Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Between the Lines: Orwell, Gorbachev and News from Oceania (1989)

The Between the Lines Column from the May 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

News from Oceania
George Orwell's novel. Nineteen Eight Four, is about the most miserable social vision ever constructed. In 1984 there was much debate about how far society had gone down the road to Orwell's fascistic nightmare world. While "intellectuals" were weighing civil liberties on the Orwellian scales, picketing miners were feeling the truncheons of workers in uniform who were sent to break their resistance. What happened to the miners — the state brutality, government callousness and media vilification — was a stronger answer to the question of what kind of society 1984 was than any of the 19.50 hardback academics ever came up with.

Before 1984 there was much debate about quite what Orwell was attacking in his novel. Some said it was a critique of post-war England, bowed in spirit by the rationing and regimentation of the war years — that 1984 was really 1948 reversed and writ larger. Others suggested that Orwell was trying to attack socialism. Orwell was specific about the fact that his novel was not intended as an attack on the genuine principles of socialism (as he understood them). Writing to Francis Henson of the United Automobile Workers union in the USA, he explained that "My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on socialism  . . . but as a show up of the perversions to which a centralised economy is liable and which have already been partly realised in Communism and Fascism." In short, the novel was aimed at the drift towards the corporate state which so-called radicals of both the Left and Right had celebrated as liberation from capitalism in the years that Orwell lived and wrote.

Last month Channel Four showed the recent film version of the novel. It is open to criticism in that its depiction of a mass society of submissive ideological slaves presented the deluded victims as caricatures of conformity. They looked too much like extras in a film, told to look like conditioned subjects. In reality, conditioned subjects are less caricatured; it is precisely that humans are not robots, and yet can be made to think like programmed machines, that is sinister and frightening about totalitarianism. The "masses" in this film looked and sounded like robotic machines, and this diminished the horror of what had been done to them. It is the whistling Nazi and the Stalinist who loves his wife and children who are the really frightening characters. That said, it was important that the film was made and shown because within it is a reminder of the dangers inherent in dogmatic belief.

Nineteen Eighty Four is essentially about the power to make people believe that is not true. O'Brien tells Winston Smith, while he is torturing him, that thinking is all bout learning to discipline your mind to accept reality. And "reality" is what those above you — Big Brother, The State, The Party, conventional opinion — dictates it to be. Smith attempted to resist the social reality of the ruling elite. Like the Romantics of the last century, who sought to be true to their own feelings before they would defer to the abstract Facts of the Industrial Order, Smith believed that his duty was to obey his own feelings, not those of his dogmatic rulers with  their ideology of Ingsoc. Smith tells his lover, Julia, that it is not survival which is most important, but remaining human. He pleads with her not to betray her humanity. She thinks that by betrayal he means she should never confess to the state — never get caught. But betrayal means more than that: it means acquiescence to dogma, to ideas which are unrelated to experience. In the end Smith is forced to betray himself in both senses. Not only does he confess to thought crimes — that is easy — but he also succumbs to the dogma. He is afraid to have doubts. He learns to say and do what is expected of submissive subjects.

The novel, and now the film are not about 1948 or 1984 or the merits of socialism of the demerits of Stalinism; they are about the power of dogma to extinguish the sense of doubt which is the basis of all reason and the necessary accompaniment of all intelligent political conviction. When you stop doubting you are politically dead. Regardless of what orwell meant by his novel, and regardless of the demerits of the film as a depiction of the ideologically conditioned crowd, there is still importance in the message which tells us that minds can be controlled, resistance nullified by the very forces against whom we need to resist, and that dogma, in whatever form, is a fearful enemy. To pre-empt critics, we would add that this applies no less to socialist dogma. As Orwell said of his own vision, "The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don't let it happen. It depends on you."

Our enemies are our friends
News At Ten (6 April) urged us to welcome our new-found friend, Mikhail Gorbachev. He is a communist, you see. A communist with whom Mrs. Thatcher is very pleased to do business. A communist who is proud to invite the Queen to come over and tread on a few of his subjects. The cult of Gorby is very big right now. It was the Newspeak writers on The Sun who christened him Gorby. Over in Washington the CIA tried to put a damper on the visit by leaking the information about Russian sales of fighter planes to Libya. All part of the propaganda war. This is the dogmatic assault upon us today: when our rulers want us to believe that Russia is "the Evil Empire" and we must prepare to die destroying it, then the newsreaders will tell us what a despicable police state the dictator Gorbachev presides over (as he does); when commerce and international militarism require closer relations between the two old superpowers — so that perhaps they can prepare to make war on the new, up and coming superpowers — then Gorby is our man and pictures of Raisa being shown the Tower of London are the order of the day. It all depends what they want us to think. To accept what the servants of capitalist propaganda tell us is to fall into the trap which leads to the kind of world Orwell was writing about. That millions have fallen into the trap cannot be denied, but it is not too late to climb out. In an essay written in 1940, called Inside The Whale, Orwell made a comment which is worth keeping in front of you while watching News At Ten: "To say 'I accept' in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine-guns, putsches, purges, slogans, Bedaux belts, gas-masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders."
Steve Coleman


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