Dorian Lynskey: ‘The Ministry of Truth: A biography of George Orwell’s 1984’ (pb version 2021, pub. Picador; £9.99).
In his introduction Lynskey points out that 1984 was:
“… the first fully realised dystopian novel to be written in the knowledge that dystopia was real. In Germany and the Soviet bloc, men had built it and forced other men and women to live and die within its walls”.
Part one is in effect a biography of the man Orwell, who fought in Spain for a Spanish Marxist party, POUM, which had links with the Independent Labour Party (ILP) of which he was a member. The Anarchists and POUM felt that victory in the Civil War without revolution was unacceptable, and even impossible. Unfortunately, the Communists were keen to crush any revolution. It was in Barcelona that Orwell came across a Soviet agent known as ‘Charlie Chan’:
“It was the first time I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies, unless one counts journalists”.
Lynskey then takes us on an exhilarating ride through the genre of dystopian novels, calling on Jack London, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells and Zamyatin. Zamyatin’s We is superficially similar to 1984 but was not its inspiration. Orwell had drafted the plot of 1984 long before he read ‘We’. Lynskey also discusses late emulators of Orwell, including David Bowie, and film versions of both 1984 and Animal Farm, with a passing reference to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
There are a few unnecessary Americanisms – elevators, movies, met with and labour strikes instead of lifts, films, met and strikes – and I had to look up ‘roiled’, but these are minor quibbles. Lynskey’s book is superb.
Now, on to 1984 and its relevance, if any, to Britain today.
“Broadly speaking, the first two-thirds of the novel explain through exaggeration what had already happened in Europe, while the last third suggests what could happen if every conceivable limit were removed”.
As Orwell explained in a press statement after the book came out,
“The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one – Don’t let it happen. It depends on you”.
The story is very straightforward. It is the story of Winston Smith in the Ministry of Truth (charged with spreading lies so outrageous that people assumed they had to be true because nobody would dare fabricate them; cf. Goebbels or Trump) in London, the third most populous of the provinces of Oceania. Oceania’s governing ideology is ‘IngSoc’ (English socialism) which, like our Labour Party, has nothing whatsoever to do with socialism. As Lynskey says, socialism is a tremendous product with terrible salesmen.
Oceania is a society apparently run by Big Brother (who probably doesn’t exist) who rules through the Inner party (Winston is a member of the Outer party), enforced by the Thought Police with dissent minimised thanks to Newspeak. Winston’s mistake is to think that he can exert himself as an individual against the party. He is tricked into believing that O’Brien, of the Inner Party, is recruiting people for an uprising. In fact, O’Brien (the real Big Brother?) is a ruthless enforcer of IngSoc and only playing with Winston. At the end Winston, and his friend Julia are utterly crushed by the system, lose their individuality and become mindless cogs in the machine.
The last words of 1984 are not ‘The End’ but ‘2050’ – in an appendix written in ‘oldspeak’ and in the past tense (but by whom?), which gives a happy end of sorts: the English language was not eliminated by 2050 and so Ingsoc didn’t last ‘forever’.
Lynskey maintains that Orwell’s description of the proles is the least persuasive element of 1984. It is hardly credible, he maintains, that a regime obsessed with absolute control would allow 85% of the population to live beyond the reach of the Thought Police. But the regime rules them through a policy of bread and circuses: cheap gin, a state lottery, penny dreadful novels. (In a review of Jack London’s the Iron Heel Orwell notes that the word ‘prole’ comes from the Latin proletarii: those whose sole value to the state is producing children). So why bother to bring them under the control of the Thought Police? The latter’s job is to control the Inner and Outer party members. Like Stalin’s regime during the Great Terror, the Party doesn’t fear heretics; it needs them, because its power is renewed by crushing them – and the Party exists only to maintain itself in power.
Oceania is permanently at war with either Eurasia or Eastasia – the enemy is irrelevant. The war serves to solve the problem of excess production and to keep the people in line; every restriction is justified because ‘there is a war on’. Bombs occasionally land on prole areas of London, but it’s conceivable that they have been fired by the Oceania authorities to maintain the (possible) fiction that there‘s a war on.
One of the most important features of 1984 and which interests linguists in particular is Newspeak. It is a perfect examplar of what is known as the ‘strong’ version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (or linguistic determinism) – the idea that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition, and thus people’s perceptions are relative to their spoken language. Or, as Symes, who is working on the updated dictionary of Newspeak, explains to Winston in chapter 5:
“… the whole aim is to narrow the range of thought … Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak”.
Another way of expressing it is that if you have no words for the concept of freedom you cannot think about being free. Few linguists accept the hypothesis nowadays. The Inuit have a huge vocabulary of terms to do with snow. The fact that we have only one word doesn’t prevent us from talking about different types of snow, because we can use a variety of adjectives to clarify what we mean. Another feature of the structure of Newspeak is that it resembles Esperanto (which most professional linguists regard with amused contempt). ‘Good’ has the antonym ‘ungood’ and the comparative and superlative forms ‘plusgood’ and ‘doubleplusgood’.
What lessons can we draw from 1984? Well, it’s not a textbook. Nevertheless, forewarned is forearmed.
The present UK regime’s ideology is ‘Ingcon’ – English conservatism. And IngCon is developing its own version of Newspeak. It is increasingly apparent, for example, that politicians on the Right are using ‘deliver’ as if it had a meaning out of context. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. ‘Deliver’ is a verb which requires an object and it implies completion of a task, but Liz Truss (remember her?) used it as a meaningless mantra: “We are delivering on Brexit”. What she should have said was “We are implementing the following aspects of the Brexit deal”, but that would have raised the electorate’s expectations: the expectation that there might be some benefits to Brexit after all. So, you can see why she stuck to empty slogans.
The Conservative Party – like the ruling party in Oceania – exists solely to keep itself in power. Inventing an ‘enemy’ – like the EU – is a way of keeping control. There is the metropolitan élite of the Inner party, with an Outer party of deluded people who aspire to be part of the élite one day, and the lower orders who are bought off with rubbish TV programmes.
As Lynskey points out, Trump was only able to win the 2016 election because a significant number of Americans believed his every utterance and were effectively living in a parallel reality. Orbán’s Hungary is another good example.
The important thing to remember is that Orwell was keen to point out that ‘I do not believe that the kind of society which I described necessarily will arrive, but I believe … that something resembling it could arrive’.
Rating: 5 stars – doubleplusgood.
Big Brother says ‘Buy it!’
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