A Novel Biography of George Orwell
I read Dennis Glover’s The Last Man in Europe. Then I read Orwell's 1984 again. Then I re-read The Last Man in Europe. I appreciated it more the second time. A recent reading of 1984 puts The Last Man in Europe in context. Glover has written a masterpiece. Whilst telling the story of Orwell’s life, he details the experiences that moulded his thoughts and refreshes the messages of 1984.
The Hate speeches come from his experience hearing Oswald Mosley address a political rally. The traitor, Goldstein, is created from something he noted during the Spanish Civil War – “Nin was liquidated although the communists were claiming he had made his way to Berlin, where he was working for his old paymaster, Hitler. Even in death, Nin had to be kept alive as a threat.” (57)
Winston Smith’s apartment with its desk hidden in a nook meant for a bookcase comes from Orwell’s own life; as do some of the assignations with Julia, and the story of the washer woman who cheerily sings cliched pop songs whilst forever hanging nappies on the line.
Orwell’s themes recur throughout.
Orwell challenges us to contemplate how we know something is true. What happens if past records are changed to meet the prevailing view? What happens if all records dealing with dissidents are expunged as if they never existed. What if the written record details events that never took place? He worries that “You could not prove anything existed if the only proof of it lay inside your head.” (10)
Glover gives us an example from the Spanish Civil War.
Two days later in their dugout, he and Bob Smillie listened incredulously as Edwards translated a news report about the fascist attack which appeared in the POUM newspaper La Batalla.
" 'In a great battle that took place on the night of February 10,' Edwards was saying, 'our lines opposite Zaragoza repulsed a major fascist offensive. The famous English contingent of the 29th Division, led by Comrade Robert Edwardo, defended the trenches like lions, using machine guns and bombs to beat off numerous waves of determined fascist stormtroopers backed by cavalry and tanks. If not for the bravery shown by valiant Englishmen, our line may have broken leaving the road to Alcubierre and even Barcelona itself open to the enemy. This glorious victory once again shows the superior power of international working-class solidarity over the conscripted hirelings of Fascism…' It goes on, comrades. Mentions young Bob here – 'son of the famous working-class leader', etc., etc. Even quotes Lenin!"
‘Of course.’ Orwell said, ‘Wouldn’t be publishable without a quote from the big cheese.’
Smillie was laughing. ‘Obviously written by someone back in Barcelona or Madrid.’
‘Or perhaps back in London,’ said Orwell. ‘Pure fantasy. I doubt there’s a single tank between here and Gibraltar. And even if there were, how would the fascists get them up the cliff below our position?’
‘It’s preposterous, I’ll admit,’ said Smillie. ‘But my grandfather will be pleased when he reads about it in the New Leader. “Comrade Smillie, the miners’ leader’s grandson, a hero repulsing fascist tanks on the Aragon front.”’
‘He’ll be right to be proud.’’ Said Orwell. ‘It’s all there in black and white, and who’s to say otherwise? As far as future generations are concerned, Comrade Smillie here will be a hero of the revolution, and when we’re all dead and unable to refute it, our pathetic little skirmish will exist as a great battle on more evidence than history has for Thermopylae and Senlac.’
‘Problem is, of course, that if we ever get beaten, like those chaps did at Malaga, history will record us as traitors. The English Trotsky-fascists who stabbed the revolution in the back. The truth will be whatever Comrade Stalin wants it to be. (49)
We have grown very used to living in a free society where the rule of law prevails, where, in the main, all citizens can expect justice. Orwell ask us to contemplate a society where this is not so.
He had mostly ignored Stalin’s show trials until then, thinking them too absurd to be taken seriously. Yet he now grasped that it was their absurdity that explained their meaning. The accusations and evidence were obviously lies, but they were conducted in such a way that no-one who mattered could gainsay them without forfeiting his life. In the absence of public contradiction this made them incontrovertibly true. (74)
Orwell was thinking about Russia in the first half of the twentieth century and warning us not to let it happen here. But there are frightening parallels today as described in Bill Browder’s book Red Notice: How I became Putin’s No.1 Enemy about the state sanctioned murder of Sergei Magnitsky.
Conforming to the Party’s Beliefs
Orwell invites us to contemplate a society where there is no room for dissidence, where one cannot have views of one’s own, not even thoughts! Surely far-fetched. Well it is until we hear about the restrictions on debate at Sydney University, or read The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (The Atlantic, Sep. 2015), or hear that Professor Ridd has been asked by James Cook University to desist from critical reviews of his colleagues’ scientific papers.
“In the early 1930s, huge billboards appeared in Moscow and Leningrad bearing cryptic slogans such as ‘5-in-4’ and ‘2+2=5’. They were part of a campaign to fulfil the Five-Year Plan in just four years. Like all good advertising slogans, he thought, these ones stuck in the mind. In a way, they were no less silly or illogical than the posters for Bovril which covered half the walls in London. But of course, you wouldn’t be arrested and shot for pointing out that Bovril was a swindle – which you certainly would be for criticising the Five-Year Plan. What worried him was where the slogans like this might lead. When the cells of the Lubyanka awaited even the mildest expression of non-conformity, and the show-trial judges treated the rules of logic with such disdain, how long could it be until the Party said two and two really did make five - or six or seven – and expected people quite literally to believe it?” (81)
Orwell’s fascination with language is expressed in his concept of Newspeak, "the official language of Oceania which had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism." He pondered whether it might be possible to limit thought and therefore dissent by limiting vocabulary. Here Glover describes the conversation as Orwell has supper with H.G. Wells and a few other colleagues.
