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Orwell’s List

On receiving her note, he wrote back at once, enclosing his list of thirty-eight: “It isn’t very sensational and I don’t suppose it will tell your friends anything they don’t know.” (Note the reference to “your friends”; Orwell had no illusion that this was just going to her.)

At the same time it isn’t a bad idea to have the people who are probably unreliable listed. 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. Even as it stands I imagine that this list is very libellous, or slanderous, or whatever the term is, so will you please see that it is returned to me without fail.

The letter was signed “with love, George.”

On the same day, he wrote again to Richard Rees:

Suppose for example that Laski had possession of an important military secret. Would he betray it to the Russian military intelligence? I don’t imagine so, because he has not actually made up his mind to be a traitor, & the nature of what he was doing would in that case be quite clear. But a real Communist would, of course, hand the secret over without any sense of guilt, & so would a real crypto, such as Pritt [the MP, D.N. Pritt]. The whole difficulty is to decide where each person stands, & one has to treat each case individually.


At this point, maddeningly, the paper trail goes cold. We know that Celia Kirwan was supposed to come to see Orwell on the next Sunday and that he thanked her on May 13 for sending a bottle of brandy. Did she return the list if she went to visit him again, having had the copy now in file FO 1110/189 typed up in the department? What did they say at that meeting, if it took place? What happened next? Were these names handed on to any other department?

The file itself shows no further action taken with respect to the names listed. In his letter to me, announcing the release of the original, the foreign secretary writes, “A check of our records confirms that the list is the only document about Orwell’s contacts with IRD that has been withheld.” But a good many other IRD files have been withheld, and parts of released documents blanked out, on the grounds that they contain intelligence-related matter and are therefore covered by what Foreign Office archivists call “the blanket.” Anyway, only part of the truth is ever contained in files.

A serious answer to these questions requires a judgment on the nature of this mysterious department, the IRD. I have therefore immersed myself in the published literature about it and read some of the files that have been released to the Public Record Office.2 I have also talked to several former members of the department at that time. They include Adam Watson, the official who instructed Celia Kirwan to ask Orwell for his list; Robert Conquest, the veteran chronicler of Soviet terror, who subsequently shared an office with Celia Kirwan and himself fell “madly in love” with her; and the aptly named John Cloake.

The picture that emerges is of an ill-defined outfit, with a very diverse group of people fumbling their way from the recently finished war against fascist totalitarianism, in which most of them had fought, into the new “cold” war against the communist totalitarianism of Britain’s recent wartime ally. IRD was a semisecret department. Unlike the secret intelligence service, popularly known as MI6, whose very existence was denied by the government, IRD appeared in the lists of Foreign Office departments, but not all its officers were identified there. Much of its funding came from the “Secret Vote,” a governmental appropriation used to fund the secret services and not subject to the usual forms of parliamentary scrutiny. An internal Foreign Office description from 1951 says flatly, “It should be noted that the name of this department is intended as a disguise for the true nature of its work, which must remain strictly confidential.”3

In the beginning, that “true nature” was mainly to collect and summarize reliable information about Soviet and communist misdoings, to disseminate it to friendly journalists, politicians, and trade unionists, and to support, financially and otherwise, anticommunist publications. The department was established by the Labour foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, and it was particularly interested in authors with good credentials on the left. Bertrand Russell, for example, wrote three short books whose publication was subsidized by the IRD: Why Communism Must Fail, What Is Freedom?, and What Is Democracy? According to IRD veterans, some authors, like Russell, knew perfectly well that the publisher (Background Books) who approached them to write a book was backed by this semisecret department of the Foreign Office; others, such as the philosopher Bryan Magee, who contributed The Democratic Revolution, were outraged when they subsequently learned the source of the publisher’s funds. The pattern is familiar from other well-known episodes of the cultural cold war, such as the CIA funding for Encounter.

The better-known of these authors would obviously have been published anyway, but IRD helped to give their work a wider circulation, especially in foreign countries that were already under communism or seen as threatened by it. In Orwell’s case, it supported Burmese, Chinese, and Arabic editions of his Animal Farm, commissioned a rather crude strip-cartoon version of the same book (giving the pig Major a Lenin beard, and the pig Napoleon a Stalin moustache, in case simple-minded readers didn’t get the point), and organized showings in “backward” areas of the British Commonwealth of a CIA-financed—and politically distorted—animated film of Animal Farm.

The department also established a close working relationship with the overseas services of the BBC. In one file that I have read, IRD officials tried to press Sir Ian Jacob, then head of the BBC’s European Service, to adopt its recommendations for the choice of words to describe the Soviet state.^4 In this case, the BBC resisted the pressure, and the Foreign Office official overseeing IRD told his subordinates to back off.

However, it seems that some IRD operatives did not stop with these relatively mild means of what Ernest Bevin called “anti-communist publicity.” Using methods they had learned in the previous war, working for the Political Warfare Executive or for MI6, they apparently tried to combat what they saw as communist infiltration of the trade unions, the BBC, or organizations like the National Council for Civil Liberties by identifying members who were or were alleged to be communists, by spreading dark rumors about their activities—and perhaps worse.

