Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four: Critiques of Stalinism `from the left’?

Review by Alex Miller

This essay is the result of a re-reading of George Orwell’s two most famous novels. Both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have acquired the status of textbooks, and are routinely used in schools to demonstrate to children the inherent dangers of social revolution. It is time for a reappraisal.

The ``Centenary Edition’’ of George Orwell’s Animal Farm contains a preface written by Orwell for the first edition (Secker and Warburg, 1945) but never published, together with a preface that he wrote specially for a translation for displaced Ukrainians living under British and US administration after World War II.

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Animal Farm: A Fairy Story
By George Orwell
Centenary Edition, Penguin Books, 2003
120 pages
Nineteen Eighty-Four
By George Orwell
Penguin Classics, 2000
326 pages

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If we are to take Orwell at his word in the first of these prefaces, Animal Farm is intended as a critique of the Stalinist Soviet regime ``from the left’’. He explicitly dissociates himself from conservative critiques, which he describes as ``manifestly dishonest, out of date, and actuated by sordid motives’’.

Critique `from the left’?

This is laudable: a left-wing critique of Stalinism was desperately needed in Britain at a time when the prestige of Stalin’s regime was at its apogee, and almost all of the left was turning a blind eye to the regime’s crimes.

No doubt the attempt manifests a degree of intellectual courage on Orwell’s part. But his work has largely been hijacked by the very conservatives he distanced himself from. The Centenary Edition of Animal Farm, for example, displays ringing endorsements from The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Evening Standard, The Sunday Times and The Spectator.

It is unfair to blame an author for the (mis-)use of his work after his death, so let’s ask: how successful was Orwell’s attempt to provide a critique of Stalinism ``from the left’’?

Orwell believed that the Bolshevik revolution had degenerated into something at least as bad as Tsarism, and much abuse has been heaped on Orwell by those on the left who refused to believe that the revolution had indeed degenerated under Stalin. However, we can surely now leave that sort of criticism of Orwell safely behind. It is still common to hear contemporary apologists for Stalinism accuse Orwell of being in the pay of the British intelligence services. In this review we will eschew such an ad homenim approach and instead attempt to appraise Animal Farm (and Nineteen Eight-Four) purely on their merits.

A prerequisite of a left-wing critique of the degeneration of the revolution is the provision of an accurate account of its causes. We can make some progress on this question by considering some of the features that Marx took to be essential for the success of a socialist revolution. Two years prior to the composition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote: ``A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of Communism], because without it want is generalized, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive’’ (quoted in Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Dover Books 2004, p.43). In other words, Marx thought that a successful socialist revolution would require the high level of development of material resources made possible by advanced capitalism as well as the most important productive force of all: the highly developed skills and productively applicable knowledge of the proletariat.

This allows us to identify two prominent causes of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution: one the one hand the scarcity of material resources and the low level of industrial and technological development in Russia, and on the other the severe weakening — indeed, near annihilation — of the already numerically small working class, mainly as a result of the civil war that followed the invasion of Bolshevik Russia in 1918-21 by a coalition of several imperialist countries, including Britain and the US.

Thus, although it survived the catastrophic destruction of the civil war, Bolshevik Russia lacked two of the key characteristics identified by Karl Marx as necessary for a successful transition from capitalism to socialism: a very high level of capitalist development (making possible an abundance of material resources), plus a numerically strong working class with a high level of cultural, political and technical development. Without these, the field was open for the formation of bureaucratic strata whose dominance of the USSR was crystallised in Stalin’s dictatorship and the defeat of the Left Opposition within the Bolshevik Party.

Animal Farm completely fails to reflect these key causes of the revolution’s degeneration. In the story, the rebellion of the animals leaves them with a material abundance of food: there is milk galore and a generous harvest of windfall apples, both of which are simply purloined by the cunning and selfish pigs, led by Napoleon (Joseph Stalin) and the soon-to-be-ousted Snowball (Leon Trotsky). In addition, only one animal — a sheep — dies as a result of the ``civil war’’, an attempt by the deposed farmer Mr. Jones and his human friends to retake the farm.

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Thus, in Orwell’s story the Rebellion degenerates despite conditions of material abundance and an ``animal class’’ left largely intact by human aggression. Orwell seems to be saying that unless ruled by humans, the mass of animals will inevitably succumb to the tyrannical rule of the cunning and selfish among themselves. Transposed to the human domain, the moral of Orwell’s story is clear: without the capitalist class to govern them, the mass of workers will inevitably find themselves subject to the tyranny of the ``brainworkers’’ among them.

