socialists sympathizers has accepted that, for its side to be successful, its members must unconditionally and uncritically adhere to the Party line. They have learned to perform exceptional mental feats in order to maintain their orthodoxy, such as accepting overnight the Russo-German Pact of 1939, which went directly against what the Party line had been only the day before. The “Inner Party” keeps this group, satirized as the Outer Party, in the dark about its true motives, and the “Outer Party” group dare not raise any questions for fear of being found disloyal. Orwell’s warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four to this group is: if you continue to close your eyes to what is really happening and preach blind loyalty, you are in effect handing absolute power to the people who are in reality unworthy of such absolute faith and thus forfeiting your right to influence the world you live in. In addition, by advocating complete uncritical conformity, you are entitling the “Inner Party” group to provide its definition of orthodoxy as well as the criteria on the basis of which it will be tested, and the methods by which those who are found to be insufficiently orthodox will be purged. You could become one of the eggs going into a fictitious omelet.
If this group of Socialists were to become aware of the ways in which it was being manipulated, inter alia through the language used by the Communist Party, and were to reclaim its independence of thought, the Socialist movement could be rejuvenated and cleansed of its totalitarian tendencies.
The third group is the working class, satirized as the “proles.” This group forms a dilemma for Orwell. On the one hand, Orwell believed that the working class man was essentially a better man than was the “bookish type.” The working class man, according to Orwell, is more firmly rooted in reality. Unlike the intellectual, he uses his common sense and common decency to determine his position. Therefore, in theory, Orwell’s Utopia would have been a land ruled by the principles applied by the working class in organizing their day-to-day lives. However, the very make-up of working class mentality made such an ideal unrealistic. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston muses:
But if there was hope, it lay in the proles. You had to cling on to that. When you put it in words it sounded reasonable: it was when you looked at the human beings passing you on the pavement that it became an act of faith. (Orwell 1984, 77)
One of the problems is, of course, the “the working classes are generally more conservative than the bourgeoisie” (Orwell 2001, 121). Members of the working class are interested in employment, housing and health care, that is in ways of increasing their own daily comfort. If these aspects are improved, the working class as a whole is not, according to Orwell, likely to support a revolution. When members of the working class do call for a revolution, they are, according to Orwell, calling for social justice, not the end of, for instance, the monarchy. This is why, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the proles are so easily contained by Big Brother. Big Brother recognizes this group’s priorities and provides it with enough distraction (beer, pornography, music) to keep any resistance at bay.
It may therefore be argued that Winston’s faith in the proles is a red herring when it comes to pinpointing the satiric norm underlying Nineteen Eighty-Four. In fact, Orwell did not believe that a Utopian society, based on working class “common decency,” could be achieved. He did, however, believe in the possibility of a society in which intellectual freedom prevailed and in which a larger degree of economic justice could be realized. If, on the other hand, Socialism continued to be defined as collectivized totalitarianism, and the Socialist revolution Orwell felt to be imminent did indeed take place, England would be in grave danger indeed. It was up to the English intelligentsia to return to its tradition of defending intellectual liberty.
“For people […] who suspect that something has gone very wrong with the Soviet Union, I consider that willingness to criticise Russia and Stalin the test of intellectual honesty.”
(Orwell and Angus 2000C, 203)
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[i] In this essay, Orwell argues that the atom bomb is difficult and expensive to produce and is therefore an “undemocratic” weapon, meaning that, unlike, for instance, the musket, it is only in the power of great states to produce them, which, in turn, gives such states additional power.
[ii] Orwell is said to have been the first, or among the first, to coin the phrase “cold war,” which he used in the essay cited above, “You and the Atom Bomb.
[iii] Presumably either a reference to Stalin’s purges, which were at their peak from 1935 to 1938, or to the Franco-Soviet Pact, concluded in 1935, or to both.
[iv] The Duchess of Atholl (1874-1960), a Unionist MP 1923-38, became in 1924 one of the first two women to become a Minister in a British Government. She was known as “The Red Duchess” for her very strong anti-Franco feelings during the Spanish Civil War. Throughout her life she campaigned for various “causes.” (footnote from Orwell and Angus 2000D, 30)
[v] Letter to Humphry House (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 532)
[vi] The reason Orwell provides for his initial opposition to a war with Nazi Germany is that he considered the evil nature of the British Empire more or less equivalent to that of Nazi Germany, while England was less honest about its repression and discrimination of the population of the colonies than was Germany of its treatment of its Jewish communities. Orwell’s line of reasoning was that, if Britain were to engage in a war against the Axis powers and were to win, its geopolitical position would be reinforced, and its colonial rule would continue.
[vii] “My Country Right of Left” (Orwell and Angus 2000A, 539)
[viii] From The Lion and the Unicorn.
[ix] The Lion and the Unicorn (Orwell and Angus 2000B, 56)
[x] For a concise explanation of the figure of Emmanuel Goldstein, please refer to footnote 4.
[xi] One example of a work of satire criticizing several, seemingly unrelated aspects of a society is Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, which targets both the US judicial system and Wall Street superficiality.
[xii] Excerpts from this letter were published in Life magazine of July 25, 1949, and the New York Times Book Review of July 31, 1949. The quote above is an amalgam of these excerpts,
[xiii] Please note that in “James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution, Orwell specifically targets the English intellectuals as the group in which hunger for power is the strongest. He writes: “[I]f one studied the reactions of the English intelligentsia towards the USSR, there, too, one would find genuinely progressive impulses mixed up with admiration for power and cruelty. It would be grossly unfair to suggest that power worship is the only motive for russophile feeling, but it is one motive, and among intellectuals it is probably the strongest one.” (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 174)
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