2 + 2 = 5: The politics of number in writing about the Soviet Union

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Why did British writers, when they wrote about the Soviet Union, often deploy the imagery of numbers, arithmetic and mathematics? This paper scrutinises a number of such instances, including Orwell's famous use of the equation ‘2 + 2 = 5’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Koestler's fascination with Euclid's proof of the infinitude of prime numbers in The Invisible Writing. These are put into relation with less celebrated works where questions of number or of mathematical reasoning are politicised by being applied to the Soviet Union. The paper situates these literary representations in relation to three key debates that intersected in interesting ways. Firstly, a debate about utilitarianism's attempt to quantify social goods and the Romantic rejection of that attempt; secondly, a debate about the philosophical foundations of mathematics (which involved Russell, Wittgenstein and Heidegger); and finally, a debate about the relation between mathematics and dialectical materialism, which involved key British and Soviet scientists and mathematicians and reflected on the position of science under Communism. Taking my cue from recent calls by Alain Badiou and Steven Connor for a rapprochement between the humanities and mathematics, I argue that this was a period in which numbers and arithmetic were profoundly politicised in literature.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)993-1016
Number of pages24
JournalTextual Practice
Issue number5
Early online date28 Apr 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • history of mathematics
  • communism
  • anticommunism
  • literature
  • modernism
  • George Orwell
  • Arthur Koestler

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