Of course, the animals in the tale are far from the high level of political, cultural and technical development required for the success of a socialist revolution. But there’s the rub: Orwell’s animals, with the exception of the pigs, are, though hard working, loyal and trustworthy, devoid of all intelligence and completely unable to learn anything from experience. This extremely low estimate of the potentialities of the working class is part of Orwell’s conception of the possibilities open to socialists. The options are exhausted by Stalinist totalitarianism and the ``social democratic’’ struggle for reforms within the confines of ``western parliamentary democracy’’.

Orwellian fantasy

The flipside of Orwell’s elitist and patronising attitude towards working people is his highly distorted picture of the nature of British capitalism. In the first preface to Animal Farm, he writes of ``the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation’’ and states that ``tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England [sic]’’. That would be the ``intellectual liberty’’ afforded — not so long before Orwell’s time — to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and other ordinary workers, imprisoned, banished or simply murdered by the British state for daring to organise trade unions, or the ``tolerance and decency’’ that callously sent millions of young people to the slaughterhouse of World War I — not to mention the horrors of imperial rule within the British Isles and overseas.

The intellectual liberty, tolerance and decency of British imperialism are the real Orwellian fantasy: insofar as those qualities have roots in Britain, they are the product of generations of struggle by the working people that Orwell snobbishly portrays as bovine dunces. It's not hard to see why Orwell is the darling of the ruling-class newspapers mentioned above. He may genuinely have attempted to provide a critique of Stalin’s USSR ``from the left’’, but all that he actually produced — in Animal Farm at least — was a banal piece of ruling-class propaganda.

Animal Farm thus fails utterly as a critique of Stalinism ``from the left’’.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

We will now attempt a similar evaluation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It has always been regarded as an attack on Russian ``Communism’’ and by extension an attack on any form of communist revolution. Isaac Deutscher, for instance, recounts that when he bought a copy of the book in New York shortly after its publication in 1949 the bookseller said to him: ``Have you read this book? You must read it, sir. Then you will know why we must drop the atom bomb on the Bolshies’’ (Heretics and Renegades (Jonathan Cape 1969), p.50). Does it fare better than Animal Farm as a critique of Stalinism ``from the left’’?

The action of Nineteen Eighty-Four takes place in London (capital of ``Airstrip One’’) some 40 years after a ``socialist revolution’’: the ideology of the society is known as ``Ingsoc’’ (``English socialism’’), the banners of the ruling party (``The Party’’) are scarlet, party members address each other as ``comrade’’, and Party literature describes a horrible time before the Revolution when the country was ruled by top-hatted toffs known as ``capitalists’’. The leader of The Party, whose portrait is omni-present, and who has godlike status, is ``Big Brother’’, whose physical appearance is remarkably similar to that of Joseph Stalin. The most hated figure is Emmanuel Goldstein, leader of the secret terrorist and anti-Party organisation known as ``The Brotherhood’’. Goldstein’s physical appearance is remarkably similar to that of Leon Trotsky (whose real name, ``Bronstein’’, surely determined Orwell’s choice of name for Big Brother’s would-be nemesis).

The details of the story of Winston and Julia, the two main characters, needn’t concern us here (though it should be said that it is quite gripping). For our purposes, the main facts are that the Revolution – which apparently started out with high ideals, has degenerated into something similar to, but much worse than, Stalinism. The social composition of the country is revealing. Two per cent belong to the ``Inner Party’’, a privileged layer of top-level bureaucrats, and13% belong to the ``Outer Party’’, a much less privileged layer of minor bureaucrats and administrators: whereas the members of the Inner Party have access to wine, real coffee, and live in plush serviced apartments, the members of the Outer Party live in shoddy accommodation, drink only synthetic ``Victory Gin’’ and are plagued by shortages of minor goods such as razor blades and shoelaces. Below the party members come the ``proles’’, who make up the remaining 85% of the population.

The Ingsoc society is unimaginably totalitarian. Every aspect of the lives of the members of the Outer Party are subject to surveillance by ubiquitous ``telecreens’’: two-way television sets that are so sophisticated that they can detect changes of heartbeat rhythms in the dark. Any sign of deviation from the principles of Ingsoc is likely to result in the ``vaporisation’’ of the person concerned by the ``Thought Police’’, whose job it is to root out and punish even the remotest hint of unorthodoxy. There is a daily ceremony called the ``two minutes hate’’, in which party members whip themselves up into a frenzy of hate against Goldstein, and history is continually falsified: Winston’s job, in the Ministry of Truth, is the systematic rewriting of newspaper articles from the archives in order to delete references to the victims of the Thought Police.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, then, we have another example of a revolution that has degenerated, this time in spite of taking place in an advanced capitalist country with a numerically preponderant proletariat. Now, given that technology has developed to the extent that a large section of the society is under 24-hour surveillance, one would expect the ``proles’’ to manifest a high degree of intelligence and technical skill: after all, who designs, builds and maintains the telescreens that make possible the intricate surveillance operation? (The Inner and Outer Party members don’t, as they have purely bureaucratic and administrative functions). In Orwell’s story, however, the ``proles’’, like the beasts in Animal Farm, are completely stupid, and devoid of even the most rudimentary intelligence. They have ``debased’’ cockney accents, are described at one point as ``helpless, like the animals’’, at another as constituting ``an impenetrable wall of flesh’’, and at another a working-class mother is described as having ``powerful mare-like buttocks’’.

