The New Dystopias

The Original Dystopias

Prior to the 20th century, totalitarian societies had been rare. There had been the brief reign of Savonarola in Florence, who imposed a theocratic, egalitarian order, cut short when the citizens revolted. The equally brief Terror of the French Revolution was likewise curtailed by the citizens overthrowing their intellectual overlords, but the French Revolution had the distinction of engendering the totalitarian movement, which saw its greatest culmination in the Bolshevik and Third Reich despotisms of the 20th century.

But, prior to them the most successful -- which is to say, the one with the longest duration -- was that of the Spartans. Sparta was characterized by its militarism, the total equality of citizens, brutality, absence of a normal family life, an authoritarian government, poor consumer goods (including food), and the absence of art, literature, commerce, and architecture. Spartan society actually rested on the back of a population of non-Spartans (the helots) who were unapologetically enslaved. Plato was an admirer of Spartan society; he was the first of a long, long line of intellectual apologists for totalitarianism. In fact, Plato could be called the Father of Totalitarian Ideology.

In 1515, Sir Thomas More wrote a fictional description of a foreign land that he called "Utopia" (meaning "nowhere"). It may be remembered that Marco Polo had previously created a new literary genre, the travelogue. In Utopia, private property and money had supposedly been abolished (Hatred of private property is a common theme running across revolutionary writers advocating utopias. We see it in Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, on Marx’s and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s What is Property? And Peter Kropotkin’s Anarchism), there was complete equality, travel was restricted and could only be done with permission from the authorities, euthanasia was encouraged, goods are held in common, individuality and diversity were suppressed, everyone wore drab clothing of the poorest quality, yet everyone was supposed to be happy. Also, work was mandatory for everyone though intellectuals were exempt (in all totalitarian societies, fictional or factual, some animals are more equal than others). Centuries later, Looking Backward would be written along similar lines.

This work was followed a century later by Tomasso Campanella’s The City of the Sun, which describes a theocratic state wherein there is total equality, there is no money, and where goods, women, and children are held in common.

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward is the 1888 American version of utopia, although the basic details remain for the most part identical.

Attempts at Utopia

From the 1800s right down to the end of the 20th century, there were “utopian” communities that were established in parts of Europe, Israel, and North America. It appears that the guiding principles of these communities were the usual clichés: a communal ownership of property, complete equality of its members, an emphasis on primitive life and a suppression of individuality. The emphasis on each principle varied, as well as whether other principles were also adopted (e.g., dietary restrictions, or communal sex partners). Most of these communities collapsed after a period of either some months or some years; the ones that survived the longest did so upon divesting some of those principles or radically amending them. None of them caught on and propagated to the rest of society; in other words, they remained isolated and rare. Of those that failed, numerous excuses were invented to explain their collapse.

However, the real reason they disappeared is that they went against human nature. This human nature was not the result of a lifetime of bad habits and education and values, as the utopians insisted, but rather what constitutes a human being. These utopian communities were the inventions of intellectuals, who, as is their wont, were out of touch with reality and besotted with particular ideologies. (As John Dewey pointed out in Human Nature and Conduct, artificial systems of morality have been based on a disregard for human nature instead of being based on it. Moral constructs, whether religious or philosophical, are fantasies, they are ideals created outside of man and if people do not live up to those ideals, well, it just means that human beings are too corrupt.) They invented castles in the sky, convinced others through their verbal virtuosity (to use Thomas Sowell’s apt phrase) and then were bitterly disappointed when reality repeatedly slapped them in the face. The fact of the matter is that people, by nature, want to own things. They want to excel. They have pride. They have individuality. They have their own opinions. They are not "equal" in the extreme sense of the word. They want a spouse who is faithfully exclusive. They enjoy good food, homes, clothes, property, possessions and objects of exquisite quality. That is normal. It is normal to enjoy life.

