If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.
— O’Brien to Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
Seventy years ago, on August 29, 1949, the Soviets successfully tested their first nuclear bomb, and became the only other state power on the planet, after the United States, with nuclear WMD. Thus commenced an ever-expanding arms race between the two global powers in what became known as the Cold War. Democracy versus Totalitarianism, duking it out, like rock’em-sock’em robots (sold in America; means of production: Marx!), in proxy battles from Central America to the Middle East to Vietnam — held in check by one lone term of engagement: MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. America has been at war with Russia my entire life. That year also saw the publication of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which enacts a future where such forces — Oceania and Eastasia — have gone from Cold to Hot.
Thirty five years later, the real-world Oceania and Eastasia, flashed hot eyes at each other, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev not blinking. Reagan was all Bonzo giddy, feeling oats he hadn’t felt since his Hollywood Western days, pressing a presumed advantage — telling Gorby to “tear down that [Berlin] wall,” touting Star Wars (an ICBM missile shield defense system), and waxing so jocular, at one point, that during a break in a radio interview Reagan’s flippant words (“the bombing begins in five minutes”) put the Soviets on edge — and red alert. (An even more flippant NBC commentator quipped that the alert may have been triggered by a lone drunken Russian officer).
But it wasn’t all a Deep State chucklefestival. Two graphic films depicting nuclear annihilation, Threads (1983) and The Day After (1984) reminded everybody just how close to MAD Oceania and Eastasia were getting. Tensions were ratcheted to the breaking point: The Soviet economy was teetering; the Berlin Wall fell five years later; the USSR crumbled and Gorbachev eventually gave way to the Russian Trump — Boris Yeltsin. Oceania giddyupped into Eastasia with strings-attached das kapital shortly thereafter. Not every Muscovite was gleeful to see the Golden Arches roll into town, driven by the clown-Christ of capitalism, Ronald McDonald. Nyet, some nationalists griped, while scarfing down a Quarterpounder with cheese — and borschtroot — and condemblating how to meddle in future American helectoral process.
Thirty five years later, we have our own clown-Christ of capitalism, pre-kompromised, installed in the Oval Office, the result of, US intelligence agencies allege, Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Since then, a form of sado-masochistic paranoia seems to have gripped the nation — the president (“Fake News”), the MSM (“Putin’s Puppet”), the People (“they looked left, they looked right, but they couldn’t tell the difference”). In his new biography, The Ministry of Truth, Dorian Lynskey notes that just four days after Trump’s 2017 Inauguration, “US sales of [Nineteen Eighty-Four rocketed] by almost 10,000 per cent, making it a number-one best seller.”
Lynskey attributes this panic-driven sales soar to claims by the new administration that Trump attracted the “‘largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.’” It was a wild claim, immediately debunked by the MSM, but doubled down on by Trump adviser, Kelly Anne Conway, who dismissed the glaring evidence and pronounced that the new administration would be opting to go with “alternative facts.” Alarm bells went off across the media frontier. As Lynskey’s citing of the statistic suggests, this sounded an awful lot like the “doublethink” gobbledygook of Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare, Nineteen Eighty-Four. If people were going to be living in a parallel universe, they wanted to know what to expect.
Like Dorian Lynskey’s previous work, 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, in The Ministry of Truth the author shows he is adept at showing the confluence of ideas expressed by the voices of myriad protest leaders, whether through song or, if you will, dystopian visions. Ministry is a biography limited to an exploration of the etiology of Orwell’s masterwork, Nineteen Eighty-Four (and to some degree, Animal Farm).
In Part One, Lynskey traces the roots and evolution of Orwell’s creative and political ideas, his experiences fighting fascists and communists; and, the literary influence of H.G. Wells, Eugene Zamiatin, and a wealth of others in a cross-pollination and intertextuality that not only help define the genre but demonstrate the interpenetration of human ideas in general. In Part Two, Lynskey traces “the political and cultural life” of the novel, from Orwell’s death to Trump’s Inaugural.
