The European political background for Orwell's novel 1984, published in 1949, was of bloody conflicts: Stalin's Great Purge (1936-38), the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), in which Orwell took part, and World War II (1939–45).
Stalin became leader of the Soviet Union's Communist Party in 1929 and led it until his death in 1953. Private property was seized by the State and Stalin became a dictator, inaugurating a totalitarian government which eliminated all political opposition. During the Great Purge, centred around the year 1937, he installed a reign of Terror in Russia through torture, false confessions, 'vaporisation' as Orwell calls it, rewriting of history, prison camps and executions to consolidate his rule.
Stalin also had a part in the Spanish Civil War where he funded the Republican government. However his paranoia about complete power led him to suspect many republicans of treason which resulted in in-fighting and had a divisory effect on the Republican struggle. Orwell had firsthand experience of the caotic bloodletting Stalin"s policies wreaked among the Republican fighters.
Around the globe contemporary totalitarian states were taking shape. Mao Tse-tung in China was fighting for communism, against Chinese nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan. When Mao defeated the nationalists in 1949 he began a long, oppressive, totalitarian regime. Other dictators of the time included Francisco Franco in Spain and Benito Mussolini in Italy. These rulers controlled citizens through propaganda and violence. These inspired Orwell to create Big Brother, the ultimate totalitarian leader who dominates all political, social, and economic activities.
The title 1984 is probably the inversion of the year when he finished the book: 1948. It was influenced by several literary sources. The future dystopian background found in the novel was inspired by several books: When the Sleeper Walks (1899) by H.G. Wells, We by Fyodor Zamyatin (1923), reviewed by Orwell in 1946, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).
The concentration camp ambiance of Orwell's novel is also found in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1941), whose main character struggles to preserve his individuality after his arrest and torture. The Managerial Revolution (1941) by James Burnham provided Orwell with the concept of a world governed by superstates: 1984's Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia.
Orwell declared that he had written the book as a warning:
"I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily WILL, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it COULD arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences."
And in reply to criticism from his compatriots:
“The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not FOUGHT against, could triumph anywhere.”
He begins a private diary, an act punishable by death but it is a way of remaining sane against the regime which demands doublethink: subjects must deny the evidence of their own senses and believe the Party's propaganda.
Winston does not like either the Party or its leader, Big Brother, but knows that any criticism carries the death penalty. His hope is that the subhuman proletariat can overthrow the Party.
Winston thinks that O'Brien, a higher up Party member, shares his critical view of the regime but he is really one of the ruling Party. He is also worried that a dark-haired girl is spying on him. She is in fact interested in having an affair with him and they rent a room in the proletarian area as a hidden refuge for their meetings.
The friendly landlord turns out to be a member of the thought police and both Julia and Winston are arrested. O'Brien is a loyal Party member and becomes Winston's interrogator. Winston and Julia betray one another and so lose their self-respect, individuality and relationship. They are released, separately, to live out their broken lives as loyal Party members, accepting Big Brother. Winston's experiences turn him into an alcoholic.
“War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.”
Winston is an employee of the Ministry of Truth where he continually rewrites any history that makes the Party or its leader look bad. If Big Brother made a wrong prediction or someone is disappeared, then Winston adjusts the text accordingly. This actually happened in the Soviet Union where information about politicians who were no longer supported by the regime was changed and Stalin was made to look like a perfect leader.
The Party ruling Oceania controls its population in a similar fashion, through manipulating information. The Ministry of Truth workers labour not to spread truth but to adapt newspapers and books to match the constantly changing versions of history that suit the State. Written historical evidence that contradicts the Party ideology is eliminated or translated into Newspeak, a new version of English which excludes words deemed dangerous or which might encourage revolt. When the Party reduces the chocolate ration, it is also even careful to delete any information that would make it possible to verify that the chocolate ration had previously been larger.
While the powerful propaganda machine feeds them its fake news the proletariat rely only on their feelings in order to interpret reality. This is enough for Julia, but Winston wants to combat the system and is left with no tools. Lack of contrasted information leaves him powerless. His information about the Brotherhood and its leader Goldstein, a supposed group preparing an uprising, is actually fed to him by the State. He has no way of knowing if it is true. Rebellion became meaningless without valid information.
“If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.”
Hannah Arendt analysed the mecanisms of totalitarian power and concluded that propaganda is one of its key elements. She asserts that it works through blurring the difference between truth and falsehood so that they are not objective and "become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”
Winston's torturer, O'Brien, summarises the totalitarian State to him:
“Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. 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. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.”
The totalitarian state permits only one political force and all opposition is illegal, considered treason and violently punished. Freedom of expression is thus stifled and change made impossible so perpetuating the status quo. Arendt wrote that the aim of the totalitarian State is simply self-perpetuation, by any means.