Proof of this is the undeniable fact that these communities never spread. Apart from a handful of dogmatic intellectuals, people did not want to worsen their lives. Think how effortlessly, by contrast, fashions in clothes, films, books, diets, activities (from dancing to excursions to sports to trips to clubs) spread throughout any one country (or internationally) like wildfire, without coercion. If something is beneficial and/or appealing it will be embraced. It is that simple. Free citizens will do what they want to do. With “utopian” communities people have to be cajoled, browbeaten, tricked, brainwashed, or forced to participate, whereupon at some point, they want out, leaving an embittered (privileged) leader and his (equally privileged) inner circle behind, handing out excuses and hurling blame. Whether we are talking about Jonestown in the middle of the jungle or Robert Owen’s Home Colonies, or hippie communes, or Communist Cuba, the pattern is the same.

But the ideological zealot will not admit to this. The intellectual fanatic will claim that the previous efforts failed because of this, that, or the other, and that if the above principles were to be now strictly adhered to -- under his supervision of course -- why, its participants would joyously rejoice in their new status, linking arms in a circle and joining in songs of thanksgiving.

Whereupon the same pattern would manifest itself.

The 20th Century

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s satirical We was written shortly after the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, whose rulers claimed to be building a society along scientific lines as put down by Karl Marx in Das Kapital. We was pretty much ignored by the Western intelligentsia, who was besotted by the new society and its claims (in fact, many Western intellectuals saw the Soviet Union as a true, modern-day utopia). In the novel, an authoritarian society is ruled along what is considered to be scientific principles, striving to be more perfect. People do not have names, they have numbers. Life is regimented. There is an overlord. Unanimity of thought is encouraged. Ultimately, a revolt takes place, instigated by outsiders living more close to nature, but it is suppressed and the protagonist of the story is subjected to a lobotomy, whereupon he is accepted back into the community.

The next dystopia to come along was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and it stands apart from all other utopias and dystopias. Simply put, it is a thriving, modern, comfortable society based on stability and hedonism. It was created after a calamitous world war in order to save what was left of civilization, but in order to achieve permanent stability many important things had to be abandoned: literature, monogamy, history, philosophy, family, military, politics and scientific innovations since they invariably, and automatically, create strife. Departing totally from the usual philosophical underpinnings (or clichés) of the 1800s advocating utopias, there is no equality, there is in fact a caste system, but since everyone has been conditioned since birth to accept their status, there is no resentment. On the other hand, it takes up the theme of free sex (actually advocated by the pro-utopian writers of the previous century) as promiscuity is seen as admirable and part of the philosophy of hedonism.

If one has to accept a dystopia, Brave New World is definitely the place to be.

The underlying premise to Brave New World is John Locke’s concept of tabula rasa. It may be remembered that Locke postulated that a person’s mind is born as if a blank slate, so that a person’s personality, habits, thoughts, etc. are the result of his environment. To a large degree, this is true: if a person is born in Norway, he would speak Norwegian, prefer Norwegian food, become Protestant, would be sentimental about fjords and so forth, but if he was born in Japan he would speak Japanese, be Buddhist, be obsessed about others’ opinion of him, have a diet of fish, rice, and seaweed, or, if he was born in the American Mormon faith, he would speak English, wear "temple clothing," etc. In Huxley’s society, there is a caste system, there is rampant promiscuity and group sex, the concept of family, father, mother, husband and wife considered laughably obscene, yet everyone is happy and content with his life in society for the simple reason that they have been indoctrinated since childhood to think their society to be normal.

The third fictional dystopia to come along, and indisputably the most famous, was 1984, finished on Orwell’s deathbed. It is a political novel, more so than the other two and profoundly depressing. No other published novel can boast of so many contributions to the English language: doublethink, Big Brother, Newspeak, telescreens, the thought police. It is no exaggeration to state that it burst on the world like a literary atomic bomb. Apart from the book’s obvious literary merits, it disrupted the zeitgeist: during WWII, the Soviets were vigorously viewed as gallant fighters for freedom against the Nazis by the West, forgetting that they had been the Nazis’ allies in the first half of the war as they butchered Europe between them. Along with its predecessor, Animal Farm (a satire, in fable form, on the Bolshevik revolution) and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, 1984 caused a tectonic shift in literary circles which, up until then, had waxed lyrically about Stalin and the Soviet Union.

