September 13, 2003


Orwell's List (Timothy Garton Ash, September 25, 2003, NY Review of Books)

So there it was at last, the copy of George Orwell's notorious list of "crypto-communists" that went into the files of a semisecret department of the Foreign Office on May 4, 1949. It lay before me in a buff folder on the office table of a senior Foreign Office archivist. Despite all the controversy around it, no unofficial person had been allowed to see the list for more than fifty-four years, since someone typed up this official copy of the original list that Orwell dispatched from his sickbed on May 2, 1949, to a close friend, Celia Kirwan. She had recently begun work in the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), which was concerned, among other things, with producing anticommunist propaganda. The list contains thirty-eight names of journalists and writers who, as he had written to Celia on April 6, "in my opinion are crypto-communists, fellow-travellers or inclined that way and should not be trusted as propagandists."

Orwell's list, which is divided into three columns headed "Name," "Job," and "Remarks," is eclectic. It includes Charlie Chaplin, J.B. Priestley, and the actor Michael Redgrave, all marked with "?" or "??," implying doubt whether they really were crypto-communists or fellow travelers. E.H. Carr, the historian of international relations and Soviet Russia, is dismissed as "Appeaser only." The editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, an old bĂȘte noire of Orwell's, gets the gloriously back-handed comment "?? Too dishonest to be outright 'crypto' or fellow-traveller, but reliably pro-Russian on all major issues." Beside the New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty and the former Trotskyist writer Isaac Deutscher ("Sympathiser only"), there are many lesser-known writers and journalists, starting with an industrial correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, described as "Probably sympathiser only. Good reporter. Stupid." [...]

In February 1949, George Orwell was lying in a sanatorium in the Cotswolds, very ill with the TB that would kill him within a year. That winter, he had worn himself out in a last effort to retype the whole manuscript of 1984, his bleak warning of what might happen if Britain succumbed to totalitarianism. He was lonely, despairing of his own wasted health, at the age of just forty-five, and deeply pessimistic about the advance of Russian communism, whose cruelty and treacherousness he had personally experienced, nearly at the cost of his own life in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. The communists had just taken over Czechoslovakia, in the Prague coup of February 1948, and they were now blockading West Berlin, trying to strangle the city into submission.

He thought there was a war on, a "cold war," and he feared that the Western nations were losing it. One reason we were losing, he thought, was that public opinion had been blinded to the true nature of Soviet communism. In part, this blinding was the product of understandable gratitude for the Soviet Union's immense role in defeating Nazism. However, it was also the work of a poisonous array of naive and sentimental admirers of the Soviet system, declared Communist Party (CP) members, covert ("crypto-") communists, and paid Soviet spies. It was these people, he suspected, who had made it so difficult for him to get his anti-Soviet fable Animal Farm published in the last year of the last war. [...]

"Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent," Orwell wrote of Gandhi just a few months before he sent Celia the list. Orwell's rule must now apply to Orwell himself, the Saint George of English political writing. Yet even when all possible files are released and a scrupulous historian has weighed all the available evidence on IRD, the BBC, and the rest, his "innocence" can never finally be proven. Perhaps Orwell would anyway not want to plead innocent but rather growl "guilty as charged." It all depends on the charge.

If the charge is that Orwell was a cold warrior, the answer is plainly yes. Orwell was a cold warrior even before the cold war began, warning against the danger of Soviet totalitarianism in Animal Farm when most people were still celebrating our heroic Soviet ally. He appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as the first writer ever to use the term "cold war" in English. He had fought with a gun in his hand against fascism in Spain, and was wounded by a bullet through his throat. He fought communism with his typewriter, and hastened his death by the exertion.

If the charge is that he was a secret police informer, the answer is plainly no. IRD was an odd cold war outfit, but it was nothing like a Thought Police. Unlike that dreadful genius Bertolt Brecht, Orwell never believed that the end justified the means. Again and again, we find him insisting to Richard Rees that you have to treat each case individually. He opposed the banning of the Communist Party in Britain. The Freedom Defence Committee, of which he was vice-chairman, thought political vetting of civil servants a necessary evil, but insisted that the person concerned should be represented by a trade union, that corroborative evidence must be produced, and that the accused should be allowed to cross-examine those giving evidence against him. Hardly the methods of the KGB —or, indeed, of MI5 or the FBI during the cold war. He told Celia that he approved of the aims of IRD; this does not mean that he would have approved of their subsequent methods.

