By Christopher Hitchens
The New York Review of Books
Volume 49, Number 14
26 September 2002
It is easy enough for me to say that George Orwell was essentially right
about the three great twentieth-century issues of fascism, Stalinism, and
empire, and that he was enabled to be right by a certain insistence on intellectual
integrity and independence. The question arises, was it possible for him
to uphold all these positions, and in that way, simultaneously?
I choose a representative quotation from Paul Lashmar and James Oliver's
book Britain's Secret Propaganda War
, a history of the Information
Research Department (IRD) of the British Foreign Office:
George Orwell's reputation as a left-wing icon took a body-blow
from which it may never recover when it was revealed in 1996 that he had
cooperated closely with IRD's Cold Warriors, even offering his own black-list
of eighty-six Communist "fellow-travelers." As the Daily Telegraph
noted, "To some, it was as if Winston Smith had willingly cooperated with
the Thought Police in 1984."
This, or something like it, is a recounting of events that now enjoys quite
extensive currency. It is easy to demonstrate, if only by the supporting
evidence presented by Lashmar and Oliver, that it is wholly mistaken. And
I have selected their synopsis because it is free of the Orwell-hatred that
disfigures many other versions of the story.
Just as a matter of record, then:
1. The existence of Orwell's list of Stalinized intellectuals was not "revealed"
in 1996. It appears in Professor Bernard Crick's biography, which was first
published in 1980.
2. A blacklist is a collection of names maintained by those with the power
to affect hiring and firing. To be blacklisted is to be denied employment
for political reasons unconnected to job performance. The word does not now
have, and never has had, any other meaning.
3. Even if the Daily Telegraph
says so, and although it has not chosen
to specify the "some" who chose to think it, the Information Research Department
was unconnected to any "thought police," to say nothing of the thought police
as they actually feature in the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four
But this is by no means to exhaust the utter distortion of Orwell's motives
and methods that is involved in the rapid but shallow dissemination of this
"disclosure." The simple facts of the case are these. Together with his friend
Richard Rees, Orwell had for some time enjoyed playing what Rees himself
called a "parlor game." This game consisted of guessing which public figures
would, or would not, sell out in the event of an invasion or a dictatorship.
Orwell had been playing this game, in a serious as well as a frivolous way,
for some little time. On New Year's Day 1942 he wrote, in a lengthy dispatch
for Partisan Review
, about the varieties of defeatist opinion to be
found among British journalists and intellectuals. His tone was detached;
he noted the odd alliances between widely discrepant factions. He also analyzed
the temptation among intellectuals to adapt themselves to power, as instanced
by developments across the Channel:
Both Vichy and the Germans have found it quite easy to keep a
façade of "French culture" in existence. Plenty of intellectuals were
ready to go over, and the Germans were quite ready to make use of them, even
when they were "decadent." At this moment Drieu de la Rochelle is editing
the Nouvelle Revue Française, Pound is bellowing against the
Jews on the Rome radio, and Céline is a valued exhibit in Paris, or
at least his books are. All of these would come under the heading of kulturbolschewismus,
but they are also useful cards to play against the intelligentsia in Britain
and the USA. If the Germans got to England, similar things would happen,
and I think I could make out at least a preliminary list of the people
who would go over [my italics].
Notice the date of this. It should be borne in mind here that until recently
the Soviet Union had been in a military alliance with Hitler—an alliance
loudly defended by Britain's Communists—and that Moscow Radio had denounced
the British naval blockade of Nazi Germany as a barbaric war on civilians.
The German Communist Party had published a statement in 1940 in which it
was discovered that for dialectical reasons the British Empire was somewhat
worse than the National Socialist one. Orwell never tired of pointing these
things out; they were the sort of illusions or delusions that could have
real consequences. Nor did he omit to mention and specify the sorts of intellectual—E.H.
Carr being a celebrated instance—who could transfer his allegiance with sinister
smoothness from one despotic regime to another.
No less to the point, he had discovered in Spain that the Communist strategy
relied very heavily upon the horror and terror of anonymous denunciation,
secret informing, and police espionage. At that date, the official hero of
all young Communists was Pavlik Morozov, a fourteen-year-old "Pioneer" who
had turned in his family to the Soviet police for the offense of hoarding
grain. The villagers had slain him as a result; statues of the martyr-child
were commonplace in the USSR and it was the obligation of a good Party member
to emulate his example.