So we must imagine Robert Conquest sitting in one room at Carlton House Terrace, scrupulously gathering and sifting information about East European politics. In another office, a former member of the World War II Political Warfare Executive or of MI6 might be preparing some slightly less scrupulous operation. Next door you could meet the charming professional diplomat Guy Burgess, who worked in IRD for three months—and, being a Soviet agent, told his controllers in Moscow all about it. Down the corridor, though only beginning in 1952, sat a young woman called Fay. The novelist Fay Weldon later recalled that when a visitor came from MI6 she and her colleagues would be told “turn your backs!” so this James Bond figure could walk down the corridor unseen. (“Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by.”) But they peeked.

As the cold war intensified, the white propaganda of the early years seems to have been increasingly supplemented with gray and black. By the late 1950s, according to someone who worked for British intelligence agencies at that time, IRD had a reputation as “the dirty tricks department” of the Foreign Office, indulging in character assassination, false telegrams, putting itching powder on lavatory seats, and other such cold war pranks…little of which will be found in the files, even if the intelligence-related ones are finally released.

All the survivors insist that it is most unlikely that any names supplied by Orwell in 1949 would have been passed on to anyone else, and especially not to MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, or MI6, in charge of foreign intelligence. “In all honesty,” Adam Watson told me, “I cannot remember any case in which we said [to MI5 or MI6], “Did you realize that X says So-and-so is a crypto-communist?” However, as Mr. Watson himself cautioned me, “old men forget.” Clearly no one can ever know exactly what, say, the head of the department, Ralph Murray, might have muttered to a friend from MI6 over a brandy at the Travellers’ Club, just around the corner from Carlton House Terrace.

Celia Kirwan always strongly defended Orwell’s contribution to the work of IRD. In the 1990s there was fevered speculation about his list. The Marxist historian Christopher Hill said, “I always knew he was two-faced.” The Labour MP Gerald Kaufman wrote in the Evening Standard that “Orwell was a Big Brother too.” Celia Kirwan insisted:

I think George was quite right to do it…. And, of course, everybody thinks that these people were going to be shot at dawn. The only thing that was going to happen to them was that they wouldn’t be asked to write for the Information Research Department.

Some writers today suggest the IRD’s anticommunist activities were Britain’s equivalent of the McCarthyite witch-hunt. If so, then one is struck by how mild it was by comparison with the American McCarthyism which prompted Arthur Miller to write The Crucible and Charlie Chaplin to flee back to Orwell’s Britain.

Consider who some of the people on the list were, and what happened to them. Peter Smollett was singled out by Orwell for special mention in his covering letter to Celia. Under “Remarks” on his list, Orwell noted: “…gives strong impression of being some kind of Russian agent. Very slimy person.” Born in Vienna as Peter Smolka, during World War II Smollett was the head of the Soviet section in the British Ministry of Information—one of Orwell’s inspirations for the Ministry of Truth. We now know two more things about him. First, according to the Mitrokhin Archive of KGB documents, Smollett-Smolka actually was a Soviet agent, recruited by Kim Philby, with the codename “ABO.” Second, he was almost certainly the official on whose advice the publisher Jonathan Cape turned down Animal Farm as an unhealthily anti-Soviet text. How, then, did the British state prosecute or persecute this Soviet agent? By making him an Officer of the British Empire (OBE). Subsequently, he was the London Times correspondent in Central Europe. The worst thing that seems to have happened to him is that some of his short stories about postwar Vienna were heavily drawn upon by Graham Greene for The Third Man. In the film, he makes an insider-joke phantom appearance as what the viewer must assume is the name of a bar or nightclub called “Smolka.”

The Labour MP Tom Driberg—“Usually named as ‘crypto,’ but in my opinion NOT reliably pro-CP”—was, according to the Mitrokhin KGB papers, recruited in 1956 as a doubtless deeply unreliable Soviet agent (codename LEPAGE), after a compromising homosexual encounter with an agent of the KGB’s Second Chief Directorate in a lavatory under the Metropole hotel in Moscow. Nonetheless, he ended his life as a celebrated writer and Lord Bradwell of Bradwell juxta mare. E.H. Carr, Isaac Deutscher, the novelist Naomi Mitchison (a “silly sympathiser”), and J.B. Priestley all pursued very successful careers without, so far as we know, any hindrance from the British government. Michael Redgrave went on, ironically enough, to play a leading role in the 1956 film of Orwell’s 1984.

