Orwell's 1984 Still Matters, Though Not in the Way You Might Think

A Washington, D.C., readathon reminds us that the left once hated this anti-totalitarian classic.


Washington, D.C.'s public library is sponsoring a public reading of the entirety of 1984, from "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen," down to the final moment when two gin-scented tears trickle down the sides of Winston Smith's nose, and he realizes that, "He loved Big Brother."

The readathon, which will be live-streamed on YouTube, kicks off on the morning of January 21 and is supposed to wrap up 11 hours later. It's part of a 10-day series of events called Orwellian America? Government Transparency and Personal Privacy in the Digital Age. Along with lectures, discussion groups, and sessions on Internet use, the library will also screen the John Hurt/Richard Burton movie version of the novel.

Orwell still matters, though his meaning has changed. When 1984 appeared in 1949, the debate it inspired was about Stalin, the Cold War, socialism, and the British Labour Party. Indeed, much (though not all) of the left used to hate Orwell for both 1984 and Homage to Catalonia. (They also falsely accused him of writing, in The Road to Wigan Pier, that the English working class "smelled.") That Pravda's 1950 review of 1984 described it, in the restrained terms common to Soviet literary criticism of the era, as "slobbering with poisonous spittle" is no surprise.

But unhappy Marxists in the Free World were just as vexed. Writing in 1952, the historian A.L Martin asserted that Orwell's purpose was to persuade readers "that any attempt to realize socialism must lead to a world of corruption, torture, and insecurity. To accomplish this, no slander is too gross, no device too filthy." Sir Isaac Deutscher maliciously accused Orwell of plagiarizing Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1921 dystopian novel We.

Now, of course, the entire geopolitical situation has changed. No Stalin, no USSR, no Cold War. The technology of surveillance, suppression, and control is wholly different from what the book imagines. Even the book's eponymous year has long since become a matter of literal and figurative nostalgia. Yet the book retains its power, if indeed its power has not grown as its contemporary concerns have faded. The more immediate the state's threat to readers and their vulnerable technology, perhaps the more compelling Orwell's message.

In his 2002's Why Orwell Matters, the late Christopher Hitchens presented a string of examples from leftist British thinkers of "the sheer ill will and bad faith and intellectual confusion that appear to ignite spontaneously when Orwell's name is mentioned." But most left-leaning readers have "reclaimed" Orwell—a committed socialist—and long ago learned to love re-imagining Big Brother in terms of Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and similar figures. (Of course, it's not only left-leaning readers who do so.)

Certainly, the reaction from readers within tyrannies has never changed. In the early 1950s, the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz described how Communist Party members throughout Eastern Europe became fascinated by 1984, which they could only acquire surreptitiously. "Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay," he wrote in The Captive Mind, "are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life."

Just last November, Iraqi author Hassan Abdulrazzak, in London for a conference on Arab science fiction, spoke of Orwell in the course of an interview. "I'm sure George Orwell didn't think: 'I must write an instructive tale for a boy from Iraq,' when he wrote 1984," he said. "But that book explained Iraq under Saddam for me better than anything else before or since."

Orwell's novel also inspired multiple literary offspring. Winston Smith, O'Brien, Julia, and the whole Orwell cast are reassembled in 1985, a sequel by the Hungarian author Gyorgy Dalos that first appeared in 1982. In Dalos' version, Big Brother is dead, Oceania faces defeat in its perpetual war, and the Inner Party breaks into factions. O'Brien invites Winston to create a literary magazine in a cynical attempt at manipulative "reform," while Julia casts her lot with the faction of widowed Big Sister.

Then there's Anthony Burgess, who in 1978 published a work also called 1985. The first 106 pages consist of self-interviews and mini-essays about Orwell, 1984, postwar Britain, Bakunin, Pelagius, St. Augustine, and various "cacotopias" (Burgess' preferred term for dystopias), including his own A Clockwork Orange, which he dismisses as too didactic and linguistically flamboyant.

Burgess thinks Orwell's book was flawed in its central theme ("an insufficiency of conflict between the individual's view of love and the State's") and offensive in its treatment of the "proles" ("there is no such thing as the proletariat"). Worse, Orwell's attempt at prophecy was a misfire. If a totalitarian crackdown comes, said Burgess, it "is not going to be like that at all." After this record-setting spasm of throat-clearing, Burgess finally begins his own attempt to "melodramatize certain tendencies" of the present.

