Orwell’s nineteen eighty-four and England’s intelligentsia (1)
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A thesis by Wendy Hassler-Forest
Many great satirists, most famously Jonathan Swift for his Fourth Book of Gulliver’s Travels, have been labeled pessimists and misanthropes when the warnings they issued were interpreted as predictions. Orwell is frequently labeled a pessimist, a misanthrope and a disappointed Socialist for the bleak image of the future portrayed in Nineteen Eighty-Four by a surprisingly large number of critics who interpreted the novel as Orwell’s prediction of where the world was heading rather than of where the world could be heading if people did not become aware of certain dangers.[i] A work of tragic satire warns its readers that they are significantly underestimating a subject’s danger. [ii] However, contrary to a tragedy, a work of tragic satire does not accept the inevitability of this danger establishing itself in society. After all, there would be little point in issuing a warning if it did. In fact, its criticism comes from a view, held by the author, of where we should be heading, or of what society should be like, instead. This is referred to as the satire’s underlying satiric norm. In this sense, a tragic satire, which aims to make us aware of the fact that we’re heading in the wrong direction, is the opposite of a tragedy, which accepts the inevitability of that direction, however much it regrets it.
George Orwell’s satire Nineteen Eighty-Four has often been understood as a criticism of the politics of repression witnessed in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. This interpretation, however, does not explain the novel’s setting in London and Orwell’s geographical division of the world in the year 1984. Nor does it take into account the fact that much of Orwell’s work dealt with English culture, English politics and particularly with the role of the English political left wing.
In his preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, Orwell wrote:
I have never visited Russia and my knowledge consists only of what can be learned by reading books and newspapers. Even if I had the power, I would not wish to interfere in Soviet domestic affairs: I would not condemn Stalin and his associates merely for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with the best intentions, they could not have reacted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there.
But on the other hand it was of the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet régime for what it really was. Since 1930 I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism. (Orwell and Angus 2000C, 404-405)[iii]
He goes on to say that, because the English live in a country where there may be class distinctions and poverty, but where overall democracy and just and unbiased rule of law prevail, and where “to hold and to voice minority views does not involve any mortal danger,” the common man will fail to appreciate the implications of accounts of “concentration camps, mass deportations, arrests without trial, press censorship, etc.” and “innocently [accept] the lies of totalitarian propaganda.” According to Orwell:
This has caused great harm to the Socialist movement in England, and had serious consequences for English foreign policy. Indeed, in my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated.
And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement. (March 1947) (Orwell and Angus 200 C, 405)
Even in writing Animal Farm, which is unmistakably an account and a criticism of the Russian Revolution and the developments leading to Stalinism, Orwell therefore did not have the Soviet Union in mind so much as the English perception of the Soviet Union. But why was Orwell concerned with how the English people perceived the Soviet Union?
During the 1930s and ’40s, the political line in Orwell’s writing gradually changed. When Orwell began his career as a writer, much of his work was concerned with the oppression of the working class, a heritage, he explains, from his experience of oppression in Burma. As a declared Socialist (please note: not a Communist), Orwell’s criticism was at first largely directed at the “oppressors,” i.e. the ruling class and the consumer class (cf. his criticism of English coal consumption in view of the living conditions of miners in The Road to Wigan Pier). In the late 1940s, however, his criticism was mostly focused on the Communist Party and the discrepancy between its declared goals on the one hand and the means it was willing to use and its apparent actual goals on the other (cf. “Catastrophic Gradualism,” 1945). This shift of interest may be explained by two related factors: 1. Orwell’s recognition of the repressive nature of Soviet Communism, largely owing to his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, and 2. his perception of certain tendencies among English intelligentsia, traditionally England’s moral backbone, which fell in line with Soviet preachings rather than being critical thereof. Two of these tendencies are discussed in detail in Orwell’s essays and play prominent roles in his satire Nineteen Eighty-Four. The first is the ability “to hold simultaneously two opinions which [cancel] out,” satirized in Nineteen Eighty-Four as doublethink. The second tendency is a kind of language use Orwell perceived to be on the rise among Communist Party members and academics, where vagueness and euphemism were used as a means of avoiding accountability. This is satirized in Nineteen Eighty-Four as Newspeak.
Although Orwell considered himself a Socialist, he stated in the introduction to Animal Farm quoted above that the word “Socialism” had been hijacked by the Communist Party and redefined as a reference to the Soviet political system, which in reality had very little to do with the original concept of Socialism. As this example illustrates, manipulation of language had such far-reaching consequences that even the highly verbal Orwell was denied the possibility of defining his own political outlook in a single phrase.
This thesis will examine the role that thought manipulation and language habits and policies play in Nineteen Eighty-Four and their implications for the novel’s interpretation. Which specific political developments in the 1930s and ’40s was Orwell concerned with when he wrote the novel? And how, according to Orwell, did those developments relate to the manner in which language was being used by the English intelligentsia?
