Nineteen Eighty-Four at 60 (June 2009)

It is by now a legendary story of art created at the expense of life. In May 1946, Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, retreated from London to a farmhouse on the remote island of Jura in the Inner Hebrides, to write a “novel about the future” that he planned to call “The Last Man in Europe”. Just over three years later – and 60 years ago this month – the book was published as Nineteen Eighty-Four. But six months after that, Orwell was dead at the age of 46, a victim of tuberculosis that was probably worsened by his stay on the isolated island in the north of Scotland.

The book, which Orwell described while he was writing it as “a fantasy in the form of a naturalistic novel”, would turn out to be one of the most celebrated and important of the twentieth century. In the sixty years since its publication, Orwell has become what D.J. Taylor, author of a biography of Orwell published in 2003, calls a “secular prophet” credited with predicting many of the most disturbing features of the second half of the twentieth century. Concepts from the book – Big Brother, Doublethink, Thought Police – have entered into the language. Perhaps the ultimate example is the adjective “Orwellian”, which has become a synonym for a nightmarish totalitarian society.

Ubiquitous as these concepts have become, however, it is not clear that the way they are applied today has much to do with what Orwell originally had in mind. Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of those novels, like Kafka’s Der Process, that has been used and abused to make all kinds of political points quite different to the ones that the author wanted to make. Many people refer to the novel without having ever read it (in fact, Nineteen Eighty-Four recently came out top in a poll of books that people in the UK falsely claim to have read). A complex work of fiction is thus often reduced to a political manifesto.

When Orwell left London for Jura in 1946, the idea for what became Nineteen Eighty-Four had already been gestating in his mind for some time – at least since 1943, when he wrote an outline of the novel, and perhaps even earlier. Since the publication of Animal Farm in 1945, his first commercially successful book, he had finally achieved financial stability. During the war he had worked for the BBC, the left-wing weekly Tribune and the Sunday newspaper The Observer, which had sent him to report from Germany in 1945. After his wife Eileen died that same year, Orwell decided to leave London with his adopted son Richard and settle in Jura, where he hoped to escape from the pressures of journalism and devote himself to the novel.

Orwell’s political views had also evolved by the time he came to finally write Nineteen Eighty-Four. His experiences in the Spanish Civil War, in which he had fought on the republican side and was shot in the throat, had turned him into a fierce anti-Stalinist. From then on his relationship with the left was ambivalent: he called himself a democratic Socialist (always with a small ‘d’ and a capital ‘S’) but was frequently at odds with many on the left in Britain. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 exacerbated his fears about the totalitarian tendencies of socialism. Nineteen Eighty-Four grew principally out of this opposition to, and fear of, totalitarianism.

But between the conception of the novel in the middle of the war and the period after the war when Orwell wrote it, a completely new horror emerged that would come to play a huge part in the dystopia Orwell subsequently created: the Bomb. Orwell feared the development of nuclear weapons would lead to the creation of two or three vast super-states existing in a state of stalemate with each other while exercising almost complete control over their respective populations. He thought a nuclear conflict was likely to break out sooner rather than later (Taylor suggests part of the reason Orwell wanted to move to Jura was because he thought that, were a nuclear war to break out, he and his son would be safer there than in London) and described Nineteen Eighty-Four in a letter as a novel about “the possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn’t conclusive”.

According to Taylor, Nineteen Eighty-Four should be seen as the culmination of Orwell’s writing. Although it is often read as an allegory of a totalitarian society, Taylor sees it instead as above all an exploration of Orwell’s own fears. “It’s all about him,” he says. He says that all of Orwell’s five novels tell essentially the same story of an individual oppressed by an authoritarian environment. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell twists his fears into more frightening shapes than he had ever done before. But, says Taylor, it remains very much “a book about Orwell’s mind”.

The world that Winston Smith inhabits in Nineteen Eighty-Four seems to also have been influenced at least in part by the oppressive atmosphere of the boarding schools Orwell attended – first St Cyprian’s, a preparatory school in the South Downs, and then Eton, the grandest of all English private schools. For example, Orwell refers at one point to O’Brien – Smith’s persecutor in the novel – as a headmaster. Conversely, in “Such, such were the Joys”, an essay that was written around the same time as Nineteen Eighty-Four, he describes St. Cyprian’s almost as a police state. There is clearly also something of the atmosphere of wartime London in the evocation of Airstrip One: Taylor says the bomb craters in the novel are based on the ones Orwell saw on the bus journey from his home in St. John’s Wood to the offices of the Tribune newspaper on the Strand.

Almost from the moment it was published in 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four was seen by the right as a critique of socialism and in particular of the British Labour party, which was by then in power. In fact, with the exception of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Orwell was probably used more in anti-Communist propaganda during the Cold War than any other writer. Conversely, many on the left in Britain criticised Orwell for providing the right with ammunition. However, this was not Orwell’s intention. In a statement dictated to his publisher, Secker & Warburg, and later issued as a press release, Orwell said the danger he wanted to highlight was “the structure imposed on Socialist and on Liberal capitalist communities by the necessity to prepare for total war”. He was opposed not to socialism but to “the acceptance of a totalitarian outlook by intellectuals of all colours”.

More recently, Nineteen Eighty-Four has come to be seen as a warning about the so-called surveillance society. “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment,” Orwell writes in Nineteen Eighty-Four. “How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized”.

In particular, many people in Britain see the current explosion of closed circuit television (CCTV) on British streets as a partial fulfilment of Orwell’s fears of surveillance. Britain has an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras – in other words, one for every 14 people in the country. According to a 2004 study by Clive Norris of the University of Sheffield, the average person in the UK is caught on camera 300 times a day. But disturbing as this may sound, filming people in public places remains somewhat different from Orwell’s nightmare of two-way screens monitoring citizens’ activities within the home – a form of mind control.

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, a British civil liberties organisation (of which Orwell was himself a member when it was still known as the National Council for Civil Liberties) argues that, 25 years after the year in which Orwell’s novel was set, his fears have by and large not become a reality. “1984 has not come to pass,” she said in a debate earlier this year. “The great danger in Britain is of complacency because we are so fortunate.” For Chakrabarti, the real relevance of Orwell for the twenty-first century relates not so much to the increased use of surveillance technology but the use of language to deceive. “‘Orwellian’ to me is ultimately about the abuse of language that becomes the abuse of people,” she said. As an example she gave the use of euphemisms like “extraordinary rendition” for what in reality is kidnapping and torture.

That does not mean, however, that Orwell would necessarily have opposed US policies in the war on terror, as opposed to the language used to describe them. In fact, reading Orwell’s writings during World War II, with their English patriotism, I wonder whether Orwell might have seen Islamist terrorism as another form of totalitarianism in the way Christopher Hitchens – who is himself influenced by Orwell – does. But ultimately such speculation is futile: Orwell did not live to see the development of the Cold War, let alone the post-Cold War world. Perhaps the adjective ‘Orwellian’ should therefore be used in its positive rather than negative sense as a term that stands not for a particular policy or political position but rather a sensibility – a mode of thinking and writing that Orwell once himself described as “the power of facing unpleasant facts”.

A version of this article appeared in German in Der Freitag.

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