Author: George Orwell
Genres: literary, dystopian
Synopsis (from Amazon book page):
“In 1984, London is a grim city where Big Brother is always watching you and the Thought Police can practically read your mind. Winston is a man in grave danger for the simple reason that his memory still functions. Drawn into a forbidden love affair, Winston finds the courage to join a secret revolutionary organization called The Brotherhood, dedicated to the destruction of the Party. Together with his beloved Julia, he hazards his life in a deadly match against the powers that be.”
Notes of Interest:
This is actually the fourth time I’ve read this book. My first reading was in high school while attending a private religious school. My second reading was in college, also a private religious school, but with an open-minded English professor. My third reading was with my own children when they were studying high school English. And recently I picked it up again, like many other people, because of some uncanny parallels between this piece of fiction and our current events in reality. It never ceases to amaze me that every time I pick up this book, I find something new I didn’t notice before. It is timeless. It is universal. It is a true classic. It is not an easy read, but it’s well worth it, in my opinion.
I haven’t written a review on it in decades. And while I don’t have previous reviews on hand for comparison, this last reading was done from a liberal, secular perspective. Each reading was influenced by political or religious background, so it’s interesting to see the scope from right to left shift as to how this book’s “prophetic” themes can be interpreted. There is so much to say about this book that I feel very limited on this blog. Since it has been reviewed and studied copiously enough on a technical analytical level, I’ll try to stick to the theme of divisive interpretation.
What could have made it better for me:
The short and sweet of it is this book is perfect the way it is. My only complaint is that it’s dated, coming from the post WWII era, but that’s not really a complaint so much as an acknowledgment that a certain level of awareness of history is necessary with period literature. It’s a bit of a hassle to ponder lessons for today from studying the past … but that’s the whole point of history, right?
What I liked about it:
The most important thing I picked up from the book this time around was a better understanding of fascism. While reading this book, I simultaneously did on-line searches for definitions, examples, and warning flags regarding fascism. I looked at articles from the right and the left to be fair and to try to answer a question that deeply puzzled me. How is that both the right and the left can accuse each other of being fascist?
Was fascism a creation of the right or left? Is it secular or religious? The simple answer is … both. But of course to understand it, you have to dig deeper than that.
Most of the articles I read put fascism in the conservative political camp because of the authoritarian approach to policy. Authoritarianism is a predominant characteristic of conservative culture and politics. But several conservative articles found that idea ludicrous because fascism requires loyalty to a collective, and collectives are predominantly from liberal culture and politics, i.e. the government. Since conservatives generally hate the government, how could they possibly buy into a collective ideology?
Well, there is more than one kind of collective. For example, nationalism. Nationalism should never be mistaken for patriotism. Patriotism is support for one’s country. But nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism that usually exhorts the superiority of one nation above all others. Did you catch that very important word that defines the differences? Extreme. It’s okay to be proud of your origins and support your country. But there is a tipping point when love of country becomes nationalism, where globalism no longer matters and one nation’s interests come at the expense of others. When that happens, the nation becomes the collective … the party … the authority. Even without a big government, collectivism can exist in the form of a republic, a religious organization, a social organization, or a business organization. Collectivism simply means “group priority”. So, contrary to some of the arguments I’ve seen otherwise, it IS possible for a conservative culture that disavows “big government” to buy into a different kind of collective dogma. Combine that with authoritarian tendencies, push them into the extreme camp, and you have the perfect storm for fascism. Whether you agree or disagree, this why most sociologists consider fascism to be conservative, even though the world’s first taste of fascism did come from secular, socialist governments.
This might be a difficult concept to grasp because it does straddle the fence in terms of collectives. But it’s important to understand the role that authoritarianism plays in making fascism what it is.
Both conservative and liberal cultures name the same warning signs when it comes to fascism (suppression of freedom of speech, suppression of freedom of the press, dehumanization of a chosen subgroup of people, etc.)Each side has similar arguments that accuse the other of being fascist, but for different reasons. For example, conservatives may point to abortion rights as dehumanization because a fetus is not valued as equally as the mother. Liberals might point to defunding of public welfare projects or anti-immigration policies as dehumanizing because of how the lives of the poor or of a particular religious sect are not as valued as the rich or religious majority. Regardless of whether those definitions of dehumanization are valid or not, both camps are in agreement that dehumanization is bad. In both cases, the “evil” collective that enforces the laws is the government. But whether the government is big or small, religious or secular, it is the absolutism of authority that leads to dictatorship and totalitarianism.
Therefore, it’s important to understand this is a book that the right will attempt to use against the left. And the left will attempt to use it against the right. Because Orwell’s examples of authoritarianism are sometimes similar to, but sometimes vastly different from, what we’re experiencing in today’s world.
This is a book that rebukes the removal of religion from human culture while at the same time condemning the indoctrination of children.
In Orwell’s day, there was a fear of shortages on consumer goods because of communist and socialist government-controlled production. Today we fear unregulated capitalism that not only floods the world with consumer goods, but takes a toll on our environment, permits discrimination, displaces workers, and takes advantage of people for profit.
