The Prometheans: Nineteen Eighty-Four

And for the first time in this series of essays, we get to a book that is an actual acknowledged classic work, a book which has flaws, admittedly, but which is so obviously a good book, and so widely known as such, that it would be pointless me trying to write a critical analysis of it here, as anything I could say about the book itself would be something that has already been said, better, by someone else. It’s a book that’s been a favourite of mine since I was eight, and one that I’m sure everyone reading this has already read and formed an opinion of.

So rather than talk about the book itself, I’m going to talk for a little bit about why, specifically, it is often misunderstood, and why it was picked for an award devoted to a political philosophy Orwell would have opposed with every iota of strength in him.

In the American education system (and to a slightly lesser extent the British), Orwell is taught as a premature Cold Warrior. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are the only works of his that are still widely read, and they are taught as being specifically anti-Stalin works. And that’s certainly true of Animal Farm, although even there most people teaching it disregard the central lesson of the book, which is that Stalinism was bad precisely because it reproduced capitalist power-relations, hence the ending where the pigs and the men look identical (an ending which was changed by the CIA-sponsored animated film of the book, for fairly obvious reasons).

And absent any context, it’s easy to read Nineteen Eighty-Four as being specifically and solely about totalitarianism of the left. The personality cult around Big Brother is very reminiscent of Stalin, and obviously the Party’s ideology, Ingsoc, is so called as an abbreviation of “English Socialism”. While Orwell was writing about patterns he observed in all the totalitarian regimes, it’s fair to say that at the time he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four he was more concerned about Stalin, who was still considered by many English intellectuals to be a progressive, aspirational, figure, than he was about the fascist regimes that had just been destroyed. The book also takes much of its inspiration and detail from Orwell’s colleague Arthur Koestler, and Koestler was very specifically attacking Stalinism.

But nonetheless, Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the critique of Stalinism that its capitalist admirers saw in it. It’s a critique of Stalinism from the left, and even more than that it’s a critique of one of the founders of modern American conservatism.

James Burnham is a largely forgotten figure now, but in the 1940s and 1950s he was a major public intellectual in the US, and one of the chief architects of both neoconservatism and (through his influence on Hayek) of Libertarianism. Like many right-wing intellectuals, he started as a Trotskyist (he was a founder of the US Socialist Workers’ Party) and he travelled to a similar extreme on the right. His biggest influence is probably that he was a founder of National Review, the magazine that provided a pseudo-intellectual basis for the revival of the US Right from Nixon onwards.

Burnham’s main thesis, developed in the 1940s after his break from Marxism, was that neither capitalism nor socialism would triumph in the coming decades. Rather, he saw both fascism and Stalinism (and, to a lesser extent, Roosevelt’s New Deal) as being examples of a new, third, system for organising society – one he called “managerialism”, in which the economy would be managed by and for a class of professional administrators, a mixture of managers, civil servants, and technocratic experts. Such a society may be nominally a capitalist democracy or a socialist dictatorship or any other combination of nominal systems, but in reality it would be a managerialist society.

In Burnham’s vision, the masses would be kept happy by propaganda, with no real freedom. There would be a large professional and administrative class who would run the economy in a centrally directed fashion, and a small hierarchy of leaders who would wield power solely in order to have that power for themselves.

Burnham saw this as an absolutely necessary political outcome, and along with it he saw the world eventually developing into three large superstates, centred in North America, Germany, and Japan who would be in a permanent cold war with each other (he later revised this after Germany was defeated in World War II, having Russia be the second major power). His bellicose Cold War stance was, in large part, about trying to maximise the size and power of the North American superstate. In fact, the phrase “cold war” was coined by Orwell to describe Burnham’s thinking, in his essay You and the Atom Bomb from October 1945:

When James Burnham wrote The Managerial Revolution it seemed probable to many Americans that the Germans would win the European end of the war, and it was therefore natural to assume that Germany and not Russia would dominate the Eurasian land mass, while Japan would remain master of East Asia. This was a miscalculation, but it does not affect the main argument. For Burnham’s geographical picture of the new world has turned out to be correct. More and more obviously the surface of the earth is being parcelled off into three great empires, each self-contained and cut off from contact with the outer world, and each ruled, under one disguise or another, by a self-elected oligarchy. The haggling as to where the frontiers are to be drawn is still going on, and will continue for some years, and the third of the three super-states — East Asia, dominated by China — is still potential rather than actual. But the general drift is unmistakable, and every scientific discovery of recent years has accelerated it.

… We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications — that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbours.

We can see here (and far more so in Orwell’s longer and better-known essay on Burnham, published under various titles, but most widely known as Second Thoughts on James Burnham) the outline of the world as described in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and particularly in the book-within-a-book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism which describes how the system is maintained for the benefit of the party elites. (It’s a particularly neat little joke of Orwell’s that the Trotsky figure in his book, Emmanuel Goldstein, is depicted as taking Burnham’s line, given that Burnham split from Trotsky in much the same way that Trotsky split from the Russian Communist Party – especially since it’s later revealed that “Goldstein’s” book was actually written by the party leaders themselves as a way of channelling revolutionaries into useless activities).

