When 1984 came true

During the Khmer Rouge’s nightmarish rule of Cambodia Thought Police, the abolition of the family and even a version of Newspeak were all instituted.

Dystopias of fact and fiction

Even amongst all the dystopias that have been conjured since there remains something uniquely horrible about George Orwell’s. Somehow even the darkest vistas like children killing each other in gladiatorial games, can’t match the utter bleakness of what he foretold. Take this passage of a Party apparatchik outlining its vision:

“There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

Such nightmarish predictions arose not ex niholo but from Orwell’s observation of the totalitarian regimes of his day. Yet like the fictional universes conjured since, these actual regimes could never fully realise their totalitarian ideals. “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” might have been a slogan of Mussolini’s but it didn’t describe how his regime actually worked. The state might be highly invasive of private life but it could not actually abolish it. Religion, private property and above all else the family remained. The same was true of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Tojo’s Japan.

Take Orwell’s most notorious creation: Newspeak. This was a new language the rulers of Orwell’s nightmare state had created so it would be impossible to express ideas of which they disapproved. This was inspired by the way language was bent for political purposes. It was easier to justify “elimination of unreliable elements” than it was to argue for people to be “imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps.” The shroud of euphemism protected people from considering the true horror of what was occurring.

But this was far short of Newspeak: it was the creation of new words and phrases rather than a new language. The basic grammar and the vast bulk of the vocabulary of the language infected with it. It served not to make it impossible to think of certain things but to provide a means by which one could avoid thinking of them. In language as in many other spheres, the totalitarians of the 1930s and 40s were able to intrude more widely than any state before but total control still remained beyond their grasp.

If one wants to find a regime most closely approximating the nightmare of IngSoc, then one would not look to the mighty totalitarian regimes of Orwell’s day.  Instead, you would find it thirty years later in a small corner of South-East Asia.

Apocalypse Then

It is a strange twist of history that the nation that suffered the most as a result of the war in Vietnam was not Vietnam (and certainly not America) but Cambodia. For most of the conflict it was under monarchical regime that tried to avoid choosing sides in the Cold War.

To this end, they struck a bargain with the Communist government of North Vietnam. In exchange for Hanoi postponing efforts to spread the revolution into Cambodia, they would not be prevented from establishing supply routes through Cambodian territory. The resulting ‘Ho Chi Minh trail’ was a vital link between the Communist North and guerrillas in the South.  Its existence predictably infuriated the Americans. They eventually deposed the monarchical government and replaced it with a republican government led by a Right-Wing general called Lon Nol.

As a move designed to undercut communism this failed spectacularly. The urban Cambodians who formed the support base of the new government had largely lost faith in the monarchy but it remained popular in the countryside. An unlikely alliance between the ousted King and the Cambodia’s previously small indigenous communist movement, set the stage for the peasantry to begin joining the Party in big numbers. And what was more Hanoi’s incentive not to back them was gone.

Seeing its new ally, imperilled by these so called ‘Khmer Rouge’ (Red Cambodians), the Americans became more directly involved in fighting in Cambodia. But this proved as ineffective as it did across the border in Vietnam.

It did, however, ‘succeed’ in making the Cambodian people suffer. As America pulled out of Vietnam, it ramped up its involvement in Cambodia. Nixon hoped that if America could be shown to be holding back the communism in Cambodia, then that would mitigate the embarrassment of an impending defeat to it in Vietnam. His efforts to achieve this became increasingly desperate and culminated with having B-52s carpet bomb swathes of the Cambodian countryside. But as was becoming commonplace with American efforts in this part of the world it had the opposite. All this violence weakened rather than strengthening Lon Nol’s position: he was now held to be complicit in the slaughter of his own citizens.

Riding the resulting wave of patriotic anger, in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge took the capital Phnom Penh, a full month before their Vietnamese communists took Saigon.

Mad New World

What happened next might have been expected to follow a familiar. Since the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917, dozens of capitals had fallen to communists. Instead right from the beginning Khmer Rouge rule was quite unique.

