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Irving Howe

1984 – Utopia Reversed

Orwell’s Penetrating Examination of Totalitarian Society

(November 1950

From New International, Vol.16 No.6, November-December 1950, pp.360-368. [1]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

That George Orwell’s 1984 is a work of major significance, as a political document if not as a novel, and that it is probably the best delineation of totalitarian society we have, is by now clear to anyone who has read the book. It is a book written from the total energy of an aroused man, with all the passion and percipience at his command; a book clearly the product of fear, as there is every reason it should be; a book which, in addition to its public relevance, has a distinct undercurrent of personal tragedy. There is a kind of woeful rightness in the fact that Orwell died shortly after completing 1984, that it shows the strains of his harsh and exacerbated impatience. Whatever one’s disagreements with Orwell’s politics, and they are numerous, one must honor a writer who with his last-breath kept pleading with modern man not to let himself be reduced to an ultra-modern slave.

1984 is limited in scope: it does not investigate the genesis of totalitarianism, nor the laws of its economy, nor the prospects for its survival; it merely presents a paradigmatic version of its social life. Orwell’s profoundest insight is his insistence that in a totalitarian society man’s life is completely shorn of dynamic possibilities. The end of life is completely predictable in its beginning, the beginning merely a manipulated preparation for the end. There is no opening for that spontaneous surprise which is the token of, and justification, for freedom. For while the society itself may evolve through certain stages of economic development, the life of its members is static, incapable of climbing to tragedy or dropping to comedy. Human personality, as we have come to grasp for it in class societies and hope for it in a classless society, is obliterated; man becomes a mere function of a process.

The totalitarian society, whether of the fascist or Stalinist variety, thus represents a qualitative break from Western history and tradition. There have been unfree societies in the past; during the Middle Ages there was hardly anything of what we would now call democracy. Yet it was then possible for an occasional group of scholars to create an oasis of relatively free intellectual life (free not by our standards but in relation to the society of the time). The totalitarian society permits no such luxuries: it offers a total “solution” to the problems of the 20th century, that is, a total distortion of what could be the actual solution.

Fascism may indeed be, as Marxists have said, a final decayed form of capitalism, and Stalinism a bastard society arising during that decay as a result of the failure of socialism; but such descriptions, while essential, do not exhaust the problem. Fascism and Stalinism have more in common with each other, despite the difference between their property relations, than either have with capitalism or any past form of Western society. Unlike previous societies, both forms of totalitarianism enter the historical scene completely reactionary, without even the faintest, most ambiguous contribution to humanity; both utilize modern technology to suppress freedom to an extent not merely unthought of, but actually impossible, in previous societies. They leave no margin, no Church in which sanctuary is possible for the thief, no Siberia where the revolutionist can freeze and starve but also study, not even a private life to which the dissident can retire in humiliation and despair. When Winston Smith rebels in 1984 the state apparatus not only destroys him, it first forces him to believe he was wrong to rebel.

The social horror of 1984 is to some extent the product of Orwell’s imagination, but the power of that imagination derives from the fact that it is based on, extrapolated from reality. There are no telescreens in Russia but there could well be: nothing in Russian society contradicts the “principle” of telescreens. The fictitious telescreen is horrible precisely because it is so close to reality; imaginative fictions stir us because they are distorted and thereby more distinct versions of our experience.

Usually the utopian novel, such as Bellamy’s Looking Backward, is unbearably dull because its benign vision of the future is fatally marred by its author’s limitations of sensibility: his utopia reflects the damage class society has done to him. But in Orwell’s case, where he is writing an inversion of the utopia novel, a portrait of what one critic has called the unfuture, there is no such problem: if too often we envisage the good society as a surfeited bore, we have plenty of training in imagining its opposite.

I have said that the totalitarian society is qualitatively different from anything we have known in the past, and that, I imagine, may evoke a certain uneasiness from readers who have heard such remarks used as justification for the “lesser evil” theory of politics. But such uses of a valid observation are unjustified. If the totalitarian society is crucially different in kind from its predecessors, it is also organically related to them: it is the ultimate issue of the failure of traditional or liberal capitalism. There is here, so to say, an example of the historical dialectic spinning furiously in reverse, and consequently the more we are impressed by the horror of totalitarianism the more clearly should we see the inability of liberal capitalism to forestall it. What Orwell’s book makes clear or should make clear if people thought about its meaning, is that even if there were once a possibility for a modulated social solution, there is no longer such a possibility; we are truly in an apocalyptic situation: history, and not any disposition toward extreme formulations, forces us to say that it is now all or nothing. 1984 is the face of nothing.


