Welcome to this month’s installment of The Classics Book Club! I post my insight into a book’s themes and overarching message through a monthly selection on my YouTube Channel you can subscribe to here. Click the bell so you never miss a post, and sign up to my newsletter to be apart of it. I would also love if you commented your thoughts in the section below. It always a pleasure to hear your positive thoughts. Disclaimer: This post contains affiliates. Read full disclosure here.
👩🏻✈️Flying an $800,000 plane, Weekly Outfits + Rosh Hashanah🍎
Under $10 Amazon Beauty Haul, Flying Angelina Jolie's Plane & A Country Wedding!
Bacchanalian Debauchery: Buffalo Trace Tour, Crave Music + Food Festival
Welcome To My New Chapter | Farming, Fencing & Flying Vlog
What To Know Before Buying A Watch & How To Dress A Watch For Beginners | Watch Etiquette
My New Fencing Club, Our Anniversary & Last Days Before The New Job
All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren Analysis | The (Kentucky) Pulitzer Prize Winner of 1947
Relaxing rain hikes + Why we always need new shoes & clothes on our farm
Naming our rabbits & Our forest rebuilding plans
George Orwell’s 1984 is rightly regarded as both a searing description of Soviet communism and as a shocking warning about the future of freedom under a totalitarian regime. But what gives 1984 its power is the human drama at its center: the drama of an individual human mind, assaulted by the forces of government and culture, driven into embrace of the unthinkable precisely because it is unthinkable. 1984 may have been designed as a critique of power, but at its root, it is a critique of the frailties of human beings and the need for deep-seated institutions to protect human beings against those frailties. In the end, no individual can stand up to Big Brother. Something more is required – something deeper, more lasting, and more binding.
GEORGE ORWELL: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
George Orwell (Eric Blair) was born in 1903 in Bengal, India. His family was of good birth, but with little wealth; in 1911, he was deployed back to Britain for his schooling. At Eton, he studied under Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World; he forewent university and instead became an administrator for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He left that service in 1928, upset with British imperialism, and decided to live in the poorest areas of the East End in London. There, he began writing in earnest. He also developed sympathies with socialism.
Follow me on LTK @GIAGDIXON for daily style inspiration. If you like classic, elegant and feminine old money style, I post looks everyday at 7 am EST.
Those feelings about socialism led him to write The Road to Wigan Pier, a dyspeptic take on the shortcomings of British socialism. Though Orwell was highly critical of the impoverished state of Britain’s underclass, he saw that utopian socialism would fail. “This is the inevitable fate of the sentimentalist,” Orwell wrote. “All his opinions change into their opposites at the first brush of reality.”
Follow me on Instagram @GIAGDIXONfor outfits of the day and quick vlogs. This is my simplified journal full of aesthetic where we can keep in touch.
That sense was reinforced by Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War, documented in Homage To Catalonia (1938), about Orwell’s experiences with the Stalin-backed Republican communists in Spain. According to Orwell, he arrived in Spain filled with high ideals – but those ideals were shattered on the rocks of communist reality. After fighting on behalf of the communists and being shot in the neck for his trouble, his wife met him in Barcelona. He spotted her across the room, and she hugged him – and then told him to run. The reason: the Stalinists were targeting anyone suspected of heresy. “It did not matter what I had done or not done,” Orwell wrote. “This was not a round-up of criminals; it was merely a reign of terror. I was not guilty of any definite act, but I was guilty of ‘Trotskyism.’”
It took until 1944 for Orwell to write Animal Farm; in 1949, 1984 was published.
A year later, he died.
Orwell was a complex character: a man of the political Left, but clear-eyed about the abuses of the Stalinist communists and the dangers of utopianism. This made him a heretic on the Left without allowing him full acceptance by the political Right.
BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU
The main theme of 1984 is the danger of totalitarianism. Communist totalitarianism, Nazi totalitarianism…these were distinctions without meaningful differences, Orwell believed. Thus, the wars between Oceania and Eastasia and Eurasia are merely about power, not about principle; they are about ensuring that those in power remain in power. The only thing that matters is maintenance of the status quo by those who have won the last revolution.
Sign up for monthly moodboards for style inspiration sent straight to your inbox every month!
