Orwell’s List

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:

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.

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.

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…

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