The accuracy with which Orwell has observed the essential qualities of totalitarianism is remarkable. His book is not really a novel: Smith and O’Brien and Julia are not credible human beings. Seldom are they characters involved in dramatic action, too often are we told things about them rather than shown their interior experience in depth. But that does not really matter, since there is no reason to read 1984 as a novel. Exactly what genre to assign it to I don’t quite know, but that doesn’t really matter either.

There are first the incidental accuracies, the accuracies of mimicry. Take, as an example, Orwell’s imitation of Trotsky’s style in The Theory and Practise of Oligarchical Collectivism by the villain of Oceania, Emanuel Goldstein. Orwell has here caught something of the rhetorical sweep of Trotsky’s grand style, particularly his inclination to use scientific references in non-scientific contexts (“Even after enormous upheavals and seemingly irrevocable changes, the same pattern has always reasserted itself, just as a gyroscope will always return to equilibrium, however far it is pushed one way or another.”) Or consider how well Orwell has noticed Trotsky’s fondness for the succinct paradox through which one may sum up the absurdity of a society: “The fields are cultivated with horse plows while books are written by machinery.” Or consider how well Orwell has noticed the revelatory detail of the authoritarian institution: that grey-pink stew, surely familiar to anyone who has ever been in an army, which Smith eats for lunch; that eternal bureaucratic stew ...

On a profounder level than accurate mimicry or particularized observation is Orwell’s grasp of the distinctive social features of totalitarian society. Here he tends to write abstractly, as a sociologist rather than novelist, but still with great penetration.

One of the most poignant scenes in 1984 is that in which Smith, trying to discover what life was like before Big Brother’s reign, talks to an old worker in a pub. The exchange is unsatisfactory to Smith, since the worker can remember only stray bits of disconnected fact and is quite unable to generalize from his memory; but it is extremely apt as a bit of symbolic action. The scene indicates that one of the most terrifying things about totalitarian society is that it systematically destroys social memory, first, through the forced disintegration of individual experience and, second, through the complete obliteration of objective records. The worker whom Smith interviews remembers that the beer was better before Big Brother (a not insignificant fact) but he cannot really understand Smith’s key question: “Do you feel that you have more freedom now than you had in those days?” To pose, let alone answer, such a question requires a degree of social continuity and cohesion, as well as a complex set of value assumptions, which Oceania has deliberately destroyed. For in such a society there is no longer a sense of the past: man is deprived of his ancestors.

The destruction of social memory becomes a major state industry in Oceania, and here of course Orwell is borrowing directly from Stalinism which, as the most “advanced” form of totalitarianism, is infinitely more adept at this job than was fascism. (Hitler burned books, Stalin has them rewritten.) The embarrassing document disappears down memory hole – and that is all.

Orwell is similarly acute in noticing the relationship of the totalitarian state to culture. Novels are produced by machines, a considerable improvement over the Russian “collective novel” of two decades ago. The state anticipates and supplies all wants, from “cleansed” versions of Byron to pornographic magazines. That vast modern industry of prefabricated amusement which we now call “popular culture” is an important state function. And meanwhile language itself is stripped of those terms which connote refinement of attitude, subtleties of sensibility. As one character says:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak [the official dialect of Oceania] is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words with which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten ... The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

With feeling as with language. Oceania seeks to destroy spontaneous affection because that, too, is subversive. Smith, in one of the book’s finest passages, thinks to himself:

“It would not have occurred to [his mother] that an action which is ineffectual thereby becomes meaningless. If you loved someone, you loved him, and when you had nothing else to give, you still gave him love. When the last of the chocolate was gone, his mother had clasped the child in her arms. It was no use, it changed nothing, it did not produce more chocolate, it did not avert the child’s death or her own; but it seemed natural to her to do it.”

The totalitarian state destroys social memory. It makes all of life a function of its operation. It frowns upon those luxuries of feeling which are the essence of human response to unavoidable tragedy. And worst of all, it destroys private life.


