George Orwell and The Last Man in Europe
The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak.
Ignorance is Strength
War is peace
Freedom is Slavery
Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.
As a literary device and as a literary genre, utopian fiction
occupies a strange yet undeniably important position in the history
literature. For in a utopia the author manages to combine fact, fiction, fantasy and science fiction. Indeed, within the confines of a utopia,
anything goes. An author presents a clear vision of what sort of society he wishes to see develop in the future. What he changes in that vision is a product of both hisexperience and the imagination which that experience has helped to produce. In 1979, Frank and Fritzie Manuel published Utopian Thought inthe Western World, a massive work which more or less summed up their life's work. In the Preface to that work they have this to say of utopia:
Every utopia, rooted as it is in time and place, is bound
to reproduce the stage scenery of its particular world as well
preoccupations with contemporary social problems. Here analogies to the dream and the psychotic fantasy may be telling.
Observers of paranoid behavior report that though the disease remains relatively constant, the mysterious, all-seeing forces
that watch and persecute their patients change with time and technology. They may be spirits, telephones, radios or
television sets in successive periods. Utopias are not an illness; but to a larger degree they avail themselves of the existing
equipment of a society, perhaps its most advanced models, prettified and rearranged. Often a utopian foresees the later
evolution and consequences of technological development already present in an embryonic state; he may have antenna
sensitive to the future. His gadgets, however, rarely go beyond the mechanical potentialities of his age. Try as he may to
invent something wholly new, he cannot make a world out of nothing.
Having established that utopias are, more or less, products
of the age in which they appear, we must ask ourselves
why utopias are written in the first place. Why would an author write a utopian novel? What conditions must exist for
him to even contemplate the idea? In general, utopian novels or better yet, a utopian frame of mind, or method of
analysis, only appears as a result of bad times. Think about it. If everything were as one wanted, why would there be a
need to produce an account that could improve upon it? Is it possible to perfect, perfection? An experience of bad
times produces visions of the future in which the evils of society have been eliminated, replaced or transcended, usually
for the benefit of all humanity. So it has been in the past -- so it was the English statesman, THOMAS MORE
(1478-1535). In 1516, More completed his most important work called simply, Utopia. Composed in Latin and
subsequently printed in English in 1556, More portrayed both an England he came to distrust, and an island called
Utopia where all those social evils More had identified in England had been transcended. More observed an England
in which wealth and personal gain had come to mean more than Christian devotion or charity. In Utopia, he writes:
Is not this an unjust and an unkind public weal, which giveth
great fees and rewards to gentlemen, as they call them, and to
goldsmiths, and to such other, which be either idle persons, or else only flatterers, and devisers of vain pleasures; and of the
poor ploughmen, colliers, laborers, carters, ironsmiths, and carpenters: without whom no commonwealth can continue? But
after it hath abused the labours of their lusty and flowering age, at the last when they be oppressed with old age and
sickness, being needy, poor, and indigent of all things, then forgetting their so many painful watchings, not remembering
their so many and so great benefits, recompenseth and acquitteth them most unkindly with miserable death. And yet besides
this the rich men not only be private fraud, but also by common laws, do every day pluck and snatch away from the poor
some part of their daily living. So whereas it seemed before unjust to recompense with unkindness their pains that have
been beneficial to the public weal, now they have to this their wrong and unjust dealing given the name of justice, yea, and
that by force of law. Therefore when I consider and weigh in my mind all these commonwealths, which nowadays anywhere
do flourish, so God help me, I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities
under the name and title of the commonwealth.
It was Sir Thomas More who thrust the words utopia and utopian
into the canon of modern language. The word utopia, in More's
actually a play on words. In Greek, the word topos means "place." But the prefix ou or eu, rendered in modern English as "u" has a double
meaning: ou means "no" while eu means "good." In other words, utopia meant a "good place": it embodied a vision of the world with all its
social evils removed. But as fiction -- although More's book was based partly on information obtained by Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512) -- utopia
has also come to mean "no place" or simply "nowhere."
