Sunday, May 27, 2007

1984 by George Orwell

When reading 1984 by George Orwell, it becomes apparent that a totalitarian government, one which the world has yet to experience, is in control. While humanity has never been oppressed to such a degree, the parallels between Orwell’s characters and the environment they are living in are easily seen to represent, to a large degree, the Soviet Union, but at the same time also Nazi Germany and other totalitarian/dictatorships that have existed throughout history. At the same time, 1984 is full of hypocrisy and mind numbing abuse of the history of the Soviet Union, history in general, and humanity/human nature. Contradictions abound as one is bombarded page after page of inept thoughts on the part of Winston Smith, the main character, and his carefree lover Julia. By the end of the book it is apparent Orwell knew nothing of how a totalitarian government operates or of how they survive as long or as short as they do.

The reasons, which can easily lead one to view this as a mirror image of the Soviet Union, are in abundance; constant use of the word “comrade”, the fact that the Ministry of Truth as well as the other three ministries have been abbreviated to “Minitrue” akin the Soviet shortening of the Communist International to “Comintern.” The image of Big Brother resembles that of Stalin and posters of “Big Brother” with the caption of “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” are akin to the usual propaganda pictures seen from the Soviet Union where the image of Stalin is everywhere. Emmanual Goldstein’s history resembles that of Leon Trotsky. The original leaders of the revolution were all wiped out long ago, the same occurred in the Soviet Union even down to the fact that some of these men were forgiven and let go then arrested again and finally put on trial and executed. The idea that a certain “Brotherhood” exists is similar to what the secret police in the Soviet Union did.  Often make up various organizations as proof that there were rebellious groups throughout the Soviet Union bent on revolting against Stalin and the government. The different alliances between Eastasia and Euroasia are complimentary to the Soviet Union during the Second World War, yet here, as in other parts of the book, Orwell’s knowledge of history fails him. The Soviet Union was never allied with Germany, they signed a non-aggression pact, and after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union the USSR became an ally of the western powers. It is seen as the norm for children to spy and inform on their parents, this incident happened once in the Soviet Union, the child was Pavel Morozov.

 All of these examples easily lead one to conclude that, to a rather large degree, this book is nothing but propaganda.  Although it needs to be understood what the definition of propaganda is in this case.
Propaganda is not necessarily “lies”, rather propaganda is the truth taken out of context or the truth generalized to such a degree that the actual truth is often overshadowed by an exaggerated form. An example would be that during the Cold War propaganda showed the Soviet Union to the American masses as nothing more than bears roaming the streets, people waiting in lines for bread, GULag forced labor camps, and military parades which were apparently scheduled on a daily basis. On the other hand in the Soviet Union propaganda against the United States, for instance, consisted of videos of civil rights demonstrations, African American youth being subjected to water hoses in the south as they tried to protest for equality, the history of slavery in American, as well as lynching’s of African Americans in the south. Was any of this fact? It was, but, it was generalized and taken out of context making the audiences believe that nothing aside from what they were seeing occurred in these two respective countries.

Orwell easily mixes his histories to come up with a world which has taken only the worst from various nations and squashed any hope of good and decencies on the part of humankind. While the background, to a large degree, remains what supposedly happened in the Soviet Union, scenes like public hangings which had audiences coming out to witness them are mentioned. This never occurred in the Soviet Union but it is reminiscent of an England in the middle ages or the witch hunts which gripped Europe and North America. Something about a lottery is mentioned, a capitalistic idea rather than a Socialist one, which is obviously what this government is supposed to be in terms of its economics. Orwell describes how men simply come and take you at night, akin to what happened in the Soviet Union, but the fact that these were arrests or that a trial would follow is omitted for a simple “disappearance” of the person.

