As the year in which George Orwell’s masterpiece was set approached, a wave of critics, eulogists, and scavengers emerged. 1984 is a work hard to attack directly, though that has been done, and some who profess to be praising Orwell’s work would really prefer to bury it. E. L. Doctorow, in a recent Playboy article, provides a specimen of the latter. So do some of the participants in Irving Howe’s provocative anthology, 1984 Revisited, a work,with the exceptions of few short­comings, that tends to be intellectually respectable. Most of the contributions to this collection–notably those by Leszek Kolakowski, Robert Nisbet, Richard Lowenthal, Bernard Avishai, and Howe himself–are excellent. It is hard to say the same for the essays of Michael  Walzer, Mark Crispin Miller, and some others, as they represent attempts to warp Orwell’s insights for their own purposes, or even out of exis­tence. Among other things, they seek to destroy the distinction between totali­tarianism and authoritarianism in which Orwell himself believed. (The more ex­treme cases even try to erase the distinc­tion between to talitarianism and democracy.) Indirectly, they seek to reduce Orwell’s work to a cold-war polemic­ which some snide leftist critics have al­ways insisted it was.

There is no doubt that Orwell based 1984 primarily on his insights into Stalin’s Russia, not nazi Germany. Orwell’s point was not merely to satirize Soviet oppres­sion, though he did do that, but to carry the then-current trends to the next logical step in three ways. First, and most obvi­ously, by showing a world in which to­talitarianism had completely triumphed–even in Britain and the English-speaking countries, their strong tradition of liberty notwithstanding. Second, Orwell sought to portray a ruling group–the “Inner Party”–which, unlike earlier totalitarian regimes, was completely conscious of, and happy with, its own depravity. For Orwell, the exercise of power, construed in its most sadistic terms, was the true (but unadmitted) inner purpose of the Soviet and nazi regimes. The rulers of Oceania, however, no longer hide this from themselves. Third, Orwell sought to explore both the future of surveil­lance (through the “telescreen”) and what was later to become known as brainwashing. It was commonly thought in the late 1930’s and the 1940’s that the victims in Stalin’s show trials had some­ how been “converted” into a belief in their own guilt. Orwell doubted that this conversion had occurred. He correctly thought that the victims had simply been tortured or blackmailed into confessing. But he went on to wonder whether sci­ence could make “true” forced conver­sion possible, and he developed this thought into the crowning horror of the world portrayed in 1984.

If 1984 was not intended as a mere polemic against Stalinism, neither was it a mere literary reflection or product of the cold-war era, as an examination of Orwell’s literary and nonfiction work shows. 1984 was the culmination of a series of earlier “negative utopias,” or “dystopias,” which stretched back at least to the turn of the century and with which Orwell was familiar. (It was the culmination in more than one sense: no dystopia produced since 1984 is as hor­rifying, nor has any approached 1984 in penetration or philosophical interest, with the possible exception of Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo.) Orwell studied these earlier dystopias with great care and found Jack London’s The Iron Heel written before World War I, and Evgeny Zamyatin’s We, written in 1923, the most impressive. The writings of Arthur Koestler and Fram Borkenau, both per­sonal friends of Orwell, were important sources of his ideas; Borkenau’s book The Totalitarian Enemy, published in 1940, expresses some of the notions later found in 1984. Perhaps the most impor­tant of all Orwell’s sources was James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution published in 1941. This work predicted that capitalism and the nation-state sys­tem were coming to an end, but that they would not be replaced by socialism as it had been understood before 1914. Rather, society would pass under the control of a new ruling class, the “managers,” a collectivist hierarchy. The world would be ruled by three “super­states,” which would probably be totali­tarian, based in North America, Europe, and the Far East. The influence of all these sources, especially Burnham’s, can be documented not only in 1984 but also in Orwell’s essays and reviews.

Michael Walzer’s essay, “On Failed Totalitarianism,” is essentially an attempt to argue not only that totalitarianism is passe–which is suggested in several other essays in 1984 Revisited–but also that there is no important distinction be­tween totalitarianism and other non­democratic regirnes–the latter generally grouped together under the rather vague rubric of “authoritarian”–even though Orwell and others perceived one. Since the 1960’s a determined ef­fort has been made by the left to discard the entire concept of totalitarianism. Walzer does not have the nerve to join this group, but indirectly his arguments have the same objective. This effect re­sults partly from Walzer’s misconstruing of the totalitarian-authoritarian distinc­tion and partly from his using only one peculiar version of the concept of totalitarianism. Unfortunately, that is not the version that interested Orwell; in fact, it is a rather dubious notion that was for­mulated only after his death.

