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War is peace, freedom is slavery ... left is right?

Enda O'Doherty writes: DJ Taylor, in his 2003 biography Orwell: The Life, refers in passing to “an extremely odd period curio” which appeared in 1937, published by Victor Gollancz (at that time George Orwell’s publisher) and reissued by the Left Book Club in 1940. Swastika Night by Murray Constantine

envisages a society which has been under Nazi rule for 700 years and a world divided between German and Japanese empires, permanently at war in their colonial possessions. A young English dissident, entrusted by one of the German ruling class with the only extant copy of a ‘true’ history of the world, discovers that Hitler was not a god and that there had in the past existed entities such as ‘memory’ and ‘socialism’.

“Murray Constantine” was in fact Katharine Burdekin (née Cade) a prolific writer of feminist novels in the fantasy and futurist modes, often attacking masculinist values and envisaging an ideal society without rigid gender roles. In Swastika Night women are kept in concentration camps and are of value only for their reproductive capacity. Burdekin apparently published the novel pseudonymously because she was worried that its strong anti-fascist message might bring reprisals on her family. She was not identified as its author until after her death.

It is not known if George Orwell had read Burdekin’s work ‑ he could very well have been aware of its themes without having read it; he certainly had rather traditional views about gender roles, though he was an affectionate, hands-on father. He had been struggling, in the face of chronic ill health (the tuberculosis that was to kill him in January 1950), with his own dystopian novel at his Hebridean retreat on Jura throughout 1947 and 1948. During its gestation it had been hypothetically titled “The Last Man in Europe” but this title went unused, remaining available to become in due course both a fine song by Dublin band The Blades (1985) and a biographical novel about Orwell by Dennis Glover (2017).

Seventy years ago today Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in Britain by Secker & Warburg, and five days later by Harcourt, Brace in the United States. A year after publication almost 50,000 copies had been sold in Britain and 170,000 copies in the US. And of course it didn’t stop there.


Reaction was generally positive, both in reviews and in a series of private letters Orwell received from other writers. There was, however, in some quarters a problem of incomprehension or misinterpretation. The German critic and historian Golo Mann, writing in the Frankfurter Rundschau, saw that the novel was about totalitarianism, and that it drew on fascism and Nazism as well as on communism. He deplored the reaction of some media in the USA, who portrayed the work as an attack not just on the Soviet Union and its satellites but on social democracy and British Labourism.

Their mistake is perhaps understandable: Orwell’s own publisher, Fred Warburg, had himself first seen the book in this light. In an internal office document for the benefit of those who might be involved in the sales and marketing effort for Nineteen Eighty-Four, he had written: “The political system which prevails is Ingsoc = English Socialism. This I take to be a deliberate and sadistic attack on socialism and socialist parties generally. It seems to indicate a final breach between Orwell and Socialism ... and it is worth a cool million votes to the Conservative Party; it is imaginable that it might have a preface by Winston Churchill after whom its hero is named.” Warburg cannot, at this stage, have known much about his author.

After the book was greeted in some quarters in the US as a work of straightforward anti-socialist propaganda Orwell put Warburg, who was visiting him in his sanatorium in Gloucestershire, right on his intentions and the latter quickly issued a press release, which included this clarification: “The name suggested in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR [for “the Anglo-Americans”] is of course Ingsoc, but in practice a wide range of choices is open. In the USA the phrase ‘Americanism’ or ‘hundred per cent Americanism’ is suitable and the qualifying adjective is as totalitarian as anyone could wish.”

Orwell thus not only found reprehensible Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism but was suspicious of any society in which “patriotism” and public declarations of loyalty to the project were mandatory, as seemed to be the case in the land of the free. The novel’s satire also at times points to features of his own society: the films, football games, lotteries and romantic fiction and pornography (written by machines) with which the proles were kept happy would seem to be not so very distant from the existing mass culture of England in the 1940s, a mechanism, many more austere socialists believed, to divert the workers from thinking about their oppression.

On June 16th Orwell responded to an official of the United Automobile Workers, who liked the book but was worried about the warm welcome it had received in conservative circles in the US:

My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already partly been realized in Communism and Fascism. I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.

Bernard Crick saw Nineteen Eighty-Four as “a flawed masterpiece both of literature and of political thought” and he warned against interpreting it (as Warburg seemed to do) as Orwell’s final judgment on socialism, a belief system with which he had been intellectually engaged since the mid-thirties:

The book was fully compatible with what he had written before and much of its inspiration arose from what he had done before. It does not summarize his life’s work, however; it is not his summa, and it is not even a political last testament, or a last testament of any kind. It was, once again, the last great book he happened to write before he happened to die. He would have had much more to write about, just as he had written about other things, great and small.

Sources: George Orwell: A Life, by Bernard Crick (1980), Orwell: The Life, by DJ Taylor (2003)