“1984” was written by George Orwell during 1947 and 1948 while he was living on the Scottish island of Jura, and suffering with tuberculosis. It was published in 1949, and met with immediate success. Orwell died in 1950.
The book’s proposer was unavoidably late for the meeting, and we began with a quick round-up of first impressions. The first speaker recalled that the book was part of the school literary canon, and along with others in the group he had first read it during teenage years. As an adult he had been pleased to note that the year 1984 came and went without Orwell’s gloomiest prognostications having come to pass. However, it was agreed by all that the date was not critical to Orwell’s intentions – it was merely an extrapolation of some of the political and cultural directions of the 1930s and 1940s, including Nazism and, in particular, Soviet communism. The book was agreed to be more political satire than science fiction, and the items of futuristic technology described (telescreens and hidden microphones for example) were primarily of interest as tools of state surveillance. In passing we observed that the uses of CCTV and internet and mobile phone surveillance in contemporary societies suggested that Orwell was not too far off the mark in this respect. The shabby living conditions and food rationing further located the book’s world as that of the 1940s, albeit an altered and extrapolated version of that world.
Another reader raised the question of whether our own society (ie. Western European) was as hierarchical as that of “1984”. This brought us onto the question of ‘who are the proles of today?’ One member of the group in particular felt that we were all as powerless as Orwell’s proles, and that contemporary political cliques held power as surely as The Party in the book. Others disagreed, pointing out that we had a vote for who was in government, and could influence government policies. For a little while our debate moved off rather tangentially.
We were brought back to the book by the observation that although Orwell had closely followed the plot of the earlier “We” by Zamyatin (a debt which he acknowledged), he had improved upon it in many ways, and had developed two brilliant themes that were absent from the previously published book. These were the idea of re-writing history (which is actually the occupation of the book’s protagonist Winston Smith) and the idea of a gradual constriction and diminution of spoken and written language (Newspeak) in order to eliminate any form of conceptual thought inimical to the state.
Once more these aspects of the book turned our discussion towards contemporary issues. It was observed that the book was as much socio/political essay as novel, and therefore inevitably raised questions of a general nature about humanity and systems of society. Were the “Sun” and the “Daily Mail” examples in practice of a kind of Newspeak? Could conceptual thought be limited by a paucity of vocabulary and grammatical sophistication? How did physicists for example develop concepts for which there was no existing vocabulary? Did different world languages govern their users’ modes of thought? We did not have the answers to these questions, although we were not short of opinions.
Another general question was raised by one reader – was individual freedom an inevitable component of a utopia, and conversely a life constrained by the state a dystopia? Did one kind of life result in more happiness than the other, and who defined happiness anyway?
By this time the proposer of the book had arrived in the room and refreshed himself with the contents of a small bottle (perhaps recently supplied by an airline) containing a reviving red liquid. He brought us back to the book once more with the observation that the appendix on Newspeak, being written as a description of a failed idea, and not in Newspeak, provided a subtle note of optimism at the end of the book by suggesting that the world described in “1984” had come to an end. He then spoke further about what had drawn him to choose the book for discussion. He felt the political content seemed to set Orwell the novelist's imagination on fire, making it one of the greatest novels of the post-war period. He felt that Orwell was more of an iconoclast than an ideologue, and that his driving passion was a hatred for all forms of authority. Orwell was brilliant at identifying and attacking the abuse of power, and 1984 was best seen as an extended denunciation of where this can lead, a kind of worst-case scenario. Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was cited as another, perhaps even more effective, development of this theme.
Another reader suggested that Orwell had a fundamentally pessimistic view of human nature, and the portrayal of the sadistic O’Brien was a chilling vision of how the ultimate use of power can be deliberately to cause suffering for others. It was noted that in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and many other places and times this tendency in human nature could be observed in practice in the real world. Lord Acton’s dictum “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” was cited.
We turned to the question of whether or not Orwell’s pessimism extended to disillusion with the British Labour Party in the post-war period. After all, the Party in 1984, “Ingsoc” in Newspeak, is “English Socialism”. Was Labour’s programme of nationalization and anti-capitalism merely resulting in the creation of a new political clique, and failing to benefit the proletariat? The book’s proposer had read some of Orwell’s political essays of the time, and had found no real evidence of disillusion of this kind. He restated the view that Orwell hated all forms of authority, and speculated that his experiences of growing up in an English boarding school, and the low self-esteem evidenced by his poverty-stricken existence as an adult were more potent drivers of his vision than simple political preferences. In fact “Ingsoc” bears more similarities to Soviet socialism than British socialism. O’Brien’s invented enemy of the state, Goldstein, for example seems to be a clear equivalent of the disgraced Trotsky in Stalin’s Russian.
Moving on to the second book, “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the proposer said that the idea of combining it with “1984” came from one of the Group’s E-mail members. Zamyatin was a serial Russian revolutionary and a serial satirist. He was an engineer for the Imperial Russian Navy and helped to design icebreakers for Russia on Tyneside in 1916 and 1917. Zamyatin stated that seeing the Tyneside work force in action was his first real experience of the collectivisation of labour, and he wrote a satire about life in Britain.
He returned to Russia in late 1917, and although a communist it was not long before he was disenchanted with the Bolsheviks and was writing another satire. “We” was published in translation in America in1924. The book achieved the distinction of being the first to be banned by the Soviet Censorship Board. When by 1931 the Russian text was nevertheless circulating, Zamyatin was, luckily, allowed by Stalin to go into exile in France. He died there in poverty in 1937 at the age of 53.
Orwell read “We” and reviewed it, and said he would write a book based on it, shortly before starting “1984”. Orwell thought Huxley was lying when Huxley denied having used “We” as his inspiration for “Brave New World”.
There were several similarities between Orwell and Zamyatin. Both were anti-authority and both fell out with communism. Both were fans of Jack London, who also wrote an early dystopia. But Zamyatin always wrote satire, whereas Orwell came to it late in life. And Zamyatin, like Huxley, was writing in the shadow of the First World War, whereas Orwell was writing in the shadow of the Second.
“We” impressed us. Zamyatin’s creativity was exceptional. Apart from the main anti-communist thrust, there were many other layers of reference, including mathematical and scientific. There was even a religious dimension as the story paralleled Genesis. The novel was rich in psychological depth, and a splendid femme fatale drove the plot. A majority of us, nevertheless, felt that Orwell’s was the finer work – tauter, better written, and easier to follow. The fact that Orwell’s book was inspired by “We” did not make it the lesser book, just as Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” was not a lesser work than Kyd’s version which inspired it.
Not everyone shared this positive view of “We”. One member reported, from halfway through, that it was a struggle, requiring a huge amount of concentration – indeed the book seemed a very muddled, bizarre ramble. Another, by contrast, had been inspired to read it twice, and concluded that he now preferred it to “1984”.
We finished our discussion with some general discussion of the continuing genre of dystopian visions of the future, encompassing films and computer games as well as books. It was pointed out by one member of the group, a scientist, that such visions had some rational basis, since the world’s finite resources are being used up at such a rate by the burgeoning planetary population that future wars over water, agricultural land and so forth seem inevitable. Nodding in gloomy assent to this Orwellian observation, we drained our own liquid containers of their final resources and passed out into the night.