The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, by Dorian Lynskey, Picador, 368 pp, £16.99, 978-1509890736
“It wouldn’t have been so gloomy if I had not been so ill,” Orwell supposedly said of Nineteen Eighty-Four. And even on the closest reading the novel seems a relentlessly cheerless affair. Airstrip One ‑ previously England ‑ is shabby and neglected, a grim place: “underfed people … in leaky shoes … patched up nineteenth century houses that smelt always of cabbage and bad lavatories”. Winston Smith ends up not so much defeated as effaced. The Party’s rule seems total. It can snoop into your house and scan your face for symptoms of dissent ‑ anything less than the compulsory look of “quiet optimism”. Not only that, it can make you doubt your own memory, question the very evidence of your senses, reject that most basic a priori: 2+2=4. And if it hasn’t got you, chances are it has your child, schooled to dob you in without a second thought.
Nor will things improve. Big Brother and co are systematically rewriting the past, the better to tighten their grip on the present and thereby predetermine the ghastly future: “a boot stamping on a human face ‑ for ever”.
Downbeat or not, Nineteen Eighty-Four has achieved a degree of influence few novels can match. Dorian Lynskey here reminds us how widely known it and its themes have become, and in just seventy years. Big Brother, Newspeak, doublethink, unperson ‑ all of these terms are familiar even to those who have never read the book. Lynskey is an insightful commentator who here provides a sharp and, at times, irreverent take on Orwell’s final novel ‑ what influenced it, what it in turn influenced. Everything, it would appear, from Dave Eggers’s The Circle to the Lego Movie, not to mention Privilege, a darkly disturbing 1960s film I’d forgotten. Best of all, though, is the fascinating overview he provides of a recent theory, courtesy of Margaret Atwood, that holds that Nineteen Eighty-four carries an unmistakeable message of hope, just so long as you know where to look for it.
Nineteen Eighty-Four’s literary influences are well known—Jack London’s The Iron Heel, Huxley’s Brave New World, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution. Lynskey gives a thorough account of them all and their authors. How Brave New World began as a spoof on Wells’s Modern Utopia. Or how Zamyatin – “stubborn as a fact” ‑ fell foul of Stalin and ended his days in miserable exile. How Jack London betrays a dodgy Nietzschean bent. And how thoroughly uncharitable Orwell could be towards some of these, the very texts that had inspired him: The Iron Heel (“a very poor book”); We (“not a book of the first order”).
Lynskey shows a keen eye for Orwell’s particular borrowings. From Koestler, say, the idea that loyalty to the Party might transcend self-preservation so that the victims of its rough justice are willing and contrite (“I’m glad they got me before it went any further,” says Parsons, a low-ranking Party hack). From Burnham, a world split between three superstates. From Zamyatin …well, a very great deal ‑ mass surveillance, deindividuation, the all-powerful leader, the discouragement of sex, two furtive lovers taking their doomed romantic stand. Poor Zamyatin. First order or not, We pilots some of the more enduring tropes of dystopian fiction, not just Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Brave New World and Ayn Rand’s Anthem. “These ideas are in the stormy air we breathe,” the author generously suggested when asked about the parallels between his book and Huxley’s.
Orwell himself, comparing Brave New World and We, thought Zamyatin’s dystopia the more convincing. Huxley had erred, he thought, in creating a hedonistic ruling class. To Orwell, “a ruling class which thought principally in terms of a ‘good time’ would soon lose its vitality”. In contrast, Zamyatin, he said, had glimpsed what genuinely motivated totalitarians ‑ the wish to rule, a love of cruelty, the desire to be worshipped. Whereas the pigs in Animal Farm are corrupted by the desire for luxuries, by Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell has the Party ruling, not for pleasure but for power alone. (“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution,” O’Brien advises Winston, “one makes a revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.)”
