Totalitarianism And George Orwell (Animal Farm and 1984)
＊David Lloyd Smith (72） "Totalitarianism And George Orwell (Animal Farm and 1984)"
Thank you very much. It’s great to see you all in here today. I’m going to give my talk on totalitarianism, Hong Kong and two novels by a very famous British writer, Animal Farm and 1984.
First of all, I want thank my friend, Benson Wong, for agreeing to give the interpretation. Now I have a second mic. That’s great. Thank you.
I want to ask everyone a question: why are we here? We’re here because we feel that the communist Chinese government has betrayed the promise it gave to the people of Hong Kong—to give them meaningful universal suffrage, to give them real democracy.
One should not be surprised. The history of communism since the Russian revolution of 1917 has been one long litany of such betrayals. And today, I want to talk about the story of communism and betrayal in history because, as pointed out, I am actually a lecturer in history. I am actually lecturing cultural history, which is why I am going to discuss it in the context of two famous novels.
These novels are by a very famous British writer of the twentieth century, called George Orwell. In the 1930s, Orwell became utterly disillusioned with communism, particularly as it’s been practised in the Soviet Union of the dictator Joseph Stalin. In Orwell’s opinion, Stalin had betrayed the whole ideals of socialism, freedom, equality by creating one of the most nightmarish and terrible and oppressive societies the world has ever seen. A kind of society we call totalitarian.
What actually is a totalitarian society? It’s one in which the individual lives in fear, where the individual is not protected by law, and where the state, the government has absolute power over your lives. Not only over your lives as citizens, but where the state controls the past, the present and even the future.
In Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s, many millions of peasants were allowed to starve to death or killed by the secret police for opposing the collectivisation of the land, for opposing their farms being taken away from them. Hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, party members, army officers, writers, artists were murdered by Stalin’s secret police.
And it gets even worse. Many of those who were actually murdered were then completely removed from history. They were removed from photographs as if they had never existed. Their faces were airbrushed, “photoshopped” out, as if they had never been born and never lived. They were not living persons; they were not dead people; they were what George Orwell in his novel 1984 calls unpersons—not living, not dead, but unpersons.
The craziness is revealing in one true story of an unfortunate man who was sentenced to 25 years in a labour camp. Why? What was his crime? He told a friend that he had a dream—he dreamt that Stalin had been murdered. That made him a potential terrorist. That is what we call political surrealism, a bad dream. Stalin’s totalitarian state of course would be the template, the model for Mao’s China. Mao too constructed the state where the individual is a victim, the victim of the capricious whim of one man, one tyrant.
What we would like to focus on, though, is how George Orwell has been inspired by what he saw as the evil of communist totalitarianism to create two famous novels, two cautionary tales against those who want to take away our freedoms. hese novels are Animal Farm and 1984.
Let’s begin, though, with 1984. In 1984, Orwell writes a story about the future. He actually wrote the book in 1948, but he set it in the future of 1984, Britain. The name of this society is not Britain; it’s Oceania. He creates a terrifying fictional totalitarian society, inspired by Stalin’s Soviet Union. In this society there is absolutely no freedom, only oppression, horror and lies. The society has many ways of keeping control. One of the more subtle ways of maintaining control, besides using a brutal, secret police force, torture, mass surveillance, and truth-distorting propaganda, is through a mental trick, a psychological skill which Orwell’s called “doublethink”.
In creating doublethink Orwell was inspired by Western leftist intellectuals in the 1930s. For although they weren’t living in Stalin’s Soviet Union, they were living in Western countries, somehow able to train their minds to believe everything Stalin told them, however ridiculous and absurd it was.
What actually is “doublethink”? Let me explain. According to Orwell, “doublethink” means the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accept both of them as true. In other words, to believe that two opposites, two contradictory things are both true at the same time.
In Orwell’s actual words, it means, I quote, “... to say that black is white ... to believe that black is white ... to know that black is white and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. ... [T]he prevailing mental condition is controlled insanity.” It goes on. “In a party member, not even the smallest deviation of opinion on the most unimportant subject can be tolerated. And if it is necessary to rearrange one's memories or to alter the written records, then it is necessary to forget that one has done so.”
The slogans of Orwell’s totalitarian state Oceania are perfect examples of “doublethink”. They are “War Is Peace,” “Freedom Is Slavery,” and “Ignorance Is Strength.” The slogans of course are self-contradictory, but somehow, using doublethink, you have to accept them as true and rational, you need to discipline your mind to really believe that war is peace. Once you’ve cultivated the skill, you are then ready to believe every piece of nonsense that the party tells you.