Chapter 1 – The Power of Language in 1984
1.1 Oceania: a negative Utopia
The setting of Nineteen Eighty-Four is London in, as the title suggests, the year 1984. The world has been divided into three super-powers, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. The novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, lives in Oceania, which consists of the Americas, the Atlantic islands including the British Isles, Australasia, and the southern portion of Africa. [iv] The governments of the three states have ensured their complete isolation from the other two by cutting off all channels of communication, and thus all means of comparison. Oceania is ruled by “the Party,” personified by Big Brother, a man – or the face of a man, as his actual existence is considered doubtful or even irrelevant – with an appearance resembling that of Joseph Stalin. Big Brother’s control of the lives of Party members is absolute, and is maintained through an elaborate system of surveillance and indoctrination methods.
The Party’s object in having such absolute control is explained as follows:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. (Orwell 1984, 227; my emphasis)
As is clear from the above, the Party seeks to have an absolute grip on Oceania. Not only does it control Party members’ professional careers and private lives, it also seeks to control their thoughts. It demands complete political orthodoxy of its citizens, which entails that citizens must believe all the Party says. Luckily, law-abiding citizens are provided with tools to help them avoid any slip-ups in this respect.
Winston Smith is very much the anti-hero, an unattractive, relatively unsuccessful middle-class (Outer Party) man, whose job is to “correct errors” in historic documents, newspaper articles and speeches, so as to make it appear as if the Party’s predictions always come true, its enemies have always been its enemies and its power has always been unquestioned and absolute. Winston has some very faint childhood memories of the world before Big Brother, though only enough for him to feel that the world was a different and perhaps a better place, but not sufficient to give him any real basis for comparison. He is unhappy with the lack of freedom, especially intellectual freedom, afforded to the citizens Oceania, but feels so isolated from other people – assuming that he is alone in his unorthodoxy – that he feels he cannot express his criticism of the political system in place.
His first step towards reclaiming his freedom is to buy a diary and write down his feelings. These prove to be bordering on hysteria. His second step is to allow himself to fall in love with a girl who, in all likelihood, was initially looking for a sexual liaison rather than a dangerously illicit love affair. His third step is to join what appears to be the one prohibited group of political opposition.
1.2 Newspeak and doublethink in Nineteen Eighty-Four
As there are external forces which are outside the Party’s control (Oceania’s enemy at war, the weather’s influence on crops, etc.), statements issued by the Party are inevitably inconsistent and, as the Party is always right, history has to be updated continuously. These updates must be consciously accepted by Oceania’s citizens, after which the act of acceptance must be immediately forgotten again.
The two most prominent methods of thought control in the novel are doublethink and Newspeak. They are both tools for ensuring political orthodoxy in citizens, though doublethink is imposed by the subject internally and Newspeak is imposed on the subject by the state. Doublethink stems from the assumption that all that the Party says is true, even if the Party contradicts itself. This means that when such a contradiction becomes apparent, one of two “truths” must momentarily be forgotten. If this is not possible, for instance because the situation involves a discussion of that very contradiction, the alternative method is to temporarily abandon one’s logical capacities, i.e. deny that the contradicting “truths” cancel each other out by some trick of words or logical fallacy. The process of doublethink therefore entails an abandonment of critical thought and consequently, by laying the responsibility for one’s thoughts with a higher authority, a waiver of the right to be critical. Orwell defines doublethink as follows:
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy [is] impossible and that the Party [is] the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it [is] necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it [is] needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That [is] the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you [have] just performed. Even to understand the word “doublethink” [involves] the use of doublethink. (Orwell 1984, 35)
Winston’s resistance to Big Brother’s regime may be attributed to his unwillingness to perform the process of doublethink on his own ideas, stemming from his attachment to common sense and critical thought. Because of the awareness of Big Brother’s policies and their implications that unavoidably ensues from Winston’s failure to apply doublethink, Winston is not comfortable using Newspeak, either.
If doublethink allows citizens to control their thoughts, Newspeak, the official language of Oceania, takes the process one step further. Newspeak is a simplified version of English, from which all words have been purged which could possibly lead to unorthodox thought. Of all the “tools” used by Big Brother to retain and reinforce his grip on Oceania, Newspeak is given the most prominent part in the novel. The language’s importance to the story is clear from its frequent mention throughout the novel, specifically in explaining the mindset of Party members, both required from above and imposed from within. In addition, the Appendix is devoted entirely to a detailed explanation of how the language works and what its intended effects are.
There are many Newspeak words, such as doublethink, Oldthinker, etc., which stand for concepts preeminent in Oceanic culture for which no words exist in the English language as we know it (Oldspeak). Even when a word seems translatable into English (goodthinkful might, for instance, be translated as “orthodox”), the English word does not carry the additional connotations attached to the Newspeak word and therefore cannot be considered an exact synonym. The fact that Newspeak words tend to be loaded with connotations may cause the reader to think that Newspeak is no more than the language corresponding to the culture of Oceania and expressing its ideas in a fuller way than is possible in English. In the Appendix to the novel, and through Winston and particularly through Winston’s friend Syme in Chapter 5 of the novel, Orwell explains that this is not the case. While doublethink is employed to purge oneself of doubt regarding Big Brother’s assertions, Newspeak takes away the words needed to formulate any thoughts that could lead to such doubts. And, in addition to censuring thought, Newspeak words dictate proper conduct.