Orwell believed that in the short term, Burnham’s analysis was more correct than not. Where he differed from Burnham was that Burnham believed that the coming world he described would be a good thing, and that open acknowledgement (at least among their own class) by the managerial figures he saw as becoming rulers that they were acting only for their own power would lead to the managerial society being a good one for everyone. Orwell, of course, disagreed. And the whole of Nineteen Eighty-Four is an attempt to satirise Burnham’s view of the future, to show that what Burnham was seeing as a positive future would, to any decent person, seem hellish.

Of course, Orwell died shortly after the publication of his great novel, and it was swiftly co-opted into a propaganda tool in the Cold War it was warning against. Burnham’s ideas, in one form or another, became the framework in which all US and UK politicians continued to operate (though usually while getting rid of the bit about central economic control, at least from the 1970s on). The military-industrial complex which Eisenhower warned against is a typical example of Burnhamism in action – industry and government colluding with each other to further their own power, absent any real democratic control or scrutiny.

But while Orwell described the horror of the Burnhamite future, he was also a better political theorist than Burnham, as we can see from Second Thoughts on James Burnham:

Fortunately the ‘managers’ are not so invincible as Burnham believes. It is curious how persistently, in The Managerial Revolution, he ignores the advantages, military as well as social, enjoyed by a democratic country… Even the cruelty and dishonesty of the Nazi régime are cited in its favour, since ‘the young, new, rising social order is, as against the old, more likely to resort on a large scale to lies, terror, persecution’. Yet, within only five years this young, new, rising social order had smashed itself to pieces and become, in Burnham’s usage of the word, decadent. And this had happened quite largely because of the ‘managerial’ (i. e. undemocratic) structure which Burnham admires.

While I don’t agree with the common argument that the appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four is meant to be an historical document from a post-Ingsoc future (which I think rests on a fundamental misreading of the text), reading Orwell’s essays shows that he did believe that the boot would not be stamping on the human face forever, even though that’s the implication of everything in the novel.

Anyone reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, then, should be reading it in context. Without reading The Lion and the Unicorn, Politics and the English Language, Why I Write, You and the Atom Bomb, and Second Thoughts on James Burnham, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Nineteen Eighty-Four is a novel warning of the dangers of encroaching socialism.

In context, it’s an argument for a liberal, democratic, version of socialism, and against the idea that the world should be run by technically-skilled white-collar workers for their own benefit. It’s a remarkable book, and I wish its admirers understood it better.

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8 Responses to The Prometheans: Nineteen Eighty-Four

  1. Isak Glaser says:

    Eight’s pretty young for such a depressingly dystopian book: do you remember why you rated it so high even then?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      *BECAUSE* it was so depressingly dystopian ;)
      I was a very strange child. I remember some of my other favourite books in primary school included Catch-22, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Bertrand Russell’s book on relativity. I also loved a book I had on Parliamentary procedure, and stories of nuclear apocalypse like When The Wind Blows, and regularly read the Guardian and New Scientist. I was a very intense, politicised, tiny child…

  2. plok says:

    Timely stuff!

    As a very non-politicized strange child, I confess I completely missed the propagandistic use of 1984 and Animal Farm, it just all went over my head, I didn’t know what a Stalin was and when finally told that communism existed and that it was like Animal Farm, just thought “well, anything could be like Animal Farm, everything around us is like Animal Farm already”. Not anything around us could be like 1984, as far as I knew, so I got it in my head as a purely notional ultimate dystopia, a pole of heartbreak to be veered away from if it ever came up…I mean, I was in school, it was built like a little factory, it was a kind of a panopticon already, and adult control was absolute and couldn’t be argued with, it had 1984-ish elements but they were mitigated by other things and at the end of the day they could be escaped. I’d always assumed everyone got it this way? Like when you finally read Kafka and you’re like “oh, right: THAT.” But you are encouraging me to think maybe my school just didn’t teach those books that way, didn’t wire them into history very much.

    Now you write this, it makes me think that, if they knew the effect it was having on me, right-wingers in my school district would’ve fought to ban both books…

  3. po8crg says:

    It’s one of only three books that I have had to abandon part-way through because they grossed me out.

    The other two were much inferior books: André Norton’s Plague Ship and S M Stirling’s Under the Yoke. Plague Ship I’d have been about the same eight as you reading 1984, and I’ve never been back to reread it, Nineteen Eighty-Four I came back to years later, and Under The Yoke, I returned to a day or two later after my stomach had settled.

    Such is the strength of that visceral reaction to 1984 that I still struggle to deal with the book at any other level. And no, it’s not the rats.

  4. plok says:

    Ugh, S.M. Stirling. Vile garbage. I hope Andrew doesn’t have to read any of that!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No, Stirling was nominated for the award in 1991, but has never won.

      • plok says:

        Victory! Victory for the people of the Low Blood-Pressure Lands!

        I am actually fucking relieved, Andrew.


        • plok says:

          Just want to say that I was only exposed to Stirling’s survivalist porn, not to anything harsher. Can’t imagine the violence of the feelings brought up by the “less commercial” material. UGH. Richard, I am mailing you a cake.

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