They believed it was the peasantry who toiled and that urbanites were parasitic upon their efforts. They also believed city living was inherently corrupting. Therefore, they took the simple but nonetheless extraordinary step of putting an end to it. The more than two million inhabitants of Phnom Penh were told to leave their home and possessions and return to their home villages on foot.

Such marches out of the cities were replicated on a less dramatic scale across the country. The result was that at one point as much as a quarter of the country may have been walking into the countryside.

Launching a mass exodus that left millions destitute was to be only the beginning. The collectivisation of the economy was more obsessive than anything Stalin or Mao had tried. State control of the means of production encompassed not only factories and farms but also cooking implements. Families were forced to surrender these and instead of preparing their own food they had to eat in communal cafeterias.

The Khmer Rouge also took a step that even the North Koreans had stopped short of and abolished money. The Democratic Republic of Kampuchea (as it became officially known) would never print nor recognise an official currency.

The extermination of such supposedly bourgeois ideas as money, private property and individualism would move in tandem with the extermination of the bourgeoisie themselves. Many former city dwellers died during the force marches out of the cities. Other were ill equipped for life as farmers and perished from the hardships of rural life. But many others were deliberately murdered at a network of ‘Killing Fields’ across the countries.

The middle classes were not to be the only one to make the one-way journey to these benighted places. People with connections to the former government, ethnic minorities, those who uttered criticism of the regime, those who had broken rules by for example by taking more than their ration of rice, those who wore glasses and those who had been accused in one of the ‘confessions’ the regime tortured out of its victims were all killed. Generally these executions were conducted with farm implements or other improvised weapons because the regime wished to conserve bullets.

Perhaps the most horrifying element of Khmer Rouge is that they did not just target individuals for execution. If it was decided you were to be executed, then the rest of your family would be killed as well. This would as a matter of routine include babies and toddlers, thousands of who would perish at the Killing Fields.

In this society gone made, even a form of Newspeak began to emerge. In his biography of the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, Philip Short recounts how:

Language was stripped bare of incorrect allusions. Instead of ‘I’, people had to say ‘we’. A child called its parents ‘uncle or aunt’ and other grown-ups, ‘mother’ or ‘father’. A child called its parents ‘uncle and aunt’ and other grown-ups, ‘mother’ or ‘father’. Every relationship became collective; words distinguishing the individual were suppressed or given new meanings. Terms denoting hierarchy, like the dozen or so verbs ‘to eat’, whose use depended on the rank and social relationships of those involved, were replaced by a single verb previously used only be peasants. Nuon Chea, who masterminded these changes, devised neologisms, often based on scholarly Pali terms  to convey political concepts for which no equivalent existed in Khmer. Other new coinages were taken from peasant slag: bokk rukk, to ‘launch an offensive’ meant literally to ‘ram a stake into a hole’, with the sense of violent buggery. The sexual connotation was odd in such a puritanical regime, but it conveyed well enough the idea of an elemental, brutish struggle to overcome material obstacles and bend nature to man’s will. Nuon, as the final authority, other than Pol himself, in all matters concerning propaganda, also supervised Radio Phnom Penh. At his insistence, words conveying lyrical or ‘bourgeois’ sentiments, like ‘beauty’, ‘colourful’ and ‘comfort’ were banned from the airwaves.”

Short states that neither Pol or Nuon had read 1984, so there was no conscious imitation. Yet the similarities between his fiction and the nightmarish reality the Khmer Rouge created became evident in other areas:

“The family continued to exist but, as Orwell had imagined, its primary purpose became ‘to beget children for the service of the Party’. Ties between individual family members were diluted within the larger community. ‘Mothers should not get too entagled with their offspring,’ Pol told the Central Committee. Similarly, if a man felt a sentimental attachment developing with a woman, he should ‘take a collectivist stand, and resolve it…To do otherwise is to have a strong private stance.’ Marriage – not merely between Party members, as Orwell had envisaged, but between any two people – was a Party, not an individual affair. Khieu Samphan married in Decemeber 1972 because Pol told him he should and personally serviced as his go-between. Traditionally, in Khmer society, marriages had been arranged between families. Now Angkar [the state] played that role. ‘Free choice of spouses’ was explicitly condemned. To underline the social aspect, weddings were celebrated collectively for a minimum of ten couples. After a marriage had been consummated the couple often lived apart.