So far as I can see, there are only a few errors in Orwell’s book, and most of those flow from the fact that his totalitarian society is more total than we can at present imagine. None of them is completely indefensible; they are errors at all because they drive valid observations too far.

In Oceania the sex instinct, particularly among members of the Outer Party (the lower bureaucracy), is virtually obliterated. (I do make allowance for the fact that Orwell’s method is dramatization by exaggeration.) One of the most harrowing bits in the book is Smith’s recollection of his sexual relations with his former wife, a loyal unthinking party member: she would submit herself regularly once a week, as if for an ordeal and resisting even while insisting, in order to procreate for the party.

Now there is a point to this: in Russia there has been a noticeable restriction of sexual freedom. But we must distinguish between a Stalinist attempt to develop more reliable child-bearing units among the masses and a presumed tendency to sexual prudery among the upper social layers. So far as we know, the Russian ruling circles do not indulge in the kind and amount of perversion which prevailed among the top Nazis, but it is hard to believe that there is not a good deal of sexual looseness among even the Stalinist machine-men types.

We know from the past that the sexual instinct can be heavily suppressed. In Puritan society, for example, sex was viewed with some suspicion, and it is not hard to imagine that even in marriage pleasure was not then a conspicuous consequence of sex. But it must be remembered that in Puritan society the suspicion of sex was based on a rigid morality universally accepted, on a conception of the supreme good: men mortified themselves enthusiastically in the name of God. In Orwell’s Oceania, however, there is no similar exalted faith; in fact, such faith is looked upon with suspicion, for what is wanted is mechanical assent rather than intellectual fervor or enthusiastic belief. It therefore seems hard to imagine that the lower bureaucrats of the Outer Party would be able so completely to discard sexual pleasure; it seems more likely that in the insufferable boredom of Oceanic life there would be a great hunger for sexual activity, if only in order to gain a moment of excitement. Orwell anticipates this point by informing us that sexual promiscuity in the Outer Party is punishable by death. But to forbid promiscuity is not yet to quench the pleasure component of sex itself.

The point has a more general significance. A reactionary society can force people to do many things which are against their social and physical interests and which may cause them acute discomfort and pain; it can perhaps accustom them to receive pain with passive resignation; but I doubt that it can break down the fundamental physiological distinction between pleasure and pain. (No doubt, to anticipate an objection, there are situations when pleasure and pain intermingle, but they are nonetheless distinguishable human experiences.) Man’s biological construction is such as to require him to need food and, with less regularity or insistence, sex; society can do a lot to dim the pleasures of food and sex but it seems most unlikely that it can destroy them entirely. We may consequently expect the animal component of man to rebel against social constrictions which deny such fundamental needs, even when his consciousness has been corrupted and his mind terrorized. No doubt, this objection to Orwell’s view of sexual life in Oceania has its limits, for there are times when, apparently, instinct can be completely controlled or numbed. (Why, for example, did not the Jews who were led to Hitler’s gas chambers make some gesture of rebellion, even with the foreknowledge that they would be destroyed if they made it? Perhaps because they had been drained of the capacity for initiative; perhaps because they feared torture more than death.) In any case, I think that while Orwell is right in suggesting that totalitarianism inhibits sexual freedom and creates a psychic atmosphere which mutilates sexual pleasure, he has exaggerated the extent to which men can be driven to discord and renounce their basic animal drives.

More important is Orwell’s conception of the social role of the proles, or workers, in Oceania. As he sees it, the proles are actually better off than members of the Outer Party: they are allowed greater amounts of privacy, the telescreen does not bawl instructions at them or watch their every movement, and the secret police seldom bothers them, except to remove a talented or independent worker. Presumably Orwell would justify this conception of class relations in Oceania by saying that the workers as a class have become so helpless and demoralized that the state need no longer fear them. Now we have no right to say that this never could happen, but we must also observe that it has not yet happened. Neither the Stalinists nor Nazis have felt sufficiently secure to relax their surveillance of the workers; in Russia the tendency has actually been toward increasing domination of the workers’ lives.