The list invites us to reflect again on the asymmetry of our attitudes toward Nazism and communism. Orwell liked making lists. In a London Letter to Partisan Review in 1942 he wrote, "I think I could make out at least a preliminary list of the people who would go over" to the Nazi side if the Germans occupied England. Suppose he had. Suppose his list of crypto-Nazis had gone to the Political Warfare Executive. Would anyone be objecting?

The long-overdue publication of the IRD list also highlights the vital distinction, so often blurred, between Orwell's private notebook and the list he sent to Celia at the Foreign Office. Readers may, according to taste, be more shocked or amused by the entries in his notebook. There is about them a touch of the old imperial policeman, a hint of the spy, as well as a generous dose of his characteristic, gruff black humor. (He includes someone from the "Income Tax Dep't" in his notebook list: bloody communists, those tax inspectors.) But all writers are spies. They peek, like Fay Weldon in Carlton House Terrace. They secretly write things down in notebooks.

One aspect of the notebook that shocks our contemporary sensibility is his ethnic labeling of people, especially the eight variations of "Jewish?" (Charlie Chaplin), "Polish Jew," "English Jew," or "Jewess." Orwell's entire life was a struggle to overcome the prejudices of his class and generation; here was one he never fully overcame.

What remains most unsettling about the list he actually sent is the way in which a writer whose name is now a synonym for political independence and journalistic honesty is drawn into collaboration with a bureaucratic department of propaganda, however marginal the collaboration, "white" the propaganda, and good the cause. In the files of the IRD, you find the kind of bureaucratic language that we now habitually describe as Orwellian or Kafkaesque. Next to the very personal handwritten letter from Orwell ("Dear Celia...with love, George") in FO 1110/189 is a typewritten communication from the British embassy in Moscow: "Dear Department," it begins, and is signed, surreally, "yours ever, Chancery."

Yet perhaps we should not be surprised, for Orwell knew this kind of world from inside, and drew on it for his "awful book." While 1984 was a warning against totalitarianism of both the Nazi (that is, National Socialist) and communist (that is, Soviet Socialist) kind -- hence "Ingsoc" -- much of the physical detail was derived from his experience of wartime London, working in the BBC, itself a considerable British bureaucracy in close touch with the Ministry of Information and home to the original Room 101.

Read in its totality, this is a favorable piece, but note things like "He thought there was a war on..." and "drawn into collaboration with a bureaucratic department of propaganda" and the failure to discuss the beliefs and actions of those, like Walter Duranty, who appear on the list. Was there not a war on? Is it possible, in the context of wartime, to "collaborate" with your own government? Did Walter Duranty not help cover up Soviet atrocities?

The pertinent point here is the "asymmetry of our attitudes toward Nazism and communism" and the enduring hatred of the intellectual class for anti-communists. Had the list named crypto-Nazis, Nazi sympathizers, and fascist fellow travelers, no one on the Left would blink an eye.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 13, 2003 12:06 PM

"Had the list named crypto-Nazis, Nazi sympathizers. . . .

Excellent point. Interesting that there is more outrage in certain quarters (ahem) over intellectuals reporting on agents of the Fifth Column then there is outrage over the actual agents of the Fifth Column.

There's still that residue that these Communist supporters "meant well" or "believed in the ideals of equality". Bunkum. That may have been true for the early adherents of "the future". But after the revelations of the famines and show trials and deportations, those who continued to worship the God that failed were more than some "idealistic but-naive dreamers" devoted to eradicating racism and injustice. They knew what they were embracing.

Interesting that the left was outraged when the U.S. worked with former Nazis in post-war Germany. But no outrage now that we work with former Marxists in post-Soviet Russia.


Posted by: SteveMG at September 13, 2003 12:45 PM

It would have been nice if they'd actually reprinted the list!

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 13, 2003 5:26 PM