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Waiting for Big Brother

Martin Tyrrell

On Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Biography, by DJ Taylor, Abrams Press, 208 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1419738005

George Orwell on Screen: Adaptations, Documentaries and Docudramas on Film and Television, McFarland and Co, 184 pp, £29.99, ISBN: 978-1476673691

It is unfortunate that David Taylor’s On Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Biography has appeared in the same year as Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: the Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. since the two books cover much the same ground ‑ principally what influenced the novel and what the novel, in its turn, went on to influence. Also, both are highly engaging and elegantly written. 

Taylor is especially good at tracing the connections between Nineteen Eighty-Four and Orwell’s relatively neglected earlier fictions. “Most Orwell biography,” he writes, “is, necessarily, an exercise in teleology” – that is it is written as though Nineteen Eighty-Four were the book Orwell had been building up to his whole life. Taylor makes a good case that this is indeed so. Looking back at the central characters of Orwell’s naturalistic novels ‑ Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming up for Air ‑ we see what Taylor calls the author’s “tendency to isolate and victimise them, to place them, alone or relatively friendless, at the centre of a hostile world from which they cannot escape and where there every movement is subject to constant surveillance”.

The influence of Orwell’s preparatory school, St Cyprian’s, on the fictive world of Nineteen Eighty-Four has been much debated. Taylor here suggests that the influences might have been two-way ‑ while something of the St Cyprian’s experience is present in Nineteen Eighty-Four, something of Airstrip One has likewise seeped into “Such, Such were the Joys”, Orwell’s bitter, and contested, memoir of his schooldays, which was being written at the same time as the novel. In the essay, Orwell recalls how, at St Cyprian’s, pocket money was given to the headmaster’s wife for safe keeping. Once, however, he secretly kept a shilling from his allowance and slipped into town to buy sweets. But as he was leaving the sweet shop, he imagined that a man in the street was watching him closely. He decided that this must be one of the headmaster’s spies and that there would be “other spies posted here and there about the town”.

The same essay has Orwell recall his own exclusion and the sense of physical inadequacy he experienced as a result. “I was weak, I was ugly … I had a chronic cough, I smelt … I was an unattractive boy …” And unattractiveness would be a motif in Orwell’s writing. Going back to those early fictions, their protagonists are likewise ill-favoured and excluded, something Taylor has previously examined in Orwell: The Life, his 2003 biography ‑ “Each of his early novels opens with a shrewd little survey of the physiognomy of the principal character. These are not generally prepossessing.” There is John Flory with the birthmark that earned him the nickname “Monkey Bum” at school; or Dorothy Hare with her “thin, blond, unremarkable kind of face”. Gordon Comstock is not thirty years old but already “rather moth-eaten”, while even the relatively good-humoured George Bowling is overweight and sporting his first set of false teeth. These physical imperfections of Orwell’s leads, which marks their outsider status, also seems to suit their disgruntlement, even fuel it. Think of Gordon, for example, and his bitter rage against what he calls the moneyed young beasts with their smart clothes and their £10,000 a year complexions.

Not only are the lead characters in these apprentice works fatally flawed; Orwell suspected the same was true of the books themselves, even as he was writing them. Burmese Days made him “spew”; A Clergyman’s Daughter was “bollix”; Aspidistra a potboiler written for the £100 advance. All the same, they also, as Taylor demonstrates, evidence a consistency of theme and a growing politicisation. Orwell’s every novel, Alex Zwerdling commented in his 1974 Orwell and the Left, “is about a failed revolution”. Taylor sees something similar. All of Orwell’s mains are, he says, coming up for air, one last time – “surfacing for a brief gasp of freedom before the water closes once more over their heads”. If all of Orwell’s characters are ultimately defeated (Flory dead, Dorothy and Comstock back to the very places from which they tried to get away) it is George Bowling who seems most disillusioned, reconciled that coming up for air is a fool’s errand since, as he memorably concludes, “ …there isn’t any air! The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere”. Nor does he see much hope for the future. The coming world, Bowling imagines, will be a “hate world” of leader worship, slogans and heavy-handed policing, and of leaders who want power for its own sake. Oceania, in other words.

