A mediocre essay on A Clockwork Orange, 1984, and Absolute Beginners…

To what extent do twentieth-century writers view the history of the century as a fundamental struggle between socialism and capitalism?

The ‘struggle’ between socialism and capitalism, at least within a British historical perspective, is one based on the pursuit of power. The fight between socialism and capitalism as definitive ‘sides’ is fundamentally flawed; both are labour-centric; both express wealth as the centre of the economy. They are also not directly opposable concepts, as socialism is a political standing, while capitalism is, primarily, an economic strategy. However, capitalism can perhaps be seen as primarily identifiable with conservatism when used in its most extreme form through manipulation of culture by small groups of high-profiting companies or individuals. What I seek to examine is whether the ‘struggle’ between socialism and capitalism is actually the characterising feature of twentieth century British writing. For our purposes I will be focusing on George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners (1959), and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962), and I will investigate these texts using linguistic analysis to suggest that the ‘struggle’ that underlies them all is one of power, a power defined by language itself.  

Orwell’s dystopian novel came four years post World War Two. His disillusionment with authoritarian Communism came in his employment by the Soviets during his three-year dedication to their cause throughout the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), proceeded by the battle against fascism executed by a Conservative government fuelled by propaganda (1939-45). Orwell became disheartened by both forms of totalitarian leadership and tormented with a heavy anxiety for what would proceed them. The novel offers us a solipsistic society governed by the ‘Party’, a place where the rationale and opinion of its leadership are so prolific that they are entire and thus fact. Outside thought or action are not only prohibited, but not even appealing to the proletariat, whose happiness and life are controlled to the extent of willing submission. One ‘Truth’ is permitted: that of the Party. In Orwell’s exposure to British wartime propaganda through his role in the BBC’s Eastern Service, governed by the Ministry of Information, he administered propagandist radio broadcasts to India, and realised that propaganda was a way to avoid deviations in the thoughts of the citizen and ensure compliance. The ultimate aim of the British was a victory defined by their coercion of the people to fight on a side that itself killed millions of innocents under the guise of anti-fascism, yet their propaganda proclaimed an unwavering patriotism that refuted any criticism of its aims, akin, one might suggest, to their fascist counterparts.

The manipulation of language by the British government is reflected in that of the Party in 1984, whose control lies in their understanding of language as the ultimate weapon to mould an alternate reality for listeners, much like the effect of the suspension of disbelief one falls into when reading a work of fiction. Language becomes unquestioned because it is a contextual reality. Using their various tools of propaganda, the Party creates a reality of contradictions that Orwell uses to criticise capitalism and extreme forms of socialism, such as Stalinism (1922-1953), placing the novel’s allegory somewhere removed from the extremes displayed in the novel, and towards Orwell’s appraisal of democratic socialism.

‘DOUBLETHINK’, the infamous compound noun that characterises 1984, is the ‘power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them’[1], and can be read as the legacy of consumer capitalism. As in an advert, which might deploy a non-materialist narrative in order to (contradictorily) promote material as a way to achieve non-material freedom, ‘DOUBLETHINK’ holds the proletariat of its world through ‘conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty’[2] . Thus ‘Whatever was true now [at least, true of the Party] was true from everlasting to everlasting’[3]. Through restriction of language in the form of ‘Newspeak’, the Party can execute ‘Reality control’[4], an ‘unending series of victories over [one’s] own memory’[5], and, historically, ‘if all records hold the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth’[6]. Orwell refers to this sense of reality shaped by a distorted use of language in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946) which gives a historic perspective on his ironic use of manipulated discourse in the novel; with reference to ‘the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, [and] the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan’[7], Orwell states that such atrocities

‘can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.’[8]

Orwell envisioned ‘Newspeak’ as an inheritor of the pro-war and pro-totalitarian language he identified in his work in both the Second World War and Spanish Civil War, a signifier of ‘the end of language and its replacement by a mechanical, depersonalized means of communication’[9], and creates a language defined by simple independent clauses based around abstract nouns which are used to create paradox. Hence, ‘DOUBLETHINK’ is born:

                                                                     WAR IS PEACE

                                                               FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

                                                            IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH[10]

