“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” This famous line, spoken by O’Brien to the battered Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984, embodies the fear so many felt in the aftermath of Hitler and Stalin. It was a fear born of terror; the world had never before seen anything quite like the dictatorships in Berlin and Moscow. As a work of political fiction, 1984 was a warning, and it is as a warning that it retains its force. It imagined a world of total domination, a political no exit in which history stops.
Political ideas in the form of a novel are one thing, a theoretical argument purporting to explain political realities is another. The assumption that the Soviet Union would not, in principle could not, change lay behind the shrill claims of cold warriors, in the 1950s as in the 1980s. Yet having insisted that the USSR was unchangeable, conservatives—old and neo —now want credit for the new winds blowing from the Kremlin. These winds are, we’re supposed to believe, the result of the “no-nonsense” posture of the Reagan administration. They of the right understood the Russians. They, with their “hard-boiled” analyses, grasped the true nature of totalitarianism....
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