By the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration, George Orwell was at the top of Amazon.com’s best-seller list. Readers had developed a sudden passion for antitotalitarian literature, it seemed—not only for Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four but for Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism as well. And with the surge of interest in Orwell came a sales revival for other works of dystopian fiction, including Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. A fad was born, though as fads go, this one may be healthier than most, if readers pay heed to the words before their eyes.
Dystopian literature is a moral genre, a critique not only of power but, in its most outstanding classics, of progressivism. Without being conservative or right wing, it is often antileft. This is so even though the early canonical authors of the genre—Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell—were men of the left themselves. Who better to show the horror of how enlightened ideals and progressive politics go astray?
That, of course, is not what the anti-Trump book club is looking for. The point of disappointed Democrats’ reaching for Nineteen Eighty-Four is that Orwellian totalitarianism has been reduced to a cliché; it’s now one of the very limited stock of concepts by which political disapproval can be expressed. (Another is the argumentum ad Hitlerum, represented by the vogue for Arendt.) If Donald Trump is powerful and morally objectionable, then he must be like Big Brother, or Hitler, or both. History is only one story, that of good versus evil. To be good is to be enlightened, liberal, progressive, on the side of science, the right side of history.
Classic dystopian literature starts from that very point—in order to debunk it. When Zamyatin and Huxley wrote We (1921) and Brave New World (1931), the triumph of some form of scientific socialism appeared assured, whether it was to be the Leninism of Zamyatin’s Russia or the Fabianism of Huxley’s England. Eugenics or transhumanism; a benign, almighty administrative state; and the satisfaction of all man’s material wants seemed to promise universal human happiness. H.G. Wells had served as a prophet for this vision in much of his work since the turn of the century. Wells’s futurism was an object of satire in We and Brave New World alike. And while Wells intermittently had reservations about eugenics, its integral place in the technocratic left’s design for mankind was attested by no less an authority than Leon Trotsky, who rhapsodized about the coming age of the socialist superman in the closing paragraphs of Literature and Revolution (1923):
Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training. . . .
It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.
Huxley satirized the great progressive aim itself—a human race transformed—rather than the political means necessary to arrive at and maintain the scientific utopia. This was a weakness of Brave New World, Orwell thought. Writing a review of We in 1946, Orwell argued that “Zamyatin’s book is on the whole more relevant to our own situation.” It was more frankly political: Zamyatin had fallen afoul of Soviet authorities, was denied permission to publish We, and died in exile in Paris in 1937. Yet Orwell saw that We addressed more than its author’s experience of the Soviet Union: “What Zamyatin seems to be aiming at is not any particular country but the implied aims of industrial civilization. It is in effect a study of the Machine, the genie that man has thoughtlessly let out of its bottle and cannot put back again.” Orwell believed “Brave New World must be partly derived” from We: “Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence.” (Huxley insisted in letters that he had not in fact read We when he wrote Brave New World.)
Orwell himself borrowed certain concepts and themes from We for Nineteen Eighty-Four. The denizens of Zamya tin’s dystopia, Orwell noted in his review, “lived in glass houses, which enables the political police, known as the ‘Guardians,’ to supervise them more easily.” The parallel to the “telescreen,” by which the Thought Police of Orwell’s novel monitor their suspects, is plain. So is the parallel of both fictional surveillance systems to the “panopticon” proposed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century, a prison designed to allow inmates to be watched at all times—and another totalitarian concept with an impeccable scientific, progressive, and well-intentioned pedigree.
More important than the technological conceit Orwell adapted from Zamyatin (and Bentham), however, was a theme from We that would become central to Nineteen Eighty-Four: the drive of the totalitarian state to destroy the deepest human loyalties and its success in turning the protagonist against the woman he loves. The family and truly intimate commitments between a man and a woman are, in fact, thoroughly inimical to the ethos of the state in all three stories, though in Brave New World no defiance comparable to Julia’s and Winston’s in Nineteen Eighty-Four has a chance to arise.
Zamyatin had been a Bolshevik. Huxley was a pacifist and—as a devotee of Eastern mysticism and evangelist of psychedelic drugs—something of a prototype for the hippies who emerged later in the decade in which he died. (Another death on November 22, 1963, overshadowed Huxley’s.) Orwell was a democratic socialist. All of them, however, recognized that there was no place for humanity in an idealized progressive politics pursued with scientific rigor. A thoroughly rationalistic approach to maximizing human prosperity and equality only led to the annihilation of all culture, personality, and love. It required the creation of a police state.
Orwell, Huxley, and Zamyatin wrote these works as left-wing critics of the left. And while totalitarianism on the model of any of the states in their novels still seems far off—if it’s imaginable at all after the fall of the Soviet Union—the latter-day left has something in common with what Orwell and Huxley, in particular, warned about. Readers who turn to their works in search of parallels to Trump and the American right are missing the point. They would be more politically savvy, as well as better readers, if they understood how Orwell’s and Huxley’s dystopias reveal an ugliness in the progressive project that many Trump voters perceived as well.