While the concept of ‘DOUBLETHINK’ is more easily identifiable within a capitalist concept, as keeping the proles ‘satisfied’, aspects of the use of euphemism, hyperbole, and rhetoric are identifiable within all forms of dictatorial rule; O’Brien’s torture of Winston in Part III of the novel epitomises the features of autocracy that Orwell was so afraid of. O’Brien’s speech embodies the power of ‘DOUBLETHINK’: ‘When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will’[11]; the use of oxymoron in the contradictory concepts of the verb ‘surrender’ juxtaposed to the abstract noun-phrase ‘free will’ create a sentence that, despite its paradox, still makes sense. The illogicity of the concepts displayed here are presented completely logically – this is the power of language for the Party, for this is how they ‘control all records, and…control all memories’[12], by creating a language that has no logic that can pierce through it, for it is built on reason yet is completely unreasoned.

The novel advocates the need and possibility of a socialist uprising of the most downtrodden of Winston’s society – ‘if there was hope, it lay in the proles. You had to cling on to that’[13] – which resonates with anti-conservatist sentiment. However, the features of extremism of the Party themselves are innately socialist, as a government with ultimate power, as opposed to capitalism’s, and conservativism’s, private industry-led society. Orwell is recounting his fear of autocratic rule in any political context through the use of language, controlled knowledge, and restricted information, characteristics of both wars he took part in. In 1984, the abuse of power through language is a sincere fear of what any kind of undemocratic rule could become when power fell through the hands of the masses, and it is this that Orwell identifies as the crucial issue during the century. Perhaps, in writing the novel, Orwell envisioned that by ‘making his readers aware of what the future might hold for them, he could perhaps prevent it from happening.’[14]

Absolute Beginners employs a different approach to the power of language. Unlike Orwell’s text, the world around this narrator is not oppressive, and the context of the world and how it came to be is irrelevant. The narrator thrives in a world where he can live life to its fullest; the narrative technique creates a Bildungsroman from his perspective that allows us to experience the changes that he witnesses within himself, and in his evolving society. His experiences ask the question: how does one ‘come of age’ in the cultural uncertainty of the post-war world, when the war-fixation is no longer the prominent preoccupation?

The narrator is unnamed, an eighteen-year-old revelling in the depths of capitalist opportunity and newfound freedom of the fifties. The decade itself ‘saw the invention and reification of the teenager as a distinct target group for the marketing of specific consumer products’[15], and with the youth no longer looking towards their future in the context of warfare they became increasingly receptive to the consumerist and capitalist post-war world of unfounded expressive and monetary possibilities. Mass immigration during the period brought new forms of jazz to an already thriving jazz scene post World War. The domestic musician’s union ban on allowing American artists come to the UK to perform was loosened, bringing the British into a new era of exposure to varieties of world music. Multiple Jazz Clubs were also established during this period. The flourishing ‘bebop’, dance hall, subcultures, and spiritual abandon brought about by monetary freedom under capitalism revitalised the sense of community in youth culture; no longer were they constrained by parents, jobs and schooling – money bought freedom, and the young could be carefree. As Hammond suggests, the jazz club has become ‘a utopian space in which young people can resist the ideological failure of hegemonic culture, not least its hierarchies, prejudices and inequalities.’[16] McInnes’ protagonist basks in this utopian freedom. His vision, unlike the starkly realist outlook of Winston, sees even the landscape as full of decadent promise, bringing to mind some consumerist dystopia akin to the pleasure-driven climate of Huxley’s Brave New World:

‘twisting slowly on your bar stool from the east to south, like Cinerama, you can see clean new concrete cloud-kissers, rising up like felixes from the Olde Englishe squares, and then those gorgeous parks, with trees like classical French salads, and then again the port life down the Thames, that glorious river…and then, before you know it, you’re back again round a full circle in front of your iced coffee cup.’[17]

