Dorian Lynskey, The Ministry of Truth:
The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984
George Orwell’s name, like that of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka, has given rise to an adjective. “Orwellian” connotes official deception, secret surveillance, misleading terminology, and the manipulation of history. Several terms used in Orwell’s best known novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, have entered into common usage, including “doublethink,” “thought crime,” “newspeak,” “memory hole,” and “Big Brother.” First published in June 1949, a little over a half year prior to Orwell’s death in January 1950, Nineteen Eighty Four is consistently described as a “dystopian” novel – a genre of fiction which, according to Merriam-Webster, pictures “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives.”
This definition fits neatly the world that Orwell depicted in Nineteen Eighty Four, a world divided between three inter-continental super states perpetually at war, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, with Britain reduced to a province of Oceania bearing the sardonic name “Airstrip One.” Airstrip One is ruled by The Party under the ideology Insoc, a shortening of “English socialism.” The Party’s leader, Big Brother, is the object of an intense cult of personality — even though there is no hard proof he actually exists. Surveillance through two-way telescreens and propaganda are omnipresent. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a diligent lower-level Party member who works at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites historical records to conform to the state’s ever-changing version of history. Smith enters into a forbidden relationship with his co-worker, Julia, a relationship that terminates in mutual betrayal.
In his intriguing study, The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, British journalist and music critic Dorian Lynskey seeks to explain what Nineteen Eighty-Four “actually is, how it came to be written, and how it has shaped the world, in its author’s absence, over the past seventy years” (p.xiv). Although there are biographies of Orwell and academic studies of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s intellectual context, Lynskey contends that his is the first to “merge the two streams into one narrative, while also exploring the book’s afterlife” (p.xv; I reviewed Thomas Ricks’ book on Orwell and Winston Churchill here in November 2017). Lynskey’s work is organized in a “Before/After” format. Part One, about 2/3 of the book, looks at the works and thinkers who influenced Orwell and his novel, juxtaposed with basic Orwell biographical background. Part II, roughly the last third, examines the novel’s afterlife.
But Lynskey begins in a surprising place, Washington, D.C., in January 2017, where a spokesman for President Donald Trump told the White House press corps that the recently-elected president had taken his oath of office before the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.” A presidential adviser subsequently justified this “preposterous lie” by characterizing the statement as “alternative facts” (p.xiii). Sales of Orwell’s book shot up immediately thereafter. The incident constitutes a reminder, Lynskey contends, of the “painful lessons that the world appears to have unlearned since Orwell’s lifetime, especially those concerning the fragility of truth in the face of power” (p.xix).
How Orwell came to see the consequences of mutilating truth and gave them expression in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the focus of Part I. Orwell’s brief participation in the Spanish Civil War, from December 1936 through mid-1937, was paramount among his personal experiences in shaping the novel’s worldview. Spain was the “great rupture in his life; his zero hour” (p.4), the experience that lead Orwell to the conclusion that Soviet communism was as antithetical as fascism and Nazism to the values he held dear (Lynskey’s list of Orwell’s values: “honesty, decency, fairness, memory, history, clarity, privacy, common sense, sanity, England, and love” (p.xv)). While no single work provided an intellectual foundation for Nineteen Eighty Four in the way that the Spanish Civil War provided the personal and practical foundation, Lynskey discusses numerous writers whose works contributed to the worldview on display in Orwell’s novel.
Lynskey dives deeply into the novels and writings of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamytin. Orwell’s friend Arthur Koestler set out what Lynskey terms the “mental landscape” for Nineteen Eighty-Four in his 1940 classic Darkness at Noon, while the American conservative James Burnham provided the novel’s “geo-political superstructure” (p.126). Lynskey discusses a host of other writers whose works in one way or another contributed to Nineteen Eighty-Four’s world view, among them Jack London, Aldous Huxley, Friedrich Hayek, and the late 17th and early 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift.
