It is now 1984, the year George Orwell used, rather whimsically, to title one of the most well-known novels of the century. While seminars and editorials across the Western world muddle over whether or not we are living in Orwell's nightmares, an essential point is usually missed. Orwell, who distrusted political forecasters, wrote 1984 as a warning, not as a prediction, and his warning not only continues to be heard but, as Anthony Burgess says in a recent issue of The New York Times Book Review, this "mere novel" has for 35 years been "scaring the pants off us all."
Those who reread the book this year—and there are many since it is currently number one on the paperback bestseller lists—will be impressed again with the clarity of Orwell's vision. More, one would hope that renewed interest would inspire a rethinking of political (or antipolitical) goals.
Besides the terrifying story of Winston Smith—a middle-aged and unlikely hero but a hero just the same—one finds an unsurpassed understanding of the least noble parts of human nature, especially the ends of totalitarianism. Most thought-provoking are several passages that Winston Smith reads from a volume called "the book," supposedly written by anti-party revolutionaries to preserve the political history obliterated by the Ministry of Truth. A few quotes will have to be sufficient:
"But in each variant of Socialism that appeared from about 1900 onwards the aim of establishing liberty and equality was more and more openly abandoned. The new movements… had the conscious aim of perpetuating unfreedom and inequality … the purpose of all of them was to arrest progress and freeze history at a chosen moment."
"It had long been realized that the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly … the result, foreseen and intended beforehand, [is] that economic inequality has been made permanent."
"The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, 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 safeguard the dictatorship."
Amazing words, one might say, from a man who proclaimed himself a socialist. But Orwell's intelligence was too penetrating and his search for truth was too honest for him to ignore the horrible march of totalitarianism occuring as he wrote this book. If nothing else, he was disgusted with his fellow socialists states Richard J. Voorhees in his book, The Paradox of George Orwell, who he thought "likely to be eccentrics who wanted to impose their peculiar tastes and way of life on everyone else." Orwell's indelible nightmare—a place where every movement is watched, every spoken word, even in sleep is scrutinized—is that desire taken to the extreme.
That Winston Smith retains a scrap of dignity and courage is remarkable. That be holds onto his faith in reason and a reality external to the opinions of the Party, refusing to believe that the four fingers held up in front of his eyes are five as his torturers insist, is both believable and heartening. When his spirit is crushed in the end, that tragedy does more than warn us of the brutality and hopelessness of life under any totalitarian system. It clearly shows that to be truly effective, such a system is forced to kill what is human in its subjects, and also that humanity is only possible to the degree that people are free.
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