History of the world
Many of Orwell's earlier writings clearly indicate that he originally welcomed the prospect of a socialist revolution in the UK, and indeed hoped to himself take part in such a revolution. The concept of "English Socialism" first appeared in Orwell's 1941 essay "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius", in which Orwell outlined a relatively humane revolution—establishing a revolutionary regime which "will shoot traitors, but give them a solemn trial beforehand, and occasionally acquit them" and which "will crush any open revolt promptly and cruelly, but will interfere very little with the spoken and written word"; the "English Socialism" which Orwell foresaw in 1941 would even "abolish the House of Lords, but retain the Monarchy".
In the novel, Winston Smith's memories and his reading of the proscribed book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, reveal that after the Second World War, the United Kingdom became involved in a war during the early 1950s in which nuclear weapons destroyed hundreds of cities in Europe, western Russia and North America. Colchester was destroyed, and London also suffered widespread aerial raids, leading Winston's family to take refuge in a London Underground station. The United States absorbed the British Commonwealth and Latin America, resulting in the superstate of Oceania. The new nation fell into civil war, but who fought whom is left unclear (there is a reference to the child Winston having seen rival militias in the streets, each one having a shirt of a distinct colour for its members). It is also unclear what The Party's name was while there were more than one, and whether it was a radical faction of the British Labour Party or a new formation arising during the turbulent 1950s. Eventually, Ingsoc won and gradually formed a totalitarian government across Oceania. Orwell does not explain in the novel how the US came to embrace "English Socialism" as its ruling ideology; in his lifetime, a socialist revolution was a concrete possibility in the UK, and taken seriously, but socialism of any kind was a marginal phenomenon in the United States.
Meanwhile, Eurasia was formed when the Soviet Union conquered mainland Europe, creating a single state stretching from Portugal to the Bering Strait, under a Neo-Stalinist regime. In effect, the situation of 1940–1944—the UK facing an enemy-held Europe across the Channel—was recreated, and this time permanently—neither side contemplating an invasion, their wars held in other parts of the world. Eastasia, the last superstate established, emerged only after "a decade of confused fighting". It includes the Asian lands conquered by China and Japan. (The book was written before the 1949 victory of Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party in the Civil War). Although Eastasia is prevented from matching Eurasia's size, its larger populace compensates for that handicap.
While citizens in each state are trained to despise the ideologies of the other two as uncivilised and barbarous, Goldstein's book explains that in fact the superstates' ideologies are practically identical and that the public's ignorance of this fact is imperative so that they might continue believing otherwise. The only references to the exterior world for the Oceanian citizenry are propaganda and (probably fake) maps fabricated by the Ministry of Truth to ensure people's belief in "the war".
However, due to the fact that Winston only barely remembers these events as well as the Party's constant manipulation of historical records, the continuity and accuracy of these events are unknown, and exactly how the superstates' ruling parties managed to gain their power is also left unclear. Winston notes that the Party has claimed credit for inventing helicopters and aeroplanes, while Julia theorises that the perpetual bombing of London is merely a false-flag operation designed to convince the populace that a war is occurring. If the official account was accurate, Smith's strengthening memories and the story of his family's dissolution suggest that the atomic bombings occurred first, followed by civil war featuring "confused street fighting in London itself" and the societal postwar reorganisation, which the Party retrospectively calls "the Revolution".
It is very difficult to trace the exact chronology, but most of the global societal reorganisation occurred between 1945 and the early 1960s. Winston and Julia meet in the ruins of a church that was destroyed in a nuclear attack "thirty years" earlier, which suggests 1954 as the year of the atomic war that destabilised society and allowed the Party to seize power. It is stated in the novel that the "fourth quarter of 1983" was "also the sixth quarter of the Ninth Three-Year Plan", which implies that the first three-year plan began in 1958. By that same year, the Party had apparently gained control of Oceania.
Among other things, the Revolution completely obliterates all religion. While the underground "Brotherhood" might or might not exist, there is no suggestion of any clergy trying to keep any religion alive underground. It is noted that, since the Party does not really care what the proles think or do, they might have been permitted to have religious worship had they wanted to—but they show no such inclination. Among the manifestly absurd "confessions" extracted from "thought criminals" is religious belief—however, but no one takes this seriously. Churches have been demolished or converted to other uses—St Martin-in-the-Fields has become a military museum, while Saint Clement Danes, destroyed in a WWII bombing, is in this future never rebuilt. The idea of a revolutionary regime totally destroying religion, with relative ease, is shared with the otherwise very different future of H.G.Wells' The Shape of Things to Come.
