I came to this book on recommendations drawn from my reading of others. It is a famous book, and rightly so, because it is brilliant and it deals with an important and serious subject.
It analyses the consequences for the intellect of life in a totalitarian society. It was written in 1953, in Paris, whither the author had emigrated from Poland, then under the baleful control of Stalinist Russia. The book is partly about living under colonial rule, which is a reasonable description of the relationship between the Soviet Union and its satellite states; and partly about the tortuous nature of the life of the mind when intellectual honesty is simply not an option.
The edition I read was published in 1985 and the note on the back says the book is ‘still as relevant and immediate as when it was written’. Now that the Soviet Union has imploded and the Berlin Wall is gone, it is tempting to think that the book’s relevance has diminished and, in some ways, it has. The specific descriptions of the actions of the secret police, or the behaviour of Soviet officials, are of course mainly of historical interest. But the analysis of how the human mind copes with intellectual oppression remains highly relevant and interesting, when we see so much of it around us.
His analysis is relevant not only to situations of vigorous and state-sponsored restraints on freedom of thought, such as we see in Syria or Saudi Arabia, but to any situation where orthodoxy prevails and debate becomes muted. This can happen without violence or even declared intent. All that is necessary is for a prevailing belief to take hold and become the received wisdom. In their craving for certainty, people then begin to treat it as axiomatic, as something beyond question. That in turn leads to an atrophying of the critical faculties.
Free thinking is an art, or at least a discipline, that has to be cultivated and practised. That is why reading books that contain new and surprising ideas is important not only for us as individuals but also for society as a whole. It equips individuals to understand the ways of the world and to act as part of the collective with awareness and a degree of insight. I do not suggest politics is a duty; on the contrary, I am occasionally distressed by how quickly societies can become politicised along particular lines. The right to live free from political interference is a very precious one and is in short supply around the world.
But I do think we have a duty to think from time to time, and to keep our minds open. Good books, like this one, help us to do that.