Orwell's disgust at this culture of betrayal was not confined to the visceral
style by which he portrayed and condemned it in Nineteen Eighty-Four
He showed a lifelong hatred for all forms of censorship, proscription, and
blacklisting. Even when Sir Oswald Mosley was released from prison at the
height of the Second World War—a piece of lenience which inspired many complaints
from supposed antifascists— Orwell commented that it was unpleasant to see
the left protesting at the application of habeas corpus
. He took the
same line with those who objected to lifting the government ban on the publication
of the Daily Worker
, only taking time to notice that this habit of
intolerance had been acquired by many people from the Daily Worker
own editors. In May 1946 he wrote that the main danger from any Communist-led
split in the Labour movement was that it "could hardly result in a Communist-controlled
government, but it might bring back the Conservatives—which, I suppose, would
be less dangerous from the Russian point of view than the spectacle of a
Labour government making a success of things."
This last sentence approaches the crux of the matter. The extreme left and
the democratic left had concluded in different ways that Stalinism was a
negation of socialism and not a version of it. Orwell had seen the extreme
left massacred by Stalin's agents in Spain, and he was one of the few to
call attention to the execution of the Polish socialist Bund leaders Henryk
Erlich and Victor Alter on Stalin's orders in 1943. For him, the quarrel
with the "Stalintern" was not an academic question, or a difference of degree.
He felt it as an intimate and very present threat. And the campaign to ban
or restrict his books—to "blacklist" him and his writing—had been led by
surreptitious Communist sympathizers who worked both in publishing and in
the offices of the British state. It was a bureaucrat in the Ministry of
Information named Peter Smolka who had quietly helped orchestrate the near
suppression of Animal Farm
. One might
therefore put it like this: in the late 1940s Orwell was fighting for survival
as a writer, and also considered the survival of democratic and socialist
values to be at stake in the struggle against Stalin.
Was it possible to conduct this struggle without lending oneself to "the
forces of reaction"? In everything he wrote and did at the time, Orwell strove
to make exactly that distinction. He helped to organize and circulate a statement
from the Freedom Defense Committee which objected to the purge of supposed
political extremists from the Civil Service, insisting that secret vetting
procedures be abolished and that the following safeguards be implemented:
(a) The individual whose record is being investigated should
be permitted to call a trade union or other representative to speak on his
(b) All allegations should be required to be substantiated by
corroborative evidence, this being particularly essential in the case of
allegations made by representatives of MI5 or the Special Branch of Scotland
Yard, when the sources of information are not revealed.
(c) The Civil Servant concerned, or his representative, should
be allowed to cross-examine those giving evidence against him.
Signed by, among others, Orwell, E.M. Forster, Osbert Sitwell, and Henry
Moore, this statement was first published in the Socialist Leader
on August 21, 1948. (I cannot resist noting that this was twenty years to
the day before the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, and saw print at
the time when Czechoslovakia was being efficiently Stalinized, as well as
ethnically cleansed of its German-speaking inhabitants, with the collaboration
of many apparently "non-Party" front organizations. Orwell was one of the
few to inveigh against either development, anticipating both Ernest Gellner
and Václav Havel in seeing the anti-German racism as a demagogic cover
for an authoritarian and nationalist state.) These details do not appear
in any published book on the subject of Orwell's supposed role as a police
spy, most accounts preferring to draw back in shock at the very idea that
he had any contact with the British Foreign Office.
What, then, was the extent of this contact? On March 29, 1949, Orwell received
a visit at his hospital bedside from Celia Kirwan, who was among other things
an official of the IRD. She was also the sister-in-law of Arthur Koestler,
and Orwell had already, in that capacity, met her and proposed marriage to
her. They discussed the necessity of recruiting socialist and radical individuals
to the fight against the Communists. This subject was already close to Orwell's
heart, as can be seen from the story of his effort to get Animal Farm
circulated clandestinely in Eastern Europe. Ms. Kirwan was close to his heart
also, and some defenders of Orwell have kindly suggested that this, together
with his much-etiolated physical condition, may have led to a moment of weakness.
