CONVERGENCE ON “THE PRISONER”:
FROM LEON TROTSKY TO GEORGE ORWELL
AND BEYOND

by Ralph Dumain

Introduction to 1989 manuscript in 2001: There are two things you need to know above all about this text. First, it was rejected by the major Prisoner fanzines, which is one reason for publishing it here. The Prisoner is still in my thinking the greatest television drama series ever produced in the English-speaking world. It has also produced a very loyal cult following. However, fandom carries with it a prevailing social content and orientation, which may not adequately reflect the objective merits of the object of worship. Though there is more diversity among Prisoner fans than appears on the surface, there is--or at least was a decade ago--a distinctive perceptible bias in favor of laissez-faire-capitalist libertarianism, the favored ideology of rebellion among alienated educated individuals with technical skills or above-average abilities or ambitions. That is most likely why my essay was rejected for publication. Regardless, The Prisoner and the fandom it generated comes from an earlier stage of social development than the social configuration that produced the childish paranoid conspiracy-mongering of The X-Files. Dystopian literature--product of the fear of totalitarian statism--has a long genealogy, and The Prisoner as well as its predecessors contain some inherent ambiguities that I argue made it possible and plausible for this genre to be appropriated in a certain way given prevailing ideological conditions.

The second big thing you need to know is that this essay reflects my writing of a decade ago--abstract and schematic, often glossing over the nuances needed to flesh out my arguments and capture the concrete world more effectively. It is not that I didn't know more than I put into my writing, but rather that the '80s was a struggle for me, under conditions of adversity, to lay out the abstract structures by which phenomena could be best intepreted. This went beyond my less coherent practice of the 1970s and preceded the intensive development of my thinking in the 1990s as well as my crash course of self-education in all matters of intellectual, cultural, and social history that I had missed out on before.

My intellectual history of convergence theory is undoubtedly oversimplified, and the essay now strikes me as overburdened with Trotsky's perspective on the Stalinist state. Yet I hope my readers will forgive my crudities and take note of the essential points.

11 April 2001

Obviously, the ideas represented in The Prisoner did not all emanate from one person, since several people wrote scripts for the series. Still, the scripts reflect a common sensibility, and we can be sure that nothing that Patrick McGoohan himself would have objected to would have made it to the screen. The key statement to The Prisoner's political world view can be found in the second screened episode, "The Chimes of Big Ben," when #2 explains to #6 that the Village is the prototype of the coming world order. Whether the western or the eastern bloc or both or a third force runs the village is ultimately beside the point; they are all the same if the world is evolving in the direction of the Village.

Not only does this outlook carry on the theme from 1984; it carries on the lineage of the political concept of "convergence" first formulated in the 1930s and espoused since then mainly by right-wingers. According to the convergence theory the capitalist and socialist systems are growing more like each other and will ultimately become indistinguishable; the bureaucratic totalitarian state will be the common society of the future.

The most famous if not the first proponent of the convergence theory was James Burnham, author of the 1940 book The Managerial Revolution. Before we discuss Burnham's book, published just after his turn to the right, we have to examine Burnham's earlier association with Leon Trotsky and his participation and eventual disruption of the American Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

As the 1930s wore on, the communists who had rejected Stalinism debated the character of the USSR, whether it could be considered socialist in any sense in view of Stalin's reign of terror, whether it merited any defense in the face of the threat from Hitler. This debate came to a head at the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact and the onset of World War II.

Trotsky's own position was that the USSR is a degenerate worker's state ruled by ruthless terror and murder. Nevertheless, it was a state that had abolished private property, and that in everyone's minds (regardless of the Kremlin's real maneuvers) represented the possibility of socialism and the final bulwark against fascism. Therefore, world capitalism, and especially fascism, sought to crush the USSR. Hitler's conquest of the USSR would mean not just the end of Stalin but the restoration of capitalism and would deal not only the USSR but the entire world a shattering blow and set back the clock of history for an entire epoch. Thus the USSR merits support and defense against invasion in spite of Stalin. Trotsky opposed the "plague on both your houses" attitude held by many intellectuals who would self-righteously withdraw from the real world and simply equate the USSR with Nazi Germany. Trotsky did not only look at the form of political organization of society, but to its history, its motive forces, its material basis, and particularly its economic organization. Trotsky did not think that terror regimes float on air, reflecting only the will and whims of the rulers, lasting forever. Trotsky would have rejected the convergence theory; in fact he did reject its embryonic versions of the 1930s.

The SWP attracted a number of middle class intellectuals of varying commitment and caliber, many of whom were more motivated by repugnance to Stalin than by identification with proletarian revolution. The SWP was moving toward a split, and the main instigator was James Burnham. In 1940, the split occurred, and many well-known intellectuals, Burnham among them, left the SWP and formed the rival Workers Party. Burnham immediately turned against the Workers Party he had helped to create, resigned, and soon thereafter published The Managerial Revolution. Many of the other prominent intellectuals involved later turned into rabid right-wing anticommunists and became leading apologists of the Cold War and the suppression of human rights during the McCarthy era. (See the book In Defense of Marxism by Leon Trotsky.)