The world of the novel is one that is divided into three totalitarian superstates in perpetual warfare with each other: Eastasia, comprising eastern Asia; Eurasia, comprising western Siberia, Europe, and northern Africa; and Oceania, comprising the Americas, Australia, the British Isles, and southern Africa. Within a year of its publication, it seemed like two-thirds of the novel’s predictions had come true as China became Communist under Mao Tse Tung and the Soviet Union reached central Europe and the Adriatic. And because the novel did not require any fantastic paraphernalia as in the case of Brave New World and We, it was more believable than the other two.

What is so striking in reading 1984 is just how realistic and accurate is the description of life in a totalitarian Marxist society during its hysterical phase (as was the case in China during the Cultural Revolution, the Soviet Union during the Leninist-Stalinist periods and today in North Korea). The minutiae of details involving the paranoia, the persecutions, the wariness of facial expressions and in carefully choosing the right words while avoiding other words, the constant state of semi-starvation, the drabness of everyday life, the constant mutilation of historical records to conform to the latest shift in policy, is simply amazing.

It also begs the question: where, exactly, did Orwell get all of his detailed information? After all, during the first half of the century, anything detrimental about the Soviet Union was exceedingly hard to come by. We know that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side, an experience that he recounted in Homage to Catalonia. But nowhere in that narrative can we find an echo of the numerous details of 1984, except for the account of the anti-Fascist POUM suddenly being persecuted by the Communists for supposedly being Fascist. True, being an ardent Socialist while also being an anti-Communist, he moved in circles where he could witness doublethink in the Trotskyites and Stalinists that he rubbed shoulders with in England.

Nor can it be based on information based on the other totalitarian regimes of the era. Pre-war Nazi Germany, for all of its brutality, was never drab, nor its people constantly on the verge of starvation, nor its citizens saturated with paranoia for enemies within the Third Reich. The same can be said for Fascist Italy, which never reached near the level of sadistic cruelty of Nazi Germany, preferring instead to send its opponents to internal exile. Where, then, did Orwell get the details?

My supposition is that he probably got them from the émigré groups that lived in London. Most leftist intellectuals shunned the émigrés because their accounts jarred with the idealistic delusions that those intellectuals held and would have experienced cognitive dissonance if they had listened to their accounts. George Orwell was unique among his Socialist peers in that he kept an open mind and could accept unpleasant facts which may have upset his worldview. We see this in his Road to Wigham Pier, his sympathies being with the working class, but also presenting some of its members as being vulgar, brutish and filthy. He was no Frank Capra. Instead, he was that rarity, a Socialist who was also rabidly anti-Communist.

The novel had another unique feature. At its end, Orwell included a nonfictional essay explaining Newspeak at length. The practice of Newspeak in Oceania was to systematically destroy more and more words with the aim of ultimately reducing speech (and print, of course) to a fraction of the present vocabulary. The purpose of this policy was, in the end, to eliminate intricacies of speech but, more importantly, to eradicate concepts which were anathema and which could be ultimately described with simply one word: crimethink. George Orwell may have indirectly gotten the idea for Newspeak from a famous article written in 1940 by Benjamin Whorf. In it, the author put forth the thesis that if a word does not exist in a certain language, the users of that language are incapable of grasping the concept behind that word. If Orwell did not benefit from that article the coincidence is remarkable.

1984 was a warning of impending totalitarianism. Big Brother’s physical description is exactly that of Stalin, and that of his arch-enemy, the traitor Goldstein, is exactly that of Trotsky (Bronstein was Trotsky’s real name). Oceania is clearly a Communist society. Yet, in one of those bizarre ironies, the Afterword to 1984 was written by Erich Fromm, an intellectual Communist who assured readers that the book really applied to Western democracies. (Nor was this a rare instance. Giovanni Guareschi, for example, published The Little World of Don Camillo, which satirized Italian Communists in small Italian towns. A film of the book was made in Italy that portrayed them as adorable. The Italian Communists loved the movie.) Indeed, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Marxist terrorist groups in the United States like the SDS, Yippies, the Weathermen and The Symbionese Liberation Army issued manifestos proclaiming that they were fighting Big Brother.

Another bizarre irony is that, of all of the details that the dystopia abounds in, the one that Americans have to this day fixated upon is on the telescreen, the instrument with which citizens were spied on by the government, although the citizens themselves spied on each other and denounced each other, including family members (which is yet another characteristic of Marxist societies). Americans’ obsession with their privacy is almost certainly the reason, but the fact that they have paid less importance to the rest is odd.

