From 1984 to One-Dimensional Man:
Critical Reflections on Orwell and Marcuse

Section Two

By Douglas Kellner

Language and Politics: Some Case Studies

In 1984, "Newspeak" is the new totalitarian language which replaces "Old English." The aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought so that an individual could not even think critical or subversive thoughts. Potentially critical terms like "freedom" are formally defined into their conceptual opposites ("freedom is slavery"), or are simply eliminated from the dictionary and everyday language. In this manner, critical language would wither away as the number of words which allow differentiation and critique was increasingly reduced. "Doublethink" for Orwell was the mental activity of simultaneously knowing and not knowing, denoting an ability to be conscious of the truth while telling lies, so that one could hold two contradictory views at once and manipulate language to meet the exigencies of the moment (1984, pp. 32f., passim).

In these reflections on the politics of language, Orwell was generalizing from the practices of existing totalitarian states and projected a future in which truth and honesty no longer played any role in political discourse. In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse uses the term "Orwellian language" to describe the nature and functions of dominant discourses within contemporary post-industrial societies, though most of his examples are from the US. In Marcuse's analysis, public and corporate officials, and the mass media, utilize a "one-dimensional language" to smooth over social contradictions and problems, and thus restrict thought and public discourse to the terms and interests of the established society.

Marcuse analyzes the methods and tricks through which language shapes public thought and discourse through "magic-ritual" formulas and "fixed images" which "abridge thought" and "cut off development of meaning." This language attempts to manipulate its audience with authoritarian dicta and to prevent critical thought and discourse. Marcuse cites contemporary examples of "Orwellian language" in which concepts such as democracy, freedom, and equality are used in capitalist countries to perpetuate class society, unfreedom, and inequality while "socialism" and "worker's democracy" are used by communist countries to perpetuate party dictatorship. He analyzes as well a logic of manipulation that is almost surrealistic in its unification of opposites. In the 1950s, Marcuse cites discussion of a "clean bomb" with "harmless fallout," and newspapers stating that: "Labor is seeking missile harmony" (ODM 89ff).

The trend continued during the Vietnam war when thedestruction of villages was labelled a "pacification program," the village refugees were called "ambient non-combat personnel," and the concentration camps in which they were housed were termed "pacified hamlets." Doublethink prevailed in the inflated body counts and deflated estimates of enemy troop strength, and new forms of Newspeak appeared frequently: bombing one's own troops is called "accidental deliverance of ordinance equipment," while getting killed by one's own forces is referred to as falling prey to "friendly fire." Unprovoked aggression against an innocent village is named a "pre-emptive defensive strike," while the invasion of Cambodia is an "incursion." Periodically rigged elections allowed corrupt military dictatorships in Vietnam to be labelled "democratic" while popularly supported national liberation movements are denounced as "terrorists."

During the Vietnam era in the United States an explicitly counterrevolutionary President, Richard Nixon, proclaimed a "New American Revolution" after his re-election in 1972, while rightwing groups called themselves "libertarians" and "Young Americans for Freedom," and advertisers tried to sell a "revolutionary new detergent," thus coopting the discourse of freedom and revolution to serve the interests of a conservative social system. And the overthrow of Allende's democratically elected government in Chile was called a "destabilization program," while CIA assassination teams were titled "health alteration committess" and their criminal and immoral acts were known as "covert actions." During the Watergate scandal, the Nixon administration engaged in orgies of doublethink and when his administration's lies became too blatant, they were declared "inoperative": the final triumph of bureaucratic jargon to escape criteria of truth and falsity.

