George Orwell Was Watching Too
George Orwell’s best-remembered slogan from Nineteen Eighty-Four—“Big Brother Is Watching You”—reverberates in the 21st century, as computer tracking, surveillance cameras and “security” measures infiltrate our daily lives. Commentators of every political stripe routinely fling about the adjective Orwellian, describing a government that tightly controls its citizens through intimidation and constant monitoring. This map reveals the term’s origins and offers some pop-culture examples.
A virulent critic of fascism, George Orwell set out in 1936 to report on the Spanish Civil War, which pitted conservative revolutionaries, backed by Nazi Germany, against the center-left Republican government, supported by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Orwell joined a Marxist militia fighting for the Republicans, but the group found itself at odds with Stalin-backed Spanish communists, who denounced Orwell’s group as followers of exiled Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Orwell was galled that Stalin’s party, with its pervasive propaganda machine, was more concerned with its own agenda than defeating fascists in Spain, and he was one of few Westerners to perceive the Soviet Union might actually have been working against the Republicans.
In 1937 Orwell was hit in the throat by a sniper’s bullet and almost died, but he faced another threat: The communists accused him of treason for joining the so-called Trotskyites. He and his wife fled to France. In his essay “Why I Write,” Orwell explains, “The Spanish war and other events in 1936–37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”
George Orwell claimed, “Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried…to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” This allegorical novella excoriates not just Stalinism but its apologists, for their willful blindness to Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin’s deadly excesses during his Communist Party rule (1924–1953). Disdain for those who ignored these depredations recurs throughout Orwell’s work.
Many Europeans and Americans who supported the socialist ideals of Soviet revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky refused to reevaluate their allegiance to the Communist Party when Stalin took control and sent many of his former comrades into exile, nor did they accept evidence that he deliberately starved millions of his citizens. The most conservative calculations estimate 3.5 million Ukrainians died during 1932 and 1933 because of strict adherence to Communist-mandated grain-production targets. Orwell refused to deny Stalin’s genocide by famine.
In solidarity with Ukrainian suffering, Orwell wrote a preface to a Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm distributed to postwar refugee camps in Germany. A reference to the leftist infighting he’d witnessed in the Spanish Civil War epitomizes Orwell’s attitude: “I understood, more clearly than ever, the negative influence of the Soviet myth upon the western Socialist movement.”
George Orwell’s Animal Farm and his friend Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon demonstrate the authors’ disenchantment with Soviet communism. While Animal Farm makes an allegory of the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath, covering Stalin’s rise and utter corruption, Koestler focuses on the psychology of his imprisoned protagonist, Rubashov, modeled on men of the Bolshevik old guard. Darkness at Noon features a series of show trials based on those Joseph Stalin orchestrated in the 1930s to purge his Communist Party of dissenters. Many prominent members were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. In his essay “Arthur Koestler,” Orwell wonders why they also confessed to crimes they didn’t commit: “Koestler answers, in effect, ‘Because these people had been rotted by the Revolution which they served,’ and in doing so he comes near to claiming that revolutions are of their nature bad.” Orwell seems to agree with Koestler in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four and concludes his essay by wondering whether “the choice before man is always a choice of evils, perhaps even the aim of Socialism is not to make the world perfect but to make it better. All revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure.”
“All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia,” writes George Orwell in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, the metaphysically tired protagonist of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, finds this out the hard way. Imprisoned on trumped-up charges of treason, Rubashov recognizes the tactics used on him as the same ones he had used on others in his climb to the top. The interrogation of Rubashov also seems a direct precursor of the questioning that central character Winston Smith undergoes in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell’s extreme cynicism toward politics goes back to his experiences in the civil war in Spain, when Stalin-backed communists hunted down Spanish leftists (whom they often disparaged as “Trotskyites”) to the detriment of the Spanish Republic’s defense. In Koestler, Orwell recognized a sympathizer, with similar views toward Soviet communism. Koestler had been imprisoned in Spain and fully expected to be executed. That ordeal, during which he also became disenchanted with the Communist Party, informed the bleak outlook of Darkness at Noon, his polemic against the extreme power-hungry cynicism of Stalinism.
