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Orwell’s List

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 bête 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.”

Over the last decade, “Orwell’s List” has been the subject of many articles with lurid headlines such as “Big Brother of the Foreign Office,” “Socialist Icon Who Became an Informer,” and “How Orwell’s Blacklist Aided Secret Service.” All this speculative denunciation of the author of 1984 has been based on three incomplete sources: the publication of many (but not all) entries from the strictly private notebook in which Orwell attempted to identify “cryptos” and “F.T.” (his abbreviation for fellow travelers), his published correspondence with Celia Kirwan, and the partial release seven years ago of the relevant files from the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office. But in file FO 1110/189 a card was inserted, next to a copy of Orwell’s letter to Celia of April 6, 1949, saying a document had been withheld.

There the matter rested, with Her Majesty’s Government solicitously guarding one of Orwell’s last secrets, until shortly after Celia Kirwan’s death last autumn, when her daughter, Ariane Bankes, found a copy of the list among her mother’s papers, and subsequently invited me to write about it. After we published the list in the Guardian, I asked the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, to release the original.1 He agreed, “since all the information contained in it is now in the public domain,” and anyone interested can now read it in its proper place, file FO 1110/189 at the British National Archives.


So there is the text. What is the context? 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.

However, he also knew this was a time in which genuine, idealistic believers in communism were becoming disgusted by what they saw. Some turned into the most acute critics of The God That Failed, to quote the title of the famous book about communism co-edited by Arthur Koestler and the Labour MP Richard Crossman which appeared in the month of Orwell’s death, January 1950, with an introduction by Crossman and essays by, among others, Koestler, Stephen Spender, and Ignazio Silone. These writers were especially important to anticommunist leftists like Orwell who were convinced, as he himself wrote, “that the destruction of the Soviet myth [is] essential if we want to revive the Socialist movement.” At some point in the mid- to late 1940s he had started keeping a private notebook in which he tried to work out who was what: outright member of the CP, agent, “F.T.,” sentimental sympathizer….

The notebook, which I have been able to consult without restriction at the Orwell Archive at University College, London, shows that he worried away at the list. It contains entries in pen and pencil, with asterisks in red and blue against some names. There are 135 names in all, of which ten have been crossed out, either because the person had died—like Fiorello La Guardia, the former mayor of New York—or because Orwell had decided they were not crypto-communists or fellow travelers. Thus, for example, the name of the historian A.J.P. Taylor is crossed out, with Orwell’s heavily underlined remark “Took anti-CP line at Wroclaw Conference,” as is that of the American novelist Upton Sinclair, on whom, rejecting his own earlier assessment, Orwell comments: “No. Denounced Czech coup & Wroclaw conference.” Stephen Spender (“Sentimental sympathiser… Tendency towards homosexuality”) and Richard Crossman (“Too dishonest to be outright F.T.”) are not yet crossed out; but this was before the appearance of The God That Failed. The way Orwell agonized over his individual assessments is shown by the entry on J.B. Priestley. This has against it a red asterisk, which is crossed out with black cross-hatching and then encircled in blue with an added question mark.

To this depressed and mortally ill political writer of genius there came, in February 1949, a delightful piece of personal news. Celia Kirwan (née Paget) had returned to London from Paris. Celia was a strikingly beautiful, vivacious, and warmhearted young woman who moved in left-wing literary circles, as did her twin sister Mamaine, then married to Orwell’s friend Arthur Koestler. Orwell had met Celia when they spent Christmas together in Wales with Arthur and Mamaine in 1945. He was lonely and in some emotional turmoil after the death of his first wife earlier that year. Celia and he got on very well, and met again several times in London. One evening just five weeks after their first meeting, he sent her a passionate letter, full of tender feeling and rather clumsily proposing either marriage or an affair. It ended, “good night my dearest love, George.” Celia gently refused him in what she later described as a “rather ambiguous letter,” but they remained close friends. A year later, she went to work for an intellectual review in Paris.

Dearest Celia,” he now wrote from the Cotswold Sanatorium on February 13, “how delightful to get your letter and know that you are in England again.” “I will send you a copy of my new book [i.e., 1984] when it comes out (about June I think), but I don’t think you’ll like it; it’s an awful book really.” Saying he hoped to see her “some time, perhaps in the summer” he signed off “with much love, George.”

Sooner than expected, on March 29, Celia came to visit him in Glouces-tershire; but she also came with a mission. She was working for this new department of the Foreign Office, trying to counter the assault waves of communist propaganda emanating from Stalin’s recently founded Comin- form. Could he help? As she recorded in her official memorandum of their meeting, Orwell “expressed his whole-hearted and enthusiastic approval of our aims.” He couldn’t write anything for IRD himself, he said, because he was too ill and didn’t like to write “on commission,” but he suggested several people who might. On April 6 he followed up with a letter in his neat, rather delicate handwriting, suggesting a few more names and offering his list of those “who 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, as I imagine it is libellous to describe somebody as a fellow-traveller.”

Celia circulated the letter to her superior, Adam Watson, who made some comments, then added,

P.S. Mrs. Kirwan should certainly ask Mr. Orwell for the list of crypto-communists. She would “treat it with every confidence” and send it back after a day or two. I hope the list gives reasons in each case.

Mrs. Kirwan did as she was asked, writing from “Foreign Office, 17 Carlton House Terrace” on April 30:

Dear George, Thank you so much for your helpful suggestions. My department were very interested to see them…. They have asked me to say that they would be very grateful if you could let us look at your list of fellow-travelling and crypto journalists: we would treat it with the utmost discretion.

Her letter, at least in the typewritten version contained in file FO 1110/189, has a cooler ending than his: “Yours ever, Celia.”

Meanwhile, Orwell asked his old friend Richard Rees to send him the notebook from the remote house on the Scottish island of Jura where he had written 1984. Thanking him for it on April 17, he writes:

Cole [i.e., the historian G.D.H. Cole] I think should probably not be on the list but I would be less certain of him than of Laski in case of a war…. The whole business is very tricky, and one can never do more than use one’s judgement and treat each case individually.

So we must imagine Orwell lying in his sanatorium bed, gaunt and wretched, going through the notebook, perhaps adding a blue question mark to the red asterisk and black cross-hatching on Priestley, wondering how Cole or Laski, Crossman or Spender would behave in the event of a real, shooting war with the Soviet Union—and which of the 135 names to pass on to Celia.

  1. 1

    Guardian Review, June 21, 2003, reprints the whole list.

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