1 THE REALITY PRINCIPLE
Ever since the onset of the Great Pseudo-Pandemic of 2020-25, George Orwell has been much on our minds, with quotations and memes proliferating all over the web and even the streets as the relevance of his greatest work to our own times grows ever clearer. Within days of the first lockdowns, sceptics had tagged the syndrome Covid-19(84) — a formulation which encapsulated the proposition perfectly, and with an economy impossible even in Newspeak.
Conscious UK rappers name-check him plentifully, as the most effective way of evoking the totalitarian nightmare that is about to engulf us if we can’t wake up:
But here and there in the comments I’d see an accusation that has been floating around the internet for a few years now: that George Orwell was one of theirs, not one of ours — an operative for the elite, a literary double agent: in current parlance, a ‘shill’ — one who has taken the King’s Shilling. That his last and greatest work was written not as a warning to humankind but as an instrument of ‘predictive conditioning’ — in other words, that his intention was not to avert the dystopian future he described, but actually to help manifest it by conditioning his readers to accept, not its desirability of course, but its inevitability.
The most topical example to illustrate the principle is the proliferation over the years of Hollywood plot-lines about devastating pandemics, including Twelve Monkeys (1997), I am Legion (2007), Contagion (2011) and many more, and the obvious role these have played in subliminally conditioning the public to accept a terrifying new viral enemy-image. The suspension of disbelief thus achieved is vital in the project to re-engineer society under a totalitarian, democidal Biosecurity state.
The assumption is that in terms of the text itself it would be impossible to distinguish the functions of warning from conditioning. Just as in the War on Terror anyone might be a terrorist, in the war of words and worlds, anyone might be a shill. It’s straight out of the book itself — under Ingsoc, anyone might be an agent of Goldstein; or an informer for the Thought Police. It transpires that even the rumoured underground rebel group — ‘the Brotherhood’ — has been set up by the Party as a fly-trap for dissidents, in an echo of the Communists’ own Operation Trust from the 1920s. The twenty-first century Truth Movement has no doubt been allowed to exist for precisely that reason: to map the human terrain, lure disbelievers into the open and generate arrest lists for the ‘ultimate revolution’.
The best way to control opposition is always to make sure it is led by your own agents — that’s Disinfo 101. Beyond that, a paralysing atmosphere of mutual suspicion can be created by parachuting in disinformation agents whose task is to accuse others of being disinformation agents, triggering endless shill-wars and draining the energy of the movement — that’s Disinfo 2.0.
As I’ve heard it, the case against Orwell goes something like this:
1. Orwell — his real name was Eric Blair (which doesn’t help!) — attended Eton College, England’s most prestigious secondary school and a grooming stable for future politicians and, no doubt, intelligence agents.
2. His great-grandfather was a wealthy man who married into the aristocracy and derived income from plantations in Jamaica. His father worked in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service, and Eric Blair served in the Imperial Police in Burma before becoming a writer. His mother was from the wealthy Limouzin family; his maternal grandfather had timber interests in Burma.
3. One of Blair’s teachers at Eton was none other than Aldous Huxley, scion of an influential eugenicist family, brother of one of the architects of the United Nations, itself a prototype of the World State which Huxley went on to evoke in his own futuristic dystopia, Brave New World (1931). Huxley is presumed, then, to be an NWO operative. Counter-culture researchers such as Jan Irvin have hypothesised that he may have been one of the architects of MK-ULTRA.
4. From there, Huxley becomes Orwell’s life-long ‘mentor’, feeding him information about the elite’s plans for humanity, for him to draw on in constructing a masterpiece of predictive conditioning posing as a political warning: the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Critics will also lump him in with Bertrand Russell, another democratic socialist from a wealthy background, who supported population reduction through birth control; and H G Wells, the popular English novelist turned promoter of a technocratic socialist World State: a New World Order.
5. The fact that Orwell took wartime work at the BBC (where he produced cultural broadcasts for Indian audiences) is taken as confirmation that he was an MI5 asset. From 1937 to the present day the intelligence agency has occupied offices in Broadcasting House, and vets all BBC employees. So this must be Orwell settling in back at HQ for a while. Orwell quit his post when he found out that almost nobody was listening to his broadcasts, but he had continued contacts with British Intelligence.
6. His last two books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, were heavily promoted after his death by both the British IRD (Information Research Department) and the US Central Intelligence Agency as propaganda assets in the new ‘Cold War’ against the Soviet Union.
