By Rainer Shea
Whenever I criticize George Orwell for the persistent anti-communism of his writings, someone defends him by claiming that his aim with 1984 and Animal Farm was not to attack socialism but to attack “totalitarianism.” Putting aside the fact that Orwell’s aim with these works was explicitly to caricature the USSR, and that most of these defenders of his are likely to agree with the false view of the USSR as “totalitarian,” could his defenders have a point? Could these works, in spite of their biased messages about history, ultimately be rightful warnings about the potential for revolutions to turn into tyrannies?
After all, it’s true that many revolutions have resulted in despotic new governments, such as the ones that came after the French Revolution or the Algerian independence movement. But in these and other cases, the defining characteristic in the oppressiveness of the new systems has been bourgeois subjugation of the lower classes, and the trait they have in common is that socialists haven’t been able to shape them. In the cases of the revolutions in Russia, China, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, and Venezuela, wherein socialists have been the defining presence, democracy was implemented after the triumph of socialism, and it persists within the Marxist-Leninist countries that are still in existence.
Then why did Orwell so specifically base his caricatures of dictators off of communists? Why were Napoleon and Big Brother meant to be portrayals of Stalin? Why were the themes and histories of the despotic regimes in Animal Farm and 1984 made to parallel the Russian revolution? Why did Orwell make an ideology that’s grounded in class liberation and proletarian democracy-and that was doing a good job of fulfilling these goals in Russia at the time-into an avatar for dictatorship and oppression?
The answer seems obvious: because Orwell didn’t view the USSR as a workers’ democracy, he viewed it as a totalitarian state. But the reason why Orwell had a vendetta against communism-and why so many of the modern people who like his work are also hostile towards communism-stems from something deeper than mere confusion about historical details. It comes from a fundamentally paranoid and irrational view of socialists, and ultimately from a reactionary view about class dynamics.
The reactionary message of 1984
To understand the psychology behind Orwell’s hatred of communism, and behind the reactionary nature of how he wrote 1984, we can look to the storyline of Animal Farm. In Orwell’s fable, the animals on a farm overthrow their human oppressors, which are supposed to represent the bourgeoisie. As time goes on though, the pigs, who are the cleverest of the animals, give themselves more and more power and privileges, restoring the old tyranny. The pig Napoleon becomes the farm’s new dictator, more brutal than the last.
As Jodi Brar of the Stalin Society writes about the reactionary logic of this story:
Marxism is presented [by Animal Farm] as a theory of naive idealism, which in practice leads to cynical tyranny. The main tenet of Animal Farm, though, seems to be that humans are no better than animals; that ‘human nature’ decides all. Some people are born to rule and others to be taken advantage of; all efforts to change the system will only lead to something worse, so we should be grateful for what we have. Unfortunately for Orwell, there is a blindingly obvious flaw in the plan. He uses different species to represent the different classes, but while it may be true that some animals are cleverer, quicker, stronger than others, and naturally inclined to prey on those that are weaker, the class structure of our society is a reflection of no such natural difference. Mankind is one species. Any attempt to justify the class divisions of society by saying that the ruling class rule because they are more intelligent and better suited to it, whilst the poor are simply stupid or lazy, is the worst kind of reactionary garbage, worthy of any Nazi.
Orwell didn’t consciously view the poor as innately more susceptible to manipulation and subjugation. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he recounts an encounter with a worn-out peasant woman which made him think: “we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums.” Yet he reconciled this knowledge of the innate humanity and intelligence of the poor with a political narrative that consistently portrays the poor as hapless dupes who are endlessly manipulated by more competent oppressors.
It’s true that under capitalism, the lower classes can often be tricked by the propaganda of the bourgeoisie. But Orwell delegitimizes the answer to this problem, which is proletarian revolution, by portraying communist leaders as cynical opportunists who only seek to impose a new oppressive system.It’s true that under capitalism, the lower classes can often be tricked by the propaganda of the bourgeoisie. But Orwell delegitimizes the answer to this problem, which is proletarian revolution, by portraying communist leaders as cynical opportunists who only seek to impose a new oppressive system.
