Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Politics of Nineteen Eighty-Four

This post has one spoiler (which is flagged) and will be of interest to those who have read Nineteen Eighty-four as well as those who haven't. In fact I recommend reading this (if I do say so myself!) if you intend to read Orwell's book, as I wish I knew the following when I did.

I intended to re-read this book and write a traditional review, but my challenge days are running out and besides, I thought this might be more fun. Before we get started I don't pretend to be very political. Until recently I couldn't tell the difference between communism and socialism. Mind you, I'm still hazy on the details so don't go quizzing me! If I make any glaring errors, do let me know. Nicely of course :)

In a club on Friday night I was rabbiting on to someone about The Epoch Times, a newspaper that's handed out free on the street every Thursday. It's very left-wing and predominantly anti-Chinese Communist Party, and published in several countries around the world. I'm quite fond of The Epoch Times. I don't read it regularly, but I really like the style of journalism that its writers practise. It's very hands-on and anecdotal, and I like a dose of radicalism to get all fired up about now and again. A girl overheard me talking about the paper and asked, "Are you a socialist?" with this I've-found-a-kindred-spirit-at-4am look on her face. I thought about it. Am I? Truthfully, I'm not anything. I want the government to leave me alone so I can get on with my life, really. But I do believe in state-run schools, hospitals and childcare, which is one of the tenets of socialism. (I'd love it if there was free dental care, too. I'm too afraid to go to the dentist right now. Not because of the needles, but because of the potential amount of the bill!)

But when the government gets involved in running things people can get nervous, and rightly so. Can't trust 'em as far as you can throw 'em, governments. The Party (as they are known) in Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, which I read about a year ago now and was published in 1949, runs everything in Oceania (basically the Commonwealth: Britain and so on). It's a totalitarian regime, one characterised by severe rationing, surveillance and the suppression of dissent. They even control history, altering newspapers and archives as alliances shift and non-persons (executed dissidents) "disappear".

Ingsoc is the political ideology of the Party, which is a contraction of ENGlish SOCialism. It'd be safe to assume, then, that Orwell wasn't very fond of socialism, right? But Orwell professes to be a democratic socialist himself. In a letter dated June 16, 1949, he states that the book

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 ... which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism. ...The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.

So why Ingsoc? Why would a self-professed socialist write a book that could be so easily misconstrued as anti-socialist?

As mentioned above, the Party is fond of perverting history for its own purpose. Doing this they turn English socialism from a revolution meant to benefit the population of Britain into a cruel regime. Doublespeak, which is the language constructed for political purposes, distorts and corrupts meaning; the Party turns English socialism into Ingsoc, a movement that

rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it does so in the name of Socialism.

(From The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a book by Emmanuel Goldstein, the former ruler of the Party. The above is quoted from Nineteen Eighty-Four. **SPOILER ALERT** The book doesn't exist outside the pages of Orwell's novel, and perhaps not even there. It, like its author, may have been invented by the Party to flush out dissidents.)

So as you can see, Nineteen Eighty-Four isn't anti-socialist at all, but rather profoundly anti-totalitarian. I would like to tell you that I got all this from simply reading the book, but I didn't. In fact, I defy anyone to actually work it out for themselves, and it seems that no one did judging by Orwell's emphatic letter quoted above.

Random trivia: After reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, David Bowie wanted to turn the book into a musical theatre production. Some descendant of George Orwell gratefully declined to give him the rights, and thank the stars they did. I love Bowie to bits but can you imagine how it would have turned out? No doubt starring himself as Winston Smith. The Goblin King as Winston Smith! Disappointed but not deterred, Bowie wrote an absolute shocker of a song called '1984' instead.


  1. The ending of this novel is still one I'll never forget!

  2. It parallels Nazism, which, of course, was short for National Socialism but was instead a facist dictatorship in reality.

  3. I love this book! I wish they would re-make the movie, since it wasn't all that great :)

  4. When I was at school, 1984 was required reading. I thought it was okay at the time, but later reread it and realised it was *so* much better without a teacher telling me what to think about it. Uh, they did tell me it was anti-totalitarian though, which was helpful. And then what totalitarian meant.

  5. Lauren, I know what you mean. I've only just started realising the awful awful way I was taught literature at school: they would give us these fantastic, complex books but not give us any context! I remember one year we did The Outsider by Camus. We were halfway through it and I asked my teacher what existentialism was, and she looked at me, shocked, and said, "Oh, that's far too complicated to explain." Needless to say, the book made absolutely no sense to me.

  6. There is a clue in the illustration where the faces of Hitler and Stalin have been merged. Orwell was indeed a radical socialist but was - including when it was very unpopular - a passionate anti-Stalinist. This was either from or accelerated by his experiences in the Spanish civil war - as set out in 'Homage to Catalonia'

  7. This is supposedly a classic. I haven't read it yet but am planning to. Thanks for posting this. It'll help me understand the book a lot better.