If I’m missing something I do invite anyone to help fill the gaps. Once in a while I have asked those who casually spread this calumny whether there is some evidence they can point me to, but without result. Searching online, all I find is the anti-semitic stuff accusing him of having Jewish friends and showing a lack of ‘Jew awareness’ in his work. Why one would expect a man who risked his life to fight Fascism to dislike all Jews might seem an obvious contradiction, and typical of the ahistorical and essentially anachronistic nature of this kind of criticism. It’s quite hard to work out the plot, on this side of things. Orwell drew a veil over the role of prominent Jewish banking families in financing both Russian Communism and German National Socialism — is that it? But none of this emerged until long after Orwell was dead. Professor Anthony C Sutton, author of an explosive series of books, Wall St and the Bolshevik Revolution, Wall St and FDR, and Wall St and the Rise of Hitler, didn’t begin publishing until 1974, almost a quarter of a century after Orwell’s death.
But Orwell was also working for the fascists. A reader — hostile to Orwell — sends me a link to the blogger Miles Mathis‘s attempt at at ‘outing’ him in the course of a 2015 post about Noam Chomsky. There are ‘red flags’ all over Orwell, writes Mathis. He came from ‘vast pools of wealth’. He wore a Hitler-style moustache ‘throughout the war’ (a complete fabrication). He goes on: most people think the portrait of Big Brother used on some editions was modelled on Hitler but really it was a portrait of Orwell himself! When Orwell immersed himself in working-class life, homelessness and poverty, he was really ‘spying’ on the poor. He published in left-wing journals which were later exposed as having received CIA funding. What else? Oh yes, going back to Eton, it seems that his principal tutor, the historian A S F Gow, may or may not have been the ‘fifth man’ in the Burgess-McClean Cambridge spy-ring. But hang on, Goss wasn’t working for the CIA, he was working for the Communists. To Mathis it’s all the same — it’s just ‘Intel’.
As frame-ups go, it’s pretty thin. Is the assumption that it is always impossible for someone with wealth in his family to become a socialist? Orwell must be suspect because of his imperialist relatives. This imputation of indelible class-guilt sounds like a lot like a Stalinist inquisition to me, but I know Mathis is not on the left. Anyway, he seems more worried about George’s facial hair — does this writer never have second thoughts about what he commits to print? — which seems to suggest that Orwell is somehow Hitler. Let’s assume, then, that Mathis is opposed to all totalitarianism, fascist or communist, just as Orwell was. Why then would he not accept Orwell as an ally? Because although Orwell gave every appearance of devoting his life and work to opposing totalitarianism, really he was working for the totalitarians — all of them; by condemning, satirising and lampooning totalitarianism he was actually serving its agenda by conditioning his readers to accept the inevitable victory of Big Brother. That must be it; if I’m getting it wrong, it’s because Mathis does not make his argument explicit, relying instead on sarcasm and innuendo.
I did read some Mathis a few years ago, trying to make my mind up about him. As a writer, I have to say he’s terrible — he never puts his content into any kind of structured or crafted form, just splurges it all out, presuming heavily on the reader’s patience. These are not essays or articles — they could be drafts, if he ever rewrote anything. As it is they are just blog posts, brain-storms, unstructured ramblings characterised by a preachy, self-righteous, all-knowing tone. He makes huge leaps and assumptions — sometimes he’s onto something (as with Chomsky) but it’s a wild scattergun process and you have to be prepared to wade through long, tedious mazes of personal connections devoted to implying guilt by association, to arrive at conclusions which range from the plausible to the utterly wild — his theory on the Kennedy assassinations, for example, that both brothers faked their own deaths and lived on underground as a royal lineage and the actual rulers of America. Like the rigmarole about moustaches, this reads like self-parody. While I don’t want to engage in the shill-mania of our times, I have to say that discrediting truth by mixing it with absurdity is exactly the technique of the disinformation agent. But I prefer to judge him as I would prefer him to judge Orwell: on his writing.
