Historical context of 1984 – George Orwell
Historical context of 1984 – George Orwell
George Orwells 1984 is one of the most important pieces of political fiction; it is a timeless political satire that demands to be read to be truly appreciated. Published in 1948, and set 36 years into the future, 1984 eerily depicts where the world is going, where the truth is shunted and lies are promoted by all mainstream media. Perhaps one of the most powerful science fiction novels of the twentieth century, this apocalyptic satire shows with grim conviction how the protagonist Winston Smiths individual personality is wiped and how he is recreated in the Partys image until he does not just obey but loves Big Brother.
Some critics have related Winston Smiths suffering to those Orwell underwent before the writing of 1984. Orwell maintained the idea that the novel was written with the intention to alter other peoples ideas about the society they should strive after. But perhaps, to truly understand the concepts explored and the purpose it was written, we should first consider the historical context of the novel, the period leading up to the writing of 1984 in order to answer just what kind of book he was writing.
One of the things that make 1984 such an important work of political fiction is the fact that it was written in a period of unprecedented political instability. It was the end of the worlds great imperial powers and the rise of a new age of politics. Democracy, fascism and communism were vying for dominance and the outcome of their struggle could not be predicted.
Most people at the time were content to read 1984 as a straightforward allegory of the about the melancholy fate of the Russian revolution. From the minute Big Brothers moustache appears in the second page of the book, people were immediately reminded of Stalin just as how the despised part heretic Emmanuel Goldstein is like Trotsky. This however did not prevent the novel being marketed in the US as an anticommunist tract.
Written in 1948, 1984 arrived in the Mccarthy period where communism was seen as a worldwide menace. The Korean War (1950-53) would soon follow and highlighted the alleged communist practice of ideological enforcement through brainwashing. That something very much like brainwashing happens in 1984, in lengthy and terrifying detail, to its hero, Winston Smith, did not surprise those readers determined to take the novel as a simple condemnation of Stalinist atrocity.
This however was not Orwells intention. Though 1984 gave comfort to generations of anti communist ideologues, its main purpose was to condemn the ill effects of totalitarianism. But to understand what fueled his hatred of totalitarian regimes we must first consider the life George Orwell led and the world at that time.
George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair, in India 1903 into a middle class family. The name George Orwell was a pseudonym that he wrote his novels under. He was the son of a British civil servant and was brought to England as a toddler. The boy became aware of the clear class distinctions while attending St Cyprians preparatory school in Sussex where he received a fine education but felt out of place. He was often humiliated and looked down on as he was not from a wealthy family like the others. This experience made him sensitive to the cruelty of social arrogance. As a partial scholarship student whose parents could not afford to pay for his scholarship, Orwell was often reminded of his lowly economic status by the school administrators.
Conditions improved at Eton where he studied next with Aldous Huxley as his French tutor. Later, Orwell wrote of being relatively happy at Eton as the school allowed students much independence. But instead of continuing his university classes, in 1922 Orwell joined the Indian imperial police. Stationed in Burma, his class consciousness intensified as he served as one of the hated policemen enforcing British control of the native population. He was troubled by the caste and racial barriers that had prevented him from getting to know a wider cross-section of the people there. Disgusted at his role as an imperialist; he returned to England in 1927 and resigned his position.
Orwell planned to become a writer, a profession which he had originally not shown much interest in. Perhaps, to erase the guilt from his colonial experiences, he chose to live among the poor of London, and later in Paris. His own life provide the material for his first book published in 1933 Down and out in Paris and London which was based on his time living in those two cities with social criticism. The pseudonym George Orwell was used so his parents would not be shocked by the horrific living conditions described in the book. Subsequent novels contained autobiographical references and served as vehicles for Orwell to explore his growing political convictions.
In 1936, Orwell traveled to Barcelona to write about the Spanish civil war but ended up joining the battle, fighting against Spanish Leader Francisco Franco and his Nazi supported fascists on the side of the Republicans, supporting the socialist left. There he had quickly learned the difference between real and phony antifascism. Orwell said: ‘This fascism … somebody’s got to stop it’. To Orwell, liberty and democracy went together, guaranteeing, among other things, the freedom of the artist; the present capitalist civilization was corrupt, but fascism would be morally calamitous.
It was the Spanish Civil War that played the most important part in defining his socialism. Having witnessed the success of the anarcho-syndicalist communities, and the following brutal suppression of the revolutionaries by the Soviet-backed Communists, Orwell returned from Catalonia a staunch anti-Stalinist and joined the Independent Labour Party. The Spanish war and other events in 1936-7, he wrote 10 years later, turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I know it. His experiences in the Spanish civil war especially arrow escape during a Communist purge in Barcelona made him a lifelong anti-stalinist and a strong believer in democratic socialism, socialism with free elections.
In the novel, Winston Smiths job at the ministry of truth consists of falsifying historical records in such a way to make the Party appear incapable of mistakes. This kind of systematic eradication was also present most notably in the Stalinist era in the 1930s. After Joseph Stalin rose to power, the names of the once honored leaders of the Russian revolution men like Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, and Lev Kamenev were deleted from the history books, their faces destroyed even on historical photographs. Articles written in encyclopedias were removed and new pages were written to replace those the subscribers had to cut out.