Let’s use one of Orwell’s examples of how doublethink works—just to give you guys an idea. How can you reconcile war is peace? How can you make it make sense? This is how: it’s really a matter of defining terms. If you define peace in terms of domestic social harmony, war can be seen as an excellent way of maintaining it. War keeps citizens too busy and frightened and poor to consider rebellion. War focuses the citizens’ attention and hatred on an external enemy. War, by deflecting their attention away from the deficiencies and injustices of their own society and government, focus on your outside enemies, not your inside enemies. Thus social harmony, the obedience of the masses of the state, is strengthened through war. Therefore, war is peace. It maintains social harmony at home.
It’s similar to how some commentators occasionally accuse Chinese government of encouraging anti-Japanese sentiments in order to focus citizens’ hostility towards outsiders, in this case Japanese, rather than addressing problems and injustices within China itself. The Japanese are the enemy. The Japanese threaten us. Therefore we must unite against the external enemy.
A related keyword to doublethink in Orwell’s 1984, something which just about means the same thing, is blackwhite. It could be used positively or negatively. If used negatively, it means like saying, “Hey man! You’re claiming the black is white, it’s contradictory to the facts, why are you talking this nonsense?” Or the blackwhite can also have a positive meaning. It can also be a term of praise. When applied to a good party member, it means a moral willingness to say blackwhite when party discipline’s demands it.
I don’t think I really need to tell you that Beijing leaders, journalists, academics and their supporters in the Hong Kong government are experts in practising both blackwhite and doublethink. Let’s take an example from the mainland. What is the official name of China’s economic system? Socialism with Chinese characteristics. Let me repeat that, Socialism with Chinese characteristics. What actually does that mean? Socialism is usually defined as a society based on equality and social justice. In its communist form, it most specifically means state ownership of the means of production—farms factories, banks, businesses and so on. Is that remotely a description of China today—a land of social justice and equality, where the means of production are solely controlled by the state. Of course not, China today is a land of rampant capitalism, and capitalism of the worst kind, where party membership, family ties, guanxi (關係) mean everything. A society with no rule of law to protect the poor and vulnerable, where the gap between the rich and poor is getting worse and worse. This is not socialism in any conceivable form. If anything, it is the opposite, the antithesis of socialism. And yet somehow, so long as the Party puts the word “Chinese characteristics” after the word “socialism,” everything’s alright. There are no longer any contradictions here.
Orwell would, I think, have been heartbroken to see how such doublethink flourishes throughout China. Having said that, let me be a little bit fair. Doublethink is everywhere. It’s not just found in China and Hong Kong; it flourishes and can be found in Washington, Tokyo, London, Paris, Moscow. It’s a worldwide disease, not just a Chinese one.
But it’s important to emphasise that Orwell said that doublethink is not just hypocrisy. Party intellectuals have to train their minds to reconcile these opposites, to actually believe such nonsense. So it is actually possible for a Mainland Chinese official to actually believe in something called socialism with Chinese characteristics, even though his or her eyes and ears reveal the opposite. Actually it’s possible. It really is. Unfortunately though, I don’t have time to explain right now because the explanation is rather complicated and requires some knowledge of Marxist theory.
Anyway let’s move on. Elsewhere in 1984, Orwell has his hero Winston Smith, Smith got the same name as me. He is a dissident, a secret rebel against the totalitarian state. Winston Smith writes something very interesting in his secret diary. He writes, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.” What does it mean by this? They are saying that although the state may always lie and twist the truth, although the state may always take away your freedom, it can’t be violate logic. It can’t violate the most pure form of logic, there is, mathematics. Therefore the state doesn’t have absolute power over everything, it can’t control logic, or can it? Well later on, Winston Smith, is now a prisoner, is being tortured and brainwashed by the secret police. They do in the end break his spirit. They break his spirit by finally getting him to believe that, in fact, if the Party says two plus two equals five, and not four, then yes, two plus two equals five.
Thus the Party controls logic too. Actually, Orwell wasn’t quite making this up. Interestingly, he got the idea from Stalin’s Soviet Union, where “two plus two equals five” was a popular slogan. It was a slogan referring to the State’s five-year economic plan to increase production. It originally meant that the goals of the five-year plan could be achieved in four years if the people would try hard enough—so although they were given five years, if they worked hard enough, they could do the job in four years instead, therefore “two plus two equals five.”
Okay, let me now cite a Hong Kong example of this kind of distortion of plain facts and logic. I’m afraid it’s a few years ago. It’s about nine years ago, it’s an article by the Hong Kong journalist Frank Ching, which was published in South China Morning Post in March 2005. In this article by Ching is definitely inspired by George Orwell’s 1984. And he gives what he thinks is an example of doublethink from the Hong Kong government. In this case, the Hong Kong government is not saying, “two plus two equals five”; rather, it’s saying, “two equals five.”
