Envision a utopian reality where society is classless, people work collectively and cooperatively for the community’s benefit, ideals are based on altruism and the government controls all means of production and distribution of goods. Envision a utopian reality where the institution of family as we know today has collapsed because the structure of a family is inherently based on inequality as argued by Nivedita Menon in her book “Seeing Like A Feminist”: family is based on the “clearly established hierarchies of age and gender, with gender triumphing age and an adult male being more powerful than an older female.” Envision a utopian reality where television screens peer into human lives and eyes look out from the posters of a moustachioed man called Big Brother — the omnipotent God who has the power to turn children into the spies for his own cause, and betray their parents if they suspect even the slightest bit of treachery. This is the world that George Orwell’s dystopian classic ‘1984’ is set in.
The year is 1984. “The Party” which follows the political ideology of Ingsoc — Newspeak (The official language of Oceania: a modified version of English created by The Party) for English Socialism — has gained authority in Oceania after the ‘Revolution’ and is in a position from where it can command undying and passionate support from the mob.
Winston Smith works within the system at the Ministry of Truth — Minitrue, one of the four ministries of Oceania, where he spends his days tampering with official documents. He updates, unpersons, erases and modifies records in order to make history tie with the present, which is how he accepts that the super state of ‘Eurasia’ had always been at war with Oceania and was never an ally, even when he knows otherwise. This technique is dubbed ‘doublethink’ in Newspeak. Winston takes part in rallies and mob activity but his immediate instinct is to oppose “The Party” which is why he hopes for the existence of an opposition, namely “The Brotherhood”
“Behind this mask, there is more than just flesh. Beneath this mask, there is an idea and ideas are bulletproof.”
– Alan Moore; V for VENDETTA.
Ideas are bulletproof indeed, which is why Big Brother’s government resorts to mediums other than just physical torture: they seek to remove Doubt, for that is the basis for Cogito, Ergo Sum and impose puritanism to control people’s thoughts. Doubt is crimethink.
It was Russell who said that happiness came from the diminution of work, while words have always been for the leisure class, this is evident in the spatial and chronological pockets of history where people have had the resources and time at their disposal: the upper economic strata throughout Medieval Europe and more recently, Soviet Russia, where money was of the least concern to the people, has shown, It has always been through the production of a coherent written text — through undertaking the dreaded operation of translating mental operations to paper that the diminution of work is possible. However poetic the finished piece may be, the methodology that most people commit themselves to while writing is that of painstakingly stringing each carefully curated word to form a sentence. This approach often evades the definition of writing itself.
Writing has a very analytical quality as it allows for the mechanisation of a huge task. It brings clarity which is why writing has become an indispensable tool for every academic discipline — this tradition is the most obvious in French Philosophy, as most of it was brought about by modern times’ literature. Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus were all novelists. Literary language makes us conscious about the usage of it and in the process of choosing words gingerly sometimes what we convey surpasses the standard of ordinary speech, which Rousseau, whose writings sparked The French Revolution thought of as a corruption and alteration of genuine feelings. Here is what a medieval historian had to say about the debate on the written and the spoken word, back in the sixteenth century:
“The spoken word goes to the heart of those who are present to hear it. The written word gives wisdom to those who are near and far. If it was not for the written word, the spoken word would soon die, and no keepsake would be left us from those who are passed away.”
Words have connotations attached to them and no word can be pinned down to a single definite meaning. Words and human beings are made up of traces and yet time and again, we make the mistake of trying to understand them in terms of binaries which is why every word is distinct in itself and no word is a synonym of another. To this, Logocentrics would argue along the lines of Rousseau, saying that words are better when spoken upfront, because the arbitrary nature of language only comes to the fore once words are written down, as upon being written down they lose some of their meaning and run the risk of being quoted out of context, but once spoken upfront, meanings are better implied because of the undertones attached to the spoken word.