Bound to degenerate

Thus, Orwell’s elitist and patronising attitude towards the working class in Animal Farm reappears in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the headline message is the same: a socialist revolution, even if it were to happen in an advanced capitalist country, would be bound to degenerate because of the innate helplessness and lack of intelligence of the working class.

It is worth noting in passing that Marx himself, despite being an infinitely better writer and thinker than Orwell, had an entirely different attitude towards ordinary people. He wrote, for example:

When the communist artisans meet, they seem to be meeting for the purpose of propaganda, etc. But in the process they acquire a new need, the need for society, and what seemed to be a means has become an end in itself. One can see the most illuminating effects of this practical process if one watches a meeting of socialist French workers. Smoking, drinking and eating are no longer merely an excuse for meeting. The society, the entertainment, which is supposed to be for the purpose of meeting, is sufficient in itself: the brotherhood of Man is no idle phrase but the real truth, and the nobility of Man shines out at us from these faces brutalized by toil (quoted in Werner Blumenberg, Karl Marx: An Illustrated History, Verso 2000, p.47).

And there are deeper differences between Orwell and Marx. Orwell believes that power, independently of the specific social circumstances in which it is realised, is governed by a logic that inevitably leads to corruption and exploitation. In his view, even if the working-class successfully seizes power in an advanced capitalist country, corruption and exploitation will inevitably prevail. This idealist and anarchist philosophy is vastly inferior to Marx’s approach, according to which power can only be studied meaningfully as embodied in concrete social and economic structures.

This point is well-made by Deutscher: ``at heart Orwell was a simple-minded anarchist… To analyse a complicated social background, to try and unravel tangles of political motives, calculations, fears and suspicions, and to discern the compulsion of circumstances behind their action was beyond him. Generalisations about social forces, social trends, and historic inevitabilities made him bristle with suspicion … Yet his distrust of historical generalisations led him in the end to adopt and to cling to the oldest, the most banal, the most abstract, the most metaphysical, and the most barren of all generalisations: all their conspiracies and plots and purges had one source and one source only – ‘sadistic power hunger’. Thus he made his jump from workaday, rationalistic common sense to the mysticism of cruelty which inspires 1984” (Heretics and Renegades, pp.47-8).

Our conclusion is thus that given an understanding of the social and economic factors that led to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, neither Animal Farm nor Nineteen Eighty-Four give us compelling reason to believe that a socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist society must inevitably deteriorate into Stalinism, or worse. Thus, despite whatever other literary merits they may possess, neither of Orwell’s most famous books constitutes an effective critique of Stalinism ``from the left’’.

Orwell's critique of Stalinism is well-regarded in Cuba, as the Green Left Weekly noted not long ago [excerpt]

Today, a neoliberal totalitarianism with a leader from the North seeks to dominate the world and in it, the three previously mentioned slogans fit like a ring on a finger. Big Brother lies like the witch in Snow White and then transmits on his screens whatever suits him. He creates super-ministries of espionage, searches libraries to see what citizens are reading, controls telephones and other means of communication, and accuses those who do not support militaristic adventures of being unpatriotic.

Two days ago, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon were cut off as they talked on the [NBC] Today Show about freedom of expression, while the contracts of other critics have been cancelled as in the case of actor Sean Penn.

Big Brother buys (according to the Associated Press) “access to data banks of hundreds of millions of inhabitants in Latin American countries”, calls into his service the phantoms of McCarthyism, and coins the maximum slogan with no room for shading: “Those who are not with us are against us.”

Orwell called his novel 1984, and there are plenty of indications to suggest that he was only off by 20 years.


That's right, George Orwell inspired me to be a revolutionary. I read "Animal Farm" as part of my highschool curriculum, and I identified with the animals who made the revolution in that book.

I like most of the ideas of Marx that I know of, however, just because Marx said something does not make it true. And when it comes to the Russian Revolution, no-one has ever proven to me this "socialist/communist revolutions can only succeed in advanced capitalist countries" idea.

I got something important from reading "Animal Farm" and "1984":

the idea that the success of revolutions (and all progressive politics) depends upon the political consciousness/activism of the people. I mean a revolution will not succeed without enough participation by the people. And I mean that a revolution will not last - and will be usurped by authoritarianism - if the people are not politically conscious/active enough to keep power in their own hands, to keep the revolution in their own hands.