Unlike Dalos, Burgess creates a world based on pre-Thatcher England that's run by a Workers' Collective, a violent and ignorant extension of British unionism. Those characters with any intelligence at all regard their world as appallingly boring. That's Burgess' Orwell-inspired U.K. cacotopia. If Orwellian tyranny comes to the U.S., he notes in an epilogue, it won't be through unions. It will be "all in the name of security."

Too bad he didn't try to melodramatize those tendencies. If he had, perhaps we'd be speaking these days of a "Burgessian society."

Meanwhile, "we pretty much live in an Orwellian society," writes a local D.C. blogger of the city's upcoming readathon. "Big Brother is constantly watching us and everything we do all the time. Yes, you. Right now."

If you want to participate in the D.C. library's Orwell readathon, there's an application here.

NEXT: Brickbat: Flipping the Bird

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “It’s a How-To manual!”

      1. I prefer Animal Farm for my dystopian cookbook. It’s a meat lovers delight. Pork, chicken, lamb and of course even horse.

  2. I enjoyed 1984 but,Animal Farm is my favorite

    1. Animal Farm is concise, simple, and maddening. Genius the way it up-ends fable and fairy tale conventions. I think it’s a much more flexible parable, but if that Iraqi guy said 1984 worked for him, I guess I can’t argue.

  3. Yeah, “it’s a love story”, at least according to that chick from Twilight.

    1. So was Cloverfield, I was told.

  4. My suspicion is that the left still really does hate 1984. It’s just become such a cultural icon to represent the horrors of totalitarianism, that they don’t want to risk looking unhip by saying as much.

    The truth is, though, I genuinely doubt 1984 is what they have in mind. To their thinking, they’re pushing for something a lot more reminiscent of A Brave New World. It doesn’t occur to them that, in practice, one is just the dirty underside of the other.

    1. The issue is, they don’t recognize themselves in the reflection.

      1. The left is good at ignoring anything that doesn’t fit the narrative. If they do have to say anything about such works, they rewrite them beyond recognition; remember Krystal Ball’s take on Animal Farm? Either that, or they’ll say that it’ll be different this time (oops, I see that someone already has).

    2. Orwell is pro sex and sex is mentioned in 1984. In my high school that was enough to make the leftist teachers like the book, and the conservatives try to stop us from reading it.

      1. In my high school that was enough to make the leftist teachers like the book, and the conservatives try to stop us from reading it.

        Yeah, this didn’t happen.

        1. Agreed, GSD is talking out his ass.

    3. With all the Romantic anti-industrialism & community collectivism the Left shows from Marx’s own manifesto to the modern Green Movement I think they’re pushing for J.R.R. Tolkien’s merry Hobbity tree-talkin’ world to be real

  5. What people don’t get about 1984 sometimes is that it’s not about socialism, it’s about totalitarianism. The soviet union was a totalitarian socialism, but you can have socialism via democracy, that’s what the south american governments are trying to do. It’s harder because you still have to deal with conservatives and neoliberals, so we still don’t have a really strong case study about democratic socialism, but there’s people around the world trying.

    1. In Caracas – you can read the whole of ‘1984’ while standing in line for toilet paper.…..43051.html
      Another big win for Democratic Socialism goes in the history books.

      1. In Caracas, toilet papers YOU!

      2. In Argentina – Tampon Shortage.…..-run-.html

        1. You’d think one of these days, South America would get their shit together and realize that every single flavor of socialism they’ve ever tried has been an abject failure.

          1. Yeah but then they’d have to admit the evil U.S.A. has a better system than theirs.

          2. Venezuelans should relate more to Atlas Shrugged than 1984.

            When you’re experiencing crippling economic shortages because no one can do business in a kleptocracy, that’s a lot more like the lights going out in NY than falling in love with Big Brother.

          3. Or how about Mexico? From 1946 to 2000 and from 2012 to now, El Presidente has been a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party which is essentially communist.

            Vicente Fox and Philipe Calderon were with the National Action Party. What the voters forgot to do was also vote out the rest of the PRI goon squad who had essentially done nothing but offer phony promises to everyone to buy votes for the past 54 years.

    2. It’s harder because you still have to deal with conservatives and neoliberals…

      No problem a concentration reeducation camp can’t solve!

      1. Surely you’re not against education! It’s for their own good, to be sure. How benevolent our Big Brother is

    3. but there’s people around the world trying

      Yeah, and it’s working out SO well.