Fiction is one influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s own life experiences are another. His wartime career, for instance, when he worked for the BBC as a propagandist. Lynskey notes this and its likely influence on the novel although he gives it, I think, less of a role than it merits. In late 1939, as is now well-known, Orwell privately reneged on his earlier (qualified) pacifism and became a committed supporter of the war:
Which will sound better in the days to come,
“Blood, toil and sweat” or “Kiss the Nazi’s bum”…
As Lynskey puts it, Orwell, in effect, unpersoned his former pacifist self—acting and commenting as though he had never been anywhere except with the war party. A pacifist pamphlet he had been drafting around this time went down a memory hole, almost certainly because Orwell put it there. “The long drilling in patriotism … had done its work,” he wrote in “My Country Right or Left”. “[O]nce England was in a serious jam, it would be impossible for me to sabotage …” Shades here perhaps of the final paragraph of Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston listens to the latest war news and realises that he loves Big Brother.
This break with the pacifist left did not imply any break with socialism. Orwell remained a socialist the rest of this life, advocating to the end a radical programme of state ownership and income equality. In the war years, this took on a revolutionary fervour ‑ fantasies of red militias billeted in the Ritz and so on ‑ and had a distinctive and characteristic puritan touch. Like most socialists, Orwell reckoned that socialism would eventually deliver enough to meet all needs. And like most socialists, he believed that there would be a gruelling interim before this happened. In advocating socialism, Orwell lingers almost lovingly on the hardships this struggling transitional phase will surely bring ‑ hard work and plenty of it, a steady diet of herrings and potatoes. It did not faze him that that the tough times before socialism eventually delivered might last a century. Technology appalled him. Mechanisation would bring leisure, and leisure decadence (read sexual deviance), a debasement of taste, the manly ideal of the Yorkshire miner negated. “I have never been able to like these model countries with everything up to date and hygienic and an enormous suicide rate,” wrote Orwell to Ibsen scholar Michael Meyer in 1949. Meyer was in Sweden at the time and Sweden was dull, Orwell thought. Duller than Norway or Finland, although these were dull too ‑ welfare states so sterile they bored you to death.
In wartime London he appears to have been almost cheerful at the prospect of everyone clothed in army surplus and eating in communal canteens. The poor, the working class, even the lower middles ‑ good patriots all who’d had the sense to see through economic liberty ‑ would take this in their stride, thought Orwell. Only the rich would “squeal”.
Following his turnaround on pacifism, Orwell would be publicly and caustically critical of his former pacifist friends, arguing that pacifism was objectively pro-fascist. Lynskey is forgiving of this side of Orwell, suggesting that people had thicker skins back then. But Orwell’s public denunciations – “the nancy boys of literature”, “the pansy left” ‑ were often bitter and personal. True, people he condemned in public ‑ George Woodcock, John Middleton Murry, Alex Comfort ‑ were often later soothed, though only in private correspondence. (“Dear Comfort,” he wrote, a month or so after they had publicly squabbled, in rhyming couplets(!) “I am afraid I was rather rude to you in our Tribune set-to … as a piece of verse your contribution was immensely better … You ought to write something longer in that genre …”)
I believe that all of this period had a marked influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four. The them-and-us denunciations, for example, the propagandist work, even the run-down capital city at war and under frequent, unpredictable attack. Not to mention “Ingsoc” (English Socialism), the Party’s ideology. “Ingsoc,” writes Lynskey, “was no more socialist than National Socialism”, implying that German national socialism – Nazism ‑ was only nominally socialist. But Orwell himself did not think that. He thought that Hitler’s national socialists had adopted enough of socialism to give them the edge economically. In certain of Orwell’s writings of the early war years there is a grudging respect for Hitler and his economic programme. Where previously he had thought capitalism and fascism identical ‑ Tweedledee and Tweedledum ‑ he now alleged that the Nazi war effort was being driven on the back of a stronger and more efficient socialistic economy. Until Dunkirk, Orwell writes in The Lion and the Unicorn, “the case against capitalism had never been proved … Hitler will at any rate go down in history as the man who made the City of London laugh on the wrong side of its face.”
