George Orwell’s 1984: the Author’s Politics

From incisive essays to allegorical novels like Animal Farm to Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell lays out his vision for how societies should be run, and what they would turn out like if the status quo was to be maintained.

In his criticism of F.A Hayek’s argument for capitalism, “The Road to Serfdom”, Orwell writes:

“The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led… the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment…”

Orwell makes clear his own political views in his famous essay “Why I write” (1946)

“The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”

But what is socialism, and how does it differ from communism, which it is so often confused with? To get a sharper idea of Orwell’s political views and the context of 1984, let’s examine the differences between key political movements emerging in the early 20th century, namely socialism, communism and Bolshevism.

SOCIALISM refers to a kind of society in which resources (such as property, manufacturers, educational institutions, hospitals) are not privately owned. They are owned and regulated by a central government. In a socialist state, there would be some differences in wealth, but people would be more or less equal. This was Orwell’s preferred system. As he writes in his 1941 essay Shopkeepers at War, socialism involves the ‘common ownership of the means of production’ but should not be limited to this. Socialism that is truly beneficial for society must also entail ‘the approximate equality of incomes, (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education.’

Australia and England are countries with socialist elements: resources such as basic healthcare are accessible free of charge to all citizens. But other resources like education, which Orwell believed was vital to a healthy society, remains a very unequal playing field. Issues of inequality are even more pronounced in England, where elite private schools still cost a fortune and from which a large percentage of judges and politicians graduate. These elite schools perpetuate the concentration of wealth and power in one small group of people. You can read more about elitism in England in the Guardian here.

COMMUNISM is also underpinned by the principle of equality, but is much more Utopian. Karl Marx envisioned a communist society run by its own citizens, (rather than a central government), who would produce as much goods and services as they needed. Marx fancied that people would be responsible and disciplined enough to govern themselves. While the communist revolutions of Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong sprung from Marxist thought, they acquired characteristics which were distortions of Marx’s vision. Government in China and the Soviet Union did not become smaller after these revolutions, but exercised greater power than ever over citizens. A combination of greed, paranoia and general incompetence on the governments’ part resulted in famines and purges.

1956-orwell-1984-metropolis

A shot from the 1956 film adaptation of Orwell’s 1984. Directed by Michael Anderson. Screenplay by William Templeton

BOLSHEVISM is specifically the Russian (or the Soviet Union, as it existed in 1922-1991) version of Communism. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the fall of the Russian monarch, the Tsar, Vladimir Lenin’s party seized control of Russia. Bolsheviks like Lenin believed that society after capitalism should not be run by citizens themselves, (as Marx did), but by a group of well- educated men. Lenin also believed that governments in the post-capitalist state needed to do everything within its power to maintain control. This paved the way for the purges, arbitrary arrests, and executions of citizens that characterised Stalin’s Russia.


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