This is one of those books that is hard to do justice with a review. The copy that I read, borrowed from my best friend, has a preface by Walter Cronkite written in 1983, and an afterword by Eric Fromm in 1961. I’ll share a little bit of each of these before I write my own review. I’m only not sharing the full preface or afterword to at least try to preserve a little of their copyright.
Here’s various passages from Cronkite’s preface:
“‘Big Brother’ has become a common term for ubiquitous or overreaching authority, and ‘Newspeak’ is a word we apply to the dehumanizing babble of bureaucracies and computer programs.”
“Seldom has a book provided a greater wealth of symbols for its age and for the generations to follow, and seldom have literary symbols been invested with such power. How is that? Because they were so useful, and because the features of the world he drew, outlandish as they were, also were familiar.”
“What Orwell had done was not to foresee the future but to see the implications of the present – his present and ours – and he touched a common chord. He had given words and shapes to common but unarticulated fears running deep through all industrial societies.”
“1984 is an anguished lament and a warning that we may not be strong enough nor wise enough nor moral enough to cope with the kind of power we have learned to amass. That warning vibrates powerfully when we allow ourselves to sit still and think carefully about orbiting satellites that can read the license plates in a parking lot and computers that can tap into thousands of telephone calls and telex transmissions at once and other computers that can do our banking and purchasing, can watch the house and tell a monitoring station what television program we are watching and how many people there are in the room. We think of Orwell when we read of scientists who believe they have located in the human brain the seats of behavioral emotions like aggression, or learn more about the vast potential of genetic engineering.”
“Critics and scholars may argue quite legitimately about the particular literary merits of 1984. But none can deny its power, its hold on the imaginations of whole generations, nor the power of its admonitions . . . a power that seems to grow rather than lessen with the passage of time. It has been said that 1984 fails as a prophecy because it succeeded as a warning – Orwell’s terrible vision has been averted. Well, that kind of self-congratulation is, to say the least, premature. 1984 may not arrive on time, but there’s always 1985.
Still, the warning has been effective; and every time we use one of those catch phrases . . . recognize Big Brother in someone, see a 1984 in our future . . . notice something Orwellian . . . we are listening to that warning again.”
Here’s some highlights from Fromm’s afterword.
“The Christian thinkers of the late Middle Ages emphasized that although the ‘Kingdom of God’ was not within historical time, the social order must correspond to and realize the spiritual principles of Christianity. The Christian sects before and after the Reformation emphasized these demands in more urgent, more active and revolutionary ways. With the breakup of the medieval world, man’s sense of strength, and his hope, not only for individual but for social perfection, assumed new strength and took new ways.
One of the most important ones is a new form of writing which developed since the Renaissance, the first expression of which was Thomas More’s Utopia (literally: ‘Nowhere’), a name which was then generically applied to all other similar works. Thomas More’s Utopia combined a most penetrating criticism of his own society, its irrationality and its injustice, with the picture of a society which, though perhaps not perfect, had solved most of the human problems which sounded insoluble to his own contemporaries. What characterizes Thomas More’s Utopia, and all the others, is that they do not speak in general terms of principles, but give an imaginative picture of the concrete details of a society which corresponds to the deepest longings of man. In contrast to prophetic thought, these perfect societies are not at ‘the end of the days’ but exist already – though in a geographic distance rather than in the distance of time.”
“This hope for man’s individual and social perfectibility, which in philosophical and anthropological terms was clearly expressed in the writings of the Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century and of the socialist thinkers of the nineteenth, remained unchanged until after the First World War. This war, in which millions died for the territorial ambitions of the European powers, although under the illusion of fighting for peace and democracy, was the beginning of that development which tended in a relatively short time to destroy a two-thousand-year-old Western tradition of hope and to transform it into a mood of despair. The moral callousness of the First World War was only the beginning. Other events followed: the betrayal of the socialist hopes by Stalin’s reactionary state capitalism; the severe economic crisis at the end of the twenties; the victory of barbarism in one of the oldest centers of culture in the world – Germany; the insanity of Stalinist terror during the thirties; the Second World War, in which all the fighting nations lost some of the moral considerations which had still existed in the First World War; the unlimited destruction of civilian populations, started by Hitler and continued by the even more complete destruction of cities such as Hamburg and Dresden and Tokyo, and eventually by the use of atomic bombs against Japan. Since then the human race has been confronted with an even greater danger – that of the destruction of our civilization, if not of all mankind, by thermonuclear weapons as they exist today and as they are being developed in increasingly frightful proportions.