The Structuralist view of looking at language and the world however destroyed the humanistic perspective, on which tenets of the French Revolution were based. The structuralists believed that humans did not have a moral compass guiding them, and the rigidity of the structuralist position came to be evident in Ferdinand de Saussure’s examination of language. He talks of binary oppositions like signified/signifier, langue/parole, indigenous/other, man/woman and how these binaries didn’t merely coexist but were based on a violent hierarchy, where one towered above the other just like the Aristotelian notion of the superiority of intellectual activity over labour.
However, the Poststructuralists, however much they opposed to being labelled so, expressed that these oppositions were arbitrary, via deconstruction, Jacques Derrida talked of not an Other that was a homogenous whole, but instead, Differance: when binary oppositions are expressed in a dominant discourse, the heterogeneity of the Other gets eliminated. This, in present day context can be understood through gender binaries, that talks of two discrete gender identities that are veritably different from one another, as opposed to a continuous spectrum.
In the novel, George Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak— the official language of the super state of Oceania, was designed to eliminate unnecessary words, limit their meaning, shrink vocabulary to limit range of thought. As put forth by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the British linguist: “the limits of my language are the limits of my World.” Newspeak is a microcosm of the totalitarian regime of The Party. Jacques Derrida understood how a language was a reflection of the regime it was used in, which the regime could use to manipulate its subjects and that to facilitate change, the change of language too became necessary, all of which we see in the novel as “The Party” moves toward a language that is less impressionistic.
We are all bound by the limits of our vocabulary. The only way to forget the rules of the structure of the old regime is to break with the ghost of language’s past. It is interesting to note that a government can use language to misconstrue ideas and alter human consciousness to reduce chances of any opposition and to render the masses impotent, so that rebellion on the part of the masses is impossible. Given the chance, even Rousseau’s ideology could be shaped in a way so as to justify totalitarian regimes and Nietzsche distorted by the Neo-Nazis to seek validation for their inhuman beliefs.
Structuralism, at the time of its emergence, looked like a school of thought that would embrace all disciplines but was criticised for its rigid nature, which ran the risk of collapsing all Differance. Louis Althusser’s Structural Marxism was criticised because of its disregard for human rights as he considered “structure” and “social relations” of having superiority over individuality because of his belief that in a communist state, the need for human rights or individual rights would cease to exist as every human being would be truly emancipated.
However, any growth in the novel is brought forth through little acts of rebellion and the choices that the protagonist makes as an individual. Winston falls in love with Julia, who is younger and an obvious metaphor for the ignorance of the younger generation. Love is incubated in its foetal form and toyed with and then dropped but, as the two continue to perform acts of defiance together, the horizons of Winston’s mind begin to broaden but the concept of love is ultimately betrayed, like the Revolution.
The truth is that we’re all closer to history than we appear to be at first glance. The distortion of history in the Orwellian world draws inspiration from real life instances in Stalin’s Comintern and remain as relevant today when examined in terms of the current political atmosphere of India. A lot of India’s history written up until thirty years ago, was extremely Congress-centric and while that history is safe, it has caused us to ignore the other aspects of truth for a long time. In such cases, the axiom that ‘whoever controls the present, controls the past’ holds very true because it was only after the occurrence of a shift in the political atmosphere of the country that people began drawing their inspiration from nationalist history. In history, a certain period is always examined in terms of either the period that preceded it or succeeded it and the process of reading History, in a manner that followed a certain pattern is a limitation of the discipline because while Nationalist history might have been the need of the freedom movement — at a time when Britishers’ had stripped India of its pride and dignity, it was India’s ancient History and the golden age fallacy, which most nationalist Historians drew upon to instil a sense of self-reliance in the Indian. However, Nationalist history has outlived its purpose, while it made attempts to counter the Britisher’s way of reading Indian History, in the process of doing so, this kind of history falls a victim to its own contradictions.
