George Orwell and the Cold War: A Reconsideration

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on America, 1984: An Orwell Symposium
Ed. Robert Mulvihill. Athens and London, University of Georgia
Press. 1986.

In a recent
and well-known article, Norman Podhoretz has attempted to conscript
George Orwell into the ranks of neoconservative enthusiasts for
the newly revitalized cold war with the Soviet Union.[1] If Orwell were alive today, this truly “Orwellian”
distortion would afford him considerable wry amusement. It is
my contention that the cold war, as pursued by the three superpowers
of Nineteen
, was the key to their successful imposition
of a totalitarian regime upon their subjects. We all know that
Nineteen Eighty-Four was a brilliant and mordant attack
on totalitarian trends in modern society, and it is also clear
that Orwell was strongly opposed to communism and to the regime
of the Soviet Union. But the crucial role of a perpetual cold
war in the entrenchment of totalitarianism in Orwell's “nightmare
vision” of the world has been relatively neglected by writers
and scholars.

In Nineteen
Eighty-Four there are three giant superstates or blocs of
nations: Oceania (run by the United States, and including the
British Empire and Latin America), Eurasia (the Eurasian continent),
and Eastasia (China, southeast Asia, much of the Pacific), The
superpowers are always at war, in shifting coalitions and alignments
against each other. The war is kept, by agreement between the
superpowers, safely on the periphery of the blocs, since war in
their heartlands might actually blow up the world and their own
rule along with it. The perpetual but basically phony war is kept
alive by unremitting campaigns of hatred and fear against the
shadowy foreign Enemy. The perpetual war system is then used by
the ruling elite in each country to fasten totalitarian collectivist
rule upon their subjects. As Harry Elmer Barnes wrote, this system
“could only work if the masses are always kept at a fever heat
of fear and excitement and are effectively prevented from learning
that the wars are actually phony. To bring about this indispensable
deception of the people requires a tremendous development of propaganda,
thought-policing, regimentation, and mental terrorism.” And finally,
“when it becomes impossible to keep the people any longer at a
white heat in their hatred of one enemy group of nations, the
war is shifted against another bloc and new, violent hate campaigns
are planned and set in motion.”[2]

From Orwell's
time to the present day, the United States has fulfilled his analysis
or prophecy by engaging in campaigns of unremitting hatred and
fear of the Soviets, including such widely trumpeted themes (later
quietly admitted to be incorrect) as “missile gap” and “windows
of vulnerability.” What Garet Garrett perceptively called “a complex
of vaunting and fear” has been the hallmark of the American as
well as of previous empires:[3] the curious combination of vaunting and braggadocio
that insists that a nation-state's military might is second to
none in any area, combined with repeated panic about the intentions
and imminent actions of the “empire of evil” that is marked as
the Enemy. It is the sort of fear and vaunting that makes Americans
proud of their capacity to “overkill” the Russians many times
and yet agree enthusiastically to virtually any and all increases
in the military budget for mightier weapons of mass destruction.
Senator Ralph Flanders (Republican, Vermont) pinpointed this process
of rule through fear when he stated during the Korean War: “Fear
is felt and spread by the Department of Defense in the Pentagon.
In part, the spreading of it is purposeful. Faced with what seem
to be enormous armed forces aimed against us, we can scarcely
expect the Department of Defense to do other than keep the people
in a state of fear so that they will be prepared without limit
to furnish men and munitions.”[4]

This applies
not only to the Pentagon but to its civilian theoreticians, the
men whom Marcus Raskin, once one of their number, has dubbed “the
mega-death intellectuals.” Thus Raskin pointed out that

their most
important function is to justify and extend the existence of
their employers. . . .. In order to justify the continued large-scale
production of these [thermonuclear] bombs and missiles, military
and industrial leaders needed some kind of theory to rationalize
their use. . . . This became particularly urgent during the
late 1950s, when economy-minded members of the Eisenhower Administration
began to wonder why so much money, thought, and resources, were
being spent on weapons if their use could not be justified.
And so began a series of rationalizations by the “defense intellectuals”
in and out of the Universities. . . .  Military procurement
will continue to flourish, and they will continue to demonstrate
why it must. In this respect they are no different from the
great majority of modern specialists who accept the assumptions
of the organizations which employ them because of the rewards
in money and power and prestige. . . They know enough not to
question their employers' right to exist.[5]

