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The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism

The Theory and Practice Of Oligarchical Collectivism is a fictional book which is an important element in both the plot and the overall theme of George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, first published in 1949.

Orwell's novel describes a totalitarian society ruled by the all-powerful Party. Emmanuel Goldstein figures in state propaganda as the chief enemy of the state—a former Party member who conspires against the "wise" leadership of Big Brother. Early in the novel, Orwell introduces the concept of the book supposedly written by Goldstein: "There were...whispered stories of a terrible book, a compendium of all the heresies, of which Goldstein was the author and which circulated clandestinely here and there. It was a book without a title. People referred to it, if at all, simply as The Book." In the text of the novel, The Book is usually written in italics, although there are exceptions such as occurs in the Signet Classic Centennial Edition print of Nineteen Eighty-Four, where The Book is simply in a different font.

Background

A heavy black volume, amateurishly bound, with no name or title on the cover. The print also looked slightly irregular. The pages were worn at the edges, and fell apart easily, as though the book had passed through many hands. The inscription on the title-page ran:
THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF
OLIGARCHICAL COLLECTIVISM

by
Emmanuel Goldstein

The protagonist of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith, secretly hates the Party and Big Brother. Eventually he approaches Inner Party member O'Brien, thinking that he is part of Goldstein's conspiracy against the state, and at first it appears that O'Brien is indeed a member of the legendary "Brotherhood" opposing Big Brother. With O'Brien's help, Winston gets a copy of Goldstein's illegal tome, which according to O'Brien exposes the true nature of the totalitarian society created by the Party. It is required reading to become a full member of the Brotherhood.

The true title of Goldstein's book turns out to be The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. (Oligarchical collectivism is the correct political name, created by Orwell, for Ingsoc. It does not appear anywhere else in the novel.) More than one tenth of the text of Orwell's novel is devoted to reproducing verbatim two long excerpts from The Book, as read by Winston Smith. Here Orwell sets out the backstory of the entire novel. "Goldstein" explains how the totalitarian state of Oceania, as well as its rival superstates Eurasia and Eastasia, came into being. This bridges the present of the original readers of the novel (the late forties) with the dystopian future world of 1984.

More importantly, "Goldstein" explains the political philosophy on which the totalitarian superstates are based. Since it is described as growing out of the authoritarian tendencies that manifested in the first part of the twentieth century, this part of the novel is actually Orwell's attempt at showing where the world of his present could be heading, if totalitarianism were allowed to continue developing towards its logical endpoint.

Content

Winston reads two long excerpts from chapters 1 and 3 of The Book. These two chapters are named after Party slogans, Ignorance is Strength and War is Peace. Chapter 2, which we never get to read, would presumably be named after the Party slogan Freedom is Slavery. (The three slogans are listed several times in the novel.) Since The Book is described as a thick volume, it must be assumed that there are more chapters than just these three (O'Brien makes indirect references to later chapters in the book featuring plots for the overthrow of the Party, involving an incitement of the proles by dubious means).

Chapter 1: Ignorance is Strength

The first chapter, Ignorance is Strength, begins with the observation that throughout history, all societies have been divided into a caste system of three groups or classes: the High, who are the rulers; the Middle, who yearn to take over the position of the High; and the Low, who are typically so suppressed that in their drudgery they have no goals beyond day-to-day survival (if they are at all able to formulate any political agenda, it is to establish a society where all people are equal). Time and time again down the ages, the Middle have overthrown the High by enlisting the Low on their side, pretending to the Low that after the revolution a just society will emerge. However, once the Middle have taken over, they simply become the new High and thrust the Low back into servitude, and as a new Middle group eventually splits off, the pattern repeats. The Middle only speak of justice and human brotherhood as long as they are seeking power; once they are in power, they simply become the new oppressors of the Low.

In the first half of the twentieth century, there was however an alarming development: Even before they were in control, the current Middle group did not pretend to others or to themselves that they were seeking freedom and justice for everyone—or anyone. "In each variant of Socialism that appeared from about 1900 onwards the aim of establishing liberty and equality was more and more openly abandoned. The new movements which appeared in the middle years of the century...had the conscious aim of perpetuating unfreedom and inequality." The real goal was to freeze history once the Middle had once again overthrown the High and become the new High themselves: This would be the last revolution ever; the new High would stay in power indefinitely by a conscious strategy. The people who aspired to become this new aristocracy are described as "bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organisers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists and professional politicians", with their origins in "the salaried middle class and the upper grades of the working class".

