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George Orwell

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Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding George Orwell's novel 1984 with Course Hero's video study guide.

1984 | Context


Europe and the Soviet Union before 1949

1984 was published in 1949, not long after Joseph Stalin's Great Purge of the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), and World War II (1939–45).

Stalin was the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1929 until his death in 1953. Under Stalin's brand of communism, the state seized all private property and made it communal. However, this seizure didn't give ownership of production to the working class, as Karl Marx's brand of socialism required. Stalin became a dictator, creating a totalitarian government that eliminated all opposition to his rule. He conducted a series of trials throughout the late 1930s, using secret police and torture tactics to get false confessions from his enemies. Similar to the idea of vaporization in Orwell's novel, where people vanished and public records of their existence were destroyed, the Great Purge made millions of people disappear, whether they were sent to prison camps or executed.

Stalin also played a role in the Spanish Civil War, funding the socialist Republican government in its battle against fascist Nationalists, who fought for militaristic, elite rule over the country. However, Stalin's paranoia and need for total power led him to accuse many of his allies on the Republican side of treason, supporting the Nationalists. The resulting infighting on the Republican side created an even more horrific period of bloodshed and fear of retribution during the war. Orwell, who fought as a socialist in the Spanish Civil War and yet was targeted by Stalin's supporters, had firsthand experience with allies turning into enemies.

World War II was another example of the destructive power of a totalitarian regime. People whom Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party considered undesirables (including millions of Jews, gay people, and Roma) were put in concentration camps and killed. The expansionist Axis powers (primarily Germany, Italy, and Japan) fought against the Allies (primarily England, the United States, and Russia). Although the Allies ultimately won, destruction and suffering in Europe were extensive. History has forgotten the names of many of these victims of the Holocaust. They became and were actually called nonpersons. In many cases their histories were erased—a concept that Orwell used almost verbatim in 1984, calling people vaporized by the Party unpersons. The leaders of the Nazi Party, similar to the the Inner Party, used operatives loyal to their cause, similar to members of the Outer Party, to destroy evidence and identities. The erasure of entire groups of people creates a present that is not responsible for the actions of the past. The late 1940s and 1950s saw international attention paid to uncovering facts the Nazis tried to hide, but Orwell's story is a reminder to readers of the dangers of a regime that refuses to take responsibility for its actions.

Orwell as a Supporter of Socialism

Orwell's determination to create better living conditions for the working poor, who are the proles in the novel, led him to support socialism in the 1930s. He was deeply disappointed with the infighting between socialists and Stalin's communist supporters. Stalin used the related political system of communism to impose a totalitarian regime on the people of the Soviet Union, targeting people like Orwell for elimination. Orwell stayed an anti-Stalinist right up to and during the writing of 1984, and some commentators have said he also continued to believe that a form of socialism called ethical socialism, the moral obligation to provide the benefits of production to all, offered a fairer society than capitalism. Others have said that the novel was written as a dystopian critique of all socialism. After all, the political system in the novel is named Ingsoc (short for English socialism, in which England's social services, such as health care, are run by the government).

However, Orwell wrote a letter in 1949 stating that the novel was to be read as a warning of what could happen and already had been partially realized under communism and fascism. He explained that he named the political system Ingsoc because he saw England as just as vulnerable to a totalitarian regime as any other country. Hence, he wrote 1984 as an antitotalitarian novel: a cautionary tale but not an antisocialist one. He described himself as a democratic socialist, supporting government-provided social services and benefits under a democracy, until his death of tuberculosis in 1950.

Critical Reception

Seen as a cautionary tale, 1984 made an immediate impression on its early readers. Considered a novel of political prophesy, with the rise of technology and an increasingly divided and partisan media, 1984 is as relevant in the 21st century, albeit in new ways, as it was when it was published. Several words from 1984 have entered common usage throughout the English-speaking world: Big Brother, Newspeak, thought police, and doublethink among them. The adjective Orwellian, based on the novel, has come to characterize a dystopian, totalitarian future.

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