“1984” at Seventy: Why We Still Read Orwell’s Book of Prophecy

GURPS

INGSOC
PREMO Member
George Orwell’s “1984,” published seventy years ago today, has had an amazing run as a work of political prophecy. It has outlasted in public awareness other contenders from its era, such as Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932), Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (1953), and Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1962), not to mention two once well-known books to which it is indebted, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” (1921) and Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” (1940). “1984” is obviously a Cold War book, but the Cold War ended thirty years ago. What accounts for its staying power?

Partly it’s owing to the fact that, unlike “Darkness at Noon,” Orwell’s book was not intended as a book about life under Communism. It was intended as a warning about tendencies within liberal democracies, and that is how it has been read. The postwar Sovietization of Eastern Europe produced societies right out of Orwell’s pages, but American readers responded to “1984” as a book about loyalty oaths and McCarthyism. In the nineteen-seventies, it was used to comment on Nixon and Watergate. There was a bounce in readership in 1983-84—four million copies were sold that year—because, well, it was 1984. And in 2016 it got a bump from Trump.

The fundamental premise of the novel was its most quickly outmoded feature—outmoded almost from the start. This is the idea that the world would divide into three totalitarian superstates that were rigidly hierarchical, in complete control of information and expression, and engaged in perpetual and unwinnable wars for world domination. This was a future that many people had contemplated in the nineteen-thirties, the time of the Great Depression and the rise of Stalinism and Fascism. Capitalism and liberal democracy seemed moribund; centralized economies and authoritarian regimes looked like the only way modern mass societies could be governed. This was the argument of a book that is now almost forgotten, but which Orwell was fascinated and repelled by, James Burnham’s “The Managerial Revolution” (1941).


https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/1984-at-seventy-why-we-still-read-orwells-book-of-prophecy
 
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