Generalizations abound in the less than two hundred pages that it took to create this world. “Nothing is illegal” as if such a thing could ever exist. “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery…” generalizations about language and word meaning. Smith, and others, are in a position where they cannot even have an exchange or conversation with their co-workers or even strangers, how can couples meet and reproduce? Hitler’s Germany encouraged reproduction so that the Master Race would thrive! Which brings up the idea that when Nazi Germany is mentioned, it is mentioned in the context that its leaders saw freedom and equality on the horizon, how can any government based on racism see equality on the horizon?

We see Smith talking to his friends at work, but we are never told how this was legal or how they met. Smith feels wrong talking to strangers in the street yet his neighbor has no problem barging into his room to ask him for help! It is as if each individual lives on their own Island, this is simply taking bureaucracy, among other social and economic developments, to a level never before imaged by any economist or sociologist. In that kind of atmosphere nothing would get done and perhaps that explains why there are always shortages while the lack of uprisings and revolts are due to the fact that there is a constant war going on. To juxtapose that with reality would take too much time, suffice it to say that such generalizations are just that, generalizations.
Yet the idea that history can be changed by the week, in a state of hundreds of millions, depending on who it is a country is waging a war against or what this or that person said or didn’t say is ludicrous.  A generalization that the word “generalization” cannot possibly cover well enough. Orwell takes the lone incident with Pavel Morozov and transforms it into a pop phenomenon with the youth of Oceania, a sad distortion of reality. What happened to Pavel Morozov, as his story did not end with him informing on his father, is that the rest of the family took revenge on him and murdered him. Why is the family’s revenge not represented in this tale of Orwell’s? Today it is hard to separate the truth from reality when it comes to Pavel Morozov; some believe this incident was real while other researchers think it was wholly fabricated. In the end it was propaganda for the Soviet Union, in more ways than one, and for Orwell a nice twist to his story.

Orwell’s imagination is also lacking at times. When Smith is given a paragraph to rewrite in which “Big Brother” predicated a military operation which did not come off, rather a different one did, why not simply show that “Big Brother” was able to fool the enemy? Or, that a military secret, like an upcoming offensive, shouldn’t even be written about in newspapers before they have occurred in case the enemy has spies? No, “Big Brother” simply cannot be wrong and it has to be fixed, the reader gets the feeling that Orwell is simply grasping at straws, he cannot find a suitable situation, real history and everyday life is not enough for his imagination.

This would be fine if his ultimate purpose was not to make it seem as if this is where the world was heading. He has no understanding of sociology or of human nature, he ascribes pseudo-devil like characteristics to some of his characters where human feelings and emotions have no affect on them yet the reality was never so simple. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, when the former Soviet archives were opened in 1991, a new stream of histories and monographs about Stalin and his government as well as the people living in the Soviet Union have come out. Sheila Fitzpatrick (Everyday Stalinism) has done an exemplary job showing that the people to a large extent were themselves responsible for the kind of government that had formed and that it was due to their misconceptions and ineptness that the people suffered rather than an omnipotent being who could see and hear all. Robert Thurston (Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941) shows that the NKVD, for all the power they wielded, was in the end a bureaucratic organization that simply did not have the manpower to see and hear everything that was going on, quite to the contrary of Orwell’s thesis in this novel.

While during the Cold War dissidents like Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko would write (Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny) about how Stalin masterminded every single event in the Soviet Union’s history, including the arrest of the author’s father, his proof was hearsay and his own imagination. While Robert Thurston and Sheila Fitzpatrick have taken the time to study the archives in depth and understand that no one person could have created the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War it was assumed that everything was top to bottom, that the government was responsible for all and it was omnipotent. In truth citizens helped to a larger degree than was ever  imagined. People denounced each other out of jealousy, spite and greed. Factory managers would not take responsibility onto themselves as they came from the people and assumed it was another’s job to do what in fact they were promoted to do. They would shift blame to those around them, under them, or above them and they in turn would repeat the same process. Putting peasants and factory workers in such high positions could only spell doom for the economy and infrastructure. It took blood and time for the Soviet Union to learn and adapt to the situation it found itself in after the Revolution. What the capitalist world realized after over a hundred years throughout the industrial revolution the Soviet Union did in decades as they caught up with the west and in some cases even surpassed them; the cost was blood, sweat, and tears.

