‘In 1997, declassified British Foreign Office documents revealed that shortly before his death Orwell had compiled a ‘Black’ and ‘White’ list of Communist and anti-Communist fellow travellers for a Government propaganda unit.’
When a new 20-volume edition of the collected works of George Orwell appeared about two months ago, included among the books, essays and voluminous correspondence of the famed British writer and journalist who died nearly 50 years ago was a list of some 130 prominent figures he compiled in 1949.
The list consisted of short comments, sometimes pithy and sometimes superficial, on intellectuals, politicians and others whom Orwell considered to be sympathetic to the Stalinist regime in Moscow. Among the names were cultural figures Charlie Chaplin and Paul Robeson, writers J. B. Priestley and Stephen Spender, journalist Walter Duranty (New York Times Moscow correspondent and defender of the Moscow Trials) and Joseph Davies, US Ambassador to the USSR during WWII.
It turns out that Orwell, who called himself a democratic socialist and who, before he wrote Animal Farm and 1984, first became prominent in the 1930’s for the powerful social criticism of Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, turned over some 35 of these names, a year before he died in 1950, to a secret government unit called the Information Research Department. This was an arm of the British Foreign Office that had been set up for the purpose of organizing anti-Soviet and anticommunist propaganda.
These revelations have rekindled an old debate over the nature of Orwell’s political legacy, as well as the nature of Stalinism and the fight against it. As the author of books which satirized the Stalinist political regime and warned of the dangers of totalitarianism, Orwell has been hailed by reactionary defenders of the status quo, even though his history and his views were far more complex than the anticommunists would suggest.
It is necessary to place Orwell’s evolution in its historical context, not to justify what he did with his list, but rather to understand and learn from this experience.
A whole generation of workers and intellectuals moved sharply to the left in the 1930’s, in response to the Depression, the rise of Nazism in Germany and the growing struggles of the working class. Many looked to the Soviet Union for leadership, and mistakenly identified the Stalin regime with the great struggles and ideals of the 1917 Revolution.
Within the middle class intelligentsia, there was also a definite stratum which turned toward Stalinism precisely because it recognized that it was not revolutionary. Liberals attracted to the Stalinist policy of the Popular Front saw in it a bulwark against the working class. This was the role of Duranty and many others.
Orwell, to his credit, was neither a dupe of Stalinism nor a bourgeois liberal defender of the Moscow regime during this period. He took up an intransigent struggle against Stalinism from the left, at a time when this was the most unpopular position to take amongst liberal intellectuals. When Homage to Catalonia was published, Orwell was virtually ostracized for this account of the Spanish Civil War which laid bare the Stalinists’ treachery against the Spanish and international working class. The Stalinists and their supporters were enraged by the book’s exposure of their role in strangling a genuine revolutionary movement through the same bloody methods then being utilized inside the USSR. In the ensuing years Orwell found it increasingly difficult to get his writings published.
After the conclusion of the Second World War, many former ‘lefts’ rapidly became anticommunists. With the temporary restabilization of world capitalism and the Stalinist regime in the USSR and the division of the world into spheres of influence of the rival imperialist and Stalinist blocs, socialists and radical intellectuals like Orwell came under enormous pressure to line up with one side or the other in the Cold War.
Many erstwhile Stalinist sympathizers, still equating the Soviet regime with the Russian Revolution, now discovered their hatred of socialism, blaming Stalin’s crimes on the Bolsheviks and the 1917 Revolution. Onetime revolutionary opponents of Stalinism also made their peace with capitalism. Trotskyist leaders like Max Shachtman and James Burnham of the American Socialist Workers Party, as well as writers like James T. Farrell, made their way at varying tempos into the anticommunist camp, beginning with the rejection of the defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and ultimately supporting the US in Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. On the other side, erstwhile revolutionaries or self-styled Marxists like historian Isaac Deutscher and prominent leaders of the Fourth International like Michel Pablo capitulated to Stalinism, concluding that it represented the wave of the future in the form of what Pablo termed ‘centuries of deformed workers’ states.’
Orwell died and there is no way of knowing exactly where he would have ended up politically if he had lived another two or three decades. At the same time, as his list and what he did with it indicates, he was being pushed towards the kind of despairing anticommunism which characterized many intellectuals in the period following the Second World War.
On one level, Orwell’s action in turning over these comments was not the same as those of the political cowards who sought to save their careers during the McCarthyite witch-hunt by ‘naming names’ of prominent figures who had been in or around the Communist Party years earlier. In Orwell’s case, there was no cowardice or personal opportunism involved. He was never a man to curry favor with the establishment, and the political characterizations on his list were by and large similar to sentiments he had expressed publicly.
At the same time, Orwell’s action was a political statement. The author of Homage to Catalonia had become so embittered by Stalinist betrayals that he was prepared to make common political cause with British imperialism. He considered bourgeois democracy the ‘lesser evil’ in relation to Stalinism. This was a political judgment which testified to his rejection of Marxism and of a genuinely revolutionary perspective.