‘Don’t you think narrowing the vocabulary like that could also narrow thought? Our thoughts, after all, are limited by the words we have to express them. That’s the sort of thing that probably goes on in Russia.’
‘Oh, yes, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. As Ogden says, a good language is a machine for thought. Fewer words can actually sharpen our thinking and give our words more precise meaning.’
‘Less chance for misunderstanding,’ said Wilshin, whose stupidity he was beginning to loathe. ‘Between nations, as Wells says.’
A childish smile broke out over Empson’s face. ‘You know, I once had a foreign student who thought the literal meaning or “out of sight, out of mind” was “invisible, insane”. The fewer words the better, in my view.’
“So how would you put it in Basic English?’
“Simple, really: “not seeable, not thinkable”.
Much more precise. And more poetic, when you consider it.’
‘Iambic,’ said Wilshin.
Inwardly horrified at the comparison, he washed down the last of the pie with lukewarm synthetic coffee. He considered the student’s word, insanity. It seemed the sort of concept Basic English would struggle to get across adequately.
Wilshin seemed to have read his thoughts. ‘Do you think Basic could handle Hamlet?’
While Empson answered, he wondered to himself how the new language might describe someone who was insane: perhaps ‘wrong-thinker’, which could just as easily mean ‘political dissenter’ to someone with bad motives. A first step, perhaps. To criminalising thought altogether.
‘Tell me, Blair,’ Empson asked. ‘Are you familiar with my essay on the benefits of translating Wordsworth into Basic? Improves his meaning in a lot of ways, actually. Helps people today really understand the Romantics, instead of just pretending to. I’ll get you a copy if you like.’
It suddenly occurred to him that, in some important way, insanity actually explained a lot about intellectuals like Empson. (115)
Are all Revolutions doomed?
Orwell had begun to question the efficacy of revolutions.
So this is what the Bolshevik revolution had come to: a boot stamping on all who resist, forever. (57)
It wasn’t the conclusion that others had reached: that all revolutions were a fraud and politics should be shunned. It was that people like him were on the way out. He was already a relic – not because of any physical decline, but because there was no longer any place in the world for those like him, pathetic romantics who believed in the truth and that men should be free to think as they chose. The future, he now understood, belonged to a new generation: to streamlined men with streamlined minds packed with lies, hate and power-worship – the sort of men who had rounded up Nin and Kopp and killed Bob Smillie and were now hunting him and Eileen. (63)
His agitated mind filled with questions. Were all revolutions, all attempts to create a better world, doomed? Were all men ultimately irredeemable, incapable of living up to the hopes idealists had invested in them? Were they all now unworthy of the brave comrades he had left behind, who at that very moment were being squeezed into the shrinking Republican redoubt o face death, but determined to fight on to the end? Could a brotherhood of man really exist in this world? (76)
Orwell groaned inside … How easy it is to justify killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people just by giving them a label! “You’re a reactionary – here’s a bullet. You’re a Jew – here’s a gas oven.” How can we call ourselves socialists and democrats while excusing a bloodbath?’ (149)
Of course, the labeling and the killing did not stop when Orwell published 1984 in 1948. Matt Ridley in his blog on Marxism’s 100 years of hellish failure describes how the killing has continued. “Communism has killed on average a million people a year for a century.” And in today’s politically correct world, those with dissident views are denigrated as “sexist”, or “racist”, or “Islamophobic”, or “climate deniers”.
Seventy years on there is still much work to be done to protect our liberties, and to create and maintain free and prosperous societies. Orwell concluded that, “If there is hope, it lies in the proles.” I think there is a need for intellectual work and political advocacy as well. But Orwell’s concept is interesting. It is as though he sees the proles like seeds, dormant in the ground during a drought, that will retain their essence until the conditions are right again.
They didn’t need Laski or Von Hayek to tell them how to live. They didn’t need books from Gollancz to make them miserable in order to bring the revolution and its day of eternal happiness closer. Their love for each other, the enjoyment they took in life’s simple pleasures, their natural wariness of authority – all the things the revolutionaries had been promising but dressed up in catchwords like brotherhood and equality and democracy – came to them naturally. They pursued happiness the way a flower pushed towards the light, and a miner sought the surface at the end of each shift.
In Wigan he’d seen this as weakness, as a cause of political inertia. If only they could be made conscious, he thought. Only now did he grasp how wrong he had been. Only now did he see what they represented. It was the workers – not the managers or the intellectuals – who carried the true human spirit in their bones. They merely had to survive, just as they were, to pass that spirit on to a better time. If there was hope for the future, here it was. (167)
Have Orwell’s fears have come to pass?
Orwell was determined that his book not be misunderstood. He had once found Animal Farm located in the children’s books section of a bookstore and he did not want 1984 misinterpreted too.
‘My novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labour Party.’ Orwell began, ’but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralised economy is liable, and which have already been realised in communism and fascism. I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasise that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else, and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.’ (274)
Orwell agonized that the ending of his book should have been more positive.
‘I wanted everyone to understand that I believe freedom will eventually win. That man can hold out against anything. That it doesn’t all have to happen again.’
‘I probably shouldn’t have made Winston submit so completely at the very end.’ (277)
Glover leaves us with a final mystery - was the typesetter instructed to remove the "5"?
Almost unconsciously he traced with his finger in the dust on the table:
2 + 2 = (282)
I commend Dennis Glover’s excellent novel. It is a work of great scholarship. It reminds us that Orwell’s warnings about totalitarian government are still relevant today.
‘The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: don’t let it happen. It depends on you.’ (274)