I love reading 1984. Not because it’s a feel-good story. Ahem. Not even close. But because it’s a pretty prophetic description of what totalitarian government can become. I highly recommend the book to every adult, and at the same time, I want readers to understand the truth about George Orwell.
“…the man who wrote that grim warning against collectivism was a dyed-in-the-wool socialist. He continued to distinguish between “oligarchical collectivism” and “socialist collectivism,” assuming that the latter was superior to the former. Moreover, like Marxists, he believed that the replacement of capitalism by socialism was historically inevitable and morally just. Although on the left, Orwell opposed Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, but he did so without renouncing his attachment to other revolutionary socialist causes.” (American Thinker)
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Orwell, with his very name, created one of our modern descriptions of complete dictatorship: Orwellian.
The Cambridge dictionary defines Orwellian: used to describe a political system in which the government tries to control every part of people’s lives, similar to that described in the novel “Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell.
You could describe North Korea as a true Orwellian society, and China is inching closer every day.
Reading 1984 is as important as reading Darwin, Marx, and Hitler. We don’t read these authors because they support our own beliefs; we read them to educate ourselves on ideologies that permeate our society. Though Orwell was a socialist, and believed that socialism was different than communism, and though he was opposed to certain types of totalitarianism, his description of a true totalitarian society is chillingly accurate.
I’ve discovered recently that, though many people understand what Orwellian means, they haven’t actually read 1984. I urge you to do so.
One caveat: it’s got sexual situations, so I do not give it to my kids to read until they are young adults. Parents should exercise discretion with their teens.
If you haven’t read 1984, and it seems daunting, I have two suggestions for you:
The LitChart guide is also a good alternative to teach your teens about Orwell, the term Orwellian, and 1984. Just use it as your teacher’s guide selectively.
Crash Course Literature has a short 2-part series on 1984 that would also be great for teens.
Like I said at the beginning, Orwell had a complicated worldview. He was a socialist who detested fascism. And totalitarianism. Often, conservatives laud Orwell as one of their own; he certainly was not. But his writings are an important part of history nonetheless.
To clarify his position, you would want to read more of his books than just 1984 (and Animal Farm). But in the interest of brevity, I’ll share just a few snippets.
“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” (George Orwell, Why I Write)
In 1984, he said, “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” Yikes. That’s not even close to America’s founding fathers, who said things like, “I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” (Thomas Jefferson)
“Throughout his novels, documentaries, essays and journalism Orwell relentlessly and uncompromisingly criticised imperialism, nationalism, capitalism, political dishonesty, power, totalitarianism, privilege and private education.” (World Socialism)
“Orwell saw Stalin and Hitler as pursuing essentially the same aim of creating a totalitarian state. Orwell wrote against totalitarianism and passionately for a democratic and fair Socialist society in Britain.” (Biography Online)
Even Orwell ignored Karl Marx’s claim that socialism leads directly to communism, which is most certainly totalitarianism. I mean, if the creator of communism says it, we kind of need to believe it.
Quotes from 1984
There are some really eye-opening lines in 1984. Some can be compared to American society today, even if very loosely. Some would be a completely accurate description of North Korea and China. Don’t kid yourself; it’s not just fiction. If what we read in 1984 is already playing out in communist countries, and we are seeing glimpses of it in America, we should be alarmed.
Winston Smith, the main character of 1984, is a gifted writer whose job at the Ministry of Truth is to rewrite news articles in order to make them comply with Party ideology. That kind of tells you everything you need to know.
“The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.“
“…nothing was illegal since there were no longer any laws…“
“Whether he wrote DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER, or whether he refrained from writing it, made no difference. The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. In the vast majority of cases there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.“
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
“The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”
“The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink’.”
“Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.”
So you see, socialist author or not, 1984 is a very important read for our modern society, and never more so than right this minute.
Don’t let Orwell become truth. Let’s keep it in the fiction section. Be vigilant. Be proactive. Protect history, even the ugly parts. As we are witnessing daily, it can be easily updated at whim.