With that said, Oceania is clearly meant as a stand-in for the Soviet Union. In Oceania, INGSOC is the sole political power. That power is telescoped into the persona of Big Brother, a stern yet attractive figure meant to evoke Stalin: “The black-mustachio’d face gazed down from every commanding corner…the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own.” Big Brother’s eyes are everywhere, both imagistically and in practical terms: “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” To Western ears, such power sounds strangely alarmist; to those who lived under Soviet control, such power was a daily reality. As historian Peter Holquist writes, “Surveillance, then, was not designed to uncover popular sentiments and moods, nor was it intended merely to keep people under control; its whole purpose was to act on people, to change them.”
True relationships are impossible in a state of constant surveillance and betrayal. Even family members must fear each other, thanks to the state’s determination to turn daughters against mothers and fathers against sons. “[H]ardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak – ‘child hero’ was the phrase generally used – had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the Thought Police.”7 In the Soviet Union, the most famous of such “child heroes” was Pavel Morozov, a 13-year-old boy who supposedly informed on his father to the GPU; his father received a ten-year-sentence, and then death. Morozov was then supposedly murdered in revenge by his uncle, grandfather, grandmother, cousin, and brother. The GPU executed all of them except his uncle. Morozov’s grave became a shrine.
In Oceania, your mind is not your own; even writing a diary is punishable by the State. In fact, anything can be punished by the state – as Winston Smith knows, nothing is actually illegal, since rule of law would imply consistency and predictability, and power springs from complete absence of consistency and predictability. The essence of terror is the ability of the state to arbitrarily change its rules, all the while holding citizens to account for failure to abide by their chimerically shapeshifting standards.
All of this mirrors the Soviet Union’s actual history. As historian Robert Conquest wrote in 1970 regarding the Stalin era, “To die, or lose your loved ones, is bad enough…to be forced to denounce your father or husband, in the hope of saving the rest of the family, and, in general, to be compelled in public to express joy at the whole bloodbath, may be thought worse still. Truth almost perished. As the writer Isaac Babel remarked, ‘Today a man only talks freely to his wife – at night, with the blankets pulled over his head.’”8 As Orwell puts it, “Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed – no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.”
WAR IS PEACE
But how can Oceania maintain the compliance of its population, despite the material deprivation, social isolation, and emotional flattening of its citizens? According to Orwell, a compliant population can be made complaint through redirection of its anger toward an external enemy. In Oceania, that enemy is Emmanuel Goldstein, a stand-in for Leon Trotsky: “The program of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principle figure.”10 Stalin expelled Trotsky from Russia in 1929; Trotsky’s supposed fellowtravelers were shot in the late 1930s. A Soviet agent murdered him with an ice ax in 1940.
Redirection of hatred toward an external enemy serves two purposes, according to Orwell. The first is simple: if the collective mind can be turned against an enemy of the state, then Big Brother will still retain loyalty. This approach is still widely used by fascist leaders all over the world, from the Gaza Strip to Iran to China. The phrase “WAR IS PEACE” is thus an essential truth: war against others means internal peace. “Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia,” Orwell writes. “The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.”
Orwell suggests a second reason for continuous war: an attempt to prevent economic development that would take place under socialism. This essentially has the logic of Soviet foreign policy backwards; it mirrors Trotsky’s beliefs about Stalin’s foreign policy. In fact, much of Goldstein’s pamphlet, read by Winson Smith with evident agreement, is a paraphrase of Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. According to Trotsky, the problem with Soviet Russia was not communism or Marxism – it was Stalin. And Stalin’s aggressive foreign policy was designed to increase the material privation of the citizenry, to make them more dependent on the state. Trotsky writes:
When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy…A raising of the material and cultural level ought, at first glance, to lessen the necessity of privileges…and thereby undermine [the bureaucracy]. In reality the opposite thing has happened.
War would be one way to artificially depress living standards, creating privation in order to justify power. Orwell repeats this logic in 1984 via the Goldstein pamphlet: “For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves.…The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”
The object of war in Oceania, according to Orwell, was not raged against Eastasia or Eurasia, but “by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.”
In reality, both Orwell and Trotsky were wrong in this assessment. War was not undertaken in the Soviet Union in order to impoverish citizens; communism did an excellent job of impoverishing citizens all on its own. War was necessary for Orwell’s first reason, not his second. The purpose of ongoing war was indeed to direct hatred outwards rather than inwards – to this day, Russian apologists for Stalin lead with the Soviet Union’s role fighting Hitler in World War II, never mentioning Stalin’s deal with Hitler that led to World War II’s outbreak. And conquest does serve a secondary purpose for totalitarian states: it creates additional resources for consumption. Contra Vladimir Lenin, imperialism is not the outgrowth of capitalism, but of centralized economic control, whether mercantilist or socialist.