A little less than 400 years after More penned Utopia, English
and American authors were struggling with their own vision of
a perfect republic.
In 1891, the English socialist and designer, William Morris (1834-1896), produced his best known work of fiction, aptly titled, News From
Nowhere. In Morris's mind, the society of the future will have no need for government. The Houses of Parliament are no longer the seat of
government but a repository for human excrement. Almost twenty years earlier, the English author and painter, Samuel Butler (1835-1902),
wrote Erewhon, a satire in which conventional practices and customs are all reversed. Crime is treated as an illness and illness as a crime. And
then there was the American Edward Bellamy (1850-1898), whose novel Looking Backward of 1888, took the now classic utopian format of a
man who goes to sleep and wakes up 100 years in the future. And what account of late 19th century utopian literature could fail to mention H. G.
Well's (1866-1946) classic, The Time Machine? And if we are looking for yet one more precedent, in 1623, an Italian philosopher by the name
of Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), a heretic who was confined for 27 years in Naples, and who later fell victim to the rack for seven years,
published his utopian fantasy Civitas Solis (The City of the Sun).
Morris, Campanella, More, Bellamy, and Wells are just a
few representatives of the utopian mentality in western thought.
But the first utopia
was perhaps written by Plato, the student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. Plato's Republic stands forever regarded as the first utopia in
history. Although the dialogue is really concerned with the education or culture required to produce the perfect society, there is enough of
utopianism within it to allow it to qualify as representative of the utopian frame of mind.
All of these utopias share one thing in common -- they were
written at times when society seemed to be crumbling. Plato, for
instance, wrote at a
time when Greek direct democracy had become all but obsolete. The Classical Age of Greece had come to an end, an age which began with a
war and ended with yet another war. Athens was no longer the center of Hellenic civilization, having been defeated by the Spartans. Educated
Greeks began to doubt that virtue alone would lead to the good life. For how could one seek virtue in the demos when no one knew what virtue
really was? In addition, how could one praise the Athenian city-state and its direct democracy, when it was that direct democracy which had
condemned Socrates -- the most virtuous Athenian -- to death? And Sir Thomas More, the victim of psychological tensions in his person life, and
political tensions in his public life, could no longer reconcile the two. Reconciliation was attempted in his book, Utopia, but its ultimate fruition
perhaps came with his trial and beheading at the hands and executioner of his good friend, King Henry VIII. Or Campanella, a victimized heretic,
confined to a life of physical and psychological torture -- it's no wonder at all that he wrote a utopia full of illumination. After all, he spent 27
years in prison. And Morris, Bellamy and Butler -- all writing their utopian fantasies at a time when crass materialism and the cash nexus
seemed to subdue and dominate mankind. For the English writers Morris and Butler, the problems they identified in English society centered on
the failure of Victorian culture to combat the materialism which that culture had produced and sustained. A liberal political economy of laissez
faire had not delivered in its promise completely. True, the wealth of the nation had substantially increased but a great part of the population, the
"great unwashed," as they were referred to, still lived in appalling social conditions. For Bellamy, the situation was a bit different. He discovered
that the great dream of the American republic had also not delivered on it promise of slow but steady improvement. More than one hundred
years after the founding of the republic, materialism, the cash nexus, deceit and corruption had become the centerpiece of a society supposedly
built upon the twin pillars of civic duty and republican virtue.
The experience of all these writers shaped their utopian
fantasies and visions. Illusory or not, they held on to the promise
of a better world. So
they postulated worlds with strong governments, or worlds without governments at all. There were utopias in which wealth was equalized as there
utopias in which wealth was abolished outright. And there were utopian worlds with God as the mediator as much as there were utopias within
which there was little room for God or gods of any kind.
The utopian wrote romances -- I think this is the best word
to describe them. Their experience shaped their predispositions
and their aspirations.