As Orwell illustrates with the words goodsex and sexcrime – the former meaning sex for the sole purpose of begetting children, the latter all forms of sexual deviation, including sex for its own sake – blanket terms are used to describe the conduct and particularly the state of mind expected of people. In order to be orthodox, one need not know what specific types of sexual deviation exist, merely what proper sexual conduct is and that all other forms of sexual behavior are both wrong and punishable by death. The word goodsex might bring to mind the Junior Anti-Sex League, its banner-waiving events and its lessons on sexual purity. Newspeak therefore does not only remove the means of political opposition, it also indoctrinates Oceanic subjects with the standards they are expected to uphold.
1.3 Big Brother’s power over Oceania’s minds
The process described above may be viewed as the short-term goal Big Brother has assigned Newspeak. In the long term, the language is expected to have more serious effects. In Chapter 5, Winston is discussing the progress of the 11th edition of the Newspeak dictionary with his friend Syme, who is working on the Dictionary and takes a great interest in the workings of the language, when their attention is caught by another man seated the cafeteria.
Just once Winston caught a phrase – “complete and final elimination of Goldsteinism” – jerked out very rapidly and, as it seemed, all in one piece, like a line of type cast solid. For the rest it was just noise, a quack-quack-quacking. And yet, though you could not actually hear what the man was saying, you could not be in any doubt about its general nature. […] Whatever it was, you could be certain that every word of it was pure orthodoxy, pure Ingsoc [English Socialism, as explained in the paragraph below; WHF]. As he watched the eyeless face with the jaw moving rapidly up and down, Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a real human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man’s brain that was speaking, it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck. (Orwell 1984, 51; my emphasis)
The passage cited above calls the reader’s attention to the form of Newspeak. Not only does the creation of this new language involve the destruction of “obsolete” words, the language is used in such a way as to prevent its users from choosing their own words from the remaining vocabulary. Not only does the Newspeak vocabulary largely consist of compound words, the language only works in “compound” phrases like the one used above. The advantages of using ready-made phrases will be clear. First, it renders it impossible for the speaker to say anything that is not entirely Ingsoc, i.e. in accordance with the principles of English Socialism, the theory underlying the political system in Oceania. But more importantly, it relieves the speaker from the burden of thought. When pre-determined phrases may be tacked together, the necessity of choosing one’s words no longer exists. And a free choice of words must always be considered undesirable, even when only a limited vocabulary is available, as it requires the speaker to consider what he is trying to say. As a result, words can be uttered unconsciously and, as Syme explains, “orthodoxy is unconsciousness” (Orwell 1984, 50).
The word duckspeak, literally to quack like a duck, explains how Newspeak is related to unconsciousness. Syme is reminded of the word by the man in the cafeteria described in the quote above. Syme explains to Winston that “[i]t is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse, applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.” In other words, mindless, hysterical yapping is encouraged in supporters, but despised and feared in opponents.
Newspeak’s short-term goal is therefore to take away the words needed to have or express an unorthodox thought and thus commit thoughtcrime. Its long-term goal is to eliminate thought altogether and turn people into mental slaves of the regime, as Orwell tells his readers in the Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four:
In 1984, when Oldspeak was still the normal means of communication, the danger theoretically existed that in using Newspeak words one might remember their original meanings. In practice it was not difficult for any person well grounded in doublethink to avoid doing this, but within a couple of generations even the possibility of such a lapse would have vanished. (Orwell 1984, 266)
Most analyses of Newspeak view the language as a way of retaining and expanding control over the minds of Party members in the manner described above. There are, however, a number of reasons to think that the language’s centrality in the novel has a more profound but less obvious reason: Big Brother was able to come to power and to reinforce his power owing to early, non-formalized forms of doublethink and Newspeak.
1.4 From 1948 to 1984
To understand how Big Brother was able to come to power and what role proto-Newspeak and proto-doublethink played in the process, this thesis needs to go back in the novel’s timeline. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, history has been altered and re-altered to such an extent that it has become impossible to tell fact from fiction. Winston is able to identify a few concrete lies. For instance, Big Brother claims he invented the airplane, but Winston remembers airplanes from is earliest childhood, and he also remembers that he was older during the period of violence following which Big Brother came to power.[v] Winston remembers a scene from this period of violence, after his father had disappeared and his mother, his baby sister and he are dying of starvation. He says he cannot have been less than ten years old, “possibly twelve,” so the year must have been between 1955 and 1957. Assuming that the violence he remembers (“rackety, uneasy circumstances,” “periodical panics about air-raids and the sheltering in the Tube stations, the piles of rubble everywhere, the unintelligible proclamations posted at street corners, the gangs of youths in shirts all the same colour,” (Orwell 1984, 142-143) etc.) is in fact the revolution by which Big Brother came to power, this would mean that the revolution was ongoing in the late 1950s.
And there are other hints as to what took place during the revolution, and how it was settled. Winston’s and Julia’s second rendezvous is in “the belfry of a ruinous church in an almost-deserted stretch of country where an atomic bomb had fallen thirty years earlier” (Orwell 1984, 114). This means that England must have been at war (possibly in civil war) in 1954. Winston remembers when the bomb was dropped, or at least he has memories he is able to link to the bomb.
Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war, but it was evident that there had been a fairly long interval of peace during his childhood, because one of his early memories was of an air raid which appeared to take everyone by surprise. Perhaps it was the time when the atomic bomb had fallen on Colchester. He did not remember the raid itself, but he did remember his father’s hand clutching his own as they hurried down, down, down into some place deep in the earth, round and round a spiral staircase which rang under his feet and which finally so wearied his legs that he began whimpering and they had to stop and rest. His mother, in her slow, dreamy way, was following a long way behind them. (…) Finally they had emerged into a noisy, crowded place which he had realized to be a Tube station.
(…) Winston and his mother and father found themselves a place on the floor, and near them an old man and an old woman were sitting side by side on a bunk. The old man had on a decent dark suit and a black cloth cap pushed back from very white hair: his face was scarlet and his eyes were blue and full of tears. (…) In his childish way Winston grasped that some terrible thing, something that was beyond forgiveness and could never be remedied, had just happened. It also seemed to him that he knew what it was. Someone whom the old man loved — a little granddaughter, perhaps — had been killed. Every few minutes the old man kept repeating:
‘We didn’t ought to ‘ave trusted ‘em. I said so, Ma, didn’t I? That’s what comes of trusting ‘em. I said so all along. We didn’t ought to ‘ave trusted the buggers.
But which buggers they didn’t ought to have trusted Winston could not now remember. (Orwell 1984, 33; my emphasis)
Based on the passage quoted above, it is now possible to build a hypothesis on what happened after World War II. The war was followed by a period of peace. In the early 1950s, England faced a Socialist revolution (Ingsoc, “unintelligible proclamations posted at street corners,” “gangs of youths in shirts all the same colour”). The revolution turned into a civil war and the Socialist party gained the advantage by dropping the atomic bomb.[vi] The violence and shortages continued while Big Brother consolidated his power, and, as Winston’s father disappeared after the bomb was dropped but before the famine started, it may be assumed that he was a victim of the first wave of purges.[vii]
It may now be guessed who the “buggers” were who “didn’t ought to have [been] trusted.” Winston’s memory of the crying old man offers the key to understanding the significance of doublethink and Newspeak to the novel’s interpretation: the English people allowed Big Brother to seize power, all the power he wanted, by trusting him, by relinquishing their right to think critically and speak honestly and straightforwardly for the sake of political orthodoxy, blind faith in the Party.
1.5 Orwell’s concerns for England in 1948
But what prompted Orwell to set the novel in London, conceivably making it a warning against the faith the English people were putting in potential “Big Brothers”? It is no coincidence that Orwell chose the year 1984 as a setting for his novel. It is, in fact, the inverse of the year in which it was written, 1948. It has frequently been argued that the title refers to a future form of the year of authorship because the novel deals with tendencies recognized by Orwell in English society in 1948. Although Orwell does not provide his readers with a clear timeline between the two dates, he offers sufficient information to construct one in the manner above. It therefore stands to reason, also in view of the fact that, as argued in the Introduction, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a tragic satire, that Orwell was issuing a warning against what might be waiting if certain concerns he had in 1948 were not addressed. One of these concerns was the state of the English language.
In 1946, Orwell published an essay entitled “Politics and the English Language,” in which he identified a number of developments in the English language which he considered detrimental to the ability to think critically, particularly with regard to politics. Quoting a number passages he selected “because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer,” he analyzes these vices as follows:
Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery: the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: 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, 129-130)
Orwell argues that vague language allows one to get away with saying almost anything, either because the statement in question simply cannot be tested against reality, or because the pretentious diction has a euphemistic effect.[viii] Vague language may be used to avoid being explicit, and thus accountable for one’s statements, or it may simply result from sloppy habits of thought, an unwillingness to pin down in unambiguous terms what precisely one is trying to say. If an author’s mind is “[invaded] by ready-made phrases,” they will take over what he started out to say and his original meaning will be lost, also to himself.
The idea underlying this essay is not the improvement of literary English. Rather, it is concerned with “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.” The idea is that if you simplify your English, it is impossible to be entirely orthodox, first of all because you will not be able to avoid being confronted with certain truths if the subject matter is boiled down to the essence, and secondly because it is difficult for a speaker to be dishonest while speaking plainly, that is without telling an outright lie.
The examples cited by Orwell include quotes from Professor Harold Laski, Professor Lancelot Hogben, an essay on psychology, a Communist pamphlet and a letter to the Tribune on the inflated accents of BBC broadcasters, whose author is clearly no stranger to inflated language himself. In the mocking example written by Orwell quoted in footnote 8 below, Orwell takes an English professor defending Soviet repression. Orwell’s main concern therefore seems to be with Communist politics and the language used by English intellectuals.