Most people, however, are not consciously aware of this threat and of their own hopelessness. Some believe that just because modern warfare is so destructive, war is impossible; others declare that even if sixty or seventy million Americans were killed in the first one or two days of a nuclear war, there is no reason to believe that life would not go on as before after the first shock has been overcome. It is precisely the significance of Orwell’s book that it expresses the new mood of hopelessness which pervades our age before this mood has become manifest and taken hold of the consciousness of people.
Orwell is not alone in this endeavor. Two other writers, the Russian Zamyatin in his book We, and Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World, have expressed the mood of the present, a warning for the future, in ways very similar to Orwell’s. This new trilogy of what may be called the “negative utopias” of the middle of the twentieth century is the counterpoint to the trilogy of the positive utopias mentioned before, written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.1 The negative utopias express the mood of powerlessness and hopelessness of modern man just as the early utopias expressed the mood of self-confidence and hope of post-medieval man. There could be nothing more paradoxical in historical terms than this change: man, at the beginning of the industrial age, when it reality he did not possess the means for a world in which the table was set for all who wanted to eat, when he lived in a world in which there were economic reasons for slavery, war, and exploitation, in which man only sensed the possibilities of his new science and of its application to technique and to production – nevertheless man at the beginning of modern development was full of hope. Four hundred years later, when all these hopes are realizable, when man can produce enough for everybody, when war has become unnecessary because technical progress can give any country more wealth than can territorial conquest, when this globe is in the process of becoming as unified as a continent was four hundred years ago, at the very moment when man is on the verge of realizing his hope, he begins to lose it. It is the essential point of all three negative utopias not only to describe the future toward which we are moving, but also explain the historical paradox.”
(Here was a footnote in the book. 1. It should be added that Jack London’s The Iron Heel, the prediction of fascism in America, is the earliest of the modern negative utopias.)
“…can human nature be changed in such a way that man will forget his longing for freedom, for dignity, for integrity, for love – that is to say, can man forget that he is human? Or does human nature have a dynamism which will react to the violation of these basic human needs by attempting to change an inhuman society into a human one? It must be noted that the three authors do not take the simple position of psychological relativism which is common to so many social scientists today; they do not start out with the assumption that there is no such thing as human nature; that there is no such thing as qualities essential to man; and that man is born as nothing but a blank sheet of paper on which any given society writes its text. They do assume that man has an intense striving for love, for justice, for truth, for solidarity, and in this respect they are quite different from the relativists. In fact, they affirm the strength and intensity of these human strivings by the description of the very means they present as being necessary to destroy them. In Zamyatin’s We a brain operation similar to a lobotomy is necessary to get rid of the human demands of human nature. In Huxley’s Brave New World artificial biological selection and drugs are necessary, and in Orwell’s 1984 it is the completely unlimited use of torture and brainwashing. None of the three authors can be accused of the thought that the destruction of the humanity within man is easy. Yet all three arrive at the same conclusion: that it is possible, with means and techniques which are common knowledge today.”
“The importance of Orwell’s concept of war lies in a number of very keen observations.
First of all, he shows the economic significance of continuous arms production, without which the economic system cannot function. Furthermore, he gives an impressive picture of how a society must develop which is constantly preparing for war, constantly afraid of being attacked, and preparing to find the means of complete annihilation of its opponents [emphasis mine]. Orwell’s picture is so pertinent because it offers a telling argument against the popular idea that we can save freedom and democracy by continuing the arms race and finding a ‘stable’ deterrent. This soothing picture ignores the fact that with increasing technical ‘progress’ (which creates entirely new weapons about every 5 years, and will soon permit the development of 100 or 1000 instead of 10 megaton bombs), the whole society will be forced to live underground, but that the destructive strength of thermonuclear bombs will always remain greater than the depth of the caves, that the military will become dominant (in fact, if not in law), that fright and hatred of a possible aggressor will destroy the basic attitudes of a democratic, humanistic society [emphasis mine]. In other words, the continued arms race, even if it would not lead to the outbreak of a thermonuclear war, would lead to the destruction of any of those qualities of our society which can be called ‘democratic,’ ‘free,’ or ‘in the American tradition.’ Orwell demonstrates the illusion of the assumption that democracy can continue to exist in a world preparing for nuclear war, and he does so imaginatively and brilliantly.
Another important aspect is Orwell’s description of the nature of truth, which on the surface is a picture of Stalin’s treatment of truth, especially in the thirties. But anyone who sees in Orwell’s description only another denunciation of Stalinism is missing an essential element of Orwell’s analysis. He is actually talking about a development which is taking place in the Western industrial countries also, only at a slower pace than it is taking place in Russia and China. The basic question which Orwell raises is whether there is any such thing as ‘truth.’ ‘Reality,’ so the ruling party holds, ‘is not external. Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else . . . whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth.’ If this is so, then by controlling men’s minds the Party controls truth.”