It is interesting to compare Orwell’s action with that of Leon Trotsky, the exiled leader of the October Revolution, who accepted an invitation to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington in October 1939. Trotsky was preparing to use the appearance as a platform to put forward his own views, which certainly would not have pleased the anticommunist witch-hunters. In fact, belatedly realizing this, they withdrew the invitation. Only a few weeks earlier US Stalinist leaders Earl Browder and William Z. Foster had testified before the same committee that the Trotskyists were agents of fascism who should be suppressed by the bourgeois state.
To some extent Orwell was blinded by his bitter experiences with the cowardly pro-Stalinist intellectuals and the smug pro-Stalinist liberals. His political judgments of these people were usually on the mark, but his method was a subjective one. He dismissed the historic significance of the Russian Revolution, saw nothing left to defend of this revolution, and never concerned himself with the building of a revolutionary leadership in the working class.
This finds expression in Animal Farm and especially 1984. While there is much that is powerful in these books, Orwell’s outlook also made it possible for them to be used by the anticommunists. Stalinism itself, of course, bears the major responsibility for dragging the name of socialism through the mud.
In the wake of the revelation of Orwell’s list, commentators have come forward with a retrospective defense of the Cold War and sought to enlist Orwell in it on the side of world capitalism. A recent column in the New York Times goes so far as to argue that the various figures who cooperated with HUAC can all be classed with Orwell as principled enemies of Stalinism whose cooperation with the government was therefore understandable.
The comparison, as indicated above, is somewhat misleading. The attempt to use Orwell’s political disorientation to justify the anticommunist witch-hunt is a distortion. Orwell, in fact, was on record in the months before he died as opposed to the outlawing of the Communist Party.
The most critical issue that is raised is the claim that there were only two choices during the Cold War: support for the capitalist democracies or support for Stalinism. This argument conveniently forgets the role of the Trotskyist movement.
The Left Opposition and the Fourth International, founded by Trotsky in 1938, consistently fought all the crimes of Stalinism against the working class, and Trotsky and other leaders of the movement paid with their lives because the Stalinist bureaucracy recognized their revolutionary opposition as a mortal danger to the Moscow dictatorship.
Orwell was always ambivalent about the genuine legacy of the October Revolution which Trotsky represented. His identification with the working class was based more on emotion and sentiment than on scientific conviction. He associated himself with centrists like the Independent Labour Party in Britain and the POUM in Spain. The ILP called for ‘left unity’, adapting to the Stalinists and criticizing Trotsky’s merciless critique of Stalinism as ‘sectarian.’ In Spain the POUM played a similar role, giving crucial support to the Popular Front government which turned around and suppressed it, while the Stalinists assassinated the POUM leaders because they could not tolerate any independent left-wing working class movement.
The Trotskyists showed that there was a socialist alternative to Stalinism, and furthermore that the bourgeois democratic regimes headed by Churchill and Roosevelt, the same regimes which praised the Soviet government at the time of the Moscow Trials and were its allies during WWII, and whose predecessors had intervened in an effort to destroy the Russian Revolution, were no defenders of democracy at all. Those who today praise Orwell as a solitary opponent of Stalinist are the same ones who deliberately censor any mention of Trotsky, the Left Opposition and the Fourth International.
Fred Mazelis — September 9, 1998
Published on the World Socialist Web Site
Original of this work is on the:
George Orwell, the socialist author, offered to provide a secret Foreign Office propaganda unit linked to the intelligence services with names of writers and journalists he regarded as “crypto-communist” and “fellow-travellers” who could not be trusted, documents released yesterday at the Public Record Office reveal.
He made the offer in 1949, shortly before he died, to the covert Information Research Department, which used well- known writers and publishers - including Bertrand Russell, Stephen Spender and Arthur Koestler - to produce anti- communist material during the cold war. Documents also show that the IRD singled out articles from Tribune, the leftwing but then anti-Soviet paper, to back up its hidden crusade.
In March 1949 an IRD official, Celia Kirwan, visited Orwell at a sanatorium in Cranham, Gloucestershire, where he was suffering from tuberculosis. “I discussed some aspects of our work with him in great confidence”, she told her colleagues. “He was delighted to learn of them, and expressed his wholehearted and enthusiastic approval of our aims.”
Although too ill to write himself, he gave the names of potential contributors. Early the following month, Orwell wrote to Kirwan offering to give her “a list of journalists and writers who in my opinion are crypto-communists, fellow- travellers or inclined that way and should not be trusted...”
He said his notebook with the names was at his home in London. He insisted that the list was “strictly confidential” since it would be libellous to call somebody a “fellow-traveller.”
The revelation is likely to shock many of Orwell’s admirers, for whom he is a 20th century radical icon. The files released yesterday do not contain the list of names but a card placed next to Orwell’s letter to Kirwan says that a document has been withheld by the Foreign Office.
Bernard Crick, Orwell’s biographer, confirmed yesterday that Orwell had kept a “notebook of suspects” containing 86 names. “Many were plausible, a few were far-fetched and unlikely”, he said. Michael Foot, a friend of Orwell’s in the 1930s and 1940s, said he found the letter “amazing”.
