1984 as a Political Novel
Table of Contents
1984 is a political novel. Orwell had, in an article, spoken of a tension which he felt between the public and the private lives. That tension is at the heart of this novel. When Winston thinks, “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull,” he is expressing the basis on which Orwell’s whole morality rests. Orwell here expresses his belief that to be human is to be private and to have a personal identity that is inward and inviolable. Winston’s rebellion against the Party in this novel is an attempt to preserve that small area of privacy: to think, and to feel as himself, as a private individual, without interference or encroachment. Authority in a totalitarian State tries to destroy personal identity entirely by whatever means possible, and it is significant that the only sciences which have made any considerable progress by the year 1984 are the science of invading privacy and the science of torture. Both these sciences are a means of controlling and altering identity.
A fantasy of the political future
1984 is a profound, terrifying, and wholly fascinating book. It is a fantasy of the political future and serves its author as a magnifying device for an examination of the present. In Homage to Catalonia, Coming up for Air and Animal Farm, Orwell had expressed his deep feeling of disappointment with the rising Socialist Society; but by the time he came to write 1984, disappointment had turned into horror. Though he hoped to get some comfort in the romantic Island of Jura, it does not seem that he at all succeeded in that. Even there he could not resign completely from the political controversies of the day. On the contrary, they kept him preoccupied as intensely as before to the extent of making him write another book on them.
Strictly speaking this novel is primarily concerned with a warning of a very grim and menacing future awaiting mankind.
“It would be difficult to say,” writes Herbert Read, “what positive political ideals were left this side of his overwhelming disillusion with Communism. In his last years he saw only the menace of the totalitarian state, and he knew he had only the force left to warn us. It is the most terrifying warning that a man has ever uttered, and its fascination derives from its veracity.”
Three great political entities at War with one another
As is implied by the title, 1984 is Orwell’s version of the voyage into the future for which he owes much to James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution. As in The Managerial Revolution, the strange world visualized in 1984 is constituted by three monster super states, equal in power and ruthlessness, and permanently at war with one another. The life of the average citizen is reduced to the level of bare existence. He is overworked and underfed and is utterly devoid of any historical awareness. He is a ‘mindless robot’, and the world is for him an eternal trap. Here, under this regime love is banned. In order to perpetuate this revolt against nature the authorities resort to various ways and means. For example, a daily Two Minutes Hate, directed against the mythical Goldstein (a Trotsky or Snowball figure), is observed without fail and against one’s will. There is a two-way television which tenders the merest inclination towards independence or privacy a criminal offence. The party is supreme, and the control is managed by the secret Inner Party. The Party has three slogans :
“War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.”
The Government apparatus consists, in the main, of four Ministries : The Ministry of Truth, The Ministry of Love, The Ministry of Plenty, and The Ministry of Peace. It is notable that all these ministries have been ironically named. The first section is in charge of carrying out a constant plastic surgery on thought and knowledge.” It is concerned with a regular alteration of the records of the past, not sparing even yesterday’s newspaper. “History as we know it, has ceased,” writes Mr. Woodcock and “…there is a process of conditioning by which men and women are taught doublethink, which allows them to act, when required, the exact opposite of their avowed intention without perceiving any contradiction.” The Ministry of Love is in charge of law and order and its chief organ is Thought Police. Then, there is the Ministry of Plenty with its chief function to check that no one gets more than a partial fulfillment of the barest necessities of life. Last of all, there is the Ministry of Peace which constantly conducts war and ensures its permanence by all means.
“War is essentially meant to destroy, not necessarily men and women, but the products of human labour.”
According to Mr. Brander, Orwell must have had another source of inspiration and information in Huxley’s Introduction to the second edition (1946) of his Brave New World. Mr. Huxley writes in his Introduction:
“The people who govern the Brave New World may not be sane (in what may be called the absolute sense of that world) : but they are not mad men, and their aim is not anarchy but social stability. It is in order to achieve stability that they carry out by scientific means, the ultimate, personal, really revolutionary revolution.”
“I think, one may reasonably doubt whether Huxley’s Vision of a society of ‘no want and no fear’ could have much appeal for Orwell. Orwell meant it very seriously when he ridiculed the Brave New World as “the paradise of little fat men.”
