"1984: An Interview with George Orwell"

(Published in the February/March 1984 issue of Business Software Review. Copyright 1984 by International Computer Programs, Inc.)

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The author of Nineteen Eighty-Four reveals how his bleak vision of 1984 compares to the real thing

Nineteen eighty-four: Finally, we've come to the year everyone's been waiting for. After George Orwell's novel became world-famous in 1949, references to "1984" became synonymous with warnings about totalitarian oppression and the loss of freedom and personal privacy.

Have we reached the nightmare world depicted by Orwell? The signs are mixed. On the Newspeak front, wars are now "police actions" and "rescue missions;" in economics, depressions have been replaced by "recessions" and "downturns;" new taxes are "revenue enhancements;" and prison convicts are "inmates." The Big Lie, developed into a fine art by the Nazis and the Soviet dictatorship, is practiced with abandon by governments all over the world.

Basic freedoms are also under the gun. The horrors of Soviet prison and slave labor camps are now well-known, but even governments in traditionally free countries are becoming increasingly impatient with "human rights." In Nebraska, churches are being prosecuted for refusing to comply with state regulations over religious schools. In Oregon, a man was recently arrested by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service for stating in public that the income tax is unconstitutional. Freedom of speech and religion might be guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but such guarantees are now ignored with impunity.

Personal privacy has almost become a thing of the past. There are now over 2,000 computerized credit bureaus which together maintain files on almost 200 million Americans. Specialized bureaus collect information on individuals' medical histories, while others quiz neighbors, co-workers, and employers about individuals' habits, lifestyle, and "moral character." The U.S. government maintains over four billion files on individual citizens through 7,000 record systems.

In spite of these rather ominous developments, there is considerable reason for hope. Alexander Solzhenitsyn emerged from the Soviet Gulag (a group of slave labor camps in Siberia) to show us that even torture and degradation cannot crush the human spirit. In the west, personal computers have given individuals great power to guide their own destinies. Perhaps most important of all, a growing awareness of the threats to freedom has spurred people into action against those dangers.

In the late 1940s, George Orwell (whose real name is Eric Blair) wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, the most chilling modern account of how things might end up if we fail to preserve our freedom. But Orwell himself is not pessimistic at all. In an exclusive interview with Business Software Review -- his first in over 30 years -- Orwell reveals the motives that led him to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, and how his views have changed over the last three decades. He was interviewed at his home outside Cambridge, England by ICP editor Scott Palmer.

Palmer: Why don't we start off with a little about your life and how you came to write Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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Orwell: That's a long story. It was published in 1949, and it was the last thing I wrote. Nineteen Eighty-Four is the literary summation of everything that I'd discovered about politics and the international political world up to that time. I went to school at Eton, and you might say I was set for an upper middle class career. But I always had a lot of guilt feelings about my social position, and I kept trying to "de-classify" myself, to get rid of my social standing in English society. My political views, well, those took shape when I fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Before that, I worked as a waiter and dishwasher in Paris, was a hobo for a while, and went on tramping expeditions. I shared the life of migrant laborers, and once deliberately got myself arrested just to see what it would be like to be in jail.

Palmer: Was there some political point to all that activity?

Orwell: No, that had no real political edge to it. I became a socialist only after I'd done all this plunging into the lower classes. And I undertook, at an early stage in my writing career, to go to the North of England during the Depression [a worldwide economic collapse that lasted for most of the 1930s] and write a book about the unemployed in Wigan, called The Road to Wigan Pier.

The book was one step on my journey into socialist politics, but I was never really converted to the socialist cause until I went to Spain. I went first as a journalist, but after a few days, I enlisted in the Republican army. I fought there for almost a year, until I was wounded in the throat by a bullet. My experiences in Barcelona, behind the lines, were enormously influential. I discovered that the Communists, who were running the Spanish government at the time, were waging a sort of internal warfare against their own left-wing critics in the Republican movement. And because I happened to fight for one of the political groupings which was labeled "Trotskyite," I suddenly found myself pursued by the Communists as a subversive. I was hunted by the police simply because I had the wrong party card.

This was a really eye-opening experience for me. You have to remember that Communism, at the time, was undergoing the Stalinist purges and show trials in Moscow, where the real enemy was not so much capitalism but Trotsky and others in the Communist movement who refused to accept the Stalinist line.

Palmer: How did that affect your career as a writer?

Orwell: After that, I wanted to do two things. First, I wanted to kill the "Russian myth:" the myth that the Soviet Union was a working model of what a socialist state would be like. That was nothing but a lie. I wrote a history of the Russian Revolution and called it Animal Farm. Of course, that book tells the story of how the animals rebel against the farmer who runs their farm -- the Russian imperial regime -- how they establish a revolution, and how the revolution is then gradually subverted into a new class system in which the pigs, who are the brains of the outfit, become a new, tyrannical ruling class. And the animals find themselves in just as bad a situation as they were in before.

I also wanted to write a book about a totalitarian future in the real world. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, I tried to dramatize how totalitarianism could take over, even in countries like England which have a long democratic tradition. A lot of people take it as my definitive statement on the matter, but in some ways, the book is a lot more pessimistic than I am, myself.