Illicit love affairs were punished by death. Women wore their hair short in a regimented Maoist bob with shirts buttoned to the neck. At work the sexes were segregated, regardless of age. Sport was banned as ‘bourgeois’. So were children’s toys. There was no free time. The only reading materials were two Party journals, which were exclusively for cadres, and a fortnightly newspaper, Padevat (Revolution), which circulated with the ministries in Phnom Penh. The Buddhist wats, formerly the centre of village life, were closed. Some were demolished, as the Catholic cathedral had been, to recover the iron struts that reinforced their concrete frames. Others were turned into prisons or warehouses, much as Cromwell’s New Model Army in seventeenth-century Britain had turned the churches into stables. Because they lived on charity, the monks were regarded as parasites: in Khmer Rouge terminology, they ‘breathed through other people’s noses’. Along with expatriate intellectuals and officials of the republican regime, they were designated a ‘special class’ – a singularly un-Marxist category – and within a year had been defrocked and put to work in co-operatives or on irrigation sites.

In short, everything that had given colour and meaning to Cambodian life was comprehensively suppressed.

Hiding behind Big Brother

These were not the only ways in which Khmer Rouge was Orwellian.

Despite being a Party member, 1984’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is unaware of its true ideology and nature. It is only revealed to him during his interrogation for Thoughtcrimes. In the context the novel was written in. Far from trying to hide who they were and what they believed, Stalin and Hitler made every effort to inveigle themselves and their ideas into every aspect of their subjects’ lives.

Yet for all the theorising about centrality of charismatic leadership to totalitarianism, the Khmer Rouge did just about everything they could to obscure who was really in charge. Years of evading detection by the secret police meant the Khmer Rouge came to prize secrecy. The flow of information around cadres was kept to an absolute minimum. Hence the rather sinister sounding system for identifying Party members under which Pol Pot became known as ‘Brother Number One’. This became such an obsession that the men who captured Phnom Penh were not officially agents of the Cambodian Communist Party.  Instead they supposedly owed their allegiance to a shadowy organisation known as Angkar. It was not until two years into their rule, that it was publically acknowledged that Cambodia was now under communist rule and that Pol Pot was its head of government.

Delusions of grandeur

One can also find echoes of Oceania’s militarism and especially it’s abruptly changing targets.  At one point:

…. during a Party Rally against the original enemy Eurasia, when the orator suddenly switches enemy in midsentence, the crowd goes wild and destroys the posters that are now against their new friend (Eurasia) and many say that this must be the act of an agent of their new enemy (and former friend) Eastasia. Even though many of the crowd must have put up the posters before the rally, they now say that the enemy has always been Eastasia.

The about turn the Khmer Rouge performed regarding their erstwhile Vietnamese allies was only somewhat less brazen.

True, there had always been tension in the relationship between the two communist movements. The Cambodians tended to regard the Vietnamese as ancestral enemies: the nation that had forced them from a glorious past containing the mighty Khmer Empire that built the great temples at Angkor to a modest present. For their part, the Vietnamese Communist Party was almost comically inept at handling Cambodian sensitivities. Their own resentment at being lectured and pushed around by their Chinese comrades seems to have taught them little about how their junior partners might perceive them. Party General Secretary Le Duan seemed to have a particular talent for making Khmer Rouge figures feel patronised. There was also the inconvenient fact the VCP had been prepared to trade the nascent Cambodian revolution for sake of the Ho Chi Minh trail. This all did little to dispel Cambodian suspicions that the Vietnamese intended to create a united Indochina with themselves at its head.

Nonetheless, the two parties had fought alongside each other for years, supposedly shared a common ideology and arguably owed their victory to each other efforts.