One could almost forgive Orwell if they did not think that his ultimate aim was propaganda and a misdiagnosed idea about what a totalitarian society was in fact like. Sheila Fitzpatrick recounts how a secret police agent went around drinking with the families of those arrested by him a week before he hung himself. Humanity, that is what Orwell’s story is missing, one cannot look at it as science fiction as he is replicating our world from the geography to the history and the predictions for the future are there in black and white. The reader, if he knows anything of European history, will automatically see that Orwell tries too hard and his generalizations take away from his story. If he had created a more detailed world and one based on human nature, rather than a robot like mirror image of humanity, he would have had more luck. And yet his novel is a ‘classic’ which only goes to show that humanity is mesmerized by pop history and a simplified generalization of what they cannot understand. It was the Cold War generation that made this book into the “bestseller” it is today.  Hopefully future generations will find out for themselves that it is little more than baseless propaganda that more so defies logic and humanity than it portrays history and truth. Orwell’s novel helped the west convince themselves that the “evil empire” was in fact evil, more so, it made them forget to challenge and question their own administration and those running it. Yes, take an example from this man’s flawed dystopia where an electric elevator doesn’t work but a TV is on 24 hours a day. Does that remind you of the Soviet Union or rather our very own MTV generation?

5 comments:

RPB said...

Orwell’s disgust with the Soviet Union’s obscene totalitarian system helped launch 1984, however, Orwell never pretended to be a historian. Hence, your misguided attempt to critique Orwell’s alleged historical distortions is fundamentally flawed. You claim “Orwell’s knowledge of history fails him” yet your historical analysis betrays gross historical ignorance regarding the Soviet Union. For example, you challenge Orwell’s veracity with the following retort, “The Soviet Union was never allied with Germany, they signed a mere non-aggression pact, and after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union the USSR became an ally of the western powers.” This statement reflects either a deliberate distortion or an infantile formulation of the Soviet Union’s actions between August 1939 and June 1941. Perhaps you should consider graduate work in another field. This “mere non-aggression pact” underwrote the Soviet Union’s barbaric, genocidal occupations of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and half of Poland. Stalin complemented his murder and mayhem by attacking and occupying part of Finland and intimidating Rumania into surrendering Bessarabia. Likewise, your disingenuous statement that “The Soviet Union was never allied with Germany,” skirts the reality of Nazi-Soviet cooperation before Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa. Stalin provided Hitler with both massive material support and a secure backdoor. Stalin also went so far as to offer to join the Axis powers, but Hitler spurned this gesture. Finally, this Soviet “ally of the western powers,” as you call it, failed to heed British and American warnings of the impending German invasion, while not passing on intelligence to the U.S. of Japan’s plan to attack Pearl Harbor. Some ally!

Unlike you few scholars have difficulty finding the overwhelmingly obvious symmetry between 1984 and the Soviet experience. Even crotchety old leftists, who frequently imagined that the United States was bound for some Orwellian nightmare, seem to have faded into oblivion. Of course, your first mistake was probably imbibing the musings of Soviet apologists like Fitzpatrick and Thurston. Legions of such charlatans marched in Orwell’s time and continued to reaffirm Soviet Russia’s future right up until she croaked. If you want to review some fiction, Thurston’s Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941 is a great place to start. You’re in grad school now. It’s time to introduce your mind to Robert Tucker, Richard Pipes, Robert Conquest and Adam Ulam, just to note the most obvious Stalin scholars. If you spend too much more time with mental troglodytes like Fitzpatrick and Thurston you may never escape from their black hole.

