1984 Historical and Social Context
by George Orwell

1984 book cover
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Background

1984 is George Orwell’s most famous and enduring work, with the possible exception of his political fable Animal Farm. The novel has been translated into more than 60 languages, condensed in the Reader’s Digest, made into two movies, and presented on television.

The widespread impact of 1984 is evidenced by the changes in language that it effected. Today, the word “Orwellian” refers to any regimented and dehumanized society. Words like “Newspeak,” “unperson,” “doublethink,” and “thoughtcrime” have become part of the English language. And the familiar phrase “Big Brother Is Watching You” has become synonymous with the concept of a totalitarian state.

1984’s influence on other twentieth-century works has been considerable: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1954) shares the theme of repression and the destruction of a culture (in this case, books), and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) shares a British setting as well as an invented language, much like the Newspeak of Oceania.

Orwell thought of writing 1984 as early as 1940, during World War II but he did not complete it until 1948 when the Cold War was beginning. The anti-Fascist writing of the 1930s and 1940s had a profound influence on Orwell, and is reflected in his writing.

Moreover, events in Communist Russia also impacted the plot and theme of 1984. From 1922 when Lenin suffered a stroke until 1928—four years after his death—there was a power struggle between Leon Trotsky Minister of War, and Joseph Stalin then Secretary of the Communist party. Stalin continued to grow even more influential as a member of the Politbureau, a small group of party bosses where his function was to manage the day-to-day activities of the Communist party. In 1921 Stalin became liaison between the Central Control Commission and the Central Committee; in this capacity he could control the purges designed to keep the party pure. He used this position to his advantage.

Stalin, along with allies Zinoviev and Kamenev, soon proved invincible as they utilized the secret police to put down all plots against them. While resisting Trotsky’s urges to somewhat democratize the party, they eliminated his followers by sending them abroad. Trotsky was forced to resign as Minister of War. He was later expelled from the Politbureau, exiled from Russia, and eventually assassinated by one of Stalin’s secret police.

From 1928 until World War II, Stalin enjoyed supreme power in Russia. Among the changes he brought to Russian life were collective agriculture, industrialization with forced labor, and the build-up of the authoritarian state combined with the annihilation of all political opposition. In 1928 began the era of the Five-Year Plans, each of which set ambitious goals for the next five years. The goals of the first Five-Year Plan were never actualized; nevertheless, the government announced that they had been realized in 1932. Immediately, another Five-Year Plan went into effect.

Changes were felt in Russian society as well. Freedom to choose one’s job was non-existent; those who resisted were sent to labor camps. Stalin’s dictatorship was complete when the vast majority of unskilled workers became controlled by a minority of loyal skilled workers and bureaucrats who enjoyed certain privileges restricted from the masses. Thus, the gulf between the classes widened and a new elite was created.

To refute contradictory information, Stalin had histories rewritten to show that Lenin had favored his accession to power. He enjoyed a certain amount of hero-worship as cities were named in his honor.

There were critics, however, whom Stalin eliminated during the Great Purges of 1934-1938, which destroyed all possibility of future conspiracies. By 1936, when Stalin proclaimed the constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) “the most democratic in the world,” this was hardly an accurate description.

Under Stalin’s dictatorship, the USSR had become a...

(The entire section is 2,417 words.)