The use of the proper noun ‘Cinerama’ shows the proliferation of popular forms of entertainment born of capitalism and trademarking that boomed in the 50s – Cinerama was the original widescreen method of cinema that was developed to counteract the television industry to win the battle over the leisure time of the masses, and here the narrator uses this term to describe his own perspective. The landscape has been incomprehensibly shaped by the power of capitalism. The alliterative ‘concrete cloud-kissers’ anthropomorphises the tower blocks building up to house a growing population, along with the ‘trees like classical French salads’, suggesting the completely human-centric experience of the narrator – nature succumbs to a perspective of the pastoral as innately human-servile. The novel’s trajectory is almost entirely controlled by the narrator, up until the race riots at the end. The narrator lives in a world where his individualism is encouraged and profited on. Yet, despite this depiction of a teenager relishing in their individual wealth and prosperity, the narrator’s whole persona is built on his connection and community with other ‘teenagers’. He believes in the thriving youth he is surrounded by as a force for change, much like Orwell’s own ‘proles’:

‘youth has power, a kind of divine power straights from mother nature…I sometimes feel that if only they knew this fact, this very simple fact, namely how powerful they really are, then they could rise up overnight and enslave the old taxpayers, the whole damn lot of them’[18]

The narrator falls into a sort of paradox here similar to ‘DOUBLETHINK’. He proclaims the natural deity of youth as entitling them to ‘power’ as a socialist entity against the capitalist society he exists in, yet this ‘power’ is one that has developed in the domination of the advertising and entertainment industry by the image of ‘youth’ as the ultimately desirable. The ‘power’ that the narrator alludes to has been created by capitalism. Furthermore, the ‘power’ he seeks is driven by a teen angst against the power of the enduring old, the bankers and the politicians. And, much like Winston, his vision for a reformed society is driven to the ground by the powers who stand against an equal humanity; in his case, the ‘Teddy Boy’ fascists and conservatist prejudice of the 1950s. The novel directly references the Notting Hill Race Riots of 1958, a series of racist attacks on non-white Londoners that was encouraged by far-right political parties, including the White Defense League. The euphemistic language with which the incidents prior to the London riots are described shows the power of the connotative language of journalism in its seemingly innocuous encouragement of racist behaviour and attitudes:

‘In their own setting, coloured folk were no doubt admirable citizens, according to the standards that prevailed there…it was not unknown for coloured landlords to evict white tenants – often old-age pensioners – by making their lives impossible…English people were renowned for their decent and orderly behaviour. But not so the immigrants…’[19]

The ‘Mrs Dale Daily’ uses neutral, praising language towards immigrants, including the use of the noun ‘folk’, suggesting companionability, along with the pre-modifying adjective ‘admirable’, positive lexis which is immediately quashed in their relation to their modifying clauses, about the coloured man as belonging to an ‘other’: in ‘their own setting’, over ‘there’ – ‘over being’ being, namely, not Britain. The evasive use of lexis in the negative verb phrases ‘no doubt’ and ‘not unknown’ are ways for this right-wing journalese to allude to problems perceived as having ‘coloured’ causes, while remaining linguistically neutral. The power of this newspaper as having the capability to produce, or at least encourage, race riots in London exemplifies the persuasive power of language. The empathy felt by the narrator and the ‘power’ of his community is crushed by the interests of the white man as the ultimate inheritor of power. Patriotism, the collapse of the British Empire after 1945, and the two-quarter recession in 1956 that continued to varying degrees into the 60s and 70s are intrinsically linked to the fears in capitalist enterprise of change, a change defined by shifting power roles and the economic liberation of a people capable of questioning and demanding change to the current systems; the youth and minority groups, people who dance together, drink together, and sleep together, mostly indifferent of race or sexuality. The narrator, set in fervour against the injustice he becomes enlightened to – ‘the English race has spread itself all over the damn world…Yet when a few hundred thousand come and settle among our fifty millions, we just can’t take it’[20] – ends the novel welcoming immigrants into the country from a plane, using his individual ability within a capitalist society to embrace change as opposed to fearing it, setting a socialist precedent in the conclusion of the text.