But that uneasy relationship quickly turned to barely concealed hostility. The initial trigger was that the maritime borders between the two countries were disputed. This resulted in a violent but contained class over some islands in the Mekong Delta. However, behind this were deeper issues.

The Cold War was now pitting communist against communist. By this point Nixon had visited Mao in China and formed an anti- Soviet alliance between the two countries. During the War, Hanoi had been careful not to choose between Moscow and Beijing because it needed material support from both of them. Freed from that constraint it now shifted firmly into the Soviet camp. That put it at odds with the Khmer Rouge, who felt a greater affinity with Mao’s regime which shared their rural, third world roots and radical outlook.

Another problem was that ethnicity mapped imperfectly onto state boundaries: there were ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia and Khmers in Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge found such ethnic diversity difficult to deal with, it didn’t really fit with their notion of a people all absorbed into a single harmonious whole. As a result, the Vietnamese Cambodians suffered repression even worse than the general population. This sent refugees pouring across the border into Vietnam.

Then the Khmer Rouge began something that was even by their standards pure insanity; they extended their campaign of anti-Vietnamese violence into Vietnam itself. As little as a hundred years before the Mekong Delta had been Cambodian territory and there was still a substantial Khmer minority residing there. Pol Pot seemed to envisage that if these areas could be ‘cleansed’ of their Vietnamese population then Cambodian rule could be restored.

The nature of the Khmer Rouge more or less demanded like such militaristic visions and the projection of rage outwards that it permitted. It was a movement that very much rested on “the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.” Its fighters were mostly young men (and in many cases boys) traumatised by the US Air Force’s devastation of their villages and Lon Nol’s brutal oppression. It offered them the balm of conquest and domination. First, that was directed against the ‘new people’, the decadent inhabitants of the cities. With them dispersed and ground down, the Vietnamese became the next targets for glorious conquest. Angkar it was promised would restore the days of Angkor.

This was a misjudgement of a similar nature to Hitler deciding to invade the Soviet Union. But its magnitude was even greater. The Germans were at a three to one population disadvantage and had a better disciplined and more technically sophisticated military. By contrast, the Cambodians were attacking a country with seven times their population and their armed forces lacked the heavy weapons its adversary had in abundance. Pol Pot and his acolytes assured themselves that when Nixon had sent the most powerful military in the world to fight them they had defeated it and that therefore they would do the same again. This was a fantasy; they had survived their confrontation with the Americans and then later on defeated a puppet government largely abandoned by its sponsors. And they had managed that only thanks to assistance from the Vietnamese, who let us not forget actually had beaten the Americans.

Yet such is the nature of a totalitarian society that the evident stupidity of this decision was able to be ignored. Pointing it out would have betrayed a treasonous lack of faith in the revolutionary project. This attitude was as pervasive as it was destructive. Implausible agricultural production targets were set and no one dared point out their absurdity. Instead in an effort to meet them local cadres pushed labourers, who were little more than slaves by this point, beyond their physical limits. A failure to perform due to illness, exhaustion or a lack of agricultural knowledge was treated as a sabotage and left the ‘perpetrator’ open to execution. And in a bitter irony, while an increase in rice output was achieved, the workers responsible had been pushed to such astonishing exertions that they nonetheless still did not have enough food. This combination of starvation and forced labour resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians.

It was this exhausted and emaciated nation on the verge of starvation that was now to attempt to defeat its much larger neighbour through sheer will power. Waves of Cambodian soldiers were sent on incursions across the border to massacre Vietnamese civilians. This predictably resulted in the Vietnamese sending their own forces in the opposite direction and quickly capturing chunks of territory. It took a diplomatic storm to force them to retreated. Rather than taking this as an indication its plans were unrealistic, the Khmer Rouge continued their incursions.  A process of shadow boxing continued for around a year as the Vietnamese tried to engineer the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge by discontents within its own ranks. Then in December 1978, they lost patience with the slow progress of this strategy and they launched a full scale invasion of Cambodia. Such were the horrors the Khmer Rouge had unleashed on their people that few of them would take up arms to defend their government even against their traditional enemy. A mere fortnight later Vietnamese forces entered Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge’s leaders fled into exile in Thailand.