Like so many other European and American Lefties who signed on as mercenaries to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39, George Orwell came away from the shattering experience thoroughly disillusioned, his ideals in disarray. “The fascists had behaved just as appallingly as he had expected they would,” Lynskey writes, “but the ruthlessness and dishonesty of the communists had shocked him.” He’d come to fight in a great battle of Good versus Evil — writers like Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gelhorn and John Dos Passos had come to bear witness — but “[w]hat he found was ‘a bad copy of 1914–18, a positional war of trenches, artillery, raids, snipers, mud, barbed wire, lice and stagnation.’”
Further, reading battle reports, Orwell discovered “that the Left-wing press [was] every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right.” However, aside from the usual horrors of the war and the way they were reported, Orwell did experience moments that would prove useful in his writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Lynskey writes, “Orwell found in the trenches a superior version of the cleansing egalitarianism that he had found among the tramps, and it made him a socialist at last.” A ‘cleansing egalitarianism’ (Brotherhood) is a key theme in his dystopian novel.
In another incident helpful to his fiction, he refused to shoot a fascist with his pants down, mooning melancholically, and noting of the brotherly Francophile that he was “visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him” while he’s shitting. But in a later incident, Orwell is so rattled by a rodent that he opens fire, “thus alerting the enemy and triggering a fierce firefight,” that was nearly catastrophic to his comrades in arms. Rats turn out to be Winston Smith’s greatest fear, at the end of the novel, and the means to breaking down his ego.
Probably the biggest disappointment Orwell took away from the war was the behavior of the communists; he’d served with a Marxist militia unit (POUM) and saw their atrocities close up. Lynskey wonders:
Why did Orwell criticise communism so much more energetically than fascism? Because he had seen it up close, and because its appeal was more treacherous. Both ideologies reached the same totalitarian destination but communism began with nobler aims and therefore required more lies to sustain it.
The left hand of the Right clasped, behind the back, the right hand of the Left, in any photo shoot together — if you looked hard enough.
Orwell began reading up on Stalin’s regime, including American journalist Eugene Lyon’s description of Stalin’s Five Year plan, which included “the nose-thumbing arithmetic” of “2+2 = 5,” which is so crucial to Winston Smith’s brainwashing. He read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, whose depictions of purges and show trials (think, Goldstein, and, later, Winston Smith) further amplified his contempt for Stalin and his fear of totalitarianism. The two world wars, I and II, with the Great Depression in between, had drained civilization of its hope, vitality and wherewithal. Out of the morass rose ogres — Franco, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, and arguably even Truman (if you counted the dread that the questionable use of the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented) — as if to finish us off.
However, no one had a greater influence on Orwell’s generation than the literary colossus, H.G. Wells. Prolific, prescient, extraordinarily innovative, and widely regarded as the father of modern science fiction (Mary Shelley just rolled over in her grave, uneasily), in some ways Wells was the perfect tonic for an age that had torn humanity apart with with world wars, tyranny, and economic misery disseminated across the globe.
“Wells predicted space travel, tanks, electric trains, wind and water power, identity cards, poison gas, the Channel tunnel and atom bombs,” writes Lynskey, “and popularised in fiction the time machine, Martian invasions, invisibility and genetic engineering.” He also developed notions of a “World Brain” and anticipated the World Wide Web (sorry, TimBL). Further, he was a force behind the establishment of the League of Nations. Wells was an inspiration in a time stuck in the human morass described by T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland.
Wells, in turn, was inspired by early readings of Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, all of which required the reader to imagine with the narrator an alternative or new-and-improved world. Thus, Wells bequeathed us The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Outline of History, The Shape of Things to Come, and an enormous trove of essays and other public writings with enormous influence. All of these were enormously important to Orwell as he developed his own utopian visions.
