George Orwell Explains in a Revealing 1944 Letter Why He’d Write 1984

George-Orwell-001

Most of the twentieth century’s notable men of letters — i.e., writers of books, of essays, of reportage — seem also to have, literally, written a great deal of letters. Sometimes their correspondence reflects and shapes their “real” written work; sometimes it appears collected in book form itself. Both hold true in the case of George Orwell, a volume of whose letters, edited by Peter Davison, came out last year. In it we find this missive, also published in full at The Daily Beast, sent in 1944 to one Noel Willmett, who had asked “whether totalitarianism, leader-worship etc. are really on the up-grade” given “that they are not apparently growing in [England] and the USA”:

I must say I believe, or fear, that taking the world as a whole these things are on the increase. Hitler, no doubt, will soon disappear, but only at the expense of strengthening (a) Stalin, (b) the Anglo-American millionaires and (c) all sorts of petty fuhrers of the type of de Gaulle. All the national movements everywhere, even those that originate in resistance to German domination, seem to take non-democratic forms, to group themselves round some superhuman fuhrer (Hitler, Stalin, Salazar, Franco, Gandhi, De Valera are all varying examples) and to adopt the theory that the end justifies the means. Everywhere the world movement seems to be in the direction of centralised economies which can be made to ‘work’ in an economic sense but which are not democratically organised and which tend to establish a caste system. With this go the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuhrer. Already history has in a sense ceased to exist, ie. there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted, and the exact sciences are endangered as soon as military necessity ceases to keep people up to the mark. Hitler can say that the Jews started the war, and if he survives that will become official history. He can’t say that two and two are five, because for the purposes of, say, ballistics they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it. That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving, though, of course, the process is reversible.

As to the comparative immunity of Britain and the USA. Whatever the pacifists etc. may say, we have not gone totalitarian yet and this is a very hopeful symptom. I believe very deeply, as I explained in my book The Lion and the Unicorn, in the English people and in their capacity to centralise their economy without destroying freedom in doing so. But one must remember that Britain and the USA haven’t been really tried, they haven’t known defeat or severe suffering, and there are some bad symptoms to balance the good ones. To begin with there is the general indifference to the decay of democracy. Do you realise, for instance, that no one in England under 26 now has a vote and that so far as one can see the great mass of people of that age don’t give a damn for this? Secondly there is the fact that the intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. On the whole the English intelligentsia have opposed Hitler, but only at the price of accepting Stalin. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side. Indeed the statement that we haven’t a Fascist movement in England largely means that the young, at this moment, look for their fuhrer elsewhere. One can’t be sure that that won’t change, nor can one be sure that the common people won’t think ten years hence as the intellectuals do now. I hope they won’t, I even trust they won’t, but if so it will be at the cost of a struggle. If one simply proclaims that all is for the best and doesn’t point to the sinister symptoms, one is merely helping to bring totalitarianism nearer.

You also ask, if I think the world tendency is towards Fascism, why do I support the war. It is a choice of evils—I fancy nearly every war is that. I know enough of British imperialism not to like it, but I would support it against Nazism or Japanese imperialism, as the lesser evil. Similarly I would support the USSR against Germany because I think the USSR cannot altogether escape its past and retains enough of the original ideas of the Revolution to make it a more hopeful phenomenon than Nazi Germany. I think, and have thought ever since the war began, in 1936 or thereabouts, that our cause is the better, but we have to keep on making it the better, which involves constant criticism.

Yours sincerely,
Geo. Orwell

Three years later, Orwell would write 1984. Two years after that, it would see publication and go on to generations of attention as perhaps the most eloquent fictional statement against a world reduced to superstates, saturated with “emotional nationalism,” acquiescent to “dictatorial methods, secret police,” and the systematic falsification of history,” and shot through by the willingness to “disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuhrer.” Now that you feel like reading the novel again, or even for the first time, do browse our collection of 1984-related resources, which includes the eBook, the audio book, reviews, and even radio drama and comic book adaptations of Orwell’s work.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.


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  1. Hanoch says . . . | January 9, 2014 / 5:52 am

    It is amusing to read Orwell’s prediction that the USSR “retains enough of the original ideas of the Revolution to make it a more hopeful phenomenon than Nazi Germany.” How wrong he was on that score. Any time power is centralized in a government — be it economic or political power — individual freedom diminishes.