I find this defense both sentimental and improbable. He told her what he
would have told anyone, and what he said in print whenever the opportunity
afforded itself, which was that many presentable leftists of good reputation
were not to be trusted when it came to the seductions of Moscow. On April
6 he wrote to Richard Rees asking him to find and forward his "quarto notebook
with a pale-bluish cardboard cover," in which could be found "a list of crypto-Communists
& fellow-travellers which I want to bring up to date." This in itself
shows that Orwell had not originally drawn up the list at the behest of the
state. No doubt there was another notebook with the names of the old Nazi
sympathizers and potential collaborators, but no matter. Orwell is not today
being impeached for keeping lists, merely for keeping them on the wrong people.
The incurable inanity of British officialdom and "official secrecy" means
that the list of thirty-five names given to Celia Kirwan is still not open
to our scrutiny. The Public Record Office states demurely and fatuously that
"a document has been withheld by the Foreign Office." It was at one point
conceivable that this measure was taken to protect living people from Orwell's
posthumous opinion; even that absurd pretext must now have decayed with time.
However, we have the notebook if not the "update" and we do not require official
permission to make up our own minds.
The list certainly illustrates Orwell's private resentments and eccentricities.
Very little of it, in point of fact, materializes Rees's confirmation that
"this was a sort of game we played—discussing who was a paid agent of what
and estimating to what lengths of treachery our favourite bêtes
would be prepared to go." To be exact, only one person is ever
accused of being an agent, and even there the qualifying words "almost certainly"
are applied. This was Peter Smolka, alias Smollett, a former Beaverbrook
newspaper executive and holder of the OBE, who was the very official in the
Ministry of Information who had put pressure on Jonathan Cape to drop Animal
. It has since been conclusively established that Smolka was indeed
an agent of Soviet security; this represents a match of 100 percent between
Orwell's allegation of direct foreign recruitment and the known facts. As
he phrased it rather mildly in his letter to Celia Kirwan, in which he enclosed
his list, it wasn't "very sensational and I don't suppose it will tell your
friends anything they don't know.... If it had been done earlier it would
have stopped people like Peter Smollett worming their way into important
propaganda jobs where they were probably able to do us a lot of harm." The
"us" here is the democratic left.
On the very same day, Orwell wrote to Richard Rees, saying that just because
a certain Labour MP was a friend of the flagrant and notorious Konni Zilliacus,
this did not prove he was "a crypto." He added: "It seems to me very important
to attempt to gauge people's subjective
feelings, because otherwise
one can't predict their behaviour in situations where the results of certain
actions are clear even to a self-deceiver....The whole difficulty is to decide
where each person stands, & one has to treat each case individually."
The staffers of Senator Joseph McCarthy did not possess even the inklings
of this discrimination.
Few of the thumbnail sketches run to more than a dozen or so freehand and
laconic words. And many of them stand the test of time remarkably well. Who
could object to the summary of Kingsley Martin as "Decayed liberal. Very
dishonest"? Or, to take another and later editor of the New States-man
to the shrewd characterization of Richard Crossman as "??Political Climber.
Zionist (appears sincere about this). Too dishonest to be outright F.T. [fellow
traveler]"? The latter has a nice paradox to it; Orwell had a respect for
honest Leninists. Almost one third of the entries end in the verdict "Probably
not" or "Sympathizer only," in the space reserved for Party allegiance. J.B.
Priestley is recorded as making huge sums from advantageously published Soviet
editions of his works; well, so he did, as it now turns out.
Some critics, notably Frances Stonor Saunders in her book Who Paid the
, have allowed a delicate wrinkling of the nostril at Orwell's
inclusion of details about race, and what is now termed "sexual preference."
It is true that Isaac Deutscher is listed as a "Polish Jew," and it is also
true that he was a Polish Jew. But then Louis Adamic is identified—and why
not? —as "Born in Slovenia not Croatia." The protean Konni Zilliacus, then
a very influential figure, is queried rather than identified as "Finnish?