In the twentieth century, technological developments had for the first time made an absolutely totalitarian society possible. Electronic gadgets like two-way television (the "telescreens" of the novel) allowed the authorities to keep citizens under constant surveillance and in the equally constant sound of official propaganda. "The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time." After the revolutionary period of the fifties and the sixties (the future as Orwell imagined it), society inevitably regrouped itself into High, Middle, and Low, and the emerging High group used the new technology and other strategies to safeguard its position permanently.

The new High group, the Inner Party, enjoyed and guarded their privileges as a collective group, not as a mass of individuals. Old-style Socialists failed to perceive that when the Party took over, property was actually concentrated in far fewer hands than had been the case under capitalism. They thought that since there were not now any individual owners, the expropriated property had become public property so that Socialism had in fact been established. In reality, economic inequality had been made permanent, for the sole concern of the Party was to maintain its own power—not to distribute wealth to all citizens. (As will be discussed in Chapter 3 of The Book, the Party deliberately creates poverty so that the masses must struggle to stay alive: thus they will not have the leisure to start thinking for themselves.)

The Party does not have to fear that the superstate of Oceania will be overthrown from without, despite the endless conflicts with rival superstates Eurasia and Eastasia: all three states are too evenly matched for any of them to successfully invade the other. (Nor would they wish to do so, for the reasons given in Chapter Three.) The proletarian masses of Oceania itself will not rise up against the Party, for they are denied any standards of comparison and are thus not even aware that they are suppressed. The sole potential threats against the rule of the Party are therefore "the splitting-off of a new group of able, under-employed, power-hungry people, and the growth of liberalism and scepticism in their own ranks".

The pyramidal structure of the society of Oceania is reviewed: The top leader is Big Brother, a semi-divine figure that The Book strongly suggests is not at all a real person, but rather a phantom created by the Party to serve as a focusing-point for love and fear. Under Big Brother comes the Inner Party, numbering less than two per cent of the total population (The Book explicitly states that the Inner Party never numbers more than 6 million). If Big Brother is dismissed as a state-crafted phantom, the Inner Party are the real rulers, in firm control of everything (according to the former classification, they are the High). The Inner Party controls the larger Outer Party, the servicemen who execute the orders of the Inner Party (the Outer Party are thus the Middle). Outside the Party altogether are the "proles" or proletarians, the masses numbering perhaps 85% of the population (the Low).

The ignorant, uneducated masses outside the Party are not normally subjected to its propaganda: "They can be granted intellectual liberty because they have no intellect", and hence no impulse to rebel either. Party members, on the other hand, cannot be allowed any deviation of opinion whatsoever. The danger of growing liberalism or scepticism within the Party is eliminated by massive indoctrination and constant surveillance of every member. A Party member "is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party."

To safeguard the essential notions that Big Brother is omnipotent and the Party is infallible, history is constantly rewritten. The Party insists that the past has no objective existence anyway. It exists only in records and in peoples' memories, and since the Party claims the ability to control not only written records but also the minds of its members, it follows that the Party can actually define the past according to preference. In particular, all predictions ever made by the Party or Big Brother turn out to be entirely correct—according to the version of history approved by the Party.

Special mental disciplines are taught to Party members to quench any unorthodox tendencies, including the ability to instinctively stop short at the threshold of any dangerous thought. Even more important is doublethink, a mental technique allowing Party members to stay orthodox even when their own memory or very obvious facts contradict the claims of the Party: "Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind, and accepting both of them." For instance, a Party member who needs to "revise" his own memories to conform with the Party's latest revision of history will necessarily know that he is playing tricks with reality, "but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink." Using this technique, the Party can stay in power indefinitely—"for the secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one's own infallibility with the power to learn from past mistakes... The prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity."

The last lines of this chapter that Winston Smith reads promise to reveal the innermost secret and motivation for the policies of the Party. Frustratingly for the reader, Winston at this point notices that Julia has fallen asleep, and therefore he stops reading just as the big secret was about to be revealed.

