1984, George Orwell

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That I have reviewed two classics one after the other (Pride and Prejudice and 1984) is just a coincidence based on what audiobooks become available at my local library, but if I had the chance, classics would be all I read. And some new releases I suppose, one must ‘keep up’. Of course I’ve read them both before, but that’s why they’re classics – they stand, demand even, re-reading.

I pick up Orwells as a matter of course whenever I see them second hand and in looking for my copy of 1984 for this review I see I have a a few yet to be read – The Unknown Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Collected Essays, The Road to Wigan Pier, Coming up for Air – so expect some more reviews.

As a young man growing up, 1984 was in the distant future, a dystopia hanging over us in a way that is difficult to explain now that it is so far in the past. Later,  we congratulated ourselves that we had dodged a bullet, but what shocked me on this re-reading was Orwell’s prescience. The Introduction to my edition points out how many concepts from 1984 almost immediately entered the language:

… in common use by people who have never read the book – for example Newspeak, thought-crime, Big Brother, unperson, doublethink – most relate to the power of the state to bend reality.

These concepts, and particularly doublethink, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”, are at the core of right wing orthodoxy today.

1984 was Orwell’s last work, written in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The right, of course, promptly adopted it as an attack on Stalinism, which indeed it was, while ignoring any meaning it might have for their own tendency to totalitariansim. Orwell’s anti-Stalinism was not anti-communism, though the right and their fellow travellers in the ‘centre’ like to conflate the two. Orwell was clearly of the far left, he admired the anarchists in Spain, though he chose to fight with POUM who were basically Trotskyite (my review of Homage to Catalonia). The Republicans probably lost the war in Spain because the Soviet-supported Communists were as dedicated to defeating POUM as they were to combatting Franco. When the Republican government rounded up the leadership of POUM, Orwell was lucky to escape with his life, and this of course informs 1984, where the ruling Party is led by the Stalin figure, Big Brother and the shadowy opposition by Goldstein, clearly standing for Trotsky.

For a novel of such universal themes 1984 is suprisingly provincial. The ‘world’ it describes is the drab, post-war London of socialism, shortages and rationing. The world is divided into three blocs who have fought themselves to a stalemate. England belongs to the Oceania bloc of Great Britain, North America, South Africa and Australia, but Orwell makes no attempt to explain how English socialism prevails over US capitalism, nor how the UK is never overrun by Eurasia (Europe/Russia/South Asia).

Society is divided into Inner Party (Ruling Class), Outer Party (Middle Class) and Proles. The Inner Party rules by doing its best to prevent casual sex, channelling the resultant sexual frustration into political hysteria, with cameras and microphones everywhere so that the Thought Police may monitor every person’s activities, and children encouraged to report on their parents.

London today has an ‘Orwellian’ 500,000 cctv cameras in public spaces, though they’re probably not as informative as our communications and search records, with computer algorithms taking the place of the Ministries of Love and Truth in analysing and storing the resultant data, all available to the government and the police at the push of a button (or to you, if you want to watch, here).

At the core of the story is 39 year old Winston Smith, a minor bureaucrat whose job is to rewrite past newspaper reports so that they do not contradict current ‘truths’. Smith, who has one failed marriage behind him, lives a lonely and largely sexless life, though he did once give in to a hideously painted prole prostitute (for a socialist, Orwell is very ambivalent about the Proles). Smith is discontented with his life and has begun writing down anti-State thoughts in a journal he found in a junk shop. He becomes aware at work of a younger woman who appears to be paying him some attention. Although at first he fears she may be an informer for the Thought Police, he meets her and they become lovers, meeting first in parks then in a room he rents above the junk shop.

When they are, inevitably, betrayed the novel follows two courses, the Political and the Personal. Smith undergoes months of imprisonment, torture and indocrination to force him not just to agree with the Party, to engage in doublethink whenever he thinks he knows two facts which are at odds, but to internalise his agreement, to love Big Brother.

The Personal, the horrors of Room 101 which force Smith to disavow his feelings for Julia, his lover are well known, and anyway, as with many dystopian works, are merely a vehicle for the real message.