If Orwell deprecated his earlier works, still Coming Up for Air marks a decided improvement on its immediate predecessors ‑ more political, for one thing, and more stylistically ambitious, with its first person narration and lead character so markedly different from Orwell himself. “[L]ooking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally,” was Orwell’s judgment in the essay “Why I Write”. Animal Farm was, he thought, the first book in which he had successfully fused political and artistic purpose. Here, especially, is the first fictional outing of the idea with which Orwell will be forever associated ‑ that socialism has the potential to take a totalitarian turn. In Animal Farm, we see this happen. And in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where it has already happened, we see where it might lead.

The principal literary influences on Nineteen Eighty-Four ‑ Jack London’s The Iron Heel, HG Wells’s The Sleeper Wakes, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World ‑ are well-known and have been much discussed, including by Orwell himself. In July 1940, for example, a couple of years before he began planning what would be Nineteen Eighty-Four, he reviewed four dystopian novels for the magazine Time and Tide ‑ those of London, Wells and Huxley plus Ernest Bramah’s The Secret of the League. In Bramah’s book, now largely forgotten, the titular League is a union of aristocrats and upper middles that scuppers a democratically elected liberal socialist government using its members’ wealth and ‑ but of course ‑ their innate superiority, not to mention a bit of old-fashioned thuggery courtesy of the League’s Gilded Youth. The book is high Tory in ideology, its ideal being the restoration of the world that existed before the Liberal landslide of 1906, when the franchise was limited, all MPs were not only men but gentlemen and the House of Lords had an absolute veto on legislation that was not to their lordships’ taste (or in their class interest) ‑ a kind of triple lock against socialism.

The Time and Tide review, written in the shadow of a possible Nazi invasion, differs politically from certain of Orwell’s other writings from around the same time, such as his review of Malcolm Muggeridge’s The Thirties. In particular, it is not clear from what he writes in Time and Tide what Orwell means by fascism. The anti-socialist counter-revolution in London’s The Iron Heel is, he says, decidedly not fascist. But the counter revolution in Bramah’s Secret is. Also, Orwell suggests that Marxists were latecomers to the idea that fascism was dangerous. Orwell had himself been a Marxist in the late 1930s. He had been a Marxist in the sense that he was a member of a Marxist political party ‑ the Independent Labour Party (ILP) ‑ and he had joined it because, as he subsequently wrote, it was a principled socialist party that would resist, not just fascism but imperialist war, but also because he was wise now to “mere” anti-fascism and the bogus appeal of “capitalist democracy”. Prior to joining the ILP, Orwell had been a member of the POUM (the United Marxist Workers’ Party) the ILP’s sister party in the International Revolutionary Marxist Centre. He had also fought in its militia. The POUM/ILP line was that fascism was simply a rougher form of capitalism ‑ capitalism without the mask. Fascism was dangerous only in the way that all capitalism was dangerous. Orwell therefore thought it bizarre that the pro-Moscow Communists ‑ Marxists who definitely reckoned fascism was a danger ‑ were trying to build cross-party, anti-fascist alliances. He ridiculed these Popular Fronts, considering them freakish, like the Pushmepullyou in Doctor Doolittle. The only credible and consistent anti-fascist position, said Orwell, was revolutionary anti-capitalism. The pre-war Orwell was therefore generally suspicious of ‘mere’ anti-fascism, seeing it as a form of war-mongering. This is how it is depicted in Coming up for Air when Bowling goes to hear a “well-known anti-fascist” give a lecture. “A rather mean little man,” he tells us, “with a white face and a bald head, standing on a platform, shouting out slogans. What’s he doing? Quite deliberately and quite openly, he’s stirring up hatred. Doing his damnedest to make you hate certain foreigners called Fascists.”