Many other minor dystopias were written after 1984, several of them borrowing details from their predecessors e.g., Logan’s Run is almost identical to Brave New World. By “minor” I mean twofold: not as influential in the long run, though momentarily interesting when they were initially presented to the public, and, usually the inhabitants are not constantly under surveillance by the State. Nonetheless, they offer some variations on the dystopic theme: Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, Utopia X, Utopia Minus X, Anthem, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Atlas Shrugged, The Turner Diaries, Battle Royale, Farnham's Freehold, The Giver, Make Room! Make Room!

Some of them were made into movies of varying success; the films THX 1138 and Aeon Flux, although not adaptations of particular books, were simply variations of Brave New World, while Brazil was in a category by itself.

The idea of utopias as an ideal seems to have gone out of fashion, understandably so considering the 20th century which promised utopias and instead delivered catastrophic dystopias. An exception is Walden Two, written by the foremost psychologist of the time, B.F. Skinner, who implied that a perfect society could be possible through the implementation of behavioral principles. Years later, the introduction of behavior modification would resuscitate the claim.

Today, of course, we live in a world where totalitarianism -- of whatever political persuasion -- is rare, relegated to a handful of countries which are viewed with scorn, not fear, by the rest of the world. Dystopias are relegated to the realm of science-fiction movies and books. But, for decades, the possibility of a permanent, all-powerful, dystopia encompassing the globe was a real possibility and if that possibility was averted, we have Orwell’s 1984 to partially thank.

So why is it important to remember these historical and literary fiascos? Partly because people have short memories, but more importantly because the peddlers of totalitarian utopias have not disappeared and can still be found justifying and sugar-coating those ideologies. You find them all over where mass information is being generated. True, they are not peddling utopias -- yet. Instead, first things first: with cynicism, lies, intimidation, and repetition they undermine the society that they live in, they exalt like-minded persons while denigrating their opponents. And Newspeak is nowadays called Politically Correct speech while its opposite, thoughtcrime, is referred to as hate speech.

The Original Dystopias

Prior to the 20th century, totalitarian societies had been rare. There had been the brief reign of Savonarola in Florence, who imposed a theocratic, egalitarian order, cut short when the citizens revolted. The equally brief Terror of the French Revolution was likewise curtailed by the citizens overthrowing their intellectual overlords, but the French Revolution had the distinction of engendering the totalitarian movement, which saw its greatest culmination in the Bolshevik and Third Reich despotisms of the 20th century.

But, prior to them the most successful -- which is to say, the one with the longest duration -- was that of the Spartans. Sparta was characterized by its militarism, the total equality of citizens, brutality, absence of a normal family life, an authoritarian government, poor consumer goods (including food), and the absence of art, literature, commerce, and architecture. Spartan society actually rested on the back of a population of non-Spartans (the helots) who were unapologetically enslaved. Plato was an admirer of Spartan society; he was the first of a long, long line of intellectual apologists for totalitarianism. In fact, Plato could be called the Father of Totalitarian Ideology.

In 1515, Sir Thomas More wrote a fictional description of a foreign land that he called "Utopia" (meaning "nowhere"). It may be remembered that Marco Polo had previously created a new literary genre, the travelogue. In Utopia, private property and money had supposedly been abolished (Hatred of private property is a common theme running across revolutionary writers advocating utopias. We see it in Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, on Marx’s and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s What is Property? And Peter Kropotkin’s Anarchism), there was complete equality, travel was restricted and could only be done with permission from the authorities, euthanasia was encouraged, goods are held in common, individuality and diversity were suppressed, everyone wore drab clothing of the poorest quality, yet everyone was supposed to be happy. Also, work was mandatory for everyone though intellectuals were exempt (in all totalitarian societies, fictional or factual, some animals are more equal than others). Centuries later, Looking Backward would be written along similar lines.

This work was followed a century later by Tomasso Campanella’s The City of the Sun, which describes a theocratic state wherein there is total equality, there is no money, and where goods, women, and children are held in common.

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward is the 1888 American version of utopia, although the basic details remain for the most part identical.