What Orwell didn’t predict

What I find so chilling about 1984 is that it is written with so little hope. One can see no chink in Big Brother’s armour. The nefarious forces controlling it have immense power and a cold calculating sense of how to use. It is implied that the regime has existed for some time and, despite the epilogue that implies the regime does eventually fall, it is hard to see it not continuing to subjugate its people for a very long time.

This is I believe Orwell’s primary misapprehension about totalitarianism. He envisaged it as a uniquely formidable form of government.In fact, far from being ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever’, real totalitarianism proved to be the most fragile form of government.

There are monarchies that have ruled for centuries. The US has had the same republican constitution for more than two centuries. By contrast, Nazi rule lasted only a little more than a decade. Soviet Communism was more resilient but moved from revolution to glasnost in less than seventy years. The high drama of Maoist China lasted just thirty; the Communist Party has now evolved from a totalitarian past to an authoritarian present. North Korea is alone amongst the totalitarian regimes in showing signs of longevity.

Iit is probably not a coincidence that as the Khmer Rouge, the most extreme totalitarianism of all, the Khmer Rouge was fastest to lose power. It didn’t even last four years; its total rule briefer than a single term for a US president.  It appears that societies are not generally able to exist in such a state of terror and delusion for very long.

But if totalitarianism is less persistent than Orwell feared, while it was lasted it proved worse than even he imagined. The clear eyed calculation that underpins the activities of Orwell’s Party may seem horrific but it contrasts favourably with the dark and ignorant passions of real totalitarians. Cynicism appears in this regard preferable to sincerity. Big Brother does not appear to have brought about famines or exterminated ethnic groups. Yet these horrors, amongst the worst humans can endure, are de rigueur for totalitarian regimes. And nowhere was this was worse than Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge might only have ruled that poor country for a short period of time but that was long enough for them to leave two million of their countrymen dead. That represented a loss of somewhere between a quarter and a third of Cambodia’s population, a significantly higher proportion than even Hitler, Stalin or Mao had ‘managed’.  Comparing Orwell’s nightmares with Cambodian history, it appears that not only was fact often stranger than fiction but in many regards it was even more hellish.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: learn to talk like human beings

Orwell warned that the sorry state of the English language was damaging politics. The weird way Christians talk about their faith is doing the same to religion

The video above pokes gentle fun at some of the strange words and phrases that only Christians use. To be honest, many of them are specific to the Bible Belt. I’ve never heard anyone at Wesley Memorial praise something by saying it is ‘souled out’ – and thank goodness for that – but different churches and denominations each seem to have their own dialect of ‘Christianese.’

One example that seems pretty universal is ‘fellowship.’ A term that appears in the bible but has no other saving grace. It is broad to the point of being meaningless, covering loosely connected concepts like: friendship, solidarity, community, church membership and denominational affiliation. Using it completely obscures the distinction between these ideas.

The most obvious problem with believers having a language of our own is that it potentially alienates outsiders. However, my real concern with ‘Christianese’ is that it’s typically bad English. It’s replete with the flaws that George Orwell warns of in Politics and the English Language: overused metaphors and figures of speech, overlong words, padding, the passive voice, foreign words and jargon. And as Orwell warns bad English is a serious matter. A lack of clarity in communication can lead to unclear thinking. Conformist thinking is often betrayed by tired and clichéd language. And it allows for obfuscation which permits ‘the defence of the indefensible.’

Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Orwell thought of this triad of dangers in a political context but they can also be seen in a religious one. To see them all at once consider: penal substitution. This bizarre yet widely believed doctrine holds that despite being all powerful God is unable to forgive humanity without someone being punished for our sins. Therefore, Christ is offered as a substitute sacrifice to appease God’s wrath.

