George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, is considered the best of a number of books released in the 1950’s that prophesied and bemoaned the effects of communism. Based on Orwell’s personal beliefs, which are said to have favored socialism, we can surmise that his disaffection with communism was due to his belief that those that believed in the equality that socialism offered were in fact their own worst enemies. Orwell is warning us against allowing our society to succumb to tactics of power hungry men who might hijack a good idea and oppress other men to maintain their own power. 30 years after 1984, it is worth taking another look at Orwell’s warning to measure how much of his prediction was hysteria and how much was keen observation of real human tendencies.
One point the book makes that has always been considered central to its purpose is the effect of nuclear weapons and of war itself on the relations between superpowers. In 1950 Orwell accurately predicted the principle of Assured Mutual Destruction, which in essence says that we are made safe from destruction via nuclear attack because the proliferation of nuclear arms guarantees the destruction of all combatants after the first shot is fired. This was a much bigger deal in the 50’s and 60’s than it is today because it is discussed relatively little in a public forum. However, the same conditions still exist now as did during the Cold War – with less political stability. It would be interesting to test Orwell’s theory that once a combatant is significantly weaker than the others that combatant will be quickly destroyed. The way American collectivists rush to throw away our arms, this test may occur sooner than we would like.
The way the book presents the institutions of the tyrannical socialist regime of Oceania is worth discussion. Orwell presents the Ministry of Love and the Thought Police as violent arms of the government that insist that the citizen be converted to the belief that the untrue is true without questioning it. This is an obvious criticism of Stalin’s Soviet Union, but these fictional agencies always tempt us to draw comparisons to our own government. For instance, the way the agenda driven media covers news is very biased in favor of the collectivist cause. This is, of course, a much softer sell than we see in 1984, but it can be clearly seen that the ultimate goal is the same. Also, political correctness came about for the same purpose as Orwell’s Thought Police – to change the way people think by changing the language. Consider some of these recent substitutions in our language: “climate change” replaces “global warming”; “undocumented immigrant” replaces “illegal alien”; etc. Finally, we are witnessing a rewriting of American history in our public schools through continually questioning of the integrity of the founding fathers and a criticism of the personal and economic freedoms that are a crucial principle of the foundation of our country. Of course we have to acknowledge the Orwellian institutions appear much more sinister than our modern counterparts. He is undoubtedly using an exaggerated evil to clearly illustrate the danger of the direction we are heading.
To me the most surprising part of the book was when the “why” was revealed to Winston Smith. When Smith said he understood “how” the Party maintained itself, but not “why”, the answer was very blunt. Power for its own sake. I think this is true in all governments more than anyone cares to admit. That is why we must always question the purity of the motives of men in politics. Even though they tell us they are doing something for our good (and may have even convinced themselves of this) they are just as likely to pursue a course of action for the power and personal gain that will come to them.
In the end, 1984 is a depressing book that is useful as a warning. The United States is on its way to becoming a socialist democracy. Let’s take Orwell’s warning seriously so we don’t doom our children to living in a new version of the Soviet Union.