The following post is the first of two installments by department work study Rachel Bauman.
George Orwell (1903-1950) was a profoundly political writer, with his opinions shaped by his experience with the world wars, revolutions, and political upheaval which characterized the period in which he lived. Though he is arguably best known today for his novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Orwell also wrote prolifically on the political issues of his time, from the problems of British imperialism to his concerns about the Soviet Union (Newsinger x). Though Orwell’s novels were embraced by the political right in both the United States and the United Kingdom, he was actually a staunch advocate for socialism who sought to comment on the corruption of socialism by totalitarian regimes (Newsinger x-xi). Much of his criticism of contemporary totalitarianism, and the general political climate of his time, focused on the significance of language in both freeing and oppressing people, perpetuating social hierarchy, and defining truth and reality (Bolton 15, 143, 154). In Nineteen Eighty-Four, language serves all of these purposes. Language is power, and power is the Party’s ultimate goal— thus, in order for the Party to gain power “not… over things, but over men” (Nineteen 276), the Party must control language and all that it entails.
In order to better understand Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is important to first gain a clearer understanding of Orwell’s political views and their development. After a five-year stint with the Indian Police in Burma, beginning in 1922, Orwell emerged from the job a hater of imperialism and a “determined opponent of authority and supporter of the downtrodden” (Newsinger 2-3). This formative time in Orwell’s life led him to adopt what Newsinger calls “a particular idiosyncratic brand of revolutionary socialism,” and he was conscious of its possible applications in the context of twentieth-century Britain (21). This rosy revolutionary idealism soon faded when, in late 1936, Orwell went to Barcelona and signed up to be a member of the POUM militia in Spain, a group that advocated for a complete revolution and subsequent dismantling of the “bourgeois state” (Newsinger 44-5). Orwell’s negative encounters with revolutionary Communists and their brutal tactics led to his claim that “Communism is now a counter-revolutionary force… using the whole of their powerful machinery to crush or discredit any party that shows sign of revolutionary tendencies” (qtd. in Newsinger 59). This distaste for Communism continued throughout Orwell’s life and was a driving force in his later works, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four (Newsinger 89).
The imminent approach of war in the late 1930s shifted Orwell’s political perspectives still more. When Britain finally declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, Orwell, who was originally anti-war, switched to a kind of “revolutionary patriotism”—he hoped that the war would provide an opportunity for socialist ideas to take hold in Britain (Newsinger 62, 66). By the end of 1942, Orwell abandoned these prospects as unrealistic; even so, he remained a socialist (Newsinger 89, 97). His political beliefs were anchored in a strong opposition to the Communism of the Soviet Union, which he believed had bastardized the ideals of true socialism (Newsinger 110). Socialism in Orwell’s mind was “a democratic classless society where private property had been replaced by common ownership of the means of production”—it was nothing like the totalitarian regime which emerged in the post-war Soviet Union (Newsinger 112, 119). Orwell was particularly disturbed by the public’s lack of understanding about the distinctions between socialism and communism as it was being practiced in the Soviet Union, and it became his goal to dispel this false notion in order to restore respect for socialist ideas (Newsinger 110). With this goal in mind, Nineteen Eighty-Four should be viewed as not an attack on socialism, but rather as a satire of totalitarianism, which Orwell viewed as “the culmination of a trend in his own time that alarmed him” (Newsinger 130, Bailey 40). Not a prophetic vision, exactly, but a satirical projection of where Orwell’s conception of the toxic political climate, if not rectified, might lead (Bailey 23-4, Bolton 151).
Works Cited and Further Reading
Bailey, Richard W. “George Orwell and the English Language.” The Future of Nineteen Eighty-four. Ed. Ejner J. Jensen. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1984. 23-46. Print.
Bolton, W. F. The Language of 1984: Orwell’s English and Ours. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984. Print.
Newsinger, John. Orwell’s Politics. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999. Print.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. London: Secker & Warburg, 1997. Print.
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Inside the Whale and Other Essays. London: Penguin in Association with Secker & Warburg, 1957. 143-57. Print.
Orwell, George. “The Prevention of Literature.” Inside the Whale and Other Essays. London: Penguin in Association with Secker & Warburg, 1957. 159-74. Print.