Chapter 2 – Orwell and the Left
2.1 History of Orwell’s concerns with Communist language
The above gives rise to the question what relationship Orwell saw between intellectuals and the English language on the one hand and Communism on the other. The prominent role given to doublethink and Newspeak in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four can be traced back to earlier concerns Orwell had with the Communist Party and its powers of thought manipulation. In a broadcast talk in the BBC Overseas Service entitled “Literature and Totalitarianism” (1941), Orwell expressed his concerns with the nature of totalitarian Communism and its restrictions on intellectual liberty:
When one mentions totalitarianism one thinks immediately of Germany, Russia, Italy, but I think one must face the risk that this phenomenon is going to be world-wide. It is obvious that the period of free capitalism is coming to an end and that one country after another is adopting a centralised economy that one can call Socialism or state capitalism according as one prefers. With that, the economic liberty of the individual, and to a great extent his liberty to do what he likes, to choose his own work, to move to and fro across the surface of the earth, comes to an end. Now, till recently the implications of this were not foreseen. It was never fully realised that the disappearance of economic liberty would have any effect on intellectual liberty. Socialism was usually thought of as a sort of moralised liberalism. The state would take charge of your economic life and set you free from the fear of poverty, unemployment and so forth, but it would have no need to interfere with your private intellectual life. Art could flourish just as it had done in the liberal-capitalist age, only a little more so, because the artist would not any longer be under economic compulsions.
Now, on the existing evidence, one must admit that these ideas have been falsified. Totalitarianism has abolished freedom of thought to an extent unheard of in any previous age. And it is important to realise that its control of thought is not only negative, but positive. It not only forbids you to express – even to think – certain thoughts, but it dictates what you shall think, it creates an ideology for you, it tries to govern your emotional life as well as setting up a code of conduct. And as far as possible it isolates you from the outside world, it shuts you up in an artificial universe in which you have no standards of comparison. The totalitarian state tries, at any rate, to control the thoughts and emotions of its subjects at least as completely as its controls their actions. (Orwell and Angus 2000B, 135; my emphasis)
Orwell expected that then democratic states might adopt totalitarian Communism as their political system as the logical result of the failure of capitalism he predicted. The link between the Communist economic model and repression of free though is, as described in the quote above, control. Controlling all economic enterprises is a way of putting a rein on individualism, creativity and independence. It is a power mechanism. There are two, non-exclusive ways of looking at this. First, if the state wishes to retain absolute control over its economy, it will have to convince people it is doing so for their own good. If it fails to stay in control of people’s minds, its restrictive economic policies will eventually be rejected. Another way of looking at the matter, however, is that people who gain that measure of power want power for its own sake. The revolution is made in order to gain power of government, the economy is collectivized to gain power over commerce, and the people are indoctrinated to gain power over their minds. Over the years, particularly following the Spanish Civil War, Orwell became increasingly concerned that the Communist Party was not working towards a worldwide revolution in order to release the oppressed, but in order to become the oppressor and consolidate its power.[ix]
But: “to be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country”(Orwell and Angus 2000D, 67). Orwell saw the effects of Communist indoctrination in his own country. This Section will examine the development of his interest in the relationship between bad language use and totalitarian thought, as well as its reverse, the relationship between clear language and political honesty.
Orwell’s first interest in the relationship between language and power can be traced to his account of the living conditions of miners in Northern England, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). In this book, Orwell not only examines the conditions under which miners live and work, but also the way in which the working class approaches other classes, the nature of working class Socialism and the discrepancy between the middle-class, highly educated members of the Communist Party and the working class (or “proletariat”) whose rights they are supposed to be defending. This difference is also manifest in the language used by Communist Party representatives, with respect to which Orwell wrote the following:
I remember hearing a professional Communist speaker address a working-class audience. His speech was the usual bookish stuff, full of long sentences and parentheses and “Notwithstanding” and “Be that as it may,” besides the usual jargon of “ideology” and “class-consciousness” and “proletarian solidarity” and all the rest of it. After him a Lancashire working man got up and spoke to the crowd in their own broad lingo. There was not much doubt which of the two was nearer to his audience, but I do not suppose for a moment that the Lancashire working man was an orthodox Communist. (Orwell 2001, 163)
According to Orwell, this gap between the Communist Party and its intended audience, the working class, stems from the very nature of Marxist Communism. In 1940, he wrote to Humphry House:
My chief hope for the future is that the common people have never parted with their moral code. I have never met a genuine working man who accepted Marxism, for instance. I have never had the slightest fear of a dictatorship of the proletariat, if it could happen, and certain things I saw in the Spanish war confirmed me in this. But I admit to having a perfect horror of a dictatorship of theorists, as in Russia and Germany. (Orwell and Angus 2000A, 532)
In this letter, Orwell makes explicit his main objection to Communism: it is a socio-economic theory which, because of its complexity, does not appeal to the people it is supposed to represent, i.e. the proletariat or working class. Instead, and for the same reason, it is adopted by more educated people who enjoy theorizing about and romanticizing “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” world-wide revolution, etc., even though they themselves, “by birth or by adoption,” belong to the class of the oppressors, the bourgeoisie. According to Orwell, those orthodox Communists who are of working class heritage are not or no longer “working men,” and have therefore effectively been adopted by the bourgeoisie.