But Orwell thought there was more to Hitler’s successes than his economic model alone. He also believed that the Nazis respected the great emotive power of national identity and the collective solidarity this could inspire. In The Lion and the Unicorn, he writes of “the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty … as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it … Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.” To Orwell, national socialism was, in short, much of what it said it was ‑ a blend of socialism and nationalism. In certain of his writings of the early war years, he recommends the same recipe for Britain.
I believe the later Ingsoc is, in part, a satire of the kind of programme Orwell himself advocated in the first years of the war ‑ the planned economy, the spartan lifestyle, the appeal to patriotism —expounded in such texts as The Lion and the Unicorn and “The English People”. In his will, Orwell asked that both be allowed to go out of print.
Orwell’s time in Spain, during the civil war, is another important influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the 1943 essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War”, written when he was already mulling the novel over, Orwell states that it was in Spain that he saw for the first time “newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie … great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed … troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories … 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’.” Taken far enough, he argued, this could result “in a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ ‑ well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five ‑ well, two and two are five.”
It was totalitarianism’s long-term goal, Orwell wrote, to establish “a disbelief in the very concept of objective truth”. Such a war on reality was, he reckoned, potentially more dangerous than the secret police, or surveillance, or torture, since its ultimate effect would be to leave @no solid ground from which to mount a rebellion—no corner of the mind that has not been infected or warped by the state”. There are two distinct claims here, both of which make their way into Nineteen Eighty-Four. The first is what Orwell implies is the short-term goal of a totalitarian regime ‑ to promote as truth stories that are false but advantageous to the regime. One of Orwell’s real-life examples is the Franco side’s claim, during the Spanish Civil War, that there were Russian troops serving on the Republican side ‑ a whole army of them. He worried that this baseless story might end up being taught as fact to Spanish children in their history classes. Lynskey is similarly concerned that this kind of fake news is currently back in vogue and crowding out the truth. Trump won in 2016, he says, “because a significant number of Americans were effectively living in a parallel reality”.
Orwell’s other claim is that, in the longer term, totalitarian governments will undermine the very idea of truth or fact until the concepts of truth and falsehood have become meaningless. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, when O’Brien tortures Winston, he gradually persuades him to doubt the evidence of his own senses, the number of fingers he is holding up, for instance, or 2+2=4. Winston’s interrogator is alive with the kind of philosophical talk Orwell disliked: “Nothing exists except through human consciousness,” O’Brien says. “[R]eality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else.”
Although Orwell was impatient with this kind of solipsism, he was, I think, mistaken to think that any totalitarian government might adopt it. None of the totalitarian governments of the 1930s did so. And none of the totalitarian movements. All in all, it seems unlikely that any government or aspirant government might do such a thing. To lie is one thing and it might be useful to a government to do so. But it is not obvious how denying the possibility of truth, fact or knowledge could be in any way useful. (I am reminded here of Roger Scruton’s withering put-down: “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.”). I can see, though, that denying the possibility of fact might be effective at the one-to-one level, as in the Winston/O’Brien situation. If there is to be debate, there has to be some set of shared premises between the parties. But if one party to the debate maintains that there are no facts, or that truth is all relative, debating with them will be hard work especially if the solipsist is the more socially powerful of the two. Then it becomes a kind of Gaslight situation, as Lynskey says, and it will be difficult for the other party to get any kind of intellectual traction. This is how I think O’Brien uses solipsism when he is interrogating/torturing Winston. By affecting to believe that the world cannot exist independent of human consciousness, he completely undermines him. I say “affecting” because there is no sign in the text of Nineteen Eighty-Four that O’Brien actually believes this or takes his own proclaimed scepticism seriously. And there is no sign that the Party, of which he is a senior member, upholds or encourages a generally solipsistic worldview. Nothing that we see of the Party or its ideology suggests that it regards the external world as illusory, or non-existent, or not fully knowable. On the contrary, judging by the text of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party’s ideology assumes that the world we experience perceptually is a real world that exists independent of us. It is on the basis of this entirely conventional metaphysics that the Party makes its various spurious claims: that it invented the aeroplane; that the biggest and most impressive buildings in London are post-Revolution; that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia; that before the revolution the country was ruled by top-hatted capitalists who wore their distinguishing hats even on the barricades and who arrogated to themselves various spurious rights such as droit de seigneur; and that there is a clandestine subversive movement at large called the Brotherhood that is led by the renegade Emmanuel Goldstein.
