Written by Bruce Deitrick Price - Improve-Education.org
Lies are the only reality. Beauty is against the law. Executions are a daily routine. A brutal reach for power is all that matters. That is the world described in "1984." Some educators want us to believe the novel is really about corporate conformity and cameras at traffic lights. Sounds disingenuous. One might even say Orwellian...Welcome to "1984--The Cover Up."
At a campground in the wilds of West Virginia, I happened to find an old paperback of George Orwell's 1984. I had read it decades earlier, but dipped in anyway...I was surprised. The book was better than I remembered. It's that rare thing, a fine novel and a brilliant polemic. To do either of these is difficult. Doing both at once, at this level, is unique. I hereby nominate it as one of the best novels of all time, and a book that every adult should read. Frankly, it might be too horrifying for teenagers.
Orwell plunges deeper than anyone else into the totalitarian impulse, the will to absolute power, the lust to inflict pain upon other humans. It's a harrowing plunge. You don't want to believe that people can be so evil. You don't want to imagine yourself the victim of the cruel and stupid society described in 1984. You probably don't want to deal with these unsettling questions: how would you behave in this inhuman world? Would you betray your family? Could you be made to love Big Brother? Which characters do you most identify with and why?
I then drifted into the Afterword, added in 1961 by a somewhat famous psychiatrist named Erich Fromm. Hmmm. The plot sickened. Pontificating in all directions, Fromm finally snuck up on his big insight. What Orwell was really writing about was corporate conformity--you know, that most evil of doublethink whereby a person working for General Motors would think that Chevrolets are better than Fords. The real problem facing the 20th century was "managerial industrialism, in which men build machines that act like men and develops men who act like machines." Verbiage on the back cover sums up Fromm's insight this way: the novel is "a diagnosis of the deepest alienation of the mind of Organization Man."
How is Fromm's weirdly disingenuous performance most accurately described? Here's an exact parallel. Suppose you write a book about toxic waste being dumped in a neighborhood and thousands of people dying. But some reviewer says that your book really deals with the crisis of littering--all those tacky people tossing beer cans from their pickup trucks. Do you see here a terrible disconnect? The reviewer has conflated beer cans and toxic waste under the word litter. Were you the author, you would be indignant: "Beer cans?? I'm talking about stuff that kills people!"
My guess is that George Orwell is similarly indignant. Because he too is talking about stuff that kills people. After it first bullies and torments them.
Fromm's Afterword had two effects on me. I became deeply curious about this man and his motives. And I became very sensitive to the coverage that 1984 received in the media. For example, I realized that every few years the local paper would run disquisitions that seemed to direct readers away from the book's actual message. In 2004, there was a spate of coverage about a project called "1984+20" conducted by the National Council of Teachers of English. The NCTE urged teachers and students to discuss what 1984 "might teach us about life in the contemporary United States." Can you guess what Orwell was really telling us about our life now? Beware those dress and profanity codes! Look out for surveillance cameras at traffic intersections! NCTE didn't talk much about the evils of totalitarian government, or the millions who were murdered by such governments.
An even weirder example of betraying Orwell is a curriculum unit offered by Schools of California Online Resource for Educators (SCORE) in 1999. The stated mission is to study 1984. How? Students are required to read Orwell's essay titled "Politics and the English Language" and to apply its insights to the Inaugural Address delivered by Calvin Coolidge in 1925! (You can find this silliness by googling: score 1984.)
Here's a much more logical course of study. Ask students to suppose the USSR had won the Cold War and we were now living under the rule of the Communist Party. How does 1984 help us understand the psyche of such a government and the misery of its subjects? How does 1984 help us understand why Cambodia's Communists killed more than 25% of the country's people? Conversely, winning the Cold War gave us what benefits that we now take for granted in the contemporary United States? (First, we can read Orwell's book.)
Perhaps some of you have not read 1984 or you have been misled by these dishonest slants. Let me quote a few sentences from the major character named O'Brien. He is candid in describing the world of 1984: "The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power...Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together in new shapes of your own choosing...In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph and self-abasement...There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science...There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness....If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--forever."
The power of the book comes from Orwell's remorseless, almost matter-of-fact-prose, his relentless depiction of the ultimate nightmare. The essence of 1984 is not surveillance cameras and two-way televisions, nor corporate conformity and managerial style. The essence is Room 101--the torture chamber where you confront the threat that will finally reduce you to a whimpering remnant capable only of total surrender to Big Brother, and total betrayal of everything and everyone you once loved. In the Party's eyes, as O'Brien explains, an obedient citizen is not enough. "Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation." No one can possibly misunderstand this plain English. Why then do Fromm, SCORE and the NCTE do so?