It is of course true that plenty of people of working-class origin are Socialists of the theoretical bookish type. But they are never people who have remained working men; they don’t work with their hands, that is. (Orwell 2001, 164)
Not only does Orwell find this hypocritical in the present, he does not find it promising for what the future would bring if these “parlour Bolshies” were in fact to come to power, which is not likely to be an actual dictatorship of the proletariat, and would probably turn out very similar to the dictatorship of the theorists Orwell recognized in Soviet Russia. The quote below is from Orwell’s explanation of how he first became interested in the plight of the English working class after returning from Burma. Having been one of the oppressors himself for five years, Orwell was determined to “submerge” himself among the oppressed, to cleanse himself of the guilt of having been one of the ruling class mistreating the locals. He does not, however, feel inclined to join the advocates of the cause of the working class who call themselves Socialists or Communists.
On the other hand I had at that time no interest in Socialism or any other economic theory. It seemed to me then — it sometimes seems to me now, for that matter — that 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. (Orwell 2001, 139)
Orwell is concerned with a moral revolution, not a political one. His concern with language and politics is related to this moral revolution.
It is important to make a distinction here between Communist sympathizers and even card-holding members of the Communist Party on the one hand and orthodox Communists on the other. Orwell is not arguing that there are no true Communists or Socialists among the working class, merely that the effort needed to be orthodox, i.e. to fervently believe all that is said by the Party even if one fervently believed the contrary the day before, cannot be made by people as firmly rooted in reality as Orwell perceived the working class to be.
[I]t must be remembered that a working man, so long as he remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a Socialist in the complete, logically consistent sense. Very likely he votes Labour, or even Communist if he gets the chance, but his conception of Socialism is quite different from that of the book-trained Socialist higher up. To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about. To the more revolutionary type, the type who is a hunger-marcher and is blacklisted by employers, the word is a sort of rallying-cry against the forces of oppression, a vague threat of future violence. But, so far as my experience goes, no genuine working man grasps the deeper implications of Socialism. (Orwell 2001, 163-164)
These deeper implications include handing over complete power to a small group of Party members, who will then centralize the economy and rid society of all forms of opposition, whereas, in Orwell’s view, what the working class man has in mind when he cries out for a Communist state is a state in which there is social and economic justice.
The conclusion Orwell draws from the above is that Communism as advocated by the Communist Party is not about handing power to the proletariat, but about shifting power to the Communist Party, which, in Orwell’s perception, largely or even exclusively consisted of bourgeois theorists. According to Orwell, this discrepancy was covered up through euphemistic and often blatantly dishonest language. In addition, the chasm between the Communist and Socialist movements on the one hand and the working class on the other was being widened rather than reduced by the bookish language used by intellectuals, particularly those intellectuals claiming to represent the working class. Not only does he ridicule the language used by bookish Socialists at working-class rallies, he argues in favor of language use that is closer to the English of the working class.
2.2 The users of proto-Newspeak and proto-doublethink
As I have argued in Chapter 1 above, Newspeak and doublethink have such a prominent place in the novel not only because they help Big Brother maintain and increase his power, they (or earlier forms of the same tendencies) also helped him climb to power in the first place. This gives rise to the question to what extent Orwell dealt with earlier forms of doublethink and Newspeak in his other works.
In his essay “The Prevention of Literature” (1946), Orwell laments the fact that at a meeting of the PEN club on the occasion of the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica, a pamphlet in defense of freedom of the press, not a single speaker stood up to defend the political liberty or the “freedom to criticize and oppose.” It was, on the other hand, agreed that writers should be allowed “to discuss sex questions frankly in print,” and some speakers, interestingly enough, used the opportunity to defend the purges going on in Soviet Russia. What Orwell is really driving at in this essay is that, because the world had been divided into two (or three?) rigidly defined camps, i.e. the capitalist and the Communist camp, and, during World War II, the Allied powers and the Axis powers, while the Communist-capitalist division continued to exist within the Allied camp, freedom of the press was under attack from all sides.[x] Orwell interprets the position of opponents of free press for ideological reasons as follows:
The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism. The issue truth-versus-untruth is as far as possible kept in the background. Although the point of emphasis may vary, the writer who refuses to sell his opinions is always branded as a mere egoist. He is accused, that is, of either wanting to shut himself up in an ivory tower, or of making an exhibitionist display of his own personality, or of resisting the inevitable current of history in an attempt to cling to unjustified privileges. The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. […] One can accept, and most enlightened people would accept, the Communist thesis that pure freedom will only exist in a classless society, and that one is most nearly free when one is working to bring such a society about. But slipped in with this is the quite unfounded claim that the Communist Party is itself aiming at the establishment of the classless society, and that in the USSR this aim is actually on the way to being realised. […] Fifteen years ago, when one defended the freedom of the intellect, one had to defend it against Conservatives, against Catholics, and to some extent – for they were not of great importance in England – against Fascists. Today one has to defend it against Communists and “fellow-travellers.” One ought not to exaggerate the direct influence of the small English Communist Party, but there can be no question about the poisonous effect of the Russian mythos on English intellectual life. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 61-62)
In this quote, Orwell directs his criticism almost entirely at intellectuals with Communist sympathies. Of course, freedom of thought was under just as much pressure from the right, especially while the war was ongoing. Why then was Orwell so much more outspoken in his criticism of the Left?
