"1984": Ruling Party Rewrites History
Updated: Mar 13, 2022
Readers will remember the chilling warning, "Big Brother is watching you," in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Depending on their age, a different political landscape may be recalled. However, in 1949, on the publication of George Orwell’s dystopic novel, the Spanish Civil War still loomed in people’s minds after ending 10 years earlier.
Called the rehearsal for the Second World War, the Spanish Civil War pitted democracy against Franco and fascism.
The governments of Hitler’s Germany, Italy’s Mussolini and, to a lesser extent, Portugal’s Salazar supported Franco with money, munitions and manpower. International Brigades, including the American Lincoln Battalion and the Canadian MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion, fought against Franco. Also, writers, including George Orwell, artists, intellectuals, students and working-class people from the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and other countries joined the struggle against totalitarianism.
As the English poet, Laurie Lee, put it:
"I believe we shared something else, unique to us at that time - the chance to make one grand and uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith, which might never occur again ... few of us yet knew that we had come to a war of antique muskets and jamming machine-guns, to be led by brave but bewildered amateurs. But for the moment there were no half-truths and hesitations, we had found a new freedom, almost a new morality, and discovered a new Satan- fascism.’”
Unlike World War II, the wrong side won, and Franco held power until his death in 1975. However, unlike most other unsuccessful fights, the victors did not write the history.
Orwell, who was shot in his throat, wrote Homage to Catalonia about his experience in Spain. Many say that Nineteen Eighty-Four was inspired by Spain. The English writer saw totalitarianism in Barcelona when Soviet agents created an elaborate lie to discredit Trotskyists as fascist spies in the Spanish government.
Orwell later wrote his friend, writer Arthur Koestler, “History stopped in 1936,” referring to the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the omnipresent Big Brother posters with their chilling caption portray a man with a thick black moustache and eyes that follow the observer. The man is Stalin, if the classic novel is hemmed in by time, or of a power-hungry tyrant, if we accept that Orwell’s last novel transcends time.
Winston Smith lives in London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Oceania, one of three superstates, which control information and thought as well as engage in a perpetual unwinnable war for world domination.
Airstrip One’s ruling party, Ingsoc, creates a new language, Newspeak, to make free thought inexpressible and, therefore, thoughtcrime impossible. It seeks eternal power for its own sake. It also rewrites history, so that it has never made a mistake.
The middle-aged protagonist, who writes “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” countless times as a block in his forbidden diary, rewrites history. He works in one of the 3,000 rooms of the Ministry of Truth in his cubicle. In the walls of his cubicle, there are three slits: one for pneumatic tubes for written messages, another for newspapers and a third for disposing documents into an incinerator, nicknamed a memory hole.
One of Winston’s assignments reads: “times 17.3.84 bb speech malreported Africa rectify”:
“Winston dialled ‘back numbers’ on the telescreen and called for the appropriate issues of The Times, which slid out of the pneumatic tube after only a few minutes’ delay. . . . It appeared from The Times of the seventeenth of March that Big Brother, in his speech of the previous day, had predicted that the South Indian front would remain quiet but that a Eurasian offensive would shortly be launched in North Africa. As it happened the Eurasian Higher Command had launched its offensive in South India and left North Africa alone. It was therefore necessary to rewrite a paragraph of Big Brother’s speech, in such a way as to make him predict the thing that had actually happened.”
The three slogans of the party are emblazoned on the enormous white pyramidal Ministry of Truth building. They contain contradictory truths. They require doublethink. They are:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
The Ministry of Truth, Minitrue in Newspeak, focuses on news, entertainment, education and the fine arts. The Ministry of Peace, or Minipax, concerns itself with war. The Ministry of Love, or Minuluv, maintains law and order. The Ministry of Plenty, or Miniplenty, is responsible for economic affairs.
Winston’s work colleague, Syme, who works on the Newspeak dictionary says: “Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all of its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.
“By 2050 – earlier, probably – all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? 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.”
Winston still has emotional ties to the past. He remembers the smell of coffee. He appreciates fine writing paper. He enjoys nature on a picnic in the countryside. He is a rebel who takes a secret lover who is much younger than he and who believes that she can outsmart the system. Julia is more concerned with obtaining coffee from party officials than questioning why only they have it.
Winston is such a highly developed character that the reader feels as though she can answer unanswered questions about him, and she identifies with him. From the first page, when Orwell introduces the Big Brother posters, there is an atmosphere of fear and menace. When Winston and Julia begin their affair, the novel heightens even more in suspense.
Orwell’s fecund imagination produces work cubicles, telescreens and omnipresent surveillance cameras, which were created decades after his death.
The novel is a masterpiece.
Orwell said that Nineteen Eight-Four was not an attack on any particular government but a satire of the totalitarian tendencies in Western society and intellectuals.
“The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a single one. Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”
In a letter, sent in 1944 to one Noel Willmett, who had asked “whether totalitarianism, leader-worship etc. are really on the up-grade” given “that they are not apparently growing in (England) and the USA,” Orwell wrote:
“Everywhere the world movement seems to be in the direction of centralised economies which can be made to ‘work’ in an economic sense but which are not democratically organised and which tend to establish a caste system.
"With this go the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuhrer.
"Already history has in a sense ceased to exist, ie. there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted, and the exact sciences are endangered as soon as military necessity ceases to keep people up to the mark. Hitler can say that the Jews started the war, and if he survives that will become official history. He can’t say that two and two are five, because for the purposes of, say, ballistics, they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it. That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving, though, of course, the process is reversible.
“As to the comparative immunity of Britain and the USA. Whatever the pacifists etc. may say, we have not gone totalitarian yet and this is a very hopeful symptom. I believe very deeply, as I explained in my book, The Lion and the Unicorn, in the English people and in their capacity to centralise their economy without destroying freedom in doing so.
"But one must remember that Britain and the USA haven’t been really tried, they haven’t known defeat or severe suffering, and there are some bad symptoms to balance the good ones. To begin with there is the general indifference to the decay of democracy. Do you realise, for instance, that no one in England under 26 now has a vote and that so far as one can see the great mass of people of that age don’t give a damn for this?
"Secondly there is the fact that the intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. On the whole the English intelligentsia have opposed Hitler, but only at the price of accepting Stalin. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side. Indeed the statement that we haven’t a Fascist movement in England largely means that the young, at this moment, look for their fuhrer elsewhere.
"One can’t be sure that that won’t change, nor can one be sure that the common people won’t think ten years hence as the intellectuals do now. I hope they won’t, I even trust they won’t, but if so it will be at the cost of a struggle. If one simply proclaims that all is for the best and doesn’t point to the sinister symptoms, one is merely helping to bring totalitarianism nearer.
"You also ask, if I think the world tendency is towards Fascism, why do I support the war.
"It is a choice of evils – I fancy every war is that. I know enough of British imperialism not to like it, but I would support it against Nazism or Japanese imperialism, as the lesser evil. Similarly I would support the USSR against Germany because I think the USSR cannot altogether escape its past and retains enough of the original ideas of the Revolution to make it a more hopeful phenomenon than Nazi Germany. I think, and have thought ever since the war began, in 1936 or thereabouts, that our cause is the better, but we have to keep on making it the better, which involves constant criticism."
Three years later, Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.