Attempts at Utopia

From the 1800s right down to the end of the 20th century, there were “utopian” communities that were established in parts of Europe, Israel, and North America. It appears that the guiding principles of these communities were the usual clichés: a communal ownership of property, complete equality of its members, an emphasis on primitive life and a suppression of individuality. The emphasis on each principle varied, as well as whether other principles were also adopted (e.g., dietary restrictions, or communal sex partners). Most of these communities collapsed after a period of either some months or some years; the ones that survived the longest did so upon divesting some of those principles or radically amending them. None of them caught on and propagated to the rest of society; in other words, they remained isolated and rare. Of those that failed, numerous excuses were invented to explain their collapse.

However, the real reason they disappeared is that they went against human nature. This human nature was not the result of a lifetime of bad habits and education and values, as the utopians insisted, but rather what constitutes a human being. These utopian communities were the inventions of intellectuals, who, as is their wont, were out of touch with reality and besotted with particular ideologies. (As John Dewey pointed out in Human Nature and Conduct, artificial systems of morality have been based on a disregard for human nature instead of being based on it. Moral constructs, whether religious or philosophical, are fantasies, they are ideals created outside of man and if people do not live up to those ideals, well, it just means that human beings are too corrupt.) They invented castles in the sky, convinced others through their verbal virtuosity (to use Thomas Sowell’s apt phrase) and then were bitterly disappointed when reality repeatedly slapped them in the face. The fact of the matter is that people, by nature, want to own things. They want to excel. They have pride. They have individuality. They have their own opinions. They are not "equal" in the extreme sense of the word. They want a spouse who is faithfully exclusive. They enjoy good food, homes, clothes, property, possessions and objects of exquisite quality. That is normal. It is normal to enjoy life.

Proof of this is the undeniable fact that these communities never spread. Apart from a handful of dogmatic intellectuals, people did not want to worsen their lives. Think how effortlessly, by contrast, fashions in clothes, films, books, diets, activities (from dancing to excursions to sports to trips to clubs) spread throughout any one country (or internationally) like wildfire, without coercion. If something is beneficial and/or appealing it will be embraced. It is that simple. Free citizens will do what they want to do. With “utopian” communities people have to be cajoled, browbeaten, tricked, brainwashed, or forced to participate, whereupon at some point, they want out, leaving an embittered (privileged) leader and his (equally privileged) inner circle behind, handing out excuses and hurling blame. Whether we are talking about Jonestown in the middle of the jungle or Robert Owen’s Home Colonies, or hippie communes, or Communist Cuba, the pattern is the same.

But the ideological zealot will not admit to this. The intellectual fanatic will claim that the previous efforts failed because of this, that, or the other, and that if the above principles were to be now strictly adhered to -- under his supervision of course -- why, its participants would joyously rejoice in their new status, linking arms in a circle and joining in songs of thanksgiving.

Whereupon the same pattern would manifest itself.

The 20th Century

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s satirical We was written shortly after the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, whose rulers claimed to be building a society along scientific lines as put down by Karl Marx in Das Kapital. We was pretty much ignored by the Western intelligentsia, who was besotted by the new society and its claims (in fact, many Western intellectuals saw the Soviet Union as a true, modern-day utopia). In the novel, an authoritarian society is ruled along what is considered to be scientific principles, striving to be more perfect. People do not have names, they have numbers. Life is regimented. There is an overlord. Unanimity of thought is encouraged. Ultimately, a revolt takes place, instigated by outsiders living more close to nature, but it is suppressed and the protagonist of the story is subjected to a lobotomy, whereupon he is accepted back into the community.

The next dystopia to come along was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and it stands apart from all other utopias and dystopias. Simply put, it is a thriving, modern, comfortable society based on stability and hedonism. It was created after a calamitous world war in order to save what was left of civilization, but in order to achieve permanent stability many important things had to be abandoned: literature, monogamy, history, philosophy, family, military, politics and scientific innovations since they invariably, and automatically, create strife. Departing totally from the usual philosophical underpinnings (or clichés) of the 1800s advocating utopias, there is no equality, there is in fact a caste system, but since everyone has been conditioned since birth to accept their status, there is no resentment. On the other hand, it takes up the theme of free sex (actually advocated by the pro-utopian writers of the previous century) as promiscuity is seen as admirable and part of the philosophy of hedonism.

