George Orwell
George Orwell; drawing by David Levine

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,1 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’s 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 1943.2 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 behalf.

(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.3

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 noires 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 Farm. 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 Piper?, 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 couldn’t.

Hugh MacDiarmid, the Stalin-worshiping Scots poet, was described by Orwell as “Very anti-English.” My friend Perry Anderson, editor of the New Left Review, made something of this too, until I pointed out that MacDiarmid had listed “Anglophobia” as one of his recreations in Who’s Who. And 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 New Republic, 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 Farm 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.

This Issue

September 26, 2002