George Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War forever changed his view of totalitarianism. It had been the one dimensional stereotype portrayed by the classic left-wing ideology. In that narrative the enemy was capitalism and its representative the fat man in striped trousers and a top hat. What Orwell learned after watching the Communists crush spontaneity in Spain was that Bolshevism could be totalitarianism too; which frightened him because it acted in the name of the poor and the oppressed; and if one could not trust the do-gooders, then who could you trust? This video excerpt from a BBC biopic of Orwell, with the author played by an actor but whose lines consist of his published words only, captures the moment when his understanding of totalitarianism became universal. Where once he imagined that totalitarianism consisted of an enumerable number of fascists who would all disappear if we shot one each, he suddenly saw that totalitarianism was a face that haunted every human undertaking. Fleeting, shifting, but indisputably present.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.
The Spanish experience was a turning point in his life. It was in Spain that Orwell realized the imminence of totalitarianism as only a person who has seen its advancing tentacles up close can. For Nazi Fascism and its senior counterpart, the Bolshevik Terror, were so fantastically brutal and corrosive that intellectuals in the West treated it with emotional disbelief, whatever credence their intellects might give it. The sheer effrontery of totalitarianism assisted its advance. The cries that “it can’t happen here”; “surely that’s impossible” lulled people in a false sense of security. Far worse was the delusion of thinking that one could refuse to go with the Gestapo or the NKVD when they finally turned up. CS Lewis wrote in the Screwtape Letters that the devil’s greatest trick was to vanish. When Orwell returned to Britain after almost dying on the Spanish battlefield, he went around the country debating against pacifists. His hardest problem was to convince them that the devil was real. The debate featured at the end of the following clip, between Orwell and pacifist literati, contains his scathing dismissal of the idea that one could reason with the Nazis or embark upon a campaign of civil disobedience against them. Yet the pro and contra have a modern ring to them. Even today we hear the phrase “why can’t we just get along?”
The most frightening thing about Orwell’s life is that it took a man as inquiring and perceptive as he was so long to understand his world. It took years for him to grasp that power was only interested in itself. He had reached the middle of his life before understanding that outwardly commonplace things like the Party were devoted only to their own ends. Once he recognized this he spent the rest of his life warning of the great danger which was upon us. Yet the miracle was that he understood it at all. The “obvious” idea that freedom is a meme that must daily struggle for its existence was not so evident after all. Some — the countless numbers who went to their deaths still praising Stalin or thinking that the “Revolution had been betrayed” — never realized the truth at all. They never realized that they were experiencing the Revolution: the revolution in which Power ruled forever. But to understand that concept would have been to know too much. Only O’Brien and finally Winston Smith understood the truth. For the rest, there is Victory Gin. Hitler once remarked that the bulk of humanity is easily mislead and any leader worthy of the name would take advantage of the fact.
The ability to recognize the face of tyranny is a fragile skill which cannot really be passed on, except as a critical attitude. As the twentieth century recedes into the past, a kind of antiquity has descended over the prophets of the past, who speak to us now only through old, cloth-covered books from second-hand bookshops or lying in corners at garage sales or lending libraries. Even 1984 is set in a time so long ago that it can only be portrayed in film as steampunk. We can no longer imagine “a boot in a human face forever” in a world where the Croc sandal may be the preferred footwear of militants. ‘A Croc sandal stamping on a human face forever?’ Who could credit such a tyranny, even if it were true? But the face of evil ever renews itself. When Moses returned from Mount Sinai he discovered that it had taken a new shape.
And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. …
And the Lord said to Moses, Go, get you down; for your people, which you brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
From own jewelry and by our own hands we often forge the chains that bind us. The phrase “these be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” was once upon a time a roadmap to another promised land.