Now this political consciousness/activism may be a result of capitalist development (please rememeber that this is an idea that led Stalin and his followers to support capitalism in Third World countries, as a "necessary" stage towards socialist/communist revolution, rather than support socialist/communist revolutionary movements themselves). However, as the Cuban Revolution has shown us (and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela also seems to show), there are many ways to socialism/communism, and the economic development does not need to come before the development of the people's political consciousness/activism.

Let's not treat what Marx said, or any other person said, as the "gospel truth". Let's be free-thinking about how we approach politics, Let's look at whatever circumstances we face, and turn them to our advantage, to build socialism in each and every part of the world, whatever the circumstances of each and every part of the world.

Submitted by Alex Miller (not verified) on Thu, 05/01/2008 - 00:24


The comments by the Cuban comrade are interesting, and it is perfectly fair to point out similarities between the neo-liberal world and that of 1984, but I'm afraid I can't agree with the comment that "it is clear that 1984 is not an anti-communist novel, but rather a work aimed against totalitarianism of whatever stripe".

For one thing, the similarities between the world of 1984 and Stalinist Russia are just too obvious (Goldstein = Bronstein etc). For another, given that he says explicitly that Animal Farm is an attempted critique of Stalinism, it's not far-fetched to take that to be the target of 1984. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, there has been a revolution in Oceania. But fascist totalitarianism has never come to power via a social revolution (am I right in thinking this?).

So it seems unlikely that fascism was the target of 1984.


Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 05/07/2008 - 15:16


Forwarded from John R:

Congratulations to Alex Miller on an excellent series of insights into Orwell’s writings. Many points made that I haven’t seen before – and I’ve been teaching Orwell off and on since 1983.

It’s a great example of how good materialist class analysis can generate useful insights into literary production. Alex’s points re the role of material abundance or lack thereof in shaping bureaucracy, and re Orwell’s negative conception of the working class are gems! Thanks!  I’ll use the article often in class when dealing with this topic from now on.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sun, 09/21/2008 - 08:25


Irving Howe

1984 – Utopia Reversed

Orwell’s Penetrating Examination of Totalitarian Society

(November 1950)

From New International, Vol.16 No.6, November-December 1950, pp.360-368. [1]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

That George Orwell’s 1984 is a work of major significance, as a political document if not as a novel, and that it is probably the best delineation of totalitarian society we have, is by now clear to anyone who has read the book. It is a book written from the total energy of an aroused man, with all the passion and percipience at his command; a book clearly the product of fear, as there is every reason it should be; a book which, in addition to its public relevance, has a distinct undercurrent of personal tragedy. There is a kind of woeful rightness in the fact that Orwell died shortly after completing 1984, that it shows the strains of his harsh and exacerbated impatience. Whatever one’s disagreements with Orwell’s politics, and they are numerous, one must honor a writer who with his last-breath kept pleading with modern man not to let himself be reduced to an ultra-modern slave.

1984 is limited in scope: it does not investigate the genesis of totalitarianism, nor the laws of its economy, nor the prospects for its survival; it merely presents a paradigmatic version of its social life. Orwell’s profoundest insight is his insistence that in a totalitarian society man’s life is completely shorn of dynamic possibilities. The end of life is completely predictable in its beginning, the beginning merely a manipulated preparation for the end. There is no opening for that spontaneous surprise which is the token of, and justification, for freedom. For while the society itself may evolve through certain stages of economic development, the life of its members is static, incapable of climbing to tragedy or dropping to comedy. Human personality, as we have come to grasp for it in class societies and hope for it in a classless society, is obliterated; man becomes a mere function of a process.

The totalitarian society, whether of the fascist or Stalinist variety, thus represents a qualitative break from Western history and tradition. There have been unfree societies in the past; during the Middle Ages there was hardly anything of what we would now call democracy. Yet it was then possible for an occasional group of scholars to create an oasis of relatively free intellectual life (free not by our standards but in relation to the society of the time). The totalitarian society permits no such luxuries: it offers a total “solution” to the problems of the 20th century, that is, a total distortion of what could be the actual solution.

Fascism may indeed be, as Marxists have said, a final decayed form of capitalism, and Stalinism a bastard society arising during that decay as a result of the failure of socialism; but such descriptions, while essential, do not exhaust the problem. Fascism and Stalinism have more in common with each other, despite the difference between their property relations, than either have with capitalism or any past form of Western society. Unlike previous societies, both forms of totalitarianism enter the historical scene completely reactionary, without even the faintest, most ambiguous contribution to humanity; both utilize modern technology to suppress freedom to an extent not merely unthought of, but actually impossible, in previous societies. They leave no margin, no Church in which sanctuary is possible for the thief, no Siberia where the revolutionist can freeze and starve but also study, not even a private life to which the dissident can retire in humiliation and despair. When Winston Smith rebels in 1984 the state apparatus not only destroys him, it first forces him to believe he was wrong to rebel.