Please don’t get me wrong; I know about the vast cultural engineering campaign which kicked into gear after the formation of the CIA — which is the background theory to which Mathis appeals to in his outings; I know about MK-ULTRA, and how extensive it was. I know about the infiltration and hijacking of the counterculture. I’ve written about all of this. But I get suspicious when researchers claiming to be opposing the CIA’s campaign of cultural debasement try to take down our greatest writers with a spatter of half-thought-out lies and uninformed hypotheses, and without capable analysis of their work — or even reading the work before passing sentence. Joseph Atwell is another one, trying to persuade us that Shakespeare, whom he hasn’t read and knows literally nothing about, was a Jewish plot to debase our culture. Yes, really. Why would anyone listen to such stuff? It can only be because they haven’t read Shakespeare either, or Orwell, and want an excuse not to bother.
For George it’s just déjà vu all over again. He’s been through this kind of political smear-campaign before, at the hands of actual Communists. Orwell was put on trial in absentia by the NKVD in Barcelona, 1937, remember? Or perhaps you didn’t know. Perhaps you haven’t read Homage to Catalonia. Perhaps you don’t know he took a Fascist bullet through the throat at the front, and within ten days was hiding from the Communists in a ruined church. Or perhaps you think NKVD torture rooms are no big deal and it was all just fun and games. The interrogation and torture of George Orwell never happened, but it could very easily have done. But perhaps you didn’t know that, or what happened to his friend and commander Georges Kopp.
Like Orwell, I’ve never been much for making things up. Reality is fascinating enough in itself. So, in this new Coviet era of universal deceit, it might be time to tell that story again. It’s a good one.
Eric Blair’s parents were not wealthy; his grandfather was a clergyman and his father a civil servant. He described his family background as ‘lower-upper-middle’ or ‘impoverished genteel’ class. His educational opportunities, including his attendance at Eton, were obtained through scholarships. Aldous Huxley taught French at the school for one year, and Blair was in his class. All agree that Huxley was a nervous, ineffective teacher who struggled to exert authority.
Blair neglected his studies, and left Eton with an academic record too poor to enable him to apply to university, so he enlisted in the Imperial Police. Yes, of course he ended up in Burma because of his family connections. But despite his ‘posh’ background, to use Mathis’s word, he became a committed socialist. If you don’t believe him, or if you don’t understand what kind of socialist he was, read his work, or more of it. He was a prolific writer, and his political evolution is there for all to examine. His experiences in Burma, especially witnessing the racism and casual cruelty of his colleagues, kick-started his political education. Returning to England to recuperate from dengue fever, he quit the imperial police and set out to become a writer. (Mathis finds this suspicious. ‘Suddenly at age 24, he quit the police to become a writer.’ By Orwell’s own account, he had wanted to be a writer since he was six years old.)
Having seen how the poor lived in Burma, now he wanted to know how they lived in his own country. Yes, it’s possible he was able to draw on the financial support of his family as he as he made his way as a writer. This would assume, of course, so of course Mathis assumes, that his grandparents in Burma approved of or even knew what he was doing after he returned from East. That’s the main reason he used a pen-name — not unusually, he wanted to protect his family from his writing, and vice versa. His writing about this time — Keep the Aspidistra Flying, for instance — suggests rather convincingly that he was well acquainted with intense anxiety about money.
His strength was always writing from reality: fictionalised memoir and reportage, based on experience, observation and use of the telling detail. He did not invent easily, and his one attempt at experimental fiction (A Clergyman’s Daughter) fell apart in his hands; his response was to turn his limitations into a strength. Reality was enough, and he honoured it by cultivating a disciplined lucidity of thought and style. His essays, articles and reviews are written with poise and clarity, humming with intelligence; although he rejects stylistic display, there is no sacrifice of pleasure in the restrained beauty of his sentences — his writing is of the highest quality, and Orwell is rightly regarded as one of the greatest essayists in the history of the English language.
After his Burmese experience, he made poverty and deprivation his theme. Mathis calls this ‘spying on the poor’. I call it finding a subject. For several years he periodically immersed himself in the lives of the working poor, the unemployed and the homeless. He made periodic excursions disguised as a tramp, exploring the slums of London, staying in flophouses and workhouses, and working on the hop-farms in Kent as a seasonal labourer. He got himself arrested, hoping to experience Christmas in jail, but was released after two nights in a police cell. He washed dishes in Paris, lay sick in a hospital for the poor. He toured the North of England by public transport and on foot, lodged in a room above a tripe shop, went down the mines and into the factories, attended meetings of both the Communists and the Fascists and witnessed firsthand the violence of Mosley’s blackshirts. All the writing based on these experiences was published under the Orwell brand; his alter ego on his expeditions was ‘P S Burton’, so that’s three identities already. How many more red flags do you want, the guy was so obviously a spook! What Mathis doesn’t know is that Orwell was developing a style of ‘Bohemian’ journalism which had appeared on the other side of the Atlantic some seventy years earlier. Orwell was the first in England to bring to this genre a genuine literary sensibility — Mark Twain could claim precedence in the States. Reading Orwell’s reportage, you do not get any sense of posturing, or of making the author the subject of his own journalism, but of lived experience; you understand how this writer developed his ability to evoke reality — physical, social, economic, political — with economy and nuance. The books and essays that came out of this period established his reputation as a writer.
