Actually this isn’t a comparison as such, nor is it another ‘Who was right?’ article. I was looking for a post somewhere which compared what the two had said about each others work and couldn’t find one so I decided to do it here. As you will see, whilst both taking pains to praise the work of the other, they also both maintained that their own nightmare vision was closer to the truth.
Orwell of course died long before Huxley and was therefore did not have the chance to see how the fame and importance of the two books (particularly his own) grew steadily throughout the 20th century. Therefore I will give him the first word here…
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a sort of post-war parody of the Wellsian Utopia, these tendencies are immensely exaggerated. Here the hedonistic principle is pushed to its utmost, the whole world has turned into a Riviera hotel. But though Brave New World was a brilliant caricature of the present (the present of 1930), it probably casts no light on the future. No society of that kind would last more than a couple of generations, because a ruling class which thought principally in terms of a “good time” would soon lose its vitality. A ruling class has got to have a strict morality, a quasi-religious belief in itself, a mystique.
Before Orwell died however...
In October 1949, as George Orwell lay dying of lung disease in a London hospital, he received a letter from Aldous Huxley. Huxley had just read Orwell’s recently published 1984.
To get a letter from the older, more eminent Huxley was a big deal for any writer, but for Orwell it held special meaning because Huxley was the author of Brave New World (1932), the visionary novel with which 1984 was being roundly compared. Huxley had also been one of Orwell’s teachers at Eton.
Huxley was overwhelmed by 1984, telling Orwell “how fine and how profoundly important the book is.”
But while he agreed that the future would be dominated by totalitarian regimes ruling sheep-like subjects, Huxley did not share Orwell’s violent vision of torture, “boot-on-the-face,” sex repression and endless war.
“My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and that these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World … . Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”
Later, in the introduction to the 1958 work Brave New World Revisited (Full text available here), which is a non-fiction piece in which Huxley considered if society had moved towards or away from the society he had described in Brave New World, Huxley gave special mention to 1984 in his introduction…
George Orwell’s 1984 was a magnified projection into the future of a present that contained Stalinism and an immediate past that had witnessed the flowering of Nazism. Brave New World was written before the rise of Hitler to supreme power in Germany and when the Russian tyrant had not yet got into his stride. In 1931 systematic terrorism was not the obsessive contemporary fact which it had become in 1948, and the future dictatorship of my imaginary world was a good deal less brutal than the future dictatorship so brilliantly portrayed by Orwell. In the context of 1948, 1984 seemed dreadfully convincing. But tyrants, after all, are mortal and circumstances change. Recent developments in Russia and recent advances in science and technology have robbed Orwell’s book of some of its gruesome verisimilitude. A nuclear war will, of course, make nonsense of everybody’s predictions. But, assuming for the moment that the Great Powers can somehow refrain from destroying us, we can say that it now looks as though the odds were more in favor of something like Brave New World than of something like 1984.
In the light of what we have recently learned about animal behavior in general, and human behavior in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behavior is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behavior by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children. Punishment temporarily puts a stop to undesirable behavior, but does not permanently reduce the victim’s tendency to indulge in it. Moreover, the psycho-physical by-products of punishment may be just as undesirable as the behavior for which an individual has been punished. Psychotherapy is largely concerned with the debilitating or anti-social consequences of past punishments.
The society described in 1984 is a society controlled almost exclusively by punishment and the fear of punishment. In the imaginary world of my own fable, punishment is infrequent and generally mild. The nearly perfect control exercised by the government is achieved by systematic reinforcement of desirable behavior, by many kinds of nearly non-violent manipulation, both physical and psychological, and by genetic standardization. Babies in bottles and the centralized control of reproduction are not perhaps impossible; but it is quite clear that for a long time to come we shall remain a viviparous species breeding at random. For practical purposes genetic standardization may be ruled out. Societies will continue to be controlled post-natally — by punishment, as in the past, and to an ever increasing extent by the more effective methods of reward and scientific manipulation.
There is also film of Huxley talking about this which includes the text of a letter Huxley wrote to Orwell…