In Part II, Lynskey treats some of the dystopian novels and novelists that have appeared since Nineteen Eighty-Four. He provides surprising detail on David Bowie, who alluded to Orwell in his songs and wrote material that reflected the outlook of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He notes that Margaret Atwood termed her celebrated The Handmaid’s Tale a “speculative fiction of the George Orwell variety” (p.241). But the crux of Part II lies in Lynskey’s discussion of the evolving interpretations of the novel since its publication, and why it still matters today. He argues that Nineteen Eighty Four has become both a “vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future” (p.228), and an “all-purpose shorthand” for an “uncertain present” (p.213).
In the immediate aftermath of its publication, when the Cold War was at its height, the novel was seen by many as a lesson on totalitarianism and the dangers that the Soviet Union and Communist China posed to the West (Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania in the novel correspond roughly to the Soviet Union, China and the West, respectively). When the Cold War ended with the fall of Soviet Union in 1991, the novel morphed into a warning about the invasive technologies spawned by the Internet and their potential for surveillance of individual lives. In the Age of Trump and Brexit, the novel has become “most of all a defense of truth . . . Orwell’s fear that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’ is the dark heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It gripped him long before he came up with Big Brother, Oceania, Newspeak or the telescreen, and it’s more important than any of them” (p.265-66).
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Orwell was born as Eric Blair in 1903 in India, where his father was a mid-level civil servant. His mother was half-French and a committed suffragette. In 1933, prior to publication of his first major book, Down and Out in Paris and London, which recounts his life in voluntary poverty in the two cities, the fledgling author took the pen name Orwell from a river in Sussex . He changed names purportedly to save his parents from the embarrassment which he assumed his forthcoming work would cause. He was at best a mid-level journalist and writer when he went to Spain in late 1936, with a handful of novels and lengthy essays to his credit – “barely George Orwell” (p.4), as Lynskey puts it.
The Spanish Civil war erupted after Spain’s Republican government, known as the Popular Front, a coalition of liberal democrats, socialists and communists, narrowly won a parliamentary majority in 1936, only to face a rebellion from the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco, representing Spain’s military, business elites, large landowners and the Catholic Church. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy furnished arms and other assistance for the Nationalists’ assault on Spain’s democratic institutions, while the Soviet Union assisted the Republicans (the leading democracies of the period, Great Britain, France and the United States, remained officially neutral; I reviewed Adam Hochschild’s work on the Spanish Civil War here in August 2017). Spain provided Orwell with his first and only personal exposure to the “nightmare atmosphere” (p.17) that would envelop the novel he wrote a decade later.
Fighting with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (Spanish acronym: POUM), a renegade working class party that opposed Stalin, Orwell quickly found himself in the middle of what amounted to a mini-civil war among the disparate left-wing factions on the Republican side, all within the larger civil war with the Nationalists. Orwell saw first-hand the dogmatism and authoritarianism of the Stalinist left at work in Spain, nurtured by a level of deliberate deceit that appalled him. He read newspaper accounts that did not even purport to bear any relationship to what had actually happened. For Orwell previously, Lynskey writes:
people were guilty of deliberate deceit or unconscious bias, but at least they believed in the existence of facts and the distinction between true and false. Totalitarian regimes, however, lied on such a grand scale that they made Orwell feel that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’ (p.99).
Orwell saw totalitarianism in all its manifestations as dangerous not primarily because of secret police or constant surveillance but because “there is no solid ground from which to mount a rebellion –no corner of the mind that has not been infected and warped by the state. It is power that removes the possibility of challenging power” (p.99).
Orwell narrowly escaped death when he was hit by a bullet in the spring of 1937. He was hospitalized in Barcelona for three weeks, after which he and his wife Eileen escaped across the border to France. Driven to Spain by his hatred of fascism, Orwell left with a “second enemy. The fascists had behaved just as appallingly as he had expected they would, but the ruthlessness and dishonesty of the communists had shocked him” (p.18). From that point onward, Orwell criticized communism more energetically than fascism because he had seen communism “up close, and because its appeal was more treacherous. Both ideologies reached the same totalitarian destination but communism began with nobler aims and therefore required more lies to sustain it” (p.22). After his time in Spain, Orwell knew that he stood against totalitarianism of all stripes, and for democratic socialism as its counterpoint.
