Orwell, '1984' and the elections

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AS this election year reaches its calendar end, the final moment has come to assess George Orwell's ''1984'' against the political product. There was plenty of ''newspeak'' and ''double-think'' to go around - either side of the deficit discussion might serve as a proof text. Democrats may wish to cast a triumphant Ronald Reagan as Big Brother (amiable version); Republicans may judge that we have again been spared a further slide to ''1984'' statism.

''1984'' has become such a mine of popular political terminology that it is difficult to recover George Orwell's original intent. We tend to read the novel as a warning against them - Stalinists, left-wingers, right-wingers, fundamentalists, autocrats - but Orwell really believed the enemy is us, i.e., the concerned readers of ''1984.''

Mr. Orwell thought that the prevailing tradition for intellectuals was ''revolutionary,'' from Edward Gibbon to James Joyce. In seeking liberty from historical injustice, modern intellectuals unwittingly created the conditions for the absolutism of Big Brother. As the party interrogator O'Brien (no relation) explains to the hapless Winston Smith, the totalitarianism of ''1984'' is superior to all previous dictatorships in that it seeks power for its own sake. The modern intellectual tradition has been so steeped in revolutionary rhetoric that only revolution itself may seem moral - and there are always lots of apparent tyrants: capitalism, technology, sexism, bureaucracy, and so on. But revolution for the courage of revolution may yield to power for the sake of power: Both positions lack external moral limitation.

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Was Orwell correct to take such a dour view of the modernist tradition? Perhaps. Modernism is rooted in a deeply anti-historical philosophy - that is why it is so revolutionary. Because we hold certain rights to be self-evident, we do not need the value test of history and experience. Historical institutions - kingship, class structure, established patterns of discrimination - are all subject to critique from what is rationally self-evident. No one would deny the revolutionary power or value of this sovereignty of ''God given'' rights. However, the anti-historical tendency can lead, says Orwell, to the total abuse of history practiced in ''1984.'' Not only does Winston Smith spend his days at ''the Ministry of Truth'' fabricating history, the society ruthlessly devalues all specific, concrete, historical aspects of human life.

The Democratic liberal tradition as represented by Walter Mondale has a powerful philosophy of rational egalitarianism on its side. The presence of Geraldine Ferraro on the ticket was itself a compelling symbol of a tradition which has sought to overcome historical prejudice. The Democrats spoke, so they believed, for those left out by history. All of this echoes some of the deepest and most respected political philosophy of our nation.

Ronald Reagan argued against government which he sees as a mere mechanism that should be reduced to a minimum. (In that he argues like the best liberals of the old tradition, e.g., Thomas Jefferson.) But it is not clear that the electorate believed he was arguing for unbridled individualism, as the Democrats claimed. His thematic appeal was to a sense of community which lies elsewhere than in the apparatus of the state. Reagan appealed to family, church, and patria as the governing value structures for society. If there are solutions to our social problems they should come neither from government nor from individuals, but from a common inherent goodness of the American people. Mr. Reagan's problem is that some citizens sense they are historically excluded from the ''proper'' faiths or families.

''1984'' rests upon a central dilemma of modernism. Orwell certainly did not wish us to return to the old society of historical privilege. The Democrats are correct, I believe, that various disadvantaged groups must enter into ''the mainstream'' of our common life. Their problem seems to be that the American people are wary of government solutions. Americans often see government as merely a mechanism, dealing with problems abstractly outside the rich historical base that defines our life in neighborhoods and families. Is the price of equality making historical differences indifferent? How can modern society provide equality and tolerance without making all values and histories a matter of indifference? That is the dilemma of Orwell's ''1984.''

Dennis O'Brien is president of the University of Rochester.

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