Orwell abandoned this ‘fascism = capitalism’ position more or less as soon as the war began. Not only did he declare that he was now a patriot after all, he also modified his view of fascism, or at least of Nazism. Nazism, he now thought, had taken on enough of socialism to make it economically efficient and therefore powerful and threatening. It was this particular coupling ‑ efficient socialism plus the unifying power of nationality ‑ that made it dangerous. If “England” was to win the war, it would need both to socialise its economy and embrace, not disparage, the idea of the nation. It must, in its own way, become national socialist.

For a year or so, this was a big idea with Orwell. The Home Guard, he hoped, might be a kind of people’s militia, billeted in the Ritz; capitalism would largely go, along with its hated trappings – advertising, top hats, trousers with turn-ups. In place of high fashion, perhaps dyed battledress. And collective eateries à la Betjeman:

I have a Vision of The Future, chum,
The worker’s flats in fields of soya beans
Tower up like silver pencils, score on score:
And Surging Millions hear the Challenge come
From microphones in communal canteens
“No Right! No wrong! All’s perfect, evermore.”

A little later, Orwell went off all this again, recanted it, and asked that the books in which he expounded it (The Lion and the Unicorn and The English People) be let go quietly out of print. The Lion and the Unicorn (subtitled “Socialism and the English Genius”) is a kind of manifesto for ‑ Orwell is emphatic here ‑ a decidedly English socialism that reconnects with “ … the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners …”, which he argues has kept England fighting, kept fascism at bay. One can see why Orwell might have wanted to draw back from this position. And I suspect that something of the socialism of The Lion and the Unicorn informs the satirical Ingsoc. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party’s alleged Year Zero ‑ its revolutionary year ‑ is 1940, the year of The Lion and the Unicorn and the year when Orwell himself thought revolution was imminent.

Going back to that Time and Tide review, while Orwell is reasonably impressed by London’s Iron Heel, he is critical, indeed dismissive, of both Wells’s The Sleeper Wakes and Huxley’s Brave New World. In these works, he argues, the dystopian elites lack the credibility of those imagined by London. Soft soakers up of luxury, they are short on the fanaticism of convincing despots. Orwell, as Taylor says, thought that totalitarians would need a quasi-religious worldview if they were to rule successfully; some sense of mission that they were the custodians of civilisation.

Separately, Taylor mentions an often claimed literary influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four, Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, noting that there is no conclusive evidence Orwell actually read it. It has been suggested that since Burdekin’s novel was published by Gollancz, who was also Orwell’s publisher, and since it was a Left Book Club selection, as The Road to Wigan Pier had been, Orwell might well have seen and read it. Also, there are some similarities between Orwell’s imagined future and Burdekin’s ‑ the regime’s attempted rewriting of history, for instance, and the secret book that has the potential to shake the dictatorship to its foundations. WJ West, in The Larger Evils, a 1992 assessment of the influences on Nineteen Eighty-Four, dismissed a Burdekin influence, suggesting that if Orwell had read Swastika Night he might have mentioned it, might have reviewed it or at least referred to it in correspondence. Then again, you don’t need to read a book to be influenced by it. You need only read a review of it, or have it “told” to you, for something of it to stay with you. Orwell moved in circles where he’d have heard tell of many books and Swastika Night might have been one of them.    

In contrast, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We had an unmistakable and obvious influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four, though Orwell did not read it until 1946. Reviewing it that year for Tribune, he suggested that Huxley might have read it before writing Brave New World but he himself then proceeded to draw liberally from it. Zamyatin’s Benefactor clearly prefigures Big Brother; the telescreen is a technological upgrade of Zamyatin’s glass houses; both regimes control the sex lives of their citizens; and at the heart of both books is a revolt that is both sexual and political.  

True to form, Orwell, was unsure if Nineteen Eighty-Four, when he had completed it, had any merit. “It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure,” he said of it when it was still a work in progress. And after it was published, he confided to Dwight Macdonald that he had “mucked it up” and to Celia Kirwan that it was “an awful book really”. But at least it would pay off his arrears of income tax.