In addition
to the manufacture of fear and hatred against the primary Enemy,
there have been numerous Orwellian shifts between the Good Guys
and the Bad Guys. Our deadly enemies in World War II, Germany
and Japan, are now considered prime Good Guys, the only problem
being their unfortunate reluctance to take up arms against the
former Good Guys, the Soviet Union. China, having been a much
lauded Good Guy under Chiang Kai-shek when fighting Bad Guy Japan,
became the worst of the Bad Guys under communism, and indeed
the United States fought the Korean and Vietnamese wars largely
for the sake of containing the expansionism of Communist China,
which was supposed to be an even worse guy than the Soviet Union.
But now all that is changed, and Communist China is now the virtual
ally of the United States against the principal Enemy in the Kremlin.

Along with
other institutions of the permanent cold war, Orwellian New-speak
has developed richly. Every government, no matter how despotic,
that is willing to join the anti-Soviet crusade is called a champion
of the “free world.” Torture committed by “totalitarian” regimes
is evil; torture undertaken by regimes that are merely “authoritarian”
is almost benign. While the Department of War has not yet been
transformed into the Department of Peace, it was changed early
in the cold war to the Department of Defense, and President Reagan
has almost completed the transformation by the neat Orwellian
touch of calling the MX missile “the Peacemaker.”

As early
as the 1950s, an English publicist observed that “Orwell's
main contention that u2018cold war' is now an essential feature of
normal life is being verified more and more from day to day. No
one really believes in a u2018peace settlement' with the Soviets,
and many people in positions of power regard such a prospect with
positive horror.” He added that “a war footing is the only basis
of full employment.”[6]

And Harry
Barnes noted that “the advantages of the cold war in bolstering
the economy, avoiding a depression, and maintaining political
tenure after 1945 were quickly recognized by both politicians
and economists.”

The most
recent analysis of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four in terms
of permanent cold war was in U.S. News and World Report,
in its issue marking the beginning of the year 1984:

No nuclear
holocaust has occurred but Orwell's concept of perpetual local
conflict is borne out. Wars have erupted every year since 1945,
claiming more than 30 million lives. The Defense Department
reports that there currently are 40 wars raging that involve
one-fourth of all nations in the world – from El Salvador to Kampuchea
to Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Like the
constant war of 1984, these post-war conflicts occurred not
within superpower borders but in far-off places such as Korea
and Vietnam. Unlike Orwell's fictitious superpowers, Washington
and Moscow are not always able to control events and find themselves
sucked into local wars such as the current conflict in the Middle
East heightening the risk of a superpower confrontation and
use of nuclear armaments.[7]

But most
Orwell scholars have ignored the critical permanent-cold-war
underpinning to the totalitarianism in the book. Thus, in
a recently published collection of scholarly essays on Orwell,
there is barely a mention of militarism or war.[8]

In contrast,
one of the few scholars who have recognized the importance of
war in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was the Marxist critic
Raymond Williams. While deploring the obvious anti-Soviet nature
of Orwell's thought, Williams noted that Orwell discovered the
basic feature of the existing two- or three-superpower
world, “oligarchical collectivism,” as depicted by James Burnham,
in his Managerial
(1940), a book that had a profound if ambivalent
impact upon Orwell. As Williams put it;

vision of power politics is also close to convincing. The transformation
of official “allies” to “enemies” has happened, almost openly,
in the generation since he wrote. His idea of a world divided
into three blocs – Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, of which two
are always at war with the other though the alliances change – is
again too close for comfort. And there are times when one can
believe that what “had been called England or Britain” has become
simply Airship One.[9]

A generation
earlier, John Atkins had written that Orwell had “discovered this
conception of the political future in James Burnham's Managerial
Revolution.” Specifically, “there is a state of permanent
war but it is a contest of limited aims between combatants who
cannot destroy each other. The war cannot be decisive. . . . As
none of the states comes near conquering the others, however the
war deteriorates into a series of skirmishes [although]. . . .
The protagonists store atomic bombs.”[10]

To establish
what we might call this “revisionist” interpretation of Nineteen
Eighty-Four we must first point out that the book was not,
as in the popular interpretation, a prophecy of the future so
much as a realistic portrayal of existing political trends. Thus,
Jeffrey Meyers points out that Nineteen Eighty-Four was
less a “nightmare vision” (Irving Howe's famous phrase) of the
future than “a very concrete and naturalistic portrayal of the
present and the past,” a “realistic synthesis and rearrangement
of familiar materials.” And again, Orwell's “statements about
1984 reveal that the novel, though set in a future time,
is realistic rather than fantastic, and deliberately intensifies
the actuality of the present.” Specifically, according to Meyers,
Nineteen Eighty-Four was not “totalitarianism after its
world triumph” as in the interpretation of Howe, but rather “the
very real though unfamiliar political terrorism of Nazi Germany
and Stalinist Russia transposed into the landscape of London in
1941–44.”[11] And not only Burnham's work but the reality of the
1943 Teheran Conference gave Orwell the idea of a world ruled
by three totalitarian superstates.