It’s clear that Orwell’s cynicism about ‘truth’ or about our leaders telling us the truth was a direct result of his participation in the war in Spain. In Looking Back on the Spanish War he writes,

As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on and off like a tap, are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis. In the intelligentsia I should say they rather result from money and mere physical safety. At a given moment they may be ‘pro-war’ or ‘anti-war’, but in either case they have no realistic picture of war in their minds.

As a participant, he was able to make the comparisons first-hand between what was happening in Spain and what was reported in European newspapers:

I saw great battles reported where there was no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed… I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’…

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.

The middle part of the book is taken up with Smith reading a critique of the Party, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by the rebel leader Goldstein, a pretence to get us to absorb a lot of Newspeak and Doublethink theory.

The war between the blocs is explained as very little to do about territory gained and lost, and all to do with motivating members to unquestioningly support the Party – reprising the anarchist argument War is the Health of the State. In reality –

the war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.

I won’t take the theory lesson much further except to point out the almost exact parallels between the orthodoxy required by the Party in 1984 and the contortions of apparently intelligent people on the right of politics today to hold, and to insist that we also hold, beliefs that are completely at odds with what we, and they, know to be true.

To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.

Does that sound like Creationism to you? Does that sound like Climate-Change denialism? Like the arguments in favour of invading Iraq? Of course it does, because that’s how those in power work, in Orwell’s time, in our time.

 

 

George Orwell, 1984, first pub. 1949. My copy (not pictured above) Penguin 1989 with Introduction by Dr Peter Davison [I sourced the illustration from another blog (here) but couldn’t identify the illustrator. Tetiana Aleksina who often ‘likes’ my excursions into SF might have more info.]

George Orwell, Looking Back on the Spanish War, written 1943, first pub. 1953. Published with Homage to Catalonia, 1968.

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Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell

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They [Catalans] had attempted to produce within the militias a sort of temporary working model of the classless society. Of course there was no perfect equality, but there was a nearer approach to it than I had ever seen or than I would have thought conceivable in time of war.

Homage to Catalonia (1938) is what it says, George Orwell’s homage to the people of Catalonia who attempted an anarchist/socialist revolution in response to the army’s attack on their fledgling democracy, and more broadly in response to centuries of harsh rule by feudal landowners supported by the Catholic church and the monarchy. A revolution that was brought down not by the civil war but by the backsliding of right-wing socialists in the Republican government and by the treachery of the Communists.

In this it resembles (or presages) another account of anarchist ‘revolution’ undone by Communists, Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative (1968) about the Paris uprisings of that year and which I have owned almost since it was written. In fact, a great deal of Orwell’s book, particularly about the lies invented and propagated by the news media, serves to show plus ca change etc.

Homage to Catalonia has two parts – Orwell’s memoir of his time as a volunteer soldier, and an analysis of the failure of the Revolution – written in the immediate aftermath of his service, “five months ago” as he says, and before the end of the Spanish war (1936-1939). The book contains a third part, Looking Back on the Spanish War, written in 1943. But that deals in particular with the partisan, dishonest role played by the press and deserves a separate review.

George Orwell (1903-1950) is well enough known and I will not say much about him, except this: he is often claimed by the Right, especially for Animal Farm (1945) which is clearly an attack on Soviet communism. But let’s be clear. Orwell was of the Left, and like many of us still, was deeply upset by the descent of the Russian Revolution into bureaucracy and totalitarianism, a descent which he experienced personally in Spain. The POUM militia he enlisted in was broadly described as ‘Trotskyite’ – it wasn’t, but it was, and he was, committed to socialist revolution. And although Orwell was fighting firstly for the preservation of democratic government, he understood well, what we have mostly forgotten, that in the end ‘democracy’ is just another name for Capitalism.

When Orwell entered Spain from the south of France in late 1936 Barcelona was effectively anarchist. The churches had been sacked, all forms of deferential address had ceased, tipping was illegal, and so on:

It was a town in which the wealthy classes had ceased to exist… All this was queer and moving. There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State …

There was a shocking shortage of supplies for the volunteer militias, partly because the Republican government was wary of its ‘allies’ the Anarchists becoming too well-armed, and later, Russian-supplied arms were directed to the Communists and the International Brigades (Orwell is clear that, despite claims to the contrary in the right-wing press, there was very little Soviet army presence in Spain, although there were large numbers of soldiers from Fascist Germany and Italy). Not every soldier was issued with a blanket – in winter! – and Orwell’s first gun was an 1896 Mauser, for which he had just 15 rounds of ammunition.