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
To be responsible for one’s own decisions is, in Oceania, unbearable. That is particularly true because the decisions that must be made under the compulsion of the state are unthinkable. The state rejects any notion of objective reality – only the reality created by Big Brother is truly real. The only true crime in such a state is thoughtcrime: “the essential crime that contained all others in itself…You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.”
To achieve utopia, the state must control all aspects of that reality. “In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it,” Winston Smith observes. “It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.”
In 1984, the state has two approaches toward common sense: punishing it, and obliterating it. The more primitive approach is simple punishment: death, imprisonment, and the like. As we see from Winston’s early struggles against the doctrines of Big Brother, that primitive approach may succeed with the unintelligent, but it fails in the face of those with the capacity to think.
And this is where the state’s second approach comes in: convincing citizens of the primacy of subjective perception. Smith observes that the state may in fact be correct in its assessment of the dubious nature of reality: “And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?”
What then, indeed? The state has an interest in obliterating the heresy of an objective, verifiable truth outside the mind. Such a discoverable truth would shatter in an instant the entire edifice upon which their speculative utopianism is built. It is not enough, then, to simply murder those who think differently. Those who think differently must be convinced to embrace radical subjectivism. That is the hard work. Once that is done, the mind can be molded to believe anything. As O’Brien says to Smith, “When you finally surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him;we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves…The command of the old despotisms was ‘Thou shalt not.’ The command of the totalitarians was ‘Thou shalt.’ Our command is ‘Thou art.’”18 Once someone believes that two and two can be five, it is a short step to convincing him that two and two are five. “Sometimes they are five,” says O’Brien. “Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
What of objective reality, though? How can the state eradicate all signs of objective reality?
Through long, steady, gradual dissolution.
Through the use of “memory holes” for inconvenient facts.
Through rewriting history; as Orwell writes, “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened – that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death…if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’…All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control,’ they called it; in Newspeak, ‘doublethink.’”21 Surely Nikole Hannah-Jones and the revisionist 1619 Project, which culminated in Hannah-Jones’ personal celebration of the “1619 riots,” carries echoes of Orwell’s warning.
Most of all, objective reality can be annihilated by shifting language itself. As Syme, a Party loyalist who ends up imprisoned and tortured by the state, explains, “By 2050 – earlier, probably – all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be….The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
If man no longer means man, but something completely arbitrary; if the dictionary can routinely change the meanings of words to reflect the preferences of political actors; if linguistic violations can be detected not via consistent application of rules, but by constantly-rewritten standards catering to the most quickly-offended; then language loses all meaning. Which is indeed the point. Without language, we cannot talk to one another. We are isolated. Our radical subjectivism is reified: the only realities that exist are the ones inside our own heads and the ones deemed appropriate by the authorities.
Of all the observations of 1984, it is this revelation that rings most true in today’s post-modern world. The reshaping of reality to worship at the altar of subjective authenticity is prelude not to total freedom, but to groupthink and mental enslavement. When powerful institutions insist that a man can be a woman, that those who think differently are bigots, and that those who disagree ought to be ostracized from civil society, we see the shadow of O’Brien and Big Brother. We live in an era in which “[e]very record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
This is Winston Smith’s question, and it is ours, too.
Why promulgate such a society?
Orwell’s answer: power. Orwell is right, and he is wrong.
He is right that those who construct such systems value their power above all else – that they would much rather oppress others than admit the possibility of failure. But Orwell is wrong that those who want power are honest enough to admit that they have no higher purpose.
Orwell, again channeling Trotsky, suggests that Big Brother and his apparatchiks are a difference in kind from prior revolutionaries. Trotsky argued that Stalin and his henchmen were revolutionaries alienated from their class loyalties by the trappings of power – that they had been tempted by the power, and that they gave in to that temptation: “The deposed and abused bureaucracy, from being a servant of society, has again become its lord. On this road it has attained such a degree of social and moral alienation from the popular masses that it cannot now permit any control over either its activities or its income.” All that was left, said Trotsky, was the will to power: “The decay of the political machine, exposing itself at every step, has begun to threaten the very existence of the state – no longer now as an instrument for the socialist transformation of society, but as a source of power, income and privileges for the ruling stratum.”
