‘The Revolutions Are Infinite’

George Orwell, (1903–1950), in the novel ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, presents an astute anatomization of the malignant character of an authoritarian state, of the psychology of political power, of the means by which both language and history can be engineered to serve as instruments of control. The superstate, Oceania, is controlled by the Party, ostensibly led by Big Brother, a figurehead of uncertain ontological status, and the citizens of which are under constant surveillance. The official language of Oceania is Oldspeak, that is, English, but this is gradually being replaced by Newspeak, a language syntactically similar to Oldspeak, but which is controlled by the state for the purpose of preventing thought crimes, thoughts at odds with state orthodoxy. Which is to say, its real purpose is to stifle freedom of thought, through the invention of new words, or through either eliminating existing words or divesting such words of their ambiguity and secondary meanings so that they may be defined precisely.

And so, by dayorder, abandoning my customary, not to say subversive, ownlife and offering hopefully more than mere duckspeak, be it good or ungood, (I care not about crimethink; and yet, intimidated by the prospect of harassment from the thinkpol, I do at least aspire towards a kind of goodthink, not desiring to be rendered an unperson, malquoted and destined for the miniluv), I hereby submit some considerations on the themes of psychological intimidation and manipulation in the service of political ends, and of language as a means of mind control. Such concerns belong to political philosophy, that is, the extent to which governments may legitimately regulate our behaviour, and to which we may accordingly regulate our own actions; that is to say, central to such an enquiry is the notion of freedom; whether freedom to, (pursue happiness, etc.), or freedom from, (political restraints, etc.).

‘Freedom’ is such a troublesome word, of course, so from Newspeak it is excluded, to minimise the very possibility of improper thoughts that such a word might engender. Orwell had observed of Jonathan Swift’s, (1667–1745), cacotopia, the floating island of Laputa, ruled over by a tyrannical king, and described in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, that ‘there is a perception that one of the aims of totalitarianism is not merely to make sure that people will think the right thoughts, but actually to make them less conscious’. The Laputans are so excessively fond of mathematics, while failing to put their knowledge to practical use, that their manner of speaking depends a great deal upon that science: ‘Their Ideas are perpetually conversant on Lines and Figures. If they would, for Example, praise the Beauty of a Woman… they describe it by Rhombs, Circles, Parallelograms, Ellipses, and other Geometrical Terms’. And while the scientists of Orwell’s Party of Oceania ‘study with extraordinary minuteness the meaning of facial expressions, gestures, and tones of voice’ of the constantly monitored citizens, with the aim of discovering, against their will, what they are thinking, there is a professor at Swift’s Academy of Projectors in Lagado that lays claim to a more reliable method for uncovering plots and conspiracies against the government; that is, suspected persons are put under observation to determine with which hand they wipe their bottoms, and their secret thoughts and designs are revealed through examining their excrement:

‘Because Men are never so Serious, Thoughtful, and Intent, as when they are at Stool, which he found by frequent Experiment: For in such Conjunctures, when he used merely as a Trial, to consider what was the best way of murdering the King, his Ordure would have a Tincture of Green; but quite different when he thought only of raising an Insurrection or burning the Metropolis’.

Making their citizens less conscious, ensuring that they think the right thoughts, worrisome notions for any philosopher, you may suppose, and yet at the time Orwell was writing ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ such disquieting tendencies had been surfacing within philosophy itself. Gilbert Ryle, (1900–1976), though critical of behaviourism of the most radical kind, nonetheless, in elucidating the concept of mind, sought to deny the existence of consciousness altogether; no mental processes are ever distinct from observable behaviour, he thought:

‘No one who is uncommitted to a philosophical theory ever tries to vindicate any of his assertions of fact by saying that he found it out ‘from consciousness’, or ‘as a direct deliverance of consciousness’, or ‘from immediate awareness’. He will back up some of his assertions of fact by saying that he himself sees, hears, feels, smells or tastes so and so ; he will back up other such statements, somewhat more tentatively, by saying that he remembers seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling or tasting it. But if asked whether he really knows, believes, infers, fears, remembers or smells something, he never replies ‘Oh yes, certainly I do, for I am conscious and even vividly conscious of doing so’. Yet just such a reply should, according to the doctrine, be his final appeal’.

