'It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.'
The famous opening sentence to a famous novel. George Orwell's 1984. A set text in some high schools and universities. Made into a movie. The novel that inspired a wave of grim fictional visions of the future. And Orwellian terms have become part of the popular vocabulary - although I don't think 'Celebrity Big Brother' was what George had in mind all those years ago.
Orwell's novel is often used by the political right to bash the socialist project. Indeed when 1984 was first published in 1949 it was marketed in the United States as an anti-communist tract - these were the days of the McCarthy witch hunts.
While 1984 can be read as an allegory of the Stalinist corruption of the Russian Revolution (Big Brother is Joe Stalin, party opponent Leonard Bernstein is Leon Trotsky, leader of the Left Opposition) Orwell did not write 1984 as an attack on socialism.
Some twelve years earlier he had gone to Spain to fight against Franco and his Nazi-supported fascists. He was to witness first hand how the Spanish Communist Party, acting on instructions from Moscow, betrayed the left and made a deal with Franco to create a government of 'national unity'. As noted American writer Thomas Pynchon once wrote, 'Orwell quickly learned the difference between real and phony anti-fascism'.
Orwell despised the Stalinists and his sympathies clearly lay with the Trotskysists and anarchists. Orwell later wrote in a letter: 'Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.'
But Orwell was no wishy-washy liberal - which was perhaps why the liberal intelligentsia were uncomfortable about Orwell. In fact they were often antagonistic. Pynchon observes that Orwell 'found an analogy between British Labour and the Communist Part under Stalin - both, he felt, were movements professing to fight for the working classes against capitalism, but in reality concerned only with establishing and perpetuating their own power. The masses were only there to be used - for their idealism, their class resentments, their willingness to work cheap - and to be sold out, again and again.'
Stalinism and social democracy, thought Orwell, were two sides of the same coin.
Orwell's resentment was further fuelled as he watched much of the British left (and the western left in general) pledge their allegiance to Stalinism. In early 1948 - as he was revising the first draft of 1984 - he wrote; 'Nearly the whole English left has been driven to accept the Russian regime as 'socialist'. He saw this as political and moral cowardice on a grand scale.
Like the Trotskyist movement, Orwell found himself trying to keep the socialist flame alight as the Stalinist shadow fell across the Soviet Union and much of Europe.
It's mildly entertaining but ultimately pointless to discuss what Orwell got right about the future. In fact it's been said often that Orwell's vision of the future where all opposition has been crushed by the jackboot of the police state has been well wide of the mark. Rather capitalism ahs been rather more imaginative and 'flexible' in keeping the working class in line. Indeed there's an entire academic discipline devoted to studying this phenomena (eg the role of the media, cultural hegemony, trade unions, etc).
But is it now so clear-cut? In the aftermath of 9/11 civil liberties have been widely encroached upon under the banner of 'fighting terrorism.
In the United States, which has a President who talks about 'spreading democracy', civil liberties have been seriously undermined. A person I know, who has lived in the Unites States for three years, has been fingerprinted four times by the federal authorities in the past two years. Why? Simply because he is a foreigner. Un-American. Shade of Orwell's Un-person.
Here in New Zealand, we have seen the police raidng the homes of various political activists - and the homes of friends and family - under the guise of 'fighting terrorism'.
On the surface, the conclusion to 1984 is pessimistic and downbeat - Winston Smith learns to love Big Brother. However Orwell was always impatient with predictions about the inevitable and he always remained confident that ordinary people could change anything.
1984 is George Orwell's warning to us today not to accept the world as it is.