By now, much of that ugliness has come to be embedded in our habits and institutions. And while progressives were the most systematic and avant-garde of the thinkers who envisioned a scientifically rationalized society, the cult of business efficiency and Whiz Kid leadership in industry and government has often presented itself as ideologically neutral—or even, at times, right wing. The doctrine of the state in Huxley’s novel is “Fordism,” and Henry Ford himself was hardly a man of the left. But Huxley’s characters have names drawn from leading socialists and progressives of the time—Lenin, George Bernard Shaw—for a reason. Orwell, too, presented totalitarian technocracy as something more than merely a socialist creed. The ideology of Big Brother is Ingsoc—English socialism—but the state itself would look much the same if its doctrines wore some other label. The scientific practices and progressive aims of the dystopia are its essence, no matter what rhetorical guise they wear.
Orwell drew part of his inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four from the work of James Burnham, the former Trotskyist and future National Review senior editor who described the newly emerging model of the state, economy, and society as the “managerial revolution.” Not only the Soviet Union but Nazi Germany and imperial Japan were products of this revolution, which replaced capitalism with novel forms of scientific industrial management and political control. The division of the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four into Eurasia, Eastasia, and Oceania closely tracks Burnham’s 1941 prediction that there would arise great managerial superstates in Europe, the Far East, and North America, none of which would be able to conquer the others. Thus in Orwell’s tale, the three are continually at war in one configuration or another. The book that Big Brother’s heretical foe Emmanuel Goldstein is said to have written, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, bears a certain resemblance to Burnham’s Managerial Revolution and his 1943 follow-up, The Machiavellians.
For Burnham, the world’s emerging order was not the product of freely chosen beliefs; it was the result of changes in the nature of property (formerly private in a meaningful sense; now effectively controlled by managers in business and government) and the logic of how a new ruling class takes and holds onto power. The progressive and rationalistic features of the new regime were part of the process itself, not just ideological trappings. Orwell did not accept most of Burnham’s ideas—he thought his predictions about the course of World War II, for example, were dead wrong—but he did adopt something of Burnham’s big picture. The evil confronting Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four was more general than Ingsoc or Soviet-style communism. It was the unchecked attempt to rationalize modern industrial society.
The Soviet experiment in scientific progressivism ended almost three decades ago, and its claims to being either scientific or progressive (whether morally or materially) were discredited long before then. Nothing like a communist state is about to take root anywhere in the West. But the style of politics of which Soviet communism was one expression is still very much with us. And if it no longer poses the threat of leading to a totalitarian state, that does not mean it poses no danger at all. Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and We are about the loss of all it is to be human, and they dramatize that loss through the most extreme scenarios. Conditions in the West today are nowhere near as extreme, but the lessons of these dystopian classics still apply.
There are, of course, the many details that these authors got right as they looked to a dehumanized future. Ralph Berry has written eloquently in these pages about Huxley’s record. The similarity, for example, between the social function of the drug “soma” in Brave New World and the usage of prescription and recreational psychopharmaceuticals in the U.S. today is striking. Orwell, too, supplied us with brilliantly apt metaphors for pathologies of our time. “Doublethink” and “Newspeak” are readily recognized in the political correctness of our academy and media. The national-security state of our liberal democracy (as enlightened minds now style it) wages perpetual war and aspires to intercept the communications of every man, woman, and child on the planet. We have had more than a taste of Nineteen Eighty-Four even without Ingsoc and Big Brother.
What is worse, we have done these things to ourselves. Progressive ideology and the administrative state have tempted, cajoled, and outright coerced Americans into submitting to behavioral correction in many respects. Yet much of the 21st century’s dystopian assault on the human spirit has come from the choices that individuals freely make. No one is forced to buy a “smart” television that observes its viewers or an Amazon Echo, which responds to voice commands by listening to every word you say. Consumers instead surrender their privacy for the sake of convenience, much as travelers surrender their dignity for the sake of security—or an illusion thereof—as they consent to be stripped down by millimeter-wave scanners and groped by TSA officials. In the dystopias of Zamya tin, Huxley, and Orwell, all-powerful states employed overwhelming coercion to transform human nature. In the United States today, human nature is what makes our dehumanization possible: When the higher self is deprived of the habits and social contexts on which it depends, the lower self subsumes it. Utopian leftists in the past sought to destroy the old ways of society in order to build a perfect new order: They gladly used violence to achieve the first step, though no amount of force proved sufficient to realize the ultimate goal. Today the progressive, technocratic spirit wields force only sparingly: It is enough to weaken old institutions and habits, rather than destroy them, and then let human weakness forge its own chains. The patient will seek help willingly.
This is where Orwell, Huxley, and Zamyatin fall short. They resisted the rationalization of life in their time, but as men of the left, they were not inclined to affirm all the traditional loyalties that have fortified the human spirit against the march of the machine. Their dystopias, therefore, have no exit. But their diagnosis of what scientific progressivism can do to the soul of man is invaluable—and this is so even if what we confront today is not naked totalitarianism but the incremental loss of humanity. Their books should be read for the difficulties they raise and criticisms they level. But for answers, if any are to be found, one must look elsewhere.