Lies and totalitarianism



George Orwell knew that totalitarianism depends on lies, fake news, the idea that narratives and knowledge are equivalent, that history and story are the same thing

The entire work of English writer George Orwell (1903-1950) can be read as an incessant fight against lies and a tireless effort to establish and defend the truth. It is a commitment that the writer intended to elevate to the artistic level – or at least that is how he, in 1946, explained the objectives of his craft: “What I most wanted to do in the last ten years was to transform political writing into art.” . My starting point is always a feeling of proselytism, a feeling of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I don’t say to myself, “I’m going to produce a work of art.” I write because there is a lie that I want to expose, a fact that I want to draw attention to, and my initial concern is to reach an audience.”[I]

With a hint of ill will, one could quickly judge that we are facing an artist who is not very inventive and satisfied with the meager ration of facts; a mere champion of wasted truths. If we also take into account that a large part of Orwell's work is actually made up of documentary texts, the picture seems ready of a case in which engagement (however worthy) took the lead in relation to art, drowning out creativity.

To a certain extent, we don't even need to consider a malicious reader expressing opinions like this; George Orwell himself, truth be told, at a certain point contrasts the figures of the literary man and the pamphleteer, putting himself in the latter's clothes, notwithstanding the fact that it was so because, pressed by the imperatives of the time, he used military writing: “ In a time of peace, I could have written flowery or merely descriptive books and remained almost oblivious to my political loyalties. Anyway, I was forced to become something of a pamphleteer.”[ii]

So be it. I'm not the one who's going to deny Orwell himself. But (and I ask the reader to pause here before a strong exclamation) what pamphlets! It is important not to lower the content of the author's words, as the commitment is made concrete through frankly political writing that – nothing less – aims to elevate it to the level of a work of art. Not by chance, he created a formula, an unusual but undoubtedly successful style (he was one of the most influential authors of the 20th century) of intervening in the world through literary productions that are still admired today.

From this perspective, the nerve center of George Orwell's work, or more precisely, the point that gives intelligibility to the whole, seems to reside in his experience as an anti-Franco militiaman in the Spanish Civil War. He leaves for Barcelona in 1936, combining the purpose of getting to know on-site visit the situation of producing yet another title in the already tested line of documentaries it had been producing (At worst in Paris and London, 1933; The Wigan Pear Way, then finished and which would come to light in 1937), in addition to giving vent to the moral ardor of fighting for freedom and combating in practice his enemies, in this case the fascist forces of General Franco (as he confesses, he killed a single fascist and everything was already it would have been worth it[iii]).

The centrality that George Orwell will henceforth attribute to this experience cannot be exaggerated; In the 1946 text just mentioned, he highlights the inflection that it brought to his work: everything he intended to do afterwards (in the last ten years, as he says), was due to what he had seen and experienced in Spain. Why?

In our opinion, mainly because there he experimented with lying as a political weapon, in a hitherto unprecedented way; not just a manipulable element, but a lie forged industrially and circulated with the aim of producing a fiction (a “narrative”, today it might be said) that serves power. In Spain, George Orwell experiences firsthand, on-site visit e vitro, we can say, the incubation of a portentous system of lies, which, in turn, is contemporary with a new type of power inflated and sustained precisely by the most blatant lies.

This power umbilically linked to lies is the one whose first signs and rapid maturation George Orwell recognizes in the Spanish republican government, which, under the increasing influence of Soviet power in the course of the civil war, unleashes a campaign of defamation and persecution against anarchists and Trotskyists, gradually becoming as tyrannical (a regime that controls, accuses, persecutes, kidnaps, arrests, tortures, executes) as the Francoist fascism that everyone fancied fighting.

In an essay published between July and September 1937, already back in England, when analyzing the situation in Spain and particularly the republican government's campaign against former comrades in struggle, George Orwell makes an alarming, terrible observation: “Until a few months ago, the Anarcho-syndicalists were described as “working loyally” alongside communists. Afterwards, the anarcho-syndicalists were defenestrated from the government; then it seemed that they were no longer working so loyally; now, they are in the process of becoming traitors. (…) And so the game continues. The logical end is a regime in which all opposition parties and newspapers are revoked and all dissidents of any importance are imprisoned. Of course this regime will be fascism. It will not be the same fascism that Franco would impose, it will even be better than Franco's fascism, to the extent that it is worth fighting for (worth fighting for), but it will be fascism. Only, when operated by communists and liberals, it will be called something else.”[iv]

Along these lines, surprisingly, George Orwell collides, at his own risk, with the traditional problem of “voluntary servitude”, first formulated by Étienne de la Boétie, in the 16th century, staged in the 20th century in Iberian lands and, as will soon be known , about to spread across the world under the name of “totalitarianism”. Then he realizes that, in a stupendous turn of events, a revolutionary state of affairs for which he once thought was “worth fighting for” and even dying for was becoming a poorly disguised fascism for which – woe is us! – equally “it’s worth fighting for”.[v]

If I wanted to, I could even pastiche a well-known formula for Theological-political treatise of Bento de Espinosa and asserting the secret of the republican government was to deceive the Spanish in such a way that they fought for servitude as if they were fighting for freedom.

Not bad for a lowly “pamphleteer” who is reportedly not fond of theories and abstractions. But he doesn't stop there. As if intimately disturbed by what he discovered, he never ceases to fumble for an explanatory hypothesis for the aberration he witnessed in Spain: the servitude worth fighting for becomes possible within a system of lies caused by the action of a particular type of power that, starting by clouding the perception of facts, ends up completely destroying truth and objective reality, that is, the very possibility of history and a free humanity.

Since 1936, George Orwell has been convinced that something new is emerging and he begins to meditate on it – remember the 1946 text mentioned at the beginning: it was everything he wanted to do in the ten years following the Spanish experience. Such was the impact of this discovery that he once commented to a friend: “History stopped in 1936”.[vi] The effects of the Spanish experience and the discovery it provided will be indelible, reorienting the writer's entire work; as he confesses, “what I saw there disturbed me so much that I speak and write about it to everyone”.[vii]

History stops because a new, terribly perfected fascism is emerging; What's more, the story stops because, with that, it's as if it were becoming impossible. At the heart of what George Orwell from a certain moment, at the turn of the 1930s to the 1940s, began to call “totalitarianism”, is the expedient of the suppression of the true and the consequent impossibility of history due to the destruction of memory, language , reality and humanity itself. Countless and varied consequences, all equally terrifying, which are clearly revealed to us in 1984, where history, in a hellish repetition of the Spanish case, will also reach its horrible stopping point.[viii]

Let us follow George Orwell's considerations in another text – from 1943 and also dedicated to the Spanish experience – which has the merit of showing the connection between all the themes we have been dealing with so far: “This kind of thing is terrifying to me, because I always it gives the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is disappearing from the world. After all, there are possibilities that these lies, or in any case similar lies, will pass into history. I know it's fashionable to say that much of the official history is a lie, anyway. I am willing to believe that history is, for the most part, incorrect and biased, but what is peculiar to our age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be written on the basis of truth. In the past, people deliberately lied or unconsciously embellished what they wrote or struggled to arrive at the truth, knowing full well that they should make several mistakes; but, in each case, they believed that those “facts” had existed and were, to a greater or lesser extent, discoverable. And in practice, there was always a considerable body of facts on which almost everyone would agree.”[ix]

In Orwell's view, the great novelty of totalitarianism is not simply advancing lies. This is something that has always existed – the dispute over words, over the narration of facts, over the veracity of no matter what, gossip at its most banal level. Ultimately, there would be no need to be terrified by this. The question is another. No matter how much one lied, there was still the idea of ​​something objective to be hidden; To the extent that the liar intended to hide or distort something, his lie involved a relationship with the truth of the facts.

