The advances of the web have changed the world. Now we must learn to use it at its best.
Goldstein ("1984") is not simply Snowball/Trotsky. The “doublethink” in his text, prohibited in Oceania, “Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism”, is a type of mental discipline, both desirable for and required of all members of the party, enabling people to believe two contradictory truths simultaneously. And that, of course, is nothing new. We all do it.
The Left never forgave George Orwell – the pseudonym adopted by Eric Blair (1903-50) – for discovering the dark side of Communism in Spain. The Catalan publishing house, Debate, has now published a selection of his correspondence and journals written between 1936 and 1943. They show the lucidity and commitment of a man who was not afraid of making people feel uncomfortable or of being unorthodox. His essays and novels are not only essential to finding our way in the labyrinth of the twentieth century, but also to understanding freedom as “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.
Books such as “1984” or “Animal Farm” predicted the nightmare of the totalitarianism of a Big Brother, whose power goes beyond that of the State, being based on complete dominion over language. Orwell thus becomes one of the great visionaries of History, predicting a tyranny exceeding that of a single party: the power of public opinion where truth is measured by audience ratings.
Orwell never expected to be successful. In fact, he spent most of his life assuming that he would be a failure. Before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 46, he wrote in his notebook: “All through my boyhood I had a profound conviction that … I was wasting my time”. Being both ascetic and frugal by nature, he always managed to choose the worst option for his health and comfort. He lived in rundown and damp houses, where he would lock himself up in frozen rooms to write, smoking all the while despite an acute lung injury, which would eventually lead to his death.
In a way, the author of “Homage to Catalonia” wore his failures as a sort of medal. He would speak proudly of the fact that the sales of his best book – which he believed this to be – had not even reached a thousand copies. Shortly before going to Spain, he wrote a poem in which he said that, had he been born two hundred years earlier, he might have been a happy Anglican vicar, but that he had been born into evil times, and could not therefore escape his curse.
ALWAYS THE NON-CONFORMIST
Orwell was born in 1903 in India, where his father worked as a British civil servant supervising the trade of opium with China. As a solitary, reserved and distant child, he had a somewhat spartan and masochistic nature. Although he made efforts at school, he could not avoid feeling that he was perpetually on the brink of failure.
He spent his time surrounded by books, but he soon discovered that he “was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good”, because “life was more terrible, and I was more wicked, than I had imagined”. In his bitterness he hated his “benefactors” for making him feel so undeserving, but he also hated himself for hating them. In his silence, he learnt to doubt everything, even the ideas of the sceptics who made the most intelligent questions, because they in turn doubted everything…
His behaviour was clearly contradictory, but it was as if he felt at home in contradiction. He declared himself a socialist, but he never stopped arguing against the ideology of the Left. His relentless auto-criticism saved him from any kind of self-complacency. Even though he gained a scholarship to study at Eton, an aristocratic school, he loved to dress up as a tramp, sleep rough and live in homeless shelters.
In 1922 he took up a post as a police officer in Burma, quitting shortly after, disgusted by everything that he had seen. Although he really wanted to be a writer, he worked washing dishes in Paris, despite the offer of support from his aunt. He started teaching in a number of small schools and gave private lessons, even though he hated private education. He worked in a bookshop frequented by elderly gentlemen, when he would have preferred to work selling groceries, saying that “[I]n a grocer’s shop people come in to buy something, in a bookshop they come in to make a nuisance of themselves”.
Orwell was described as a “revolutionary who is in love with 1910” (the period before the Great War), by his friend Cyril Connolly, who believed that, above all, he was a “political animal”, since “he could not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry”.
His revolutionary dreams, however, were thwarted in Spain. He requested to be recommended by the British Communist Party to go to the Civil War, but the General Secretary considered him to be “politically unreliable”. He then tried to enlist with the International Brigades but ended up in Barcelona with the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification), a small Trotskyite party, in the offices of which his wife also eventually worked.
The future of the Republic then seemed promising to him. As he walked down the Ramblas in Barcelona, he was impressed by the egalitarian spirit which reigned in the city, where an authentic worker state seemed to have been established. Sent to the front in Aragón, he was shot through the neck in 1937 and was sent to recover in a POUM clinic near mount Tibidabo. However, when he tried to join the fight in Madrid he suddenly found himself under fire, not from the fascist enemy, but from his allies on the Left. It did not take him long to understand that he was more likely to be hit by a Communist than by a Fascist bullet. Madness reigned in Barcelona in those first days of May.