However, Newspeak and doublethink have reached even greater heights during the Reagan administration. Reagan's constant barrage of lies are tolerated as "misstatements" and he seems to have perfected the art of using Newspeak and doublethink with a smile and a show of sincerity. {33} When the MX missile was being criticized in Congress, it was renamed "Peacekeeper" and the U.S. troops used in Lebanon to prop up the minority Gemayal regime were called "peacekeepers," though their presence elicited violence resulting in many deaths. Those whom the Reagan administration represents as "enemies" are denounced as "terrorists," while support of rightwing governments who repeatedly use terror and torture is part of business as usual; thus the murderous Nicaraguan "contras" who frequently use terror against civilians are celebrated as "freedom fighters." When a CIA manual which instructed the contras to "neutralize" (i.e. assassinate) Sandinista officials was published, the President and CIA officials claimed that it intended to "moderate" contra activities. And during the numerous debates over contra aid, support of this policy was defended in arguments which either exhibited extreme cases of "doublethink" whereby the Congresspeople in question knew that their arguments were totally specious or the total triumph of "newspeak" whereby they are so indoctrinated that they actually believe the patently untrue words which they mouth (i.e. about the contras being "freedom fighters," the Sandinistas being no more than tools of the Soviets, etc.).

Indeed, Newspeak and Doublethink have proliferated to such an extent in recent years that the National Council of Teachers of English presents yearly awards for especially egregious examples. In 1984, they provided Doublespeak awards to Pentagon descriptions of peace as "permanent pre-hostility," for calling combat "violence processing," and for referring to civilian causalities in nuclear war as "collateral damage." The Pentagon was cited for its description of the October 1983 invasion of Grenada as a "predawn vertical insertion." The Reagan administration has also appropriated medical terminology for military actions: the term "surgical strike" is used to describe bombing raids which usually involve civilian causalities. Successful military "excursions" are followed by "mopping up" operations -- a term also used to describe U.S. military activity in Grenada. War for the Reagan administration is thus a medical affair with surgery and mopping up, dedicated to eradicating the "cancer" of communism.

But throughout the Cold War both sides have specialized in Orwellian language. State communist regimes regularly called their party states "democracies" or "people's republics," and regularly uses Newspeak and doublethink to legitimate their regimes. {34} In the West, the Department of Defense replaced the Department of War after World War II and terms like the "Free World," "independent nations," or "allies" have been used to describe repressive dictatorships friendly to the capitalist democracies. In fact, Reagan's 1984 $253 billion dollar "defense budget" is better described as a "war budget," or at least a "military budget."

Consequently, both Orwell and Marcuse have called attention to the degeneration of language and truth in contemporary political discourse and have opened up an important area of political linguistics. Both call attention to the primacy of mass communications in politics and the way political discourse has degenerated into a play of images which has led to a decline of truth and honesty in political debate. This analysis provides powerful tools to develop a critique of language and politics in the contemporary era.

There is, however, a major difference between Orwell's and Marcuse's own uses of language and modes of thought. Orwell is very much a practioneer of English common sense and champion of empiricism who constantly argued for the use of simpler, clearer, ordinary language in his essays on language and politics. {35} Marcuse, on the other hand, consistently attacked positivism, empiricism, "common sense" and ordinary language philosophy from the standpoint of the hegelian-marxian dialectics and highly theoretical modes of thought characteristic of the Frankfurt school's critical theory. {36} Marcuse's own language is notoriously difficult and when forced to defend it, he argued that capitalist societies tend to appropriate and coopt all standard forms of critical and oppositional thought and behavior; thus a theory and discourse that wants to remain oppositional must consciously resist appropriation and assimilation into prevailing modes of discourse. Consequently, Marcuse consciously used theoretical language and a style that could not be easily coopted into prevailing discourse. The price paid, of course, is that many people have difficulties in reading or understanding Marcuse, and we might want to reflect upon whether Orwell's or Marcuse's writing strategy and theories of language are more appropriate today for radical social theory and politics today.