But Orwell had seen what he’d seen in Spain, and knew the dark heart of Uncle Joe Stalin, and was, writes Lynskey, like “many writers [of his generation] consumed by the idea of decadence and decline.” H.G. Wells’ cautionary utopianism didn’t quite cut it for the lot of them. “It is no exaggeration to say that the genre of dystopian fiction evolved as it did because so many people wanted to prove H. G. Wells wrong,” Lynskey writes. There seemed to be something of the Wagner-Nietzsche competitive intimacy in Orwell’s approach to the Genius; while Wells emphasized Siegfried, Orwell and friends were all about the Götterdämmerung.
Orwell was a social democrat at heart, but he longed for something deeper and more radical, which seems to be why he was so devastated by the failures of communism. Plato had taught him that if humanity could see the Good, and the error of their ways, uncovered by dialectical reasoning, they would pursue it naturally, out of self-interest. This melancholic view (that would later infuse Winston Smith’s experience of his world) gets reinforced when he comes across the work of American Edward Bellamy — specifically, Looking Backward — 2000 – 1887.
As Bellamy’s title suggests, the novel moves backward, progressively, towards the squalor and dehumanization of the early Industrial Revolution. Lynskey notes:
When he looked around at the United States of America in the Gilded Age Bellamy saw a “nervous, dyspeptic, and bilious nation,” wracked by grotesque inequality. Millionaire dynasties controlled the industrial economy, while the labouring classes worked sixty-hour weeks for low pay in unsafe factories and sweatshops, and lived in foul slums.
In the novel, the protagonist Julian West falls into a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep in 1887 and wakes up 113 years later in a “socialist utopia,” where crime is regarded as a medical problem treatable with drugs. This got Orwell thinking.
But perhaps the single most influential piece of literature that Orwell came across, in the lead-up to writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, was Eugene Zumiatin’s We. As Lynskey points out, by coincidence Orwell had already completed an outline for his dystopian novel when he discovered Zumiatin’s work. They share some structural similarities: each features a fall guy who becomes the focussed target of hivemind hatred; a shy protagonist driven astray from his social programming by flashes of free thought and a sexually-liberated female; thought police (Guardians for Zumiatin), and forced mind-mending (from ‘I’ thinking to ‘We’ thinking). Orwell believed that Aldous Huxley nicked some ideas from We.
But Orwell had a turn at the accusation as well. Lynskey writes, “Karma came for Orwell in the form of several critics who accused him of plagiarising We.” But Lynskey dismisses them, insisting that the genre itself is rife with such borrowings and intertextuality. He answers historian Isaac Deutscher’s claims thusly:
[Deutscher] accused the author of borrowing “the idea of 1984, the plot, the chief characters, the symbols, and the whole climate of his story” from We… [but] Deutscher wildly overstated the similarities between the novels. Two: as we have seen, Orwell had already written his outline months before he read We. Three: Orwell made repeated efforts to get Zamyatin’s novel republished in English…. surely not the kind of thing that plagiarists usually do.
So there. “Originality is a vexing concept in genre fiction,” Lynskey adds.
But Lynskey is even more caustic with Ayn Rand, one of Orwell’s more vocal critics. Writes Lynskey, “There are critics who insist that Ayn Rand could have written her 1938 novella Anthem without ever having read We, and good luck to them.” Rand penned the novella “in three weeks,” and, Lynskey claims, it “is We rewritten as a capitalist creation myth, with paradise as a building site…The book’s working title was Ego.” He clearly objects to her Objectivism. Talk about getting hoiked into your own spittoon.
Later in his life Orwell faced more pressing criticism than the question of whether he plagiarized Zumiatin. Perhaps, so traumatized by what he’d seen in Spain and saw happening in Stalin’s Russia, Orwell developed a list of 38 writers — communists or sympathizers — that he turned over to the Information Research Agency, a government agency, that he recommended they not hire because of questionable allegiance to the Labour party. Apologizing for this behavior, Lynskey writes, “It is legitimate to be disappointed by the very act of sending such a list to a government agency (even a Labour one), but the edited version was at least largely accurate.” Hmm.
