What is the meaning of the quote beginning with "Who controls the past ..." in 1984?

In 1984, a Party slogan states, "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." This slogan is reflected in the Party's widespread manipulation of its own written records, which are continually rewritten to adhere to the current Party doctrine. In this way, it is able to control the collective memory of the population, shaping how reality is widely perceived.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Oceania, the Party insists on controlling all aspects of existence. It is not enough to control how people act and behave but also how they think. This involves creating an alternative reality, a parallel universe in which the Party is the sole arbiter of truth.

To this end, the...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In Oceania, the Party insists on controlling all aspects of existence. It is not enough to control how people act and behave but also how they think. This involves creating an alternative reality, a parallel universe in which the Party is the sole arbiter of truth.

To this end, the Party seeks to control not just the present but the past. It does this through rewriting history according to its own interests. As Winston Smith discovers in his work at the Ministry of Truth, events, places, even people from the past can be written out of history as if they never existed. In Oceania, the past, like the present, is what the Party says it is.

In order to maintain control over the populace, it is essential for the Party to ensure that no one can have access to any independent sources of truth. History can be one such source. That's why, from the Party's standpoint, it's all the more important that it should control and manipulate the past.

There can be no question of the citizens of Oceania looking to the past as a way of escaping the diet of lies and disinformation served up by the Party on a daily basis. Wherever they look, to the past or the present, the only truth they will ever find will be that sanctioned by the powers that be.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In 1984, one of the Party's slogans states, "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." This quote pertains to one of Orwell's most important political insights: that truth is vulnerable to manipulation and that the manipulation of information provides one of the vital avenues through which political power can be maintained.

Consider how, in the world of 1984, the written records are continually being rewritten to bring them in line with the current Party doctrine. Thus, for example, the Party can retroactively remove from its history important functionaries and/or leaders that have fallen out of favor. Similarly, any past statements or projections that have since become untenable can likewise be rewritten. Ultimately, memory is fallible, and we are left in the position of needing to rely on our written records to ameliorate that vulnerability. The Party takes advantage of this weakness: by controlling the written records, they can essentially control the collective memory of the population and thus shape reality as it is widely perceived.

However, at the same time, this is not just a purely fictional exercise on Orwell's part but instead has very real-world implications. Just consider, for example, the use of propaganda in times of war, or to prop up political regimes. In our own present society, consider the rhetoric of "fake news." Truth is malleable, and this is something Orwell very much understood.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I believe that in addressing this question, you have to examine the issue of power. The meaning of this statement is that someone can redefine who they are and, in fact, what a society is by being able to change the perception of how the past is configured. For example, dictatorships are very passionate in the idea of "rewriting history." You can see this in Milan Kundera's excellent book, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. We can also see this in history. When Communist rule was at its zenith of power, governments were driven to recreating history in a manner that coordinated with the current government's goals. In doing this (controlling the perception of the past), more credibility is given to the current, present day policies. The Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia, after they wrestled power away from European control, declared a "Year Zero" where they made the argument that the past is the present. By controlling the means of reading the past, they were able to fortify their control of the present. This is also seen in the French Revolution. After the French Monarchy was overthrown, they instituted a new view of history where the past was considered immoral and evil, lending greater credibility to the present.

I think you want to focus on the idea that people understand their present and future in how they conceptualize and comprehend the past. If someone in the position of power can change how the past is viewed, they have a greater chance of controlling the present in that they are able to link the two together.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This  answer is simply pulling apart the quotation.   If you control the present, you are able to present your version of the past because no one else is in control.  Only you will be able to frame the past through your lens on history or the past.  If you can control the past, that allows you to shape the future in your vision framed by what has happened in the past via your version.  For example, if you see the laws governing pollution control as a good thing, you would present your view that the laws should continue so that the earth is not poisoned with pesticides or the chemical runoff of factories.  If you see the laws as a bad thing, your vision of the future would be that the laws should allow businesses to do as they wish with waste products because that would be good for their businesses and thus good for the country.   The laws would be considered government interference and thus up for change.  The future would thus be much freer for businesses without the regulations controlling what they do.  Now apply the same ideas to politics itself, and you can see that the quotation applies equally to the business of politics and the political party or people in control.  They can slant news releases to support their versions of the future.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is an interesting question. I am sure you have heard the phrase, "winners write the history."  Or Napoleon Bonaparte is accredited with saying, "History is a lie agreed upon."  As the previous answer states, history is rewritten by those who are in power.  Those who are in power control the media and therefore control the perception of who is right and who is the enemy.

If the persons in power can control what our views are regarding the past, they will then be able to control how the future unfolds as well based on their ability to control the media and the military.  Power is persuasive, and by using power effectively, people might be persuaded that their friend yesterday is now the enemy.

Some time in the past during the 1950s, our friend was the Shah of Iran, now Iran is considered to be an unfriendly power. As powers shift and change, alliances also shift and change.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on