Bernard Crick,
Orwell's major biographer, points out that the English reviewers
of Nineteen Eighty-Four caught on immediately that the
novel was supposed to be an intensification of present trends
rather than a prophecy of the future. Crick notes that these reviewers
realized that Orwell had “not written utopian or anti-utopian
fantasy . . . but had simply extended certain discernible tendencies
of 1948 forward into 1984.”[12] Indeed, the very year 1984 was simply the transposition
of the existing year, 1948. Orwell's friend Julian Symons wrote
that 1984 society was meant to be the “near future,” and that
all the grim inventions of the rulers “were just extensions of
u2018ordinary' war and post-war things.” We might also point out that
the terrifying Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four was the
same numbered room in which Orwell had worked in London during
World War II as a British war propagandist.

But let Orwell
speak for himself. Orwell was distressed at many American reviews
of the book, especially in Time and Life, which,
in contrast to the British, saw Nineteen Eighty-Four as
the author's renunciation of his long-held devotion to democratic
socialism. Even his own publisher, Frederic Warburg, interpreted
the book in the same way. This response moved Orwell, terminally
ill in a hospital, to issue a repudiation. He outlined a statement
to Warburg, who, from detailed notes, issued a press release in
Orwell's name. First, Orwell noted that, contrary to many reviews,
Nineteen Eighty-Four was not prophecy but an analysis of
what could happen, based on present political trends. Orwell
then added: “Specifically, the danger lies in the structure imposed
on Socialist and on liberal capitalist communities by the necessity
to prepare for total war with the USSR and the new weapons, of
which of course the atomic bomb is the most powerful and the most
publicized. But danger also lies in the acceptance of a totalitarian
outlook by intellectuals of all colours.” After outlining
his forecast of several world superstates, specifically the Anglo-American
world (Oceania) and a Soviet-dominated Eurasia, Orwell went on:

If these
two great blocs line up as mortal enemies it is obvious that
the Anglo-Americans will not take the name of their opponents.
. . .The name suggested in 1984 is of course Ingsoc,
but in practice a wide range of choices is open. In the USA
the phrase “American” or “hundred per cent American” is suitable
and the qualifying adjective is as totalitarian as any could

We are about
as far from the world of Norman Podhoretz as we can get. While
Orwell is assuredly anti-Communist and anticollectivist his envisioned
totalitarianism can and does come in many guises and forms, and
the foundation for his nightmare totalitarian world is a perpetual
cold war that keeps brandishing the horror of modern atomic weaponry.

Shortly after
the atom bomb was dropped on Japan, George Orwell pre-figured
his world of Nineteen Eighty-Four in an incisive
and important analysis of the new phenomenon. In an essay entitled
“You and the Atom Bomb,” he noted that when weapons are expensive
(as the A-bomb is) politics tends to become despotic, with power
concentrated into the hands of a few rulers. In contrast, in the
day when weapons were simple and cheap (as was the musket or rifle,
for instance) power tends to be decentralized. After noting that
Russia was thought to be capable of producing the A-bomb within
five years (that is, by 1950), Orwell writes of the “prospect,”
at that time, “of two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed
of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a
few seconds, dividing the world between them.” It is generally
supposed, he noted, that the result will be another great war,
a war which this time will put an end to civilization. But isn't
it more likely, he added, “that surviving great nations make a
tacit agreement never to use the bomb against one another? Suppose
they only use it, or the threat of it, against people who are
unable to retaliate?”

to his favorite theme, in this period, of Burnham's view of the
world in The Managerial Revolution, Orwell declares
that Burnham's geographical picture of the new world has turned
out to be correct. More and more obviously the surface of the
earth is being parcelled off into three great empires, each self-contained
and cut off from contact with the outer world, and each ruled,
under one disguise or another by a self-elected oligarchy. The
haggling as to where the frontiers are to be drawn is still going
on, and will continue for some years.