“There’s been a lot of argument about him deserting his socialism at the end of his life. I don’t think that’s true, but I’m very surprised he was dealing with the secret services in any form.”
The papers show that the IRD promoted the foreign language publication of Animal Farm, Orwell’s classic anti-communist allegory. “The idea is particularly good for Arabic in view of the fact that both pigs and dogs are unclean animals to Muslims”, noted an embassy official in Cairo.
The unit feared communism in Saudi Arabia, notably among oil workers in Dhahran, the scene of last month’s bombing of an American base.
The IRD arranged the distribution of Tribune to British missions abroad. Officials noted: “[It] combines the resolute exposure of communism and its methods with the consistent championship of those objectives which leftwing sympathisers normally support”.
They added: “Many articles in it can be effectively turned to this department’s purposes.”
Documents show that the IRD was closely involved with the Trades Union Congress, lobbied against unions supporting the National Council for Civil Liberties, and played an active role in splitting the international union movement in the late 1940s.
A note from a senior IRD official in 1949 warned that the NCCL (now renamed Liberty) was “heavily communist-penetrated and is in fact... being used for little if nothing more than attacking our colonial administration and policies at every opportunity”.
The “persuasion” was done through the TUC, where IRD’s main contact was Vic Feather, who later became general secretary.
Richard Norton-Taylor and Seumas Milne
Guardian Newspapers (London), July 11, 1996
The text of George Orwell’s letter to Celia Kirwan - Whitehall’s secret Information Research Department.
‘I DID suggest DARCY GILLY, (Manchester Guardian) didn’t I? There is also a man called CHOLLERTON (expert on the Moscow trials) who cld be contacted through the Observer.
Cranham April 6th, 1949.
I haven’t written earlier because I have really been rather poorly, and I can’t use the typewriter even now, so I hope you will be able to cope with my handwriting.
I couldn’t think of any more names to add to your possible list of writers except FRANZ BORKENAU (the Observer would know his address) whose name I think I gave you, and GLEB STRUVE (he’s at Pasadena in California at present), the Russian translator and critic. Of course there are hordes of Americans, whose names can be found in the (New York) New Leader, the Jewish monthly paper “Commentary”, and the Partisan Review. I could also, if it is of any value, give you a list of journalists and writers who in my opinion are crypto-communists, fellow-travellers or inclined that way and should not be trusted as propagandists. But for that I shall have to send for a notebook which I have at home, and if I do give you such a list it is strictly confidential...
Just one idea occurred to me for propaganda not abroad but in this country. A friend of mine in Stockholm tells me that as the Swedes didn’t make films of their own one sees a lot of German and Russian films, and some of the Russian films, which of course would not normally reach this country, are unbelievably scurrilous anti-British propaganda. He referred especially to a historical film about the Crimean war. As the Swedes can get hold of these films I suppose we can; might it not be a good idea to have showings of some of them in this country...
I read the enclosed article with interest, but it seems to me anti-religious rather than anti-semitic. For what my opinion is worth, I don’t think anti-anti-semitism is a strong card to play in anti-Russian propaganda. The USSR must in practice be somewhat anti-semitic, as it is opposed both to Zionism within its own borders and on the other hand to the liberalism and internationalism of the non-Zionist Jews, but a polyglot state of that kind can never be officially anti-semitic, in the Nazi manner, just as the British Empire cannot. If you try to tie up Communism with anti-semitism, it is always possible in reply to point to people like Kaganovich or Anna Pauleer, also to the large number of Jews in the Communist parties everywhere. I also think it is bad policy to try to curry favour with your enemies. The Zionists Jews everywhere hate us and regard Britain as the enemy, more even than Germany. Of course this is based on misunderstanding, but as long as it is so I do not think we do ourselves any good by denouncing anti- semitism in other nations.
I am sorry I can’t write a better letter, but I really have felt so lousy the last few days. Perhaps a bit later I’ll get some ideas.
With love, George.’
‘Here is an excerpt from George Orwell’s list of possible ‘crypto-communists & fellow-travelers’ published in ‘The Complete Orwell’, edited by Peter Davison. Orwell, who initially intended the list to be private, jotted used shorthand notes. FT refers to fellow traveler; CP stands for Communist Party. Spelling and punctuation are as in the original. The parentheses are Orwell’s, and brackets show passages he crossed out. (Some names, like Upton Sinclair and Fiorello La Guardia, were crossed out altogether.) Mr. Davison inserted the dates of the subjects and the italicized explanations.’
*) He was wrong-headed in a number of his listings. Stephen Spender, whom Orwell labeled a ‘sentimental sympathizer’. In 1949, contributed an essay the next year to ‘The God That Failed’, an indictment of Communism. And some comments are simply appalling. The anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual overtones of his notes are clear.
Machine-readable version: O. Dag
Last modified on: 2015-09-24
George Orwell and the British Foreign Office: [Index page]