      Disagree with your points – we have a damned good idea where it all leads, regardless of the tag put on it. Anything but liberty and freedom leads to LIBERTY SMASH!!!

      Whether you want to call that “democractice socialism”, “totalinarianism”, “The US Circa Now” or whatever – it’s all the same thing in the end. Crushing the individual’s choice and forcing people to do shit they don’t want to at the end of a barrel.

      I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it.

      *steps down off soapbox*

      1. Actually, you don’t, mainly because you’ve simplified the idea of socialism to mean “Marxism-Leninism,” who actually compose the small minority of socialists (the majority gravitate between anarchism and Marxism). You’ve also simplified the vast arrays of liberties developed during and after the Age of Reason into two words: “private property.” Many libertarians (notably that old scrooge Milton Friedman) mistakenly believe that private property is the bedrock of all political liberties, even though the presence of authoritarian societies that tolerate property rights contradicts that.

        From what I’ve seen, libertarianism is (idealistically) nothing more than a populist ideology believing that the power of the state should be destroyed (or rather, dissolved) and the remnants divvied up between individuals in a society. Socialism is similar; indeed, both systems have great similarities. The main point of divergence is the ideological framework supporting the system; libertarianism embraces neoliberal economics (or “capitalism”) and thus bases its arguments on private property, whereas socialism (the original “libertarianism”) embraces Marxian, neo-Ricardian, or alternative left-wing economics as an academic framework (giving it a more humanist, albeit utopian, twist).

    4. Shorter Amarante: We still don’t know how socialism works because every time we try it the wreckers and kulaks get in the way.

      1. No one got in the way of Polpot from Cambodia.

        1. Good point. This is what makes Pol Pot my fav. commie.
          Pol Pot enacted something that was very true to communism’s collectivism & class warfare/dictatorship along with Marx’s anti-industrial Romantic views of peasant life. Yet… how many socialists who try to defend the soviet union ever try to defend or even mention Pol Pot?

          1. “Pol Pot my fav. commie”, I smell 60’s style sit com

    5. Wow, need to pause on that one.

      Ok, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Got that?

      It does not matter HOW your concentrate power. The result will ALWAYS be the same, totalitarianism. The need for all the fixtures of control is inherent in totalitarianism without regard to how you got there.

      “there’s are people around the world trying” to find a way to concentrate power without having it misused. Mores the pity that the same mistakes must be made over and over.

      1. The problem isn’t only corruption. Even if angels tried to run socialism, you’d get totalitarianism as an output.

        1. And even if angels tried to run democracy, you’d get totalitarianism as an output.

          No matter what we’re screwed.

    6. What people, mostly Lefty people, don’t get about Socialism is that if you have Socialism you are going to GET totalitarianism. A Socialist State has committed itself to controlling the economy, and it can’t do that without controlling EVERYTHING.

      Of course, since the State CAN’T control everything, what you then get is the brutality of totalitarian attempt at control without any of the supposed benefits of socialism.

      Socialism is a false dream, and always leads to a nightmare if followed long enough.

    7. I’m going to assume you’re arguing in good faith. The problem is, whether you understand it or not, totalitarianism and democracy aren’t opposites. The opposite of totalitarianism is liberty and the opposite of democracy is dictatorship.

      And the problem with socialism, whether democratic or dictatorial, is that it does inevitably lead to totalitarianism. You can either back off on the socialism or accept the totalitarianism. But you can’t do both. Those South American governments you note, how are they dealing with the “conservatives and neoliberals”? Most of the evidence suggests direct repression. Eventually, you inevitably find that there are people who just don’t want to get with your socialist program. At that point, your only options are to accede to their demands or run them over. And that is where you find you’ve instituted the early stages of totalitarianism.

      1. I would also like to mention that democracy isn’t always inherently more free than even a dictatorship. A dictator could just be lazy and sit in his or her palace or home or whatever and let the people do whatever. On the other hand, the people could all vote themselves and others into slavery. Realistically, both tend to slide into totalitarianism, the difference is that democracy gets more credit than is due because it does so slightly slower than dictatorship. But many people don’t understand that it makes no difference if somebody is robbed and killed by a tyrannical dictator, or if they are robbed and killed by a tyrannical majority.

    8. “… you can have socialism via democracy, that’s what the south american governments are trying to do …”

      Right, like Venezuela?

      Socialism = fascism. Fascism is what socialism looks like when the money runs out.

