Nineteen eighty-four revisited

It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

The atmosphere in the novel’s first chapters is oppressive. Every one of the protagonist’s moves, every breath, is recorded by “telescreens”. The protagonist knows he will be disappeared sooner or later, guilty as he is of “thoughtcrime”.

It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself–anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide.

They will come for him, inevitably, and when he is gone, there will be no trace of him, as though he never existed.

Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: VAPORIZED was the usual word.

The protagonist, Winston, works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to cancel inconvenient pieces of the past and throw them down a “memory hole”. He knows too much and doesn’t like what he knows.

Most people, of course, are not targeted. The “proles” almost never are. But Party members, entrusted with defence of the system, are closely monitored. Those who are too perspicacious, whose minds are too independent, risk being eliminated.

Up until this point, I thought George Orwell’s 1949 dystopia was about the USSR. There are, after all, ten-year plans and several daily cups of foul-tasting booze.

Then I started noticing a number of subversive details. First, the events of the novel take place, not in Russia, but in London, one of three megacities in Oceania – a realm encompassing what we know as North America, Australia and UK.

Second (and more importantly) the “proles” – 85 percent of the population – are not adulated, but despised. They are uneducated and therefore not very clever. No attempt is made, either, to educate them, on the contrary; they are treated to constant mind-dulling entertainment.

There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. There was even a whole sub-section–Pornosec, it was called in Newspeak–engaged in producing the lowest kind of pornography, which was sent out in sealed packets and which no Party member, other than those who worked on it, was permitted to look at.

Further into the book, Winston finds himself thinking on several occasions that “the proles are our only hope”.

If there was hope, it MUST lie in the proles, because only there in those swarming disregarded masses, 85 per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated.

Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious

So Winston longs for a revolution. Did George Orwell share his protagonist’s longing?

Third is the obsession with war, the copiously nurtured hate and fear of the enemy. Hate and fear of the enemy feed war which in turn feed hate and fear of the enemy. Perpetual war is the engine that keeps the system afloat. It keeps the population working, the economy going, and the Party in undisputed power, as war and fear of the enemy, bolsters the population’s loyalty to the Party.

War is not ideological. It has no cause, in fact, other than that of perpetuating the Party’s power. The hope is, of course, to rule the entire world, which – we are told – is divided between three powers, none of them Communist.

… museum used for propaganda displays of various kinds – scale models of rocket bombs and Floating Fortresses, waxwork tableaux illustrating enemy atrocities, and the like.

….war hysteria is continuous and universal in all countries, and such acts as raping, looting, the slaughter of children, the reduction of whole populations to slavery, and reprisals against prisoners which extend even to boiling and burying alive, are looked upon as normal, and, when they are committed by one’s own side and not by the enemy, meritorious.

The other two powers are – guess what? – Eurasia (Russia) and Eastasia (China). [How could Orwell have guessed, in 1949?]

What I, the revisiting reader, found most fascinating, however, were the details of propaganda warfare. The propaganda war is waged against Oceania’s own population by means of tools such as:

Newspeak (reframing), doublethink (cancelling of logic) and the constant rewriting of history.

Yesteryear’s inconvenient facts are not disputed, not denied; they simply disappear. They are wiped off the slate of our [Google search] screens.

En the end, Winston has learnt to not only say, but actually believe that 2 + 2 equals 5. Just as we in the West have learnt to truly believe that “we defend” freedom, justice and democracy.

In order to train citizens to practice doublethink, the Party lets them sink their teeth into apparently nonsensical slogans, such as:


As translations into the present, I suggest, for example:


I wasn’t around in Stalin’s day, but I have met people who have been dissidents in various totalitarian states, who have lived in constant terror of being denounced by somebody during a torture session , who have suspected the existence of tapping bugs hidden in the most unlikely places. There have been acquaintances who refused to wear seatbelts, who always made sure to stand against a wall. In short I recognise as 2024-fact much of what is considered fiction in the novel 1984.

What surprises me, however, is that the methods detailed with regard to propaganda warfare are so painstakingly reproduced today in the West. Has Orwell inadvertently taught the powers-that-be the art of “doublethink”. Have they learnt about memory holes from him, too?

What about perpetual war? Did he perhaps learn from them?