Using an expression like penal substitution with an unclear meaning rather than spelling out what one says serves a dual obfuscatory purpose. It prevents one having to dwell on the logical contradictions of the idea: an omnipotent God being constrained, a forgiving God demanding vengeance, and how the death of a single individual could possibly substitute for the sins of all humanity. And turning “a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed” into penal substitution is the religious equivalent rebranding massacres as pacification. In short what it allows us to accomplish is – to use another Orwellism – ‘doublethink.’ One can adhere to the notion and so remain faithful to the orthodox thinking of many churches without facing the contradictions inherent in it.

I think we can do better than that. To quote Orwell for the last time:

If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy…when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs.

Penal substitution, fellowship and ‘souled out’ belong in that dustbin too. There is a prize for jettisoning them and using the language of regular human beings: a Church less able to defend the indefensible, better able to examine its ideas and thus a more persuasive articulator of the gospels.

Orwell in Panem: What the Hunger Games owes to 1984

*Spoiler warning: this article reveals lots of plot points from all three Hunger Games books and 1984*


Now that it is venerable enough to merit inclusion on school curriculums and lists of the greatest ever novels, it’s easy to forget the horror and revulsion it initially generated. During the broadcast of a 1954 BBC adaptation of the story, a 42 year old housewife housewife named Beryl Merfin was so disturbed that the shock killed her. And an Early Day Motion was tabled in parliament decrying “the tendency, evident in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programs…to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes.”

There’s something similar in the reaction to the Hunger Games. Many are appalled by the violence it shows or by the premise of teenagers fighting to the death.

It is strange that connections are not drawn between these two dark dystopian novels more often. Fans and admirers of the Hunger Games tend to locate Collin’s inspiration in the classics or Lord of the Flies. While her detractors claim she ripped off Battle Royale. However, I’d suggest that 1984 seems like a significant influence as well. Especially given that Collins is apparently a fan.

So where can we see this influence?

The Brutality

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley conceived of a regime that ruled not through fear but by providing its population with a string of amusements to keep them perpetually distracted.

That’s emphatically not how President Snow maintains his power. He relies instead on a rather Orwellian dose of terror.  While the Hunger Games may be set in a land whose name comes from the latin phrase ‘panem et circenses’ (bread and circuses) there is no sense its rulers are trying to buy off their people or earn their affection. Rather it is the threat of violence from Panem’s paramilitary ‘peacekeepers’ that keeps them in line.

While Games themselves may at least in part have been inspired by gladiatorial games and are occasionally described by characters as being meant to serve as a ‘distraction’, that doesn’t seem to be their real purpose. Rather they are a commemoration of a failed rebellion against the Capital and an implicit warning not to try again.

Nuclear Weapons

1984 was written at a time when nuclear weapons were a new phenomenon and is in part Orwell’s attempt to work through their consequences. As David Aaronovitch explains:

“Orwell saw the beginnings of a…carve-up of the globe into superpowers and told friends that this was what initially set him going on the novel.

Less than two years later, the Americans dropped atom bombs on Japan. In an essay for Tribune magazine called You and the Atomic Bomb, Orwell argued that the A-Bomb threatened to bring into being….[a] world of super states governed by totalitarian hierarchies of managers.

It’s often missed that Nineteen Eighty-Four is set a few decades after an atomic war. The managers administering the book’s three super states, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, have tacitly agreed not to try to destroy each other but to continue forever in a kind of cold war.

Indeed, it was Orwell who coined the phrase “cold war” in that 1945 essay.”

A similar situation emerges in the Hunger Games where the Capital and the rebellious District 13 are locked in a state of mutually assured destruction because during the rebellion each acquired part of Panem’s nuclear weapons stockpile. That creates a situation where the Capital can exert its control over the remaining districts. Until Katniss shows up that is…..

The Names of Places

Real places have acquired impersonal nomenclatures. So Britain becomes ‘airstrip one’ and West Virginia morphs into ‘District 12.’

They can make you hate the one you love

Orwell dramitises the Thoughtpolice’s power and the fear they can evoke with their ultimate torture instrument, Room 101, by showing how they get the lovers Winston and Julia to betray each other. Confronted with his personal nightmare of having his face eaten by rats, Winston cries out that “torture Julia instead.”