This is apparent even within that very same book The Road to Wigan Pier, where he voices his suspicions about how all of the influential and educated socialists in Britain are motivated not by love for the poor but by hatred for the rich. This sentiment of his isn’t groundless, because there are indeed many self-identified socialists throughout the Middle Class sections of the First World who are detached from the experiences of the world’s poor and oppressed people. But Orwell wasn’t trying to critique this kind of Western chauvinism; in his paranoid personal list of suspected communists, some of the main people he mentioned were anti-colonialists, showing that he was undoubtedly a Western chauvinist himself.
In these passages from Wigan Pier he was affirming his perception that communists, whether in Britain or Russia or China, are concealing sinister motives. Amid his negative experiences with communists during the Spanish civil war, as well as his unfamiliarity with both Marxist-Leninist theory and Russian society, communism naturally became the main target of his ire, a nebulous force for evil that he wasn’t interested in gaining a better understanding of.
It’s with these insights into the worldview of the man known non-pseudonymously as Eric Blair that we can analyze the anti-communist messages of 1984. Throughout the novel, the protagonist Winston Smith navigates a society where life is dirty and gloomy for everyone except the high-level members of “The Party,” people are bombarded with constant propaganda that encourages them to worship a godlike mustached figure named Big Brother, and Party “comrades” are constantly surveilled and policed by a seemingly invincible state. Orwell may have claimed that the novel was “Not intended as an attack on socialism,” but everything about the language, themes, and stated core philosophy of the story was an obvious satire of communism [as constantly depicted in Western propaganda.—Ed].
Rather than using 1984 to condemn the racism and corporatism of the Third Reich, which would have made his commentary much more grounded in reality, Orwell portrayed his fictional regime as post-racial and zealously opposed to capitalism. The Party is described as not making any racial distinctions in the types of people it promotes to prominent positions, and thought-criminals are accused of being lovers of capitalism during their interrogations.
In perhaps the novel’s most blatantly negative portrayal of socialist teachings, the Party’s history books paint a dark and miserable picture of the era of capitalism. This is tellingly the only historical analysis of capitalism that exists throughout the novel, with the imaginary nightmare of “English Socialism” being the only system that’s actually critiqued.
When Orwell explains the agenda of the Party in a passage from a revelatory political analysis that Winston at one point reads, he hints that 1984 is a depiction of how Orwell perceived Marxism-Leninism specifically. This analysis, which was written by The Party itself to give a false sense of security to dissidents like Winston, explains that:
What kind of people would control this world had been equally obvious. The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians. These people, whose origins lay in the salaried middle class and the upper grades of the working class, had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government. As compared with their opposite numbers in past ages, they were less avaricious, less tempted by luxury, hungrier for pure power, and, above all, more conscious of what they were doing and more intent on crushing opposition.
This description of which class of people created the totalitarian world of 1984 was a deeply cynical and paranoid depiction of the revolutionary strategy of Leninism. Marxism-Leninism calls for the creation of a vanguard, made up of the most educated and qualified members of the proletariat, so as to lead the lower classes towards overthrowing the bourgeoisie. There’s nothing incorrect or sinister about this reasoning; it’s only an acknowledgement that to carry out a revolution, you’ll need competent people at the helm. As Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution: “The overthrow of bourgeois rule can be accomplished only by the proletariat, the particular class whose economic conditions of existence prepare it for this task and provide it with the possibility and the power to perform it.”
In Orwell’s mind, though, the logical conclusion of this revolutionary strategy is a world of total oppression, both in the places controlled by English Socialism and in the territories ruled by what the novel calls “Neo-Bolshevism” and “Death Worship” (the latter of which was apparently Orwell’s name for Chinese communism). While Marxism-Leninism isn’t mentioned in 1984 by name, Orwell clarifies just how negatively he views it by claiming at another point in his analysis: “no advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimetre nearer.” The establishment of the Soviet Union’s workers’ democracy, and the creation of similar socialist systems in China and Korea during the time when he was writing 1984, meant nothing to him. In his view, the egalitarian promises and achievements of communism were one big lie.