It appears that these utopias were produced at a time -- within an experience -- in which society seemed to be losing ground rather than moving
ahead toward some higher goal. For Plato, it was an awareness that the virtues which had made the Athenian city state great, could no longer
sustain that city state. For Thomas More, it was the fact that because the wealthy were only interested in increasing their wealth, the common lot
of mankind were doomed to subservience and suffering. And for William Morris, it was industrial capitalism, the great degrader of mankind,
which had stripped away man's dignity. Art, thought and creativity were sacrificed to make way for the middle classes and all they represented.
But in the twentieth century, a new literary device and
technique was developed -- a device born not only of apparent
advancement, but also the
clear experience of disillusionment, bitterness, fear, terror, depression and dejection. The world appeared as a broken watch. Observed from a
distance, all looked well. But hold the watch to the ear, and one heard nothing.
In 1932, the English author Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) gave
us his vision of the world in his novel Brave New World. Only
this time, the vision
was not utopian but anti-utopian or, for lack of a better expression, dystopian. Huxley warned his readers of moral anarchy in a scientific age, an
age identified by the letters, "A.F," After Ford. This is, of course, deliberate on Huxley's part -- the machine technology of Henry Ford's
(1863-1947) perfected assembly line had not only produced the marvels of mechanized production but the mechanized man and woman of the
twentieth century. He depicts a gray, repulsive utopia -- a dystopia -- in which Platonic harmony is forcibly introduced by scientific breeding and
conditioning a society of human robots, for whom happiness is synonymous with subordination. The fate of us moderns is painfully apparent in
Huxley's hands -- we are nameless and fearless numbers (176-45-9925). The bureaucratic impulses of the twentieth century have solved the
problems of individualized anomie. We are all in this together. But who are we but a number on the tally sheet?
The Czech writer Karel Capek (1890-1938) provided his own
dystopia ten years earlier than Huxley in his enormously popular
which was first performed in a New York theatre in 1921. R.U.R. was the twentieth century version of Mary Shelley's (1797-1851) early
nineteenth century novel, Frankenstein. In Capek's hands, however, the backdrop is not the factory of the early nineteenth century, but the
business offices of Rossum's Universal Robots -- and we do not meet factory owners and workers but businessmen and robots. Indeed, it was
from Capek's play R.U.R. that the word robot entered the English language for the first time -- a word made even more expressive by the
American science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, in his collection of wonderful short stories, I Robot. One character in R.U.R., observed that:
in 10 years Rossum's Universal Robots will produce so much
corn, so much cloth, so much everything, that things will be
practically without price. There will be no poverty. All work will be done by living machines. Everybody will be free from
worry and liberated from the degradation of labor. Everybody will live only to perfect himself.
Well there you have it. A Christian-Marxist-socialist-collectivist-communist
utopian dream made into reality. Man is freed from Original Sin
he is freed from irksome labor, and he is given freedom from the realm of necessity to pursue his own goals of creativity and perfection. As a
bonus -- all this is to be attained by man, for man, on this earth, not in some Augustinian city of God. Of course, the moral is as clear as the
eventual outcome -- when men become gods and control their own destiny, their creations turn to destroy them. This is the fate of those who
created Rossum's Universal Robots.
To this now bleak portrait, we can easily add Modern Times,
Charlie Chaplin's (1899-1977) film of 1936. In the guise of parody,
slap-stick, Chaplin portrays a machine civilization gone literally crazy with speed and efficiency. Subtitled, "A Story of Industry," the film opens
with a clock which fills the screen. This image is followed by a herd of rushing cattle. The connection is complete: time and speed are the
watchwords of modern times. Although "Modern Times" was the last feature length silent film to be made in the United States, we do hear the
spoken word, however, human voices appear hostile to life itself, they are inhuman. Words are commands for greater industrial efficiency at the
expense of the worker's mental and physical health. The first words to be heard in the film come from the owner of the "Electro Steel Company"
who appears on a video screen and orders a "speed...up" of the assembly line. His second utterance, not unlike the first, simply commands,
"Section Five, More Speed, Four, Seven." Later in the film, he orders the man in charge of the assembly line speeds to "Give her the limit!"