Orwell’s conception of the workers’ role in a totalitarian society can also be challenged on more fundamental grounds. The totalitarian state can afford no luxuries, no exceptions; it can tolerate no group outside its constantly exercised control. It must always scour every corner of society, searching for dissidents and once more implanting its dogma; anything less would be the beginning of its collapse. It is in the nature of a totalitarian society that it is constantly in a process of self-agitation: it is always shaking and reshaking its members, testing and retesting them to insure its power. And since, as Orwell himself says, the workers, demoralized and brutalized as they are, remain the only source of possible revolt in Oceania, it is precisely they whom the state would least let alone.

Finally, there is Orwell’s extremely interesting but unsatisfactory view of the dynamics of power in a totalitarian society. As Orwell presents the party oligarchy in Oceania, it is the first ruling class in history which dispenses with ideology. O’Brien, the representative of the Inner Party, says “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.” The Stalinists and Nazis, he remarks, came close to that view of power, but only in Oceania has all pretense to be serving humanity – that is, all ideology – been discarded.

Now it is true that all social classes have at least one thing in a common: a desire for power. The bourgeoisie has sought power, not particularly as an end in itself (whatever that vague phrase may mean), but in order to be free to engage in a certain kind of economic and social activity; that is, bring to climax the tendencies of capitalist production. The ruling class of the new totalitarian society, most notably in Russia, is different, however, from all previous ruling classes in this respect: it does not think of political power as a distant means toward a non-political end, as the bourgeoisie did to some extent, but rather as its essential end, for in a society where there is no private property the distinction between economic and political power means very little.

So far this seems to bear out Orwell’s view. But if the ruling class of the totalitarian society does not think of political power as a channel to economic expansion and social domination, what does power mean to it? This is, of course, an extremely difficult and complex problem, and those who say that the end of power is power are not contributing anything remarkably profound. For one thing, we may say that many of the objectives for which previous ruling classes sought power can now, in the totalitarian society, be found in political power itself. In bourgeois society political power does not necessarily mean social status, economic wealth, industrial initiative, financial opportunity; in totalitarian society, or as we have called its Stalinist version, bureaucratic collectivism, all of these reside within political power.

But there is something else. No ruling class, at least within Western society, has yet been able to dispense with ideology. (True, there have been ruling classes which did not claim to be ruling for the good of humanity; instead, they might speak of the glory of the nation. But the glory of the nation can ultimately be referred to the good of humanity.) All ruling classes feel a need to rationalize their power, to find some presumably admirable objectives in the name of which they may (often sincerely) act. This they need to win followers, to bind their country with some common outlooks, and to give themselves a measure of psychological security.

Can one, then, imagine a ruling class completely devoid of these props to power? I doubt it. It is true, for example, that among the Russian bureaucrats there has undoubtedly been a great increase of cynicism; few probably believe that they are now directly building socialism with or without the whip; but there must still be some vague assumption, even if only a cynical one, that somehow what they are doing has in it an element of the good. Otherwise they would find it increasingly difficult, perhaps impossible to sustain their class morale.

And the same thing must be true for Oceania’s rulers. That they cling ferociously to power; that they do not rule in order to help humanity in any way; that many of them become cynical about their ideological pretensions; that others of them rationalize their power in terms of a theory of benevolent despotism – all this could be credible. But one cannot believe that a modern ruling class, in a mass society, as all modern societies must be, could survive if it frankly and openly declared itself in the manner of Orwell’s Inner Party.


Shortly before his death Orwell wrote:

“My novel 1984 is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labor Party, but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable ... I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe ... that something resembling it could arrive.”

This seems to me satisfactory not only as a statement of Orwell’s intention, but as a description of the book’s actual slant. However, since certain socialists have expressed an uneasy feeling that Orwell may be saying that an Oceania may arise, not merely from Stalinism, but also from a genuine socialist effort, I wish to consider – and accept – 1984 on those terms as well. My point is simply this: even if Orwell had meant it in this way, there would be no cause for alarm or anger; we have no right to assume that we have the future tucked away in our vest pockets.

There was a time not so long ago when socialists tended to think of the transition from a class to a classless society as largely an “automatic” process dependent on an expansion of the means of production; I do not say that anyone wrote it out so bluntly (though I imagine that if you took the trouble to look you could find examples of that too) but rather that this was the prevalent cast of our thought. This is something I don’t want to argue about: I know it to be a fact. It was, I think, largely an inheritance from the corruption of the revolutionary movement during the mid-1920’s by the early form of Stalinism and also perhaps by Zinovievism.