According to Burnham, the society of the future will be neither capitalist nor socialist but a new type of society ruled by a managerial bureaucracy. Trotsky had called Burnham a snob. George Orwell observed that the type of managers that would rule the world would come from Burnham's own social class. Ironically, one of the most penetrating critiques of Burnham was Orwell's 1946 essay "Second Thoughts on James Burnham" (collected in the anthology The Orwell Reader). Orwell detected in Burnham's works a sadomasochistic power-worship, a tendency not only to evoke horror but to grovel before whatever despotic force seemed to be in ascendancy at the time, Germany, USSR, Japan, etc. His posture gave the impression of defeatism and kowtowing before the juggernaut. Orwell rejected Burnham's facile equanimity about whoever would dominate Europe as well as the formula fascism = communism.

I said "ironically" because Orwell's view is surprising when one thinks of 1984. 1984 seems to be a monstrous incarnation of convergence theory. Emmanuel Goldstein, Orwell's fictional equivalent of Leon Trotsky, describes Ingsoc (English socialism) as oligarchic collectivism. But Orwell does not see the terror regime as temporary or as connected with any material or economic circumstances; it is founded on the pure distillation of sadism, the "image of a boot stomping on a human face, forever." We are to believe that endless generations of sadistic rulers will continue successfully to torture and debase humanity, and that their motivation will never flag, they will not get fat, lazy, and bored, they will not be seduced by material comfort and universal prosperity. 1984 is an allegorical masterpiece, but on the literal level it has been criticized, most perceptively, I think, in the essay "1984--The Mysticism of Cruelty" by Isaac Deutscher. (See his book Heretics and Renegades.) Here is another historical coincidence: Deutscher was the noted author of a three-volume biography of Trotsky as well as a political biography of Stalin! (Another indispensable commentary is an essay by Paul N. Siegel, "George Orwell's 1984: A Worldwide Managerial Revolution?" in his Revolution and the 20th-Century Novel.)

1984 has been used politically in a number of ways. Lately Orwell has been coopted by right-wing neoconservatives. Yet Orwell was no friend of laissez-faire capitalism. Many ingredients went into 1984. When I was a naive youngster innocent of history, I simply took 1984 to be a warning against fascism. I knew nothing about Stalinism and only later found out that 1984 has specific analogues to Stalinism. Yet Orwell did not only despise fascism and Stalinism, he disliked postwar Britain, and distrusted the Labor Party as much as he disliked Churchill and Roosevelt. His nightmare society is Ingsoc or English socialism. All these ingredients are mixed into 1984.

1984 was not the first novel of its kind. It was consciously modelled on Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We, which was never allowed publication in the USSR. 1984 was also meant as an alternative to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which Orwell thought implausible due to the absence of power-hunger and sadism. 1984 has been the prototype of most anti-utopian fiction that has come since, including The Prisoner. All incarnations of this basic scenario have the same strengths and weaknesses: they are important allegories of totalitarian domination, and they all fail to deal convincingly with the historical and economic basis of the societies they depict.

Convergence theorists, whether or not consciously indebted to Burnham or its other originators, continued to ply their trade through the 1950s and beyond. Certain fascist science fiction authors who shall remain nameless here promoted the convergence theory. It is customarily a tool of the right-wingers, including the "libertarians," who are also right-wingers, since by seeking to remove the limited protections that the social democratic state bestows upon the masses, they pave the way for the boundless despotism of big business. Once in a while, a "liberal" deploys the convergence theory, eg. in the film Network scripted by Paddy Chayevsky, who seems to me more of a bleeding-heart conservative than a liberal. Network simultaneously criticizes and mystifies the status quo.

It would be a mistake to allow the rightists to claim 1984 and its descendants. Many Marxists of the pro-Soviet and Maoist stripes have refused to acknowledge the value of 1984. They are obviously oversensitive to what they erroneously perceive as the anti-communism of the novel. But the issue of totalitarianism and degradation of the individual is hardly a trivial issue in light of the nightmares of the 20th century. Fictional anti-utopias like 1984 and The Prisoner do not reject socialism as an economic system; they ignore it completely, since they do not deal at all seriously with the economic organization of society but are preoccupied with its political organization. Regardless of the political convictions of McGoohan or other contributors, The Prisoner per se does not attack the welfare state on behalf of laissez-faire capitalism; it attacks the welfare state because people can be seduced into surrendering their freedom for material comforts and ignoring the despotism thay have been suckered into and the dehumanization they have suffered. Such is the legacy of the Cold War and the post-war prosperity that lasted through the 1960s. No, dear conservative Prisoner fans, The Prisoner does not belong to you.

2-4 August 1989

Edited & uploaded 11 April 2001
©1989, 2001 Ralph Dumain


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Uploaded 11 April 2001

©1989, 2001 Ralph Dumain