Less than a year before his early death on 24 January 1950, 60 years ago, George Orwell offered his most chillingly prophetic warning. ‘Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.’ Winston Smith, the flawed and ultimately defeated hero of 1984, rewrites history in the Ministry of Truth. Whether Eurasia was allied to Oceania or Eastasia changed, but such changes were meticulously revised and the over-written records universally believed.
The West armed Iraq against Iran during the 1980-87 war. By 2003 Iraq had become the enemy. Weapons of mass destruction were manufactured out of thin air to convince nervous government lawyers and sceptical Labour backbenchers. Straw, Blair’s foreign secretary, was explicit: ‘Saddam’s removal is necessary to eradicate the threat from his weapons of mass destruction’. Alastair Campbell, Blair’s spin doctor, jested, ‘Come on, you don’t seriously think we won’t find anything?’. Saddam Hussein, the West’s proxy opponent of Iran in the 80s, was vilified, defeated and executed. Blair now casually concedes that such weapons never existed. Orwell’s Doublethink is at the very heart of contemporary British government.
The concept of Doublethink however, is not merely a rhetorical device, an accusation against Big Brother and despotism. The strength of Orwell’s work is not its detailed, prophetic accuracy but its assertion that language and its power can enslave as well as liberate. Amoral politics are deliberately expressed in language which obfuscates rather than clarifies.
A product of the shabby-genteel English middle-class and an active agent of imperialism in the Burmese police, Orwell rejected his background. His experiences of the 1930s created a radical socialist outlook. In Spain, he was appalled by the Communist party’s brutality against any section of the left which rejected its hegemony and of its crude, invalid identification of the interests of the Soviet Union with the interests of working people. When the international left was uncritically bound to the Soviet Union, Orwell denounced the Moscow Trials. Unlike many on the left, he was not shocked by, and denounced absolutely, the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
Orwell was no conservative cynic. He attacked communism, not from the right, but because he believed it to be destructive of the egalitarianism to which he was committed. He also feared the Communist perspective that all truth is relative or historically specific and its consequent ability to discard truth routinely. Orwell quoted with astonishment the Soviet slogan, ‘2+2=5’, aimed to encourage the achievement of the Five Year Plan in four years. ‘I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened. This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.’
The increasing disregard for truth among the political elite, shaped not only his politics, but his ultimately lasting contribution to British writing, the assertion that ‘good prose is like a window pane’.
‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible because there will be no words in which to express it.’ It is ironic that today, Room 101, where each individual’s greatest fear was used to assert Big Brother’s power and break the individual’s spirit, has been trivialised into a receptacle in which ‘celebrities’ jettison their personal dislikes and Big Brother itself has been transmogrified from a seemingly omnipotent despotism to a banal game show. A debased language creates a supine citizenry. It should be shocking that communism’s blatant disregard for the truth has now been adopted by democratic world leaders such as Blair and Bush.
Orwell remains an inspiring model to those committed to the constant questioning of power and those who abuse it. His commitment to the trenchant power of the English language, expressed in a clear, precise style, challenges, by precept and example, the contemporary debasement of language and the appeal to the facile and the banal. In 1947 he stated that: ‘My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice…so of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly’. His prose indeed is partisan but pellucid, sharp and accessible. In an age of professional political spin, when media moguls producing facile pap appear to wield enormous power and influence, when trivial celebrity and ever-changing fashion are the new opiates of the masses, Orwell’s partisan opposition to injustice, expressed with clarity and precision, are virtues to be emulated.
This article was first published in The Scottish Review on13 January 2010: http://www.scottishreview.net/AWood193.html
 

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