History is also never read without a motive and most people come to the discipline with a preconceived notion of what history is and cast their findings as they seem fit to substantiate their claims. What is unsettling here is that the ruthless, dogmatic textbook narrative of history arbitrarily obliterates and tries to get all the points on a graph to conform so that it is possible to have a linear equation. History in India has often been taught as no more than a tussle between the indigenous and the Other, where the other becomes a homogenous anomaly. And, in order to make history more accessible in recent years, public intellectuals have tried shaping history in the public context by revisioning it instead of reviewing it. A widespread general ignorance about the country’s history is even being promoted in the best universities, which have become locations for mass critical misreadings of history.
George Orwell was born in Motihari in Eastern India to a British Civil servant, which is why India is mentioned a number of times in 1984. Educated in Eton, he later joined the Imperial Police in Burma, which inspired his work Burmese Days, published in 1934. It was because he had a taste of how Imperialism worked that he turned to Socialism. George Orwell’s 1984 becomes a warning against authoritarian socialism and structural Marxism, If I may say so. Oliver Cromwell – the high mark of Puritanism and a symbol of betrayed revolution who overthrew the monarchy only to assume power and become a dictator, claiming to be Lord Protector, is mentioned in the novel.
Hal Draper coined the phrase “socialism from below” or dictatorship of the proletariat, as endorsed by Trotsky to describe Marxian Socialism as against the “socialism from above” of Stalinism. George Orwell recognised that British democracy could not function in the same manner, after the end of the War but he also recognised that if the state had ownership over the means of production, it became impossible for the government to not intervene into people’s lives and take an authoritarian turn.
Any work of literature should reflect the spirit of its age, Even Anton Chekhov, who claimed that he did not have a political bent of mind while writing his plays, show socialist tendencies, especially The Cherry Orchard. Reading his more personal work “Letters of Anton Chekhov to his family and friends” clearly sheds light on the author’s socialist bent of mind and reveals that even the author could not remain untouched by the Revolution, which was brimming and was in its inception or formative years at the time when Chekhov was writing. However, the socialist tendencies in his work may have gotten overshadowed and overlooked because we had Russian writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gorky, who were stauncher and more vocal about their political messages. However, 1984 highlights the dangers of isolated revolution, it criticises Stalin’s socialism in one country as opposed to Trotsky’s permanent revolution.
As Margaret Thatcher’s political career had started to gain momentum in the late 1940s, there was a prevailing paranoia among the British against Stalinism that lasted for the entire duration of the Cold War. Thatcher, who was also visibly hostile to the Soviet brand of Socialism, went to assume power some thirty years later to experiment with policies that came to be known as Thatcherism. These tendencies of hers are foreshadowed in works like 1984.
A lot of modern and postmodern literature, whether it be written by Hemingway, Sartre or Vonnegut falls in the category of wartime literature. The modernists and the postmodernists, whether it be the Germans or the British linguists and the French existentialists, wrote in a century that was dominated by Soviet Power and mired by the Great War and the Cold War. The Cold War gave rise to the quintessential Russian villain in detective fiction, which seems far-fetched from the present and it is this dichotomy, this discrepancy that cannot seem to be bridged, which makes wartime literature and detective fiction rather inaccessible to a large number of readers who want to escape the perversions of war. Yet, War and Sex have been two activities that we as a civilisation have never been able to avoid or escape, neither in reality nor as elements of literature. What Alexeivich writes about Russia has a very universal echo in it: “we’re built for war. We were always either fighting or preparing to fight. We’ve never known anything else — hence our wartime psychology […] Today, people want to just live their lives, they don’t need a grand idea.” On the other hand, it becomes rather easy for us to tie George Orwell’s 1984, a novel published in 1949 to the present only because Orwell seems to have written an almost prophetic literary piece of genius, where he predicts data mining, mass media control and government surveillance all of which are present day reality for the country we live in and make up the structure of a totalitarian regime. Pakistan’s history textbook controversy and South Korea’s national security Act, 1948 that banned several movies and history books are testimonies of censorship, and the legacy of the book is also apparent in other dystopian classics like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
The fact that in some way or the other, the text of 1984 is successful in engaging with an audience today and asking relevant questions is an indicator of the universality of the text and the hyperopia of the author.
Maria Uzma Ansari, is a student of history and culture at Jamia Millia Islamia