“‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”
Winston introduces the theory behind the work he does at the Ministry of Truth. The Party understands that by rewriting the events of the past and controlling the narrative of history, they can maintain their position of authority.
“Suddenly there sprang into his mind, ready-made as it were, the image of a certain Comrade Ogilvy, who had recently died in battle, in heroic circumstances. . . . It was true that there was no such person as Comrade Ogilvy, but a few lines of print and a couple of faked photographs would soon bring him into existence.”
While working at the Ministry of Truth, Winston invents the backstory of a fallen soldier to cover up the mention of a person who had been declared an unperson. This moment shows both the cynicism Winston holds toward the work he does and also how thoroughly he has internalized Party ideology, because he is able to imagine the kind of person the Party would most approve of.
“Within twenty years at most, he reflected, the huge and simple question ‘Was life better before the Revolution than it is now?’ would have ceased once and for all to be answerable.”
Winston attempts to learn about life before the Revolution by talking to an old man in a prole bar, but the man isn’t able to remember anything substantive (or he is afraid to answer the questions of a stranger who could be a Party informant). Winston realizes that due to the unreliability of individual memory, the influence of propaganda, and most of all the deaths of people who remembered life before the Revolution, the Party can succeed in exerting its control over the past.
“What appealed to [Winston] about [the coral paperweight] was not so much its beauty as the air it seemed to possess of belonging to an age quite different from the present one.”
Winston purchases an antique paperweight from Mr. Charrington’s shop. By doing so, he is skirting illegal behavior by owning something aesthetically pleasing and without a clear use. He is also forming a connection to a world without the Party in it.
“[T]he Party member, like the proletarian, tolerates present-day conditions because he has no standards of comparison. He must be cut off from the past, just as he must be cut off from foreign countries, because it is necessary for him to believe that he is better off than his ancestors and that the average level of material comfort is constantly rising.”
This section from Goldstein’s manifesto explains why the Party’s maxim “Who controls the past controls the future” holds true. If people had a set of standards and norms to hold the Party against, Orwell implies, its authority would collapse.