George Orwell’s ‘1984’ revisited: What Oceania and Israel have in common

The aim of war is not a conquest of one kind or another, but the preservation of a hierarchical society of “high” and “low.”

For George Orwell, the appalling picture of the future starkly depicted in ‘1984’ was not some imaginative exercise. ‘Don’t let it happen. It depends on you,’ he warned

– Adam Raz

George Orwell is one of the most widely read English-language authors, and has certainly been one of the most quoted ones for more than a half-century. There is no need to mention the many concepts associated with him: “Newspeak,” “thought police,” “Orwellian” and so on. At the same time, the man who strove, as he himself said, to turn political writing into an art and who declared that everything he wrote after 1936 (subsequent to his participation in the Spanish Civil War, against fascist forces) was written against totalitarianism and in favor of democratic socialism, continues to be perceived, ultimately, as a storyteller.

In contrast to the approach of the vast body of writing that exists about Orwell, and about his novel “1984” in particular, I will argue here, in brief, that his output needs to be seen as belonging to the realm of of political theory. In other words, Orwell is (also) a political theoretician (in the conventional sense of the term: a person who espouses a theory about the social reality). Moreover, and especially in his 1949 dystopic novel, he contributed significantly to the understanding of the dynamics of modern politics and in particular of the phenomenon the Roman historian Tacitus called the “secrets of governing” (arcana imperii). “Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation,” Orwell wrote.

Any consideration of Orwell’s writing cannot ignore the fact that he chose the literary genre as the most congenial for giving expression to his views. Writing was for him a tool for changing social reality, and the literature he wrote was political. In fact, it often seems as though the narrative interferes with his attempt to set forth his views about modern capitalism (and about democracy, on the one hand, and fascism, on the other). Indeed, when he encountered difficulties in plot construction, he was known to deal with them by devious literary means, so as to retain his political point.

A vivid example of this is his insertion of a completely theoretical text running to dozens of pages in “1984,” by means of a literary stratagem of introducing a fictitious book-within-a-book. The text, “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,” is manifestly a sociopolitical analysis of trends in modern industrial society and a historic description of the phenomenon called “government.” Some people advised him to remove the “book” from the book. Happily for us, he ignored them.

‘It depends on you’

Orwell did not in any systematic way read the classic works of political thought and theory (as opposed to contemporaneous political writing, about which he was extremely knowledgeable), and that may help us understand why he chose the literary genre rather than focusing on philosophy or political science. In his works he gave expression to, and provided an explanation (theoretical) for, developments in modern society. Shortly before his death, in 1950, he made it unequivocally clear that the appalling picture of the future starkly depicted in “1984” was not some imaginative exercise for him. “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you,” he asserted toward the end of his life. In his view, the dystopia had already begun to materialize. …

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