Orwell Centenary – Part One

18 June 2003

Orwell Centenary – Part One

George Orwell’s Big Surprise

By Gwynne Dyer

He was ‘Don Quixote on a bicycle’, ‘the wintry conscience of his generation’ and if he had lived long enough he would have been very surprised. George Orwell, born a century ago this month (25 June), wrote two deeply pessimistic novels about the inability of human beings to resist tyranny, died at 46, and subsequently became the most widely read political philosopher of the 20th century: ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ were translated into 60 languages and sold 40 million copies. But he was wrong.

His original readers were a generation who survived the fascists and the Second World War only to fall straight into the Cold War decades of confrontation with the Communists. They were already afraid that totalitarianism would ultimately win and that the future, in the words of Winston Smith’s interrogator O’Brien, would turn out to be “a boot stamping on a human face forever.” Orwell’s books told them that they were probably right — but they were wrong, too.

He would have been delighted to know that, but he died forty years too soon. Right down to the end of the 1980s the democratic peoples remained a beleaguered minority, while a third of the world’s people lived under Communist tyrannies and another third languished under sordid dictatorships of a more traditional kind. They all controlled what people said, and the more ambitious ones also tried to control what people thought. And Orwell’s name became a commonplace adjective.

A useful one, too. The first time I was in the old Soviet Union, in 1982, we drove past a derelict Orthodox church in the southern Russian town of Belgorod one day and one of the film crew remarked on it. “There was no church there,” the local Communist Party guide insisted as we watched it recede through the rear window and when we innocently suggested that he drive around the block for another look, he flatly refused. “Orwellian”, we said — and then realised by his embarrassment that he knew exactly what we meant.

That moment should have told me that Orwell was wrong and that the old Soviet Union was doomed, for the official SHOULDN’T have known what we meant. It was more than his job was worth to let us look at that church, and he was used to making the people around him swallow bare-faced lies. But they didn’t actually believe the lies, and neither did he. There was surface compliance, but no Doublethink: sixty-five years of ruthless censorship and totalitarian rule had not even managed to keep low-level provincial Party officials from knowing what ‘Orwellian’ meant.

The totalitarians NEVER achieved the kind of thought control that Orwell and the rest of us feared. Underneath, most people kept their own values and opinions, and by the 80s they were getting ready to dump the dictators. All they needed was a way of doing so that didn’t involve buckets of blood, and by the middle of the decade a powerful non-violent technique for bringing the dictators down was being developed in Asia.

The technique spread by example from the Philippines in 1986 to Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh and Burma in 1987-88, and then to Tienanmen Square in the heart of Communist China in 1989. Not all of these non-violent revolutions succeeded — in Burma and China they were drowned in blood — but the example was so powerful and the technique so promising that later in 1989 the citizens of European Communist countries picked it up and ran with it. 350 million Europeans were freed in two years, with hardly a shot fired.

You can extend the sequence of non-violent, more or less democratic revolutions to include the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia in 1998, and the fall of Milosevic in Serbia in 2000, but 1989-91 was when the balance of power in the world changed. From then on, totalitarianism was on the defensive and a majority of the world’s people (for the first time in history) lived in democratic countries.

Maybe Orwell wouldn’t have been so surprised after all. Looking at the cross-cultural appeal of those democratic revolutions, he might even have felt vindicated in his optimistic belief that the desire for equality and freedom is an attribute of human nature, not of some specific culture.

Orwell would certainly not have greeted this extraordinary historical liberation with the reflex pessimism of most Western intellectuals. Consider Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, for example: “With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it seemed for a time that….henceforth state control would be minimal and all we would have to do is go shopping and smile a lot, and wallow in pleasures, popping a pill or two when depression set in.”

No, Margaret. The discrediting of the totalitarian dream and the democratisation of a large part of the world were genuine gains for the human race. Coping with too much wealth and leisure is a problem too, no doubt, but a different and lesser one that only troubles very fortunate people. Frankly, on this one I’m with President George W. Bush: “Freedom is a powerful incentive. I believe that some day freedom will prevail everywhere because freedom is a powerful drive.”

What Mr Bush overlooks, however, is that all the people who overthrew their oppressors in recent decades did it for themselves. It is doubtful that powerful countries with suspect motives can successfully export democracy to others by force and the attempt of the Bush White House to do just that could yet bring a certain aspect of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ back to life. Not the politics of it, of course that is now gone in most of the world — but the geopolitics.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 8 and 9. (“His original..too”;and “You can…culture”)

TO USE AS A SINGLE LONGER ARTICLE OF 1200 WORDS, OMIT PARAS 3, 4 AND 5 (“He would…meant”) AND 8 AND 9 (“You can…culture”) FROM PART ONE, AND PARAS 2 (“The 20th…ahead”) AND 11, 12 AND 13 (“There would…conflict”) FROM PART TWO.