My own view is that while Marcuse is correct that theoretical language is often useful and necessary, there are limitations to this strategy, and that Orwell provides a useful corrective. The goal of critical political discourse, on this view, is to combine the sort of clarity and directness of expression championed by Orwell with critical and theoretical concepts and analyses of the sort associated with Marcuse. On this latter point, I would argue that Marcuse himself was not always as obscure or difficult as his detractors often claim, though his Germanic habits of language and thought occasionally caused problems for those not versed in German philosophy, especially in the tradition of Hegel and Marx. Furthermore, one could defend Marcuse's language by arguing that Orwell's arguments for simplicity and clarity might not always be appropriate for complex or novel subject matter that require new modes of thought and critical reflection for accurate understanding. Each subject matter and audience requires different levels of theoretical discourse, style, and language, so that there are really no simple nostrums for "politically correct" Left discourses or style. Consequently, we might profitably continue to study Orwell and Marcuse as quite different political stylists with some similar aims and some significant differences.

From Theory to Practice

In conclusion I want to discuss the political effects of writing, theory, and style by contrasting Orwell's and Marcuse's works. There have been heated debates over where to situate both writers, especially in regard to Orwell who has been claimed by both Left and Right. {37} Here it should be stated emphatically that Orwell was a man of the Left who consistently attacked capitalism and imperialism while defending democratic socialism. In "Why I Write" Orwell stated: "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism." {38} Although obviously one can read any writer against the grain and use them for a multiplicity of political purposes, I believe that Orwell should be read as a leftist critic of totalitarianism -- of the fascist, communist, and welfare state capitalist varieties -- and, as I stated in the beginning, can therefore be used by the democratic Left to criticize forms of socialism that are to be avoided and overcome.

I have suggested that it is better to take 1984 as an illumination of its historical epoch and warning about what might happen than as futuristic prophecy. From this standpoint, the novel would cue us to what we should fight against as we are catapulted into an uncertain future: any threat to our civil liberties, restrictions on democracy, attempts at political manipulation and control, torture, state terrorism, etc. In this way, Orwell provides insights into what we should avoid and warnings against social trends that threaten to bring about an increase of unfreedom and misery into the world.

Yet I think there are serious problems concerning the political effects of Orwell's work, in particular Animal Farm and 1984. The problem is not simply that their anti-communism can and has been used by the Right, but that in addition there are serious problems with the perspectives on contemporary society and on the possibility of emancipatory political change in Orwell's political thought. Although both Marcuse and Orwell tend to be quite pessimistic about the prospects for radical social change and overcoming the worst features of repression and manipulation in contemporary societies, I would suggest that Orwell is much more pessimistic to an extent that one receives the impression that meaningful political change is impossible. Marcuse, on the other hand, offers more productive perspectives.

Throughout One-Dimensional Man and his other writings, Marcuse contrasts one-dimensional with dialectical thought, resistance and refusal with conformity and submission, and projections of a freer and happier social order with the present one. {39} There is a utopian impulse that runs throughout Marcuse's thought, and one of its features is an insistance that it is possible to produce both more happiness and freedom in one's individual life and in society at large. This runs against Huxley's belief that happiness would be purchased against freedom in the future and a wide-spread belief that societies have to choose between happiness and freedom. Marcuse, by contrast, was a life-long partisan of both happiness and freedom, and was one of the few social thinkers in this oft-disillusioned and usually cynical age who kept the utopian impulse alive in philosophy and radical social theory. By contrast, 1984 is a thoroughly pessimistic and anti-utopian text.

Orwell, in fact, did not ascribe a particularly great value to happiness. In an article on Arthur Koestler, he recommends learning to accept "life on earth as inherently miserable" and suggests that: "Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness." {40} The hedonistic strain that Orwell criticizes in Koestler is even more marked in Marcuse who is one of the few Marxian socialists to argue that socialism inherently requires more freedom, equality, and happiness. {41} Belief in the possibility of increased human happiness requires belief in the possibility of fundamentally changing conditions of both individual and social existence, and on this issue Orwell grew increasingly skeptical and pessimistic. In the essay on Koestler, Orwell urged "the realization that to make life liveable is a much bigger problem than it recently seemed" and seems to suggest in 1984 that the possibilities of eliminating totalitarian societies are extremely minimal. {42}

