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1984 + 60

1984 + 60

Orwell's warning is more urgent than ever.


Nineteen Eighty-Four opens with one of the most famous first lines in modern English literature -- the vaguely unnerving "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." The line it ends with is even more famous, and considerably more sinister: "He loved Big Brother."

George Orwell's brilliant, bitter novel turns 60 this month, but after all these years it has lost none of its nightmarish chill. Its hero is the decidedly unheroic Winston Smith, a weak and wistful man who lives in the totalitarian police state of Oceania, which is ruled by the Party -- personified in Big Brother, whose intimidating image is everywhere -- and in which the Thought Police ruthlessly suppress any hint of dissent. The Party enforces its will through constant surveillance, relentless propaganda, and the annihilation of anyone who rebels against its authority, even if only in private thoughts or conversation. Winston engages in such thought-crimes, first by secretly recording his hatred of Big Brother in a diary, then through a love-affair with a young woman called Julia. Eventually he is arrested, interrogated, tortured, broken.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was Orwell's warning of what unchecked state power can become -- a warning informed by the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, with their contempt for human life and conscience, their cult of personality, their unremitting cruelty and deceit. "I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe . . . that something resembling it could arrive," Orwell wrote shortly after the book was published. "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."

Orwell himself was a committed socialist, and he insisted that Nineteen Eighty-Four should not be taken as an attack on socialism or parties of the left. And, in truth, though the ruling ideology in the book is named Ingsoc ("English Socialism" in Oceania's fictional language of Newspeak), the Party's aims have nothing to do with collectivizing wealth, or creating a workers' paradise, or any other socialist prescription.

"The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake," Winston is told by O'Brien, the Party official who interrogates him. "We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. . . . 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. Now do you begin to understand me?"


"No other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fullness."


Whether or not poor Winston understood, the totalitarians (and would-be totalitarians) of 1949 certainly did. Stalin's Pravda blasted Nineteen Eighty-Four for its supposed "contempt for the people," while the American Communist journal Masses and Mainstream, in a review titled "Maggot-of-the-Month," trashed it as a "diatribe against the human race" and "cynical rot." But in most of the free world it was acclaimed as an instant classic. "No other work of this generation," declared The New York Times in its review, "has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fullness."

Even now, it is hard to think of any novel that can match Nineteen Eighty-Four in its insight into the totalitarian mindset. Orwell captured so much of it: The insatiable lust for power. The lies incessantly broadcast as truth. The assault on free thought as both sickness and crime. The corruption of language. The brazen rewriting of history. The use of technology to make privacy impossible. The repression of sexuality. Above all, the zealous crushing of individual identity and liberty. "If you want a picture of the future," O'Brien tells Winston during his interrogation and torture, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- for ever."

From "Big Brother" to "Thought Police" to "unperson" to "doublethink," it is no coincidence that so many of the terms Orwell coined for Nineteen Eighty-Four -- to say nothing of the word "Orwellian" itself -- have become part of our lexicon for life without freedom. Tragically, Orwell died at 46, just seven months after Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared, but 60 years later his great work survives, its power undiminished, its warning more urgent than ever.

This article originally appeared in The Boston Globe.


June 28, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Amos, July 6, 2009 1:25 PM

Corruption of language

Orwell was right on many levels, not just about socialism. We see in our fight against the normalization of sexual perversion how language can be used to create a juggernaut of public thought. By redefining words, the opposition is neutralized so that a coherent argument is not possible in the minds of the masses. The one that controls the dictionary controls the mind. The homosexuals-friendly media have already changed the meaning of the word "gay" in our minds, and are now going after the word "family." The word "marriage" is a legal term that has deep religious and societal roots. If we let them change the meaning of that word without a fight, we will simply find ourselves fighting them on other fronts as they continue their assault.

(4) Eric Martin, July 6, 2009 10:41 AM

Why bother watching 'Big Brother'?

'Big Brother' has a different connotation these days, or is it so different? As I understand it from Jeff's article, Orwell's idea of 'Big Brother' was the intrusive work of some massively powerful Government agency, whereas the use of the idea by the media nowadays, seems to denote the relentless judgement of people who have some primal need for publicity, by an amorphous mass of people who are prone to voyeurism. The implication is clearly that both those who judge, and those who are judged, are to some degree emotionally deficient, the only issue in question being the extent of the deficiency in each case. That careers are made or broken by such activity is terribly sad. Whilst Orwell lampooned authoritarianism, which might be defined as the abuse of State power, today's media abuse their own power, which thank God isn't yet quite universal, thereby legitimising the shallowness of modern Society. Whilst the priority for Orwell was the survival of personal freedom, for the modern man the priority seems to be the search for financial gain at any price. This begs the question of the purpose of all human activity. It's as if, were Orwell still alive, he might ask, 'Well, Personal Freedom has survived, after a fashion, but I believed there was something worth fighting for, and now I'm not so sure. Why did I bother?'

(3) Anny Matar, July 2, 2009 9:24 AM


ALTHOUGH, AT THAT TIME, IT WAS THOUGHT UTOPIA ; AFTER STALIN, HITLER, BERIA etc. WE KNOW HOW TRUE IT WAS, IS AND WILL FOREWER BE. Look at Iran today! at China just a few years back! We live in Arthur Koestler's book "Darkness at Noon" and we're playing 3 monkeys and say if we don't look it ain't there!!!

(2) Jacqueline, June 29, 2009 3:37 PM

Socialism is a fantasy..

Fascism and socialism come hand in hand .. Both are evolving rapidly in America .. In fact : Fascism breeds Socialism as it destroys creative energies , property ownership and family structures. Bare in mind that this is what is evolving here today "divide and concur" the family and small business structure...Sadly in this recent presidential election a little man named Dr Paul was the only candidate against these evils and who here gave him a chance? Want more proof? Take a little look at the shukz public school system.. The loss of our Constitution ..And the degenerating value of American citizenship.. Thankyou Jeff for this topic..

(1) aspacia, June 28, 2009 2:56 PM


Check out the language corruption of text messaging compared to this tale. How about the elite left's view of the unwashed masses, the dumbing down of school curriculum. The PC speak of euphemistic distortions.

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