Orwell echoes this characterization of Big Brother, putting Trotsky’s words in the mouth of O’Brien’s dastardly admission: “The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred….Everything we shall destroy – everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman….If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” For O’Brien and Big Brother, power is the only thing that matters:
We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites…They pretend, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
But we must ask: is this accurate?
It is certainly accurate that totalitarian states prize their power, that their leaders seek to wipe away all institutions that predate them, to exercise complete authority, to stamp on the human face. But do they justify their behavior in terms of power? Or do they – and will they always – do so under the guise of altruism, kindness, and empathy? Dictators are not Marvel villains, explaining their own evil to the audience. They are utopians who never see – who refuse to see – the evils they purvey, justifying them with reference to the great good they are doing. Truly evil regimes seek to change the world by changing human nature. As O’Brien says, “You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.” Or as the Stalinist phrase went, you can’t make omelets without breaking eggs.
Orwell ends 1984 with complete defeat: Winston, faced with the prospect of his greatest fear realized, betrays Julia. “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia!”29 He cannot live down the shame of that betrayal; neither can Julia. Their relationship is shattered and with it, all hope. He ends by fulfilling O’Brien’s promise: “It was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
But was Orwell truly so hopeless?
Orwell places his hope in the so-called “proles” – the common people. Like Trotsky, who suggested that Stalinism represented the “triumph of the bureaucracy over the masses,” and who believed that Stalinism could only survive thanks to the “tired and disillusioned masses…indifferent to what was happening in the upper echelons,” Orwell believes that there lurks in the human heart a desire for freedom. All that is required is for eyes to be opened. The Party, after all, ignores the proles, deeming them unworthy of consideration; they are too simple to be indoctrinated. “As the Party slogan put it: ‘Proles and animals are free.’”
And those proles could be awakened. As Orwell writes:
The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing. All round the world, in London and New York, in Africa and Brazil and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers, in the streets of Paris and Berlin, in the villages of the endless Russian plain, in the bazaars of China and Japan – everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing. Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead; theirs was the future.
In this hope, neither Orwell nor Trotsky was mistaken. As William F. Buckley put it in 1961, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory than by the Harvard University faculty.” Common sense – and a rootedness to reality – is the only true curative to the power of utopian statism. This means upholding traditional institutions – families, churches – and traditional values that breed common sense.
Pure emotion is not enough – that is Winston’s mistake. In the midst of his love affair with Julia, he thinks, “They could not alter your feelings; for that matter you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.”33 Winston thinks that love can overcome all: “No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.”
He learns differently.
But what if Winston had been able to marry Julia? To form a family? To build up a world of his own – not in his own head, but in reality? The rejection of totalitarianism requires more than individuals making love, not war. It requires understanding the past, cherishing it, and upholding it. It requires a desire to build, not to tear down.
And this, in the end, is the lasting message of 1984. Trotsky looked at Stalin’s Soviet Union and asked a question: “What social cause stands behind this stubborn virility of the state and especially behind its policification? The importance of this question is obvious: depending upon the answer, we must either radically revise our traditional views of socialist society in general, or as radically reject the official estimates of the USSR.”35 Trotsky and Orwell chose the latter: the problem with Oceania (USSR) was not socialism per se, but Big Brother (Stalin) and his endless will to power.
In this, both Orwell and Trotsky were wrong. The problem is socialism in general. It is a utopianism that cannot be separated from doublethink and Newspeak and unpersoning and Two Minutes Hate. The solution to Big Brother is freedom. And true freedom requires living within reality. As Orwell writes, “you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two makes four.”
1. What makes Winston unique in how he thinks about Big Brother?
2. Why is Winston’s relationship with his mother of interest to Orwell?
3. Why is sexual repression a key element of the state?
4. Compare and contrast Syme and Parsons – and why do both end up being arrested? 5. Are Winston and Julia truly in love?
6. Why doesn’t the old man in the bar remember the past?
7. Why does Winston think O’Brien is actually part of the resistance?
8. Why do Winston and Julia go to O’Brien together?
9. Why does Orwell insist on inserting the Goldstein pamphlet in the novel?
10. What should we learn from Julia’s disinterest in the Goldstein pamphlet?
11. Why is O’Brien so focused on converting Winston rather than disposing of him?
12. Why is Winston’s betrayal of Julia the end of his resistance?
Thank you so much for taking time to read the end of this post. I hope you find some inspiration in this and feel free to share with your friends as a free way to help my blog grow. Your support is endlessly appreciated.