Nineteen Eighty Four and the politics of dystopia

Roger Luckhurst describes the political environment in which George Orwell wrote and published Nineteen Eighty-Four, and analyses its different – and often opposing – interpretations.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Green dust jacket printed with the text 'George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four a novel'

Dust jacket of the first edition of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, first published in 1949.

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Usage terms Front cover: © Reproduced by permission of The Random House Group Ltd. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. George Orwell: © With kind permission of the estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell’s last novel was published on 8 June 1949 by the socialist publisher Victor Gollancz and was an instant international best-seller, selling 50,000 copies in its first year in Britain despite post-war rationing, and hundreds of thousands in the United States, where it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and a Reader’s Digest special. The book arrived at the birth of the cold war between the Soviet and American blocs, soon after Winston Churchill fixed the phrase ‘the Iron Curtain’ in the language and as a ‘Red Scare’ gripped American society. Orwell’s novel remained one of the most significant and contested cultural products of that era of ideological struggle between capitalism and communism, its influence surviving long beyond the actual year 1984. Translations and many different radio, film and television adaptations across the post-war decades testify to its continuing significance. The novel managed to embed key abstract notions about ‘totalitarianism’ – a political term that emerged in the late 1930s – in striking concrete images, visceral and easy to grasp: the Thought Police; thought crimes and ‘doublethink’; permanent ‘telescreen’ surveillance and the notion that ‘Big Brother is Watching You’; and ending with the terrors of Room 101 as a vision of the dissolution of the self.

George Orwell's notes for Nineteen Eighty-Four

Page of handwritten notes for Nineteen Eighty-Four, from George Orwell's Literary notebook

Orwell’s literary notebook with preliminary notes for Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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Usage terms George Orwell: © With kind permission of the estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. UCL: © Orwell Archive, UCL Library Special Collections.

The politics of dystopia

Orwell’s novel is a dystopia, a distinctly 20th-century extension and inversion of the long tradition of the utopia, the imagined eu-topos, or ‘good place’. Dystopias, like E M Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909) or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (written in 1921, but published first in English in 1924), typically envisage the relentless forces of a technologised society extending its power over the human race, offering a nightmare of the individual crushed by inhuman state forces. For critic Tom Moylan, the critical dystopia doesn’t just set out a negative vision: it uses the portrait of a nightmare future in order to launch a political critique of the present. Moylan suggests this form offers ‘explorations of the oppositional spaces and possibilities from which the next round of political activism can derive imaginative sustenance and inspiration’ – that is, out of the rubble the chance of an alternative future.[1]

One of the crucial questions about Nineteen Eighty-Four is whether Orwell is interested in the potential for opposition to the totalitarian state, or if his last book offers only despair. Orwell lived just long enough – he died in January 1950 – to see his book appropriated by right-wing political forces for the defence of American freedom, against which he protested in vain. This was the beginning of a long dispute over the interpretation of the book, which shows no sign of ending. Is it an anti-communist rant of a comrade who betrayed the cause? Or is it principally anti-fascist, a chilling realisation of the totalitarian imaginings of the German or Italian fascist state? But perhaps the book was anti-capitalist too, since one of the biggest influences on Orwell was James Burnham’s critique of the rise of a ‘managerialist’ class in both East and West, Russia and America, that would see technocrats overwhelm democratic institutions in the future?[2] Is it a humanist lament that is so despairing that it ends up building a monument to anti-humanism? Nineteen Eighty-Four is a mirror: it is impossible for the reader not to find their own politics reflected, challenged or distorted in its fiercely polished plain prose. This is perhaps why so many towering literary and political critics have ended up engaging with the novel in one way or another.

A conflicted life

Part of this difficulty comes from the extraordinary political journey that George Orwell took in his relatively short life. He was born Eric Blair in 1903 in India to a colonial officer involved in one of the murkiest trades of the British Empire: the export of opium to China. He was educated at English public schools, ending at Eton, the bastion of the establishment. Uninterested in university, he joined the colonial police and spent five years in Burma (now Myanmar), before resigning his position in 1927. At this point, he described himself as a ‘Tory Anarchist’. Then began the long and tortured process of turning Eric Blair into the author George Orwell. He struggled to write novels in the realist mode, just as experimental modernism was at its peak. He rejected all the trappings of his class, tramping across Europe, exploring the worlds of the urban poor and publishing the piece of reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), experiences that were all shaped by the catastrophic economic crash of 1929. As a result of this journalistic account, he was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to explore poverty in northern England, which resulted in The Road to Wigan Pier (1936). Gollancz objected both to Orwell’s visceral disgust at the working classes, but also to the lampooning of the well-meaning, middle-class socialists who earnestly tried to foster revolutionary consciousness, denouncing ‘every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, Nature Cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England’.[3] Some of this disdain for the ‘proles’ remains evident in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yet in 1936, Orwell was committed enough to socialism to join the idealists volunteering to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. In what was a formative and crucial experience, Orwell did not join the communist International Brigade, but fought with the POUM, the Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification, which followed the thought of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Orwell was witness to the violent splits of the Marxist left: the willingness of the communists to put the crushing of their Trotskyite rivals above a unified front to defeat the fascists. Badly wounded, Orwell left Spain thoroughly disillusioned.