Critical opinion was not unanimously positive at the time of publication and was slow to change. Malcolm Muggeridge thought the novel “rather repugnant” and far-fetched. Herbert Read reckoned it a “strange success” and Gilbert Phelps considered the writing “frequently slack and tired”. But mere readers thought otherwise, and, over time, the critical consensus has more or less swung around.

As Taylor notes, the book has “reach” ‑ more so than any adult novel of the past seventy years, its ideas have spread into the wider culture until even people who have never read it know it. It would surely have surprised Orwell that his fiction might ever have had a level of recognition comparable to that of Dickens and yet this is exactly what both Animal Farm and, all the more so, Nineteen Eighty-Four have achieved, Animal Farm through “some are more equal than others” and “four legs good, two legs bad”; Nineteen Eighty-Four through more than a dozen ideas that have become ubiquitous ‑ Big Brother, say, or the Thought Police.

Some of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s “reach” is due to the five times it has to date been adapted for TV or film. All of these adaptations are discussed in David Ryan’s extensive George Orwell on Screen, which surveys an important, but generally neglected, part of the Orwell industry. Ryan has researched his subject to the smallest detail to produce a book that is assured and informative but also commendably light of touch with plenty of anecdotes, some wicked. Malcolm Muggeridge is fondly recalled by several of Ryan’s interviewees as endlessly hospitable, once memorably helping lug a film crew’s equipment across a windswept Jura in his seventies. In contrast, official biographer Bernard Crick is here remembered less than fondly. Recruited to advise on a fine Arena documentary broadcast in five parts in late 1983, early 1984, the programme’s producer, Nigel Williams, says that Crick ended up talking at people rather than to them. An interview with David Astor had to be re-run minus Crick because Crick had taken it over: “It got to be an absolute nightmare,” Williams alleges. “[The] crew couldn’t stand him … the sound recordist grew so tired of Crick’s voice that as the interviews dragged on, he would stop putting tape in the machine.” Unrepentant, Crick subsequently wrote a negative review of the documentary in Granta which he sent to Williams with particular parts of the text underlined.

In terms of building public awareness of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the BBC version from 1954 is probably the most important adaptation of all (“The term ‘Big Brother’,” said The Times, “which the day before yesterday meant nothing to 99% of the population, has become a household phrase.”) . Made just five years after the novel was published, this landmark production was twice performed to camera and transmitted live. The second performance, which many of those involved thought inferior, was recorded. Ryan considers it: “An austere, quietly devastating masterpiece, humming with political insights.”

While the work was praised for the quality of the production, and for its faithfulness to the novel, not all were satisfied. Many, including some MPs, complained about how shocking and unsettling they found it. The Daily Worker, the Communist Party of Great Britain’s paper, denounced the play as “a Tory guttersnipe’s view of socialism” and, later, Llew Gardner, writing in the same paper, denounced Orwell: “sick in the body and mind … he hated humanity and he hated himself”. John Rodden has argued that it was this television version that launched Orwell in the UK; sales of the novel increased significantly following transmission.

I was about fifteen years too late to catch this BBC version when it was new, potent and affecting. By the time I did see it, it was antique. The first film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four that I saw was an American version from 1956. This version, sometimes called the “Columbia 1984”, was televised on BBC or ITV around 1971 and was my initial, indirect, encounter with Orwell and his final novel, though at the time it was just another Sunday night movie. I remember finding the telescreen particularly unsettling ‑ its ability to pry into your living room and your life. It played to a childhood fear that the people on television could see you. I have, a as result, a soft spot for that film even though it is generally regarded as hokum.

Not “as bad as it’s painted” is Ryan’s faint praise of this Columbia version. Edmond O’Brien played Winston, and was, as Ryan suggests, perhaps a touch too healthy-looking to portray him credibly. Michael Redgrave (who featured on Orwell’s notorious list of communists and cryptos) played O’Brien, here called “O’Connor”, perhaps in order to distinguish him from the actual O’Brien playing Winston. Taglined “a film of tomorrow to shock you today”, its look is science fiction ‑ beehive buildings, multilevel freeways, Emmanuel Goldstein rebranded “Kalador” and the Thought Police on motorcycles. There was apparently a posse of them on hand for the film’s London premiere, which Orwell’s widow, Sonia Brownell, boycotted. She hated the film so much she swore there would be no more big screen versions of Nineteen Eighty-Four or any other Orwell novel.