      If you want to “put the economy under democratic control”, a merger of business and government is inevitable – “public-private partnerships”, corporatism.

      A merger of business and government inevitably leads to totalitarianism.

      Yes, Orwell called himself a socialist; he was motivated by the ideals of socialism. But he started to figure things out close before his death.

      Many 1930s socialists followed the same path and became anti-communists and classic liberals or libertarians in the 1960/70s.

    9. Amarante, I can only assume that every South American has an iPhone, a couple of cars per family, and cutting edge health care at a reasonable price?

      Oh wait, that would be America, not South America..

      Capitalism creates, socialism takes. It doesn’t matter if it happens with the consent of the majority.

      My family and friends live in Denmark, where I grew up and spent part of my adult life. A pretty successful socialist democracy, if there ever was one. I still get better (more advanced and cheaper) health care in the US, my income is lower, but so are my taxes, so I have more disposable income. Even after my bills are paid. Life is cheaper to live here, because of capitalism.

      Looking back on my life in a socialist democracy, I was a slave to government and to the majority, now I’m less so. And a happier, better, and more generous person because of it.

      Why not let the rest of us have our capitalism, instead of forcing your ideas of what is good onto us? Look into moving to South America, maybe?

      1. Your taxes are *lower*? I’d hardly call up to 59.5% LOWER taxes.

        Those $20 an hour McDonalds jobs are really less than $10 an hour after your taxes are taken out.

        1. Maybe I was unclear.

          My taxes are lower, now that I live in the US.

          My health care is cheaper and better, now that I live in the US.

          I’m a happier and more generous person, now that I live in the US.

          Higher levels of individual responsibility and individual freedom in the US, has made my life better than it was in Denmark.

  6. Arab science fiction

    **Does not compute**

    1. Like Argo? That was filmed in Iran, right?

    2. Son, to me a robots just a garbage can with sparks comin’ out of it.

    3. Is this part of the NASA Muslim outreach?

  7. 1984 is a must-read, as is We, the earlier dystopian novel by Zamyatin.

  8. Sir Isaac Deutscher maliciously accused Orwell of plagiarizing Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We.

    A much stronger case can be made that Ayn Rand plagiarized We in writing Anthem.

    1. Eh, read them both, then listen to 2112 and Hemispheres. Let it marinade for a while, then turn on the national news. See if you can create a dissociative experience as the distinction between fantasy and reality breaks down.

      1. I am learning to love Rush, but I still find Geddy’s voice distracting while I read.

  9. The English working class does smell!

    1. (They also falsely accused him of writing, in The Road to Wigan Pier, that the English working class “smelled.”)


      1. “Your Majesty! The peasants are revolting!” “You said it. They stink on ice!”

        History of the World, Part 1

        1. Dammit, Mel Brooks, get with it on Part 2! I wanna see Jews in Space and Hitler on Ice!

  10. Workers’ Collective, a violent and ignorant extension of British unionism.”

    This presupposes it was at one time peaceful; which it wasn’t. It was violent and brutish (like the Suffragette movement) from the get-go mostly because it was led by zealots.

    1. What I always found interesting was that the rebellion against the WC was just a front for the Islamic conquest of the UK–and that it proceeded regardless once it started.

  11. To accomplish this, no slander is too gross, no device too filthy. – A.L Martin

    Interesting. I see that socialists of the day were just as prone to projection as they are now.

    1. In school, they always depicted reformers in a kind light. I mean, they were fighting for righteous things in the face of patriarchs, industrialists and even racists, right? A mad world demanded drastic measures.

      Later on, when I investigated for myself, I discovered that socialist reformers were often, well, what we would characterize as ‘unbalanced’ and ‘narcissistic.’ They didn’t exactly possess noble traits.

      1. Of course, the period I speak of is the late 19th century into the early 20th.

      2. In school, they always depicted reformers in a kind light.

        Which is why everyone thinks that FDR was just swell and no one knows anything about Calvin Coolidge. FDR took “drastic measures” and CC just did the fucking job of presidential office.

        I discovered that socialist reformers were often, well, what we would characterize as ‘unbalanced’ and ‘narcissistic.’

        They still are, and they still peddle the same nonsense social and economic policies that have (and always will) failed spectacularly.

        1. I’m convinced that if we took all the neomarxists and had them put down tomorrow, the world would rapidly be a great place to live.

      3. I listened to (and later bought) Paul Strathern’s Marx in 90 Minutes on Youtube. It’s mostly a biography of how inept, dickish and lazy the guy was. The most hilarious thing is he’d be jailed for being a social parasite were he living in a communist country.