The paperback I happened upon in West Virginia was popular in college courses. Millions of this edition have been printed. New editions with Fromm's essay are still being printed. In his grave since 1980, Erich Fromm pushes the Party Line today. But why does he want to? How is he put in a position where he can?
Erich Fromm was called a psychiatrist, a Freudian, and a deep thinker. He wrote a lot of books, with titles like Escape From Freedom. Basically, he was a Marxist. He took all of Marx's themes from 1850--mainly materialism and alienation--and gussied them up for audiences in 1950. Fromm may not have had any original ideas. I suspect in private he considered himself a Communist. His second wife (Henny Gurland) certainly was. And there we come to a totally fascinating bit of history....
The time is 1940. Hitler and Stalin are in business together. The world's two most ruthless Secret Police forces are working in tandem, across the face of Europe, to find and kill anybody who does not serve the Party Line. Stalin, in particular, does not tolerate wavering intellectuals with doubts about the total correctness of what he says each day. A lot of brilliant people are erased. One of the century's most famous intellectuals, Walter Benjamin, is fleeing across France, trying to cross the Pyrenees into Spain and safety. He is carrying a precious manuscript, apparently his reappraisal of Marxist thought....But he commits suicide, or so the police report says.
In 2001 Stephen Schwartz wrote a long article in the Weekly Standard called "The Mysterious Death of Walter Benjamin." The article mentioned a woman named Henny Gurland who befriends Walter Benjamin in his last weeks and joins him in the flight to Spain. She is perhaps the last person to see him alive. The precious MS disappears forever. Suspicious discrepancies abound. Schwartz seems to hint that Henny Gurland is an agent sent by the Kremlin to eliminate a problem. I emailed Schwartz for clarification. He answered: "I do believe that Henny Gurland was involved in the actual liquidation of Benjamin."
Gurland soon reaches Manhattan. In 1944 she marries Erich Fromm. That's when I set up in my chair. Arguably, the woman's a devout Communist and a professional killer. And Fromm marries her?! Wouldn't he know about her past and her politics? Or maybe she found Fromm to keep an eye on him for her real love back in Moscow. In any event, two very far-left people married; and it's that political perspective that animates the Afterword. Fromm spun Orwell as much as he could. Henny Gurland died young, after only 8 years of marriage; she wasn't there to help write her husband's Afterword. But her spirit might as well have been.
Let's look at this from Stalin's point of view. George Orwell was definitely an intellectual who might better have been eliminated before he could write his two masterpieces, Animal Farm and 1984. If such books are published, they must be dismissed. The genius of anti-anti-Communism was never to say anything good about Communism, but to undermine any criticism of Communism. In the extreme case, Henny Gurland liquidates Walter Benjamin. In a more polite part of existence, Erich Fromm and others liquidate George Orwell's message.
It's fair to say that Orwell was more a man of the Left than the Right. It was precisely his hope for an intelligent Socialism that made him experience Stalinism as a monstrous betrayal. He finished the novel in 1949 and died in 1950. He did not write about America now; he wrote about what he had witnessed during his life, and about what Europe might become in a few decades. First, second, and third, 1984 is Orwell's rage against the savage barbarism perpetrated during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s in Stalin's Russia. Fourth and fifth, 1984 is about Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Sixth, if you like, Orwell is a prophet warning us against whatever you discern in the book.
My point is simple. If you -- as a teacher or a student -- are going to study this book, then study this book! With open eyes and intellectual honesty. Stalin's 25++ million victims deserve this much. Let us honor these dead. (Some experts estimate that totalitarian regimes killed nearly 100 million people during the 20th century. Study that.)
Here's a lighter topic for classes to discuss. If somebody tells you that a book means X when it clearly means Y, do we need an exotic term such as Orwellian to describe this behavior, or would cover up quite suffice?
Bruce Deitrick Price is the founder of Improve-Education.org, a high-level education and intellectual site. One focus is reading; see "42: Reading Resources." Another focus is education reform; see "38: Saving Public Schools." Price is an author, artist and poet. His fifth book is "THE EDUCATION ENIGMA--What Happened to American Education."