I recently re-read Vasily Grossman's masterpiece, Life and Fate, which is about the Great Patriotic war and the respective horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, and about the effect that those authoritarian regimes had on all they touchedt. It is a great novel, a self-conscious 20th century answer to War and Peace that can stand the comparison and not seem merely pretentious. I published a brief review earlier this year
Reading it confirmed in my mind something I've thought before -- that whatever it's virtues, dystopian fiction is not the best tool to help us understand what life is like under authoritarianism. If you want to find out about life under Stalin, read something by an actual Soviet, not by an English idealist who'd never set foot in the USSR.
Phrased like that, it seems obvious that reading Soviet literature is the only way to get a literary picture of Stalinism, but it is remarkable how many people have told me that 1984 is some glimpse into the essence of 'totalitarianism.*' It's been long enough since I actually entertained this notion that I have a hard time giving it a serious airing. I suppose one could say that it describes the effects of authoritarianism in a generalized form, abstracted from the specifics of the real world or the individuality of the characters. Certainly it shows the self-censorship, mental as well as verbal, that affects people who are unfree (a subtler description of this process can be found in most Soviet dissident novels). It also shows the paranoia, the constant sense of attack, and the manipulation of history, and it shows them powerfully.
This argument neglects the fact that 1984, and all dystopias, present a deliberately caricatured view of society and individuals, a world where government control is total and individuality is nearly extinguished. This is not the reality of life under Stalin -- people had personalities, personal lives, families, even as the Party and State wormed their way into all of these. They had lives. They sold and bought things on the black market and got by. They had private conversations, some of which were reported and got them sent to the camps. In short, they did not resemble the empty husks of the party members that Orwell portrays, let alone his patronizing (indeed, in hindsight outright offensive) portrayal of earthy 'proles' that were indifferent to politics. I sometimes think that Americans read 1984, and assume that the Chinese or the Soviets really had had their humanity erased. Moreover the distortions of an intrusive state are most instructive when we see them acting on an actual human being, not on an abstraction.
So what good are dystopias? To put it blithely, dystopias are for teenagers. They are abstracted, grandiose and dramatic, which appeals to younger people's love of big ideas and dramatic settings. Because their characters are archetypal rather than fully fleshed out, there's no need to have lived enough of a life to understand them. And in a classroom setting, dystopias are a good way to get young people talking about abstract questions like individual liberty versus the needs of the whole. But as I've said before, a grown-up intellectual life cannot live on abstractions. I worry that too many people never grow out of their love of Big Ideas and graduate to a world that is painted in shades of gray.
*A word that, in as much as it has meaning, seems based on a misconception, and is certainly applied too broadly -- Nazi germany was in no way a 'Totalitarian' state, but a murderous one. It was a state whose murders were, unlike those of the Stalinist USSR, mostly directed outwards.