Now it's different; it is the very idea that something really happens, objectively, that fades away. Only interpretations, narratives, fake news, and nothing else; as if we entered a world of pure simulacra that, deep down, are simulacra of nothing born of the most varied curls.

And hence this phrase 1984 as impressive as it is enlightening about the new regime of “lie” (if we still want to use the old word to name something entirely new) forged by totalitarianism: “Almost all the material they dealt with there was devoid of the slightest connection with the world real – it even lacked the kind of connection contained in an outright lie.”[X] Words very close to those that describe George Orwell's astonishment when reading in Spanish and some foreign newspapers news “that had no relationship with the facts, not even the relationship implicit in a common lie”.[xi]

Along with truth and history, the possibility of coexistence and sharing a common world radically crumbles; by extension, politics also becomes impossible, since there are no minimum bases left for discussion, deliberation and argued agreement or disagreement. When everything becomes illusion, narrative or fake news; When only the lie prevails, only the leader's cardinal word remains, that is, the speech of the power that makes and unmakes the true and the false at will. This was what George Orwell sensed in Spain and was confirmed by Nazi-fascist mechanisms.

“Nazi theory actually explicitly denies that such a thing as “truth” exists. There is, for example, nothing like “science”. There is only “German science”, “Jewish science”, etc. The objective implicit in this line of reasoning is a nightmare world, in which the leader, or some clique of power, controls not only the future, but the past. If the leader says of such and such an event: “It never happened,” well, then, it never happened. If he says two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect scares me much more than bombs.”[xii]

It is essential to highlight these words from 1943, pregnant with a dark future: when the leader says “two and two is five”, it must be so for the simple reason that it must be so. It is very significant that, in 1984, the culmination of the Orwellian meditation on what he saw in Spain, totalitarianism killed mathematics that had always been living proof that human beings are capable of producing the common.

This is what totalitarianism, in principle, needs to destroy: the possibility of something common; on the contrary, the common one, the center of the servile community, must be Big Brother, the one who enunciates the true after having destroyed the truth. It is not by chance that we find in that reflection on Spain cited above the core of Spain's totalitarianism. 1984, summarized in the ultimate goal of instilling in each head the “mysterious identity between five and four”.[xiii]

Totalitarianism depends on lies, fake news, the idea that narratives and knowledge are equivalent, that history and story are the same thing; in short, it depends on the destruction of truth and, consequently, reason and politics. George Orwell never said this, but I see no reason not to draw such conclusions and state them clearly; especially his corollary: “there is a lie without totalitarianism, but there is no totalitarianism without a lie”.

* Homer Santiago He is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at USP.


[I] Orwell, “Why I Write”, in Inside the Whale, São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, pp. 28-29.

[ii] Same, pp. 25-26.

[iii] “When I joined the militia, I promised myself to kill a fascist – after all, if each of us killed one, we would soon be extinct” (Orwell, Fighting in Spain, Rio de Janeiro, Biblioteca Azul, 2021, p.220).

[iv] Ditto, p. 300.

[v] The precise counterpoint we establish is with the passage in which Orwell tells of his amazement upon landing in Barcelona and finding a revolutionized city in which waiters do not accept tips, “you” has replaced “sir”, and so on. “All of this was strange and exciting. There was a lot I didn't understand, and a lot of it I didn't even like, but I recognized immediately that it was a state of affairs worth fighting for (worth fighting for).” (Idem, p. 21)

[vi] Ditto, p. 267.

[vii] Ditto, p. 321.

[viii] in the world of 1984, we only experience an endless oppressive process that drags on minute by minute: “History was interrupted. Nothing exists but an endless present in which the Party is always right” (Orwell, 1984, São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2021, p. 204).

[ix] Fighting in Spain, cit., p. 269.

[X] Ditto, p. 84.

[xi] Ditto, p. 267.

[xii] Ditto, p. 270.

[xiii] 1984, cit., p. 304.

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