Politics & Policy

The True Lessons of 1984

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The novel is a warning against socialism that Democrats should heed.

One of the most intriguing developments in our current unpredictable political climate has been the Left’s co-opting of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 as a dramatic warning of the dangers of the Trump administration. The book has surged to first place on Amazon’s best-seller list, and a stage production is in the works. Michiko Kakutani’s recent New York Times article “Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-Read” highlights the kind of connections liberals are making between, say, Kellyanne Conway’s appeal to “alternative facts” and “Newspeak,” the reductive language of 1984 designed to “narrow the range of thought.”

I, for one, wholeheartedly endorse Kakutani’s suggestion that people take up and read 1984, not only because any increase in substantive reading by ordinary Americans is a good thing, but also because readers may discover there something quite different from what they are being lead to expect, something that they have great need to know. 1984 is not a warning against populist despotism, troubling as that possibility may be. It is a warning against socialism, whose inner dynamic always tends towards totalitarianism.

Begin with a fact that virtually every recent piece on 1984 fails to mention: The governing philosophy of Oceania is “English Socialism.” The ruler of Oceania, Big Brother, with his “heavy black mustache,” looks unmistakably like Joseph Stalin; members of the Party address one another as “Comrade”; and the non-party members of Oceania are called “proles” (short for proletariat), an allusion that clearly identifies the provenance of the ideas Orwell is criticizing. From its opening lines, 1984 captures the grim atmosphere and grinding poverty of socialism: “Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled in his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.” The description could fit any city behind the Iron Curtain.

1984 can fruitfully be read alongside two other warnings against socialist totalitarianism, F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944) and C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (1943), which were published several years before 1984 (1949).

In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek traces the logic that leads from socialism to totalitarianism. Socialism seeks to overcome the greed, waste, competitiveness, and inequality generated by the free market with central economic planning by administrative and regulatory “experts.” But whoever controls the means of life, Hayek observed, necessarily controls the ends of life. Moreover, central planning, because it requires minute and particular decisions by some centralized political authority, is incompatible with the rule of law and limited government. The concentration and exercise of power required by central planning explains “Why the Worst Get on Top,” as one chapter puts it.

Oceania, with its Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Peace, and Ministry of Love, with its constantly shifting quotas and rations of coffee, gin, shoes, and cigarettes, where “nothing [is] illegal, since there [are] no longer any laws” (but where one can still be “punished by death”), where the rulers live in luxury while systematically depriving others of basic needs, where all mediating institutions between the state and the individual have been crowded out, eroded, or deliberately destroyed, exemplifies the bureaucratic and despotic nightmare of centralized planning. As the book describing the aims of Oceania’s Party states: “It had long been recognized that the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly. The so-called ‘abolition of private property’ which took place in the middle years of the century meant, in effect, the concentration of property in far fewer hands than before.”

Hayek shows why the central planning required by socialism ultimately undermines its own ends. And indeed, the socialist Party in Oceania only nominally pursues the original goals of socialism. This fact perplexes the protagonist of 1984, Winston Smith: “I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY,” he writes in his diary.

The deep roots of this “why” can be found in C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. There Lewis uncovers the philosophical roots of socialist totalitarianism: Francis Bacon’s scientific project to conquer nature for the relief of human suffering. That project entails a reconceptualization of nature, from an intelligible order of formal and final causes to mere matter in motion that must be “tortured” by human technology to reveal its secrets. To assist this project, Bacon in his New Atlantis invented a new form of literature, “science fiction,” in which he celebrated the complete scientific domination of nature.

But as Lewis’s argument suggests, the culmination of the Baconian project is not New Atlantis but 1984. On the one hand, Lewis points out that technology never simply increases “mankind’s” power over nature. It always only increases the power of some men over other men. Moreover, nature as Bacon conceived of it excludes the possibility of a “natural moral law” (what Lewis called the “Tao”) that might restrain and guide “nature,” or raw appetite. Left unchecked, therefore, the Baconian project of increasing man’s power over “nature” must eventually result in the victory of “nature” over man.

This victory of “nature” over man does not consist in the denial of this or that particular truth (for example, the size of the crowd at a presidential inauguration), as troubling as that might be; it rests on the denial of the possibility of truth. Confidence that truth exists is the foundation for Winston’s hope that the Party will one day be defeated. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows,” he writes in his diary. The same point is made by John Paul II in Centesimus Annus: “Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense.”

O’Brien, the novel’s voice of the socialist Party, denies that there is any ‘objective reality’ apart from the mind.

The concept of truth entails the possibility that the mind can conform correctly (or incorrectly) to extra-mental reality, and therefore that there is something in nature (and human nature) that can resist domination and control. But as Immanuel Kant clearly saw (the epigraph for his First Critique is from Bacon), Baconian science rests on the assumption that reality conforms to the mind, not the mind to reality. This is not far from the claim that the mind makes reality.

O’Brien, the novel’s voice of the socialist Party, denies that there is any “objective reality” apart from the mind. “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else,” he tells Winston. “You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of nature. We make the laws of nature.” O’Brien’s aim is to “cure” Winston of the “insane” belief that there is any reality apart from his will. O’Brien makes clear to Winston what this surrender will mean. “Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling,” he tells Winston. “Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity.” Is this the ultimate consequence of an educational system predicated upon cultural relativism and the systematic denial that truth exists?