The term “dystopia” was not used frequently in Orwell’s time, and Orwell distinguished between “favorable” and “pessimistic” utopias. Orwell developed what he termed a “pitying fondness” (p.38) for nineteenth-century visions of a better world, particularly the American Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward. This highly popular novel contained a “seductive political argument” (p.33) for the nationalization of all industry, and the use of an “industrial army” to organize production and distribution. Bellamy had what Lynskey terms a “thoroughly pre-totalitarian mind,” with an “unwavering faith in human nature and common sense” that failed to see the “dystopian implications of unanimous obedience to a one-party state that will last forever” (p.38).
Bellamy was a direct inspiration for the works of H.G. Wells, one of the most prolific writers of his age. Wells exerted enormous influence on the young Eric Blair, looming over the boy’s childhood “like a planet – awe inspiring, oppressive, impossible to ignore – and Orwell never got over it” (p.60). Often called the English Jules Verne, Wells foresaw space travel, tanks, electric trains, wind and water power, identity cards, poison gas, the Channel tunnel and atom bombs. His fiction imagined time travel, Martian invasions, invisibility and genetic engineering. The word Wellsian came to mean “belief in an orderly scientific utopia,” but his early works are “cautionary tales of progress thwarted, science abused and complacency punished” (p.63).
Wells was himself a direct influence upon Yevgeny Zamatin’s We which, in Lymskey’s interpretation, constitutes the most direct antecedent to Nineteen Eighty-Four. Finished in 1920 at the height of the civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (but not published in the Soviet Union until 1988), We is set in the undefined future, a time when people are referred to only by numbers. The protagonist, D-503, a spacecraft engineer, lives in the One State, where mass surveillance is omnipresent and all aspects of life are scientifically managed. It is an open question whether We was intended to satirize the Bolshevik regime, in 1920 already a one-party state with extensive secret police.
Zamyatin died in exile in Paris in 1937, at age 53. Orwell did not read We until sometime after its author’s death. Whether Orwell “took ideas straight from Zamyatin or was simply thinking along similar lines” is “difficult to say” (p.108), Lynskey writes. Nonetheless, it is “impossible to read Zamyatin’s bizarre and visionary novel without being strongly reminded of stories that were written afterwards, Orwell’s included” (p.102).
Koestler’s Darkness at Noon offered a solution to the central riddle of the Moscow show trials of the 1930s: “why did so many Communist party members sign confessions of crimes against the state, and thus their death warrants?” Koestler argued that their “years of unbending loyalty had dissolved their belief in objective truth: if the Party required them to be guilty, then guilty they must be” (p.127). To Orwell this meant that one is punished in totalitarian states not for “ what one does but for what one is, or more exactly, for what one is suspected of being” (p.128).
The ideas contained in James Burnham’s 1944 book, The Managerial Revolution “seized Orwell’s imagination even as his intellect rejected them” (p.122). A Trotskyite in his youth who in the 1950s helped William F. Buckley found the conservative weekly, The National Review, Burnham saw the future belonging to a huge, centralized bureaucratic state run by a class of managers and technocrats. Orwell made a “crucial connection between Burnham’s super-state hypothesis and his own long-standing obsession with organized lying” (p.121-22).
Orwell’s chronic lung problems precluded him from serving in the military during World War II. From August 1941 to November 1943, he worked for the Indian Section of the BBC’s Eastern Service, where he found himself “reluctantly writing for the state . . . Day to day, the job introduced him to the mechanics of propaganda, bureaucracy, censorship and mass media, informing Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth” (p.83; Orwell’s boss at the BBC was notorious Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, whose biography I reviewed here in December 2017). Orwell left the BBC in 1943 to become literary editor of the Tribune, an anti-Stalinist weekly.
