Revisionism and the Historical Blackout - Henry Elmer Barnes

Notes on 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' Conceptions of History

In that portion of his book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, dealing with the ideology of the totalitarian system into which the world is now slipping, Orwell describes the conceptions of history and the attitude toward the past which dominate that regime. It is obvious that these require the complete obliteration of accurate historical writingp—the elimination of the very conception of any truthful history. To adopt even an historical attitude or perspective is seditious and not to be tolerated. This is the social system and intellectual pattern toward which our interventionist and global-crusading historians are rapidly, heedlessly, and recklessly driving us. Orwell thus sets forth the ideas that dominate the attitude toward history in "Nineteen Eighty-Four" society:

". . . orthodoxy in the full sense demands a control over one's own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body. . . . 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."

"The alteration of the past is necessary for two reasons, one of which is subsidiary and, so to speak, precautionary. The subsidiary reason is that the Party member, like the proletarian, tolerates present-day conditions partly because he has no standards of comparison. He must be cut off from the past, just as he must be cut off from foreign countries, because it is necessary for him to believe that he is better off than his ancestors and that the average level of material comfort is constantly rising.

"But by far the more important reason for the readjustment of the past is the need to safeguard the infallibility of the Party. It is not merely that speeches, statistics, and records of every kind must be constantly brought up to date in order to show that the predictions of the Party were in all cases right. It is also that no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one's mind, or even one's policy, is a confession of weakness. If, for example, Eurasia or Eastasia (whichever it may be) is the enemy today, then that country must always have been the enemy. And if the facts say otherwise, then the facts must be altered. Thus history is continuously rewritten. This day-to-day falsification of the past, carried out by the Ministry of Truth, is as necessary to the stability of the regime as the work of repression and espionage carried out by the Ministry of Love.

"The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc [English Socialism, as fully developed in the "Nineteen Eighty-Four" regime]. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it. It also follows that though the past is alterable, it never has been altered in any specific instance. For when it has been recreated in whatever shape is needed at the moment, then this new version is the past, and no different past can ever have existed. This holds good even when, as often happens, the same event has to be altered out of recognition several times in the course of a year. At all times the Party is in possession of absolute truth, and clearly the absolute can never have been different from what it is now. It will be seen that the control of the past depends above all on the training of memory. To make sure that all records agree with the orthodoxy of the moment is merely a mechanical act. But it is also necessary to remember that events happened in the desired manner. And if it is necessary to rearrange one's memories or to tamper with written records, then it is necessary to forget that one has done so. . . ."

How these ideals and principles in dealing with the past were applied in the actual practices of the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four is thus portrayed by Orwell:

". . . This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound tracks, cartoons, photographs—to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record.

"All history was palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place. The largest section of the Records Department, far larger than the one in which Winston worked, consisted simply of persons whose duty it was to track down and collect all copies of books, newspapers, and other documents which had been superseded and were due for destruction. A number of the Times which might, because of changes in political alignment, or mistaken prophecies uttered by Big Brother, have been rewritten a dozen times still stood on the files bearing the original date, and no other copy existed to contradict it. Books, also, were recalled and rewritten again and again, and were invariably reissued without any admission that any alteration had been made. . . "

Such are the "historical" ideals and practices of the "Nineteen Eighty-Four" regime for which our court historians are preparing us. In another portion of his book Orwell shows how well they worked out in obliterating all memory of the past. At the risk of his life, Winston Smith, the central character in the book, decided to interview an aged man in the effort to find out what the actual conditions of life had been before the "Revolution" which instituted the "Nineteen Eighty-Four" era. After prolonged questioning of the old gentleman it became apparent to Winston that this was futile. Years of subjection to totalitarian propaganda, regimentation, and thought control had obliterated all capacity to remember the general patterns of life in the earlier and happier days. All that could be recalled were trivial snatches of petty personal experiences. The past, as a social and cultural reality had disappeared forever:

"Winston sat back against the window sill. It was no use going on. . . . Within twenty years at the most, he reflected, the huge and simple question, "Was life better before the Revolution than it is now?" would have ceased once and for all to be answerable. But in effect it was unanswerable even now, since the few scattered survivors from the ancient world were incapable of comparing one age with another. They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sisters face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago; but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones. And when memory failed and written records were falsified—when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested."

Many will contend that nothing like this could happen in the United States, but the fact is that the process is well under way. Much of the material in the preceding pages of this chapter shows how it is being promoted. We have noted that there is already a veritable army of paid official historians assigned to write current history as the administration wishes it to be written, to say nothing of the many historians who voluntarily falsify the historical record, especially that of the last quarter of a century. The destruction and hiding of vital documents has already begun.

The Army and Navy put great pressure upon witnesses to have them change their former testimony when appearing before the congressional committee investigating Pearl Harbor. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson sent Colonel Henry C. Clausen on a 55,000 mile junket to induce officers to distort or recant the evidence they had given previously on the Pearl Harbor tragedy. The vital "East Wind, Rain" message and other incriminating documents were removed from official files and presumably destroyed. The secret and all-important Roosevelt-Churchill exchanges, transcribed by Tyler Kent, have been hidden away and possibly destroyed. Legislation has been passed which would make it illegal to divulge their contents, even if the full record could be found. Once basic integrity is abandoned, there are no lengths to which falsification cannot easily and quickly proceed as the occasion and political expediency may demand. There is already a marked trend toward the rewriting of textbooks in the field of history, particularly with respect to the alteration of their treatment of the causes of the first World War and the entrance of the United States therein. Since few of the textbooks have told the truth about the events leading to the second World War and Pearl Harbor, there has been no need to alter this material.