The social horror of 1984 is to some extent the product of Orwell’s imagination, but the power of that imagination derives from the fact that it is based on, extrapolated from reality. There are no telescreens in Russia but there could well be: nothing in Russian society contradicts the “principle” of telescreens. The fictitious telescreen is horrible precisely because it is so close to reality; imaginative fictions stir us because they are distorted and thereby more distinct versions of our experience.

Usually the utopian novel, such as Bellamy’s Looking Backward, is unbearably dull because its benign vision of the future is fatally marred by its author’s limitations of sensibility: his utopia reflects the damage class society has done to him. But in Orwell’s case, where he is writing an inversion of the utopia novel, a portrait of what one critic has called the unfuture, there is no such problem: if too often we envisage the good society as a surfeited bore, we have plenty of training in imagining its opposite.

I have said that the totalitarian society is qualitatively different from anything we have known in the past, and that, I imagine, may evoke a certain uneasiness from readers who have heard such remarks used as justification for the “lesser evil” theory of politics. But such uses of a valid observation are unjustified. If the totalitarian society is crucially different in kind from its predecessors, it is also organically related to them: it is the ultimate issue of the failure of traditional or liberal capitalism. There is here, so to say, an example of the historical dialectic spinning furiously in reverse, and consequently the more we are impressed by the horror of totalitarianism the more clearly should we see the inability of liberal capitalism to forestall it. What Orwell’s book makes clear or should make clear if people thought about its meaning, is that even if there were once a possibility for a modulated social solution, there is no longer such a possibility; we are truly in an apocalyptic situation: history, and not any disposition toward extreme formulations, forces us to say that it is now all or nothing. 1984 is the face of nothing.


The accuracy with which Orwell has observed the essential qualities of totalitarianism is remarkable. His book is not really a novel: Smith and O’Brien and Julia are not credible human beings. Seldom are they characters involved in dramatic action, too often are we told things about them rather than shown their interior experience in depth. But that does not really matter, since there is no reason to read 1984 as a novel. Exactly what genre to assign it to I don’t quite know, but that doesn’t really matter either.

There are first the incidental accuracies, the accuracies of mimicry. Take, as an example, Orwell’s imitation of Trotsky’s style in The Theory and Practise of Oligarchical Collectivism by the villain of Oceania, Emanuel Goldstein. Orwell has here caught something of the rhetorical sweep of Trotsky’s grand style, particularly his inclination to use scientific references in non-scientific contexts (“Even after enormous upheavals and seemingly irrevocable changes, the same pattern has always reasserted itself, just as a gyroscope will always return to equilibrium, however far it is pushed one way or another.”) Or consider how well Orwell has noticed Trotsky’s fondness for the succinct paradox through which one may sum up the absurdity of a society: “The fields are cultivated with horse plows while books are written by machinery.” Or consider how well Orwell has noticed the revelatory detail of the authoritarian institution: that grey-pink stew, surely familiar to anyone who has ever been in an army, which Smith eats for lunch; that eternal bureaucratic stew ...

On a profounder level than accurate mimicry or particularized observation is Orwell’s grasp of the distinctive social features of totalitarian society. Here he tends to write abstractly, as a sociologist rather than novelist, but still with great penetration.

One of the most poignant scenes in 1984 is that in which Smith, trying to discover what life was like before Big Brother’s reign, talks to an old worker in a pub. The exchange is unsatisfactory to Smith, since the worker can remember only stray bits of disconnected fact and is quite unable to generalize from his memory; but it is extremely apt as a bit of symbolic action. The scene indicates that one of the most terrifying things about totalitarian society is that it systematically destroys social memory, first, through the forced disintegration of individual experience and, second, through the complete obliteration of objective records. The worker whom Smith interviews remembers that the beer was better before Big Brother (a not insignificant fact) but he cannot really understand Smith’s key question: “Do you feel that you have more freedom now than you had in those days?” To pose, let alone answer, such a question requires a degree of social continuity and cohesion, as well as a complex set of value assumptions, which Oceania has deliberately destroyed. For in such a society there is no longer a sense of the past: man is deprived of his ancestors.

The destruction of social memory becomes a major state industry in Oceania, and here of course Orwell is borrowing directly from Stalinism which, as the most “advanced” form of totalitarianism, is infinitely more adept at this job than was fascism. (Hitler burned books, Stalin has them rewritten.) The embarrassing document disappears down memory hole – and that is all.

