Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2908

George Orwell’s 1984 at 75

John Newsinger, author of A Rebel’s Guide to George Orwell, writes on the legacy of 1984
Issue 2908
A picture of George Orwell 1984

George Orwell wrote 1984 during the beginning of the Cold War  (Picture: BBC/Wikimedia commons)

When George Orwell returned home from fighting in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, he was determined to understand why the Communist Parties had played a counter-revolutionary role. He’d been shot in the throat by a fascist sniper and barely escaped from the Communist secret police who regarded him and his wife, Eileen, as “known Trotskyists”.

Orwell read widely on the Soviet Union, eventually deciding that a new, bureaucratic ruling class had overthrown workers’ power and ruled the country through terror.

After the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939—when Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia carved up Poland—he thought the Communists were completely discredited. But, once Hitler invaded Stalinist Russia in June 1941, all this changed and he once again became concerned about growing Stalinist influence.

This led to him to write Animal Farm, and then 1984 after the Second World War was over. 1984 was a determined effort to show a British readership exactly how Communist regimes exercised power. This is an important point.

When the book was first published in June 1949, the Stalinist regimes across Eastern Europe were carrying out massive purges. Hundreds of thousands of people were arrested and detained in labour camps—some 40,000 in Bulgaria, 90,000 in Czechoslovakia and even more in Hungary.

The victims included many veteran Communist Party members. They were arrested, tortured, placed on trial and forced to confess to being “Trotskyist-Titoites”. They were subsequently executed or sentenced to years in prison. Those who would not confess either died under torture or were shot.

To all intents and purposes, 1984 was being acted out across Eastern Europe. Those on the left who condemned 1984 as an attack on socialism were at the very same time justifying, apologising for—even celebrating—these murderous purges.

It was these apologists for Stalinist terror who handed 1984 over to the right, allowing it to be weaponised in the Cold War. Indeed, they behaved as if they were characters out of the book—working in the Ministry of Truth, reworking reality to fit in with Stalin’s lies.

What is almost always forgotten is that the book does more than envisage a brutal totalitarian regime ruthlessly exercising power. The main protagonist, Winston Smith, still has hope right up until his arrest. 1984 contains a powerful celebration of the “proles”, of the British working class, who Smith hopes will bring the regime down.

Smith watches a working class woman hanging out the washing and recognises that there are “all over the world hundreds of thousands of millions of people just like this”. They’re “held apart by walls of hatred and lies’, but one day their power would “overrun the world”. “If there was hope, it lay with the proles…The future belonged to the proles…In the end their awakening would come,” he wrote.

This was one of Orwell’s enduring beliefs. If he had only lived long enough to have seen the working class revolt against the Stalinist regime in Hungary in 1956, there can be no doubt that he would have felt his stance vindicated.

There are many valid criticisms to be made of Orwell’s political development over the years, not least his sexism.

His criticism of Stalinism led him to collaborate with the British state in the Cold War. He handed a list of names of “Communist sympathisers” to the Information Research Department, the British Foreign Office’s propaganda department set up by the Labour government.

But in 1947 he wrote about the dangers of nuclear war and the world being divided up by “two or three vast superstates”.

While “socialism cannot properly be said to be established until it is world-wide”, he hoped for a political alternative to both the US and Stalinist Russia in Europe. This would be opposed by both the Stalinists and the US. But he hoped that “a powerful socialist movement might for the first time arise in the US” and that by 1960 there might be “millions of young Russians eager for more freedom”.

Orwell wrote this while he was working on 1984.

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