T. Kunikov said...

This will be my only reply to you as it is obvious you know little and your bias is too big to control.

"Orwell’s disgust with the Soviet Union’s obscene totalitarian system helped launch 1984, however, Orwell never pretended to be a historian."

Then trying to portray a future by using so called historical examples isn't what he should be doing.

"Hence, your misguided attempt to critique Orwell’s alleged historical distortions is fundamentally flawed."

No, it isn't. Orwell tried to predict what the future would entail if governments like the one the Soviet Union had at the moment were allowed to prosper.

"You claim “Orwell’s knowledge of history fails him” yet your historical analysis betrays gross historical ignorance regarding the Soviet Union."

You write so much but say so little.

"For example, you challenge Orwell’s veracity with the following retort, “The Soviet Union was never allied with Germany, they signed a mere non-aggression pact, and after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union the USSR became an ally of the western powers.” This statement reflects either a deliberate distortion or an infantile formulation of the Soviet Union’s actions between August 1939 and June 1941."

No, it doesn't. The USSR and Germany were never allies, that's a fact.

"Perhaps you should consider graduate work in another field."

Your credentials are?

"This “mere non-aggression pact” underwrote the Soviet Union’s barbaric, genocidal occupations of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and half of Poland. Stalin complemented his murder and mayhem by attacking and occupying part of Finland and intimidating Rumania into surrendering Bessarabia."

There is no correlation between the one and the other aside from the fact that the one followed the other, if you're putting more into it then you're committing a fallacy.

"Likewise, your disingenuous statement that “The Soviet Union was never allied with Germany,” skirts the reality of Nazi-Soviet cooperation before Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa. Stalin provided Hitler with both massive material support and a secure backdoor. Stalin also went so far as to offer to join the Axis powers, but Hitler spurned this gesture."

Actually, Hitler proposed an alliance to the Soviet Union, not vice versa. Switching history for your own benefit is a large enough fallacy, trying to make it look like I'm wrong, sad. I still see no proof that there was an alliance.

"Finally, this Soviet “ally of the western powers,” as you call it, failed to heed British and American warnings of the impending German invasion, while not passing on intelligence to the U.S. of Japan’s plan to attack Pearl Harbor. Some ally!"

British and American warnings were before the Soviet Union came to become an 'ally' of the UK and US, you once more twist the facts to fit your story. Also, what proof do you have that the USSR knew about Pearl Harbor?

"Unlike you few scholars have difficulty finding the overwhelmingly obvious symmetry between 1984 and the Soviet experience."

Oh, so now it is based on the Soviet Union and history?

"Even crotchety old leftists, who frequently imagined that the United States was bound for some Orwellian nightmare, seem to have faded into oblivion. Of course, your first mistake was probably imbibing the musings of Soviet apologists like Fitzpatrick and Thurston...."

The rest of your tripe can be skipped over. No proof, no response.

RPB said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Fedia Kriukov said...

I always wonder why so few people who have actually lived in the former USSR (i.e. have personal experience in the matter) go into temper tantrums about the country's alleged "totalitarianism", while those who have never lived there and know very little of it have hissy fits on the topic with unfortunate regularity? Is it simply the fact that the less one knows, the more opinionated he becomes?

As for Orwell, it has always been my opinion that while he clearly aimed at the USSR, he actually hit his home country. Probably due to inexperience with the former, and too much experience with the latter. As an example, the famous perversion of language, e.g. "war is peace". The sins of the USSR in that respect were limited to breeding numerous slogans devoid of meaning, such as "the people and the Party are one". But I can't recall any Soviet cliche that actually twisted the meaning a word to its opposite. Unlike in many western countries, where the labels such as "democracy", "authoritarianism", and "totalitarianism" are applied to other states based on their loyalties rather than actual political systems. If that isn't Orwellian, I don't know what is.

T. Kunikov said...

You can move on, I won't allow your brand of propaganda here. Your posts will be deleted.

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