Burgess’ Clockwork Orange approaches twentieth century Britain as being defined by the study of individualism as integral to survival within society: ‘In maintaining his individual self despite government efforts to erase it, Alex defends the raw human material that Burgess sees as necessary for [the] survival [of fiction]’[21]. Burgess defines the sense of ‘self’ that capitalism is built on as the means for survival in a changing world, and any threat towards the capability of the individual to exercise their sense of self as a threat to humanity itself. Here, the struggle is that of free will, and of the ability of autocracy to supress or alter that will if it doesn’t align with its perceptions of what it should entail. And though that free will is presented here in the form of a debauched and ‘evil’ protagonist, the fact still remains: should any reigning power be able to control the human mind? Is the ability to choose our defining characteristic? Ultimately, Alex’ violent actions lead to those in authority having the cause to implement totalitarianism. Alex, who loudly proclaims ‘what I do I do because I like what I do’[22], who performs his ‘beautiful’ crimes in order to establish his freedom from government: ‘the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self’[23], has his free will martyred for the cause of the State, who turn him into a ‘true Christian’[24], fabricated good-will formed of the incapability to be or think violently for fear of pain. And it is rejoiced before an audience, like King Kong in 1930s New York, to the cry of ‘Reclamation…Joy before the Angels of God’[25]. This struggle is a struggle of the powers of the citizen to higher power, and it is defined by language, an experimental language that becomes ‘the medium through which we vicariously interact with the fictitious world as Alex’s language-as-consciousness moves through it’[26].

Contextually, the tension of The Cold War playing out between global powers at the same time of the novel’s release in 1962 was intensifying; The Cuban Missile Crisis played out within the year, and the US were increasing their participation in the Vietnam War. Anti-Soviet and anti-Communist propaganda was rife, all with the aim of manipulating populations into compliance with the State(s). Free will was willingly put on hold for the preservation of safety, war crimes accepted and praised for their ‘keeping of the peace’. This so-called ‘peace-keeping’ comes into play most prominently in Burgess’ recounting of Alex’ fate.

The use of ‘Nadsat’[27], Burgess’ proto-Russian dialect elevates the power struggle identifiable in the novel. While regular, ‘civil’ citizens, and those in authority speak a recognisable English, Alex and his ‘droogs’ employ a Russio-English slang to establish their own power as individuals against the State. Thus, the State is unable to use atypical spoken or written discourse to indoctrinate Alex, and as with Winston in 1984, the State turns to torture, though in this case the languages used are those of image and music, the things most beautiful and life-giving to our protagonist:

‘Now what I fancied first tonight was this new violin concerto….so I slid it from where it was neatly filed and switched on and waited….Then brothers, it came. Oh bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay all nagoy to the ceiling…rot open in bliss, slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh, it was gorgeosity made flesh…As I slooshied, my glazzies tight shut…I knew such lovely pictures…vecks and ptitsas…lying on the ground screaming for mercy…devotchkas ripped and screeching against walls and I plunged like a schlaga into them, and indeed when the music…rose to the top of its biggest highest tower…I broke and spattered and cried aaaaaaah with the bliss of it.’[28]

Alex’ crimes, coupled with the classical music he devoutly listens to, are a means for his own sexual gratification. The use of sibilance in ‘bliss, slooshying’, ‘sluice’ and ‘sounds’ create Alex’ sadistic scenes of pleasure by encapsulating a sound of wetness and juice (sluice) comparable to the blood, semen and other excretions prevalent in his acts of extreme violence. Alex’ language, fraught with brutal affricates (‘devotchkas’), fricatives (‘slooshying’, ‘vecks’, ‘schlaga’), and plosives (‘ptitsas’) create a sense of brutality within the language itself. This precise meld of brutality envisioned with classical music is recreated by the State in Alex’ torture, together with nausea-inducing injections to create a repulsion in him toward both.

Alex’ own language is used as a device to mould him into compliance with the State, like Winston’s eventual declaration of submission post-torture. The droogs’ language of opposition establishes them as the counter-culture of conventional society, placing them, with Absolute Beginners’ gays, prostitutes and coloureds, and 1984’s socialist Winston, as the ‘undesirables’ of society. A Clockwork Orange ‘aptly demonstrates how politico-economic structures objectify human beings’[29] to manipulate society into a willingly obedient entity, breaking down human connection and pleasures into fear and submission, all for the common good of a select, powerful few, negating the concepts of humanity and choice for an image of peace and prosperity. To me, it seems these twentieth century writers, more than the struggle between socialism and capitalism, are writing in warning of the possibilities of power, how power can be exercised and forced in various forms, and how our own language can be used as the greatest tool for acquiring such power.