The reason is that intellectual freedom was being attacked not by conservative “Blimps” or a Catholic minority, but by the very group that ought to be defending that intellectual freedom, the group that depended on it most. There is, however, another reason why Orwell focuses on the Communist Party and its followers. First of all, in Orwell’s opinion, repression went against Communism’s very nature, as the very justification of the existence of this movement was its claim to be the defender of the ordinary man and of the principle of equality among men. Unlike any other political movement in England, Communism claimed it could bring about a Utopian society. If all men are equal, however, why was it becoming normal practice in the USSR for some men to kill others for having the wrong opinions? And why, measured by the extent of freedom enjoyed by the common man, did society there seem to be moving away from a Utopian society rather than towards it? Why was criticism of these measures from within the Communist Party’s own ranks considered tantamount to treachery? Why, if the common man was the backbone of Communist society, were the economic and social theories on which it was based only intelligible to intellectuals and theorists? And, most importantly, why was not this discrepancy laid bare by the intellectuals, the guardians of critical thought?
Secondly, Orwell was concerned with the highly manipulative methods used by the Communist Party to influence the public and the general dishonesty within the Communist Party, unknown in traditional conservatism and only otherwise occurring to a certain extent in Nazism. In his essay “The Prevention of Literature,” Orwell writes with respect to the falsification of history by the Soviet Union:
The organised lying practised by totalitarian states is not, as is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary. Among intelligent Communists there is an underground legend to the effect that although the Russian Government is obliged now to deal in lying propaganda, frame-up trials, and so forth, it is secretly recording the true facts and will publish them at some future time. We can, I believe, be quite certain that this is not the case, because the mentality implied by such an action is that of a liberal historian who believes that the past cannot be altered and that correct knowledge of history is valuable as a matter of course. From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 63; my emphasis)[xi]
Thirdly, Orwell held the firm belief that raw capitalism was untenable, and that Communism or some form of Socialism was its natural successor.[xii] This made it vital to reform the Socialist movement from within, so that it would not come power in the totalitarian form seen in Soviet Russia. Orwell was very much in favor of a Socialist revolution, as long as it resulted in a society based on liberty and equality, not on economic control and certainly not on control of the truth.
Finally, Orwell had witnessed the effects of Communist propaganda and manipulation first hand during the Spanish Civil War, where he and the party he had been fighting for were betrayed and persecuted by their Communist allies. His eyes had been forcefully opened to the Communist Party’s true aim, which by that time was to consolidate power, not bring about a truly Socialist society. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell puts forward the Franco-Russo pact as a possible explanation of the Communist strategy during the Spanish Civil War. The Soviet Union was unable to defeat the Western powers, so that its only way of consolidating power was to maintain the status quo. As France was strongly opposed to the Spanish Revolution following the general elections in which the Social Revolutionaries were elected by a narrow majority, Russia found itself in the dicey position of having to support international Socialism on the one hand, and not rocking the boat too much in the European political order on the other. According to Orwell, it dealt with this predicament by joining the Spanish Socialists in their fight against Franco, while at the same time undermining that fight with accusations of Trotskyism and purges among its “allies.” After this experience, it had become impossible for Orwell to believe that the Soviet Union was in it for the common man rather than its own interests.
Orwell was not, however, only concerned with the problem of censorship imposed from above, for instance by the Soviet government or the International Communist Party, he was as much – or more – concerned with the problem of people imposing such censorship on themselves, feeling that any failure to be entirely orthodox in their political beliefs would in a sense be tantamount to aiding their political opponent, all the more so because this tendency was clearly established in the English intellectual and political arena. Naturally, this line of reasoning only works if the political realm is viewed as a war between two entirely opposite camps, one of which must be joined. The idea is then that, although there may be problems within one’s own camp, it was generally to be much preferred over the opposing camp. Propaganda wars were a relatively new phenomenon and the concept was fully embraced by the Communist and the capitalist camps. In such a war of propaganda, any strike from within was a strike for the opponent. In his 1945 essay “Through a Glass, Rosily,” Orwell described this type of thinking as follows:
Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise “constructively,” which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 34)
Orwell held a different view. In his essay “The Prevention of Literature,” Orwell quotes the chorus of a Revivalist hymn:
Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone;
Dare to have a purpose firm,
Dare to make it known.13[xiii]
He then goes on to say:
To bring this hymn up to date one would have to add a “Don’t” at the beginning of each line. For it is the peculiarity of our age that the rebels against the existing order, at any rate the most numerous and characteristic of them, are also rebelling against the idea of individual integrity. “Daring to stand alone” is ideologically criminal as well as practically dangerous. The independence of the writer and the artist is eaten away by vague economic forces, and at the same time it is undermined by those who should be its defenders. It is with this second process that I am concerned here. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 60)
Apart from the long-term dangers to the truth that Orwell foresaw in the approach to criticism described above, Orwell had another objection:
The whole argument that one mustn’t speak plainly because it “plays into the hands of” this or that sinister influence is dishonest, in the sense that people only use it when it suits them. […] Beneath this argument there always lies the intention to do propaganda for some single sectional interest, and to browbeat critics into silence by telling them that they are “objectively” reactionary. It is a tempting manoeuvre, and I have used it myself more than once, but it is dishonest. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 36)
The problem with Communism was that, unlike conservatism, Catholicism and Fascism, it had a strong appeal to the intellectual community, and, in Orwell’s opinion, it was precisely the responsibility of this group to guard intellectual freedom. Even though England was still largely a liberal country at the time Orwell wrote this essay, he saw the effect of Communism on the intellectual community. As Orwell did not see any strong political inclination in the working class, he feared the impact of the sympathies of intelligentsia on English society could be massive:
[W]hat is sinister […] is that the conscious enemies of liberty are those to whom liberty ought to mean most. The big public do not care about the matter one way or the other. They are not in favour of persecuting the heretic, and they will not exert themselves to defend him. They are at once too sane and too stupid to acquire the totalitarian outlook. The direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves. (Orwell and Angus 2000D, 70; my emphasis)
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[i] In his introduction to Inside the Myth; Orwell: Views from the Left, a collection of critical essays on Orwell by left-wing authors, editor Christopher Norris writes: “In the end […] the reader is brought up against the same negativity, the same despairing upshot to every line of thought in Orwell’s political writing. It is for critics on the left to point out the varieties of false logic and crudely stereotyped thinking that produced this vision of terminal gloom.”