“This … is a story of the future. It could be the story of our children if we fail to preserve their heritage of freedom” runs the voiceover that ends the Columbia 1984. It is a not so subtle reminder that this was no regular film. As both Ryan and Taylor show, it was produced with significant, though covert, CIA funding delivered through various front organisations with the remit that it deliver a lasting anti-communist message. But despite, or perhaps because of the intelligence community’s intervention, the film was a box office flop.

It is an interesting, not to say Orwellian, irony that, a few years before Hollywood made Cold War movies like the Columbia 1984, it had produced a number of films unqualifiedly supportive of the Soviet Union, then a wartime ally. Mission to Moscow is probably the best known, and most blatant, of these. It is so partisan it does not so much gloss over the show trials, as deny that there was anything show about them and it implies that Trotsky was either a Nazi agent or at least a useful fool of fascism. Orwell mentioned Mission in passing, noting that, while there had been some American disquiet at the cant and the cognitive dissonance of it, “it was accepted [in the UK] with hardly a murmur”. 

After the war came the Cold War, and the vast leeway Soviet communism had been given in America during the war years was in an instant taken away. There was, instead, McCarthyism, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (the HUAC). The Hollywood that had lately sanitised the Soviet Union now went on a witch-hunt for Soviet sympathisers in which the criteria for unorthodoxy were set low. The Columbia 1984 is of that time.

Such explicitly Cold War movies were intended to nudge people into alignment with the “free world”. And should people prove resistant to nudging, then there was the expedient of coercion. If people had slipped over to the other side, or looked like they might do so, and that they might push that side’s line, especially via the entertainment industry, then they would be made unemployable in that industry. And so, in another Orwellian irony, Howard Koch, who had dutifully scripted Mission to Moscow, was later blacklisted for alleged communist connections. He and dozens more ‑ Kim Hunter, Ring Lardner, Joe Losey, Larry Adler. The HUAC lost its sting early on, though it did not formally shut up shop until the mid-1970s. Only when the shop was firmly shut did Hollywood find it had a bad conscience about the whole McCarthy business and several movies were made with an anti-HUAC line ‑ Martin Ritt’s The Front, John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man, the latter suggesting that the United States had acted dubiously in the recent past and was still doing so.  

Sonia Brownell’s veto on all film adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four stood until a few months before she died. That was when she approved the Richard Branson/Virgin version scripted and directed by Michael Radford. It was a good decision ‑ the result was a wonderfully sombre, downbeat and largely faithful version. From Ryan’s account, it appears to have been produced at some pace to enable it to be released in the year of the book, which by the skin of its teeth it was. John Hurt plays Winston ‑ it was a condition of Radford’s participation that he did so ‑ and Richard Burton, in his final film performance, plays O’Brien.

The main controversy at the time was that a soundtrack by the Eurythmics was added to the film, ousting an earlier orchestral soundtrack by Dominic Muldowney. Radford publicly scorned this substitution at an awards event that was televised but he has apparently since relented. I found that disappointing, the relenting that is. The Eurythmics soundtrack ‑ all eighties synthesisers and beats ‑ clashed badly with the shabby monochrome Airstrip One the film depicts but cannot fully undermine what is surely the best ever adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, maybe the best there will be.

