Today’s World of Tomorrow: On Orwell’s 1984

Who controls the present controls the past.  Who controls the past controls the future.


The central conflict in 1984 is an intellectual one.  Freedom, Winston Smith wrote in his journal, is the freedom to say that 2+2=4.  If that is granted then the rest will follow.  Those two sentences carry a lot of weight.  They imply a world where truths as basic and indubitable as “2+2=4” not only are disbelieved in, but can be forbidden to speak of.  They imply a world in which there’s a war between sanity and insanity.  Can a proposition which seems so self-evidently true, such as 2+2=4, really be true if you’re the only one who believes it?  In other words: is a consensus of one necessarily insane, simply because it consists of a man alone?  Can the rest of the world be so insane that it denies basic realities?  And regardless, shouldn’t you have the right to believe what you want?  1984 is obviously a warning against the dangers of an oppressive government; but 1984 is as much about the importance, and objective reality, of the world, and more importantly the past, as it is about the struggle to be an individual voice of dissent in an oppressive society.  In fact, the former may come close to eclipsing the latter.

The book’s villain, O’Brien, believes that the past has no existence apart from our perceptions –  that reality is all in our minds, and thus, if we can successfully change our minds, then we consequently change reality.  This view is often called “idealism”—Julian Symons in his introduction to 1984 called O’Brien “a latter-day Berkeleyan,” Bishop Berkeley being perhaps the most famous idealist.  Similarly, Erich Fromm said that O’Brien’s position “can be said to be an extreme form of philosophical idealism, but it is more to the point to recognize that the concept of truth and reality which exists in 1984 is an extreme form of pragmatism in which truth becomes subordinated to the party.”  Fromm is more accurate here.  The position of “idealism” is essentially that the external world is really only what is perceived by minds; there is no external objective world otherwise. Let us be clear though: Berkeley is perhaps the most famous idealist, but his position is not that there is no objective world.  For Berkeley, there are “real” ideas and there are “imaginary” ideas (Berkeley § 29), “real” being those of the independent world as created by God—while Berkeley says at several points that the world is dependent on minds, ultimately it is only really dependent on one mind: God’s (§ 48)—and “imaginary” being those which conform to subjective wills.  So Berkeley does believe in an objective, law-governed world, and Berkeley’s world relies on God’s constant vigilance to sustain it.  This will be very important to keep in mind going forward because it will be the principle way we can distinguish Berkeley from O’Brien.

The basic ideological struggle in 1984 is between realism, which I’ll here define (intentionally simplistically) as belief in an objective world (that is, a world which exists independently of any of the minds which perceive it), and O’Brien’s pragmatic idealism (“pragmatism” being that view which says, “If it works, use it and keep it.  Who cares if it’s true?”).  All that matters, O’Brien says, is the reality that the Party promulgates.  If idealism encompasses the idea that the external world exists only as it is perceived by the majority of minds, then O’Brien is an idealist.  And for O’Brien, as for Berkeley, even though the world has no existence apart from our perceptions of it, it is not our subjective perceptions which constitute the world—something has to ensure uniformity of the majority’s perceptions.  For Berkeley, it was God.  And God is eternal and unchanging—thus the reality we perceive is governed by absolute eternal laws.  For O’Brien, though, God is dead; it is the Party which ensures the uniformity of our perceptions.  O’Brien’s idealism is essentially pragmatic because the Party determines what our perceptions will be based on what is most useful for the Party’s agenda.

We can elucidate O’Brien’s system by making it into a simple syllogism: if A) the world is as we uniformly perceive it to be (idealism); and B) the party determines, and ensures, the uniform perceptions of the masses; then C) the world is shaped by Party (since the party shapes the uniform perceptions of the people, whose perceptions in turn determine which characteristics the world has).  And since the uniform perceptions the Party promulgates change regularly (for reasons discussed below), Truth has no “objective” quality; it is unreal (in the sense that it is not independent of the minds which apprehend it).

 The…thing for you to realise is that power is power over human beings.  Over the body—but, above all, over the mind.  Power over matter—external reality, as you would call it—is not important.  Already our control over matter is absolute…We [the Party] control matter because we control the mind.  Reality is inside the skull…We make the laws of nature.