It is not hard to see that Orwell could not stomach the ideal of a foolproof universe- the ideal, for example, which was so prominent in Wells’s Men Like Gods. “In tying yourself to the ideal of mechanical efficiency”, Orwell believed, “you tie yourself to the ideal of softness,” and it positively repelled him. So, in 1984, when he sought to present a vision of the future, he was careful. Thus, the managers’ of Ingsoc (English Socialism) decide that the masses must remain always in want. Tt was only by perpetuating want and discomfort among the masses that the rulers of the superstates, as pictured in 1984, could achieve some kind of political stability. According to Huxley,
“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced because they love their servitude.”
Huxley believed that the dictator of the New World would not resort to any kind of systematic torture, when through science alone he could condition the people into a state of utter subjugation. But this is by no means true of 1984. The power mongers of the superstates could not be satisfied if the masses were gentle and docile and served their masters out of love. What they were striving after was not power in the abstract sense, but, power, in its monstrous shape. While it would have struck Huxley’s Ford as sheer primitivism, to the rules of the strange world of 1984, a full satisfaction of their lust for power was possible only by inflicting physical tortures. The torture episode coming in the third Part of 1984 proves this.
It will not be altogether too difficult to explain this fundamental difference between the two concepts. Once we realize that Huxley projected his Utopia six hundred years into the future whereas Orwell made a very short voyage into future, all difficulties disappear. The rulers of 1984 have their direct ancestors in Stalin and Hitler.
Now, we must turn to the victims of this lust for power. The most important point in which the Orwellian trait seems to stand out clearly- is the novelist’s attitude to the proles.
Of course, the greatest threat to security may come from the intelligent section. But this is not to say that the proles who form the large majority of the population-are to be left at large. In fact, they are managed in a different way. They are left to go astray in their slums in a state of utter neglect. They have no botheration about the past and the future. The older people amongst them, of course, have some impressions of the pre-revolution days, but these are rather too hazy impressions. Thus, the managers of the superstate succeed in keeping them eternally deprived of any standard with which they can assess their present lot.
Yet, it is striking that the hero of the novel looks upon them with hope. “If there is hope”. wrote Winston, “it lies in the proles.” His hope is that in these neglected teeming masses alone could the force to “liquidate” the Party itself he generated.”
“But the proles”, thought Winston, “If only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow the party to pieces tomorrow morning. Surely sooner or later it must occur to them to do it.”
Here, we must pause to consider the criticism which Orwell’s treatment of the proles seems to have provoked. For example, take Lewis’s views. He writes:
“…the hero’s Orwellian enthusiasm for the ‘proles’ (Proles meaning Proletariat) imports a silliness into the book which is rather a pity. It is a Silliness of the author of the Road to Wigan Pier; and that is not the author who was writing 1984.”
One can easily understand what Lewis is driving at. To him Orwell’s treatment of the proles seems unduly idealized and exaggerated indeed a blemish in a book which is otherwise “a first-rate political document.” His chief objection to Orwell’s treatment of the proles seems to stem from his feeling that there is nothing real about it. He writes :
“It is unlikely in a regime such as Orwell describes, that the millions of ordinary people will be left unmolested, treated indeed as though they were not there.”
In short, Lewis seems to find the Orwellian thesis regarding the common man deficient at bottom. He finds it particularly improbable that the power-maniacs should have left the eighty five per cent unmolested.” But, on a closer scrutiny this may not seem a very fair assessment. In fact there is no suggestion expressly given by Orwell anywhere in the book, that the proles who formed the bulk of the masses were spared by the authorities. They were by no means ignored: they too were kept suppressed; only, the authorities felt that the same crude tortures which they had to resort to for suppressing the Party members, the dangerous, intelligent section, were not needed in the proles’ case. The latter were managed in the same way as the other animals were managed by the pigs in Animal Farm. There they were the animals on the farm, here they are the proles. In fact, the authorities in 1984 did not think that the proles were substantially superior to the animals. As the Party slogan put it:
“Proles and animals are free.”
The equation between the proles and animals has been so unmistakably formulated in this novel, that there should not be any room for doubt. Like the animals in Animal Farm, the proles too are primitive in their patriotism, and whenever necessary ‘Squealers’ would come and set right all troubles in a trice.