It is a way of thinking that is now impossible to any mildly intelligent person. As one reads again Lenin’s State and Revolution, one is repeatedly struck by how extreme – almost, if you wish, utopian – is his democratic bent, his insistence that the masses of people can achieve sufficient maturity and knowledge to serve as autonomous and responsible members of a free society. Some of his most withering sarcasm is reserved for Kautsky and Bernstein when they contaminate their vision of the socialist future with bureaucratic outlooks received from the capitalist present. But while one can only admire Lenin’s complete democratic aspiration and brush aside with impatience all the ignoramuses and fakers (mostly fakers; cf., Mr. Shub) who portray him as the first modern totalitarian, one also feels that much of what he wrote about the immediate transition from class to classless society is either inadequate or, more often, based on a particular involvement with backward Russia which does not apply elsewhere. Lenin’s emphasis, for example, on centralism, while undoubtedly relevant to a country like Russia, is not mechanically to be transposed to other countries. His admiration for Marx’s formula that the Paris Commune “was not a parliamentary, but a working corporation, at one and the same time making the laws and executing them,” must now, I think, be questioned, even though this particular formula .has been sacrosanct in the Marxist movement. The notion of checks and balances within a government, within any government but particularly one which has concentrated in itself social and economic power, seems rather more sensible than it once did. I recall myself often sneering at the checks and balances in the American constitution as being “merely” a device to ward off popular rule during the post-revolutionary period in America; no doubt it was that, but it wasn’t that “merely”; it was also a rather sensible means – within the limits of the class society established at the time – to prevent dangerous concentration of power.

Power is, in one sense, a neutral mechanism, an end for which every social class aspires; but it is also, and always, a danger, as is tacitly recognized by the Marxian formula that in the classless society the state will “wither away” and there will no longer be repressive organs. No doubt, there is truth in the view that to reach a stateless society it is necessary to use power, to win it and extend it; but at the same time we must not forget that the habits of social domination, even when exerted by a progressive class or by real or assumed representatives of that class, are likely to give rise to character structures that will resist the withering away of the state in the name of which power is to be assumed. Similarly, we are now, or should be, somewhat suspicious of the centralism often associated with the transitional period from capitalism to socialism; not that a high degree of economic centralism is unavoidable if the material prerequisite for socialism, a high standard of living, is to be achieved; but rather that with economic centralism must come social and political decentralization, the sharing of power by different, conflicting groups within and near the working class. Just as one of the main factors making for democracy within capitalist society is the fissures created by the conflicts of various strata of the ruling class, so in a transition regime democracy is more likely to be preserved if there are substantive fragmentations of power. What is wanted is not, as one often hears, that the state “allow” the workers to strike, but rather that the workers, through trade unions and cooperatives, have enough social and economic power that the state could not prevent them from striking. The people always need protection from the state; the workers from a workers state, too.

These remarks are terribly cursory and, as such, open to misreading, but I make them not in order to present any sort of rounded view on the difficult problem of the transition to socialism, but merely to indicate an opinion that that transition is not guaranteed in any sense, not even guaranteed by the fact that “we,” the good people, the good socialists might undertake it. The effort to build socialism rests ultimately not on any economic development, indispensable though an increase in productivity and the consequent possibility for leisure and plenty may be; it rests, not with the famous “unleashing of the productive forces,” but rather with a conscious experiment in social relations. The experiment is impossible without the productivity; but the productivity does not yet insure the success of the experiment.

Marx said that with socialism human history would first begin; it is a pregnant remark, suggesting that the final purpose of socialism is to allow men, within the context of a limiting natural world, to determine their own destinies. But they must determine; they must act; they must choose. Seen in these terms, socialism is not merely a necessity but also a gamble: it means a great concentration of power and resources, and all the dangers that come from such a concentration. Misused, distorted by an inadequate conception of its purpose and its continuous ethical content, the effort to build socialism may conceivably be twisted into something as horrible as 1984. What Orwell seems to be telling us is that it need not be if there is a sufficiently high level of human consciousness, that the experiment rests finally on that high level of human consciousness. I see no reason to disagree.



1. 1984, by George Orwell. Harcourt Brace, 314 pp. $3. Reprinted as a Signet book, 25¢.


Note by ETOL

1*. This has been reprinted a number of times since it first appeared in New International.

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