A decade of political chaos shaped George Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian future, writes David Aaronovitch.

I was brought up in a house full of books, none of them by George Orwell.

Simone de Beauvoir was there, as was Sartre and Aldous Huxley and even Lenin. The last is actually a clue as to the absence of the first.

My parents were Communists. To them Orwell was on the other side of politics – someone whose principal writings were hostile to them and what they wanted to achieve.

This suspicious animosity had lasted beyond the death of Orwell and the demise of Stalin, and into the period when British Communists, by and large, now held the same view of the Soviet Union under Uncle Joe that Orwell had held and that had motivated him to write both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Their problem was, I now think, made acute by the way in which these two great books – and Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular – had become major weapons in the ideological war between left and right.

This use of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and its contradiction to Orwell’s own long-stated support for some kind of socialism, needed explaining.

How had it come about that the targets in Nineteen Eighty-Four were English socialists and their nightmare totalitarian state? After all, Orwell was in charge of naming his own inventions and could have easily decided on names and characteristics that were friendlier to the political tendencies that he claimed to favour.

For years the question of Orwell’s intentions in Nineteen Eighty-Four has caused great debate.

With a few exceptions on the far left, every political tendency has wanted to claim him. So there has been a well-established and heartfelt desire on the more moderate left to claim that Orwell was indeed a genuine socialist whose warning was aimed at totalitarianism in general, not at the left per se.

The right, of course, have had the easier task of suggesting that Orwell was writing about what he appeared to be writing about. It seems to me that the right probably has the better argument.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949, but Orwell was first set on the road to it at least 12 years earlier when he was fighting Franco’s insurgents in Spain as a member of a left-wing, but non-Stalinist militia, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM).

Orwell had gone to Spain to fight Francoist fascism, but found himself face-to-face with another form of totalitarianism. The pro-Stalin communist forces in Spain turned on the POUM, branding them Trotskyist traitors.

Back home no one wanted to know about his experiences. Even non-communist left-wingers, including the publisher Victor Gollancz and the New Statesman editor Kingsley Martin, were reluctant to publish his accounts of what had happened, for fear of harming the overall cause of anti-fascism.

Orwell’s experiences were shaped by fighting in the Spanish civil war

Orwell’s opposition to totalitarianism, of left and right alike, was toughened up by his association with the novelist Arthur Koestler, a communist who had been imprisoned under threat of execution by the fascists in Spain.

Koestler later escaped to England where he published his novel, Darkness at Noon, in 1940.

This bleak story of an old Bolshevik who confesses to crimes he has not committed and is shot by the Soviet authorities, was to have a profound influence on Orwell.

His many book reviews also reveal much about his political influences, but one name, James Burnham, stands out.

An ex-communist, Burnham’s 1941 book, The Managerial Revolution, filled Orwell with both horror and fascination.

In the book, he found two of the crucial elements of his novel: a world ruled by three super-states, and the idea that the overlords of the future would not be demagogues or democrats, but managers and bureaucrats.

Two events were to bring Burnham’s dark prophecy to some kind of fruition. First, in 1943, at the Tehran Conference, Marshal Stalin, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met to discuss the world after the war.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war

Orwell saw the beginnings of a Burnham-style carve-up of the globe into superpowers and told friends that this was what initially set him going on the novel.

Less than two years later, the Americans dropped atom bombs on Japan. In an essay for Tribune magazine called You and the Atomic Bomb, Orwell argued that the A-Bomb threatened to bring into being Burnham’s world of super states governed by totalitarian hierarchies of managers.

It’s often missed that Nineteen Eighty-Four is set a few decades after an atomic war. The managers administering the book’s three super states, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, have tacitly agreed not to try to destroy each other but to continue forever in a kind of cold war.

Indeed, it was Orwell who coined the phrase “cold war” in that 1945 essay.

In his view of things, totalitarianism was not merely a theoretical threat from a fictional future. The urgency of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and of much of Orwell’s wartime and post-war writing, springs clearly from his sense that totalitarianism was already proving dangerously attractive to many on the left, not least intellectuals..

But what I think we can see is that, with fascist totalitarianism utterly defeated in WWII, Orwell found himself one of the relatively few people prepared to agitate against the left-totalitarianism of our erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union.

When Animal Farm was published, and when Nineteen Eighty-Four was being conceptualised and then written, Orwell’s overwhelming preoccupation was to warn against Stalinism and its onward march.

We may speculate what Orwell might have thought had he lived to see Stalin dead, Joe McCarthy in his pomp, to have witnessed the Khrushchev speech denouncing Stalin to the 20th Party Congress in 1956, decolonisation, or a succession of Conservative governments led by men like Eden, whom Orwell appeared to despise.

Perhaps a new book would have been written to give succour to the real socialists of the world.

And maybe my parents would have allowed that one on to their shelves, somewhere between Alex Comfort and Virginia Woolf.

More about the book

  • Novel published in 1949
  • Tells story of Winston Smith, a low-level bureaucrat living in Airstrip One (Britain) in 1984, under totalitarian rule of the Party and its emblem, Big Brother
  • Recounts his intellectual rebellion against his masters, an illicit romance and his consequent betrayal, interrogation, and torture in Room 101
  • “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” (O’Brien, Smith’s interrogator)