Editorial from the January 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard
Before the publication of George Orwell’s 1984, a Big Brother stood for affection and security; after the book came out the words represented fear and repression. In the super state Oceania, Big Brother was everywhere, his face staring out from posters, in the Thought Police and the Young Spies, in the telescreens and in the overwhelming fear which held everyone — party members as well as proles — in terrified compliance with Big Brother’s wishes.
The telescreens both received and transmitted images so that when they were operating — which was most of the time — it was just as if there was another person in the room, bullying, wheedling, directing. The hero (if that is what he was) of 1984, Winston Smith, is well aware of the telescreen; whenever he is within its range he is careful to compose his face into an expression of calm optimism and he is abused from the screen by the instructor in the compulsory early morning exercise period when she observes that he is not trying hard enough to touch his toes.
The Young Spies were the offspring of devoted, or frightened, party members. They zealously hunted down anyone they suspected of being an enemy agent, sifted the conversations of parents and friends for subversive thoughts, made shrill demands to be taken to the public executions of prisoners of war. The Thought Police were an elite, insinuating themselves in every intellectual nook and cranny, waiting like spiders at the centre of a web to pounce on deviants. Their victims were taken to the Ministry of Love where, through physical torture and subtle psychological pressures, they were persuaded to betray everything and everyone they had believed in and instead to avow their undying love for Big Brother.
Whenever there was a change in the line-up in the perpetual war between the three world states, the people accepted that the current ally had always been on "their" side. They gratefully applauded what they really knew to be spurious claims to have over-fulfilled production plans. They experienced a cut in the chocolate ration as an increase and all the while they babbled and shrieked against Emmanuel Goldstein, the arch enemy of Big Brother. They lived and died, in fear and apathy, on the three principles of Oceania: War is Peace; Ignorance Is Strength: Freedom is Slavery.
Such conformity must have been achieved only through an enormous, comprehensive and costly state operation. Somewhere at the apex there must have been also an elite within the elite, a ruling class in whose interests the rest of the population were held in such terror. But there is one question which Orwell did not ask. Why did it all happen? Was there a need for such a vast machinery of repression? What would the people have thought anyway, without the telescreens and the Thought Police and the rest?
The answer may be found when we consider how much of 1984 is reality today. Many politicians have represented themselves as, if not actually Big Brother, something very alike to him. During the last war Churchill's face looked out at us from huge posters, his features set in grim protectiveness. Harold Wilson once said that he would like to think of himself as the nation's family doctor. Margaret Thatcher poses as our Big Sister, firm and organising and forcing us to be taken care of by her.
Capitalism communicates through its own Newspeak in which important words take on a meaning almost the opposite of what they should be. Words like "freedom" in the mouth of Reagan; “disarmament" as spoken by Andropov; “economic upturn” as described by Thatcher; “socialism” as alluded to by Mitterrand. English workers have come easily to accept that their "enemies" in the last war are now their "allies” — defenders of “democracy” now. As they attest at elections, millions of workers freely put their living in the hands of a few political leaders on the grounds that these leaders, like Big Brother, know best. The rulers of Oceania could hardly have asked for more.
This conformity, this acquiescence in their own degradation, is given by the workers in conditions of comparative political freedom. In Britain, and many other advanced capitalist countries, workers can openly discuss ideas, form trade unions, political parties, protest campaigns. A socialist party, challenging the very basis of capitalism, can exist without any significant threat. Yet the working class use this freedom. which could be applied to establish socialism, to give their allegiance to capitalism and all its deceit and cynicism. There is no need for a Big Brother to force them; the workers do it all for themselves.
This does not happen through any tendency to cussed self-damage. All social systems erect a moral, legal and intellectual superstructure suited to the interests of the ruling class, like a shrub whose foliage and blossom is fashioned by the soil in which it stands. But at the same time a social system develops a conflict between its mode of production and its social relationships, which can be resolved only through changing those relationships. Day by day, the experience of capitalism works to convince the world's workers that problems such as war and poverty will be eliminated only through a radical, fundamental change in society — by revolution.
When that idea is sufficiently widespread the working class will need a political apparatus to implement their will for a revolution. That apparatus will be the socialist movement which, when socialism is established and its historic function has been fulfilled, will go out of existence. Until that happens, socialists everywhere work to speed the change in ideas, to increase the pressures of persuasion on the workers that a classless, moneyless, povertyless, peaceful society is the only way to eradicate all that is feared and hated and despised in modern — that is capitalist — society.
Socialists are not Big Brothers and do not wish to be, for there is no use in trying to lead or cajole or terrorise the world's people to socialism. We struggle to raise political awareness, to alert the workers to the need to replace capitalism with socialism and to the fact that socialism must come about through our own conscious action. In the socialist revolution, and the society which will follow, the world's workers will be sisters and brothers together in a co-operative, abundant, peaceful and free human family.