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1984 and all that


1984 and all that
Recent re-organisation of the Editorial Collective’s
working practices, aimed at a more equitable distribution
of the work-load, has given rise to the new position of
‘issue editor’.

Although basically administrative in
character (the Collective as a whole still takes editorial
decisions), this position is enlivened by carrying with it the
opportunity to editorialise. The views expressed in these
editorials (of which this is the first) will be those of the
issue editor of the day, and will thus not necessarily be
shared unanimously by the rest of the Collective.

1984 has arrived, and with it has come the inevitable
deluge of Orwellspeak. Television programmes, newspaper
and magazine articles and editorials, books, cards, badges
even ••• rarely can a new year have been so marketable a
phenomenon, or have presented such an opportunity for the
misrepresentation of the present by abstract speculation
upon its future.

Amongst the plethora of Orwellian appreciations
currently inundating the media, it is hard to find a single
voice prepared to question the political perspective
underlying 1984. Criticism elaborated in the 1950s (by, for
example, Isaac Deutscher and f.P. Thompson) and recently
reaffirmed by Raymond Williams, is either ignored,
dismissed more or less out of hand as absurdly misplaced,
or taken to have been rendered obsolete by the course of
events over the last thirty years. Orwell’s political
peculiarities remain less an object of analysis and
reflection, than a perceived symptom of the individuality
(and by fallacious implication, the truth) of his vision. In
short, Orwell’s own perspective continues to dominate his
interpreters. (Julian Symons, for example, while suggesting
that some of Orwell’s views may well be explicable in
terms of repressed totalitarian tendencies within his
personality (Arena documentary, BBC2, 4/1/84), is still able
to write admiringly of his ‘persistent raw unorthodoxy’

(Sunday Times Magazine, 15/1/84), as if difference is l!!.

itself a value!}.

–This is perhaps no real cause for surprise; although it
does illustrate the left’s failure to make an impact on
cultural life in Britain at the level of national institutions
of cultural reproduction. The depreciation, repression and
dissolution of politics by ‘culture’ remains an abiding
feature of the discourse these institutions produce. But
while it may not be that surprising, the popularity of the
‘positive’ evaluation of 1984 involved in its liberal
interpretation (it is once again one of the five bestselling
paperbacks in the country) is disturbing; especially insofar
as this popularity seems to extend to large numbers of
people on the left.

The difference between the conjunctures of the old
and the new Cold Wars appears to have brought about a
change in the way in which 1984’s political significance is
perceived. Today, it seems, 1984’s libertarian pretensions
can be more fully appreciate~Decline in the domestic

political significance of the British Communist Party, in
conjunction with the growth of criticism of the USSR from
the left, has meant that perceptions of 1984 are no longer
so dominated, or at least, so adversely effected, by its
ferocious anti-communism as they were in the 1950s. Big
Brother now evokes the image of a certain ‘Big Sister’ as
much as that of Stalin.

There is, of course, a certain amount of justification
for this. After all, both the increased role of the state in
the day-to-day reproduction and development of monopoly
capi talism, and the return of prolonged economic
depression, as well as the second revoluition in
communications and information technology, strengthen the
applicability of Orwell’s picture of a future society to
present-day Western capitalism. But does the analogy here
hold good? Does it help us understand the society in which
we are living? Or does it, on the contrary, impede such an
understanding? What, in other words, is the ideological
structure of 1984? Is it really the manifestation of
libertarian humanism in terms of which 1984 has, for
decades, been so successfully packaged? IST984 really
simply ‘the human story of Winston Smith’s revolt against
the Party’s rule’, which the back cover of the Penguin
Modern Classics edition declares it to be? Is its fierce
anti-communism really just the product of a humanistic
critique of the alienating effects of reified political
structures? Or does 1984 essentially represent something
qui te different?

The Marxist left has always maintained that the
‘humanist’ reading of 1984 rests upon a misrecogni tion of
the book’s basic ideological structure. In view of the
renewed popularity of the humanistic interpretation, a brief
review of the argument against 1984 seems an appropriate
way for Radical Philosophy to welcome the new year; not
just as an antidote to the prevailing 1984-mania, but for
reasons of a more general political and theoretical
significance, which will hopefully shortly become apparent.

‘Leftist Credentials, Rightist Views’

1984 tempts us to view the present through its fictional
lens probably as strongly as any work of modern fiction.

Orwell’s transposed depiction of the drabness of life in
Britain in the late 1940s has numerous, oft-noted,
contemporary parallels. Big Brother and the Ministries of
Truth, Love, Peace and Plenty play upon our fantasies of
oppression, and upon a political cynicism nurtured by a
period in which the power of the state has increased
without a corresponding growth in democratic participation
in its activities. Orwell’s images of the ‘Party’ and the
‘inner Party’ work similarly, although with added political
dimensions too obvious to mention.

A multitude of
imaginative identifications between Orwell’s world and our
own spring quickly to mind, suppressing the obvious real

differences between the two worlds. The very ‘otherness’

of Orwell’s world in fact seems to be a source of its
power. It simultaneously and selectively both invites and
forbids compar ison.

Criticism of 1984 from the left has maintained that
Orwell uses the power of fiction in the service of a
profoundly reactionary view of the world. Despite the
multiplici ty of resonances it produces at the level of
everyday experience, it has been argued, few works of
fiction offer as restricted and restrictive a picture of
human history as 1984. Is it not only profoundly offensive,
but politically irresponsible and fundamentally misleading to
suggest, as Orwell does, that the future might be
represented. by the image of a boot stamping on a human
face, forever? For Raymond Williams, for example, 1984
introduces ‘a period of really decadent bourgeois writing in
which the whole status of human beings is reduced’

(Politics and Letters, Verso, 1981, p. 392). From the point
of view of the left critique in general, 1984 is a work of
political nihilism.

Response to this criticism has generally involved a
recourse to literary argument. 1984’s restrictedness, it is
often said, is its very point. I t is a satire, we are
reminded, and a warning. It exaggerates and distorts
systematically, in the interests of a liberal humanism. The
enlargement of its descriptions to mythic proportions draws
attention to aspects and tendencies within ‘modern’

this· one,
dehistoricising through abstract historical location) which,
unless controlled, threaten to become very real social
dangers. The severe restriction of perspective is a feature
of its literary form; it works through restriction.

Condemnation on the grounds that it is reductive, it is thus
argued, is to miss the point – philistine leftism. From this
viewpoint, political attacks on 1984 either reveal the
intellectual narrowness of their proponents, or involve the
covert defense of ‘totalitarian’ regimes.

The problem with this defence is that, although
effective, to a limited extent, against very crude political
attacks on 1984, it is itself launched from such a narrow
(not to mention at times patronising) viewpoint that it fails
to engage the criticism against which it is directed. It
simply restates the liberal interpretation in terms of the
literary assumptions on which it is based, assuming that its
opponents have failed to understand the workings of the
satirical form. Quite apart from its silence on the question
of the general political effects of 1984’s anti-communism something undoubtedly of the greatest significance – it
ignores the possibility that there could be anything
reactionary about Orwell’s particular use of the satirical
form, whatever his intentions. This is, of course, precisely
what is claimed.

The substance of the left critique of 1984 is that
there is a reactionary rationale to the selectivity of
Orwell’s picture of a future society beyond, or rather
beneath and within, that dictated by its function as a
warning about certain impending social dangers; and that it
is through the presentation of this rationale in terms of
liberal humanistic concern that 1984 acquires its
extraordinary ideological power
-rtS status as a
super weapon, not only of the Cold War, but of the class
war as well. ‘Leftish credentials, rightish views’, as
Malcolm Muggeridge, of all people, put it in the Arena
television documentary: this is the secret or Orwell’s
ideological power.

But what is the precise mechanism at work here? How
is it that Orwell’s libertarian intentions could give rise tOt
and disguise, the decadent conception of human nature
which sustains the credibility of 1984 as a picture of a
possible society, and thereby maintains its plausibility and
effectiveness as a warning against the organised left? This
question requires a dual response. Firstly, at the level of
the content of 1984’s depiction of a future society.

Secondly, at the level of the social experience reflected in,
and underlying, this depiction.


An ‘Underlying Boundless Despair’

At the level of 1984’s content, the first thing to be
established is what conception of human nature is actually
at work there. The short answer to this point (space
prohibits a textually-based demonstration) is that we are
presented with a reductive naturalism grounded upon a
quasi-behaviouristic, and radically individualistic,
psychology. In Oceania, people will, ultimately, always
betray one another should it be in their interests to do so.

Furthermore, political power is presented as essentially the
result of a psychological phenomenon: ‘hunger’ for power,
for domination. The political critique at work in 1984
operates through the speculative attribution ~f motive:

Such a picture emerges not because SmIth’s partIcular
revolt is seen to fail, but because it fails necessarily.

Orwell’s depiction of Oceania is such that ~he possibility ~f
success is denied to any ‘revolt’ – revolutIonary change IS
ruled out as a structural impossibility. Oceania is an
incarnation of absolute social stasis. In this regard Orwell’s
widow was quite right to remark, with reference to the
film version of 1984, that: to give. it a happy. ending ~~y
be an admirable sentiment, ‘Out it mIsses the pomt. ThIS IS
precisely the problem. Orwell believed that there is an
absolute danger associated with certain technological and
bureaucratic social tendencies. To establish this, he
portrayed a world in which the possibility of such a danger
has been realised. But the very credibility of his depiction,
upon which his point depends, undermines i ts fu~ction ~s a
warning; for it involves a portrayal of human bemgs WhICh,
if accepted, suggests that there is no hope of countering
the tendencies in question. We are presented with a tragic
individualism. It is in this sense that (as Deutscher was the
first to point out) Orwell’s warning is not just
self-contradictory, it defeats itself and turns into its
opposite: a portrayal of the inevitability of oppression.

1984 is characterised by a distinctive self-negation.

– – There is thus a reactionary political significance to
1984 beyond, but at work in, its anti-communism. It not
only implicitly denies the possibility of hope to any patte~n
of social change in which communist influence IS
detectable, but, through a psychological diagnosis of the
cause of political oppression, it implicitly denies the
possibility of hope to any organised collective proje~t
aiming at a general increase in people’s control over theIr
own lives. In Deutscher’s famous phrase, it promulgates a
‘mysticism of cruelty’, a deadening, absolute, political

The self-negating extremism of Orwell’s distrust of
institutional structures per se reflects a deep, seemingly
absolute, social pessimism: an ‘underlying boundless despair’

(Deutscher, again).

This pessimism was born of a
disillusionment with the politics and possibilities of the
1930s and 1940s. Because he failed to locate his experience
of political disillusionment within any kind of historical

perspective, Orwell was led to perceive the promise of the
socialist project as essentially fraudulent in itself. Like so
many of his generation he turned from utopianism to
despair. In this sense, 1984 is a piece de resistance of
depressed radical liberalism. It is primarily as such rather
than as a picture of a total surveillance, that i: has a
continuing real relevance; for the abstractness of its
depiction of the state vitiates its criticism.

Disillusioned Radicalism, Modern Conservation


Acknowledgement of
character of 1984’s ideological make-up need not, of
course, involve a denial that it contains any libertarian
impulses. The above analysis suggests that these impulses
exist, but within, and in basic contradiction with, a more
general structural tendency of a politically debilitating
kind, which is simultaneously disguised by them, and
rendered effective through its relation to them. However
insofar as it is suggested that this debilitating tendency i~
~ctually the, product of the self-negation of the libertarian
Impulses WhICh both mask and contradict it, our analysis
does involve the attribution of a distinctive ideological
character to these impulses in terms of which they are
seen to be essentially self-defeating. It is the dialectic of
depressed libertarianism at work here which, it seems to
me, forms the basis on which 1984’s renewed popularity is

I~ the 1950s, 1984 contributed a great deal to the
~ormatIon of what E.P. Thompson has called ‘Natopolitan’

Ideology. The spectacular resurgence of this ideology in the
form of the authoritarian populism of the new right has
conveniently coincided with 1984’s coming of age. It is not
unreasonable to suppose that an awareness of 1984’s
distinctive ideological structure may have something to tell
us both about the way in which the right has been able to
achieve an hegemony for its repressive solution to the
current crisis, and, consequently, about the kind of
stra tegy necessary to combat it. In particular, 1984′ s
rere.ved popularity serves as a timely reminder of the
intrinsic connection between disillusioned radicalism and
the success of modern conservatism.

Is the current crisis not characterised, ideologically,
by something of an Orwellian despondency about the
prospects of democratic political control over social and
economic processes? And have the right not exploited this
despondency by employing an ideological strategy similar in
structure to that at work (unconsciously) in 1984?

Monetarism presents itself as if it is in the interests of
libertarianism – the ideal act of propaganda always consists
in identifying your cause with unquestioned values. Like
1984, it usurps the mantle of liberal humanism· humanism
being the central essentially contested philosophical
~o~c~pt ~f We~tern political discourse. It champions ‘the
indIVIdual against ‘the institution’ in such a way as to
str~ngthen the po~er ,of existing institutions.

At every
avallable opportunlty, It pours scorn upon the idea that
ther~ is ~otivation beyond self-interest.

It abstracts
SpUrIOUS unlversals from all historical determinacies in its
analyses. It preaches freedom but offers only masochism.

Orwell’s despondency had its roots in a different
political conjuncture from the present one, but the lessons
to be l~arned, from ,it retain their significance. Among
other ,thing,s, It c,onfIrms that if the left is to forge an
eff~c,tl~e IdeologIcal hegemony, it must propagate a
defInl tIon of ~he curre~t c~isis” a~d of political struggle in
gener~l, ,th,at ~s ~oth hIstOrIcal m Its broad perspective and
materIaltstIc In Its grasp of the economic roots of the
drnamics of social development, the
hmItatlons they Impose and the possibilities they create.

For onl~ th~n will ,its strategy be truly ‘realistic’; and only
then WIll It be In a position to fully comprehend its

Theoretically, the central problem here is to establish

a conception of the contradictory nature of social
processes which is determinate without being formalistic;
the age-old problem of a materialist conception of
dialectical relations. This is not, note, the problem of ‘the
materialist dialectic’ or of ‘dialectical materialism’, but of
a dialectical materialism; a materialism which utilises the
cognitive tool of dialectics to reproduce in thought the
determinate multiplicity of different, often opposed,
determinations which constitute the world in which we live
and act.

Radical Philosophy has, intermittently but fairly
consistently, carried work on the question of the nature
and coherence of the idea of materialist” dialectics, and
hopefully will continue to do so. In this issue, Sean Sayers
criticises the analytical assumptions behind G.A. Cohen’s
presentation of Marx’s theory of history by contrasting
them with those of a dialectical theory of internal
relations, as developed by Hegel and, he argues, adopted by
Marx. In response to Alison Assiter’s criticisms of Dale
Spender’s Man Made Language, and to the exchange of
letters on sexism and language, in RP34, Deborah Cameron
and Anne Beezer both question the traditional linguistic
assumptions behind our coverage of the debate on sexist
language. Again, it is hoped that this debate will be
developed further in future issues. Andrew Collier reopens
the neglected question of the possibility of Marxist ethics
through a consideration of Milton Fisk’s recent book on the

Finally, Richard Osborne speculates upon the
semiotic implications of the videotape revolution.

Peter Osborne

(Isaac Deutscher’s and E.P. Thompson’s criticisms of 1984
‘The Mysticism of Cruelty’ and ‘Inside Which Whale?’ ca~
be found, along with a number of other -pIeCes, in Ray’mond
Williams (ed.), George Orwell, Prentice Hall, 1974. They
originally appeared in Heretics and Renegades and Out of
Apathy, respectively: collections of essays by Deutscher
and Thompson. Williams’ views on Orwell are contained in
his Orwell, Fontana, 1975, and enlarged upon in pages
384-392 of Politics and Letters. Recent media coverage of
Orwell has been too extensive to keep up with. The
articles by Conor Cruise O’Brien (Observer, 18/12/83) and
Anthony Burgess (Sunday Times Magazine, 1/ 1/84), despite
their differences, are both examples of what remains the
orthodox perspective.)

Marxism and the
Dialectical Method:

A Critique of G.A. Cohen
Sean Savers
The dialectical method, Marx insisted, was at the basis of
his account of society. In 1858, in a letter to Engels, he
In the method of treatment the fact that by
mere accident I again glanced through Hegel’s
Logic has been of great service to me…. If
there should ever be the time for such work
again, I would greatly like to make accessible to
the ordinary human intelligence, in two or three
printer’s sheets, what is rational in the method
which Hegel discovered ••• (1)
But he never did find the time for this work. As a result,
Marx’s dialectical method and the ways in which it draws
on Hegel’s philosophy remain among the most controversial
and least well understood aspects of Marx’s work. My purpose in this paper is to explain some of the basic presuppositions of this method and to bring out their significance for Marx’s theories. I shall do so by focussing critically on G.A. Cohen’s account of Marxism in Karl Marx’s
Theory of History: A Defence (2). In this important and
influential work, Cohen contrives to give an account of
Marxism in entirely non-dialectical – indeed, in antidialectical – terms. By criticising Cohen’s views I will seek
to show that the dialectical method is the necessary basis
for an adequate theory of history and an indispensable part
of Marx’s thought.