Some critics were having none of that apology. Lynskey quotes Marxist historian Christopher Hill who opined, “I always knew he was two-faced. There was something fishy about Orwell…it confirms my worst suspicions about the man.” But the late great polemicist (“Beat the Devil”) Alexander Cockburn “couldn’t disguise his glee: ‘The man of conscience turns out to be a whiner, and of course a snitch, an informer to the secret police, Animal Farm’s resident weasel.” (His full article is a fun read.) Does this spell the end of Orwell’s Truth? Should we never read him again? I don’t know, but, when you think about it, Winston Smith’s character takes on new dimensions with this incident — that final betrayal of all you love and everything, and all its implicit future snitching to protect We.
However one feels about Orwells’ late-life failures, Nineteen Eighty-Four has exerted its familiarity and gravitas since his death in 1950. We are all familiar with the terms of our engagement with his work. Lynskey writes:
The phrases and concepts that Orwell minted have become essential fixtures of political language, still potent after decades of use and misuse: Newspeak, Big Brother, the Thought Police, Room 101, the Two Minutes Hate, doublethink, unperson, memory hole, telescreen, 2 + 2 = 5, and the Ministry of Truth.
Of those terms, perhaps the answer to the equation “2+2=” may be the most pertinent to the contemporary political situation we find ourselves facing in Washington and around the world. How would you answer, brother?
Nineteen Eighty-Four’s principal concerns have been reprised in Western culture, in one form or another, for decades. For example, Lynskey describes the “aviphobic” David Bowie’s fall into “paranoia and panic” in the 70’s and how it affected his work (his Diamond Dogs album was originally meant to be called 1984.) Bowie was not alone in his feelings of demise. “IRA bombs…stagflation…a miners’ strike…an Arab oil embargo…blackouts, petrol rationing, reduced television service, and non-functioning elevators, Britain began to feel like the opening pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” writes Lynskey. In the 80s, with the advent of personal computing, even commercials, such as Apple’s highly controversial ‘1984’ Super Bowl Ad, were produced to reflect a desire to break free from mind-imprisoning Conformity. In 1990, a film version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was released, which extends the Orwellian vision into what could be a near-future reality.
Today, Oceania is otherwise known as Five Eyes, and Oceania moves in history in a world of the wars, never-ending, destruction by remote drones and online corporate-government profiling, leading toward neo-fascism or some new unthinkable form of totalitarianism. It remains to be seen when the public should have begun its Orwellian panic, whether it was in the aftermath of 9/11 — or sooner — or with the Carnivalesque decay of Exceptional Democracy. “We are an empire now. We make our own reality,” is attributed a coy Karl Rove, and it sounds like a celebration of doublethink, a movement in the direction of 2+2=5.
Lynskey wants to locate it with the Trump Inauguration, with the return of Doublethink and Newspeak. But he does remind the reader:
Orwell’s fear that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world” is the dark heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It gripped him long before he came up with Big Brother, Oceania, Newspeak or the telescreen, and it’s more important than any of them.
Lynskey’s words are well-taken, but I believe we must beware that Trump might be Goldstein and that hating on him has been preordained.
Toward the end of his life H.G.Wells lost his mojo for mankind. In his last published work, Mind at the End of its Tether, Wells wondered aloud, as it were, if it wasn’t time to replace the human species with something more evolutionarily desirable. Like Nietzsche, Wells seemed to long for a Zarathustrian Übermensch; he tired of being a tightrope walker in the largely indifferent marketplace of conventional ideas.
Five more years of Two-Minute hating on Trump should do it (maybe even just one). Like a soul orphaned in a mechanized world — like Winston Smith — I can almost hear a fat lady singing as it all comes out in the wash she’s hanging on the line:
I love ya