One question you haven't asked, by the way, is how I feel about all this attention being given to me and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Does the attention please me? Am I alarmed or disappointed by any of it?

Palmer: That's a good question indeed. How would you answer?

Orwell: I think that silence about the arrival of the year 1984 could have different meanings. It could mean that I wrote a book which has been utterly forgotten. I'm saddened, in a way, that my book is still read, because that means it's still politically relevant. The totalitarian possibility is still alive in the world, a fact which is confirmed by the geographic boundaries of all this Nineteen Eighty-Four discussion. I don't think we'll see a Soviet publisher bring out a commemorative edition -- although I was interested to read about a Western journalist's interview with a Chinese Communist Party leader who was reading Nineteen Eighty-Four and said it enjoyed it -- that it was just like the Cultural Revolution [ a period of political upheaval in mainland China in the 1960s and 1970s].

It's sad that totalitarianism isn't a historical curiosity by now, but I'm afraid that the "will to totalitarianism" is always going to be around. So in that sense, I'm sorry that Nineteen Eighty-Four is getting all this attention just because the calendar turned over a new leaf.

I have to admit one other thing about all this publicity: it does annoy me, in a way. I put a lot into Nineteen Eighty-Four at a time when my strength seemed to be coming to an end. Getting the book finished just about killed me, so I'm glad that it made an impact.

The trouble is, you'd judge by all the fuss this year that Nineteen Eighty-Four represents everything I ever tried to say, and that's just not so. It's particularly annoying to someone who believes passionately in democratic socialism, who wants to see collectivism combined with freedom, to hear himself described as a supporter of Western capitalism. I detest the Soviet system not because it is revolutionary, but because it claims to be revolutionary when it isn't: when it has, in fact, produced a more tyrannical state than ever before.

Yet a few months ago, a fellow was writing that if I were "alive today," I'd be a neo-conservative, which sounds a lot like what I used to call a "neo-pessimist." That's all a lot of patent nonsense.

Palmer: We stand corrected. Did you regard Nineteen Eighty-Four as a "prophetic" novel? Do you think it's turned out that way?

Orwell: That question came up when the book was first published, and I'll give you the same answer I gave then: the society I depict in Nineteen Eighty-Four will not necessarily come about. But allowing for the fact that the book is a satire, meaning that it's an exaggeration to make a point, something quite like [the society it depicts] could come about. I set the story in Britain to show that English-speaking countries are not above happenings of this kind: that totalitarianism, if not fought against, can triumph anywhere. It's a warning, not a prophecy.

As for how my "prophecies" have turned out, I suppose that's something on which we all keep our own scorecards. Since 1950, when I stopped writing, the spread of totalitarianism over the globe has accelerated. Totalitarianism is the basic pattern of society in many countries, yet our part of the world has not so far succumbed. The fact that the year 1984 is producing this interest in my book is an encouraging sign.

Another entry in the positive column is the alarm so many people feel when technological development threatens to increase the power of the government over the individual. Whenever we see a government of laws assert itself over a government of men, we have positive grounds to hope that the society in Nineteen Eighty-Four is not coming. In the book, of course, there are no laws but many crimes. On the whole, I think the world of 1984 is a little closer to the situation in the book than it was in 1950, but much less so than it could have been. However, the potential for a totalitarian world is large enough that people are worried about it.

Palmer: In the book, you presented the great powers of the world as de facto co-conspirators in a plot to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." Perpetual war not only distracted the people from troubles at home, but provided an excuse for oppression and constant spying on the citizens. Do you see this happening today between the United States and the Soviet Union?

Orwell: There isn't yet a conspiracy, but as far as the people of the world are concerned, there might as well be one. We all contribute to support an enormous military establishment: and at present, there's no alternative. As imperfect as things might be in the West, they're still vastly superior to those in the East. However, our defense institutions have to be constantly watched to make sure they don't crush the freedoms they are supposed to protect. Your own President Eisenhower never did better than when he warned of the dangers in the growth of the military-industrial complex. The using of the world's resources for armaments is a great totalitarian technique for the subjugation of the people.

Palmer: But if both the U.S. and Soviet Union have enough nuclear missiles to destroy each other a hundred times over, why do they both keep pressing for more, more, and still more missiles? If it isn't just a game, why do we have to keep building more and more weapons?

Orwell: Well, the potential is for it to turn into a game, where the nations exist to support the military rather than the other way around. That's certainly a scary possibility. I suppose they worry that the other side might develop a new technology through which all their weapons would suddenly be neutralized. And then, with the aid of a couple of hand grenades, the other side would conquer the world.

It's rather like what happened in the city of Florence during the Middle Ages. The warring factions started building towers, and everybody had to have one. Then, everybody had to have one taller than anyone else's. At a certain point, it becomes ridiculous.

Palmer: It just seems that there's always a "threat." Currently, it's the Soviet Union that's going to come in and take us over, so our government has to have more power to crack down on dissenters and "subversives," on freedom of the press, and everyone has to take a lie detector test.