Ryan’s comprehensive survey of Orwell on film is a reminder that only the Columbia 1984 and an earlier, animated version of Animal Farm (also covertly CIA-backed and with a happyish ending) are overtly political. For most of the other Orwell adaptations ‑ and there are many ‑ any bias is left/liberal, sometimes overtly, sometimes vaguely. This is particularly the case with various BBC productions. Alan Plater’s superb The Crystal Spirit: Orwell on Jura, for example. Transmitted just once, as part of the Christmas schedule in 1983, it ends with Ronald Pickup as a convincing Orwell telling his infant son Richard that two plus two makes four regardless of what the government might tell you. Not quite the revolution televised, but hardly docile either. The five-part Arena documentary is from around the same time. In it, all of the Orwell quotations were voiced with a kind of classless, everyman accent, which at the time seemed like a deliberate attempt at reinvention ‑ Orwell as sociology teacher ‑ and was criticised as such. It was certainly hard to match the narrative voice of the series to the Orwell it described, a man who, for instance, wore bespoke trousers even when he was writing Down and Out in Paris and London. The production team had caught up with the Blair family tailor, who remembered that the man who would be Orwell liked a good pair of handmade flannel trousers and that he always paid on the nail. 

According to Ryan, a then largely unknown Alan Rickman had been the first choice to voice Orwell but had been rejected on the grounds that he sounded too middle class. Nigel Williams, the producer, ended up voicing it himself. But when a recording of Orwell was later turned up (and a little later, lost) he sounded a lot like … Alan Rickman. The Daily Worker was, by 1984, the Morning Star but it still gave the Arena programme a bad review. The change of name did not signal any change in animosity.     

“The great success of George,” said Malcolm Muggeridge, “has been that he has leftish credentials but takes a rightist’s view.” Nineteen Eighty-Four’s publisher, Fred Warburg would probably have concurred. He welcomed the novel, believing that it marked Orwell’s break with the left and would garner a “cool million votes for the Conservatives”. Later, as Ryan and Taylor both amply demonstrate, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm would be conscripted for active service in the Cold War, hence the Columbia version. Taylor, like Isaac Deutscher before him, sees much of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s success as down to its having been weaponised in this way.

I used to think, like a lot of people, that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were important stages on Orwell’s journey towards a more conservative position, a journey he did not live to complete. But I have long rejected that view. I see no sign that Orwell, in the years of his growing reputation, which were the years before his death, ceased to be a socialist. It is by accident that Nineteen Eighty-Four has been read as anti-socialism, or as a disillusioned socialist’s apologia. If it reads that way then that was not its author’s intention. Right to the end, Orwell aspired to see a democratic socialist government more radical than any that has ever been elected, one that controlled the commanding heights of the economy, smoothed out income disparities and ended inequalities in education. His criticism of the then Labour government was that it did not go far enough. It had yet to close down the public schools and the preps, say, or pension off upper middle class and aristocratic elements in the civil service, especially the foreign office.

Orwell’s chief reservation about democratic socialism was not that it might fail to deliver, but that it might drift towards totalitarianism. Both his final fictions, but especially Nineteen Eighty-Four, try to depict how that might look. (Nineteen Eighty-Four especially because, rather than being an allegory of the Russian Revolution, it imagined a possible British future, a future sufficiently near that many of his readers would live to see it). The 1984 of Nineteen Eighty-Four is, as Michael Radford said, “a parallel world … that’s gone off on a tangent since Orwell’s time”. But its starting point is surely, unambiguously, a British socialist government, which is to say a Labour government, like the one ‑ the very one ‑ that was in power when the novel was published. The “Party” of Nineteen Eighty-Four is surely the Labour Party, Orwell’s own party, gone badly wrong. The United Kingdom, now Airstrip One, appears not to have moved on economically from the immediate postwar years. Despite a purge of the rich and privileged, there is no sign that people are any better off forty years on from the end of the war. Four decades of Ingsoc and nothing material to show for it. The principal change has been political ‑ a massive curtailment of political freedoms. A multi-party democracy has become a one-party state. And the press has come under state control. Education has crossed over into indoctrination and a new generation has been raised to snitch for the state, and on their own parents if need be. Only in the fields of surveillance and the doctoring of the official record do we see signs of technological sophistication. And, coming soon, is Newspeak, which will make dissent unsayable and, therefore, unthinkable.

Orwell was aware of right-wing attempts to co-opt Nineteen Eighty-Four for Cold war purposes. He was keen to counter them. This was what could happen, and right on our own doorstep, but not what would. Nonetheless, as Raymond Williams comments: “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.”