For all the unpretentious lucidity of his prose, there’s something driven and self-destructive in his pursuit of the reality principle which only found full expression in his last and most famous book, a terrifying and uncompromising work which transcends the politics of the time and now echoes everywhere around the internet, and even the streets, under the resurgent totalitarianism of a technocratic Coviet Union (h/t #RiseAbove). His final reality-immersion would be in Spain, fighting against Fascism in the Civil War.
After the failed Nationalist military coup and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War with the siege of Madrid, Orwell headed out to join the Republican resistance. As a democratic socialist, he enlisted not in the Comintern-run International Brigades but the POUM militia (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, affiliated to the International Labour Party). He was at the frontline in Aragon for a little short of four months; it was winter, and the militias endured extreme deprivation at high altitude in Alcubierre. His comrades were poorly armed, trained and equipped, but “…the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism … the ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England … the effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.” (Homage to Catalonia, Ch 7) The posting was uneventful for long periods, and he experienced close combat only once during this time, in a diversionary night-attack using grenades and bayonets during the siege of Huelva.
But his most important experiences in Spain came not on the front-lines but the paranoid streets of Barcelona. Returning on leave after three months at the front, he found the city riven by sectarian conflict: the revolutionary atmosphere had disappeared; there were riflemen on rooftops, armed gangs roaming the streets. The Communist newspapers were denouncing their allies as fascists, and the NKVD secret police stealthily purging those who did not follow the Moscow line, in secret so that word would not get back to the front and especially the POUM militias holding the line in Madrid. Vicious multi-factional street-fighting broke out in May, as the Socialist government tried to regain control of the Anarchist-dominated city. For the first time Orwell found himself under fire from those he thought were fighting on the same side. The Anarchists stood down, and the government sent in assault guards to occupy the city.
Within days of his arrival back at the front, Orwell took a sniper’s bullet in the throat and survived by the merest chance: the bullet narrowly missed his carotid artery, and the shot was so clean it cauterised the wound as it passed through. Ten days later he staggered back to Barcelona, where he arrived to find the liquidation of the POUM in full swing — the Comintern had declared it an illegal organisation, turned their Barcelona HQ into a prison and launched an open purge, branding them Trotskyites and fascist-collaborators and arresting them or massacring them in the streets and squares. Many were interrogated and tortured, many more executed en masse or sent across into France where they were rounded up and shot by the Vichy government. The first Orwell knew of any of this was when his wife and editor Eileen intercepted him to prevent him entering his hotel. He went into hiding, sleeping in a ruined church, but his friend and commander in the POUM, Georges Kopp, was not so lucky. Still hardly able to speak, Orwell broke cover to try to intervene with the Communists on Kopp’s behalf, visiting police and military authorities to retrieve paperwork that would prove Kopp was now working for the government and was no longer in the POUM. Kopp’s surviving relatives appreciate that these efforts constituted an act of extreme bravery.
The Orwells failed in their attempt, and left the city the next day, making for the border with France. Arriving back in England, Orwell worked for nine months writing-up his experiences in Homage to Catalonia, only to find the Communist campaign of lies against the POUM had infected the left-wing press in England. The New Statesman would no longer carry his articles, and his publishers, Gollancz’s Left Book Club, turned down his account of events in Spain. Ultimately, that was their loss — Orwell took the book to Frederic Warburg’s start-up company, and although Homage didn’t sell well, his next two books — his last two — would put Gollancz in the shade and Secker and Warburg on the map. In the meantime there’d been show trials in Barcelona; he had been tried in absentia by the NKVD along with imprisoned leaders of the POUM. Those who would not submit to Moscow’s leadership were ‘hindering the war effort’ and were therefore ‘objectively fascist’. Isn’t that beautiful totalitarian logic?
