Nineteen Eighty-Four taught us about dictatorship

On June 8th, 1949, a full 70 years ago, George Orwell’s 1984 was published by Secker and Warburg. Orwell had parted with his original publisher, Victor Gollancz, when they’d refused to publish his 1945 “Animal Farm” because it was too anti-Communist. Nineteen Eighty-Four is even more anti-Communist. Although ostensibly set in a dystopian future, the novel is in fact a recreation of Stalinist Russia in the 1930s. Big Brother, with his moustache, is uncannily like Stalin, who was also the subject of an over-the-top personality cult.

In Orwell’s world the people are subject to incessant surveillance and propaganda. Euphemisms abound, in that the Ministry of Love specializes in torture, the Ministry of Plenty oversees shortages and rationing, the Ministry of Peace runs the war, and the Ministry of Truth specializes in what we would today call “fake news.”

Members of the Outer Party, including Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, have to make do with synthetic foodstuffs and poor-quality “Victory” gin, oily and unpleasant, and loosely-packed “Victory” cigarettes. The ruling Inner Party live in clean and comfortable flats, with pantries full of luxury goods such as wine, coffee and sugar, all unavailable elsewhere. The unmistakable reference is to the special shops stocked with Western goods that only the Nomenklatura of the Soviet Communist hierarchy had access to.

Orwell gave us the language with which to speak of totalitarianism, with terms such as Big Brother, newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, and memory hole. The book was so powerful that the term “Orwellian” is now used to describe the total control of a dictatorship.

The “book within a book” is the illicit copy Winston obtains of “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein,” (Leon Trotsky), a masterly insight into the theory of totalitarian domination. Goldstein is the main subject of the daily “Two-minutes hate” in which party members have to participate. It resembles the interminable party rallies of Communist regimes.

The shortages and general low quality of life, like the canteen with its peeling and grease-stained tables lead Winston to wonder if it had always been like this. At the back of his mind is the notion that it was not, but the incessant propaganda about constant improvement prevents an accurate recollection. It has been claimed that Orwell’s description derives from his wartime experience in the BBC canteen. If so, it would be fitting, in that the Corporation is practically a temple to doublethink, the art of holding conflicting views simultaneously. And of incessant fake news.

The book is still a gripping read, even 70 years later. Its power is such that some members of the current Opposition regard it with hostility for daring to tell the truth about what Soviet Russia was actually like.