How Orwell’s message has served the ruling class
1984’s characterization of Marxism-Leninism is reactionary not just because it distorts the reality of what Marxism-Leninism has actually done, but because it attempts to discredit the very idea of class struggle. If all attempts at overthrowing capitalism will end in tyranny, 1984’s less informed readers are led to wonder, why support the idea of revolutionary change at all?
It was for this reason that publisher Fredric Warburg remarked that 1984 was “worth a cool million votes to the Conservative Party.” It’s no wonder why the novel has since been compulsory reading for students throughout the capitalist world; it presents a political analysis that seemingly encourages rebellion, but that’s more likely than not to turn a person against communism. Or, at the very least, to turn them into one of the self-identified “socialists” who vilify the USSR and other socialist countries.
With the rise of Donald Trump, 1984 has become perhaps more widely read than ever as people look to fiction for answers to the alarming questions which haunt our world: will democracy survive? How far will mass surveillance go? How can governments get away with telling increasingly outrageous lies? Sadly, this hyperbolic piece of Cold War propaganda is the Western world’s standard frame of reference for thinking about dystopian scenarios, so it’s what the capitalist machine has churned out. And as the new cold war between the U.S./NATO empire and the Chinese alliance develops, imperialist propagandists are using 1984 to distort how people view the world.
It’s become standard among columnists in the bourgeois media to equate modern China to the regime from 1984. Sensationalistic mischaracterizations of China’s social credit system, baseless claims about China interning millions of Muslims, and manufactured atrocity stories like the one about “Chinese organ harvesting” plague Western headlines, all designed to manufacture consent for imperialist operations like the fascist U.S.-backed Hong Kong protests. Throughout this propaganda campaign, the power of Orwell’s manipulative appeal to reactionary thinking is being applied to the fullest extent; for just one example, a Washington Post headline from this November reads in reference to 1984’s first line: “Across China, the clocks are striking thirteen. The people of Hong Kong hear it.”
Orwell painted a picture of a world where those who oppose imperialism and capitalist exploitation have no hope, because the people leading the only viable alternative to capitalism are tricksters who will misuse their power. Many anti-capitalists who share Orwell’s anti-communist attitude have convinced themselves that anarchism or social democracy will overcome bourgeois power instead, but these ideologies represent liberal illusions about what a revolution will take. China and the other socialist states have proven that communism can indeed greatly improve people’s living standards while nurturing healthy democracies, but the followers of Orwell’s school of thought are unwilling to see this.
The message of both 1984 and Animal Farm is a misanthropic one, where humanity is portrayed as incapable of conquering systems of injustice and oppression. I don’t accept this view of humanity, because I’ve seen how revolutionaries like Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, Castro, and Ho Chi Minh have fought for a more just world with sincerity and follow-through. And I see that communists like them have the potential to further improve the world in the coming decades. So I’m leaving behind Orwell’s backwards perception of humanity and embracing reality.
If you appreciate my work, I hope you become a one-time or regular donor to my Patreon account. Like most of us, I’m feeling the economic pinch during late-stage capitalism, and I need money to keep fighting for a new system that works for all of us. Go to my Patreon here:
^5000The mainstream imperialist media lie CONSTANTLY. Literally 24/7. And it's getting worse.
All of them do it: radio, tv, the newspapers, the movies. The internet. No exceptions.
The corporate Big Lie is pervasive and totalitarian. CBS does it. NBC does it. ABC does it.
CNN does it. FOX does it. NPR does it. And of course the NYTimes and WaPo do it.
Thousands of "diverse" voices telling you the same lies. Enough to convince anyone.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License