In trying to establish these claims as truth, it is disseminating them through children’s educational texts and through the systematic, retrospective amendment of the official record. Clearly these are not the actions of a regime that has decided that there are no facts or that all truth is relative, but of a regime that is keen to promote a lie sufficiently at odds with the truth that it needs a lot of support if it is to be maintained. (There is a more basic version of this in Animal Farm, where the pigs begin to amend the principles of animalism to justify their own deviation and where they promote a revised version of the historical record in which, say, Snowball’s role in the revolution has been excised).
It is important to Nineteen Eighty-Four that the Party can successfully control the historical narrative. Through control of the past the Party can control the present and, ultimately, the future, a triple lock on power that Orwell suggests is unbreakable. But I wonder about this, about its feasibility most of all. One difference between Nineteen Eighty-Four and certain of the books that influenced it is that Orwell’s novel is set in the near future, less than forty years after its date of publication. The dystopian works that most influenced Orwell (Brave New World, We, The Iron Heel) are, in contrast, set centuries in the future. In the case of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the effect of this near future setting used to be that it generated a kind of millenarian urgency ‑ here, Orwell is saying, is an imagined totalitarianism projected to take place, not in some remote science fiction future, but within the lifetime of many of you people reading right now. Those who, like me, read Nineteen Eighty-Four before the actual year 1984 will remember the effect of this ‑ how, for example, such and such a development (everything from CCTV to databases to the Today’s English Version of the New Testament) was said to be “like Nineteen Eighty-Four”. It kept the novel and its message current but, at the same time, stretched credulity. Is it realistic that the Party has achieved so much control, in so short a time and with so little apparent opposition?
Going by the text of the novel, the event the Party refers to as the Revolution happened around 1940 and the various purges began in the 1950s, although they only really got going the following decade. Winston recalls having first heard of Big Brother in the 1960s at the earliest. Given this, at the time the novel is set, the Party has held totalitarian power for, at most, thirty years.
Compare Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, a likely, though unacknowledged (by Orwell anyway) influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Swastika Night, the Nazi regime has consolidated its empire and ruled it for centuries. Over this time, Hitler has become mythologised as a kind of Charlemagne figure. The real Hitler is sufficiently far in the past that the mythological version cannot be challenged evidentially. Real Hitler is well out of living memory and the Nazis have had hundreds of years in which to build up the myth.
In contrast to Burdekin’s Nazis, Orwell’s Ingsoc Party makes claims that could easily be refuted simply by an appeal to memory. Take the aeroplane claim. Winston himself knows it to be false, and, in 1984, there would have been any number of people who likewise knew that there were aeroplanes long before the Party came to power. Only as the time before the Party came to power ceased to be a living memory could it even begin to be secure in such a downright lie. Until then, any of its more blatant falsehoods would be obvious to many, including many, if not most, Party members. Consequently, a story put about to enhance the Party might have the opposite effect of diminishing it.
Orwell attempts to address this by writing Winston so that his own memory of the past is usefully poor ‑ he can remember that Airstrip One was once called England and that some countries used to be a different shape on the map but, in general, “Beyond the late ’fifties, everything faded”. Useful too is that when Smith tries to fill in the gaps in his own memory by asking an old man in the prole district to tell him about the past, the man is unhelpful. His “memory was nothing but a rubbish heap of details”. Whereupon Winston abandons the project. Having thought that if anyone could help him, a prole could, he concludes instead “ … the few scattered survivors from the ancient world … all the relevant details were outside their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones.”