Chapter 2

As aforementioned, Chapter 2 of The Book would presumably be titled Freedom is Slavery, but Winston never reads any of it. Some of the ideas here presented could be much the same as the ones O'Brien later explains to Winston (especially in the light of the true authorship of "Goldstein's" book, as revealed later). As the Party sees it, a human being that is alone or "free" is always defeated, since every individual must die. Those who are "free" remain enslaved to their impermanent mortal frame. On the other hand, the slogan can be reversed as "Slavery is Freedom", for those who become the slaves of the Party and make such a complete submission that they fully identify with the Party will also be able to enjoy the Party's omnipotence and immortality—the ultimate freedom.

Chapter 3: War is Peace

Winston reads Chapter 3, War is Peace before he reads the first chapter. Chapter 3 explains the full meaning of the Party slogan after which it is named. The author reviews how the three superstates of the world came into being: The United States absorbed the British Empire to form Oceania, Russia absorbed Europe to form Eurasia, and "after a decade of confused fighting" Eastasia emerged as the third superstate; it comprises China, Japan, Korea and some other adjacent areas. In various combinations, these superstates have been at war for twenty-five years. No concrete years are mentioned, but since the present is supposed to be 1984, the implication is that the war began at the end of the fifties—and to make room for the "decade of confused fighting", Oceania and Eurasia must have come into being virtually immediately after Orwell published his novel in 1949. However, it is unlikely that The Book was written in 1984. Thus, it is possible that the war could have started as early as 1939, in which case World War II would have been the beginning of the war. However as Orwell wrote the book in 1948 and merely transposed the last two digits to create 1984 the actual dates are for the most part irrelevant. Certainly the wars were being fought with the weapons available in the 1940's but 1984 really means some indeterminate time in the future.

The never-ending war between the superstates is seemingly pointless—"it is a warfare of limited aims between combatants who are unable to destroy one another, have no material cause for fighting and are not divided by any genuine ideological difference". (As this chapter of The Book reveals, all three superstates are based on very much the same totalitarian ideology as Big Brother's Oceania.) However, the Party and its counterparts in the rival superstates have excellent reasons to keep the war going.

Again, the author reviews the (non-fictional) history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, how the use of machines in production raised "the living standards of the average human being very greatly". It was "clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared...hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy and disease could be eliminated within a few generations". However, since the Party wants to maintain a hierarchical society with itself on top, this real possibility of eliminating poverty and inequality is a deadly threat rather than something to be desired: "If leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would learn to think for themselves"—eventually sweeping away the oligarchy ruling them. "In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance."

Since large-scale machine production could not be eliminated once invented, the Party must see to it that the products are destroyed before they can make "the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent". A permanent state of war takes care of this problem: resources are deliberately wasted on warfare, and the war effort "is always so planned as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population... It is a deliberate policy to keep even the favoured groups somewhere near the brink of hardship, because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another."

Moreover, the state of war creates a mentality that suits the Party well. A Party member should be "a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war." Though "the entire war is spurious...and waged for purposes quite other than the declared ones", even Inner Party members, who potentially could know better, passionately believe that the war is real and will "end victoriously, with Oceania the undisputed master of the entire world". Research into new weapons therefore continues—but using doublethink, Inner Party administrators are also in some sense aware that the war must never be allowed to end. There can never be any large-scale invasion of enemy territory, so that citizens of one superstate would come face to face with citizens of another and discover that conditions there are very much the same as in their own superstate: Even the prevailing ideologies are almost identical. To maintain the image of the enemy as a monster whose ideology is a barbarous outrage on common sense, all sides realize that "the main frontiers must never be crossed by anything except bombs"! (This is why the British Isles have not been conquered by Eurasia, but remain part of Oceania.)

Since the war is a sham and each superstate is unconquerable, the ongoing "conflict" has no sobering effect on the oligarchies ruling the three superstates: "Each is in effect a separate universe within which almost any perversion of thought can be safely practiced... The rulers of such a state are absolute, as the Pharaohs or the Caesars could not be. They are obliged to prevent their followers from starving to death in numbers large enough to be inconvenient, and they are obliged to remain at the same low level of military technique as their rivals; but once that minimum is achieved, they can twist reality into whatever shape they chose."

