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What I Learned from George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

The decline of Language | Alteration of the Past | Oligarchical Collectivism

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Before Nineteen Eighty-Four, I had already read some of George Orwell’s essays: Why I Write (1946) and Politics and the English Language (1946), as well as the transcript of Literature and Totalitarianism (1941) — Orwell’s BBC broadcast, clearly illustrate how the idea of Nineteen Eighty-Four gradually emerged and was shaped throughout the years, reaching its final form in 1949. I am sure that Orwell’s writings and broadcasts during the 1940s, except those that offered tea receipts, served that exact political purpose.

Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole. I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.” — Why I Write (1946)

My essay would be in its fuller form if I’d also read Animal Farm (1945). But I suppose its core ideas should not differ much from Orwell’s essays of that period and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I may be ignorant and will update this paragraph after reading Animal Farm.

Decline of Language

“Thought is dependent on words.”

Immediately after the narration of the main plot abruptly ends, we can find the appendix called THE PRINCIPLES OF NEWSPEAK. Newspeak is a fictional language created by Orwell to illustrate how language reduction can affect individual thinking. If you cannot verbalize something, you cannot think of it. For example, FREE can be used in sentences like “this dog is free from lice,” but not when explaining POLITICAL FREEDOM or INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM, as such concepts didn’t exist in Newspeak at all.

A major political term in the Newspeak vocabulary is DOUBLETHINK. “DOUBLETHINK means the power of simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind and accepting both of them.” It is closely related to (although not limited to) the concept of the alteration of the past.

Alteration of the Past

“Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”

The past is consistently rewritten. Not only in totalitarian regimes that Orwell suggested but in every country where the media and propaganda machine put their hands on. The present is also written in a twisted way, according to the needs of the political power. Feelings and thoughts toward a certain event are dictated to citizens from the outside. For example, a neutral country observing the war between two other states as an outsider will have to create two different past realities to get into an alliance with one country or another.

Punishment and pain play the main role in shaping the attitudes of citizens. If you speak of the past of your memory and not about the political past that was modified recently, then you are punished; you are punished so that you will remember and think “correctly.” As a result of immeasurable pain, they will teach you to believe that 2+2=5 sincerely. They will teach you to control your memory, forget when necessary, and apply DOUBLETHINK.

Sidenote: The problem with using famous social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, YouTube, Medium, etc) is that they force you to conform to American reality. If you post something “wrong” in a political sense, you are banned, suspended, or in the best case, have the minimum media exposure — you are punished for the wrong behavior. That slowly shapes your thinking and manipulates your feelings, without you even realizing it, as long as you continue to use these platforms. That’s the reason why China has its own social media, messaging app, search engine: it is all for dictating Chinese political thinking to the citizens. The Chinese government tries to minimize the impact of American political views on the Chinese population, understanding that any government that is not serious enough about its control over social media will slowly submit its citizens to the American way of thinking (American thinking = American political thinking) and get submerged by the West over time.

But the alteration of the present was not Orwell’s concern:

“There are several vital differences between totalitarianism and all the orthodoxies of the past, either in Europe or in the East. The most important is that the orthodoxies of the past did not change, or at least did not change rapidly. In medieval Europe the Church dictated what you should believe, but at least it allowed you to retain the same beliefs from birth to death. It did not tell you to believe one thing on Monday and another on Tuesday. And the same is more or less true of any orthodox Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim today. In a sense his thoughts are circumscribed, but he passed his whole life within the same framework of thought. His emotions are not tampered with.” — Literature and Totalitarianism (1941)

Sidenote: Bringing down statues of past leaders, not as a result of a revolution, but as a publicly accepted form, which happened in many countries over the past decades, is the alteration of the past. If the established government wouldn’t covertly allow such actions of citizens (by removing the fear of punishment by keeping the police out of the sight, by putting its agents among the citizens, by modifying the content of TV programs, etc), it is very doubtful that a statue would be brought down (at least, that quickly).

Oligarchical Collectivism

“The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.”

The book within the book — The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism is the critical act of Nineteen Eighty-Four; it is the most important part of the book. I will not summarize all the ideas from that sub-book, as it has already been done (see the Wikipedia page), and I lack the political knowledge to bring examples or say something worthwhile about Orwell’s concept of power dynamics in society. But I will touch on a few brief points.

“In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”

“…the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly. The so-called ‘abolition of private property’ which took place in the middle years of the century meant, in effect, the concentration of property in far fewer hands than before: but with this difference, that the new owners were a group instead of a mass of individuals. Individually, no member of the Party owns anything, except petty personal belongings. Collectively, the Party owns everything…”

Society is divided into three parts: the High, the Middle, and the Low. The Low is deliberately kept uneducated and lives in a state of fear because of consistent wars. The Middle makes a revolution under the banner of equality, liberty, and better life, and by gaining the support of the Low, overthrows the High from power. And immediately forgetting its past promises, the Middle becomes another tyrannical High.

There are four ways the High can fall from power: 1) it is conquered from without (by another country), 2) as a consequence of a revolt due to inefficient governance, 3) for allowing the Middle to become more powerful than itself, and 4) because of losing self-confidence in its ability to govern.

“The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.”

The function of Big Brother “is to act as a focusing point for love, fear, and reverence, emotions which are more easily felt towards an individual than towards an organization.” The oligarchical rule is not inherited biologically and persists in keeping a certain worldview and behavior.

Nineteen Eighty-Four as Propaganda

Nineteen Eighty-Four is an anti-totalitarian manifesto. There are two audiences for the book: a person living in a capitalistic and democratic society will perceive the book as a concept of a futuristic dystopia; a person who was a part of a totalitarian regime, will see in Orwell’s work history.

What I find quite amusing is that Nineteen Eighty-Four slowly emerged as a means of propaganda during the cold war, and Hollywood, probably the most effective propaganda machine of the United States, made the classic movie in the year of 1984. Its cinematography is what would one imagine Nineteen Eighty-Four to be, if not the retarded position on the chessboard.

It seems like, in democratic countries, the past is rewritten in a more covert, indirect way, which doesn’t allow people to notice the modification of the past. The past is changed without you even noticing it, hence, there is no need for applying DOUBLETHINK. It is written and rewritten with the help of movies, conspiracy theories, factual documents arising from nowhere, advertisement, but most effectively, by the means of education. If history is not taught fully, with clarity and precision, then one generation later it can be modified further. Another generation, and the history will get even more blurry. The next generation, and the true history is completely forgotten.

Finally, Orwell was a democratic socialist. He, just like many intellectuals of the past, considered the search for truth to be the ultimate goal of the human condition:

“Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”

“Sanity is not statistical.”

Non-Political Quotes from Nineteen Eighty-Four

I didn’t make use of my pencil much throughout the reading. I took the most number of notes while reading the oligarchical collectivism sub-book summarized above. Below are some non-political quotes that I highlighted whilst reading.

“It struck him that in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy, but always against one’s own body.”

“A curious emotion stirred in Winston’s heart. In front of him was an enemy who was trying to kill him: in front of him, also, was a human creature, in pain and perhaps with a broken bone. Already he had instinctively started forward to help her. In the moment when he had seen her fall on the bandaged arm, it had been as though he felt the pain in his own body.”

“‘Has it ever occurred to you’, he said, ‘that the whole history of English poetry has been determined by the fact that the English language lacks rhymes?’”



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Ismayil Shahaliyev

Ismayil Shahaliyev


International Chess Master | MS in CS & Data Analytics (ADA & GW Universities). See the full list of my articles at: