George Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984, published less than a year before the English novelist and journalist’s untimely death in 1950, has had extraordinary staying power. Indeed, twice in recent times it has raced up the bestsellers lists, to the Number 1 position at Amazon in 2013 after the “Snowden revelations” about the massive surveillance operations of the N.S.A in the United States, and again since the election of Donald Trump as president. I hate to say it, but the constant recourse to Orwell’s novel as the “go-to” work of political fiction for masses of readers worried about various manifestations of government dominance and control over the lives of citizens raises my hackles. The novel is a strong work in its way, a prescient warning about the dangerous prospects for totalitarian forms of control by the truly scary “Big Brother” who rules the fictional Oceania. Obviously, it’s a book everyone should read at least once. That being said, I would make the case that other political novelists who are today unjustly neglected should be turned to in this Age of Authoritarian Populists.
I would like to propose another British writer, Storm Jameson, a writer who, like Orwell, developed a pronounced anti-imperialist and democratic socialist positions in response to the injustices they perceived in their society. Both were galvanized by authoritarian political tendencies that they realized would undermine the rule of law and lead to suppression of civil liberties, including freedom of speech and thought.
None Turn Back reveals the lengths some employers were willing to go in crushing organized labour while taking advantage of an inadequate legal system that failed to create an equal playing field for ordinary workers. I have just read Jameson’s novel about the 1926 General Strike, one of the most significant and momentous political events in 20th century British history, None Turn Back. But before turning to the novel, let me touch on a few of the important political and legal themes that Orwell treats in his last work.
Winston Smith, the protagonist, is one in a long line of Orwell’s misfits, who back into some form of rebellion after being forced, against their better judgment, to display disobedience to the laws and conventions of the organizations they work for. In Smith’s case, it is the Ministry of Truth, the sinister arm of the government that rewrites history and assists in the relentless distortions, lies and propaganda that Oceania propagates in order to assert total control over its citizens. It also engages in massive surveillance, albeit it does so openly, unlike the N.S.A. and other modern state security organizations. Orwell brilliantly depicts the destructive ways in which widespread surveillance destroys trust and integrity amongst ordinary citizens, and curtails any meaningful freedom of speech. However, unlike the United States, the rule of law in that imagined country has disappeared. Individuals are arrested and sent to forced-labour camps or executed for any activity the ruling elite determines to be harmful. The massive surveillance that currently takes place in the United States is subject to the U.S. Constitution and its protections of free speech, thought, and freedom of association. However, the ability to rely on the law is severely restricted given the secrecy of the security service’s program and the ability of government to claim the need to refuse to provide information because of national security claims and to utilize the trump card of vague and all-purpose terrorist threats as justification.
A major difference between the world of Orwell and contemporary societies is that we are far from having reached a ruthless one-party state that violently suppresses even the least sign of resistance. One of the difficulties I continue to have with 1984 is its pessimistic conclusions regarding the prospects for rebellion. Winston and his lover Julia are depicted as the only two rebels, as far as we can tell, in all of Oceania. The one prospect for a possible rebellion is stated to be some future awakening of the Proles, the lower classes who go about their business largely oblivious to the iron grip on power that Big Brother and his party have achieved. I can’t believe that a proletariat, or for that matter a middle class, in any recognizable European state would lack the imagination and capacity to mount a spirited resistance, sometime before the bleak present of Orwell’s dystopia.
I would like to propose another British writer, Storm Jameson, a writer who, like Orwell, developed a pronounced anti-imperialist and democratic socialist positions in response to the injustices they perceived in their society. Storm Jameson’s novel, None Turn Back, is worth comparing to Orwell. It’s refreshing to discover a political novel that successfully integrates into its narrative a range of characters and voices, some of whom display a vital commitment to ongoing resistance. Set against the backdrop of the 1926 General Strike that shut down many services in Britain and caused considerable alarm, None Turn Back reveals the lengths some employers were willing to go in crushing organized labour while taking advantage of an inadequate legal system that failed to create an equal playing field for ordinary workers. Jameson’s realist novel provides the reader with an authentic and moving account of the tense labour conditions of the 1920s, when depressed coal prices lead owners to ruthlessly slash wages and the most basic of protections for the miners and others in related industries.
Jameson employs a collage effect quite successfully, with rapid cuts from scene to scene to present to her readers a wide range of Londoners who are deeply involved in the strike. The closest character to a protagonist is the writer Hervey Russell, a close counterpart to Jameson herself. Hervey must, at one point, confront the cancer that has been diagnosed by her doctor. A major theme of the novel is that, like the physical cancer that risks spreading through Hervey, a committed activist fully supporting the cause of the miners, a social cancer may infect all of British society if the injustice being perpetrated is allowed to continue. Symptomatic of the illness is the character of Julian Swan, a homegrown fascist who bears similarity to Oswald Mosley, later to become leader of the British National Front, a dangerous force in the 1930s. Swan, like other of the reactionary characters who course through the novel, is a damaged individual who seeks political power just as certain of the big industrialists seek material power, to compensate for the lack of fulfilment in their personal lives. Swan has a club foot, which led him to develop a huge inferiority complex. He strove to overcome it with his quest to restore order, through violence if necessary, in his vision of a proper hierarchical system.
The Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin is portrayed in None Turn Back as relatively spineless, and concerned less to find a peaceful and fair solution to the legitimate grievances of the workers than to assuage the concerns of the major industrialists. Indeed, Baldwin’s government passed a fairly draconian law – the Trade Disputes Act – the year after the General Strike was ended with the complete capitulation of the trade union’s leadership. When a progressive party, Labour, finally acquired power following World War II, Prime Minister Clement Atlee moved to abolish the Trade Disputes Act.
I can’t believe that a proletariat, or for that matter a middle class, in any recognizable European state would lack the imagination and capacity to mount a spirited resistance, sometime before the bleak present of Orwell’s dystopia.
Various characters in the novel who helped organize the strike and the news campaign to ensure that the strikers side of the story was properly communicated are vividly etched in the novel as rebels unwilling to bow to those in power who would oppress the most vulnerable in their society. “None” in the movement will turn back, and the struggle is shown at the end of the novel as something that will continue.
A final observation on Jameson and Orwell: when 1984 was published Jameson wrote to the author, generously praising the novel and pointing out that since 1926 or so, she too has had a sense of impending disaster, “the sense of the abyss, which obsesses you.”
Both novelists had a burning sense of the need to reform their society and it is a pity that Orwell did not live to see the changes in British society brought about in the postwar era that improved the lot of ordinary citizens and eliminated some of the truly unfair laws that had blighted a previous era.