There is something genial and poetic in Winston’s faith in the proles. It is highly befitting that the novelist describes the moment when the mystery about the proles flashes upon Winston in a dramatic manner. He gets a glimpse of the truth when he hears the song of the prole-woman. It sends a thrill into Winston’s veins, and he feels that after the long series of menacing days and months he has now come to discover a very gospel of joy. Her music is to him what the nightingale’s song had been to Keats, and, in an identical manner, what follows here is an enchanting ode to the prole-woman. But, it is impossible to convey the impression without a long quotation :
“The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing. All round the world, in London and New York, in Africa and Brazil and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers, in the streets of Paris and Berlin, in the villages of the endless Russian plain, in the bazaars of China and Japan-everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing. Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind and they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two make four.”
Mr. Brander most truly observes that the above description has “the quality of a credo.”
“Surely, what gives life to this passage is the novelist’s passionate belief in the proles – his last statement of his creed that the future lies with them. It is nothing less, writes Mr. Brander, ”than a gospel of joy, which shows that Orwell had not lost hope, as so many critics suppose he did.”
“There certainly s a point in Mr. Brander’s remark which it will be hard to question. Indeed, it is regrettable that at no other moment in the novel do we come across such an effective rendering of the theme of hope (if the term be permitted in the context of 1984). Besides, it is possible to discover in his eloquent description a touch of dramatic irony also. For as we shall see, shortly afterwards, Winston and Julia are taken unaware and are arrested by the Thought Police. The first defeat of the individual takes place here, and then a long catalogue of horrors follows, finally, culminating in a tragic end. Thus the final feeling one gets at the end of the story is one of the frustration of all hopes, though, the ‘full-throated singing of the prole-woman also keeps haunting from afar. We may reasonably point out that here is, essentially, a restatement of the grim theme of Animal Farm Once again, the ‘pies’ drive away Snowball’ and send ‘Boxer‘ to the “knackers. What makes 1984 a still sadder story is that the torture scenes are a little overdone. It is here that one imagines that perhaps Orwell would have been able to render them more effectively if he were not so ill and exhausted.”
Power for its own sake
All past despotic rulers have claimed some general good in their desire to rule and have claimed to be philosopher-kings or priest-kings or scientist-kings, with an announced programme of benevolence. The rulers of Oceania in this novel, however, know that power in its pure form has for its true end nothing but itself, and they know also that the proof of power lies in the suffering and the pain which the rules can inflict upon others. The exposition of the mystique of power is the heart and essence of this novel. That mystique is implicit throughout the narrative, and explicit in extracts from Goldstein’s book called “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.” It is brought to a climax in the last part of the novel, in the terrible scenes in which Winston Smith, the sad hero of the story, is restored to health by torture and discourse. Winston Smith had violated the Party code by believing that sexuality is a source of pleasure, that personal loyalty is something fine, and that two and two always make four.
Doublethink and Newspeak
Orwell’s theory of power is developed brilliantly and at sufficient length. The social system which it demands is described with a marvelous circumstantiality–the three divisions of the population (Inner Party, Outer Party, and proles) : the complete watch over the citizens by the Thought Police: the total negation of the personal life; the directed emotions of hatred and patriotism; the deified leader, omnipresent but invisible, wonderfully named Big Brother; the children who spy on their parents, and the total destruction of culture. Orwell is particularly successful in his exposition of the official mode of thought, “doublethink, which gives a man the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. This intellectual safeguard of the State is further strengthened by a language called “Newspeak the purpose of which is to rid itself of all words in which a free thought might be stated or expressed. The systematic obliteration of the past further protects the citizen from “crimethink”
More than an attack on Soviet communism
1984 is certainly, and to large extent, an attack on Soviet communism. But Orwell did not have only Soviet communism in mind when he wrote this book. What he wants to say is something like this: Russia, with its socialist revolution, has developed into a police State. But the threat of the Russian type of totalitarianism exists almost everywhere today. Orwell’s book has therefore a wider significance than is generally thought.
Picture of totalitarianism
1984 is evidently a novel which deals with certain political issues though the personal story of Winston Smith is important in its own right. The extreme form of totalitarianism is depicted here with all its attendant evils. And the validity of this novel for our times cannot be denied. True that the year 1984 is now not far off and that the dangers visualized in the novel have not materialized. But the possibility of these dangers materializing one day seems even greater now than it seemed to be when the book was written.