Orwell's state of Oceania is extreme, seeking to control, not only spoken and written communication but thought. This is achieved through surveillance by the thought police, a new language called Newspeak and two-way television screens at home. Heroically resisting the regime is impossible, as Winston finds out.
However, in Chapter 9 the protagonist comes upon a book called 'The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism' which Orwell uses to outline how totalitarian regimes operate. This book by Goldstein, a supposed critic of the regime, tells the truth about the how the Party operates and offers a model for its overthrow.
The Low class must be kept in drudgery so that they can't think of anything but surviving. War must be continuous so as to ensure class division, use the resources which might enrich proletarian lives and maintain a high level of hatred and fear. This anxiety makes the public look to their leaders for help, thus maintaining their authority. This is also achieved by adjusting historical facts to make the leaders seem omnipotent. Doublethink is also an important confusion strategy since it has the public rearrange their memories and at the same time forget they have done that.
Goldstein's book echoes Marx's Communist Manifesto where he defines class in terms of ownership of property and argues that class struggles and conflict are inevitable.
“To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone— to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink — greetings!”
The Party imposes a collective identity, Groupthink, on its subjects and Winston's struggle is that of maintaining his individuality. He keeps an illegal private diary, maintains a prohibited sexual relationship with Julia, holds a personal view of reality opposing State truth and secludes himself in his appartment in an outlawed ownlife.
When Winston is tortured at the end of the novel the aim is partly punishment for thought crimes but it is more about eradicating his ability to conceive unorthodox thoughts and a sense of self. The totalitarian State demands total subservience to its unique goal of self-perpetuation. Individualism cannot be tolerated. Newspeak is meant to forestall any personal thinking not approved by the State. Two Minutes Hate sessions and Big Brother posters are designed to install a sense of a unified community. The members of the Outer Party to which Winston belongs dress the same, smoke the same cigarettes and drink the same gin. It thus becomes impossible to form a sense of personal identity. The Thought Police and children are used to prevent trust in anyone else, even within the family. The proletariate are isolated as individuals, which makes them more easily controlled by the State.
Before his final capitulation Winston can see that freedom means dying while hating the Party. However, he surrenders by betraying Julia and loses his self-respect. His self is subsumed in Groupthink.
Arendt describes loneliness as a basic manipulative tool of the totalitarian State:
"Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result."
There are three different social classes in 1984: the Inner Party, the blue collar Outer Party and the uneducated proles. Winston has a marxist inspired hope that the proles will become aware of their oppressed situation and begin a revolution. He dreams of the need to mobilise the working class against the regime. However, the Party has convinced the middle class that the proles are at an animal level which prevents them from joining forces. In some way Winston holds to the belief that at some level the proles are free, since the Party ignores them. Winston also sees a bind to proletarian revolt:
“Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”
"Big brother is watching you."
At the end of 1984 both Winston and his lover, Julia, are caught by the secret police, an event constantly feared in the storyline. This systematic fear is based on the organisation of Stalin's Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which had the secret police of totalitarian regimes. Both regimes were based on the widespread mistrust that any person near you could be spying for the State. Fear prevented likeminded people getting together publicly to organise the overthrow of the ruling Party. It was a strategy of dividing the opposition through loneliness.
At a crucial moment in the story the main characters are arrested in their supposed safe place, a rented flat, which is bugged with a two-way TV. The trusted landlord turns out to be a spy for the regime, which has been following them diligently, just when they believed they were free from danger. Total surveillance is the root meaning of totalitarianism.
In the book the Party bolsters its legitimacy by posing as a saviour from barbarians who threaten its power. Fear of these abstract forces is instilled in the population and they are encouraged to hate them. Emmanuel Goldstein, an alleged traitor (with a clearly Jewish name), but whom nobody has actually met, is portrayed as leader of the traitorous Brotherhood and the Enemy of the People. The populace are encouraged to detest him in the daily ritual of Two Minutes Hate where his supposed 'picture' flashes up on screens. This is used to create an environment of fear in the populace and dependency on the Party for protection. Just as with the other enemy States, Eastasia and Eurasia, with one of which Oceania is always at war, the spectre of Goldstein is used to maintain public awareness of their dangerous predicament and the need for the regime in place. Hatred of someone or something, really existing or not, is a deliberate State strategy to maintain fear.
Terror is one of the Party’s methods of control and insurance of self-survival. It operates through provoking an overwhelming sense of paranoia and insecurity. This is compounded by the confusion of the regime constantly changing policies and convicting the innocent with the guilty to increase fear. Distrust and the natural desire to survive are used to control the population and secure the Party's own continuity in power.