At several key junctures in 1984, Orwell's protagonist, Winston Smith, writes in his notebook and then states, "If there is hope, it lies with the proles." (i.e. the proletarians, the workers who exist outside of the party apparatus). Note, first, the use of "if." Indeed, given Orwell's rather derogatory picture of the proles in 1984, it is unlikely that this social class would want to or be able to resist, consequently the novel itself gives no grounds whatsover that there is any hope for emancipation from totalitarianism. For Orwell's rebel-individualist Smith is so broken down at the end and has so thoroughly betrayed everything he believed in and loved, including his beloved Julia, that it appears that Orwell denies -- against Marcuse, Sartre, Fromm, and others -- that there is any profound human capacity for resistance which cannot be managed and suppressed by a totalitarian state. One does not have to be a "humanist," or subscribe to an "essentialist" view of human nature to believe this, as, contrary to Orwell's vision, the history of revolution and reistance is full of testimony and examples of those who resisted torture and did not submit to torture or brainwashing.

Interestingly, in the article on Arthur Koestler, Orwell raises questions about why Rubashov in Darkness at Noon failed to confess since: "He has not even been tortured, or not very severely. He is worn down by solitude, toothache, lack of tobacco, bright lights glaring in his eyes, and continuous questioning, but these in themselves would not be enough to overcome a hardened revolutionary." {43} In a sense, 1984 goes beyond Darkness at Noon by showing policies of torture guaranteed to break down any person's resistance, thus supporting a fundamentally pessimistic view of the frailties of human nature and power of totalitarian regimes.

In Orwell's pessimistic vision, in fact, the party can remake human beings by breaking down their resistance, remolding the mind, and destroying all vestiges of resistance. Thus Winston Smith capitulates to O'Brien's torture, denounces Julia, and in the last sentence declares that he now loves Big Brother (1984, p. 245). The implication is that it is possible for the state totally to control thought, behavior, and feeling and that since humans are weak and selfish they will ultimately submit to whatever sort of state attempts to control them. Consequently, it seems that Orwell fails to posit any hope for resisting, or overthrowing a totalitarian state, once established, either within oppressed social classes, human nature, or oppositional individuals. His prognosis is so depressingly negative that I am not convinced, as several of his defenders have argued, that 1984 contains an "energizing and passionate gloom" (Irving Howe) which might animate democratic political struggle. {44}

Marcuse, on the other hand, constantly advocated the "Great Refusal" as the proper political response to any form of irrational repression, and indeed this seems to be at least the starting point for political activism in the contemporary era: refusal of all forms of oppression and domination, relentless criticism of all of all policies that impact negatively on working people and progressive social programs, and militant opposition to any and all acts of aggression against Third World countries. Indeed, in an era of "positive thinking," conformity, and Yuppies who "go for it," it seems that Marcuse's emphasis on negative thinking, refusal, and opposition provides at least a starting point and part of a renewal of radical politics in the contemporary era.

But Orwell too can be useful for this project. Orwell's warning in 1984 about repressive and repugnant social trends might activate people to oppose the sorts of oppression he projected, and the fact that 1984 has become such a central part of the contemporary cultural and political landscape makes it possible to use Orwell's language and imagery as effective vehicles of a radical critique that can and have been easily turned to progressive uses. Moreover, the very antithesis between "optimism" and "pessimism" as opposing political mind-sets is a specious one and supposedly pessimistic ideas can be productively used to mobilize people againt oppression, as is perceived in Gramsci's formula concerning "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will."