“An American writer, Alan Harrington, who in Life in the Crystal Palace gives a subtle and penetrating picture of life in a big American corporation, has coined an excellent expression for the contemporary concept of truth: ‘mobile truth.’ If I work for a big corporation which claims that its product is better than that of all competitors, the question whether this claim is justified or not in terms of ascertainable reality becomes irrelevant. What matters is that as long as I serve this particular corporation, this claim becomes ‘my’ truth, and I decline to examine whether it is an objectively valid truth. In fact, if I change my job and move over to the corporation which was until now ‘my’ competitor, I shall accept the new truth, that its product is the best, and subjectively speaking, this new truth will be as true as the old one.”
“Truth is proven by the consensus of millions; to the slogan ‘how can millions be wrong’ is added ‘and how can a minority of one be right.’ Orwell shows quite clearly that in a system in which the concept of truth as an objective judgment concerning reality is abolished, anyone who is a minority of one must be convinced that he is insane.”
“Related to this is another example of ‘doublethink,’ namely that few writers, discussing atomic strategy, stumble over the fact that killing, from a Christian standpoint, is as evil or more evil than being killed.”
“Books like Orwell’s are powerful warnings, and it would be most unfortunate if the reader smugly interpreted 1984 as another description of Stalinist barbarism, and if he does not see that it means us, too.”
Reviews such as these are enough to destroy a young man’s confidence, and make him wonder why he’s writing a review at all. But the point, I suppose, isn’t to write a “better” review, but, merely, to write a personal one. I think that’s worthwhile.
The first time that I read any of this book was in high school. It was an assigned reading. Which means that I didn’t read it.
I tried to read parts of it, but I was quite stupid back then, and didn’t understand what the “Party” was. I didn’t understand “political” parties. Yes, I had almost graduated high school without realizing that. That was really my first experience with the book. That’s it. Depressing, I know.
I came to get an idea of what the book was about by frequently hearing terms like “Orwellian”, or even phrases like “straight out of 1984”, mixed with varying contexts. I didn’t need the book “1984” to realize that politicians were crooked and liars. So, through context clues, I came to understand a little of the general theme of the book. Nowhere near enough, but a minor taste. Funnily enough, I tried to fill in the gaps, and, after reading the book, realized that I failed. I knew of the word “doublethink”, but never thought of the phrase that often. Instead, I thought of something called “doublespeak”, which I interpreted to mean as just plain old lying. I’m glad I read the book, however, because it’s a much deeper story than just “lying”. Over and over and over, things felt eerily similar to today. Today, where Americans are “thankful for their freedoms” while they keep getting trampled upon. Celebrating American nationalism while ignoring domestic tyrannies. Yes, “doublethink” is alive and well in America today. Internet “meme” culture makes these instances of “doublethink” all too aware; particularly among libertarian “social circles” online.
I’ll start with a couple of critiques, then, attempt to give it at least a miniscule of the praise that it deserves. I know that the book is “dystopian”, but I enjoy poetic ways of saying things. I hope, as a writer myself, to be able to express poetically. I also eagerly await finding other “poets” (I know I can read poems, but I want poetic ways of saying things within prose as well). But the book is dystopian, and I guess it’s a little much to expect poetry in a dystopian novel. And it is only a minor critique, anyway. But I also get the sense that Orwell, like Cronkite, is a little “anti-technology”. I think it is evident that Orwell didn’t like television (as all of the “telescreens” in the book were used for spying and for barking out orders), while all of the books were rewritten to fit an agenda.
I also am not a fan of television. At all. I don’t pay for cable, nor satellite. Just “the internet”. I grew very tired of television, particularly advertisements, over the years. Also, it is very easy to get frustrated with “news-watchers” or “TV gorgers”, but, in my opinion, there’s too much focus on attacks of the technology itself. As I said, I do find television to be deplorable, particularly the way advertisements occur on them. And it does deserve critique. But let’s not become so blind by hatred of technology that we attack technological progress itself, and forget all of the good things that technology does for us. There’s a temptation to do just that; particularly among Conservatives, but I’ll get into that in a second. But focus more on the deplorability of the “proles”, not so much the technologies with which they entertain themselves.