Orwell then
proceeds gloomily:

The atomic
bomb may complete the process by robbing the exploited classes
and peoples of all power to revolt, and at the same time putting
the possessors of the bomb on a basis of equality. Unable to
conquer one another they are likely to continue ruling the world
between them, and it is difficult to see how the balance can
be upset except by slow and unpredictable demographic changes.

In short,
the atomic bomb is likely “to put an end to large-scale wars at
the cost of prolonging u2018a peace that is no peace.'” The drift
of the world will not be toward anarchy, as envisioned by H.G.
Wells, but toward “horribly stable . . . slave empires.”[14]

Over a year
later, Orwell returned to his pessimistic perpetual-cold-war analysis
of the postwar world. Scoffing at optimistic press reports that
the Americans “will agree to inspection of armaments,” Orwell
notes that “on another page of the same paper are reports of events
in Greece which amount to a state of war between two groups of
powers who are being so chummy in New York.” There are two axioms,
he added, governing international affairs. One is that “there
can be no peace without a general surrender of sovereignty,” and
another is that “no country capable of defending its sovereignty
ever surrenders it.” The result will be no peace, a continuing
arms race, but no all-out war.[15]

Orwell completes
his repeated wrestling with the works of James Burnham in his
review of The Struggle for the World (1947). Orwell
notes that the advent of atomic weapons has led Burnham to abandon
his three-identical- superpowers view of the world, and also to
shuck off his tough pose of value-freedom. Instead, Burnham is
virtually demanding an immediate preventive war against Russia,”
which has become the collectivist enemy, a preemptive strike
to be launched before Russia acquires the atomic bomb.

While Orwell
is fleetingly tempted by Burnham's apocalyptic approach, and asserts
that domination of Britain by the United States is to be preferred
to domination by Russia, he emerges from the discussion highly
critical. After all, Orwell writes, the

regime may become more liberal and less dangerous a generation
hence. . . . Of course, this would not happen with the consent
of the ruling clique, but it is thinkable that the mechanics
of the situation may bring it about. The other possibility is
that the great powers will be simply too frightened of the effects
of atomic weapons ever to make use of them. But that would be
much too dull for Burnham. Everything must happen suddenly and

George Orwell's
last important essay on world affairs was published in Partisan
Review in the summer of 1947. He there reaffirmed his attachment
to socialism but conceded that the chances were against its coming
to pass. He added that there were three possibilities ahead for
the world. One (which, as he had noted a few months before was
the new Burnham solution) was that the United States would launch
an atomic attack on Russia before Russia developed the bomb. Here
Orwell was more firmly opposed to such a program than he had been
before. For even if Russia were annihilated, a preemptive attack
would only lead to the rise of new empires, rivalries, wars, and
use of atomic weapons. At any rate, the first possibility was
not likely. The second possibility, declared Orwell, was that
the cold war would continue until Russia got the bomb, at which
point world war and the destruction of civilization would take
place. Again, Orwell did not consider this possibility very likely.
The third, and most likely, possibility is the old vision of perpetua1
cold war between blocs of superpowers. In this world,

the fear
inspired by the atomic bomb and other weapons yet to come will
be so great that everyone will refrain from using them. . .
. It would mean the division of the world among two or three
vast super-states, unable to conquer one another and unable
to be overthrown by any internal rebellion. In all probability
their structure would be hierarchic, with a semi-divine caste
at the top and outright slavery at the bottom, and the crushing
out of liberty would exceed anything the world has yet seen.
Within each state the necessary psychological atmosphere
would be kept up by complete severance from the outer world,
and by a continuous phony war against rival states. Civilization
of this type might remain static for thousands of years.[17]

Orwell (perhaps,
like Burnham, now fond of sudden and complete solutions) considers
this last possibility the worst.

