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…

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