Thetramp, played by Chaplin, now suffering from the advanced stages of Forditis, is overcome by the speed of the line upon which he tightens
the nuts of widgets and goes wild.
This much having been said, there is something of a tradition
now, of both utopian and dystopian writing. The entire tradition
of the dystopia, a
tradition pretty much born in the 1920s and 30s -- which hopefully tells you something -- found its most eloquent spokesman in the novel
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1903-1950). As a dystopia, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four stands as a monument to both hysteria
and calm introspection, that is, if such a thing can be imagined. The novel embodies both myth and reality and I am quite sure that it will remain
as standard fare in all 20th century literature courses for a good while.
George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair, on June 25th,
1903, in an Indian town some twenty-five miles
from the border of Nepal. According to his own account in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he was
born into the lower-upper-middle class, a fact he recorded quite deliberately. Orwell was a paradox, an
ambiguous man who claimed to be a socialist while at the same time he produced one of the most ruthless
critiques of contemporary socialists. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell remarks that:
One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words socialism
draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist,
sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, Nature-cure quack, pacifist and feminist in
England. . . .
We have reached a stage when the very word socialism calls
up, on the one hand, a picture of airplanes, tractors and huge
glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik
commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), or earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables,
escaped Quakers, birth control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers.
If only the sandals and pistachio-colored shirts could be
put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaler and
creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly.
As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.
Orwell's own brand of socialism was not Marxist, or Leninist,
nor was it philosophical or even economic. Socialism, for Orwell,
and social justice. The class system of social distinctions ought not to be destroyed -- rather, all men ands women should become even more
aware of their class and their relationships with other classes. "All that is needed," wrote Orwell, "is to hammer two facts home into the public
consciousness. One, that the interests of all exploited people are the same and the other, that socialism is compatible with common decency."
Orwell's most important book, at least it is the one at
the front of our minds, is Nineteen Eighty-Four, although Orwell's
personal favorite was
Animal Farm (1945). Published in 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four has given us the common images and vocabulary of Big Brother, doublethink
and Newspeak. It is also now possible to speak of something being Orwellian. Nineteen Eighty-Four also gave us a model of totalitarian society
-- a vision of power, control and authority used in the name of social harmony. We must ask ourselves whether Nineteen Eighty-Four is myth or
reality? That is, was Orwell describing something which he saw in his own lifetime, or, was he projecting a warning of things to come? In the year
1984, the press ran wild with updates and stories about Orwell. His picture appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as well as academic
journals. How much of what Orwell had written about had become a reality? Was Orwell right? It seems that the entire literate world waited
thirty-five years for 1984 to roll around just to see. Numerous popular and academic treatments of Orwell were published in the years leading up
At the end of 1948, the book publisher Frederic Warburg
received a manuscript of George Orwell's last novel. That novel
Eighty-Four. Warburg summed up his impressions of the novel with the following words: "This is amongst the most terrifying books I have ever
read." This view has been echoed by many critics and students for the past four decades. Orwell's bleak portrayal of a totalitarian regime was a
major factor in the novel's now classic status. In 1949, it sold 400,000 copies and by 1984, it had sold over eleven million. Nineteen
Eighty-Four is still read to this day by high school and college students alike. In fact, paperback sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four today average
about 65,000 copies monthly and the book is in its 70th printing.
Orwell drafted his earliest notes for what became Nineteen
Eighty-Four in 1943, under the proposed title of "The Last
Man in Europe." What
he had in mind was a book in two parts. Already established as early as 1943 was the notion of the "Two Minutes' Hate," and a future society
based on organized and systematic lying and deception. Throughout the 1940s, Orwell was haunted by a recurrent fear that history was
vulnerable to alteration for political ends. History, in other words, will be rewritten by those who are in power. And so, Winston Smith, the main
character of Nineteen Eighty-Four, works in the Ministry of Information where his job is to correct history by rewriting it.