Orwell is similarly acute in noticing the relationship of the totalitarian state to culture. Novels are produced by machines, a considerable improvement over the Russian “collective novel” of two decades ago. The state anticipates and supplies all wants, from “cleansed” versions of Byron to pornographic magazines. That vast modern industry of prefabricated amusement which we now call “popular culture” is an important state function. And meanwhile language itself is stripped of those terms which connote refinement of attitude, subtleties of sensibility. As one character says:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak [the official dialect of Oceania] is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words with which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten ... The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

With feeling as with language. Oceania seeks to destroy spontaneous affection because that, too, is subversive. Smith, in one of the book’s finest passages, thinks to himself:

“It would not have occurred to [his mother] that an action which is ineffectual thereby becomes meaningless. If you loved someone, you loved him, and when you had nothing else to give, you still gave him love. When the last of the chocolate was gone, his mother had clasped the child in her arms. It was no use, it changed nothing, it did not produce more chocolate, it did not avert the child’s death or her own; but it seemed natural to her to do it.”

The totalitarian state destroys social memory. It makes all of life a function of its operation. It frowns upon those luxuries of feeling which are the essence of human response to unavoidable tragedy. And worst of all, it destroys private life.


So far as I can see, there are only a few errors in Orwell’s book, and most of those flow from the fact that his totalitarian society is more total than we can at present imagine. None of them is completely indefensible; they are errors at all because they drive valid observations too far.

In Oceania the sex instinct, particularly among members of the Outer Party (the lower bureaucracy), is virtually obliterated. (I do make allowance for the fact that Orwell’s method is dramatization by exaggeration.) One of the most harrowing bits in the book is Smith’s recollection of his sexual relations with his former wife, a loyal unthinking party member: she would submit herself regularly once a week, as if for an ordeal and resisting even while insisting, in order to procreate for the party.

Now there is a point to this: in Russia there has been a noticeable restriction of sexual freedom. But we must distinguish between a Stalinist attempt to develop more reliable child-bearing units among the masses and a presumed tendency to sexual prudery among the upper social layers. So far as we know, the Russian ruling circles do not indulge in the kind and amount of perversion which prevailed among the top Nazis, but it is hard to believe that there is not a good deal of sexual looseness among even the Stalinist machine-men types.

We know from the past that the sexual instinct can be heavily suppressed. In Puritan society, for example, sex was viewed with some suspicion, and it is not hard to imagine that even in marriage pleasure was not then a conspicuous consequence of sex. But it must be remembered that in Puritan society the suspicion of sex was based on a rigid morality universally accepted, on a conception of the supreme good: men mortified themselves enthusiastically in the name of God. In Orwell’s Oceania, however, there is no similar exalted faith; in fact, such faith is looked upon with suspicion, for what is wanted is mechanical assent rather than intellectual fervor or enthusiastic belief. It therefore seems hard to imagine that the lower bureaucrats of the Outer Party would be able so completely to discard sexual pleasure; it seems more likely that in the insufferable boredom of Oceanic life there would be a great hunger for sexual activity, if only in order to gain a moment of excitement. Orwell anticipates this point by informing us that sexual promiscuity in the Outer Party is punishable by death. But to forbid promiscuity is not yet to quench the pleasure component of sex itself.

The point has a more general significance. A reactionary society can force people to do many things which are against their social and physical interests and which may cause them acute discomfort and pain; it can perhaps accustom them to receive pain with passive resignation; but I doubt that it can break down the fundamental physiological distinction between pleasure and pain. (No doubt, to anticipate an objection, there are situations when pleasure and pain intermingle, but they are nonetheless distinguishable human experiences.) Man’s biological construction is such as to require him to need food and, with less regularity or insistence, sex; society can do a lot to dim the pleasures of food and sex but it seems most unlikely that it can destroy them entirely. We may consequently expect the animal component of man to rebel against social constrictions which deny such fundamental needs, even when his consciousness has been corrupted and his mind terrorized. No doubt, this objection to Orwell’s view of sexual life in Oceania has its limits, for there are times when, apparently, instinct can be completely controlled or numbed. (Why, for example, did not the Jews who were led to Hitler’s gas chambers make some gesture of rebellion, even with the foreknowledge that they would be destroyed if they made it? Perhaps because they had been drained of the capacity for initiative; perhaps because they feared torture more than death.) In any case, I think that while Orwell is right in suggesting that totalitarianism inhibits sexual freedom and creates a psychic atmosphere which mutilates sexual pleasure, he has exaggerated the extent to which men can be driven to discord and renounce their basic animal drives.