  2. Acon Cernedman says . . . | January 9, 2014 / 5:54 am

    Fantastic post, what a prescient piece of writing from the great Orwell. Absolutely necessary reading for everyone today more than ever.

  3. Acon Cernedman says . . . | January 9, 2014 / 5:57 am

    Replay to Hanoch –

    You’ve completely, I presume deliberately, missed his point. Did you ignore all the times he deplored Stalin? “the lesser of two evils” he completely made clear, and I’m not sure why you’re using his own opinion that centralised government diminshes individual power as if it was your original thought – that was the whole warning of this piece!

  4. Aesop Jones says . . . | January 10, 2014 / 7:06 pm

    Boy he was definitely way off the mark on his prediction re: the USSR. I suppose at the time none on the Allies side liked to think their ally USSR would be capable of such atrocities.

  5. matt says . . . | January 10, 2014 / 7:24 pm

    Aesop, Hannoch, all he said was that he WOULD support the USSR vs. Nazi Germany. He said this in order to support his position that he would always accept the lesser of the two evils. He says, simply, that the USSR represents a “more HOPEFUL phenomenon”. Aesop, Hannoch, I think you are both wrong: Orwell did not predict that the USSR was going to be successful; just that it had more hope of success than Nazi Germany. On this point Orwell was exactly right. What is it exactly that he was wrong about, again?

  6. Sage of Synapses says . . . | January 10, 2014 / 8:25 pm

    Acon —

    Actually, Orwell admits in the letter that he does not believe centralization always diminishes individual freedom, as exemplified by this line:

    ” … I believe very deeply … in the English people and in their capacity to centralise their economy without destroying freedom in doing so”

    He only suggests loss of freedom as a grave danger, but not an inevitable consequence.

  7. steveoooo says . . . | January 10, 2014 / 10:01 pm

    Great History

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  8. CrazyJ says . . . | January 11, 2014 / 12:31 am

    Everywhere the world movement seems to be in the direction of centralised economies which can be made to ‘work’ in an economic sense but which are not democratically organised and which tend to establish a caste system.

    – Sounds like the EU

  9. Paragon says . . . | January 11, 2014 / 3:01 am

    Hitler disappears, at what cost? More and more people agree with the rise of Capitalism, from Capitalism – The end justifies the means: Anglo-Americans (in a position of power, they established the United States after taking the land from the Native Americans) build a nation based on Meritocracy and the “American Dream”. Economic movements that work “in an economic sense” but establish a caste system: Look at contemporary U.S. society, 80% of the wealth in America is held by 1% of the population. The infallible fuhrer in this case? American ideology of meritocracy and hard work, and getting out of the system what you put in (everyone has equal opportunity in the United States). “the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuhrer.” By perpetuating and actively spreading the gospel of the American Dream, dominant groups in America (WASPs) can essentially control which groups succeed and which do not, do you think it is mere coincidence that White Male Privilege is a large factor in wealth/income? Public policy is shaped by those in power to give resources and opportunity to those seen fit. “But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it. That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving” The police state of America and the revelations made by Edward Snowden in that the NSA is literally recording and spying on practically everyone in the world? George Orwell is beyond his years in recognizing that which millions cannot see even tens of years later.

  10. Kat says . . . | January 11, 2014 / 7:11 am

    The Americans talk about meritocracy, but they do not and have not ever practised it economically. In Capitalism, economic might makes right.

  11. ierizat says . . . | January 11, 2014 / 9:58 am

    He was wrong on many levels, but no one can predict the future.
    He was not the only one to think of De Gaulle as a “furher”. De Gaulle was authoritarian and paternalistic but he was far from a dictator. He resigneds when the voters opposed him, instead of forcing his way on them.
    And what is that, putting Gandhi and De Valeta in the same bag as Hitler, Stalin, Salazar ?
    “No fascist movement in Great Britain” ? What about Oswald Mosley ??
    Whatever…

  12. Montana Sans Soucie says . . . | January 11, 2014 / 10:38 am

    Ifind so much or Orwell’s work so spookily prescient, I daydreamingly wonder if there’s such a thing as time travel after all, and if Orwell didn’t set out to somehow warn us.