If one has to accept a dystopia, Brave New World is definitely the place to be.

The underlying premise to Brave New World is John Locke’s concept of tabula rasa. It may be remembered that Locke postulated that a person’s mind is born as if a blank slate, so that a person’s personality, habits, thoughts, etc. are the result of his environment. To a large degree, this is true: if a person is born in Norway, he would speak Norwegian, prefer Norwegian food, become Protestant, would be sentimental about fjords and so forth, but if he was born in Japan he would speak Japanese, be Buddhist, be obsessed about others’ opinion of him, have a diet of fish, rice, and seaweed, or, if he was born in the American Mormon faith, he would speak English, wear "temple clothing," etc. In Huxley’s society, there is a caste system, there is rampant promiscuity and group sex, the concept of family, father, mother, husband and wife considered laughably obscene, yet everyone is happy and content with his life in society for the simple reason that they have been indoctrinated since childhood to think their society to be normal.

The third fictional dystopia to come along, and indisputably the most famous, was 1984, finished on Orwell’s deathbed. It is a political novel, more so than the other two and profoundly depressing. No other published novel can boast of so many contributions to the English language: doublethink, Big Brother, Newspeak, telescreens, the thought police. It is no exaggeration to state that it burst on the world like a literary atomic bomb. Apart from the book’s obvious literary merits, it disrupted the zeitgeist: during WWII, the Soviets were vigorously viewed as gallant fighters for freedom against the Nazis by the West, forgetting that they had been the Nazis’ allies in the first half of the war as they butchered Europe between them. Along with its predecessor, Animal Farm (a satire, in fable form, on the Bolshevik revolution) and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, 1984 caused a tectonic shift in literary circles which, up until then, had waxed lyrically about Stalin and the Soviet Union.

The world of the novel is one that is divided into three totalitarian superstates in perpetual warfare with each other: Eastasia, comprising eastern Asia; Eurasia, comprising western Siberia, Europe, and northern Africa; and Oceania, comprising the Americas, Australia, the British Isles, and southern Africa. Within a year of its publication, it seemed like two-thirds of the novel’s predictions had come true as China became Communist under Mao Tse Tung and the Soviet Union reached central Europe and the Adriatic. And because the novel did not require any fantastic paraphernalia as in the case of Brave New World and We, it was more believable than the other two.

What is so striking in reading 1984 is just how realistic and accurate is the description of life in a totalitarian Marxist society during its hysterical phase (as was the case in China during the Cultural Revolution, the Soviet Union during the Leninist-Stalinist periods and today in North Korea). The minutiae of details involving the paranoia, the persecutions, the wariness of facial expressions and in carefully choosing the right words while avoiding other words, the constant state of semi-starvation, the drabness of everyday life, the constant mutilation of historical records to conform to the latest shift in policy, is simply amazing.

It also begs the question: where, exactly, did Orwell get all of his detailed information? After all, during the first half of the century, anything detrimental about the Soviet Union was exceedingly hard to come by. We know that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side, an experience that he recounted in Homage to Catalonia. But nowhere in that narrative can we find an echo of the numerous details of 1984, except for the account of the anti-Fascist POUM suddenly being persecuted by the Communists for supposedly being Fascist. True, being an ardent Socialist while also being an anti-Communist, he moved in circles where he could witness doublethink in the Trotskyites and Stalinists that he rubbed shoulders with in England.

Nor can it be based on information based on the other totalitarian regimes of the era. Pre-war Nazi Germany, for all of its brutality, was never drab, nor its people constantly on the verge of starvation, nor its citizens saturated with paranoia for enemies within the Third Reich. The same can be said for Fascist Italy, which never reached near the level of sadistic cruelty of Nazi Germany, preferring instead to send its opponents to internal exile. Where, then, did Orwell get the details?

My supposition is that he probably got them from the émigré groups that lived in London. Most leftist intellectuals shunned the émigrés because their accounts jarred with the idealistic delusions that those intellectuals held and would have experienced cognitive dissonance if they had listened to their accounts. George Orwell was unique among his Socialist peers in that he kept an open mind and could accept unpleasant facts which may have upset his worldview. We see this in his Road to Wigham Pier, his sympathies being with the working class, but also presenting some of its members as being vulgar, brutish and filthy. He was no Frank Capra. Instead, he was that rarity, a Socialist who was also rabidly anti-Communist.