By the Spring of 1944, Orwell had reviewed two books that
both defended and attacked laissez-faire capitalism. Those two
Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and The Mirror of the Past by K. Zilliacus. Of both books, Orwell wrote: "Capitalism leads to dole
queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship and war." The only way out, according to
Orwell, was depressing compromise in which "a planned economy can be somehow combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only
happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics." There is no sign of this compromise in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell depicts a
clearly repressive society. "By bringing the whole life under the control of the State," Orwell wrote in 1944, "Socialism necessarily gives power to
an inner ring of bureaucrats, who in almost every case will be men who want power for its own sake and will stop at nothing in order to retain it."
This inner ring of bureaucrats, of course, became the Inner Party of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell's vision of repression and the even stronger image
of Big Brother was clear in Orwell's mind as early as 1944. After
all, the great purge
trials of the 1930s were now part of history, a history Orwell knew quite well as a journalist. "Out in the street," he wrote, "the loudspeakers
bellow, the flags flutter from the rooftops, the police with their tommy-guns prowl to and fro, the face of the Leader, four feet wide, glares from
every point." Image all those huge paintings of Stalin and Hitler that seemed to adorn every street corner of Germany and the Soviet Union, and
you'll know where Orwell obtained his imagery (on Stalin and Hitler, see Lecture 10).
Orwell's bleak vision of totalitarian society came not only
from his awareness of actual regimes in Italy, Spain, Germany
and the Soviet Union,
but also from his reading of James Burnham's book of 1946, The Managerial Revolution. Burnham presented a future in which technocratic
managers and experts would take over from politicians and politics would become nothing more than a struggle for power. The struggle would
take place between three continents -- Europe, Asia and America. In 1944, however, Orwell had already envisioned a world of "two or three
superstates which are unable to conquer one another, in which two and two could become five if der Führer wished it." And in 1947, Orwell
wrote an article for the American journal Partisan Review in which he clearly presented his honest fears for the future. In this article, "Toward
European Unity," Orwell wrote:
The fear inspired by the atomic bomb and other weapons yet
to come will be so great that everyone will refrain from using
them. . . . It would mean the division of the world among 2 or 3 vast superstates, unable to be overthrown by any internal
rebellion. In all probability their structure would be hierarchic, with a semi-divine caste at the top and outright slavery at
the bottom, and the crushing out of liberty would exceed anything the world has yet seen. Within each state the necessary
psychological atmosphere would be kept up by a complete severance from the outside world, and by a continuous phony
war against rival states. Civilizations of this type might remain stable for 1000s of years.
Orwell resumed work on Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1947 with
his personal experience of totalitarian regimes and Burnham's
book in his mind. But
his world view was also shaped by a novel written by the Russian author, Yevgeny Zamayatin (1884-1937). The novel We (written 1920/21,
published in Russian in 1952) was set in the 26th century in an urban, totalitarian society. Orwell read the novel with enthusiasm and pronounced
it superior to Huxley's Brave New World. Zamayatin had shown the irrational side of totalitarianism. Human sacrifice and cruelty were ends in
themselves and the Leader is given divine attributes. In Zamayatin's hands, the leader is now called The Benefactor.
Orwell's theoretical concerns about the likely shape of
the future could be considered a form of political satire. But
Nineteen Eighty-Four did not
merely prophesize the kind of totalitarian society that Orwell believed would arrive. Instead, Orwell was sending out a warning against something
he believed could arrive, "even in Britain, if not fought against." Orwell dated his book in 1984 -- it is a point in the future. He may have been
trying to tell his readers strive to avoid this! But what the reader experiences -- both then and now -- is that this society has already arrived.
Although Nineteen Eighty-Four is derived from the novels of Huxley and Zamayatin, perhaps even the novels of H. G. Wells and what he knew
of actual events in Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia, Orwell also drew his stage settings from what he observed firsthand in post-war England.