More important is Orwell’s conception of the social role of the proles, or workers, in Oceania. As he sees it, the proles are actually better off than members of the Outer Party: they are allowed greater amounts of privacy, the telescreen does not bawl instructions at them or watch their every movement, and the secret police seldom bothers them, except to remove a talented or independent worker. Presumably Orwell would justify this conception of class relations in Oceania by saying that the workers as a class have become so helpless and demoralized that the state need no longer fear them. Now we have no right to say that this never could happen, but we must also observe that it has not yet happened. Neither the Stalinists nor Nazis have felt sufficiently secure to relax their surveillance of the workers; in Russia the tendency has actually been toward increasing domination of the workers’ lives.

Orwell’s conception of the workers’ role in a totalitarian society can also be challenged on more fundamental grounds. The totalitarian state can afford no luxuries, no exceptions; it can tolerate no group outside its constantly exercised control. It must always scour every corner of society, searching for dissidents and once more implanting its dogma; anything less would be the beginning of its collapse. It is in the nature of a totalitarian society that it is constantly in a process of self-agitation: it is always shaking and reshaking its members, testing and retesting them to insure its power. And since, as Orwell himself says, the workers, demoralized and brutalized as they are, remain the only source of possible revolt in Oceania, it is precisely they whom the state would least let alone.

Finally, there is Orwell’s extremely interesting but unsatisfactory view of the dynamics of power in a totalitarian society. As Orwell presents the party oligarchy in Oceania, it is the first ruling class in history which dispenses with ideology. O’Brien, the representative of the Inner Party, says “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.” The Stalinists and Nazis, he remarks, came close to that view of power, but only in Oceania has all pretense to be serving humanity – that is, all ideology – been discarded.

Now it is true that all social classes have at least one thing in a common: a desire for power. The bourgeoisie has sought power, not particularly as an end in itself (whatever that vague phrase may mean), but in order to be free to engage in a certain kind of economic and social activity; that is, bring to climax the tendencies of capitalist production. The ruling class of the new totalitarian society, most notably in Russia, is different, however, from all previous ruling classes in this respect: it does not think of political power as a distant means toward a non-political end, as the bourgeoisie did to some extent, but rather as its essential end, for in a society where there is no private property the distinction between economic and political power means very little.

So far this seems to bear out Orwell’s view. But if the ruling class of the totalitarian society does not think of political power as a channel to economic expansion and social domination, what does power mean to it? This is, of course, an extremely difficult and complex problem, and those who say that the end of power is power are not contributing anything remarkably profound. For one thing, we may say that many of the objectives for which previous ruling classes sought power can now, in the totalitarian society, be found in political power itself. In bourgeois society political power does not necessarily mean social status, economic wealth, industrial initiative, financial opportunity; in totalitarian society, or as we have called its Stalinist version, bureaucratic collectivism, all of these reside within political power.

But there is something else. No ruling class, at least within Western society, has yet been able to dispense with ideology. (True, there have been ruling classes which did not claim to be ruling for the good of humanity; instead, they might speak of the glory of the nation. But the glory of the nation can ultimately be referred to the good of humanity.) All ruling classes feel a need to rationalize their power, to find some presumably admirable objectives in the name of which they may (often sincerely) act. This they need to win followers, to bind their country with some common outlooks, and to give themselves a measure of psychological security.

Can one, then, imagine a ruling class completely devoid of these props to power? I doubt it. It is true, for example, that among the Russian bureaucrats there has undoubtedly been a great increase of cynicism; few probably believe that they are now directly building socialism with or without the whip; but there must still be some vague assumption, even if only a cynical one, that somehow what they are doing has in it an element of the good. Otherwise they would find it increasingly difficult, perhaps impossible to sustain their class morale.

And the same thing must be true for Oceania’s rulers. That they cling ferociously to power; that they do not rule in order to help humanity in any way; that many of them become cynical about their ideological pretensions; that others of them rationalize their power in terms of a theory of benevolent despotism – all this could be credible. But one cannot believe that a modern ruling class, in a mass society, as all modern societies must be, could survive if it frankly and openly declared itself in the manner of Orwell’s Inner Party.


Shortly before his death Orwell wrote:

“My novel 1984 is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labor Party, but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable ... I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe ... that something resembling it could arrive.”

This seems to me satisfactory not only as a statement of Orwell’s intention, but as a description of the book’s actual slant. However, since certain socialists have expressed an uneasy feeling that Orwell may be saying that an Oceania may arise, not merely from Stalinism, but also from a genuine socialist effort, I wish to consider – and accept – 1984 on those terms as well. My point is simply this: even if Orwell had meant it in this way, there would be no cause for alarm or anger; we have no right to assume that we have the future tucked away in our vest pockets.

