While there's a significant body of work by George Orwell to select from, two works in particular -- his short novel 1984 (published in 1949) and his long essay, "Notes on Nationalism" (published in 1945) -- have become the clearest statements of Orwell's socio-political point of view and philosophy.
The video above is a 1954 BBC version of Nineteen Eighty Four. Its early date and thoroughly British provenance helps us to understand where Orwell was coming from with his deeply cynical dystopian vision of the future.
Of course his vision of the future is based in part on his own experience as a propaganda worker at the BBC during World War II, a position he left -- in disgust -- in 1943 during the height of the War.
The media was fully engaged in propaganda activities during World War II, in Britain and everywhere else. This was no mystery. Everyone knew it was the case, and most everyone agreed it was necessary for Home Front Morale.
Those who, like Orwell, conducted propaganda activities may have had reservations about what they were doing, but most, certainly, felt it was their patriotic duty to put the best spin (a word that wasn't used then) on the events of the day -- even if that meant falsifying the information.
Looking back on news from WWII these days, it's fairly easy to identify the propaganda elements. And yet strangely, the news -- despite the propaganda -- has a ring of truth to it that today's news often lacks. There may have been a "positive" thrust to every story of the War and the Home Front, and yet, the truth was often right there, told honestly, as well. Quite different from the constant and overt falsity of so much of today's news, particularly if it originates in the military. They simply lie today, always, even when they don't have to. During World War II, they would sometimes lie, to be sure, but most often they would more simply embellish or reach conclusions not necessarily justified by the facts, while -- surprisingly often -- providing the facts. Or, seemingly as often, they would not tell the public some particularly appalling story of some wartime event at all.
Even that level of propaganda was too much for Orwell, in part, it seems, because it wasn't being very well done. The Ministry of Truth -- BBC -- was being run by hacks and time servers. How could one expect any originality or consistency under the circumstances?
In Nineteen Eighty Four the Ministry of Truth is being run by timeservers and hacks who really believe themselves to be doing the equivalent of God's Work, and only Winston Smith -- for reasons he himself cannot comprehend -- disagrees.
I could relate.
How is it that one sees -- and knows -- what cannot be?
Yes. Well. That is always the difficult thing, isn't it?
Worse, what do you do about it?
This was Orwell's problem living in the material world, and it was WinSmith's problem living in his fictional world of the Future.
It's a world that is Britain, most assuredly, but as if it had been absorbed by a Soviet, more or less as if it were ruled by a Stalin with technology. It is not a pretty picture, but as Orwell conceives it, it's rather simple. Oceania, the encompassing hemispheric "nation" that England is now a part of is ruled by The Party, headed by Big Brother -- who may not actually exist. It doesn't matter. He is symbolically present always and watches over all. From him (and the Party) comes all that is Good, to him is given all social love and respect. Simple. Nothing like that occurs now, nor did it occur in Western society when Orwell was alive, and despite the Stalin's despotism and totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, nothing quite like this complete Leader Worship and abandonment of reality took place in the Soviet Union, either. Mindless loyalty was inculcated to be sure, but (at least from my interviews with former Soviet citizens who lived during Stalin's time), it was never completely achieved. It wasn't just a matter of dissent and disbelief, it was the nature of Russian society and the Russian people not to accept without question that which they were being told, or rather to accept it, with the understanding that it probably wasn't true. People could see with their own eyes, for example, and if they were being lied to -- as they often were -- they knew it, though they might profess the Party Line and Official Belief. As I was told by so many former Soviet citizens, "Nobody really believed the lies, and eventually nobody believed anything."
It makes it very hard for some of these people to believe Government in this country, too. They assume they are being lied to. Very often they're right.
The character of Emmanuel Goldstein -- the Arch Rebel of 1984, and the central figure in the universal Oceania practice of the Two Minute Hate -- is often said to be based on Leon Trotsky, and the actor playing the role in the BBC video above is doing an imitation of Trotsky in newsreels that I've seen of him before his murder in Mexico City by Stalinist agents in 1940. Indeed, Trotsky's point was that Stalin had stolen and ruined the Revolution (much as Goldstein accuses Big Brother), and it is by restoring the Revolution that peace and freedom can be achieved. The response, of course, to this heresy is the famous chants of "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength."
It's said that in Moscow during the 1930's there were electric signs scattered around the city with the motto: "2 + 2 = 5" which made sense to Soviet citizens, though outsiders might be perplexed, and someone like Orwell might use reports of such things to come up with his notions of NewSpeak. But when you understand that the signs were exhortations to the people to complete the objectives of the Five Year Plan in four years, you can easily see where the apparent false arithmetic comes from, and suddenly it isn't NewSpeak at all and it isn't even false. At least not in that case.
Not that there weren't plenty of examples of the twisting of language for political objectives, and not just in the Soviet Union or Mussolini's Italy or in Nazi Germany. The practice was nigh [
And given the consistency of our own Storm Troopers to lie or distort everything that happens with the full complicity of the embedded American media, it's a practice that continues unabated.
Orwell's "IngSoc," English Socialism, was largely based on a very jaundiced view of Stalinist totalitarianism. Since English Socialism as practiced by the Labour Party (which was in power when Orwell wrote 1984) was never even remotely like Stalinist totalitarianism, and in fact no European Socialist party was even remotely like Stalinism, and Orwell himself was a strong believer in Democratic Socialism, the idea that Orwell was somehow indicating his opposition to Socialism and his fondness for rightist Libertarianism in his works is just absurd.
He is against totalitarianism. He is for Democratic Socialism. In his own words:
"The Spanish War and other events in 1936–37, turned the scale. Thereafter I knew where I stood. 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." -- from "Why I Write," 1946
It literally cannot be said more clearly and directly than that, yet for generations now, certain right wing and libertarian "thinkers" have distorted his anti-totalitarianism into some crackpot version of right wing hooliganism.
Greenwald is forever whining that his arguments are misconstrued and his plain statements are consistently misunderstood. And yet here's a case where a prominent 20th Century writer's plain words and concepts are still being shot down the Memory Hole -- or are being twisted and re-worked by historical revisionists, modern day MiniTrue drones and hacks -- to fit a preconception of what Orwell "meant."
That it would be done during the McCarthy Era is one thing; that it is still being done is truly grotesque.