Based on the writings of George Orwell, the "Orwellian" viewpoint was an extremely influential force in late 20th century thought. Orwell's most famous novels include Animal Farm, an allegorical retelling of the Bolshevik Revolution, and 1984, a tale of a totalitarian dystopia. Orwell also wrote numerous essays, usually dealing with the same themes explored in his more famous writing. His work has brought phrases like "Big Brother" and "Newspeak" into the English language and have profoundly influenced perceptions of politics, power, and language. Orwell's life during what was probably the most turbulent and bloody time in mankind's history created in him a unique mixture of idealism and disillusionment, optimism and cynicism. His writings seem to have become an expression of the uncertainty and fear of the past century.
Orwell was a very political man, although he writes that he was not born that way. In "Why I Write" (1947), he lists four motives for writing: "sheer egoism," "aesthetic enthusiasm," "historical impulse," and "political purpose." "I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth," he writes, yet "as it is I have been forced into being a sort of pamphleteer." How, then, did Orwell become political? His experiences as a police officer in Burma, he writes, along with "poverty and a sense of failure... increased my natural hatred of authority and made me... aware of the existence of the working classes... [and] gave me some understanding of the nature of imperialism." The Spanish Civil War, in which Orwell fought alongside the Workers Party of Marxist Unity (POUM) against the Fascists, cemented his political views. "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism..." Orwell's opposition of totalitarianism forms the basis for both Animal Farm and 1984, and has become the most prominent focus of "Orwellian" thought. References to his work are used to expose totalitarian tendencies in today's society. Yet opposition to a political system, even opposition as eloquent and moving as Orwell's, cannot create a worldview as potent as Orwell's has become.
Orwell's insight into the nature of politics and political maneuvering are directly related to his opposition to totalitarianism. In his novels and essays, Orwell reveals that politics are not a means of advancing an ideology- they are a means of acquiring power. In the Orwellian viewpoint politics are not idealistic, they are cynical and callous. The pursuit of power will ultimately hijack any ideology. The epitome of this is the ruling "Party" of Orwell's 1984. Masquerading as "Ingsoc"- English Socialism, the arch-totalitarian Party's true motive is not, as the hopeless protagonist Winston Smith guesses, "to rule of over us for our own good," it is "power entirely for its own sake." (pg. 266) In "Spilling the Spanish Beans" (1937), Orwell presents the examples of "latter day Communism playing the [Capitalist] game," and both "bourgeoisie Democracy" and the now "counter-revolutionary force" of Communism becoming more Fascistic as they distance themselves from the ideologies for which they originally stood. In an echo of this sentiment, Orwell writes in 1984 that "the German Nazis and the Russian Communists... pretended, perhaps even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time..." not so the Party, to whom "power is not a means, it is an end." (1984, pg. 266)
Orwell's political insights go hand in hand with his linguistic insights. As a writer attempting "to make political writing an art," ("Why I Write") Orwell's writing constantly addresses the problems associated with political language. 1984's totalitarian Party controls its citizens through the implementation of Newspeak, a simplification of English that is engineered to make "all other modes of thought impossible," so that "a heretical thought... should be literally unthinkable." (1984, Appendix, pg. 303) Newspeak narrows language and obscures the meaning of words behind euphemism. Paradoxical and contradictory meanings are common in Newspeak- "joycamp" for forced labor camp, and the titles of the three governing departments of the Party: "the Ministry of Peace, [which] concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation." (1984, pg. 217) Even the Party's ubiquitous motto, "WAR IS PEACE / FREEDOM IS SLAVERY / IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH," is seemingly paradoxical and contradictory, yet it reveals the true philosophies of the Party.
The Orwellian viewpoint emphasizes language's ability to influence people's thoughts and actions. Orwell's writings reveal the spectacular power of language, especially political language, to either obscure meaning or to elucidate- both giving advantage to their skillful manipulator. Like his battle against fascism and totalitarianism, Orwell wages a battle in 1984 and his essay "Politics and the English Language" (1946): a battle against muddy language that obscures truth and perpetuates social and political ignorance. "IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH" is the Party's maxim- not the strength of the ignorant individual, strength of the government who's citizens are kept ignorant. The ruling elite purposely keep the masses ignorant of the true workings of government to keep power. Propaganda, secrecy, censorship, and intentional obscuring of language- all these keep the masses unconscious of reality. "Political language..." writes Orwell, "...is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." This is why Orwell writes that "to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration." ("Politics and the English Language")
The ignorance that Orwell targets in his writings is not only the result of muddy language or obscuring political euphemism. Orwell also assails intentional ignorance. 1984's concept of doublethink, "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them" (1984, pg. 215), is very similar to the worldview attacked in "Notes on Nationalism" (1945). Nationalism, Orwell writes, "is power-hunger tempered by self-deception." The nationalist "is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him." This mindset is amplified in 1984. The contradictions inherent in the Party, such as its slogans and the titles of the Ministries, are not the result of mere hypocrisy, they are "deliberate exercises in doublethink." (1984, pg. 217) The ability to ignore plain facts and to adhere zealously and even unthinkingly to a dogma is the power behind 1984's Party and the Fascist movement of the early 20th century.
In "Notes on Nationalism," Orwell comments that "every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered" and that "much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery." Orwell's writing often concerns itself with preserving the truth and authenticity of history. Winston Smith in 1984 works in the Ministry of Truth- the governing wing concerned with propaganda and the rewriting of the past. Orwell writes in "Notes on Nationalism" that "those who rewrite history do probably believe with part of their minds that they are actually thrusting facts into the past." In 1984, those who rewrite history believe with their whole minds that they are actually thrusting facts into the past, and in a society controlled totally by one body, they truly do have the ability to change the past irrevocably and totally. "What was terrifying," thinks Smith, "is not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right." In 1984, mutability of history is mutability of truth itself. "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past" is another slogan of the Party- "yet the past," Winston tries to reassure himself, "though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting." Horror at the concept of a subjective historical truth is thus another facet of the Orwellian viewpoint- to lose the concrete past is to lose all hold on reality, to plunge headfirst into the abyss.
The dire prophecy of 1984 and the inevitability of ideological decay presented by Animal Farm and "Spilling the Spanish Beans" make the Orwellian viewpoint a less than optimistic philosophy. It seems fitting that cynicism and cold realism should preside over a century as bloodstained as the 20th, yet Orwell's work and life are not bereft of hope. It seems heartening that a man so harshly schooled in the realities of war and power should adhere to a belief as optimistic as democratic socialism, and that he should write that "the great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish." Even 1984 seems more of a warning against totalitarianism than a prophecy of its eventual triumph. Orwell's entire motivation for writing stems from a belief that one man's work can change the course of history, as in his definition of political purpose: "[a] desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive for." A man who's entire work was dedicated to fighting tyranny and oppression can only give the impression that the alternative, and humanity itself, are ideals worth fighting for.