In 1984, there is a perpetual war between Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, the superstates that emerged from the global atomic war. The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by Emmanuel Goldstein, explains that each state is so strong that it cannot be defeated, even with the combined forces of two superstates, despite changing alliances. To hide such contradictions, the superstates' governments rewrite history to explain that the (new) alliance always was so; the populaces are already accustomed to doublethink and accept it. The war is not fought in Oceanian, Eurasian or Eastasian territory but in the Arctic wastes and a disputed zone comprising the sea and land from Tangiers (Northern Africa) to Darwin (Australia). At the start, Oceania and Eastasia are allies fighting Eurasia in northern Africa and the Malabar Coast.
That alliance ends, and Oceania, allied with Eurasia, fights Eastasia, a change occurring on Hate Week, dedicated to creating patriotic fervour for the Party's perpetual war. The public are blind to the change; in mid-sentence, an orator changes the name of the enemy from "Eurasia" to "Eastasia" without pause. When the public are enraged at noticing that the wrong flags and posters are displayed, they tear them down; the Party later claims to have captured the whole of Africa.
Goldstein's book explains that the purpose of the unwinnable, perpetual war is to consume human labour and commodities so that the economy of a superstate cannot support economic equality, with a high standard of life for every citizen. By using up most of the produced goods, the proles are kept poor and uneducated, and the Party hopes that they will neither realise what the government is doing nor rebel. Goldstein also details an Oceanian strategy of attacking enemy cities with atomic rockets before invasion but dismisses it as unfeasible and contrary to the war's purpose; despite the atomic bombing of cities in the 1950s, the superstates stopped it for fear that it would imbalance the powers. The military technology in the novel differs little from that of World War II, but strategic bomber aeroplanes are replaced with rocket bombs, helicopters were heavily used as weapons of war (they were very minor in World War II) and surface combat units have been all but replaced by immense and unsinkable Floating Fortresses (island-like contraptions concentrating the firepower of a whole naval task force in a single, semi-mobile platform; in the novel, one is said to have been anchored between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, suggesting a preference for sea lane interdiction and denial).
Claude Rozenhof notes that:
None of the war news in Nineteen Eighty-Four can be in any way trusted as a report of something which actually happened (within the frame of the book's plot). Winston Smith himself is depicted as inventing a war hero who never existed and attributing to him various acts which never took place. After Oceania's shift of alliance, fighting Eastasia rather than Eurasia, the entire Ministry of Truth staff is engaged in an intensive effort to eradicate all reports of the war with Eurasia and "move the war to another part of the world"—so we do know for a fact that all records of the previous five years of war are henceforward false, depicting battles which never happened in places where there had been no war—but it might well be that the earlier records of a war with Eurasia, which were destroyed and eradicated, had been just as false. (...) The same doubts apply also to the major piece of war news in the final chapter—a titanic battle engulfing the entire continent of Africa, won by Oceania due to a brilliant piece of strategic surprise and finally proving to Smith the genius of Big Brother. There is no way of knowing whether any such battle "really" took place in Africa. Nor can we know if this piece of spectacular war news was broadcast all over Oceania, or whether it was an exclusive "show" broadcast solely into the telescreen in the Chestnut Tree Cafe, with the sole purpose of having on Winston Smith exactly the psychological effect which it did have. Indeed, there is the passage where Julia doubts that any war is taking place at all, and suspects that the rockets falling occasionally on London are fired by the government of Oceania itself, to keep the population on their toes—though Winston does not let his doubts of the official propaganda go that far. (...) And how much can we, living in a supposedly free and democratic society, objectively check the verity of what our supposedly Free press tells us?
Three perpetually warring totalitarian superstates control the world in the novel:
- Oceania (ideology: Ingsoc, known in Oldspeak as English Socialism), whose core territories are "the Americas, the Atlantic Islands, including the British Isles, Australasia and the southern portion of Africa."
- Eurasia (ideology: Neo-Bolshevism), whose core territories are "the whole of the northern part of the European and Asiatic landmass from Portugal to the Bering Strait."
- Eastasia (ideology: Obliteration of the Self, also known as Death-Worship), whose core territories are "China and the countries south to it, the Japanese islands, and a large but fluctuating portion of Manchuria, Mongolia and Tibet."
The perpetual war is fought for control of the "disputed area" lying between the frontiers of the superstates, which forms "a rough quadrilateral with its corners at Tangier, Brazzaville, Darwin and Hong Kong", which includes Equatorial Africa, the Middle East, India and Indonesia. The disputed area is where the superstates capture slave labour. Fighting also takes place between Eurasia and Eastasia in Manchuria, Mongolia and Central Asia, and between Eurasia and Oceania over various islands in the Indian and Pacific Ocean.
