George Orwell’s “1984” is the iconic novel warning of the ultimate end of the totalitarian state, depicting a world divided into three fascist superpowers, Oceana, East Asia, and Euroasia, permanently locked in a “wag the dog” style war.
The fascist state in the novel is so absolute that it can shape reality however it likes, no matter what it really is. If Oceana has always been at war with East Asia, then it is so because Big Brother, the state’s ruler, says that it is. If Oceana has always been at war with Euroasia, then it is so, also because Big Brother says so. Anyone who defies the all powerful state is eventually caught, tortured into accepting the dictates of the regime, then left at liberty for a while as an example for the rest before being executed.
Recently the Daily Beast published a letter Orwell wrote to a friend five years before the publication of “1984” while World War II still raged, explaining his motives for writing the novel. Essentially he believed that there was a world-wide tendency toward fascism, motivated by nationalism and a desire to centralize economies (i.e. socialism), something he admitted was difficult to do while preserving democracy. Interestingly he lumped together universally recognized dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, Franco, and Salazar (then ruler of Portugal) with Gandhi and De Valera, then the elected leader of the Republic of Ireland. He seemed to be suspicious of almost any strong man, no matter what political system he happened to operate under.
Orwell also ruminated at the dangers of an all powerful state to determine what is and is not true history but what is true science. An all powerful leader could say that 2 plus 2 equals 5, as O’Brian tells the tortured Winston Smith, if it suits his purposes. (Or for that matter global warming is “settle science.”)
Orwell was nevertheless hopeful. He recognized that the totalitarian temptation was different in degrees in different countries. He supported the world war against Hitler, even if it meant supporting Stalin. He believed that Soviet Communism would eventually reform itself, presaging the glasnost and perestroika policies enacted by Mikhail Gorbachev 40 years or so later. The solution was for people like Orwell to constantly criticize, to resist the trend toward fascism and in time reverse it.
In that, “1984” served very well. Indeed, as the Huffington Post recently reported, sales of the book are doing better than ever in the wake of the NSA snooping revelations.