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A Mind’s Eye View of 1984

Orwell understood the limits of mind control

Courtesy of Netflix

The original inspiration for George Orwell’s novel 1984 lay in his experiences as a journalist and soldier in Spain from 1936 to 1937, during the height of the battle to save the Spanish Republic from General Franco’s fascist insurrection. Orwell discovered that the Soviet Union, while posing as a defender of the republic and a liberator of the Spanish people, was actually working to undermine the republic and to crush the social revolution then under way.

It was the enormous discrepancy between the illusion and the reality of Soviet behavior in Spain, and the Soviets’ almost complete success in obscuring their real role in that country through their Ministry of Propaganda, that caught Orwell’s attention. The experience planted in his mind the seed that was later to germinate into 1984.

In 1984, the Soviets’ Ministry of Propaganda in Spain became the Ministry of Truth in the fictional state of Oceania; the ministry’s function, contrary to its title, is to propagate lies. Orwell was one of the first writers to identify, among the twentieth century’s many novel horrors, the emergence of the horror that has come to be called “mind control.” He was also one of the first, if not the first, to identify correctly the essential technique for accomplishing this horror: the psychosocial isolation of the individual and the restriction of his independent access to information.

In a pioneering 1961 study called Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, Yale psychologist Robert Lifton in effect rewrote Orwell’s 1984 in academic, empirical terms. “The most basic feature of the thought-reform environment, the psychological current upon which all else depends, is the control of human communication,” Lifton concludes. “Through this milieu control the totalist environment seeks to establish domain over not only the individual’s communication with the outside (all that he sees and hears, reads and writes, experiences and expresses), but also— in its penetration of his inner life—over what we may speak of as his communication with himself.”

Lifton’s seminal study of mind control in Communist China has since become the primary theoretical source for understanding another new horror: the proliferation of contemporary cults like Jim Jones’s People’s Temple, the Reverend Moon’s Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, and other similar groups.

According to scholars, these organizations manage to achieve the same degree of totalistic control over their followers that Marxist dictatorships sometimes do. They do so, usually while purporting to be religious groups, by using parallel and equally sophisticated techniques of mental manipulation.

Their brainwashing process, according to students of the matter, severs individuals’ connections to outside supports like family and friends. Simultaneously, the ordeal ruptures their inner sense of identity and self-reliance, making them, finally, totally emotionally helpless and dependent on the group’s particular charismatic Big Brother.

Encouragingly, the bleak and utterly pessimistic and cynical vision of Orwell’s 1984 has not, so far, been fulfilled, except for brief periods of time in relatively short-lived circumstances. In both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, in recent years, we have seen the emergence of open and partially tolerated political and social dissidence. A majority of mankind at this moment lives under the oppression of authoritarian regimes of the left or the right, but not under the kind of totalistic and hermetic mind control feared by Orwell.

As for cults, it has been proven time and time again that these totalitarian facsimiles, because they do not have the military or police power to keep their members in check forever, are transient in nature. We may see, in the real year of 1984, the cataclysmic collapse of a nefarious cult here in Oregon. The modern technology of mind control, it appears, is effective in quelling the human drive for freedom—but only temporarily.

Orwell, actually, understood this perfectly well, for he wrote, in a passage toward the end of 1984: “They could not alter your feelings; for that matter, you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything you had ever done or said or thought; but the human heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.”

Oregon Magazine, February 1984

This article was adapted from The Rajneesh Chronicles, published by Tin House Books.