Bentley, Nick ‘The Young Ones: A reassessment of the British New Left’s representation of 1950s youth subcultures’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, First Published February 1, 2005, https://doi-org.ezproxy.brighton.ac.uk/10.1177/1367549405049492

Hammond, Andrew, ‘Interrogating Utopia: On Colin MacInnes’ ‘Absolute Beginners’’, McFarland, 2018

Lang, Berel, ‘1984: Newspeak, Technology, and The Death of Language’, Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 72, no. 1, 1989, pp. 166, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41178472, Accessed 13/05/20

MacInnes, Colin, ‘Absolute Beginners’, Alison & Busby, London, 2001

McQueen, Sean, ‘Adapting to language: Anthony Burgess’ and Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”’, Science Fiction Film and Television, Volume 5, Issue 2, Autumn 2012, p. 228, Liverpool, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.brighton.ac.uk/docview/1151265415?accountid=9727, Accessed 12/05/20

Orwell, George, ‘1984’, Penguin Books, London, 1987

Orwell, George, ‘Politics and the English Language’, Penguin Books, London, 2013

Sumner, Charles, ‘Humanist Drama in a Clockwork Orange’, Source: The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 42, Literature of the 1950s and 1960s (2012), pp. 49-63 Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5699/yearenglstud.42.2012.0049, Accessed 11/01/20

[1] George Orwell, ‘1984’, Penguin Books, London, 1987, p. 223

[2] ibidem

[3] George Orwell, ‘1984’, Penguin Books, London, 1987, p. 37

[4] ibidem

[5] ibidem

[6] ibidem

[7] George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’, Penguin Books, London, 2013, p. 10

[8] ibidem

[9] Berel Lang, ‘1984: Newspeak, Technology, and The Death of Language’, Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 72, no. 1, 1989, pp. 169, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41178472. Accessed 16 May 2020

[10] George Orwell, ‘1984’, Penguin Books, London, 1987, p. 6

[11] Ibidem, p. 267

[12] Ibidem, p. 260

[13] Ibidem, p. 89

[14] Berel Lang, ‘1984: Newspeak, Technology, and The Death of Language’, Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 72, no. 1, 1989, pp. 166, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41178472. Accessed 13/05/20

[15] Nick Bentley, ‘The Young Ones: A reassessment of the British New Left’s representation of 1950s youth subcultures’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, First Published February 1, 2005, https://doi-org.ezproxy.brighton.ac.uk/10.1177/1367549405049492, p. 65

[16] Andrew Hammond, ‘Interrogating Utopia: On Colin MacInnes’ ‘Absolute Beginners’’, McFarland, 2018, p. 75

[17] Colin MacInnes, ‘Absolute Beginners’, Alison & Busby, London, 2001, p. 11

[18] Ibidem, p. 14

[19] Ibidem, p. 169

[20] Ibidem, p. 173

[21] Charles Sumner, ‘Humanist Drama in a Clockwork Orange’, Source: The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 42, Literature of the 1950s and 1960s (2012), pp. 49-63 Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5699/yearenglstud.42.2012.0049

[22] Anthony Burgess, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1962, p. 38

[23] Ibidem, p. 38

[24] Ibidem, p. 105

[25] Ibidem, p. 106

[26] Sean McQueen, ‘Adapting to language: Anthony Burgess’ and Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”’, Science Fiction Film and Television, Volume 5, Issue 2, Autumn 2012, p. 228, Liverpool, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.brighton.ac.uk/docview/1151265415?accountid=9727, Accessed 12/05/20

[27] Slang Russian for teenager

[28] Anthony Burgess, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1962, p. 33-34

[29] Charles Sumner, ‘Humanist Drama in a Clockwork Orange’, Source: The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 42, Literature of the 1950s and 1960s (2012), pp. 49-63 Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5699/yearenglstud.42.2012.0049, Accessed 11/01/20