Sure, it is one thing to bash atomic weapons, and some of the torture devices that exist in the book. It’s acceptable to bash technologies which exist solely to destroy, especially in particularly inhumane ways or at particular scales of destruction. But television isn’t an atomic weapon. I suppose that I don’t read enough to warrant giving a defense of “moving pictures”, but I’ve studied economics for a little while now, and I’ve started to really appreciate the technology that we have today. It certainly makes sense to me how one would praise books over television. I wouldn’t be able to successfully argue against that, and I’d agree with that. TV just does things in front of your eyes, including brain-deadening advertisement after advertisement after advertisement (although, thanks to technologies such as TiVo and DVR, people aren’t subjected to them as often as they used to be). Whereas books are far more engaging of the brain. So I can understand defending books against “telescreens” (in the realistic way screens are today, even though, increasingly, our devices are spying upon us, with “Big Business” and “Big Government” teaming up against us all. There’s that word again: “Orwellian”).
But I have also spent basically all of my life around old Conservative grumps who complain about “kids these days” and the technology that they have. These old people enjoy the fact that they have smartphones, but hate the fact that children do. They’ll say “Technology is corrupting our youth”, or whatever. In truth, it is really envy on the part of these old people. Many of these old people really did have difficult childhoods, and they are envious that children today don’t have it as badly as they did. That’s not a satisfactory indictment against technology. One has to wonder if many Conservatives, who claim that guns are “just a tool”, feel that way about video games, or smartphones, or what have you. Of course they don’t. They can’t apply their “tool” logic universally. That’s a major problem with Conservatives. I know that Cronkite and Orwell had deeper meanings than that when they criticized technology in the way that they did, but that has to be in one’s mind: How much of their critique is just old grumpiness?
However, even though, one one side, there are Conservatives who unfairly bash “technology” simply because it is “new”, or whatever their justification ultimately is, there is an opposite, although still negative, side of that coin. And that is “scientism”. “Scientism” is the belief that humans can be subjected to the scientific method such as a pool stick is to a cue ball. I’m not talking about, say, the effects of medicines on cells, or whatever. I’m talking about “social engineering”. I think Orwell discussed this brilliantly. Some people have a fallacious belief that we are better than we’ve ever been, as in morally superior to those in the past. I can understand that belief to a certain extent (as, for instance, slavery is more universally regarded as repugnant today than it has ever been), but these people go way too far with that idea. They’re the exact opposite of Conservatives, but they are still dangerous, if not more so than Conservatives. They treat the passage of time, and technological progress, as ipso facto improvements upon man’s ethics. This isn’t really “new”: it’s been around for a long time now. “If it is scientific, it can’t be immoral.” Ignoring, say, inhumane, unethical scientific testing which has been done historically, or attempts in the early 20th century to replace God with “science” (more specifically, the State’s application of “science”), leading to the deaths of countless millions. Science doesn’t eliminate man’s natural inclination towards hubris. “Science”, in fact, seems to ignore “man’s nature” constantly. It basically comes right out and says “There is no such thing as human nature”. And this was even before the “sexual Progressives” of today had taken over as they have now. Science-minded people seem to have an aversion to the concept of “human nature”. Unless, of course, they’re talking about how scientifically stupid most people are. But the pride of “science-minded” people is still alive and well today. Trying to push us more and more into statism, while, ironically enough, the “traditional, old-fashioned” Conservatives are their “biggest enemy”. It just makes one wonder why so many people think similarly. Interesting. It also makes you wonder how any ever thinks differently.
For more discussion on “human nature” and “apriorism”, check out some Austrian-school thinkers such as Murray Rothbard and David Gordon.
Of course, I didn’t even go into detail of how else “science” has replaced “God” with how it is fearfully preached by people who don’t even understand what it is that they are preaching. They are afraid of being “heretics”; afraid of not being accepted by their peers. So they scream “science” constantly, not understanding it themselves, but putting the utmost faith in anyone who calls himself a “scientist” (legitimate or not), much like faith was put into the clergy before the Reformation.