But the Soviets were not the only one who engaged in such practices. The British government also undertook its own propaganda as well, in which Orwell was an unintentional participant. From 1939-41, Stalin was portrayed as villain who had sacrificed Poland by signing a non aggression pact with Germanys Adolf Hitler. But on the day Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin was instantly remade into a friend of Britain. In the British Broadcasting corporation (BBC) which stressed the fortitude of the Russian people and the bravery of the red army. Orwell had worked for the BBC at the time Stalin was made a celebrity. Orwells satirical novel Animal Farm which condemned was rejected by publishers. It was only after World War II, when Stalin was no longer an ally, was his book finally published.
In Orwells fictional Oceania, radio broadcasts consists of special announcements of victories and large doses of martial music. This bears a similar resemblance to the successful tactics used by Germanys minister of propaganda under Hitler, joesph Goebbels. Also, Orwells concept of Newspeak, a critical element of degrading the society in 1984, bore a similar resemblance Goebbels’s Sprachregelung (“language manipulation”). In Sprachregelung, for example, Churchill was referred to by officials as “that brandy-sodden alcoholic Winston Churchill,” and Roosevelt “that syphilitic degenerate Roosevelt”. The media’s manipulation of the masses in Nineteen Eighty-Four, then, is drawn not only from Soviet and Nazi propaganda tactics, but also from Orwell’s own experiences as a propagandist in the BBC’s English-language service to India as well.
In 1984, the world is subdivided into three great powers, Oceania(united states), Eurasia(Europe and Russia) and Eastasia (china and south east Asia) . This scenario is the same as the actual political alignment that followed WWII. At a conference in the city of Tehran 1943, Roosevelt, Stalin< Churchill met to discuss postwar occupation and demilitarization of Germany. At this meeting it was decided that a secret Allied assault on German occupied France would take place in 1944. This would cause Germany to fight a war on two fronts both east and west. This was the strategy that would win the war in next 18 months and also allowed the total soviet domination of Eastern Europe. By the time the leaders met again in 1945 at the Yalta conference, Stalin had driven the Nazi forces back and taken control of Eastern Europe.
In 1948, when 1984 had been published, World War II had just ended. One of Englands allies was Russia, ruled by the repressive dictator Joseph Stalin. Stalin had launched an economic system in the Soviet Union where he had forced rapid industrialization of the large rural country. While the Soviet Union and its empire had transformed from an agrarian economy to an industrial powerhouse in a short span of time, millions of people died from hardships and famine that occurred as a result of the severe economic turmoil and party policies.
During the continued repressions in the country under Stalin millions of people who were a threat to the Soviet politics or suspected of being such a threat were executed or exiled to Gulag labor camps in remote areas of Siberia or Central Asia much like how the citizens of 1984 were vaporized. A number of ethnic groups in Russia were forcibly exiled for political reasons.
Orwell seems to have been particularly annoyed with the widespread allegiance to Stalinism. The Communist Party under Stalin, he felt, were movements agreeing to fight for the working classes against capitalism, but in reality concerned only with establishing and perpetuating their own power. The masses were only there to be used for their idealism, their class resentments, and their willingness to work cheap.
Fearful that the Soviets would impose a totalitarian political system on the vast area the soviets occupied, Roosevelt and Churchill pressed Stalin to establish governments through free elections. He conceded but did not allow international supervision of these elections. In the decade following the wars end, a ravaged Europe became the battleground for the two ideologies of communism and capitalism, and nowhere was their inability to agree more evident than in the political division of Berlin. It was also at Yalta where the leaders set up the United Nations to maintain peace and security. But this coalition had little effect in preventing the growing tension between the US and the Soviets as they both tried to become the leading superpower. The ongoing ideological clash between these nations came to be known as the Cold War.
The third great power to emerge after the war was the Peoples Republic of China. Communists captured power from the Nationalists in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China, totalitarianism again appeared in the newly formed communist state although its appearance seems less indicative of communist ideology than a long history of despotic rulers in both Russia and China. Mao and his lieutenants manipulated all organs of information for indoctrination purposes. Political education was accompanied by mass arrests and executions, forced labor, and the liquidation of anticommunist opponents.
Political opponents were rehabilitated rather than eliminated, and often permitted to return to positions of responsibility. The fact that the majority of these events, which are strikingly similar to those recounted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, occurred after the publication of the book is a testament to the novel’s prescience. Other dictators of the time included Benito Mussolini of Italy. These dictators controlled citizens through propaganda and violence. These state of affairs prompted Orwell to create Big Brother, the ultimate totalitarian leader who dominates political, social, and economic activities.
Orwell was also concerned about an important invention that came into place after WWII and would eventually become a dominant force in Western culture: the television. Television first appeared in America in 1939 at the New York Worlds Fair. Its popularity continued to grow and today most households in America owned at least one colour television set. Orwell recognized the potential and the influence it can have of this communication tool which eventually everyone would own. He imagined that the television would broadcast propaganda non stop and eventually allow the broadcaster to spy on the viewers hence the reason for establishing the telescreens in 1984.
Political tragedies, such as this, are published constantly, but 1984 is one of the few that has remained timeless and will always be regarded as not only historical, but also prophetic. The book reminds us of what has gone wrong, what can go wrong, and what will go wrong when government becomes all-powerful. It is because of this political and social insight that 1984 is one of the best books of all time.
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