The major purpose of Cohen’s book is to develop and
defend a particular interpretation of historical materialism,
the Marxist theory of historical development. Cohen claims
that his account is an ‘old-fashioned’ and a ‘traditional’

one (p.x); and, indeed, in certain respects it is. For, in contrast to the tendency of much recent Marxist writing,
Cohen strongly emphasises the materialistic and deterministic character of Marx’s theory of history. He insists that
the development of the productive forces is the primary
motive force for historical change, and potrays Marxism as
a form of technological determinism. However, there are
various different forms of materialism, not all of them
Marx’s. In particular, it has been a standard part of ‘traditional’ Marxist philosophy to criticise mechanical forms of
materialism and to insist that a dialectical form of materialism is needed in order to comprehend the complexity
and richness of concrete historical processes. Cohen
manages to ignore this aspect of the traditional picture
almost entirely, and what little discussion he devotes to
dialectics is hostile and dismissive.

The basis of this hostility is not far to seek. It is
revealed by another major purpose of Cohen’s book. For, as
well as presenting an interpretation of historical materialism, he is attempting to vindicate the analytical method in
philosophy; and although he does not say it in so many
words, it is apparent that he regards this as irreconcilable
with the dialectical aspects of Marx’s work. Cohen is right
about this, I shall argue: dialectical philosophy does,
indeed, involve methods and assumptions which are ulti4

mately incompatible with those of the analytic approach.

However, against Cohen I will argue that dialectics is the
necessary basis for a satisfactory theory of history and an
indispensable part of Marx’s thought. Cohen’s use of the
analytic method and his rejection of dialectics leads him to
give a systematically distorted account of Marx’s theory of
history, which is neither faithful to Marx’s own thought,
nor adequate for an understanding of the concrete reality
of history. This is what I shall try to show.

1 The Analytic vs. the Dialectical Method

What, then, is Cohen’s analytical method? Unfortunately,
Cohen himself never spells this out, although it is an
important part of his purpose to defend and vindicate it.

First, it should be noted that a philosophy can be described
as ‘analytical’ in two distinct senses. One may mean by this
term simply that the philosophy is part of the twentieth
century tradition of analytical philosophy. Cohen’s work is
certainly ‘analytical’ in this sense, and this is immediately
apparent from its outward style: the use of formal logical
notation, abstract symbols, numbered sentences, and so
forth. Cohen himself talks of ‘the standards of clarity and
rigour which distinguish twentieth-century analytical philosophy’ (p.ix). However, these virtues are not peculiar to
twentieth-century analytical philosophy; indeed, they are
not even particularly characteristic of it. Anyone who has
read a representative selection of work in this tradition
will be well aware that, all too often, it is needlessly
obscure in style, cloudy in thought and not noticeably more
rigorous in agument than the work of any other major
school of philosophy. Clarity and rigour are the virtues of
good philosophy, of good thought in all fields; they are no
monopoly of analytical philosophy. Cohen’s work has these
virtues to a high degree; but that is because it is good
philosophy, not because it is in the analytical tradition.

Twentieth-century analytical philosophy has been a
diverse tradition and it is not easy to make generalisations
about it. However, that is not my purpose here, since
Cohen’s philosophy is also ‘analytical’ in a further and
deeper sense. It is analytical not merely in its style and
form, but in its very presuppositions and content. And it is
analytical in a very traditional sense. For, like the philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Cohen
relies on the method of analysis. He insists upon analysing
the whole that he is considering into its component parts.

He insists upon separating and isolating the different elements and aspects of the given concrete totality, and considering and defining these in isolation. The effect of this
method is to produce a fragmented and atomised picture of

Underlying this method, as Cohen makes clear, is what
could be called a logic of external relations 0). For,
according to Cohen, things are what they are, and have
their essential nature in themselves, quite independently of

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