Much of Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in a gray, gritty, depressing London of shortages, queues, inconveniences, ruined buildings and occasional
bombings. Many of the specifics of the novel relate to the years 1941-1943, when Orwell was employed by the BBC. For example, the images
of the canteen at the Ministry of Truth, where Winston Smith is employed, are drawn directly from the BBC canteen. The Ministry of Truth
itself -- 1000 feet high, is an exaggerated version of the wartime British Ministry of Information. Even the fictional Big Brother may have been
drawn from the head of the Ministry of Information, Brendan Bracken, who was known to his employees as B.B.
Much of the bleak quality of Nineteen Eighty-Four has also
been attributed to Orwells's poor health. He outlived the publication
of the novel by
a mere seven months, having died of tuberculosis in 1950. And between 1939 and 1946, Orwell suffered the experience of standing by as several
members of his family died. His father died of cancer in 1939. His mother died in 1943, his sister Marjorie in 1946 and his first wife Eileen in
1945. All these circumstances no doubt added to the gloom and despair usually associated with Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The world of Airstrip One -- England -- is a world of poor
food, dingy apartments and two way television screens. It is a
and this is made even more apparent because the novel is written from the standpoint of one man, Winston Smith. The reader must experience
the world through his eyes, and his eyes alone. The only variation is a short part titled "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism"
by Emmanuel Goldstein, the Trotsky-like figure who is daily the object of the two Minutes'Hate. Orwell also included an Appendix to the novel,
"The Principles of Newspeak." This section gives a detailed explanation of Winston Smith's work at the Ministry of Truth.
The Inner Party wants to suppress all dissent -- labeled
"thought crime" -- by eliminating all words from the
language that could express dissent.
Think about it -- if you were to suppress dissent by modifying the language, what words might you eliminate? For O'Brien, a member of the Inner
Party, "it is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be."
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the proles make up about 85% of
the total population. They live in poverty and ignorance and are
by the Inner Party and the Thought Police. Still, the proles retained the decent human values of friendship and family that the Party had done its
best to eliminate in its own members. And Winston Smith confides in his diary, "if there is any hope, it lies with the proles." In Orwell's eyes, the
proles constitute not just a force, but a natural force, capable of overwhelming the Party by virtue of their own humanity. Neither proles nor
Winston's search for his own past provides an escape since "nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull."
If you ever do manage to read Nineteen Eighty-Four, you
will come away from the novel saddened, angry and perhaps even
full of doom for the
generation that had to live through the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s and 40s. You will have felt the full emotional impact of Orwell's mind as
well. Dystopias are powerful weapons, even more so than the vast number of utopian novels that came before them. Utopias hold out for a vision
of the future -- a vision of how society ought to be. As a novel about how things are, Nineteen Eighty-Four ought not to be considered a clever
bit of prophecy on Orwell's part. Better to leave that to a writer like H. G. Wells. Rather, I think we have to see Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four
as a description of what he saw around him in post-war England. Again, the images of the novel and the two film versions are those of a post-war
London. They are constant reminders of what England needed to avoid, and on a broader scale, of what we all need to avoid.
It is clear that Orwell's mind and his dystopia were products
not necessarily of his imagination but more importantly of his
own experience. For
how else should it be? As England emerged from World War Two and as the Labour Party came to power, the State began to intervene more
forcibly into the lives of the citizen. And so, following World War Two, England began to build that vast government-subsidized entity known as
the Welfare State. No one was immune from paying the costs of that Welfare State. Individualism and collectivism were joined together as the
"middle road." Orwell had seen what this union had accomplished in Italy, Germany, Spain and the Soviet Union. Could England be far behind?
copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis
The Cold War 1968 - The Year of the Barricade The Existentialist Frame of Mind Orwell's Last Man in Europe 1989 - The Walls Come Tumbling Down Back to the 20th Century