Having just re-read Orwell's classic, I remembered an old essay of Isaac Deutscher's about it and so re-read that as well, to remind myself of what Deutscher had made of the book and compare his reactions with my own. His essay was written in 1954 and appears in the collection Heretics and Renegades.
An incidental interest of Deutscher's essay is his tracing of the influence on Orwell of Yevgeny Zamyatin's earlier dystopia We, and the several parallels he sees between it and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But for me the main interest of the essay lies in Deutscher's diagnosis of the limitations, as he sees them, of Orwell's bleak vision and their origin in his intellectual outlook. That origin Deutscher locates in Orwell's rationalism, which, disillusioned in face of the mid-20th century horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, found its outlet in the writer's portrayal of the cruelties of a power wielded for its own sake.
The contrasting reference point for Deutscher to Orwell's 'defeated rationalism' was, of course, his own Marxism. Marxism, Deutscher writes, though sometimes taken to be rationalist, is 'not at all so':
... [Marxism] does not assume that human beings are, as a rule, guided by rational motives and that they can be argued into socialism by reason... [T]he authentic Marxist may claim to be mentally better prepared than the rationalist is for the manifestations of irrationality in human affairs...
I, for my part, would demur at Deutscher's 'not at all'. In the Marxian socialist project there is a core idea of trying to bring some rationality, as well as justice, into the cooperative social life of the future. But, at the same time, I think Deutscher was right to say that Marxists should be well placed to grasp some of the non-rational sources of human behaviour, since Marxism focuses so centrally on the social mechanisms involved in people's pursuing their own interests, including ideological deceptions and self-deceptions and training in the customs and the uses, often callous, sometimes brutal, of privilege and power.
Be this as it may, unable to trace the horrors of 20th century totalitarianism back to its historical causes – in Deutscher's terms, the 'complicated social background', the 'tangles of political motives, calculations, fears and suspicions', the 'complex historical context' - Orwell, he thinks, could only fall back on a 'mysticism of cruelty' in which 'The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power' (the words Orwell gives O'Brien). In Deutscher's judgement that notion, foundational to the construction of Orwell's dystopia, is 'the most banal, the most abstract, the most metaphysical, and the most barren of all generalizations'.
The way I would score this is: 3-1 to George Orwell against Isaac Deutscher. Deutscher's critique is valid, in my view, just to this extent, that a system of power with no other end than the exercise and preservation of power itself is implausible in the light of what we know about human societies throughout history. Power is nearly always wielded on the back of some social interest(s), and though the specialization of functions creates people wedded to the techniques of power as such, it is hard to envisage an entire social and political order in which power has come loose from its moorings in interests of that kind. Moreover, an order as dedicated as Oceania is to the denial and repression of ordinary impulses towards happiness would find it difficult to endure. I don't say impossible; heaven forbid but perhaps there could be circumstances securing it for a very long time. But difficult, surely, for a regime so crushing of the elementary humanity of its population to endure in perpetuity.
On Orwell's side, however, there is - first - the fact that he was creating a fictional entity, not making a prediction, and it is perfectly proper to that enterprise to exaggerate certain features while abstracting from others, whether as a warning of dangers to be on the lookout for or merely as a way of focusing the attention of readers on what is picked out, so that they might learn to know it. There is - second - Deutscher's underplaying of the autonomous force of cruel impulses and impulses towards power in the human make-up. Having insisted, realistically enough, on the irrational in human affairs, he backs off from giving it its full weight by adverting to background social causes. Such causes there always are indeed, but the more negative human traits do not go away on their account and they are capable of terrible mischief in their own right. There is nothing at all banal or abstract or metaphysical about their motivational force once the restraints of law, morality and civilization are lowered. On this matter, I would say that Orwell has been vindicated many times over, as compared with Deutscher's critical judgement on him.
Third and above all, Deutscher passes over what is not only a central theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four but also site of the adjunct and very servant of power there, namely, the monopoly on 'truth'. The importance of this theme - the way in which ideas are controlled, the past altered, memory denied, lies disseminated, by those wielding power - cannot be overstated, but it isn't given the attention it deserves in Deutscher's reading of Orwell. Here, again, we have seen repeatedly how subject ruling cliques or those intent on power can be to the temptation of the 'one truth', theirs, and of imposing it on others at whatever cost to human happiness and well-being.
Orwell's, therefore, was the great book and Deutscher's critique of it too narrow - on account of a too narrow construal by him of what Marxism encompasses.