More than 60 years after his death and the closely preceding publication of his best-known novel 1984, we look to George Orwell as a kind of prophet of the ills of corporatism, socialism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism — any powerful -ism, essentially, in which we can find nasty, freedom-destroying implications. The BBC documentary Orwell: A Life in Pictures, which we featured a few years back, makes a point of highlighting Orwell’s “warning” to what he saw as a fast corporatizing/socializing/authoriatarianizing/totalitarianizing world. In the film’s final dramatized scene above (watch the complete film here), the re-created Orwell himself makes the following ominous prediction:
Allowing for the book, after all, being a parody, something like 1984 could actually happen. This is the direction the world is going in at the present time. In our world, there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. The sex instinct will be eradicated. We shall abolish the orgasm. There will be no loyalty except loyalty to the Party. But always there will be the intoxication of power. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who’s helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever. The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: don’t let it happen. It depends on you.
This fictionalized Orwell — much like the real Orwell — doesn’t mince words. But as with most unminced words, these mask a more complicated reality. Though Orwell fans may find each individual piece of this speech recognizable, especially the bit about the boot and the face, the man himself never spoke it — not in this form, anyway. It mixes documented statements of Orwell’s with words from the text of 1984, and its dramatic closer [“Don’t let it happen. It depends on you!”] comes, as writes Barnes and Noble’s Steve King, from a post-publication press release directed by publisher Fredric Warburg toward readers who “had misinterpreted [Orwell’s] aim, taking the novel as a criticism of the current British Labour Party, or of contemporary socialism in general.” The quotation from the press release was “soon given the status of a last statement or deathbed appeal, given that Orwell was hospitalized at the time and dead six months later.”
You can read more at georgeorwellnovels.com, which provides a great deal of context on this press release, which runs, in full, as follows:
It has been suggested by some of the reviewers of Nineteen Eighty-Four that it is the author’s view that this, or something like this, is what will happen inside the next forty years in the Western world. This is not correct. I think that, allowing for the book being after all a parody, something like Nineteen Eighty-Four could happen. This is the direction in which the world is going at the present time, and the trend lies deep in the political, social and economic foundations of the contemporary world situation.
Specifically the danger lies in the structure imposed on Socialist and on Liberal capitalist communities by the necessity to prepare for total war with the U.S.S.R. and the new weapons, of which of course the atomic bomb is the most powerful and the most publicized. But danger lies also in the acceptance of a totalitarian outlook by intellectuals of all colours.
The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.
George Orwell assumes that if such societies as he describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four come into being there will be several super states. This is fully dealt with in the relevant chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is also discussed from a different angle by James Burnham in The Managerial Revolution. These super states will naturally be in opposition to each other or (a novel point) will pretend to be much more in opposition than in fact they are. Two of the principal super states will obviously be the Anglo-American world and Eurasia. If these two great blocks line up as mortal enemies it is obvious that the Anglo-Americans will not take the name of their opponents and will not dramatize themselves on the scene of history as Communists. Thus they will have to find a new name for themselves. The name suggested in Nineteen Eighty-Four is of course Ingsoc, but in practice a wide range of choices is open. In the U.S.A. the phrase “Americanism” or “hundred per cent Americanism” is suitable and the qualifying adjective is as totalitarian as anyone could wish.
If there is a failure of nerve and the Labour party breaks down in its attempt to deal with the hard problems with which it will be faced, tougher types than the present Labour leaders will inevitably take over, drawn probably from the ranks of the Left, but not sharing the Liberal aspirations of those now in power. Members of the present British government, from Mr. Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps down to Aneurin Bevan will never willingly sell the pass to the enemy, and in general the older men, nurtured in a Liberal tradition, are safe, but the younger generation is suspect and the seeds of totalitarian thought are probably widespread among them. It is invidious to mention names, but everyone could without difficulty think for himself of prominent English and American personalities whom the cap would fit.
Readers can still find plenty to quibble with in Orwell, but surely that counts as a point toward his status as an enduringly fascinating writer. The lesson, however much we may misinterpret its delivery — and indeed, how much Orwell himself may sometimes seem to misdeliver it — holds steady: don’t let it happen. How not to let it happen, of course, remains a matter of active inquiry.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.