THE MADNESS OF THE WAR
Orwell had always felt confused by the “kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names (PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT…)”, saying that “it looked at first sight as if Spain were suffering from a plague of initials”. He had come to Spain willing to die in the struggle against fascism, but he now felt that his life was in danger due to an absurd squabble between various left-wing factions.
When, in 1937, POUM was declared illegal and its leaders were arrested, not only was Andreu Nin tortured and murdered, but many of the foreign militants were also imprisoned. Orwell started to think that the government of the Republic had “more points of resemblance to Fascism than points of difference”. He believed that the logical end would be “a regime in which every opposition party and newspaper is suppressed and every dissentient of any importance is in jail.” Not that it would be “the same as the fascism that Franco would impose…but it will still be Fascism. Only, being operated by the Communist and Liberals, it will be called something different”.
In 1989, a British student discovered a document in the National Historical Archive in Madrid in which the security police of the Republic informed the Court of Espionage and High Treason of Valencia of the activities of those “well-known Trotskyites”, Orwell and his wife, ordering their immediate arrest. They managed to save their lives as Eric was not at his hotel on the night that the police entered his room to look for “evidence”. After surviving for a few days on the streets, they managed to escape with a safe-conduct from the British consulate.
When they got back to England, none of their friends on the Left could believe that they had gone through such a nightmarish situation. The publishing houses for which Orwell had previously written refused to publish his articles or his book “Homage to Catalonia”. Any denunciation of this fact in left-wing circles has been hushed up for so long in Spain that it was again up to a British film director with Trotskyite sympathies, Ken Loach, to take this story to the cinema in “Land and Freedom”, provoking strong criticism from communists such as Santiago Carrillo, who accused the film of falsehoods in the daily newspaper El País.
The experience in Spain opened Orwell’s eyes to that dark reality hidden in the inner depths of the human soul. While his “Animal Farm” was a harsh satire on the cynicism giving rise to the so-called democracy of those who believe that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, “1984” shows a world more terrible still, where the Big Brother is more powerful than the likes of Napoleon or Stalin.
Goldstein is not simply Snowball/Trotsky. The “doublethink” in his text, prohibited in Oceania, “Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism”, is a type of mental discipline, both desirable for and required of all members of the party, enabling people to believe two contradictory truths simultaneously. And that, of course, is nothing new. We all do it.
The supreme embodiment of doublethink in the novel is the Inner Party member, O’Brien, who seduces and betrays the protagonist, Winston. He sincerely believes in the regime that he serves, but he is also a devoted revolutionary committed to overthrowing the regime. He believes himself to be a single cell of the wider body of the State, although what really stands out about him is his fascinating contradictory individuality.
This disassociation is brought to light in all its pain and despair in the ironically dubbed Ministry of Love. Such double thinking is in fact the basis of the ministries that govern Oceania: the Ministry of Peace, which is responsible for war; the Ministry of Truth, which tells lies; and the Ministry of Love, which ends up torturing and killing anyone that it considers to be a threat.
These are the paradoxes of the political system present in the majority of our democracies today. Our States proclaim themselves to be the defenders of liberties, when there is increasingly less space for individual freedom. We believe in tolerance, but we are increasingly less tolerant of those who do not accept our ideas of tolerance.
Orwell would appear to be a prophet of doom, when reality has in fact gone beyond his most dismal predictions. There is perhaps no longer any need to heed his fear of people being deprived of information through the prohibition of books, simply because nobody wants to read those books any more. While he feared that the truth would be hidden from us, it is now simply drowned out in an ocean of trivia.
We live in a culture that is held captive, not by pain, but by pleasure. It is not the things that we hate that will ruin us, but precisely the things that we love, which submit us to the tyranny of our relentless appetite for distraction. Thanks to the entertainment provided by the Big Brother, we have ended up loving its oppression, admiring its techniques and denying our own capacity to think.
Orwell’s 1984, shows the dictatorial use of information to control minds, but this tyranny is no longer exercised by a dictator, but by an endless circuit of media controls. We live in the era of the globalization of information, believing that this makes us free, when we are really only more enslaved than ever. Not long ago, on accepting the Principe de Asturias prize, the Jewish intellectual, George Steiner, commented that although the internet places all the knowledge in the world at our finger tips, what we now need is the wisdom to understand it.
True wisdom comes from the knowledge that we gain through true freedom. Jesus says that the truth will set us free (John 8:32). What truth is he talking about? Not the majority opinion of the Big Brother. Truth is not determined by audience ratings. Jesus himself says that He is the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). This is the freedom to which Christians have a claim; in Orwell’s words, “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.