Bertrand Russell: Symptoms of George Orwell’s 1984

Having soothed themselves with these comfortable falsehoods, people proceeded on their way to make Orwell's prognostications come true. Bit by bit, and step by step, the world has been marching toward the realization of Orwell's nightmares; but because the march has been gradual, people have not realized how far it has taken them on this fatal road.
Bertrand Russell

George Orwell’s 1984 is a gruesome book which duly made its readers shudder. It did not, however, have the effect which no doubt its author intended. People remarked that Orwell was very ill when he wrote it, and in fact died soon afterward. They rather enjoyed the frisson that its horrors gave them and thought: “Oh well, of course it will never be as bad as that except in Russia! Obviously the author enjoys gloom; and so do we, as long as we don’t take it seriously.” Having soothed themselves with these comfortable falsehoods, people proceeded on their way to make Orwell’s prognostications come true. Bit by bit, and step by step, the world has been marching toward the realization of Orwell’s nightmares; but because the march has been gradual, people have not realized how far it has taken them on this fatal road.

Only those who remember the world before 1914 can adequately realize how much has already been lost. In that happy age, one could travel without a passport, everywhere except in Russia. One could freely express any political opinion, except in Russia. Press censorship was unknown, except in Russia. Any white man could emigrate freely to any part of the world. The limitations of freedom in Czarist Russia were regarded with horror throughout the rest of the civilized world, and the power of the Russian Secret Police was regarded as an abomination. Russia is still worse than the Western World, not because the Western World has preserved its liberties, but because, while it has been losing them, Russia has marched farther in the direction of tyranny than any Czar lever thought of going.

For a long time after the Russian Revolution, it was customary to say, “No doubt the new regime has its faults, but at any rate it is better than that which it has superseded.” This was a complete delusion. When one rereads accounts of exile in Siberia under the Czar, it is impossible to recapture the revulsion with which one read them long ago. The exiles had a very considerable degree of liberty, both mental and physical, and their lot was in no way comparable to that of people subjected to forced labor under the Soviet Government. Educated Russians could travel freely and enjoy contacts with Western Europeans which are now impossible. Opposition to the Government, although it was apt to be punished, was possible, and the punishment as a rule was nothing like as severe as it has become. Nor did tyranny extend nearly as widely as it does now. I read recently the early life of Trotsky as related by Deutscher, and it reveals a degree of political and intellectual freedom to which there is nothing comparable in present-day Russia. There is still as great a gulf between Russia and the West as there was in Czarist days, but I do not think the gulf is greater than it was then, for, while Russia has grown worse, the West also has lost much of the freedom which it formerly enjoyed.

The problem is not new except quantitatively. Ever since civilization began, the authorities of most States have persecuted the best men among their subjects. We are all shocked by the treatment of Socrates and Christ, but most people do not realize that such has been the fate of a large proportion of the men subsequently regarded as unusually admirable. Most of the early Greek philosophers were refugees. Aristotle was protected from the hostility of Athens only by Alexander’s armies, and, when Alexander died, Aristotle had to fly. In the seventeenth century scientific innovators were persecuted almost everywhere except in Holland. Spinoza would have had no chance to do his work if he had not been Dutch. Descartes and Locke found it prudent to flee to Holland. When England, in 1688, acquired a Dutch king, it took over Dutch tolerance and has been, ever since, more liberal than most states, except during the period of the wars against revolutionary France and Napoleon. In most countries at most times, whatever subsequently came to be thought best was viewed with horror at the time by those who wielded authority.

What is new in our time is the increased power of the authorities to enforce their prejudices. The police everywhere are very much more powerful than at any earlier time; and the police, while they serve a purpose in suppressing ordinary crime, are apt to be just as active in suppressing extraordinary merit.

The problem is not confined to this country or that, although the intensity of the evil is not evenly distributed. In my own country things are done more quietly and with less fuss than in the United States, and the public knows very much less about them. There have been purges of the Civil Service carried out without any of the business of Congressional Committees. The Home Office, which controls immigration, is profoundly illiberal except when public opinion can be mobilized against it. A Polish friend of mine, a very brilliant writer who had never been a Communist, applied for naturalization in England after living in that country for a long time, but his request was at first refused on the ground that he was a friend of the Polish Ambassador. His request was only granted in the end as a result of protests by various people of irreproachable reputation. The right of asylum for political refugees that used to be England’s boast has now been abandoned by the Home Office, though perhaps it may be restored as the result of agitation.

There is a reason for the general deterioration as regards liberty. This reason is the increased power of organizations and the increasing degree to which men’s actions are controlled by this or that large body. In every organization there are two purposes: one, the ostensible purpose for which the organization exists; the other, the increase in the power of its officials. This second purpose is very likely to make a stronger appeal to the officials concerned than the general public purpose that they are expected to serve. If you fall foul of the police by attempting to expose some iniquity of which they have been guilty, you may expect to incur their hostility; and, if so, you are very likely to suffer severely.

I have found among many liberal-minded people a belief that all is well so long as the law courts decide rightly when a case comes before them. This is entirely unrealistic. Suppose, for example, to take a by no means hypothetical case, that a professor is dismissed on a false charge of disloyalty. He may, if he happens to have rich friends, be able to establish in court that the charge was false, but this will probably take years during which he will starve or depend on charity. At the end he is a marked man. The university authorities, having learned wisdom, will say that he is a bad lecturer and does insufficient research. He will find himself again dismissed, this time without redress and with little hope of employment elsewhere.