So I think we can say we know how the seeds of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were planted, and when and where: Barcelona and London, 1937-8. This is important if there is any dispute about what Nineteen Eighty-Four is about, or what his intentions were in writing it; it arises out of a very specific context and situation. Because it is a great work of art as well as of propaganda, it has transcended that context and become a work for all time. But in case of the libellous mischaracterisation of his motives, and the, yes I’ll say it, conspiracy theory about his loyalties, whether put about by Neo-Stalinists, anti-Semites or embittered counterculture researchers, there is no doubt either about what happened or the intention of the two anti-totalitarian masterpieces that arose directly out of it. Things took a very dark turn in Barcelona; and this became the darkness of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Madrid fell to the Francoists, and Barcelona, hollowed out, was taken without resistance, and three months later Hitler and Stalin finalised their non-aggression pact. Kopp was held for eighteen months, repeatedly interrogated by Russian NKVD operatives, beaten and tortured and continually moved around from camp to camp to keep him disoriented. By the time they released him he had lost half his body-weight and his own wife didn’t recognise him. Orwell invited Kopp to London, where Eileen and her brother and sister-in-law took care of him for two months, nursing him back to health, so there was plenty of time for the writer to listen to his friend’s experiences and reflect how easily it could have been him. He must have wondered how he would have stood up under torture, and Kopp’s experience unquestionably became an important element of the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Without any question, Orwell draws on the shock of seeing what they had done to him in one of the most moving moments in the novel.
“Winston undid the bit of string that held his overalls together. The zip fastener had long since been wrenched out of them. He could not remember whether at any time since his arrest he had taken off all his clothes at one time. Beneath the overalls his body was looped with filthy yellowish rags, just recognizable as the remnants of underclothes. As he slid them to the ground he saw that there was a three-sided mirror at the far end of the room. He approached it, then stopped short. An involuntary cry had broken out of him.
‘Go on,’ said O’Brien. ‘Stand between the wings of the mirror. You shall see the side view as well.’
He had stopped because he was frightened. A bowed, grey-coloured, skeleton-like thing was coming towards him. Its actual appearance was frightening, and not merely the fact that he knew it to be himself. He moved closer to the glass. The creature’s face seemed to be protruded, because of its bent carriage. A forlorn, jailbird’s face with a nobby forehead running back into a bald scalp, a crooked nose, and battered-looking cheekbones above which his eyes were fierce and watchful. The cheeks were seamed, the mouth had a drawn-in look. Certainly it was his own face, but it seemed to him that it had changed more than he had changed inside. The emotions it registered would be different from the ones he felt. He had gone partially bald. For the first moment he had thought that he had gone grey as well, but it was only the scalp that was grey. Except for his hands and a circle of his face, his body was grey all over with ancient, ingrained dirt. Here and there under the dirt there were the red scars of wounds, and near the ankle the varicose ulcer was an inflamed mass with flakes of skin peeling off it. But the truly frightening thing was the emaciation of his body. The barrel of the ribs was as narrow as that of a skeleton: the legs had shrunk so that the knees were thicker than the thighs. He saw now what O’Brien had meant about seeing the side view. The curvature of the spine was astonishing. The thin shoulders were hunched forward so as to make a cavity of the chest, the scraggy neck seemed to be bending double under the weight of the skull. At a guess he would have said that it was the body of a man of sixty, suffering from some malignant disease.”
Those who continue to spread smears about Orwell should perhaps reflect that they are perpetuating (unwittingly or not) the Stalinist witch-hunt which ended in torture and death for so many of Orwell’s comrades, and which spurred him to write Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four in the first place. In Spain Orwell had learned that in Communism the free world faced a totalitarian threat as grave as that posed by Fascism; that the Stalinists were the enemies of the revolutionary spirit he’d experienced. Back in London, the left’s betrayal of free speech showed Orwell how easily the seeds of totalitarianism could transplant themselves to English soil. Could English Socialism devolve into Ingsoc? There’s a passing allusion in the novel which implicitly poses the question.
“Winston could not even remember at what date the Party itself had come into existence. He did not believe he had ever heard the word Ingsoc before 1960, but it was possible that in its Oldspeak form — ‘English Socialism’, that is to say — it had been current earlier.” (Nineteen Eighty-Four Part I, Chapter III.)
In 1941, for instance, when Orwell himself used it prominently in The Lion and the Unicorn — Socialism and the English Genius.