Ingsoc (English Socialism) is the predominant ideology and philosophy of Oceania, and Newspeak is the official language of official documents. Orwell depicts the Party's ideology as an oligarchical worldview that "rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it does so in the name of Socialism."
Ministries of Oceania
In London, the capital city of Airstrip One, Oceania's four government ministries are in pyramids (300 m high), the façades of which display the Party's three slogans - "WAR IS PEACE", "FREEDOM IS SLAVERY", "IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH". As mentioned, the ministries are deliberately named after the opposite (doublethink) of their true functions: "The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation." (Part II, Chapter IX – The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism).
While a ministry is supposedly headed by a minister, the ministers heading these four ministries are never mentioned. They seem to be completely out of the public view, Big Brother being the only, ever-present public face of the government. Also, while an army fighting a war is typically headed by generals, none is ever mentioned by name. News reports of the ongoing war assume that Big Brother personally commands Oceania's fighting forces and give him personal credit for victories and successful strategic concepts. This goes much further than Soviet propaganda ever did, even at the height of Stalin's cult of personality.
Ministry of Peace
The Ministry of Peace supports and engages in Oceania's perpetual war against either of the two other superstates:
The primary aim of modern warfare (in accordance with the principles of doublethink, this aim is simultaneously recognised and not recognised by the directing brains of the Inner Party) is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living. Ever since the end of the nineteenth century, the problem of what to do with the surplus of consumption goods has been latent in industrial society. At present, when few human beings even have enough to eat, this problem is obviously not urgent, and it might not have become so, even if no artificial processes of destruction had been at work.
Ministry of Plenty
The Ministry of Plenty rations and controls food, goods, and domestic production; every fiscal quarter, it claims to have raised the standard of living, even during times when it has, in fact, reduced rations, availability, and production. The Ministry of Truth substantiates the Ministry of Plenty's claims by manipulating historical records to report numbers supporting the claims of "increased rations". The Ministry of Plenty also runs the national lottery as a distraction for the proles; Party members understand it to be a sham process in which winnings are never paid out.
Ministry of Truth
The Ministry of Truth controls information: news, entertainment, education, and the arts. Winston Smith works in the Records Department, "rectifying" historical records to accord with Big Brother's current pronouncements so that everything the Party says appears to be true.
Ministry of Love
The Ministry of Love identifies, monitors, arrests and converts real and imagined dissidents. This is also the place where the Thought Police beat and torture dissidents, after which they are sent to Room 101 to face "the worst thing in the world"—until love for Big Brother and the Party replaces dissension.
The Big Brother is a fictional character and symbol in the novel. He is ostensibly the leader of Oceania, a totalitarian state wherein the ruling party Ingsoc wields total power "for its own sake" over the inhabitants. In the society that Orwell describes, every citizen is under constant surveillance by the authorities, mainly by telescreens (with the exception of the proles). The people are constantly reminded of this by the slogan "Big Brother is watching you": a maxim that is ubiquitously on display.
In modern culture, the term "Big Brother" has entered the lexicon as a synonym for abuse of government power, particularly in respect to civil liberties, often specifically related to mass surveillance.
The keyword here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink. Doublethink is basically the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.— Part II, Chapter IX – The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism
The Principles of Newspeak is an academic essay appended to the novel. It describes the development of Newspeak, an artificial, minimalistic language designed to ideologically align thought with the principles of Ingsoc by stripping down the English language in order to make the expression of "heretical" thoughts (i.e. thoughts going against Ingsoc's principles) impossible. The idea that a language's structure can be used to influence thought is known as linguistic relativity.
Whether or not the Newspeak appendix implies a hopeful end to Nineteen Eighty-Four remains a critical debate. Many claim that it does, citing the fact that it is in standard English and is written in the past tense: "Relative to our own, the Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised" (p. 422). Some critics (Atwood, Benstead, Milner, Pynchon) claim that for Orwell, Newspeak and the totalitarian governments are all in the past.
Thoughtcrime describes a person's politically unorthodox thoughts, such as unspoken beliefs and doubts that contradict the tenets of Ingsoc (English Socialism), the dominant ideology of Oceania. In the official language of Newspeak, the word crimethink describes the intellectual actions of a person who entertains and holds politically unacceptable thoughts; thus the government of the Party controls the speech, the actions, and the thoughts of the citizens of Oceania. In contemporary English usage, the word thoughtcrime describes beliefs that are contrary to accepted norms of society, and is used to describe theological concepts, such as disbelief and idolatry, and the rejection of an ideology.