So we’ve seen Orwell frame the battle between Winston and O’Brien as the battle between realism and idealism.  But I believe there’s more to this story; there’s something that is overlooked by merely focusing on this debate about the nature of the world.  The battle isn’t just between realism and idealism; indeed, the conflict between these two philosophies may not even be the most important one in the book.  The most important conflict, I believe, is between Winston’s historical realism (which I’ll define as a belief in the objective reality of past events) and O’Brien’s historical idealism (which I’ll define as a belief that the reality of the past is just as malleable as that of the present).  In fact, “Goldstein,” purportedly one of the early architects of the Party, wrote that the most important element of the Party’s philosophy is the ability to change the majority’s perceptions of the past.  If one does not know that things can be any different (because anything that contradicts the present status quo is closed off and denied reality), then one is powerless to make a change, for how would one know that change is possible?

The Party’s philosophy was described by “Goldstein” in his book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.  Chapter one of Theory, entitled “Ignorance is Strength” states that: “Throughout recorded time…there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle and the Low.  They have been subdivided in many ways, they have borne countless different names, and their relative numbers, as well as their attitude towards one another, have varied from age to age: but the essential structure of society has never altered.

“The aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable.  The aim of the High is to remain where they are.  The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High.  The aim of the low—for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives—is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal.”  The High retains power for as long as possible; the Middle enlists the Low to aid in overthrowing the High thus becoming the new High and subsequently tosses the Low back into their “old position of servitude.”  In other words: “From the point of view of the Low, no historic change has ever meant much more than a change in the name of their masters.”

“The alteration of the past,” Goldstein writes, “is necessary for two reasons…The subsidiary reason is that the party member, like the proletarian, tolerates present-day conditions partly because he has no standards of comparison.  He must be cut off from the past, just as he must be cut off from foreign countries, because it is necessary for him to believe that he is better off than his ancestors and that the average level of material comfort is constantly rising.”  The more important reason, Goldstein says, is that the Party must always be shown to have been right.  The Party must be the promulgator of absolute truth; because error or a change of mind is weakness.  And the Party must be all-powerful.  “The mutability of the past is the central tent of Ingsoc,” Goldstein states.  It is not enough for the Party to dominate all aspects of the present, because even if they were able to, thousands of years of human history would be available to suggest that the present is not the way it is necessarily.  One can only believe that the status quo is absolute if it is all-powerful and -knowing – and if it has always existed as it is.

Freedom is the freedom to say that 2+2=4.  If that is granted then the rest will follow.

The overarching motif of the novel is the concern that one should have the freedom to make sense of the world, to be able to look at the way things are, and have been, and to apply reason to it and to follow that the trail wherever it leads.  Because if we don’t have the freedom to use our own intellects to try to noodle out the basic truths about the world, then how can we ever turn the eye of our intellects back on ourselves to try to determine who we are and how we fit into the scheme of things?

The answer is: we can’t.

Fromm says that the fundamental question Orwell poses in 1984 is: “Can human nature be changed in such a way that man will forget his longing for freedom, for dignity, for integrity, for love—that is to say, can man forget that he is human?”  Fromm says, and I agree, that Orwell’s answer is: Yes.

Was Orwell right?

My instinct is no; but regardless of our beliefs on the matter, that is, whether or not we believe that we can be robbed of our humanity, we have a duty to remember that there are those who would seek to do it.  Orwell wrote 1984 to serve as a warning to all of us, and it serves as such, regardless of our political orientations: the futuristic world of tomorrow he envisions could very well be in the making before our very own eyes today.  And we must stand firm.

The past exists.  So let’s learn from it.

  •  Berkeley, George.  A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.  Trinity College: Dublin, Ireland (1734).
  • Fromm, Erich.  “Afterward” in Orwell, George.  1984.  Signet Classic: New York (1961).
  • Symons, Julian.  “Introduction,” in Orwell, George.  1984.   Alfred A. Knopft: New York (1992).

All original content copyright 2013 by Lon K. Montag.  Excerpt freely, but please acknowledge the source.

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