The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of
George Orwell’s 1984
by Dorian Lynskey
368 pp., $28.95
Few works in literature are as terrifying as 1984, that look into the future written by George Orwell and published in 1949. British scholar Dorian Lynskey unravels the novel’s themes, inspirations, and intentions in his latest book.
Since its publication, 1984 has been the subject of endless debate. It was first embraced by the political right in the West and considered a renunciation of socialism by Orwell. The political left in both the West and the Soviet Union viewed 1984 the same way, denouncing the book as reactionary. But, as Lynskey writes, the left would eventually claim 1984 as its own.
Orwell’s main target was Stalinist Communism. He was influenced by his experience in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, when Republican forces were infiltrated by Soviet agents. Their discovery created a civil war within the Civil War. Orwell was, for his remaining years, bitter toward Stalin’s henchmen.
But it is important to remember that Orwell was not denouncing socialism itself, either in 1984 or in his earlier work Animal Farm. Orwell remained an admirer of socialism as an idea. On the other hand, Orwell was not fond of the Labour government that came to power in Great Britain after the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, and thought Labour leader Clement Attlee was not up to the job of prime minister.
Moreover, though Orwell was by no means a supporter of Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party, Lynskey writes that the great author did harbor a fondness for Churchill himself, as shown in the choice of his protagonist’s name, Winston Smith. Orwell had also made positive reference to Churchill in an earlier autobiographical book, Down and Out in Paris and London, written in 1933 and long before Churchill was a commanding international presence.
Orwell implied in 1984 that he had ceased to embrace socialism. His experience in Spain left Orwell convinced that it was impossible for socialism to take root absent a Soviet style domination. The novel’s Big Brother was a Stalin-like figure. Yet, Orwell hardly intended 1984 as mere Cold War propaganda. As Lynskey notes, Orwell was very much influenced by the spectacle of the Tehran Conference in 1943, attended by FDR, Churchill, and Stalin. It was this gathering which inspired 1984’s vision of superstates replacing nationhood: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia.
Oceania represented the West and encompassed Winston Smith’s home in London located in “Airstrip One”—the bland, belittling term Big Brother used to replace the name of Britain.
In making his Western superstate totalitarian, Orwell indicated 1984’s target was not only Stalin and the Soviet East. It was intended by its author as a warning, one that implored the reader to realize that Western democracies were not immune to the threat of totalitarianism.
Another hint that Orwell’s attention was directed toward the West was in his description of the regime’s organs of power. The Ministry of Truth, responsible for producing disinformation and propaganda, is the protagonist Winston Smith’s place of employment, and Lynskey writes that Orwell’s description of this office was inspired by his years writing for the BBC during World War II.
An understanding of 1984 is not possible without considering Animal Farm. Written by Orwell during World War II, Animal Farm is an obvious parable for the Bolshevik Revolution. Lynskey notes that Orwell had a difficult time securing a publisher for Animal Farm. Western publishers feared offending the U.S. and Great Britain’s Soviet allies during the war.
Indeed, it was the breakup of the Allied powers which was the basis of Orwell’s presentation of the relationship between the three superstates in the novel. Winston is troubled how the regime is first at war with Eurasia, then allied with Eurasia against Eastasia, and the warring relationship flips again before the novel’s end. The sadistic commissar O’Brien insists that Oceania was always at war with Eastasia. These sudden shifts in alliances are intended as a reflection of how the West, once allied with the Soviet Union, would evolve as a force to keep the red menace in check. That regions in real life could pick and choose allies and adversaries with no regard to prior history had an undeniable influence on Orwell’s fiction.
Aside from implying that 1984 was an embrace of Great Britain’s post-war Labour government, Lynskey’s most glaring error is a comment on Animal Farm. Whereas the aggressive pig Napoleon is a caricature of Stalin and the passive pig Snowball represents Trotsky, Lynskey errs when stating there is no figure in Animal Farm for Lenin. Indeed, the elder pig Major, who dies before the revolution on the farm, is an obvious representation of Lenin.
It is fair to say 1984 is a sign of Orwell’s political maturation since writing Animal Farm. While Animal Farm’s Snowball implies the spurious notion of Trotsky as a benign socialist, the Trotsky-like enemy of Big Brother, Goldstein, is a less sympathetic figure in 1984. Hardly a pacifist, Trotsky was a brutal communist whose appetite for genocide, as displayed when putting down the anarchists in the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921, was comparable to that of Stalin.
Lynskey’s book does not answer all the questions surrounding 1984, but it is a worthy contribution to the study of Orwell in both political and literary terms. Orwell understood the fine line between a nation and a regime, and his novel remains a warning against the extent to which a government will go to grasp and retain power. It is this lesson which prevails in 1984 and triumphs over the use of politically convenient debates which have followed in the novel’s wake.