Thus, the war is actually "waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact". As far as the lack of any genuine outside threat is concerned, the superstates might just as well agree to live in permanent peace; then they would still be "freed for ever from the sobering influence of external danger" (the kind of danger that might force the rulers to behave somewhat responsibly). This, according to the author, "is the inner meaning of the Party slogan: War is Peace."

(Interestingly, the novel allows the possibility that there is in fact no war being waged. The evidence of a war comes mainly from fanatical media and assurances from O'Brien. At one point Winston sees a missile strike the city, but by the end there is little reason to think that the Party could not arrange that as well. As we never truly see outside Oceania except through the Party's own media, the novel itself leaves open the question whether there really are three states and a war, or whether this too is the ultimate sham. O'Brien admits that if the war ceased to serve its purpose, the Party would simply erase the other states from history.)

Later chapters

Winston never gets the chance to read through the entire book before he is arrested by the Thought Police. But he believes the proletarians or "proles" will one day rise up and overturn the world: "If there was hope, it lay in the proles! Without having read to the end of The Book, he knew that that must be Goldstein's final message." O'Brien later confirms to Winston that the program set out in The Book involves "the secret accumulation of knowledge—a gradual spread of enlightenment—ultimately a proletarian revolution—the overthrow of the Party. You foresaw yourself that was what it would say."

The true author

In the same context O'Brien rejects this programme as nonsense. It turns out that O'Brien is not really a member of Goldstein's Brotherhood. O'Brien, actually a faithful Party member, later tortures Winston to cure him of his "insanity": the belief that there exists an external reality that is not defined by the Party. O'Brien claims that the book supposedly written by Emmanuel Goldstein is actually the product of a committee where he himself participated. When Winston asks O'Brien whether what The Book says is true, he gets this response: "As description, yes. The programme it sets forth . . . is nonsense." The chapters Winston got to read are apparently meant to be factual, since they are descriptive in nature. An alternative interpretation is that The Book is a matter of ideology, and as such cannot be descriptive but instead presents as mode of thought which one can impose upon the world. Or it could also mean that the book was created by this Goldstein, or another author; or even several authors who were captured and that the material of it was saved when it could be used for another purpose, as made possible by the Idea of doublethink.

The question arises—how could O'Brien participate in the authoring of this book, and even admit to a heretic like Winston that its description of history and society is correct, when at the same time O'Brien supports the very ideology that is exposed in the book as a vast system of cheating and deception? The answer is obviously doublethink. For as long as it took to write this book, intended as a bait for people opposing the Party, O'Brien could (partly) slip into the mindset of a thought-criminal and write the factual history of Oceania. Thus the book would appear credible to actual thought-criminals. Afterwards O'Brien would promptly doublethink all the heretic notions away and once again adopt the Party line that there is no such thing as an objective, unalterable history; history is merely what the Party wants it to be. Another theory is that O'Brien is sociopathic in nature. The average moral person holds great store in the idea of the truth and the idea that there is an objective reality. O'Brien, if he is a sociopath, has no special affection for "truth" since what is important to him is his place and position within the Party. The idea of an objective reality would be no more important to him than the preservation of works of art from the prior society. This makes the character all the more horrific to the reader since one assumes there is an intrinsic value in truth and O'Brien, as an intellectual, should appreciate it. No doublethink occurs with O'Brien since there is never the internal conflict between those opposing ideas in the first place.

The torture scenes of the closing chapters also provide another answer: what the ultimate motives of the Party really consist of. At least one critic has assumed that when Orwell made Winston stop reading at the very point when "Goldstein's" book was about to reveal this central secret, it was because Orwell himself was not able to come up with any plausible explanation. However, it seems clear that Orwell simply wanted to postpone this revelation. When torturing Winston, O'Brien tells him the simple and brutal truth: "The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power... Power is not a means, it is an end... The object of power is power."

Summation

During the torture scene, O'Brien reveals to Winston the true plan of the Party. In a now famous monologue, the whole Party principle and in fact the whole theory behind the book 1984 is summarized into a single Mephistophelean paragraph, ending with "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever."

External links

  • Chapters 1-5 of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism

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