In fact, the world before the Party came to power is not “ancient”, it is recent; and those who remembered that world would not be “few” and “scattered” but numerous and commonplace. Anyone over the age of fifty would remember how times were before the Party came to power. Winston’s bad luck with his first choice of informant, and his ready disinclination to continue his enquiries, do not take away from the fact that, in reality, the Party’s version of events would be vulnerable to challenge and would remain so for many decades to come.
In the end, such plot holes do not detract too greatly from the novel. Orwell’s purpose in Nineteen Eighty-Four is ultimately to write compelling speculative fiction, and to satirise. Caught up in the narrative we can suspend disbelief. Here is a state, Oceania, that aims to control what people think until dissent from the Party line is literally unthinkable. It appears to be doing well. Dissent is being stamped out. And the Party’s grip will tighten further when Newspeak becomes universal. In this context, Winston might indeed be the last man, the last person capable of dissenting from the Party’s imposed consensus. And Winston, of course, recants. The novel ends with him resigned to the Party, to Big Brother, to his own, almost certain, execution. It is as gloomy as Orwell said. For years, decades, the published text of Nineteen Eighty-Four included a scene, towards the end, where Winston writes in the dust “2+2= ”. And for years that blank was sometimes read as evidence that Winston did not quite succumb, that if he couldn’t quite bring himself to write “2+2=4”, neither could he write that it equalled five. Eventually (I have it in my head it was in 1984 itself), that blank was identified as a printer’s error and fixed to “2+2=5”. Orwell wanted Winston’s personal defeat to seem total.
I say “seem” because, although Winston is defeated, it is possible that the Party might not have won. Perhaps the most interesting part of Lynskey’s book is his suggestion that Orwell ends Nineteen Eighty-Four with an unambiguous message of hope, one that is plain to see. That message is the Appendix. It is not in the Appendix. It is the Appendix itself.
This is the Appendix Theory first propounded, as far as I can see, by Margaret Atwood more than fifteen years ago. Atwood suggested that dystopian novels should always end on an optimistic note. Just a glimmer. No glimmer and we wilt and give up. More than a glimmer and we walk. The Appendix – “The Principles of Newspeak” ‑ is, she says, the glimmer in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Publishers wanted Orwell to axe it and he refused. This is allegedly because the Appendix is the part of the text that lets us see that Newspeak (and the Newspeakers) did not win. It tells us that, in the decades after the events of the novel, the Party ceased to rule. It must have. “The Principles of Newspeak” is written in 2050 and in Oldspeak, that is English. That date is significant. By 2050, Newspeak was supposed to have become universal; that was the Party’s target, yet here is an official-seeming text written in standard English. And the footnote that, early in the novel, alerts the reader to that appendix states that Newspeak “was the official language of Oceania”.
As Lynskey writes, “The Appendix Theory … turns the rest of the book into a historical document that has been studied and edited by persons unknown.” It is the same trope Jack London uses in The Iron Heel, where the main story is of a socialist revolution in the near future that is brutally suppressed. But the presentation of that story is that it is an account that has survived into the distant future, to a future time when a subsequent socialist revolution has succeeded, following which a secure and successful socialist society has been established. In presenting the story this way, London is, in effect, saying that socialist readers of The Iron Heel need not be disheartened since socialism won in the long run; it is a socialist society that is presenting this grim story, and doing so from a position of confident authority. Nor should readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four be despondent, say Appendix Theorists. Winston loses but so, in time, does the Party. Not only has its Newspeak project floundered; the Party, and the era of the Party appear to be past. For all the official systematic falsification of the historical record that went on when the Party was in control, Winston’s story has survived. Either that, or the glimmer, the Appendix, is one of the biggest gaffes in all fiction.