'Jewish'?" (He was both.) I have to admit that I laughed out loud at seeing
Stephen Spender described as having a "Tendency towards homosexuality," which
would not exactly define him, and at seeing Tom Driberg written down as merely
"Homosexual," which was not to say the half of it. Ms. Saunders comments
haughtily that accusations of that kind could get a chap into trouble in
those days. Well, not in the British Secret Service or Foreign Office, they
Hugh MacDiarmid, the Stalin-worshiping Scots poet, was described by Orwell
as "Very anti-English." My friend Perry Anderson, editor of the New Left
, made something of this too, until I pointed out that MacDiarmid
had listed "Anglophobia" as one of his recreations in Who's Who
it was Perry Anderson who published, in his "Components of the National Culture"
in the New Left Review
in 1968, a chart giving the ethnic and national
origins of the cold war émigré intellectuals in Britain, from
Lewis Namier, Isaiah Berlin, E.H. Gombrich, and Bronislaw Malinowski to Karl
Popper, Melanie Klein, and indeed Isaac Deutscher. He reprinted the diagram
in his book English Questions
in 1992. I defended him both times.
These things are worth knowing.
There are some crankish bits in the list, as when Paul Robeson is written
off as "Very anti-white." But even some of the more tentative judgments about
Americans are otherwise quite perceptive. Henry Wallace, as editor of the
, had already caused Orwell to cease sending contributions
to a magazine in which he could sense a general softness on Stalin. In 1948,
Wallace's campaign for the American presidency probably ruined and compromised
the American left for a generation, because of his reliance on Communist
Party endorsement and organization. Veteran leftist critics of the Truman
administration, notably I.F. Stone, were mentally and morally tough enough
to point this out at the time.
All too much has been made of this relatively trivial episode, the last chance
for Orwell's enemies to vilify him for being correct. The points to keep
one's eye on are these: the IRD was not interested or involved in domestic
surveillance, and wanted only to recruit staunch socialists and Social Democrats;
nobody suffered or could have suffered from Orwell's private opinion; he
said nothing in "private" that he did not consistently say in public. And,
while a few on "the list" were known personally to Orwell, most were not.
This has its importance, since a "snitch" or stool pigeon is rightly defined
as someone who betrays friends or colleagues in the hope of plea-bargaining,
or otherwise of gaining advantage, for himself. By no imaginable stretch
could Orwell's views of Congressman Claude Pepper, or of Vice President Wallace,
fall into this category. Nor could it (or did it) damage their careers. And
there is no entry on "the list" that comes anywhere near, for sheer sulphuric
contempt, Orwell's published challenge to Professor J.D. Bernal, and the
other editors of the Modern Quarterly
, to come clean about whether
they were conscious agents of Stalin or not.
This was the period during which Orwell's samizdat
editions of Animal
were being confiscated in Germany by American officers and either
burned on the spot or turned over to the Red Army. It was indeed difficult
for him to oppose Stalinism and Western imperialism at the same time, while
attempting to hold on to his independence. But the stupidity of the state
only helped to make certain that, at any rate while he lived, he was always
its victim and never its servant. The British Foreign Office, which had been
erring on Stalin's side for almost a decade, suddenly needed anti-Stalinist
energy in the mid-1940s. It had nowhere to turn, in its search for credible
and honest writers, but to the Tribune
left. This is not, to take
the medium or the long view of history, the most disgraceful moment in the
record of British socialism. It is also part of the reason why there was
no McCarthyite panic or purge in Britain. The trahison des clercs
was steadily opposed, in both its Stalinoid and its conservative forms, by
groups like the Freedom Defense Committee. Orwell cannot posthumously be
denied his credit for keeping that libertarian and honest tradition alive.
 Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1998.
 Later information tells us that Henryk Erlich hanged himself in prison
in May 1942 while Victor Alter was shot in February 1943. In announcing the
deaths, which took place in Moscow, Molotov had not troubled to make this
distinction. See Gennadi Kostyrchenko, Out of the Red Shadows (Prometheus,
 Professor Peter Davison, the only scholar with comprehensive access to
the archives, points out that the original Rees-Orwell notebook (which included
names such as that of Orwell's tax inspector) is not the same as "the list."
For example, the names of Charlie Chaplin and Stephen Spender are not on
the list as it was received by the IRD, and Orwell himself crossed out the
names of J.B. Priestley and Tom Driberg. Paul Robeson—correctly listed as
a Stalinist in the notebook—was also spared the ordeal of being identified
to the IRD. Hardly surprising, since this body was asking only for sincere
socialists who opposed the Soviet design.