There are, it is true, some educational institutions in America which, so far, have been strong enough to hold out. This, however, is only possible for an institution which has great prestige and has brave men in charge of its policy. Consider, for example, what Senator McCarthy has said about Harvard. He said he “couldn’t conceive of anyone sending children to Harvard University where they would be open to indoctrination by Communist professors.” At Harvard, he said, there is a “smelly mess which people sending sons and daughters there should know about.” Institutions less eminent than Harvard could hardly face such a blast.

The power of the police, however, is a more serious and a more universal phenomenon than Senator McCarthy. It is, of course, greatly increased by the atmosphere of fear which exists on both sides of the Iron Curtain. If you live in Russia and cease to be sympathetic with Communism, you will suffer unless you keep silence even in the bosom of your family. In America, if you have been a Communist and you cease to be, you are also liable to penalties, not legal unless you have been trapped into perjury but economic and social. There is only one thing that you can do to escape such penalties, and that is to sell yourself to the Department of Justice as an informer, when your success will depend upon what tall stories you can get the FBI to believe.

The increase of organization in the modern world demands new institutions if anything in the way of liberty is to be preserved. The situation is analogous to that which arose through the increased power of monarchs in the sixteenth century. It was against their excessive power that the whole fight of traditional liberalism was fought and won. But after their power had faded, new powers at least as dangerous arose, and the worst of these in our day is the power of the police. There is, so far as I can see, only one possible remedy, and that is the establishment of a second police force designed to prove innocence, not guilt. People often say that it is better that ninety-nine guilty men should escape than that one innocent man should be punished. Our institutions are founded upon the opposite view. If a man is accused, for example, of a murder, all the resources of the State, in the shape of policemen and detectives, are employed to prove his guilt, whereas it is left to his individual efforts to prove his innocence. If he employs detectives, they have to be private detectives paid out of his own pocket or that of his friends. Whatever his employment may have been, he will have neither time nor opportunity to continue earning money by means of it. The lawyers for the prosecution are paid by the State. His lawyers have to be paid by him, unless he pleads poverty, and then they will probably be less eminent than those of the prosecution. All this is quite unjust. It is at least as much in the public interest to prove that an innocent man has not committed a crime, as it is to prove that a guilty man has committed it. A police force designed to prove innocence should never attempt to prove guilt except in one kind of case: namely, where it is the authorities who are suspected of a crime. I think that the creation of such a second police force might enable us to preserve some of our traditional liberties, but I do not think that any lesser measure will do so.

One of the worst things resulting from the modern increase of the powers of the authorities is the suppression of truth and the spread of falsehood by means of public agencies. Russians are kept as far as possible in ignorance about Western countries, to the degree that people in Moscow imagine theirs to be the only subway in the world. Chinese intellectuals, since China became Communist, have been subjected to a horrible process called “brain-washing.” Learned men who have acquired all the knowledge to be obtained in their subject from America or Western Europe are compelled to abjure what they have learned and to state that everything worth knowing is to be derived from Communist sources. They are subjected to such psychological pressure that they emerge broken men, able only to repeat, parrot fashion, the jejune formulas handed down by their official superiors. In Russia and China this sort of thing is enforced by direct penalties, not only to recalcitrant individuals, but also to their families. In other countries the process has not yet gone so far. Those who reported truthfully about the evils of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime during the last years of his rule in China were not liquidated, but everything possible was done to prevent their truthful reports from being believed, and they became suspects in degrees which varied according to their eminence. A man who reports truly to his government about what he finds in a foreign country, unless his report agrees with official prejudices, not only runs a grave personal risk, but knows that his information will be ignored. There is, of course, nothing new in this except in degree. In 1899, General Butler, who was in command of British forces in South Africa, reported that it would require an army of at least two hundred thousand to subdue the Boers. For this unpopular opinion he was demoted, and was given no credit when the opinion turned out to be correct. But, although the evil is not new, it is very much greater in extent than it used to be. There is no longer, even among those who think themselves more or less liberal, a belief that it is a good thing to study all sides of a question. The purging of United States libraries in Europe and of school libraries in America, is designed to prevent people from knowing more than one side of a question. The Index Expurgatorius has become a recognized part of the policy of those who say that they fight for freedom. Apparently the authorities no longer have sufficient belief in the justice of their cause to think that it can survive the ordeal of free discussion. Only so long as the other side is unheard are they confident of obtaining credence. This shows a sad decay in the robustness of our belief in our own institutions. During the war, the Nazis did not permit Germans to listen to British radio, but nobody in England was hindered from listening to the German radio because our faith in our own cause was unshakable. So long as we prevent Communists from being heard, we produce the impression that they must have a very strong case. Free speech used to be advocated on the ground that free discussion would lead to the victory of the better opinion. This belief is being lost under the influence of fear. The result is that truth is one thing and “official truth” is another. This is the first step on the road to Orwell’s “double-talk” and “double-think”. It will be said that the legal existence of free speech has been preserved, but its effective existence is disastrously curtailed if the more important means of publicity are only open to opinions which have the sanction of orthodoxy.

This applies more particularly to education. Even mildly liberal opinions expose an educator nowadays in some important countries to the risk of losing his job and being unable to find any other. The consequence is that children grow up in ignorance of many things that it is vitally important they should know, and that bigotry and obscurantism have a perilous measure of popular support.

Fear is the source from which all these evils spring, and fear, as is apt to happen in a panic, inspires the very actions which bring about the disasters that are dreaded. The dangers are real — they are indeed greater than at any previous time in human history — but all yielding to hysteria increases them. It is our clear duty in this difficult time, not only to know the dangers, but to view them calmly and rationally in spite of knowledge of their magnitude. Orwell’s world of 1984, if we allow it to exist, will not exist for long. It will be only the prelude to universal death.

Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory And Other Essays, Simon And Schuster 1950


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