Yet there are dangers that excessive pessimism and negativity without emancipatory alternatives can lead to cynicism, apathy and hopelessness. While I believe that Marcuse had the correct political instincts for ferreting out and attacking all forms of domination and repression, while simultaneously seeking out forms of resistance and struggle, Orwell often manifests a pessimism so extreme that hope for a better future seems rules out in advance. Indeed, I believe that Orwell seemed to be committed to a fundamental philosophical pessimism that found quintessential expression in 1984 and is prefigured in the 1944 article on Koestler and other writings of the period. {45} Criticizing Koestler's combined "short-term pessimism" and belief that in the long term things will work out, Orwell writes: "Since about 1930 the world has given no reason for optimism whatsoever. Nothing is in sight except a welter of lies, hatred, cruelty and ignorance, and beyond our present troubles loom vaster ones which are only now entering into the European consciousness." {46}

However tempting such attitudes are in the face of a century of historical catastrophe, to move beyond the conservative political hegemony of the 1980s, we need to overcome temptations to complete pessimism or despair. On the other hand, in view of the catastrophes that conservativism or fascism run amok could bestow upon us, I also believe that we need both Marcuse's and Orwell's vision. Marcuse's "Great Refusal" seems to be the proper political response to the trends toward totalitarianism in the present, yet we also need Orwell's careful attention to forms of political repression and growing totalitarianism to alert us to threats to what remain of our civil liberties and democracy. But hope is (not yet at least) exhausted and I do not see how Orwell's vision will help animate individuals to engage in political struggle in the battles ahead.

With cracks appearing the conservative hegemony in the late 1980s, it is hardly the time for apathy and cynicism for these attitudes merely aid the powers that be and make the advent of an Orwellian 1984 more likely as we move from the conservative 80s into the next decade. Consequently, while Orwell's warning about political totalitarianism is useful, we need a dialectics of disaster (i.e. of catastrophe and hope, such as Ernst Bloch and more recently Ronald Aronson have developed) that provides room for both hope and resistance. {47} Although a more Orwellian 1984 may await us in the future, his sort of pessimism alone provides scant incentive for action, thus a Marcusean dialectic of domination and liberation, or a Blochian theory of catastrophe and hope, seems to provide more adequate political perspectives on trends toward domination and repression contrasted to prospects for resistance and social transformation than Orwell's one-sidedly bleak vision.


{33}For examples of Reaganspeak, see the collection compiled by Mark Green and X, Ronald Reagan's Reign of Error (New York: ).

{34}For a critique of the continued use of Orwellian language in Soviet Communist regimes, see Leszek Kolakowski, "Totalitarianism and the Virture of the Lie," in Howe, (op. cit.).

{35}On some similarities and differences between Marcuse's and Orwell's critiques of political language, see Ian Slater, "Orwell, Marcuse." Orwell's penchant toward empiricism and a common sense vernacular style is discussed in Crick, (op. cit.).

{36}See Kellner, Herbert Marcuse for comprehensive discussion of Marcuse's mode of thought and discourse.

{37}Debates over Orwell's legacy and attempts by both Left and Right to claim him are still raging. See Beauchamp, (op. cit.), and the anthologies cited in notes 1 and 3. On debates over Marcuse's legacy, see my Herbert Marcuse.

{38}Orwell, "Why I Write," Collected Essays, Vol. 1, p. 5.

{39}This is one of the central themes of my book Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism, ibid.

{40}George Orwell, "Arthur Koestler," in Dickens, Dali & Others (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946), p. 1@U(1984)

{41}Kellner, Herbert Marcuse, (op. cit.), passim.

{42}Crick, (op. cit.), amply documents Orwell's pessimism over the years; for example, pp. 272 and 622.

{43}Orwell, (op. cit.), p. 192.

{44}Howe, (op. cit.), p. 16.

{45}Orwell, "Koestler," (op. cit.), and Crick's study, cited in note 24.

{46}See Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973) and Ronald Aronson, Dialectics of Disaster (London: New Left Books, 1983). I discuss these themes in an article (with Harry O'Hara) on Ernst Bloch in New German Critique 9 (Fall 1976) and in a review of Aronson's book (with Judith Burton) in Theory and Society, Vol. XIV, Nr. 2 (March 1985), pp. 260-265.