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.