There is one other source of hope for Winston: “If there is hope it lies in the proles.”Unlike the members of the Party, the proles are given almost complete freedom to travel, buy, sell, trade, and otherwise spend their leisure. Winston is attracted to a natural goodness he sees in the proles. He writes in his diary about watching a violent war film that features the dismemberment of small children by a bomb. The audience cheers, “but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of the kids they didnt it aint right not in front of the kids it aint until the police turned her out.”

Later, observing with “mystical reverence” a prole woman singing outside his window as she hangs her laundry, he comments: “The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing. . . . You were dead; theirs [i.e., the proles’] was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two makes four.” Winston’s arrest occurs immediately after this episode.

But Orwell shows the reader the proles alone are not a real alternative to totalitarianism, but a complement to it. Although the Party does not directly control the proles, it rules them inwardly by feeding them on a steady diet of mass-engineered sentimental music and pornographic literature. This along with “films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling filled the horizon of their minds.” Orwell highlights the fact that the proles are also without a conception of truth, because they lack the capacity for making the kind of universal judgments that truth requires, and “being without general ideas, they could only focus [their discontent] on petty specific grievances.” At one point Winston attempts to learn from an old prole what life was like before the revolution, but all he can get are particular descriptions: “A sense of helplessness took hold of Winston. The old man’s memory was nothing but a rubbish heap of details. One could question him all day without getting any real information.” Expressive individualism, fed on Hollywood pop culture, assists, rather than resists, totalitarianism.

In the end, 1984 is an unbelievably dark novel, but there are moments of light, and those moments are instructive. What they show is that the prospects for resistance to socialist totalitarianism rest in fundamentally conservative sentiments and ideas. Those sentiments and principles consist in the affirmation of transpolitical goods that set firm limits to political authority. Two of these moments are worth mentioning.

In the end, 1984 is an unbelievably dark novel, but there are moments of light, and those moments are instructive.

One day while surreptitiously exploring the shops in the prole part of town, Winston comes across a heavy lump of glass with a pink piece of sea coral in its center. He is immediately attracted to it, and purchases it. “What appealed to him about it was not so much its beauty as the air it seemed to possess of belonging to an age quite different from the present one. . . . The thing was doubly attractive because of its apparent uselessness, though he could guess that it must once have been intended as a paperweight.” Orwell then adds: “It was a queer thing, even a compromising thing, for a Party member to have in his possession. Anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, was always vaguely suspect.”

In this moment Winston transcends the Baconian conception of nature that surrounds him. The coral at the center of the glass ball exemplifies nature, and the glass ball exemplifies culture. Coral is the skeleton of a sea polyp, which — to quote Shakespeare on coral in another place – “suffers a sea change / Into something rich and strange” (The Tempest I, ii, 399–400). Coral points to the ultimate beneficence of nature, to its capacity to bring beauty even out of death. The purpose of the glass ball, a work of art, is not to use up or destroy the coral, but to preserve it and to present it for human contemplation.

The paperweight is a symbolic education in limited government. It reflects not Bacon’s godless nature, but “nature and Nature’s God,” which point to goods like beauty and truth that transcend, and therefore set limits to, politics. But in 1984 even the comfort of this experience is fleeting. When Winston is later arrested, someone smashes the paperweight on the hearthstone. “The fragment of coral, a tiny crackle of pink like a sugar rosebud from a cake, rolled across the mat. How small, thought Winston, how small it was!”

The other moment involves Winston’s romance with Julia. One of the aims of the Party is to control and direct the sexual impulses of its members through arranged marriages and organizations like the Junior Anti-Sex League, of which Julia is a leader even as she covertly despises it. When they first secretly meet in the country for a sexual liaison, Winston asks Julia, “You like doing this? I don’t mean simply me; I mean the thing itself?” Julia responds, “I adore it.” Orwell then writes: “This was above all what he wanted to hear. Not merely the love of one person, but the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: That was the force that would tear the Party to pieces. . . . Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.”

In a very uncharacteristic misinterpretation, C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves took Orwell to task for this reductionistic depiction of sexual desire. But in fact Orwell subtly acknowledges the poverty of this initial opinion and gradually corrects it. The real danger of sexual desire for totalitarianism, Orwell suggests, is not the sexual act itself (after all, the proles have plenty of that) but the intrinsic tendency of sexual desire towards the transpolitical good of a community of persons rooted in exclusivity, permanence, and domesticity. Legal marriage being made impossible by the Party, Winston and Julia secretly rent a room in the prole section of town, where they dress up, dream, and enact the private life of a married couple. And it is precisely through this friendship that they decide to engage in a revolt against the Party, knowing that it will eventually mean their death.

In conclusion, the person reading 1984 for insight into America’s current political situation should ask a number of questions: Which political party had a leading presidential candidate proudly declare himself to be a socialist? Which party’s president consistently sought to expand the regulatory administrative state, often by lawless means? Which party dominates the institutions of higher learning, where the possibility of truth has been consistently undermined by assumptions of skepticism, scientism, and value relativism, and where utility has replaced contemplation as the end of education? Which party controls America’s public-school system, where these same ideas are consistently promoted? Which party is most closely associated with Hollywood’s celebration of sexual liberation and sentimentalism? Finally, which party has sought to elevate the state over God by coercing private individuals to violate their consciences?

In sum, if 1984 has a practical lesson, it is this: There is a world of difference between a despotism dedicated to the expansion of socialism through federal-government power and a despotism dedicated to dismantling it. The former suffocates; the latter, though not without its serious dangers, just might create room to breathe. Conservatives must work to ensure that this breathing space becomes the occasion for the revival of true conservative ideas, principles, and sentiments.


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