The question now was how to prevent the perversion of the socialist ideal into the terror of Barcelona. His response was to unleash the vicious satire of Animal Farm and then the paranoid masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell had come back from Catalonia fully committed to socialism but bitterly opposed to totalitarianism in either its Fascist or Communist incarnations, both of which would have killed him. The enormity of these revelations, their shocking, dream-like quality, propelled him into his greatest fiction. But whether he turned them into a ‘fairytale’ for children or a science fiction story, the left didn’t want to know.
After his desperately early death in 1950 (he was forty-six), the backlash over his anti-totalitarian novels rippled on for years as different interests bickered over rights and royalties, reputation and politics, and the unique power of his voice. The disciple of the reality principle became a weapon in the new ‘Cold War’; then the truth wars; and now the corona wars. But I have no doubt that the author of Nineteen-Eighty Four would recognise our incipient Biosecurity State for what it is — the return of the monster in a deceptive new form.
2 THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE
It is hard to see where Aldous Huxley fits into any of this. As Orwell headed for the sound of gunfire, Huxley emigrated to the Southern California and lived there for the rest of his life. The counterculture researcher Jan Irvin has attempted to expose him as an ‘architect’ of the post-war MK-ULTRA mind-control and social engineering project, and I don’t find the hypothesis inherently implausible. Irvin has emphasised his connection with the Esalen Institute and a number of the CIA cut-outs involved in steering the rising counterculture into a hedonistic dead-end, and he was certainly involved in promoting the use of psychedelics, which he had featured twenty years earlier as the recreational chemical pacifier ‘soma’ in the society of Brave New World.
But to try to embroil Orwell with Huxley is not credible, politically or personally. Orwell chose experience as his mentor, not some ‘highbrow with his domed forehead and stalk-like neck’ (England, Your England). Who might that put-down be aimed at, do you think? The claim is often made that, after encountering each other at Eton, Huxley and Orwell remained friends for the rest of their lives, which is to say, of Orwell’s. How so? Huxley was a pacifist, and Orwell had no time for pacifists; he was a ‘benign’ eugenicist and Utopian progressive, like the aristocratic socialist philosopher Bertrand Russell, and H.G Wells too. Orwell was none of these things.
Yes, there is the famous letter Huxley wrote to his former pupil after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four — but if you read it you’ll find no hint that these words are written to a personal friend. The tone is impersonal — ‘Dear Mr Orwell,’ he writes, not ‘Dear George’ or even ‘Dear Eric’ — the body of the letter contains no personal references on either side, and was sent via his publisher. Written a mere three months before Orwell’s premature death, it gives no hint that Huxley even knew he was ill. Orwell had merely instructed his publisher to include Huxley on the list of those to be sent complimentary copies. Even in reaching out, as we say, writer-to-writer, Huxley failed to comment on Nineteen Eight-Four beyond the routine acknowledgement that it is ‘very fine’ and ‘a profoundly important’ book, without saying what is fine or important about it — before going on to suggest that his own vision of the ‘ultimate revolution’ is the more plausible. This is not to deny that Huxley’s letter does allude to important contexts, for instance in its reference to de Sade. But Orwell’s framing as Huxley’s protégé quickly falls apart. On the evidence of the letter, there seems to be nothing between these two men beyond the fact that their paths once crossed at Eton and they both later produced influential dystopian novels.
The two novels are as different as the two men. Huxley’s social comedy transplanted into the 26th Century bears no comparison, artistically, to the raw, traumatic tour-de-force his former pupil produced. To see clearly the yawning political and philosophical gulf between these two writers, leave aside for a moment the contrasts in the two societies depicted, the paradigmatic differences that Huxley touches on in his letter, and focus on the writer’s attitude to his characters, and I think you’ll see what I mean. The inevitable disaster that engulfs Orwell’s rebellious lovers, Winston and Julia, is evoked with intense pathos, in the classical sense of the word; Huxley’s protagonist Bernard Marx, by contrast, is a shallow, hypocritical loser, and Huxley is merely laughing at him — at all of his characters, trapped in this mindless, pointless, artificial society. Orwell’s vision is tragic, whereas Huxley merely finds the degraded future of humanity amusing. He’s the Laughing Philosopher, Democritus to Orwell’s Heraclitus.