In Mockingjay, the final Hunger Games book, Peeta whose adoration for Katniss has been unwavering throughout the trilogy is hijacked (i.e. brainwashed) to hate her with a murderous ferocity.

The Tarnished Revolution

Ok, this is from Animal Farm not 1984 but I’ll bet that if Collins is a fan of the later book, she’ll have read the former too.

Both books feature revolutions that betray their ideals in very fundamental and symbolic ways: Napolean and the other pigs start walking on two legs or President Alma Coin’s proposal to continue the Hunger Games with tributes from the Capital.

Dystopias old and new

When young adult fiction is drawing on ideas from a classic political fable, the distinction between high and low culture really does not make a great deal of sense.

I do wonder how long debates over the threat of totalitarianism will remain dominated by the language of 1984. There’ve been a huge number of dystopias since: Fahrenheit 451, Blade Runner, the Handmaid’s Tale and now the Hunger Games. I wonder how long it will be until they begin providing at least part of the vocabulary we use to talk about tyranny.

The revolution will not be peaceful

Having been challenged by Robert Webb to “read some fucking Orwell,” Russell Brand responds by showing that he’s either not read or not understood Orwell.

Robert Webb and Russell Brand

I’m not sure quite how we have got to the stage where the politics of Russell Brand apparently merit not only an interview by Jeremy Paxman but also a follow up with Medhi Hassan. However it happened, I really wish it hadn’t. His responses to Robert Webb’s thoughtful and intelligent critique of revolutions illustrates the shallowness and recklessness of his political thinking.

His Weak Arguments

Brand continues to deploy the George W. Bush technique of trying to make his ignorance into an asset. He explains that he doesn’t “claim to be a politician, like all things I’m sure there are people in the room who know more about this than I do, I didn’t have an education like Robert Webb had.” People who try to legitimate their views by saying in effect ‘you should take me seriously because I’m as stupid as a regular person’ are not only insulting regular people but also showing why their views don’t merit attention. Political debate should be about the mutual enlightenment of all those involved not about the dissemination of ignorant opinions by those who main qualification is being as stupid as some purported everyman.

Brand also tries the inverse of this reasoning by trying to brand Webb an elitist. He says: “Maybe it’s okay for Robert Webb…If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids.” This is a weak argument because:

His scary argument

However, this is far from the worst part of the interview.

“I’m not saying lets go smash people up and certainly not kill people. Just for the record, I’m not in on the old death camps… I’m double, double against genocide. I am talking about a revolution of consciousness.”

Brand added: “Definitely no killing. I’m against that; I’m a vegetarian, I think we’re all equal. I’m not saying smash people’s stuff up, and definitely no killing.”

Assessing previous Marxist revolutions, the 38-year-old said that in its “traditional form” revolution was ok but it “went a bit genocidal, it was just a bit of sharing, then it got spoilt.” Brand insisted that he wanted a peaceful revolution. “Once you are violent you’d get nicked. If you’re disobeying without being violent they can’t nick you, it’s a paradigm breaker.”

What Orwell could teach Brand

If Brand took Orwell seriously, he’d understand precisely why these (bizarre) clarifications are so pointless. The whole point of Animal Farm is that even revolutions that seem benign at the start, can mutate into something ugly. The pigs do not start out announcing that they plan to have dogs kill other animals, send Boxer to the glue factory and begin walking on two legs. But that’s what happens as power corrupts them and their revolution.

This not only happened in the Soviet revolution that inspired Animal Farm. It took only a few years of the French Revolution to turn Robespierre from an opponent of the death penalty into the instigator of the terror.

Why we need Democracy for peace

Let’s be clear, the kind of revolution brand imagines – anti-democratic and radical – would almost inevitably be violent.

Democracy is not only (or even primarily) a means for representing the views of the people, it’s also a means of avoiding political violence. It provides a set of rules on transferring power that are generally perceived as broadly fair and therefore accepted – it’s a safe bet that after the last general election, Gordon Brown did not contemplate using the army or police to hold onto power.  Take away democracy and you take away the rules of politics, and anything (including violence) goes. Without democracy it is hard to see how the Brandian revolutionary vanguard would legitimate their rule and without legitimacy it is hard to see how they could maintain their rule except through coercion, and indeed how they could dissuade people from using violence to oppose them.

