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Misunderstanding Orwell

Sixty-six years ago today George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in Britain by Secker & Warburg, and five days later by Harcourt, Brace in the United States. A year after publication almost 50,000 copies had been sold in Britain and 170,000 copies in the US. And of course it didn’t stop there.

Reaction was generally positive, both in reviews and in a series of private letters Orwell received from other writers. There was, however, in some quarters a problem of incomprehension or misinterpretation. The German critic and historian Golo Mann, writing in the Frankfurter Rundschau, saw that the book was about totalitarianism, and that it drew on fascism and Nazism as well as on communism. He deplored the reaction of some media in the USA, who portrayed the work as an attack not just on the Soviet Union and its satellites but on social democracy and British Labourism.



Their mistake is perhaps understandable given the perils of satire and the fact that Orwell’s own publisher, Fred Warburg, had himself first seen the book in this light. In an internal office document for the benefit of those who might be involved in the sales and marketing effort for Nineteen Eighty-Four, he had written: “The political system which prevails is Ingsoc = English Socialism. This I take to be a deliberate and sadistic attack on socialism and socialist parties generally. It seems to indicate a final breach between Orwell and Socialism ... and it is worth a cool million votes to the Conservative Party; it is imaginable that it might have a preface by Winston Churchill after whom its hero is named.”

After the book was greeted in some quarters in the US as a work of straightforward anti-socialist propaganda Orwell put Warburg, who was visiting him in his Gloucestershire sanatorium, right on his intentions and the latter quickly issued a press release, which included this clarification: “The name suggested in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR [for “the Anglo-Americans”] is of course Ingsoc, but in practice a wide range of choices is open. In the USA the phrase ‘Americanism’ or ‘hundred per cent Americanism’ is suitable and the qualifying adjective is as totalitarian as anyone could wish.”

On June 16th Orwell responded to an official of the United Automobile Workers, who was favourable to the book but worried about the warm welcome it had received in conservative circles in the US:

My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already partly been realized in Communism and Fascism. I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, 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. 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.

Source: George Orwell: A Life, by Bernard Crick

8/6/2015