  13. Baz G says . . . | January 11, 2014 / 11:20 am

    De Valera, for good or ill, was democratically elected on multiple occasions – so more like Mackenzie King than Stalin. That Orwell would lump Dev in with mass murderers says a lot about his blind spots which don’t get a big airing these days.

  14. sk says . . . | January 11, 2014 / 12:25 pm

    Maybe Orwell really was prescient. How else could he have included the answers to all of ierizat’s questions in the very same letter that caused him to ask them 80 years later?

  15. Baz G says . . . | January 11, 2014 / 1:22 pm

    De Valera was no fuhrer. He as opposed and ridiculed by a sizeable minority in Ireland throughout his career. The people who defeated his side in the Civil War handed power over to him, and he in turn did not take retribution on them in any drastic way. His economic polices were a disaster but that is an entirely separate issue. Like so many Englishmen of his time, Orwell was clueless about Ireland.

  16. Nobody says . . . | January 13, 2014 / 6:40 am

    So, we wouldn’t have learned much, if we made out of Orwell a leader would we?

  17. Matthias says . . . | January 15, 2014 / 6:15 am

    Absolutely no doubt George Orwell gauged his time and the near future, the protagonists with rise and downfall, as well as hopes and fears exceptionally well.

    Please permit me to remark, as I am detached from that very moment in 1944, biased through current knowledge -even if intersubjectively proven-, and affected by a soll/ist clarification, I am unable to fully fathom his vision.

    Similarly -yet/and- without rejection of any criticism, I find it a bit preposterous to re-interpret Orwell’s letter as predictive of FR, GB, USA and RUS success. In the spirit of the time, as the war got longer and longer, the enthusiasm of central forces waned, hopes in the alliance forces increased, and the winner takes it all.

    I strongly advocate we see the boundariless facts and trends he identified: DE, GB, FR, USA and RUS — all were conducting human experiments (eg. nuclear, twins, euthanasia); all are increasingly gathering data on all aspects of life (big brother); all strive to tighten reach and grip then abuse power at the pinnacle of their reign; wealth indeed is grouped more and more in top 1% casts; the true nature of memories is that of re-drawing and history accordingly re-written.

    To realise and warn us for these trends, for us to learn how to read and to prevent the production of new such facts; to me this is Orwell’s greatest contribution.

  18. Summer says . . . | January 17, 2014 / 11:30 pm

    <3 Matthias

  19. Square Shooter says . . . | January 18, 2014 / 5:14 pm

    It seems the Creator might well have raised up yet another trumpet-of-warning-carrying watchman, as is now being Trumpeted by Jonathan Cahn. Type that in YouTube and see how, also, his music is as correct and inevitable as has befallen every single nation in the history of the world. The Creator expelled man from the garden to learn his lesson the way he insists – the hard way. Mattithyahu 3 indeed. It’s nor dependant upon one person believing. It’s dependant on us all not.

  20. James Slater says . . . | January 26, 2014 / 2:18 pm

    Orwell was no economist, which is why he was entirely incorrect on ‘centralised economies can be made to work’. The only debate in economics about centralised economies is the prevailing reasons as to how they fail. They were already predicted to fail by this point in history, but I assume he hadn’t read Hayek.
    He was also epistemologically incorrect about centralising economies not destroying freedom. You cannot centralise economies without destroying freedom, and you cannot centralise economies without centralising power exponentially.
    Orwell was a great critic of the Soviets, and a great critic of the cult of personality that consumes people and their liberties with ferocity – but he’s not turning his criticism on his own cognitive biases. Orwell was no classical liberal, he was a statist who romanticised about a powerful state that somehow has no corruption, and no infringement on individual liberty.

  21. Tangy says . . . | August 22, 2014 / 8:52 am

    yeah but he did preach a form of isolationism and nationalism as well as creating what was essentially a church state which indoctrinated at least two generations of irish people and perpetrated unbelievable oppression of people. no i wouldnt call him a dictator but he certainly fails under the heading of blindly nationalist and certain things he did were in line with other extreme rulers.

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