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.

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.

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.