The novel had another unique feature. At its end, Orwell included a nonfictional essay explaining Newspeak at length. The practice of Newspeak in Oceania was to systematically destroy more and more words with the aim of ultimately reducing speech (and print, of course) to a fraction of the present vocabulary. The purpose of this policy was, in the end, to eliminate intricacies of speech but, more importantly, to eradicate concepts which were anathema and which could be ultimately described with simply one word: crimethink. George Orwell may have indirectly gotten the idea for Newspeak from a famous article written in 1940 by Benjamin Whorf. In it, the author put forth the thesis that if a word does not exist in a certain language, the users of that language are incapable of grasping the concept behind that word. If Orwell did not benefit from that article the coincidence is remarkable.

1984 was a warning of impending totalitarianism. Big Brother’s physical description is exactly that of Stalin, and that of his arch-enemy, the traitor Goldstein, is exactly that of Trotsky (Bronstein was Trotsky’s real name). Oceania is clearly a Communist society. Yet, in one of those bizarre ironies, the Afterword to 1984 was written by Erich Fromm, an intellectual Communist who assured readers that the book really applied to Western democracies. (Nor was this a rare instance. Giovanni Guareschi, for example, published The Little World of Don Camillo, which satirized Italian Communists in small Italian towns. A film of the book was made in Italy that portrayed them as adorable. The Italian Communists loved the movie.) Indeed, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Marxist terrorist groups in the United States like the SDS, Yippies, the Weathermen and The Symbionese Liberation Army issued manifestos proclaiming that they were fighting Big Brother.

Another bizarre irony is that, of all of the details that the dystopia abounds in, the one that Americans have to this day fixated upon is on the telescreen, the instrument with which citizens were spied on by the government, although the citizens themselves spied on each other and denounced each other, including family members (which is yet another characteristic of Marxist societies). Americans’ obsession with their privacy is almost certainly the reason, but the fact that they have paid less importance to the rest is odd.

Many other minor dystopias were written after 1984, several of them borrowing details from their predecessors e.g., Logan’s Run is almost identical to Brave New World. By “minor” I mean twofold: not as influential in the long run, though momentarily interesting when they were initially presented to the public, and, usually the inhabitants are not constantly under surveillance by the State. Nonetheless, they offer some variations on the dystopic theme: Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, Utopia X, Utopia Minus X, Anthem, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Atlas Shrugged, The Turner Diaries, Battle Royale, Farnham's Freehold, The Giver, Make Room! Make Room!

Some of them were made into movies of varying success; the films THX 1138 and Aeon Flux, although not adaptations of particular books, were simply variations of Brave New World, while Brazil was in a category by itself.

The idea of utopias as an ideal seems to have gone out of fashion, understandably so considering the 20th century which promised utopias and instead delivered catastrophic dystopias. An exception is Walden Two, written by the foremost psychologist of the time, B.F. Skinner, who implied that a perfect society could be possible through the implementation of behavioral principles. Years later, the introduction of behavior modification would resuscitate the claim.

Today, of course, we live in a world where totalitarianism -- of whatever political persuasion -- is rare, relegated to a handful of countries which are viewed with scorn, not fear, by the rest of the world. Dystopias are relegated to the realm of science-fiction movies and books. But, for decades, the possibility of a permanent, all-powerful, dystopia encompassing the globe was a real possibility and if that possibility was averted, we have Orwell’s 1984 to partially thank.

So why is it important to remember these historical and literary fiascos? Partly because people have short memories, but more importantly because the peddlers of totalitarian utopias have not disappeared and can still be found justifying and sugar-coating those ideologies. You find them all over where mass information is being generated. True, they are not peddling utopias -- yet. Instead, first things first: with cynicism, lies, intimidation, and repetition they undermine the society that they live in, they exalt like-minded persons while denigrating their opponents. And Newspeak is nowadays called Politically Correct speech while its opposite, thoughtcrime, is referred to as hate speech.

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