Many of the recruits were very young, as young as 12 in some cases, refugees from the poverty of the back streets of Barcelona, and it was not long before the government was reverting to conscription.

The rival forces in this region had established fronts several hundred metres apart, along the tops of hills to the north and west of Barcelona. There was very little artillery on either side, and the constant rifle fire was inaccurate and uncoordinated. Occasionally one side or the other would make a sortie, often to gather firewood or the potatoes growing in untended fields. The government was attempting to retake nearby Huesca, and the Anarchists were attempting to cut the road north to Jaca, so Orwell’s section, in which he rose to corporal and eventually lieutenant – though all ranks through to general were on the same pay and orders often had to be argued rather than enforced – would sometimes be involved in fighting to divert Fascist troops from defending those more important actions.

In the early stages the inefficiency of the POUM forces led Orwell to consider seriously transferring to the more efficient Communists in Madrid. But, while on his first leave in Barcelona, communist ministers within the government used government troops to regain control from the workers’ committees, and particularly the anarchist-controlled Telegraph Exchange (Wiki) . For a week Orwell was holed up defending POUM headquarters, although he and his opposite numbers in the building across the road maintained their own private ceasefire. Orwell analyses how it was always the workers who were asked by the government to forgo, in the name of winning the war of course, the freedoms they had seized in the beginning, and which Orwell begins to think they should have hung on to.

My favourite image of the war is from this deeply disillusioning period:

An Anarchist patrol car drove up , bristling with weapons. Beside the driver a beautiful dark-haired girl of about eighteen was nursing a sub-machine gun across her knees.

Orwell’s wife (he doesn’t mention her name) is in Barcelona, and at one time when an attack is imminent she establishes a first-aid post, but otherwise she is mostly out of sight.

Orwell’s biggest concern in this account is to counter the lies which, as he wrote, were still being propagated about this action being a workers’ insurrection. “An immense amount, enough to fill many books, has already been written on the subject, and I do not suppose I should exaggerate if I said nine-tenths of it is untruthful. Nearly all the newspaper accounts published at the time were manufactured by journalists at a distance, and were not only inaccurate in their facts but intentionally misleading.”

Orwell returns to the front, with a unit of mainly British volunteers, is wounded, shot through the neck. His description of the transport and hospitalisation of the wounded is horrifying. He finally gets back to Barcelona, with validly stamped discharge papers, to what he thinks will be a night at last in a hotel bed with his wife, only to find that POUM has been proscribed and he is now a wanted criminal. Shades of our own retrospective terrorism laws. The leader of POUM, Andreu Nin is in jail and has probably already been murdered. Orwell’s commanding officer, a Belgian wanted in his own country for the ‘crime’ of fighting for the Republicans in Spain, is arrested and by the time of writing had almost certainly been shot. Orwell and some other British stay in hiding and eventually make their way back to France.

I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain meant to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with. It is all mixed up with the sights, smells and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing: the smell of the trenches, the mountain dawns stretching away into inconceivable distances … the food queues and the red and black flags and the faces of the Spanish militiamen; above all the faces of militiamen – men whom I knew in the line and who are now scattered Lord knows where, some killed in battle, some maimed, some in prison …

A wonderful book, which to all you lefties out there I recommend unreservedly as an essential part of your education. A new though less competent Franco has seized the United States. The Revolution is coming!

Madrid (6)

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, first pub. 1938, this ed. Penguin, 1966


3 April 2017. Woke yesterday in Madrid and spent a few hours walking in the sun. Found the bookstalls near the Prado. Lots of marxist lit. including the book above, which seemed very a propos. Spent last night in Huesca. Walked all round the inner part of town. The countryside is flatter than I expected, though I guess those snow topped mountains to the north and east are the Pyrenees, which I plan to cross today by railcar and bus.


Sue at Whispering Gums, reviewed Orwell essays on book reviewing, Bookshop Memories, and Books v Cigarettes. Now I’d better go and read them!