But, to continue with “1984”: The main character, Winston Smith, is old enough to remember a time before “the Party” took over. This also made me think of Conservatives lamenting a “bygone” era. Now, within the context of the book, I was fine with this lamentation. But in “the real world”, it’s annoying. Old Conservatives seem to think that the ’50s were the holiest generation on God’s green earth. With each passing day, they complain about how much more lost the world is becoming. Never mind the fact that in the very book that they claim to “believe” in, the Bible, one of the very first siblings ever created here on earth killed the other one. No, still yet, there’s some bygone era that was holier than today. No, the truth is that these Conservatives are full of shit. This, of course, is not to say that there aren’t legitimate lamentations of a bygone era. Of course, as tyranny increases, it is perfectly understandable and acceptable to think of a past time more free than currently. But that’s not all that Conservatives do. They have rose-tinted glasses for the past, regardless of how horrible the past really was. But, then again, don’t Conservatives complain about the past as well? Conservatives complain about today, and the technology that exists. Which, I suppose, is a complaint that the technology didn’t exist back then. But they are supposed to be “authorities”: they can’t admit to the young ones that they are jealous of them. Let’s just spank them and condemn them for playing video games. You know, the “responsible” thing to do. In fairness, once again, I don’t believe this was the gist of Cronkite’s discussion of technology. I think Cronkite was mainly concerned with how government (or cronies in connection with government) could use the growing technology for nefarious purposes. Also, he has some legitimate concerns about privacy. Google Earth is kind of frightening. Most of the time, when I use it, I’m just interested to see how accurate things are where I live. But it doesn’t bother me that much. Who cares if satellites can see my neighborhood? I can see my neighborhood when I go outside. I can see my neighborhood online if I take pictures of it and post them. The only concern that I have with it, in truth, is the fact that Google and the government are in each others’ pockets. I think that is a legitimate concern with technology, and I know both Cronkite and Orwell thought about technology in that same way.
But, “Conservative” analysis of technology aside: What did I think of the core message of the book, about Statism taking over the world? The book is excellent. I greatly envy Orwell. “1984” is a book that I wish that I had written. The book is obviously transcendent. While reading the book, I felt a combination of dread and hope. I really think it would be hard for anyone to view the book any other way. The dread is obvious. It is obvious to anyone who isn’t a “prole”; to anyone who isn’t a “knave” or “dupe”. People have spent, and continue to spend, their whole lives making careers out of warning about tyranny (and countless other “screamers” who aren’t doing it professionally). Fromm did an excellent job of contrasting pre-WWI writing with post-WWI writing. Most certainly, people continue to warn against tyranny today. Crediting Orwell the whole way through. Praising “1984” seems futile, because it really speaks for itself. It spoke, and the world continues to carry it on. It is a libertarian torch. The only differences between the passings of the torch are the specific words used, but the praise is universal among people who value freedom. The dread runs parallel to conclusions drawn to today from the book. If one looks hard enough, one can see that every day is a step towards 1984. And it is very easy to see 1984 when one takes account of how many of his fellow citizens don’t see 1984.
So 1984 is very clearly a tale of the human condition. About the conflict that exists within us. The desire for freedom, and the desire for control. It is a ceaseless ping-pong game with no winners, and where everyone dies at the end of it. Control is futile, and control is Hell. There’s very little solace for a man who has a gun pointed to his head, and there will always be someone in the future who faces a barrel, just the same. There will always be someone ignorant of the barrel, someone staring down the barrel, someone holding the barrel, someone trying to wrestle away the barrel, someone trying to destroy the barrel. There’s no end to evil on Earth. Not ultimately. There’s only fighting it, or perpetuating it. You can’t “ignore” it away. It will consume you.
But the ultimate takeaway that I’ve drawn from “1984” is a reinforcement for a developing belief of mine that I’ve had for a little while now. And that belief is to enjoy freedom when you have it. I spend a lot of time listening and talking about liberty and tyranny. I get something from it. Despite the similarities between America today and “1984”, there are significant differences. America is freer than “Oceania”, “Eurasia”, and “Eastasia”; the three “countries” in “1984” (I think it is fair to say that this holds true, even though the story only takes place in “Eurasia”, specifically, in what used to be London). Appreciate it. Don’t be so foolish as to believe tyranny an impossibility, but enjoy your freedoms while you have them. It isn’t 1984 quite yet. And don’t let it get there. Who knows how to alert the proles, if it is even possible to do so. But regardless of who is listening, scream out. If the heart desires freedom, scream out about it. It doesn’t matter who finds you odd when you’re screaming freedom. Do it while you can. As much as you can stand it. Express yourself, as much as you want to, while you are able. Make it whatever you want to make it; as serious, or as silly. Just do it. Despite trends toward it, there still isn’t a Ministry of Truth just yet. I’m sure there’s aspects of the Ministry of Love that the public doesn’t know about. And the Ministry of Peace remains in full effect, as always.
Overall, my takeaway is simple. Yes, 1984 can happen anywhere, anytime, including “here”. Don’t be so naive as to believe that your “country” is different. But take full advantage of any freedoms that you have. Exercise your humanity while you are still human. Enjoy your freedoms. And just read the book for yourself, if you haven’t already. And if you have, well, maybe read it again.