As the situation in Europe darkened, Orwell briefly embraced pacifism in 1937 but then really secured his reputation as a prominent journalist and intellectual by supporting a brand of home-grown English socialism, celebrating native traditions of cups of tea, rolled-up cigarettes, Dickens, quiet decency and cricket. After the start of the Second World War, Orwell poured out a vast quantity of journalism, including stints at the BBC, which was involved in producing propaganda (the Ministry of Information in Nineteen Eighty-Four was based in part on Orwell’s time there). His political allegory Animal Farm (1944) secured his reputation, although some feared that its portrayal of the ideals of the Russian Revolution overtaken by Stalinist dictatorship might alienate a temporary ally at the end of the war. An anti-communist parable to some, Orwell nevertheless wrote in 1946 in his famous essay ‘Why I Write’ that ‘every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written … against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism’.[4] When he delivered Nineteen Eighty-Four to his publishers, the report on the manuscript by Fredric Warburg recognised it as an instant classic (‘among the most terrifying books I have ever read’), but worried that its final part, the utter dismantling of the protagonist Winston Smith, was a study in ‘pessimism unrelieved’.[5] Orwell’s political position in the last year of his life has been further muddied by the revelations in the 1990s that he had willingly passed on a list of 38 writers and intellectuals to the government’s Information Research Department, identifying potential communist sympathisers or fellow travellers, just at the point when witch-hunts in the West were suppressing internal dissenters.

Professor John Bowen explores truth, fiction, repression and freedom in George Orwell’s iconic 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The film is shot at Senate House in London, formerly the Ministry of Information, and the building on which Orwell based the Ministry of Truth.

A conflicted text

Nineteen Eighty-Four, the product of 1948, carries all the pessimism associated with the geo-political forces of the new post-war dispensation: England reduced to ‘Airstrip One’, ground up between larger powers, a nation bankrupted by war, in hock to the American banks and forced to break up its Empire. Interestingly, Orwell’s exaggerated vision of his present bears no trace of the transformative post-war Labour Party, then in power openly as democratic socialists involved in the process of constructing the armatures of the welfare state.

Yet despite its reputation as a rather undialectical dystopia, full of unrelieved despair, Nineteen Eighty-Four does always seem very interested in the resources of human resistance. In the first part, Orwell invokes the power of private memory to resist the state’s rewriting of history and explores the reserve of the unconscious (Winston is always dreaming, dreams woven out of personal memory). He explores the resistant potential of desire and sexuality, described as ‘the force that would tear the Party to shreds’, and of purposeless art, represented by the useless beauty of the paperweight he cherishes that embodies ‘a little chunk of history they had forgotten to alter’. These are all systematically dismantled by the Party’s reprogramming in the closing chapters of the book, of course. Yet even if Nineteen Eighty-Four appears to have no interest in the proletariat as an agent of history in the resistance to totalitarianism, the book’s exploration of the power of memory, art, sexuality and the unconscious points the way ahead to new kinds of leftist cultural criticism that would emerge 20 or 30 years later. Nineteen Eighty-Four can be recruited to bland accounts of triumphant humanism overcoming the evils of ‘total’ politics, both left and right, but this does not seem to be Orwell’s intent. A product of its riven times, its complex commitments need careful unpicking.

London’s Orwell archives

Orwell's political diary 1940–41

Typescript page from Orwell's Political Diary, with some sections crossed out

Extract from Orwell’s political diary written during World War Two.

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Usage terms George Orwell: © With kind permission of the estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. UCL: © Orwell Archive, UCL Library Special Collections.

Those who wish to place Nineteen Eighty-Four in its fullest context have a huge potential reserve of materials concentrated in London, appropriately enough given the novel’s impressive evocation of the bombed-out terrain of the capital in the aftermath of the war. University College London houses the Orwell Archive, established in 1960 by his widow Sonia Orwell, including drafts, correspondence, recordings and other personal materials. It was from this material that the editor Peter Davison constructed the monumental 20-volume edition of Orwell’s fiction, letters, essays and journalism, finally completed in 1998. Additional material is available in the British Library, including correspondence and documents relating to the George Orwell Memorial Trust.


[1] Tom Moylan, Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia (Boulder: Westview, 2000), p. xv.

[2] See Orwell’s essay, ‘James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution’, in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: Vol. IV, 1945–50, ed. by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968), pp. 160–81.

[3] George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier in The Complete Works of George Orwell: Vol. 5, ed. by Peter Davison (London: Secker and Warburg 1997), p. 161.

[4] George Orwell, Why I Write (London: Penguin Great Ideas, 2014), p. 6.

[5] Fredric Warburg, ‘Publisher’s Report’, in Orwell: The Critical Heritage, ed. by J Meyers (London: RKP, 1975), p. 247.

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  • Roger Luckhurst
  • Roger Luckhurst is Professor of Modern Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a specialist in Late Victorian literature, Gothic and Science fiction literature and film, and the history of the supernatural. He is the author of Science Fiction (2005), The Mummy’s Curse (2012) and editor of the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, and H P Lovecraft. His book on the film Alien appeared in 2014 from the BFI and one called Zombies was out with Reaktion Press in 2015.

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