[ii] Paul Gabriner “Satire: What Is It?”: Hand-out from the “Twentieth Century Satire Tutorial” (2002-2003), University of Amsterdam.
[iii] Orwell’s original text was not found. This quote was re-cast into English from the Ukrainian translation.
[iv] NEF 164: geographical explanation in the one book of opposition, supposedly written by Emmanuel Goldstein. Emmanuel Goldstein is the Party’s one consistent enemy. He was once close to Big Brother, but is said to have betrayed the Revolution. All shortages, alleged acts of sabotage and supposed criminal activities are said to be linked to him. He is also the leader of the one illicit group of opposition. Like many aspects of Oceanic society, it never becomes clear to what extent this story is true or, for that matter, whether Goldstein even exists. Goldstein is clearly based on Soviet Russia’s Leon Trotsky. They are treated in the same manner by Big Brother and Stalin, respectively, and Goldstein’s appearance is described as being similar to Trotsky’s. In addition, Goldstein is a Jewish name, quite likely a reference to Trotsky’s Jewish background.
[v] Winston is “fairly sure” he is thirty-nine, which means, counting back from 1984, he must have been born in 1945, around the end of World War II.
[vi] In his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” (October 19, 1945), Orwell wrote “From various symptoms one can infer that the Russians do not yet possess the secret of making the atomic bomb; on the other hand, the consensus of opinion seems to be that they will possess it within a few years.” It would therefore theoretically have been possible for the English Socialist Party to obtain such a weapon from its allies in the Soviet Union.
[vii] The famine after the revolution may be a reference to “Lenin’s famine” of 1921-1922, i.e. three years after the Russian Revolution. Lenin “had the courage,” as a friend put it, “to come out and say openly that famine would have numerous positive results … Famine, he explained, in destroying the outdated peasant economy, would … usher in socialism … Famine would also destroy faith not only in the tsar, but in God too.”
[viii] Orwell writes: “Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.’ Probably, therefore, he will say something like this: ‘While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods […].'”
[ix] It is important to note here that Orwell was essentially a libertarian. He considered himself a Socialist, but defined Socialism differently than the leading Socialist and Communist parties did. To Orwell, Socialism meant the end of class repression, based on the principle that all men are equal. A certain extent of economic reform would be unavoidable in the state he imagined, first of all to ensure a fair (but not necessarily equal!) distribution of wealth, but also because the end of repression entailed the end of colonialism, a major source of English income.
[x] The theory of a world divided into two camps is exemplified by the first Soviet Constitution, ratified in 1924, which contained the following passage: “Since the foundation of the Soviet Republics, the states of the world have been divided into two camps: the camp of capitalism and the camp of socialism. There, in the camp of capitalism: national hate and inequality, colonial slavery and chauvinism, national oppression and massacres, brutalities and imperialistic wars. Here, in the camp of socialism: reciprocal confidence and peace, national liberty and equality, the pacific co-existence and fraternal collaboration of peoples.”
[xi] Please note that the myth that the Soviet government was secretly recording actual history for later generations is an example of the blind and unjustified faith in political leaders against which Orwell is warning his readers in Nineteen Eighty-Four, when the old man in the tube station says: “That’s what comes of trusting ‘em. I said so all along. We didn’t ought to ‘ave trusted the buggers” (NEF, 33).
[xii] It should be noted here that this shows that Orwell himself also considered the world as one divided into two camps, as he expected the failure of the one to automatically result in the prevalence of the other.
[xiii] The theme of being intellectually independent and not afraid to voice one’s opinions stems from a Protestant non-conformist tradition among English writers, including Milton, to which Orwell may considered to belong.
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