In 1953, Secker and Warburg published an English translation of The Captive Mind, a trenchant critique of the emerging nomenklatura in the Eastern Bloc written by Polish dissident Czeslaw Milosz.
As a study of totalitarianism and its architects, commentators in the Anglosphere were quick to compare the book to celebrated works of fiction such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon and George Orwell’s 1984.
Milosz devotes several pages to the latter, which during the late 1940s and 1950s was circulating in samizdat form among members of the Polish intelligentsia. As Milosz observes, most Poles who were fortunate enough to read 1984 refused to believe that Orwell was an Englishman, reasoning that no one would have been able to paint such an accurate and compelling picture of life inside the Soviet satellite states without having experienced it first-hand.
Indeed, upon first glance it seems obvious that Orwell was solely concerned with the October Revolution and its aftermath when writing 1984.
The omnipresent and moustachioed figure of Big Brother, for instance, is patently modelled on Joseph Stalin, while his arch-nemesis, the Jewish intellectual Emmanuel Goldstein, is a stand-in for Leon Trotsky. Oceania’s mid-sentence switch of allegiance from Eastasia to Eurasia, meanwhile, is a blatant reference to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its subsequent dissolution. And the now famous statement of false dogma, “2+2=5”, was an actual slogan adopted by the Communist Party during the first five-year plan to exhort workers to give their all for the Motherland.
Pick any page and the shadow of the hammer and sickle looms large.
But it is important to remember that Orwell’s real objective during his self-imposed exile on the remote island of Jura was to conjure a vision of an authentically English totalitarianism. To this end, I think there is a case to be made that 1984 is as much a book about the English Reformation as it is Stalinism.
The Inner Party is a doppelgänger for the Catholic Church, an all-powerful state within a state, holder of a secret text upon which only a chosen few are permitted to gaze. Much like Latin, Newspeak is an impenetrable jargon designed to obfuscate the truth, exclude the masses, and perpetuate power for power’s sake. O’Brien, who is close to the levers of power, is sketched very much in the mould of an Inquisitor. Atop all this sits Big Brother, the infallible Eternal Father. And as Christopher Hitchens points out, Winston, the rebel, is essentially a disciple of the 39 Articles of the Church of England.
Perhaps, you may be thinking, this is a stretch, and you may be right. But it is difficult to ignore the fact that Orwell explicitly and implicitly draws a link between Catholicism and communism.
His antipathy towards both ideologies likely has roots in his upbringing, which had a distinctly Anglican and small c conservative bent, and despite its foundations in empire, at least paid lip service to thoroughly English concepts such as privacy, fair play, and the sovereign individual.
His time in Spain during the Civil War merely confirmed what he had already known — that “[t]he Catholic and the [c]ommunist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent.” This is because “each of them tacitly claims that ‘the truth’ has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of ‘the truth’ and…resists it out of selfish motives.”
For Orwell, then, fascism and Stalinism were modern-day heirs to the Inquisition, with gauleiters and commissars taking the place of priests, perpetuating a “new and cruel religion of power”, as Gordon Bowker so eloquently puts it.
In Coming Up For Air, the protagonist, George Bowling, who is Orwell in all but name, again conflates the two C/s: “You never read about a Spanish Inquisitor or one of these higher-ups in the Russian Ogpu without being told in private life he was such a good kind man, best of husbands and fathers, devoted to his tame canary and so forth.”
There are countless examples such as this littered throughout his writing.
I suppose I’m trying to make two interrelated points here.
First, it is wrong to read 1984 as an allegory for the history (and possible future) of the Soviet Union — Animal Farm serves that purpose, and it serves it very well. Rather, it is a book about the fine line between democracy and dictatorship, not just on the continent, but in England, too. It is thus concerned with English and British history, more so than most critics would have us believe.
This brings me neatly onto my second point, which is that, although Orwell was many things — a socialist, a liberal, a soldier, an adventurer — he was first and foremost an Englishman, deeply attached to the customs, habits, and institutions of Albion.
If we ignore this aspect of Orwell’s worldview, we run the risk of misunderstanding the often nuanced, not to mention historically and culturally contingent, nature of his work.