And yet, right up to the end of the 1970s, it was the parties of the left that set the agenda in the postwar West (North America excepted). Welfare states, free education, workers’ councils ‑ these might not have met Orwell’s definition of socialism, but they enabled unprecedented working class empowerment and social mobility. If, as Taylor says, Orwell was taken up by the British literary right, this had no obvious impact on the general direction of political travel which, up to the late 1970s, was left-liberal. Allegations that this postwar consensus was incipiently totalitarian were wide of the mark, so much so they gained little cultural traction. The Tory speculative fictions that Taylor lists ‑ the works of a literary right that had supposedly co-opted Nineteen Eighty-Four ‑ are obscure and undistinguished: Robert Moss’s The Collapse of Freedom, Julian Fane’s Revolution Island, even Kingsley Amis’s Russian Hide and Seek and Anthony Burgess’s 1985.

Roland Huntford’s 1971 The New Totalitarians is a different matter, and a surprising omission from Taylor’s list. Huntford argued that Sweden, then at the high point of social democrat hegemony (the party had been in power, uninterrupted, since 1932) represented a kind of soft authoritarianism where state control was spread subtly through the schools and the media. Decades have passed since I read it (a first edition copy that had once belonged to Sean MacEntee). As I recall, the cover featured matchboxes, arranged in an orderly way like a child’s building blocks, each box with a Swedish flag on the front and a few of them open to show (presumably) Swedish people inside ‑ a less than subtle suggestion that the Swedes under social democracy were manufactured, undifferentiated, controlled, like those little boxes in the Pete Seeger song.

Huntford was critical of the Swedish government’s commitment to equality seen in, say, its use of nursery schools to iron out the effects of parental wealth and status (or lack of same). He was critical too that Swedish law was black and white, so that acquittal on a technicality, or through sophistry, was frowned upon. He reckoned the social democrats held near unshakeable sway because their apparatchiki pushed their ideology through every institution of civil society.

I cannot claim Huntford’s familiarity with Sweden. And I was there decades after him. But I got no sense that I was in a subtly totalitarian state, or an incipient one. I was fine with what I saw. The widespread disapproval of ostentation, say. Or how people, even in the dead of night, even when the streets were free of cars, would wait at a crossing until the light turned green. The way, in Umeå, pedestrians had priority on all roads; one stepped sceptically off the pavement only to find that the oncoming cars obligingly stopped. And those nursery schools ‑ low cost or free of charge and staffed by graduates ‑ they were for levelling up, not down, to equalise a child’s start in life. Recycling was a kind of competitive activity. I was unsurprised to read that Sweden was running out of rubbish, or that it had topped the list for “flight-shaming”. Equality, social justice, a mixed economy that heals more than it harms. I can see the appeal. Better all that than waning social mobility, or food banks, or homelessness, the payday loan and the gig economy. 

The problem with competitions, said Orwell ‑ he was reviewing Hayek’s Road to Serfdom ‑ is that somebody wins them. And it is never the winners that get his sympathy. To win is suspect. Nineteen Eighty-Four cautioned the democratic left just as its pinkly star was on the rise. For the left, caution. But for the neoliberals in waiting, nothing, save a few debating points. Orwell reckoned them a spent force. That they might revive ‑ and that that revival would be well on its way by 1984 itself ‑ would have surprised him. But Nineteen Eighty-Four was marginal to that revival. It did not cause it or particularly inform its propaganda. Lately, however, public disaffection with what was revived seems to have prompted a sharp rise in the book’s sales. Interest in the “awful book” ‑ and in Orwell and his work in general ‑ is possibly higher than ever. And these two books ‑ both of which might have been considered too niche to be publishable had they been about almost any other work of literature ‑ are instead out there in the market, evidence of that interest.

1/2/2020

Martin Tyrrell’s class on Orwell’s essays will begin at Queen’s University, Belfast, Open Learning, on April 28th, 2020.

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