While at the Tribune, Orwell found time to produce Animal Farm, a “scrupulous allegory of Russian history from the revolution to the Tehran conference” (p.138), with each animal representing an individual, Stalin, Trotsky, Hitler, and so on. Animal Farm shared with Nineteen Eighty-Four an “obsession with the erosion and corruption of memory” (p.139). Memories in the two works are gradually erased, first, by the falsification of evidence; second, by the infallibility of the leader; third, by language; and fourth, by time. Published in August 1945, Animal Farm quickly became a best seller. The fable’s unmistakable anti-Soviet message forced Orwell to remind readers that he remained a socialist. “I belong to the Left and must work inside it,” he wrote, “much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence of this country” (p.141).
Earlier in 1945, Orwell’s wife Eileen died suddenly after being hospitalized for a hysterectomy, less than a year after the couple had adopted a son, whom they named Richard Horatio Blair. Orwell grieved the loss of his wife by burying himself in the work that culminated in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Orwell became ever sicker with tuberculosis as he worked over the next four years on the novel which was titled The Last Man in Europe until almost immediately prior to publication (Lynskey gives no credence to the theory that Orwell selected 1984 as a inversion of the last two digits of 1948).
Yet, Lynskey rejects the notion that Nineteen Eighty-Four was the “anguished last testament of a dying man” (p.160). Orwell “never really believed he was dying, or at least no more than usual. He had suffered from lung problems since childhood and had been ill, off and on, for so long that he had no reason to think that this time would be the last ” (p.160). His novel was published in June 1949. 227 days later, in January 1950, Orwell died when a blood vessel in his lung ruptured.
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Nineteen Eighty-Four had an immediate positive reception. The book was variously compared to an earthquake, a bundle of dynamite, and the label on a bottle of poison. It was made into a movie, a play, and a BBC television series. Yet, Lynskey writes, “people seemed determined to misunderstand it” (p.170). During the Cold War of the early 1950s, conservatives and hard line leftists both saw the book as a condemnation of socialism in all its forms. The more astute critics, Lynskey argues, were those who “understood Orwell’s message that the germs of totalitarianism existed in Us as well as Them” (p.182). The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 constituted a turning point in interpretations of Nineteen Eighty-Four. After the invasion, many of Orwell’s critics on the left “had to accept that they had been wrong about the nature of Soviet communism and that he [Orwell] had been infuriatingly right” (p.210).
The hoopla that accompanied the actual year 1984, Lynskey notes wryly, came about only because “one man decided, late in the day, to change the title of his novel” (p.234). By that time, the book was being read less as an anti-communist tract and more as a reminder of the abuses exposed in the Watergate affair of the previous decade, the excesses of the FBI and CIA, and the potential for mischief that personal computers, then in their infancy, posed. With the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of communism between 1989 and 1991, focus on the power of technology intensified.
But today the focus is on Orwell’s depiction of the demise of objective truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and appropriately so, Lynskey argues, noting how President Trump masterfully “creates his own reality and measures his power by the number of people who subscribe to it: the cruder the lie, the more power its success demonstrates” (p.264). It is truly Orwellian, Lynskey contends, that the phrase “fake news” has been “turned on its head by Trump and his fellow authoritarians to describe real news that is not to their liking, while flagrant lies become ‘alternative facts’” (p.264).
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While resisting the temptation to term Nineteen Eighty-Four more relevant now than ever, Lynskey asserts that the novel today is nonetheless “a damn sight more relevant than it should be” (p.xix). An era “plagued by far-right populism, authoritarian nationalism, rampant disinformation and waning faith in liberal democracy,” he concludes, is “not one in which the message of Nineteen Eighty-Four can be easily dismissed” (p.265).
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
February 25, 2020