“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936,” comments Orwell in “Why I Write”, has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism as I understand it.” It is unfortunate then that Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Animal Farm before it ‑ the very books that made Orwell canonical ‑ are widely seen as works of anti-socialism. Lynskey writes that Orwell’s publisher Martin Warburg thought Nineteen Eighty-Four was worth “a cool million votes for the Conservative Party” while Raymond Williams, in his 1971 extended essay, complains that “Orwell is produced as ‘evidence’ against a new revolutionary generation. The revival of the Socialist movement, which he said he wanted, is met by the sad ghost of his late imagination.” Orwell himself was unhappy that his writings were being seen as hostile to socialism. He remained right up to his death a socialist, a believer in the desirability of a planned economy based on substantial public ownership, as well as a democrat who thought that this desirable system could be established by an elected government. His concern for democratic socialism was that it might be hijacked by totalitarians and thereby cease to be democratic. It is surely significant, for example, that in Animal Farm, socialism/animalism succeeds as an economic system. The infrastructure the animals establish after their revolution is superior to what existed before and, post-revolution, the farm operates successfully and, for a time anyway, more equitably. What is more, the revolution has a kind of democratic mandate in that almost all of the animals support it. It fails solely on account of the pigs’ corruption. As Lynskey comments, Animal Farm “would not be half as sad without the knowledge that things could have been different”.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party too has come to power through a revolution, or purports to have done so. We do not know if this was mass or not, or if it even happened. (Probably not.) From the information in the text, the totalitarian Big Brother faction appears to have taken over through a series of purges in the 1950s and 1960s and, by the time of the book’s action has been ruling for some time, about three decades. There is more than whiff of failure about the Party and Ingsoc. It is not managing an economically impressive society, although the relative poverty of Oceania is more a means of holding onto power than a defect of socialism.
In real life, the 1945 election in the United Kingdom had resulted in a Labour government, in power following a landslide victory. This new government proceeded to nationalise many British industries, established the National Health Service and brought in free education up to university level. But Orwell was disappointed. He thought it didn’t go far enough.
Labour lost in 1951, a year after Orwell’s death. Attlee’s radical, reforming government fell victim to the eventual unpopularity that is the lot of almost every democratic government. It was thirteen years before Labour was back in power, by which time it was singing a decidedly different, less socialist ‑ less than socialist ‑ song. Atlee’s government fell, and it is unlikely that a party that believed in a collectivised economy of the type that Orwell advocated could have held onto power indefinitely in a democratic system without deviating from its programme. Orwell himself said that there would be a gruelling transition period before the benefits of socialism began to kick in. What party could have toughed that out electorally, with an active opposition nipping at its heels and factions within arguing for an alternative approach? Disappointing though it might have been to a seasoned socialist like Orwell, Labour in 1945 turned out to be as socialist ‑ that is, as close to Orwell’s desired programme ‑ as Labour ever got. Whether in Britain or in “dull” Scandinavia, or anywhere that socialist parties and parties with socialists in them have functioned in democratic systems, they have become less socialist, or they have become less electable. That is the message of the last seventy years.
If Nineteen Eighty-Four falls down as pro-socialism, it does well as anti-totalitarianism. Its sales, never low, have perked up, particularly in the past five years, sparked, surely, by growing concerns about populist authoritarianism, fake news, electoral skulduggery and the post-truth society. Recently I saw a writer bemoan on social media that too many books these days were all content and no style. If only this were true. Great writing is about content. Styles come and go like fads and fashion. It is content that endures. Gloomy Nineteen Eighty-Four may be; still, rather than depressing us it has, for seventy years and counting, been putting us on high alert for manipulation and control. Far from dispiriting, it has of late, and in company with several other key dystopian texts (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Plot Against America), become a kind of handbook for activism.
Martin Tyrrell will be speaking on Orwell and his writings at Queen’s University, Belfast, Open Learning on October 2nd and 28th, 2019.