In his trenchant essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell writes, “Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” He lists actual euphemisms, such as pacification, transfer of population and elimination of unreliable elements, that likely inspired a number of his own zingers in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Among Orwell’s coinages that have entered the vernacular are doublethink (believing two opposing ideas), Newspeak (a blandly simplified language), unperson (one erased from history), memory hole (for disposal of evidence, to remove it from the public record), Big Brother (the all-seeing supreme leader with a cult of personality) and thoughtcrime (thinking subversive ideas that contradict the state’s). Today these euphemisms are commemoratively called Orwellian, but that designation more often covers the hallmarks of totalitarianism: a repressed population brought to heel by excessive surveillance, propaganda, a system of informants and spies, adoration of a leader and manipulation of the historical record. Such governments’ insidious misappropriation of language attempts to disguise what are essentially forms of murder and destruction. Orwell posits that this kind of “phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
George Orwell’s magnum opus, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is often compared to his fellow countryman Aldous Huxley’s dystopian masterpiece, Brave New World (1932), in which Orwell found much inspiration. The two writers also knew each other: Huxley was briefly Orwell’s French teacher at the estimable Eton boarding school. Huxley wrote to his former student in 1949, congratulating him on Nineteen Eighty-Four, saying “how fine and how profoundly important the book is.”
Along with Brave New World, Orwell cites other dystopian books as inspiration in his 1946 essay “Second Thoughts on James Burnham.” He includes The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells (1910), The Iron Heel by Jack London (1907), The Servile State by Hilaire Belloc (1912) and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921). These books, Orwell wrote, “all described imaginary worlds in which the special problems of capitalism had been solved without bringing liberty, equality or true happiness any nearer.” Orwell based his troika of superpowers in Nineteen Eighty-Four on one of American political theorist Burnham’s predictions, which posited a future dominated by three superpowers that wage perpetual war on one another because none is ever strong enough to defeat the other two.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon are seminal novels in the dystopian genre, which explores corrupt, repressive, usually futuristic societies that have often devolved from those with utopian ideals. Huxley and Koestler crossed paths much later, in consideration of a very different subject: drugs. In the fascinating 1961 article “Return Trip to Nirvana,” Koestler documents his experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms. Although he didn’t have a bad trip, he found the ordeal horrific at times. He attributes the worst moments to flashbacks of his interrogation by dictator Francisco Franco’s operatives during the Spanish Civil War, decades earlier.
“I profoundly admire Aldous Huxley,” Koestler notes, but he criticizes Huxley’s well-known boosterism of psychedelics and ultimately disagrees “with his belief that drugs can procure ‘…a gratuitous grace.’” Koestler also cautions anyone with emotional baggage to think twice before using hallucinogens: “Chemically induced hallucinations, delusions and raptures [are] confidence tricks played on one’s own nervous system.” To illustrate what he calls being “steeped in cosmic schmalz,” Koestler recounts a story George Orwell told him about a friend who insisted opium had revealed to him the “secret” of the universe. Here it is: “The banana is big, but its skin is even bigger.”
The 10-volume graphic novel V for Vendetta depicts a postnuclear dystopian Britain of the near future where, as in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, security cameras record everything. Author Alan Moore has admitted his express intention to channel Orwell and Aldous Huxley, among other icons of dystopian literature. V for Vendetta was also meant to skewer British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whose Tory government was in power when Moore wrote the comics series, in the 1980s. Moore mined Orwell again for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier (2007), set in 1958 just after Big Brother’s government has fallen (in Moore’s version, Orwell’s events occur in 1948).
The 2006 film adaptation of V for Vendetta (directed by James McTeigue) puts a further twist on Orwell’s cautionary tale, translating it to a post–Patriot Act world and referencing many controversial U.S. actions and transgressions in the war on terror (abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, color-coded states of alert, pervasive surveillance, etc.). British actor John Hurt played citizen Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four (directed by Michael Radford, 1984) and also stars as the Big Brother–style leader in V for Vendetta.
The popular reality TV show Big Brother puts a surprisingly clever spin on George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a totalitarian dictator called Big Brother can watch all his country’s citizens through surveillance cameras embedded in telescreens. Conceived in the Netherlands, the show with the Orwellian name has been reproduced in dozens of countries, including the U.K. and the U.S. Viewers observe the doings of a houseful of people via video cameras that provide continuous footage of the domestic goings-on. Though the show does feature an omnipresent Big Brother character, its viewers are the true Big Brother. The spying in the show is voyeurism, not state’s evidence, and the exhibitionistic participants have volunteered for surveillance, while Nineteen Eighty-Four’s protagonist, Winston Smith, and his fellow citizens have it forced upon them. The continued success of this worldwide franchise has helped guarantee Orwell’s successful pop-cultural leap into the 21st century, in which Big Brother is still a household phrase and surveillance has become a constant presence. The U.K. is said to have 20 percent of the world’s surveillance cameras, and estimates suggest a typical resident there is caught on camera an average of 300 times a day.