It should
be clear that George Orwell was horrified at what he considered
to be the dominant trend of the postwar world: totalitarianism
based on perpetual but peripheral cold war between shifting alliances
of several blocs of super states. His positive solutions to this
problem were fitful and inconsistent; in Partisan Review he
called wistfully for a Socialist United States of Western
Europe as the only way out, but he clearly placed little hope
in such a development. His major problem was one that affected
all democratic socialists of that era: a tension between their
anticommunism and their opposition to imperialist, or at least
interstate, wars. And so at times Orwell was tempted by the apocalyptic
preventive-atomic-war solution, as was even Bertrand Russell during
the same period. In another, unpublished article, “In Defense
of Comrade Zilliacus,” written at some time near the end of 1947,
Orwell, bitterly opposed to what he considered the increasingly
procommunist attitude of his own Labour magazine, the Tribune,
came the closest to enlisting in the cold war by denouncing
neutralism and asserting that his hoped-for Socialist United States
of Europe should ground itself on the backing of the United States
of America. But despite these aberrations, the dominant thrust
of Orwell's thinking during the postwar period, and certainly
as reflected in Nineteen Eighty-Four, was horror
at a trend toward perpetual cold war as the groundwork for a totalitarianism
throughout the world. And his hope for eventual loosening of the
Russian regime, if also fitful, still rested cheek by jowl with
his more apocalyptic leanings.


[1]Norman Podhoretz, “If Orwell Were Alive Today,” Harper's,
January 1983, pp. 30–37.

[2]Harry Elmer Barnes, “How u2018Nineteen Eighty-Four' Trends
Threaten American Peace, Freedom, and Prosperity,” in Revisionism:
A Key to Peace and Other Essays
(San Francisco: Cato
Institute, 1980), pp. 142–43. Also see Barnes, An
Intellectual and Cultural
of the Western World
, 3d rev. ed., 3 vols.
(New York: Dover, 1965), 3: 1324–1332; and Murray N. Rothbard,
“Harry Elmer Barnes as Revisionist of the Cold War,” in
Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader
, ed. A. Goddard (Colorado
Springs: Ralph Myles, 1968). pp. 314–38. For a similar analysis,
see F.J.P. Veal[e] Advance
(Appleton, Wis.: C.C. Nelson, 1953), pp. 266–84.

[3]Garet Garrett, The
People's Pottage
(Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers,
1953), pp. 154–57.

[4]Quoted in Garrett, The People's Pottage, p. 154.

[5]Marcus Raskin, “The Megadeath Intellectuals,” New York
Review of Book, November 14, 1963, pp. 6–7. Also see Martin
Nicolaus, “The Professor, the Policeman and the Peasant,”
Viet-Report, June–July 1966, pp. 15–19; and Fred Kaplan,
Wizards of Armageddon
(New York: Simon and Schuster,

[6]Barnes, “u2018Nineteen Eighty-Four' Trends,” p. 176.

[7]U.S. News and World Report, December
26, 1983, pp. 86–87.

[8]Irving Howe, ed., 1984
Revisited: Totalitarianism in Our Century
(New York:
Harper and Row, Perennial Library, 1983). There is a passing
reference in Robert Nisbet's essay and a few references in
Luther Carpenter's article on the reception given to Nineteen
Eighty-Four by his students at a community college on
Staten Island (pp. 180, 82).

[9] Raymond Williams. George
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1971),
p. 76.

[10]John Atkins, George
(London: Caldor and Boyars, 1954), pp. 237–38.

[11]Jeffrey Meyers, A
Reader's Guide
George Orwell
(London: Thames and Hudson,
1975), pp. 144–45. Also, “Far from being a picture of the
totalitarianism or the future 1984 is, in countless
details, a realistic picture of the totalitarianism of the
present” (Richard J. Voorhees, The
Paradox of George Orwell
, Purdue University
Studies, 1961, pp. 85–87).

[12]Bernard Crick, George
Orwell: A Life
(London: Seeker and Warburg, 1981),
pp. 393. Also see p. 397.

[13]George Orwell, The
Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George
, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, 4 vols. (New
York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 4:504 (hereafter cited
as CEJL). Also see Crick, George Orwell,
pp. 393–95.

[14]George Orwell, “You and the Atom Bomb,” Tribune,
October 19, 1945, reprinted in CEJL, 4:8–10.

[15]George Orwell, As I Please,” Tribune, December
13, 1946, reprinted in CEJL, 4:255.

[16]George Orwell, “Burnham's View of the Contemporary World
Struggle,” New Leader (New York), March 29,
1947, reprinted in CEJL, 4:325.

[17]George Orwell. “Toward European Unity,” Partisan
Review July–August 1947, reprinted in CEJL, 4:370–75.

N. Rothbard (1926–1995), the founder of modern libertarianism
and the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author
of The
Ethics of Liberty
and For
a New Liberty
and many
other books and articles
. He was also academic vice president
of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian
Studies, and the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report

Rothbard Archives


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