And concerning the manipulation of language to ensure that a philosopher will think the right thoughts, that was certainly the aspiration of logical positivism. Rudolph Carnap, (1891–1970), author of ‘Overcoming of Metaphysics through Logical Translation of Language’, argued that philosophy should restrict itself to the logical analysis of meaningful language, and meaningful language is either the language of logic and mathematics, (the sentences of which are analytic), or the language of science, (the sentences of which are synthetic and empirically verifiable). Metaphysics (and ethics too, for that matter), is not a legitimate part of philosophy, for its language is meaningless. Philosophy is, in fact, to be replaced by logical syntax, that is, the study of the manipulation of signs in accordance with the rules of language.

‘Metaphysicians are musicians without musical ability’, said Carnap, in his essay ‘The Elimination of Metaphysics’.

Thinking on metaphysics is thus to engage in crimethink; language must be purged of metaphysical statements, for they are meaningless. So, during seminars held by the Vienna Circle, presided over by Carnap and philosophers of similar ilk, the hostility towards metaphysics would at times become so intense that if a participant appeared to wander into its empty phrases, or its violation of logical syntax, he would be silenced by others shouting out ‘Metaphysics!’ or, eventually, simply ‘M!’ And logical positivism was subsequently to emerge in Anglo-American philosophy as an uncompromising impetus towards the purification and delimiting of language; which, to my dismay, is still there. I have encountered it often enough, in my own experiences of British university philosophy departments; (whether European philosophy departments are so authoritarian, I do not know).

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s, (1884–1937) novel ‘We’, (first published in 1924), describes an authoritarian One State, governed by the Benefactor, (as remote as Big Brother), and of which, perhaps, Carnap would approve; for, as with Swift’s Laputa, the logic of science and mathematics are venerated; it governs the lives of its citizens; (unlike Orwell’s Oceania, in which the Party, in love with power for its own sake, will require its members to deny that two and two make four if the Party were to announce that two and two make five). Zamyatin’s One State is set in the twenty-sixth century, and all its citizens have so absolutely lost their individuality that they wear uniforms and are known only by their numbers. (The protagonist, who, like Orwell’s Winston Smith, keeps a journal, is known only as D-503).

Individuality, and the unpredictability that results from it, has to be dealt with, by authoritarian states, in one way or another. One of the professors of Swift’s Academy of Projectors proposed to eradicate individuality altogether by severing part of the brain of one man and grafting it on to the head of another:

‘When Parties in a State are violent, he offered a wonderful Contrivance to reconcile them. The Method is this. You take an Hundred Leaders of each Party, you dispose them into Couples of such whose heads are nearest of size; then let two nice Operators saw off the Occiput of each Couple at the same time, in such a manner that the Brain may be equally divided. Let the Occiput thus cut off be interchanged, applying each to the head of his opposite Party-man. It seems indeed to be a Work that requireth some exactness, but the Professor assured us, that if it were dexterously performed, the Cure would be infallible. For he argued thus, that the two half Brains being left to debate the Matter between themselves within the space of one Skull, would soon come to a good Understanding, and produce that Moderation as well as Regularity of thinking, so much to be wished for in the Heads of those, who imagine they come into the World only to watch and govern its Motion; And, as to the difference of Brains in Quantity or Quality, among those who are Directors in Faction; the Doctors assured us from his own knowledge, that it was a perfect Trifle’.

(In Oceania, of course, anyone giving an indication of being too much of a smartarse is simply vaporized).

One State is run strictly in accordance with the laws of logic and reason; the behaviour of the individual is scientifically managed and regulated by formulas and equations. The citizens perform regular ‘Taylor exercises’; (Frederick Winslow Taylor, (1856–1915), a mechanical engineer who looked to advance industrial efficiency). Like the citizens of Oceania, those of One State are under constant surveillance by the State police, the Guardians; though not through telescreens, but by living in glass houses, in the manner of Jeremy Bentham’s, (1748–1832), panopticon, (an institutional building designed for the purpose of allowing all its inmates to be observed by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell if they are being watched or not, thus controlling their own behaviour on the supposition that they are under continuous observation).

Eventually, D-503 is subjected to the ‘Great Operation’, as are all citizens, to forestall possible riots. The intention is to psycho-surgically transform them into a state of mechanical ‘reliability’, in order that they may function as ‘tractors in human form’. For the operation targets a part of the brain to remove their imagination and emotions:


For henceforth you are perfect! Up to this day your own offspring, your various mechanisms, were of greater perfection than ourselves.


Every spark of a dynamo is a spark of purest reason; every thrust of a piston is an immaculate syllogism. But then, does not the same inerrable reason dwell within you as well?



Did you ever see a wool-gathering, senselessly dreamy smile spread over the physiognomy of a pump cylinder while it was working? Did you ever hear any cranes tossing restlessly in bed and sighing of nights, during the hours appointed for rest?



Fantasy is a worm whose boring leaves black furrows on your brow. Fantasy is a fever which drives you on to further and further flight, even though this further point may begin where happiness ends. Fantasy is the last barricade on the road to happiness’.

So what has happened to free will, that central concern of political philosophy? Given that the state has authority to regulate a person’s behaviour, this is to suggest that a person’s actions ought to be regulated thus; which is to say that the person ought to act in such and such a manner. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), in fact, defined the will in terms of an equivalency with freedom: ‘… the will is free, so that freedom constitutes its substance and destiny’. Winston Smith and D-503 are both denied their destiny, and deprived of their personhood, for a person is free if, and only if, he or she is independent and self-determining. Freedom is not a given attribute, it is a destiny for the will to achieve.

Social and political control is never eliminated, of course, but a modern state ought to allow for subjective freedom, that is, an expression of the rationality that lies at the heart of us all, (and is therefore not something other); and this is not the kind rationality as conceived by the Laputans, or the One State, but the rationality that Hegel refers to as ‘ethical life’, (and recall that Carnap thought of ethical statements to be, not rational or irrational, but meaningless). ‘Hegel was the first to state correctly the relation between freedom and necessity’, said Friedrich Engels, (1820–1895), ‘To him, freedom is the insight into necessity’.

Freedom internalizes rather than undermines necessity; and the necessity by which we are determined by another thing can achieve such an intensity that there is no distinction between ourselves and that thing; our identity under such a government is then differentiated enough to accommodate those elements that have been excluded in the solutions to a state that is to be founded on rational principles; that is, the capacity to reflect critically, and to pursue self-interest. Freedom resides in the identity of oneself with something other, and this other loses much of its otherness by our practical activities upon it, as we reform our society.

But most important of all, the other also loses its otherness through our theoretical activities, our empirical and philosophical studies of society. This is why Carnap’s downgrading of philosophy is so disastrous. For as we read Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, Swift’s ‘Gulliver Travels’, Zamyatin’s ‘We’, (and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, which I was going to include in this discussion, but my article is already too long), we can see that they embody universal thoughts, which political philosophy serves to clarify further. Theorizing about society is to not only discover, but to augment its inherent compatibility to ourselves; and such processes occur over history, which for Hegel is the realization of freedom. Self-consciousness, in seeing the likeness and compatibility of the other to oneself, enriches it’s own self-conception; something denied to those living under authoritarian rule; though they may be conscious, their self-consciousness, their conception of themselves, is impoverished

In Zamyatin’s ‘We’, D-503 embarks on an illicit love affair with E-330. We know she is a rebel, because of her illegal activities, by the laws of One State; smoking, drinking, and shamelessly flirting with D-503 rather than applying for an impersonal sex visit according to the strict regulations governing sexual activity. But once D-503 becomes aware that she is stirring up a revolution, this, to him, is just preposterous. There can only be one revolution, and it has occurred already:

‘Dear man, you’re a mathematician’ — her eyebrows were a mocking acute triangle. ‘Even more — you’re a philosopher, because of your mathematics. Well, then: name the ultimate number for me’.

‘What do you mean? I … I don’t understand … what ultimate number?’

‘Why, the ultimate, the supreme, the greatest number of all’.

‘Come, E-330, that’s preposterous. Since the number of numbers is infinite, what number would you want to be the ultimate one?’.

‘Well, and what revolution would you want to be the ultimate one? There is no ultimate revolution — revolutions are infinite in number. The ultimate revolution — that’s for children. Infinity scares children, yet it is necessary for children to sleep at nights — ‘

‘But what sense — just what sense is there in all this, for Benefactor’s sake! What’s the sense, since everybody is already happy?’

‘Let’s suppose … very well, let’s say that is to. But what comes next?’

‘That is funny! An utterly childish question. You tell a story to children, all of it, to the very end, but just the same they will inevitably ask, ‘But what comes next? But why?’’.

‘Children are the only venturesome philosophers. And venturesome philosophers are, inevitably, children. And that’s what we must always ask, precisely like children, ‘But what comes next?’’

Indeed, E-330 here gets to the heart of the matter. Just as there can be no highest number, there can be no final revolution. As venturesome philosophers, like children we should always ask: But what comes next?



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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.