And revolutions are worse than even Orwell suggested

Brand says a “total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me.” These kind of genuinely revolutionary revolutions with their utopian pretensions are the most dangerous. Better even than Orwell for understanding why revolutions go bad is Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions. In the dry prose of a sociologist she explains why she found conventional Marxist analysis inadequate for understanding ‘social revolutions‘ like those in France, Russia and China. Marx would lead you to believe that revolutions transfer power between classes. Instead Skocpol found that the largest shift in power was not towards any particular class but to the state itself. This comes about because the revolutionary regimes needed a state mighty enough to push through their plans for dramatic changes. So they give bureaucrats, the armed forces and other organs of the state a degree of power they’ve never had before.

Orwell was actually understating the horror of the revolution when at the finale of Animal Farm, the ordinary animals see that the pigs have become indistinguishable from their old human masters. Stalin wasn’t indistinguishable from the Czar; he was far worse. The Czars ability to oppress his people was constrained by his ramshackle state. By contrast, the Soviet state was powerful enough to send thousands to the Gulags, spy on the entire nation and starve millions to death in the name of collectivizing agriculture.

Time for the political prima dona to exit the stage

Just about the only thing Brand gets right in this whole sorry interview is that there are indeed plenty of people who know more than he does. It’s time he let them take the floor. Nothing he has to say about revolutions portrays insight or deep thought. His political thinking is underdeveloped and ill-informed.

He should be more careful. Revolutionary socialism is an unpleasant and violent doctrine. While there is little or no chance of a socialist revolution in Britain today, there is a risk in even some individuals taking it seriously. There was a time not to long ago when the terrorist threat to Europe came not from angry young Muslims but angry young leftists. Given high youth unemployment and our general disengagement from party politics, the conditions for it to re-emerge are there. Webb rightly observes in his letter to Brand that:

In putting the words “aesthetically” and “disruption” in the same sentence, you come perilously close to saying that violence can be beautiful. Do keep an eye on that. Ambiguity around ambiguity is forgivable in an unpublished poet and expected of an arts student on the pull: for a professional comedian demoting himself to the role of “thinker”, with stadiums full of young people hanging on his every word, it won’t really do.

George Orwell and English Socialism

George Orwell at his typewriter.

My friend and political comrade Robin McGhee has written an article for Prospect on George Orwell. What particuarly struck me was this passage about the significance of Englishness to Orwell:

Orwell’s England represents the culmination of his romantic notions of human decency, equality and the right to live an apolitical life away from dictatorial oppression and intrusion. England’s cultural touchstones, like pubs or toads or the simple cup of tea, are something Orwell chronicles with quiet adoration. That England is also a political entity is an inconvenience—its culture and civilisation is, if anything, anti-political. This helps explain why Orwell is so obsessed with English literature and language: it is the product of a political life that specifically avoids politics. Nineteen Eighty Four‘s depiction of England represents Orwell’s nightmare: a nation forgotten (it is now named Airstrip One), where there is no life outside the state, no method of expression except that allowed by the state (which is rewriting English as Newspeak), and no possibility of redemption except in a revolution by the politically obliterated proletariat.

This interested me for two reasons:

Firstly, I wonder if this rather John Majorish sense of Englishness might in part explain the paradox that David Aaronovitch identifies: that Orwell was on the left but is now principally cited by those on the right.

Secondly, I can’t help noticing a certain affinity between Orwell’s reverence for private pleasures and Anthony Crosland‘s suggestion that:

We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafes, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs, brighter and cleaner eating houses, more riverside cafes, more pleasure gardens on the Battersea model, more murals and pictures in public places, better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing estates, better-designed new street lamps and telephone kiosks and so on ad infinitum.

I do wonder if there is a broader connection between the two men. Certainly they were both influenced by James Burnham’s idea of a Managerial Revolution.