  12. It was the bullet to the brain.

    He loved Big Brother.


  13. my best friend’s mom makes $76 /hr on the internet . She has been without a job for 9 months but last month her paycheck was $16819 just working on the internet for a few hours. visit their website…..

  14. The combination of advanced technology and statism, is the single most pressing threat facing humanity. If we don’t abolish tax financed government sooner rather than later, humanity may not endure and civilization will almost certainly disintegrate.

  15. I buy almost everything except food and clothing from online auctions most people aren’t aware of the almost I unbelievable deals that they can get from online auction sites the site that has the best deals is

  16. As for American, I stand by one of the most unimpeachable of the lot.

    “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” — Benjamin Franklin

    Hijacking of the need for Security to justify the indefensible does occur. Oddly Information Security Professionals are among some of the most courageous civil libertarians I know.

    Legal Privacy is the right to control the access and use of information about a person. Information Security — Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability require data only to be shared with the right persons in right amount and at the right time.

    Disarming Security Professionals with useless philosophies that have no idea or practical concept of the meaning of words like right, wrong, good or evil is a problem. One cannot advise leader with a curious bind spot that some uses of information is wrong if one has no idea what the concept of wrong means nor any just terms to describe the concept of wrong to that leader in their moment of cluelessness concerning what is right and wrong. No one argues that Slavery was unprofitable, rather I hold that it is simply wrong. Failing to teach the next generation of security professionals the difference between right and wrong only leads to armed persons without good judgment. Whether those arms are physical or Cyberwar based, becomes less of an important distinction as technology advances.

  17. Training persons to be clueless about differing standards of right and wrong is great foolishness. Consider the phrase, “I see no difference between religions.” This person does not seem to understand that a that protests over sacrilegious actions can include suicide attacks in one religion but not in another. The person that is unable to see a difference in religions is not wise and sophisticated but over dosed on self medicated stupid pills.

  18. my classmate’s sister-in-law makes $82 every hour on the computer . She has been without work for nine months but last month her paycheck was $15360 just working on the computer for a few hours. read the article………..

  19. my classmate’s sister-in-law makes $82 every hour on the computer . She has been without work for nine months but last month her paycheck was $15360 just working on the computer for a few hours. read the article………..

  20. …any attempt to realize socialism must lead to a world of corruption, torture, and insecurity.

    did the guy who wrote this not understand the foreseeable consequences – indeed, the historical consequences – of his avowed ideology, or does he believe the proles are too stupid to figure it out?

  21. the headline is knid of a joke, right?

  22. my classmate’s aunt makes $66 /hr on the internet . She has been without a job for seven months but last month her payment was $18218 just working on the internet for a few hours. check it out…..

  23. Orwell WAS a freaking prophet…a prophet of human nature. 1984 should be required reading for every high school kid in the US. While the oppressor changes from culture to culture, the danger of oppression is still real. In the US, we are hit by it from both sides, the elite, think they are smarter than you left and the ‘conservative’ right.

  24. Perhaps the most Orwellian aspect of modern life consists of the use of doublethink (such as liberals who refuse to show anti-Muslim cartoons on the grounds of generic religious sensitivity — but have no objection to “Piss Christ” or The Book of Mormon or other such often vicious religious attacks). One might also note that most of the news media, at least with a Democratic president, can hardly be distinguished from Minitrue. MSNBC even has a Two Minutes Hate — or more like a 24-hour hate.

  25. Funny thing how socialist writers like George Orwell, Stanislaw Lem and Kurt Vonnegut wrote cautionary tales about socialist dystopias.

  26. It’s the go-to Swiss Army knife of literary illustration! Orwell’s writings are the SUV to get over totalitarian-all weather terrain! He beat out his competitor Kafka in some straights, but his hyperboles can be retrofitted for Kafka’s unknowable offenses through the port of ’84’s thought crime sequences. GET YOURS TODAY!!

    1. {cont.} Orwell’s essays on Politics and the English Language are as adaptable as Sriracha for today’s b*llsh*t mergerist atmosphere of Monster Corp. and Megalodon Govt. Oh yeah.. You can put that taste on everything that sucks about surveillance, secret courts, paying the 3-Letter mafia to create terrorists, the parasitic dark state that is coring out the representation of human working parts of our Constitutional Republic. It works so well! Why stop now?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.