In other words, nothing bad happened to them even when, as in the case of Smollett, it arguably should have. To be sure, we cannot conclusively say that this was true of all the lesser-known writers and journalists on the list of thirty-eight: that requires further investigation. The only case of anything like a possible “blacklisting” that I have found so far is that of Alaric Jacob, a minor writer who had attended the same private school as Orwell and followed his subsequent progress with resentment. According to one study of British political vetting, Alaric Jacob joined the BBC monitoring service at Caversham in August 1948, but in February 1951 was “suddenly refused establishment rights, which meant he would receive no pension.”5 He complained to his cousin, the same Sir Ian Jacob who had dealings with IRD and later became director general of the BBC. Alaric Jacob’s establishment and pension rights were restored shortly after his wife—Iris Morley, who also appears on Orwell’s list—died in 1953.

The way in which the BBC collaborated with semisecret departments like the IRD, and with the intelligence services for secret vetting of its employees, is one of the murkier passages of Britain’s cold war. But a two-year loss of BBC “establishment rights” is hardly Darkness at Noon or a session in Room 101. Anyway, there is no evidence that Orwell’s list had anything to do with the temporary blacklisting of Alaric Jacob nearly two years later.


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.

The most delicate and speculative part of any interpretation concerns Orwell’s relationship with Celia Kirwan. There is, in his letters to Celia, an almost painful eagerness. You sense in them his continued strong feelings for a particularly attractive, warmhearted, and cultured woman. But in all we know about him at this time, you also sense something broader: the more generalized, rather desperate craving of a mortally sick man for affectionate female support. One recalls the emotional turmoil of three years before, when he precipitately proposed not just to Celia but also to two or three other younger women. Lonely, stuck in that Cotswold sanatorium, loathing the thought that he was physically done for at the age of forty-five, did he yearn to combat approaching death with the love of a beautiful woman?

Celia, while remaining a staunch friend, did not encourage any renewal of George’s gruff advances. However, soon after their exchange about the list another beautiful young Englishwoman, to whom he had also proposed in that earlier bout of emotional turmoil, returned from Paris, like Celia, and came to see him at the sanatorium. In Sonia Brownell’s case, she was on the rebound from a passionate romance with the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Perhaps sensing some encouragement, Orwell proposed to her again. Egged on by his forceful publisher, Frederic Warburg, Sonia accepted.

In 1984, Winston Smith’s protest against totalitarian bureaucracy is to have sex with Julia—a character at least partly modeled on Sonia. In real life, was it, at least in part, his desire for Celia’s affectionate attention that brought “Mr. Orwell” into the secret files of the British bureaucracy?

This biographical speculation is not to trivialize his conscious political choice to supply those names to a department of the Foreign Office. Nonetheless, you have to ask yourself this question: Had it been a bowler-hatted and pin-striped Mr. Cloake who came to visit him on March 29, 1949, would he have offered to send him the list? But it wasn’t Mr. Cloake. It was his “dearest Celia.”

Orwell sought desperately to fight his last enemy, death; yet it was his early death that secured his immortality. Tempting as it is to speculate, in the light of the list, about which way he would have gone if he had lived—an iconoclastic left-wing voice on the New Statesman? a curmudgeonly old cold warrior on Encounter?—this is strictly illegitimate. We will never know. One thing, however, is clear: he would have taken definite, strong political stands, and therefore alienated people on the left or the right, and probably both. Only his early death allowed everyone to beatify him in their own way. And he would have written more books—possibly, as his previous novels and last draft story might suggest, less good ones than Animal Farm and 1984. Untimely death made him the James Dean of the cold war, the John F. Kennedy of English letters.

How we would all have loved to read his views on the building of the Berlin Wall, on the Vietnam War, and on the 1968 student protests. How I would have enjoyed meeting him in Central Europe in 1989, aged eighty-six, as the Soviet communist Big Brother finally collapsed. How wonderful it would be to hear his voice today—a voice that we imagine all the more vividly because no recording of it survives—commenting on the propaganda language of the Iraq war, or the continuing miseries of Burma, or the dilemmas of Tony Blair. But the hundred-year-old Orwell growls through the asterisks and crossouts of his notebook, “Don’t be silly. Work it out for yourself.”

  1. 2

    A detailed but tendentious account is Paul Lashmar and James Oliver, Britain’s Secret Propaganda War, 1948–1977 (Sutton, 1998). A shorter but much more nuanced treatment is in Hugh Wilford, The CIA, the British Left and the Cold War: Calling the Tune? (Frank Cass, 2003). See also W. Scott Lucas and C.J. Morris, “A Very British Crusade: The Information Research Department and the Beginning of the Cold War,” in British Intelligence, Strategy and the Cold War, edited by Richard J. Aldrich (Routledge, 1992); Phillip Deery, “Confronting the Cominform: George Orwell and the Cold War Offensive of the Information Research Department, 1948–50,” in Labour History, No. 73 (November 1977); IRD: Origins and Establishment of the Foreign Office Information Research Department, 1946–48 (FCO Historians’ History Notes, No. 9, August 1995); and the brief, accusatory treatment in Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granta, 1999).

  2. 3

    Minute of April 21, 1951, in FO 1110/383.

  3. 5

    Mark Hollingsworth and Richard Norton-Taylor, Blacklist: The Inside Story of Political Vetting (Hogarth Press, 1988).

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