What is less well known is that its author, Eric Blair, wasn't adverse to helping Big Capitalist Brother, passing a list of over 30 friends and acquaintances he had made in public life and whom he regarded as Soviet sympathisers, including film star Charlie Chaplin, the actor Michael Redgrave (Vanessa Redgrave's father) and the historian E. H. Carr.
But was Orwell a very good science-fiction writer? Here we publish the view of the famous science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, whose critique while not pro-socialist does raise some serious criticisms that might be especially helpful to high school readers "struggling" with this mandatory text.
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I've been writing a four-part article for Field Newspaper Syndicate at the beginning of each year for several years now and in 1980, mindful of the approach of the year 1984, FNS asked me to write a thorough critique of George Orwell's novel 1984.
I was reluctant. I remembered almost nothing of the book and said so - but Denison Demac, the lovely young woman who is my contact at FNS, simply sent me a copy of it and said, 'Read it.'
So I read it and found myself absolutely astonished at what I read. I wondered how many people who talked about the novel so glibly had ever read it; or if they had, whether they remembered it at all.
I felt I would have to write the critique if only to set people straight. (I'm sorry; I love setting people straight.)
A. THE WRITING OF 1984
In 1949, a book entitled 1984 was published. It was written by Eric Arthur Blair under the pseudonym of George Orwell.
The book attempted to show what life would be like in a world of total evil, in which those controlling the government kept themselves in power by brute force, by distorting the truth, by continually rewriting history, by mesmerising the people generally.
This evil world was placed only thirty-five years in the future so that even men who were already in their early middle age at the time the book was published might live to see it if they lived out a normal lifetime.
I, for instance, was already a married man when the book appeared and yet here we are less than four years away from that apocalyptic year (for '1984' has become a year that is associated with dread because of Orwell's book), and I am very likely to live to see it.
In this chapter, I will discuss the book, but first: Who was Blair/Orwell and why was the book written?
Blair was born in 1903 into the status of a British gentleman. His father was in the Indian civil service and Blair himself lived the life of a British Imperial official. He went to Eton, served in Burma, and so on.
However, he lacked the money to be an English gentleman to the full. Then, too, he didn't want to spend his time at dull desk jobs; he wanted to be a writer. Thirdly, he felt guilty about his status in the upper class.
So he did in the late 1920s what so many well-to-do American young people in the 1960s did. In short, he became what we would have called a 'hippie' at a later time. He lived under slum conditions in London and Paris, consorted with and identified with slum dwellers and vagrants, managed to ease his conscience and, at the same time, to gather material for his earliest books.
He also turned left wing and became a socialist, fighting with the loyalists in Spain in the 1930s. There he found himself caught up in the sectarian struggles between the various left-wing factions, and since he believed in a gentlemanly English form of socialism, he was inevitably on the losing side. Opposed to him were passionate Spanish anarchists, syndicalists, and communists, who bitterly resented the fact that the necessities of fighting the Franco fascists got in the way of their fighting each other.
The communists, who were the best organised, won out and Orwell had to leave Spain, for he was convinced that if he did not, he would be killed
From then on, to the end of his life, he carried on a private literary war with the communists, determined to win in words the battle he had lost in action.
During World War II, in which he was rejected for military service, he was associated with the left wing of the British Labour party, but didn't much sympathise with their views, for even their reckless version of socialism seemed too well organised for him.
He wasn't much affected, apparently, by the Nazi brand of totalitarianism, for there was no room within him except for his private war with Stalinist communism. Consequently, when Great Britain was fighting for its life against Nazism, and the Soviet Union fought as an ally in the struggle and contributed rather more than its share in lives lost and in resolute courage, Orwell wrote Animal Farm which was a satire of the Russian Revolution and what followed, picturing it in terms of a revolt of barnyard animals against human masters.
He completed Animal Farm in 1944 and had trouble finding a publisher since it wasn't a particularly good time for upsetting the Soviets. As soon as the war came to an end, however, the Soviet Union was fair game and Animal Farm was published. It was greeted with much acclaim and Orwell became sufficiently prosperous to retire and devote himself to his masterpiece, 1984.
That book described society as a vast world-wide extension of Stalinist Russia in the 1930s, pictured with the venom of a rival left-wing sectarian. Other forms of totalitarianism play a small role. There are one or two mentions of the Nazis and of the Inquisition. At the very start, there is a reference or two to Jews, almost as though they were going to prove the objects of persecution, but that vanishes almost at once, as though Orwell didn't want readers to mistake the villains for Nazis.
The picture is of Stalinism, and Stalinism only.
By the time the book came out in 1949, the Cold War was at its height. The book therefore proved popular. It was almost a matter of patriotism in the West to buy it and talk about it, and perhaps even to read parts of it, although it is my opinion that more people bought it and talked about it than read it, for it is a dreadfully dull book - didactic, repetitious, and all but motionless.
It was most popular at first with people who leaned towards the conservative side of the political spectrum, for it was clearly an anti-Soviet polemic, and the picture of life it projected in the London of 1984 was very much as conservatives imagined life in the Moscow of 1949 to be.
During the McCarthy era in the United States, 1984 became increasingly popular with those who leaned towards the liberal side of the political spectrum, for it seemed to them that the United States of the early 1950s was beginning to move in the direction of thought-control and that all the viciousness Orwell had depicted was on its way towards us.
Thus, in an afterword to an edition published in paperback by New American Library in 1961, the liberal psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm concluded as follows:
'Books like Orwell's are powerful warnings, and it would be most unfortunate if the reader smugly interpreted 1984 as another description of Stalinist barbarism, and if he does not see that it means us, too.'
Even if Stalinism and McCarthyism are disregarded, however, more and more Americans were becoming aware of just how 'big' the government was getting; how high taxes were; how increasingly rules and regulations permeated business and even ordinary life; how information concerning every facet of private life was entering the files not only of government bureaux but of private credit systems.
1984, therefore, came to stand not for Stalinism, or even for dictatorship in general - but merely for government. Even governmental paternalism seemed '1984ish' and the catch phrase 'Big Brother is watching you' came to mean everything that was too big for the individual to control.
It was not only big government and big business that was a symptom of 1984 but big science, big labour, big anything.
In fact, so thoroughly has 1984-ophobia penetrated the consciousness of many who have not read the book and have no notion of what it contains, that one wonders what will happen to us after 31 December 1984. When New Year's Day of 1985 arrives and the United States is still in existence and facing very much the problems it faces today, how will we express our fears of whatever aspect of life fills us with apprehension? What new date can we invent to take the place of 1984?
Orwell did not live to see his book become the success it did. He did not witness the way in which he made 1984 into a year that would haunt a whole generation of Americans. Orwell died of tuberculosis in a London hospital in January 1950, just a few months after the book was published, at the age of forty-six. His awareness of imminent death may have added to the bitterness of the book.