The word totalitarianism was coined by Mussolini in 1932. Totalitarian re­gimes exist where one party monopolizes all power in society. It does not merely enforce a political dictatorship, but re­places or controls all institutions and dictates–or at least seeks to–every ac­tivity of its citizens. Moreover, it usually attempts to destroy some social group, e.g., Jews in the case of nazism, the bourgeoisie in the case of communist regimes. Except perhaps for the last, most of these aspects of totalitarian re­gimes were fully apparent in the 1930’s, when the term came into widespread use. By 1940, when Orwell began using it, many writers found it so familiar that they no longer felt it necessary even to define it for their readers. In this sense, totalitarianism obviously existed  and continues to exist. It also differs consid­erably from other forms of government that, whatever their evils, did not usually control every aspect of society or destroy entire ethnic or social groups.

Walzer, and some of the other authors in 1984 Revisited, do not use to­talitarianism in its original and obvious sense. Instead, they contrast both 1984 and current communist realities with a somewhat crabbed and scholastic theory of totalitarianism evolved by Hannah Arendt and others in the early 1950’s. This theory, based on a narrow interpre­tation of Stalinism, deemed one-man des­potism in its most extreme form and drastic purges of the ruling party as es­sential parts of totalitarianism, though such phenomena had existed only part of the time in the U.S.S.R. since 1917. Moreover, some of the theorists of this school tended to see totalitarian rule as a streamlined, efficient machine of power without major factional disputes. The last notion, of course, is not an accurate picture of any totalitarian regime at any time. As experience since 1953 has shown, neither the most extreme form of one-man despotism nor a permanent purge is a necessary part of totalitarianism.

In fact, none of these elements was essential to the original theory of totalitarianism, or to Orwell’s projection of future possibilities. Orwell, as we know from his essays, did not regard totalitarian regimes as efficient. Moreover, in 1984, aside from discussing the Inner Party’s motives, Orwell showed remarkably little interest in discussing the nature of the ruling group. It is not clear whether “Big Brother” is a living dictator or (as seems more probable) an immortal synthetic front for a collective oligarchy. Whether the Inner Party is a harmonious whole or a collection of feuding factions is a subject in which Orwell had no interest; it was enough to show that disputes among the rulers will not help the ruled.

Perhaps the most inane misuse of 1984, however, is a notion first aired by Erich Fromm, in an essay appended to a popu­lar paperback reprint of the novel. Fromm’s notion is implicit in some of the sillier essays in 1984 Revisited. Fromm and others suggest that a regime of the sort described by Orwell could result from the pressures of the arms race and the cold war. E. L. Doctorow has produced a prize specimen of this sort of idiocy; he declares that we are al­ready arriving at a situation like that envisaged by Orwell.

But there is no warrant for this sort of supposition in 1984. The regimes de­scribed therein are clearly the product of war and violent revolution, not of the pressures of political evolution. In re­counting the origins of “oligarchical col­lectivism” we are specifically told that there was an atomic war in the 1950’s in which hundreds of atomic bombs were dropped on major cities. The Party then took power in a violent revolution and civil war. Orwell thus based his work squarely on the history of actual totali­tarian regimes that arose from war and extreme crisis. There is little evidence that Orwell thought that totalitarianism could simply “evolve,” though he constantiy warned that totalitarian ideas were everywhere, ready to take root in suitable conditions. There is a good deal of evidence (see, particularly, his 1947 article “Toward European Unity”) that he thought a world like the one described in 1984 was a potential outcome of the world situation. He regarded both a third World War and a final collapse of capital­ism as likely but not inevitable. It was conceivable, he thought, that a war could be staved off for along time, and that in­ternal changes might take place in the U.S.S.R. And he thought it was possible that “even if the world falls apart into three unconquerable superstates, the liberal tradition will be strong enough within the Anglo-American section of the world to make life tolerable and even offer some hope of progress.” Orwell did not foresee exactly what happened in the following decades, but he at least envisioned the main possibilities. That, and not just the prognostication he out­ lined in 1984–one which we have neither realized nor securely rendered impossible–should make his claims as a prophet secure.