The subject of Ching’s article was what was going on in Hong Kong at the time. It’s when the first Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa resigned his post, if you remember, for health reasons. Maybe you remember it. Beijing of course then handpicked Donald Tsang as his replacement. But as Tsang was a former civil servant under the colonial British government, Beijing wasn’t yet 100% sure he was loyal. So Beijing came to a decision: they decided that his term of office should only be two years although the Basic Law clearly says the term of office should be five years.
In this article, then, Ching openly references Orwell’s 1984 to satirise the Hong Kong government on this issue. I am going to quote at length what he writes here. The article was entitled “When Black Is Really White.” “It is now generally assumed that the central government has given its blessing to Mr Tsang and that he will be chosen as the next chief executive in July. And that the term of office will be for two years, contrary to the clear wording of the Basic Law of a five-year term. [T]he Hong Kong government, too, has changed its position to conform with that of Beijing. Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie acknowledged that the government has ‘adjusted’ its understanding of the Basic Law.”
Now Ching quotes Elsie Leung, “In the past, she said, the government had thought that, generally, clear and unambiguous provisions should be interpreted according to their literal meaning. But now, having listened to mainland legal experts, she has seen the light and realises that the law should be interpreted in a way contrary to its literal meaning. So now, while the Basic Law still says five years, it really means two years. Five is two. Black is white. George Orwell would feel right at home in the Hong Kong of 2005.”
And then Ching goes on to say, “Hong Kong is moving rapidly into Orwell's 1984, where he introduced the term blackwhite. The term, he explained, means not only a ‘loyal willingness to say that black is white when party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary’.”
And this is how Ching concludes, “If Orwell is right, Hong Kong still has some way to go. At present, the government still says it used to think that five years meant five years, while now it knows it means two. In future, to be absolutely politically correct, the government will have to say that it always knew that five years meant two.” Ching’s article then, I think, shows clearly the relevance of Orwell’s 1984 to contemporary Hong Kong.
We have truly been offered universal suffrage with Chinese characteristics. A democracy with only marginally more than democracy than North Korea. In North Korea there is also universal suffrage where everyone can vote so long as they vote for their beloved leader. Relating to this another quotation of Orwell I’d like to share with you, one that I think rather well sums up doublethink. Orwell says, “There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them.”
I now want to discuss Orwell’s second famous novel attacking totalitarianism, Animal Farm. I also ask if it, too, can offer any lessons for Hong Kong in its struggle to achieve real democracy. Animal Farm was published four years before 1984 in 1945, just at the end of the Second World War.
On the surface, it is a fairy tale for children, because it’s a story about talking animals. But below the surface, it is a history of the Soviet Union from the Russian revolution right up until the end of the Second World War. In short, it is a satire or an allegory in the guise of children’s story. The novel is set on a farm in England called Manor Farm. The farmer is an incompetent drunk. The farm animals, sick of the laziness, exploitation and cruelty of the farmer driving from the farm. They take over the farm. It is an animal revolution.
Now that they control the farm, the animals attempt to create a utopian society based on the principles of animal equality, freedom, social justice, and animals not being corrupted by human values. They create an ideology outlining these principles called Animalism.
Animalism includes slogans which summarise its principles, expressed in language simple enough for even the least intelligent animals to understand. The two most important slogans are: “All Animals Are Equal” and “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad.” These slogans are painted on the wall of a barn.
It seems natural for the most intelligent animals to take control, and the most intelligent animals are the pigs. Eventually the animals—the pigs—begin to corrupt the ideals of the revolution. They become oppressive tyrants which exploit, terrorise and even kill the animals that either oppose them or potentially could oppose them in the future. One of the pigs named Napoleon becomes the absolute leader, a dictator. He wields total power (42:35), he is treated almost as if he is a God—he is all-wise, he is all-powerful, he is everywhere. The pigs therefore have betrayed the animal revolution. Betraying the revolution means betraying the principles of Animalism.
Animalism forbids animals to be like humans. For instance, animals are forbidden to stand on two legs. They are not allowed to live in houses, or sleep on beds; they are not allowed to wear clothes or drink alcohol. And yet over time, the pigs start to do all of these things. They walk on two legs, they dress like humans, they live in a house, they sleep in beds, they drink alcohol. There are animals, though, eventually remember that the slogans on the barn wall prohibited such behaviour. But when they go to confirm this, they discovered that the slogans have been rewritten.
Instead of reading “All Animals Are Equal,” the slogan on the barn wall now reads, “All Animals Are Equal But Some Are More Equal Than Others.” Let me just say that, of course, this is a satire in Communism wherein Communism, everyone is equal, but the reality is, of course, in Communism, in practice, there is no equality at all.