Orwell: Well, this is the great paradox, of course. What you don't want is to be taken over by a totalitarian power. The great danger is that in protecting yourself against a takeover, you might become totalitarian yourself -- at which point, as at the end of Animal Farm, the pigs become indistinguishable from the human beings. I think that Animal Farm was very good in showing the role of paranoia in establishing and maintaining power. But it's also true that even paranoiacs can have enemies.

Palmer: In the 1930s, we had an economic depression. Since then, however, we've had nothing more serious than "recessions" and "downturns." The last war we were in was World War II: since then, we've engaged in innocuous-sounding "police actions" and "rescue missions." Do you think that our language is being destroyed by a gradual infiltration of Newspeak?

Orwell: I'm rather embarrassed by this question on language. I now think that the model I gave of Newspeak and thought control could not really work. I would have said at the time, of course, that what I had written was a satire, an exaggeration. But it's certainly not true, as I suggested in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that you can control the way people think by controlling the way they speak.

So I think that Newspeak is a fine demonstration of what you might call "the totalitarian will," the desire to reshape society by tackling its most basic institution, language. As a model of how thought could be controlled, however, I think it was off the mark.

Palmer: In the book, Winston Smith, the protagonist, is defeated and ultimately destroyed by the totalitarian apparatus of the Party. Is there any hope for real-life Winston Smiths? Does the example of someone like Solzhenitsyn offer any hope that eventually the human spirit will rise up and smash totalitarian governments?

Orwell: It's true, we have seen shoots of hope spring up with people like Solzhenitsyn. In 1939, when I was reviewing a book about Soviet rule in Russia, I said that "the terrifying thing about the modern dictatorships is that they are something entirely unprecedented. In the past, every tyranny was sooner or later overthrown, or at least resisted, because of human nature which desired liberty. But we cannot be at all certain that 'human nature' is constant. It might be just as possible to produce a breed of men who do not wish for liberty as it is to produce a breed of hornless cows."

So far, no one seems to have seriously attempted this, although modern knowledge of psychology and genetics might make it possible. The present method of coping with such deviance is old-fashioned: repression. As the case of Solzhenitsyn should remind us, however, the Soviet Union has moderated its old-fashioned approaches just a bit. If Stalin had known at the time of Solzhenitsyn's arrest what his literary potential really was -- that is, his potential for making trouble -- he wouldn't have survived a day.

Palmer: For all practical purposes, computers had just been invented when you were writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. Do you think that the development of computer technology has had a positive or a negative impact on the prospects for freedom?

Orwell: Computer technology is just that: technology. It's just as morally neutral as any other technology, such as the ability to make fire, or the ability to print books. But because the computer specifically outpaces and outperforms human beings, it seems very scary. And because certain of its capabilities, such as collating information and searching files, have police applications, we can appreciate how useful the computer would be in limiting our freedom. In the hands of a tyranny, computer technology will be used for tyrannical purposes. But where the will is to expand freedom, there is no reason why the computer should not help.

The diffusion and availability of computer technology in the United States seems to me to be working that way. There are abuses, like the antics of the "hackers," but computers in many hands is a happy development. Totalitarian systems want, above all, to restrict access to information. No individual in the Soviet Union can own a duplicating machine or an Apple computer. There's a sort of cheerful anarchy in the United States computer picture. Totalitarian governments are, above all, orderly, at least in intention, and disorganization has a lot to do with freedom.

Palmer: Do you really think that's a significant factor in the totalitarian outlook -- almost a sort of neatness fetish?

Orwell: Yes, absolutely. What reason does O'Brien, an agent of the thought police in Nineteen Eighty-Four, have for re-shaping Winston Smith? The powers that be could simply kill him. But the totalitarian mind cannot stand the untidiness of having someone think differently, so it goes to the full length of producing in Winston Smith a genuine love of Big Brother. And that's what the government wants. They can then afford to bump him off, because he is no longer disorderly and untidy.

One finds this neatness obsession a little bit in the military mind. There is an American verb, peculiar to the military, "to police" -- meaning, to make the whole place look terribly neat. And the fact that "police" and neatness come together in the language is very revealing. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, nothing works except the police.


 The man behind "George Orwell"

Astute readers might have wondered how Business Software Review managed to interview George Orwell, inasmuch as the celebrated author of Nineteen Eighty-Four died over 30 years ago. This miracle of modern journalism was made possible by David Wykes, associate professor of English at Dartmouth College and a world-famous authority on Orwell. Wykes drew on his vast knowledge of Orwell to answer the interview questions as Orwell would have answered them.

Born in England in 1941, Wykes received his B.A. from University College at Oxford in 1959 and his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia in 1967. He has taught at the universities of Nottingham and Oxford in England, Trondheim in Norway, and, of course, at Dartmouth College in the United States, where he has been since 1972. He specializes in 17th, 18th, and 20th-century British literature and its relation to the political thought of those periods.

The photos of George Orwell

The photographs of George Orwell were provided by the Orwell Archive at University College, London, and are used with the permission of the copyright owner, Mr. Vernon Richards of Essex, England.