Orwell clearly disliked having to trade his Imperial measurements and familiar, old-fashioned words for metrics and politically correct rephrasing. But that mindset ignores the fact that Imperial measurements and words are called “imperial” for a reason — one universal standard is easier for business, math, and dictionaries. Yet new words enter living languages every day with new technology and trade. It’s just how living languages work. The only unchanging language is a dead one. The only unchanging civilization is a dead one. Mark Twain once said, “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.” I think this is true, except I would change it to say the radical of today is the conservative of tomorrow … because if we’re comfortable with the world we’ve built for ourselves, we don’t want to see someone else change it. Change is scary, even if progress is a good thing. (And in terms of human history overall, most of us would say humanity has changed for the better when we compare our lives today with what they had 100 years ago, 500 years ago, a thousand years ago, and so on.)
So, a sense of what was happening at the time that Orwell wrote this book is essential to understanding why it’s not the left or right arguments that matter. Try not to get stuck in the details of labeling which “side” of modern arguments he’s on. It also helps to acknowledge that Orwell himself had his preferred world view and things he didn’t want to see change in the name of progress. But the main target of Orwell’s criticism and anger, the thing which he brilliantly attacked in this masterpiece, was and always will be totalitarianism.
Totalitarianism can exist on the right or the left, conservative or liberal. Totalitarianism is what Orwell reminds us to pay attention to regardless of what individual arguments are about. And he does that best through language because when you remove words and suppress language and freedom of communication, you perpetuate ignorance. When you confuse someone’s language, you confuse their ability to think in abstract terms and distance them from their cultural heritage.
Here he gives us the government of Oceania. Big Brother is the father figure that Winston and his peers are to look to for guidance and justice. Big Brother’s not a real person … or maybe he is. Or maybe he changes. The details don’t matter. Big Brother is ageless, eternal, powerful. Big Brother perpetuates war with varying enemies to keep the population of Oceania productive, fatigued, and compliant. They celebrate hate on a daily basis; it’s required to know who their enemies are (since that often changes) and maintain loyalty to the party.
Winston, the story’s protagonist, works at the Ministry of Truth. The sole purpose of the Ministry of Truth is to fabricate propaganda for the party in the daily news and every other printed text in existence. They knowingly rewrite history so that they always come out victorious. But they no longer have a sense of the past because the only thing that matters is blind obedience in the present … and a sort of blind faith toward empty promises about future victories. Winston spends more time erasing the truth than printing it. “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It is their final, most essential command.”
They talk in doublespeak saying things like, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” To understand these concepts, you have to think in terms of dichotomy because one concept is used to rationalize its opposing principle. I could write an essay on these three statements alone, but if you’ve ever experienced someone punishing you out of “love” that’s the gist of how this works. It’s otherwise known as “gas-lighting” and is a psychologically abusive tactic often used by narcissists to control their partners. In fact the place where political prisoners are tortured is called the Ministry of Love because they equate coercion toward the one and only correct path with an act of compassion.
They invade privacy, spying on every aspect of your life … judging acts (and thoughts, so don’t talk in your sleep!) as moral or immoral according to their party ideology. Society is based on class divisions according to party loyalty (a.k.a. cronyism). And relationships are reduced to arrangements for procreation, rearing of the next generation to be indoctrinated in party politics, and shallow love affairs held in secret (which are punishable by torture and death because meetings, public or private, are automatically suspect for conspiratorial opportunities). The elements of human existence that most people would cherish are deliberately removed by the party, and they don’t care who knows this because the fear that knowledge produces gives them leverage.
They are absolute, invincible, and forever … just like their patron. They are so sure of their ability to control the masses with fear and hate that when they spot potential dissidents, they bait them with rumors and books from an organization that may or may not be a real group of freedom fighters. Caught in the trap, the dissidents are broken and corrected back into party alignment through means of isolation and torture. Then they’re sent back to their assigned work, until the party has no further use for them. Those no longer useful, disappear … from the present and the past. They never existed. Only Big Brother and the party are timeless. That is the way it has always been.
I copied dozens of page references and quotes to include in this review, but there simply isn’t time or space to expand on them. So, I will end with this final thought.
You cannot read this book without doubting your own sanity a few times. You can’t read it without thinking of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR, or any of the other experiments in totalitarian nationalism that crept across the world following the Great Depression … that still exist in some parts of the world today. Nor can you read this book without seeing parallels in current events as totalitarianism and nationalism rear their ugly heads again looking for scapegoats to blame for the world’s problems … looking for excuses to start more wars in order to feel more in control.
Totalitarianism is a regression, no matter what party backs it. It hearkens back to the days of monarchy rule without representation of the people. Representation of a diverse and democratic people is crucial to preventing totalitarian power grabs. And we must be ever-watchful of the language we use to discuss propaganda and fake news, history and ideology, loyalty and patriotism, us and them. If we don’t call out lies when we see them, if we don’t speak up while we are free to do so, if we don’t listen when someone’s human rights are oppressed … when we reject compassion and empathy for the sake of profit, privilege, or power … when we let fear, hatred, and isolation reign … democracy and freedom go down the “memory hole” toward incineration. This is Orwell’s wake-up call to never allow totalitarianism to take over the world again.