In fact, despite routine journalistic assertions that he was heavily influenced by Brave New World, Orwell had actually made a number of critical asides about it in print. He saw Huxley as sharing H G Wells ‘essentially hedonistic worldview’ — in contrast to his own punishing pursuit of the reality principle — and having nothing to teach him about politics:
“A crude book like The Iron Heel, written nearly thirty years ago, is a truer prophecy of the future than either Brave New World or The Shape of Things to Come.” — Wells, Hitler and the World State (1941)
The literary trigger for Nineteen Eighty-Four was not Huxley’s book but We by Yevgeni Zamyatin, who was possibly the first writer to experience the Soviets’ treatment of dissidents. Zamyatin’s novel was published in English in 1924 but banned in the Soviet Union, and Orwell was not even aware of its existence until the early forties. He finally obtained a copy in 1946, just when Nineteen Eighty-Four was taking shape in his mind, and he reviewed it enthusiastically, comparing it favourably to Huxley’s book.
“[T]he resemblance with Brave New World is striking,” he wrote. “But though Zamyatin’s book is less well put together — it has a rather weak and episodic plot which is too complex to summarise — it has a political point which the other lacks.” Zamyatin’s novel “is on the whole more relevant to our own situation.”
Both books are relevant to ours. Brave New World may be where we’re headed — with his connections, Aldous should know — or where the vaccinated herd are headed, at least; the rest of us, those who can see and won’t comply, are plunging straight into the Orwellian nightmare; we feel it closing in around us; we are all Winston Smith, now.
Except that unlike Winston, we have already read the book, and ‘The Book’-within-the-book’; it was Orwell’s analysis that gave us eyes; we recognised immediately what was happening. It gives us the tools to understand the world we’ve been living in, and the one they’re trying to build. Those who have read it know there are worse things than death in this life, and that makes us stronger, not weaker. Even if we go down, we will do so in full consciousness. Nineteen Eighty-Four is our anagnorisis — the recognition of the truth which in tragedy comes too late to change the outcome, but confers dignity on the soul.
I remember a line from a war film — Platoon, perhaps? A group of soldiers is surrounded and vastly outnumbered, and in the morning they will try to break through the encirclement. Chances of survival are low.
‘Try to think of yourself as already dead,’ their commander tells them, as I remember it. ’If you can just do that, you’ll find that everything suddenly becomes a whole lot easier.’
Isn’t that the essence of spiritual discipline?
‘He was already dead, he reflected. It seemed to him that it was only now, when he had begun to be able to formulate his thoughts, that he had taken the decisive step. The consequences of every act are included in the act itself. He wrote:
Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death.’
Having had that defeatist thought, to commit it to paper in full understanding of its implications is a spiritual victory, if Winston did but know it. And — for a while, at least — his rebellion brings him a prize such as he has never experienced, in the form of Julia. Later he will renounce her under torture, and she him; but statements made under duress mean nothing. From the beginning he knew the path he was taking could only end ‘in the place where there is no darkness’ — the torture rooms of the ‘Ministry of Love’ — and he went ahead and took it anyway.
Oh, and by the way, Aldous, a thought from Zamyatin: just as there is no highest number, there is no final revolution.
As for this new wave of counter-counterculture critics, I’ll say this: you need to do some serious reading before you say any more about the great and still relevant George Orwell. Until you do, you’re just playing games, like Ingsoc’s child-spies:
‘Up with your hands!’ yelled a savage voice… ‘You’re a traitor!’ yelled the boy. ‘You’re a thought-criminal! You’re a Eurasian spy! I’ll shoot you, I’ll vaporize you, I’ll send you to the salt mines!’
Totalitarians on the left and the right still hate Orwell, that’s for sure, and the feeling was mutual. That’s why they send their shills to tell us he’s a shill and try to take him away from us, or us from him. It’s nothing new. Don’t fall for it. Read the book.
It’s beautiful that George has lifted his ugly head to fight alongside us. At six foot four, his head was always above the parapet. If he hadn’t caught that bullet I think he’d have joined the Anarchists, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he was someone you’d want alongside you in the trenches. No coward, no shill, and no question: George Orwell was for real.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a work of art which has transcended its origins; it belongs to humanity now, regardless of politics. I have no doubt whose side Orwell is on — ours. Why? Because I’ve read him. Don’t let anyone tell you different: Nineteen-Eighty Four is a visionary work which transcends the politics of its time and speaks directly to ours.
APPENDIX: Huxley’s 1949 letter to Orwell
21 October, 1949
Dear Mr. Orwell,
It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.
Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
Thank you once again for the book.