The Desperate Radicalism of Orwell’s 1984: Power, Socialism, and Utopia in Dystopian Times

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2023, Vol. 76(1) 267278
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129221083286
The Desperate Radicalism of Orwells 1984:
Power, Socialism, and Utopia in Dystopian
Matthew B. Cole
Though 1984 is often praised for its prescience, critics in Orwells time and ours have also condemned its pessimism. Orwells
despair, the argument goes, undermines the power of his warning, representing a retreat from politics , a betrayal of socialism, and
a repudiation of utopianism. This article draws on the text of 1984 and Orwells contemporaneous writings to reassess his thinking
on power, socialism, and utopia and to reconsider 1984s appeal to the political imagination. Characterizing Orwells late political
sensibility as one of desperate radicalism, the article demonstrates that Orwell remained both a socialist and a steward of the
utopian imagination and that he feared totalitarianism because it threatened to expunge utopian ideals from historical con-
sciousness. 1984 depicts a world in which this effort has nearly succeeded, rendering Orwell s present as a moment of choice
between an egalitarian future and a future of permanent hierarchy.
Orwell, 1984, dystopia, utopia, socialism, totalitarianism
Three intersecting trends have prompted a renewal of
interest in George Orwells1984. Commentators invoke
Orwell as a prophet of our post-truthera (Kakutani
2018;Levy 2016), with its fake news, conspiracy theories,
and viral disinformation. Orwell warned that the very
concept of objective truth is fading out of the world
(CEJL, II:258), an anxiety expressed in 1984s vision of a
ruling Party whose collective solipsism(1984, 266)
subsumes past and present to an ever-f‌luctuating stream of
After the Trump administration debuted the
concept of alternative facts,1984 sold hundreds of
thousands of copies (Rodden 2020, 4). As Dorian Lyn-
skey notes, a novel synonymous with totalitarianism
during the Cold War and with invasive technology
during the 1980s is today most of all a defence of
truth(2019, 265). Even so, the post-truth phenomenon
triangulates with political and technological develop-
ments ref‌lecting Orwells concerns. Analysts of authori-
tarianism recruit Orwell to explain how leaders like
Trump, Orb´
an, and Putin solidify power through disin-
formation, censorship, and propaganda (Applebaum
2020,Pomerantsev 2019,Snyder 2018). And the Or-
well who foresaw a world of telescreens, Thought Police,
and Big Brothers all-pervading gaze, where there was no
way of knowing whether you were being watched at any
given moment(1984, 3) reasserted his ubiquity after
Edward Snowden brought the NSAs secret mass sur-
veillance programs to public attention. This Orwell is
channeled in works on superchargedsurveillance states
from the US to China (Chesterman 2011,Susskind 2018,
Strittmatter 2020), and others concerned with the pro-
liferation of corporate digital surveillance (Zuboff 2019).
It is easy to see, then, why a recent biography hails
Orwell as a man of our time(Bradford 2020) and why
commentators persist in asking What Would Orwell
Think?about everything from smartphones to Brexit to
cancel culture.In these contexts, 1984 remains the
central source of Orwells moral authority. But doubts
about the intellectual resources that Orwells work pro-
vides have surfaced alongside these tributes and hagi-
ographies. However, Orwellianthe 21st century may
appear, does 1984 offer any counsel beyond despair? The
bleakness of 1984 is apparent and for many readers
Harvard College Writing Program, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA,
Corresponding Author:
Matthew B. Cole, Harvard College Writing Program, Harvard University,
One Bow St #235, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.

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