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George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

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The poster for Michael Radford’s movie adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

1,048 words

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four [2] is probably the most important political novel of the 20th century, but the Trotskyite influence on it is underappreciated. The entire thesis about the Party’s totalitarianism is a subtle mixture of libertarian and Marxist contra Marxism ideas. One of the points which is rarely made is how the party machine doubles for fascism in Orwell’s mind—a classic Trotskyist ploy whereby Stalinism is considered to be the recrudescence of the class enemy.

This is of a piece with the view that the Soviet Union was a deformed workers’ state or happened to be Bonapartist or Thermidorian in aspect.

Not only is Goldstein the dreaded object of hatred—witness the Two Minutes’ Hate—but this Trotsky stand-in also wrote the evil book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, against which the party defines its existence. The inner logic or dialectic, however, means that the Inner Party actually wrote the book so that it would control the mainsprings of its own criticism.

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Emanuel Goldstein, the Trotsky figure in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” from Michael Radford’s movie

One of the strongest features of Nineteen Eighty-Four is its use of what Anthony Burgess called “sense data.” These are all the unmentionable things—usually realities in the physical world—which make a novel physically pungent or real to the reader. This is the very texture of life under “real existing socialism”: scraping oneself in the morning with a bar of old soap, the absence of razor blades, human hair blocking a sink full of dirty water; the unsanitary details of conformism, socialist commerce, and queuing which made the novel feel so morally conservative to its first readers. This and the depiction of the working class (or proles), who are everywhere treated as socially degraded beasts of burden. Some of the most fruity illustrations come from Winston Smith’s home flat in Victory Mansions—the smell of cabbage, the horrid nature of the Parsons’ children, the threadbare and decrepit nature of everything, the continuous droning of the telescreen.

Most of these “sense data” are based on Britain in 1948. It is the reality of Wyndham Lewis’ Rotting Hill—a country of ration cards, depleted resources, spivdom, dilapidated buildings after wartime bombing, rancid food, restrictions, blunt razor blades, and almost continuous talk about Victory over the Axis powers. Britain’s post-war decline dates from this period when the national debt exceeded outcome by seven times—and this was before the joys of Third World immigration which were only just beginning. The fact that Nineteen Eighty-Four is just the conditions in Britain in 1948—at the level of the senses—is a fact not widely commented on.

The uncanny parallels between Newspeak and political correctness are widely mentioned but not really analyzed—save possibly in Anthony Burgess’ skit 1985, a satire which majors quite strongly on proletarian or workers’ English—whereby every conceivable mistake, solecism, mispronunciation, or scatology is marked up; correct usage is everywhere frowned upon.

Another aspect of the novel which receives scant attention is its sexological implications. In most coverage of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the party organization known as the Anti-Sex League is given scant attention. Yet Orwell had considerable theoretical overlaps with both Fromm and Wilhelm Reich—never mind Herbert Marcuse. Orwell’s thesis is that totalitarianism fosters a sexless hysteria in order to cement its power. The inescapable corollary is that more liberal systems promote pornography and promiscuity in order to enervate their populations.

Orwell certainly pinpointed the arrant puritanism of Stalinist censorship—something which became even more blatant after the Second World War. One also has to factor in the fact that Orwell was living and writing in an era where importing James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer were criminal offenses. Nonetheless, Orwell’s anti-puritanism and libertarianism, sexually speaking, is very rarely commented on. Perhaps this leads to the nakedly sexual rebellion of Winston and Julia’s affair against the Party. A series of actions for which the mock Eucharist, the imbibing of bread and wine in O’Brien’s inner party office, will not give them absolution!

It might also prove instructive to examine the sequences of torment which Winston Smith has to undergo in the novel’s last third. This phase of the book is quite clearly Hell in a Dantesque triad (the introductory section in Victory Mansions and at the Ministry is Purgatory, and Heaven is the brief physical affair with Julia). In actual fact, well over a third of the novel is expended in Hell, primarily located in the fluorescent-lit cells of the Ministry of Love.

This is the period where O’Brien comes into his own as the party inquisitor or tormentor, an authorial voice in The Book, and a man who quite clearly believes in the system known as Ingsoc, English Socialism. He is a fanatic or true believer who readily concedes to the Party’s inner nihilism and restlessness: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”

Moreover, the extended torture scene and was quite clearly too much for many readers—in north Wales, one viewer of the BBC drama in the mid-’50s dropped dead during the rat scene. I suppose one could call it the ultimate review! Questions were even asked in parliament about what a state broadcaster was spending its money on.

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Big Brother, the Stalin figure in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” from Michael Radford’s movie

Nonetheless, O’Brien is quite clearly configured as a party priest who is there to enforce obedience to the secular theology of Ingsoc. (Incidentally, Richard Burton is superb as O’Brien in the cinematic version of the novel made in the year itself, 1984 [5].)

The point of the society is to leave the proles to their own devices and concentrate entirely on the theoretical orthodoxy of both the inner and outer party members. In this respect, it resembles very much a continuation of the underground and Bohemia when in power. You get a whiff of this at the novel’s finale, with Winston ensconced in the Chestnut Tree Café waiting for the bullet and convinced of his love for Big Brother.

This is the inscrutable face of the Stalin lookalike which stares meaningfully from a hundred thousand posters in every available public place. Might he be smiling under the mustache?