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20 Apr, 2003

Orwell’s “Animal Farm” Warnings on How Totalitarianism Creeps In More Relevant Than Ever

Originally Published: 20 April 2003

No student of the history of totalitarianism can afford to ignore the monumental literary works of British author George Orwell, whose 100th birth anniversary is being commemorated this year.

Well worth revisiting today are Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ (1946), a brilliant satire about the failure of communism, and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949) a prophetic depiction of a totalitarian world in which an intrusive Big Brother seeks to control every element of a society’s lives. Words as “newspeak,” and “doublethink” originate in Orwell’s works, which were to some extent influenced by the cynicism of British historian Lord Acton’s view that ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

As one-party totalitarianism becomes a global rather than a national phenomena, it is uncanny to see the similarities in the methodology used by despots to assume and retain power. Orwell’s primary disdain was directed at those who sacrifice the very ideals and values that raise them to power, and the certainty of the demise that follows. Those who appear to be powerless at first do not always remain so.

Orwell’s books, essays and letters, which I was fortunate to study in my English Literature course in school, contain brilliant aphorisms and epigrams that are tremendously uplifting to those battling the hypocrisy and doublespeak that dictatorships breed. Here is a brief collection, a centenary tribute to the writings of a man who died in ill-health and poverty but is posthumously regarded as one of the greatest sociopolitical visionaries of all time:

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. — Animal Farm, chapter 10, the animals’ Commandment at the end. The original version was, “All animals are equal.”

Power-worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. — Shooting an Elephant, “Second Thoughts on James Burnham” (1950).

Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. — 1984, part 3, chapter 3.

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. — 1984, pt. 2, ch. 9.

To a surprising extent the war-lords in shining armour, the apostles of the martial virtues, tend not to die fighting when the time comes. History is full of ignominious getaways by the great and famous. — “Who Are the War Criminals?” (1943; reprinted in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol. 2).

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. — 1984, pt. 1, ch. 3 (1949), ruling party slogan.

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever. — 1984, pt. 3, ch. 3.

No advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimetre nearer. — 1984, pt. 2, ch. 9.

The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun. — Shooting an Elephant, “Thoughts on the Common Toad” (1950).

Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception. — Notes on Nationalism (1945; reprinted in Collected Essays, 1961).

Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. — Shooting an Elephant, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” (1950).

The high sentiments always win in the end, the leaders who offer blood, toil, tears and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time. When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic. — “The Art of Donald McGill” in Horizon (London, Sept. 1941; reprinted in Collected Essays, 1961).

What can you do against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy? — 1984, pt. 3, ch. 3.

Myths which are believed in tend to become true. —  “The English People” (1944; reprinted in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol. 3).

In every one of those little stucco boxes there’s some poor bastard who’s never free except when he’s fast asleep and dreaming that he’s got the boss down the bottom of a well and is bunging lumps of coal at him. — Coming up for Air, pt. 1, ch. 2.

On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time. — “The Art of Donald McGill,” in Horizon (London, Sept. 1941; reprinted in Collected Essays, 1961).

I sometimes think that the price of liberty is not so much eternal vigilance as eternal dirt. — The Road to Wigan Pier, ch. 4 (1937).

For the ordinary man is passive. Within a narrow circle (home life, and perhaps the trade unions or local politics) he feels himself master of his fate, but against major events he is as helpless as against the elements. So far from endeavouring to influence the future, he simply lies down and lets things happen to him. — Inside the Whale and Other Essays, “Inside the Whale” (1940).

Throughout recorded time … there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low. They have been subdivided in many ways, they have borne countless different names, and their relative numbers, as well as their attitude towards one another, have varied from age to age: but the essential structure of society has never altered. Even after enormous upheavals and seemingly irrevocable changes, the same pattern has always reasserted itself, just as a gyroscope will always return to equilibrium, however far it is pushed one way or the other. The aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable. — 1984.

To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilisation. — Observer (London, 8 April 1945).

The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot foresee. — Inside the Whale and Other Essays, “Charles Dickens” (1940).

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. — Shooting an Elephant, “Reflections on Gandhi” (1950).

The child thinks of growing old as an almost obscene calamity, which for some mysterious reason will never happen to itself. All who have passed the age of thirty are joyless grotesques, endlessly fussing about things of no importance and staying alive without, so far as the child can see, having anything to live for. Only child life is real life. — “Such, Such Were the Joys” (1947; reprinted in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, 1968).

For a creative writer possession of the “truth” is less important than emotional sincerity. — Inside the Whale and Other Essays, “Inside the Whale” (1940).

All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. — “Why I Write” (1947; reprinted in Collected Essays).

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting. — “The Sporting Spirit” (1945; reprinted in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, 1968).

All people who have reached the point of becoming nations tend to despise foreigners, but there is not much doubt that the English-speaking races are the worst offenders. One can see this from the fact that as soon as they become fully aware of any foreign race they invent an insulting nickname for it. — Inside the Whale and Other Essays, “Charles Dickens” (1940).