There was a time not so long ago when socialists tended to think of the transition from a class to a classless society as largely an “automatic” process dependent on an expansion of the means of production; I do not say that anyone wrote it out so bluntly (though I imagine that if you took the trouble to look you could find examples of that too) but rather that this was the prevalent cast of our thought. This is something I don’t want to argue about: I know it to be a fact. It was, I think, largely an inheritance from the corruption of the revolutionary movement during the mid-1920’s by the early form of Stalinism and also perhaps by Zinovievism.

It is a way of thinking that is now impossible to any mildly intelligent person. As one reads again Lenin’s State and Revolution, one is repeatedly struck by how extreme – almost, if you wish, utopian – is his democratic bent, his insistence that the masses of people can achieve sufficient maturity and knowledge to serve as autonomous and responsible members of a free society. Some of his most withering sarcasm is reserved for Kautsky and Bernstein when they contaminate their vision of the socialist future with bureaucratic outlooks received from the capitalist present. But while one can only admire Lenin’s complete democratic aspiration and brush aside with impatience all the ignoramuses and fakers (mostly fakers; cf., Mr. Shub) who portray him as the first modern totalitarian, one also feels that much of what he wrote about the immediate transition from class to classless society is either inadequate or, more often, based on a particular involvement with backward Russia which does not apply elsewhere. Lenin’s emphasis, for example, on centralism, while undoubtedly relevant to a country like Russia, is not mechanically to be transposed to other countries. His admiration for Marx’s formula that the Paris Commune “was not a parliamentary, but a working corporation, at one and the same time making the laws and executing them,” must now, I think, be questioned, even though this particular formula .has been sacrosanct in the Marxist movement. The notion of checks and balances within a government, within any government but particularly one which has concentrated in itself social and economic power, seems rather more sensible than it once did. I recall myself often sneering at the checks and balances in the American constitution as being “merely” a device to ward off popular rule during the post-revolutionary period in America; no doubt it was that, but it wasn’t that “merely”; it was also a rather sensible means – within the limits of the class society established at the time – to prevent dangerous concentration of power.

Power is, in one sense, a neutral mechanism, an end for which every social class aspires; but it is also, and always, a danger, as is tacitly recognized by the Marxian formula that in the classless society the state will “wither away” and there will no longer be repressive organs. No doubt, there is truth in the view that to reach a stateless society it is necessary to use power, to win it and extend it; but at the same time we must not forget that the habits of social domination, even when exerted by a progressive class or by real or assumed representatives of that class, are likely to give rise to character structures that will resist the withering away of the state in the name of which power is to be assumed. Similarly, we are now, or should be, somewhat suspicious of the centralism often associated with the transitional period from capitalism to socialism; not that a high degree of economic centralism is unavoidable if the material prerequisite for socialism, a high standard of living, is to be achieved; but rather that with economic centralism must come social and political decentralization, the sharing of power by different, conflicting groups within and near the working class. Just as one of the main factors making for democracy within capitalist society is the fissures created by the conflicts of various strata of the ruling class, so in a transition regime democracy is more likely to be preserved if there are substantive fragmentations of power. What is wanted is not, as one often hears, that the state “allow” the workers to strike, but rather that the workers, through trade unions and cooperatives, have enough social and economic power that the state could not prevent them from striking. The people always need protection from the state; the workers from a workers state, too.

These remarks are terribly cursory and, as such, open to misreading, but I make them not in order to present any sort of rounded view on the difficult problem of the transition to socialism, but merely to indicate an opinion that that transition is not guaranteed in any sense, not even guaranteed by the fact that “we,” the good people, the good socialists might undertake it. The effort to build socialism rests ultimately not on any economic development, indispensable though an increase in productivity and the consequent possibility for leisure and plenty may be; it rests, not with the famous “unleashing of the productive forces,” but rather with a conscious experiment in social relations. The experiment is impossible without the productivity; but the productivity does not yet insure the success of the experiment.

Marx said that with socialism human history would first begin; it is a pregnant remark, suggesting that the final purpose of socialism is to allow men, within the context of a limiting natural world, to determine their own destinies. But they must determine; they must act; they must choose. Seen in these terms, socialism is not merely a necessity but also a gamble: it means a great concentration of power and resources, and all the dangers that come from such a concentration. Misused, distorted by an inadequate conception of its purpose and its continuous ethical content, the effort to build socialism may conceivably be twisted into something as horrible as 1984. What Orwell seems to be telling us is that it need not be if there is a sufficiently high level of human consciousness, that the experiment rests finally on that high level of human consciousness. I see no reason to disagree.


1. 1984, by George Orwell. Harcourt Brace, 314 pp. $3. Reprinted as a Signet book, 25¢.

Note by ETOL

1*. This has been reprinted a number of times since it first appeared in New International.