George Orwell, of all people, now stands accused of being an informant for the British secret service. In recent weeks, the British press has been filled with articles asking whether the inventor of Big Brother was a hypocrite for naming names.
Revelations about Orwell’s “secret list” have been trickling out for some years. In 1991, Michael Shelden published an excellent biography that revealed Orwell kept a notebook listing the names of people he took to be Communists or Communist sympathizers. In 1996, the British Foreign Office disclosed that Orwell had shared some of the names in his notebook with a Cold War-era outfit called the Information Research Department. With the British publication last month of Orwell’s complete works, in 20 volumes, we have a more complete story of what he did, despite the fact that the Foreign Office has yet to release the actual list of names Orwell submitted.
S urprisingly, little of the story has been reported in the United States. The only prominent mention was a confused quasi-defense that appeared on the New York Times op-ed page a few weeks ago. The author, Cold War historian Timothy Naftali, asserts that Orwell’s list showed and criticizes him for showing poor sense. The apparent point of the piece was not to challenge his reputation but rather to argue that those who named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee weren’t so bad, since they did only what Orwell had done in a time of difficult choices. Orwell defenders in Britain have emphasized that in May 1949, when he shared his list, he was on his deathbed. Some have suggested he was coaxed into cooperating by a woman he was in love with.
None of these excuses is necessary. What Orwell did was not the pardonable act of a dying man. It was the moral act of an ethical man–right not only in the context of the times but also in retrospect. The behavior he is now being excoriated for was not Orwellian, in the sense of 1984’s world of inverted truth–but Orwell-like, meaning that it was in keeping with a career based on political courage and intellectual integrity.
T o understand why Orwell did what he did, it’s necessary to reconstruct a bit of history. Orwell’s hatred of Soviet communism dates from 1937, the year he volunteered to go fight in the Spanish Civil War. In Barcelona, he was a witness to, and nearly a victim of, the Stalinist purge of independent elements on the left. Members of the Republican militias not controlled by Moscow–such as the POUM, for which Orwell fought–were being jailed and murdered. When Orwell tried to spill the beans about what was happening behind the lines, he was prevented by people who, though not CP members, viewed criticism of the Soviet Union as intolerable. These included Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, and Victor Gollancz, who had published Orwell’s early books. Homage to Catalonia (1938), which may be Orwell’s finest work, was finally published by the tiny firm of Secker & Warburg and sold only 700 copies. Orwell faced the same experience when he finished Animal Farm during World War II. Because of its criticism of the Soviet Union, no publisher but Warburg would touch it.
When World War II ended, Orwell became preoccupied with Stalin’s power grab in Eastern Europe and the way those whom he saw as dishonest intellectuals in the West were abetting it. With his friend Richard Rees, he played a game of trying to figure out who was what in the fellow-traveling constellation. In his notebook, Orwell listed 135 names–with remarks about who the people were, who he guessed might be “some kind of agent,” who a fellow traveler or “crypto,” and who merely “stupid,” “dishonest,” or “naïve.” He missed the mark a few times–John Steinbeck and Orson Welles didn’t fellow-travel very far. But Orwell was often not just correct but also uncanny. Peter Smollett, a journalist who headed the Russian Department of the British Ministry of Information during the war and whom Orwell described as “almost certainly an agent of some kind,” was later revealed to be, in fact, a Soviet agent. Peter Davison, the editor of the Complete Works, believes that Smollett was the person who talked Jonathan Cape, a prominent British publisher, into dropping Animal Farm. Orwell kept his private list up-to-date. When Upton Sinclair, a fellow traveler in the 1930s, turned anti-Stalinist after the war, Orwell crossed him out.
Orwell was not just a political commentator who spoke from the sidelines. He was someone who believed in choosing sides and taking action, even when the alternatives were imperfect. In 1948, he was busy arguing that it was necessary to choose the United States over Russia in the emerging Cold War. He criticized the editorial page of the Tribune, where he wrote a regular column, for failing to take a pro-American position, even though the paper was anti-Communist. It was in the midst of the Berlin Crisis in 1949 that Orwell received a hospital visit from Celia Paget, the sister-in-law of his friend and fellow anti-Stalinist Arthur Koestler. As Shelden recounts in his biography, Koestler had fixed Paget up with Orwell after his wife suddenly died in 1945. Orwell was enough taken with her to propose marriage, rather abruptly. Though Paget refused him, they became good friends.
After going to work for the IRD, a department roughly analogous to the U.S. Information Agency, she asked Orwell for help in countering Communist propaganda around the world. Orwell declined the offer of a commission to write a pamphlet, in part because he was too ill–he was suffering from tuberculosis and would be dead in eight months. But he was happy to recommend others suited to the task, such as Franz Borkenau, an ex-Communist who wrote the best book other than Orwell’s about the Spanish Civil War. Orwell also told Paget that there were people the IRD should avoid. He asked his friend Rees to bring the notebook he kept at home to the sanitarium in the Cotswolds where he was dying. From his list of 135 names–not all of which have been revealed, because some of the people are still alive–Orwell chose only 35 people of whom he said he was fairly sure. The New YorkTimes published excerpts from the larger list of 135, even including people Orwell had crossed off, leaving the impression that he had submitted them all for blacklisting. The names Orwell submitted are almost certainly those marked with a red asterisk on his longer list and do not include such familiar ones as Stephen Spender or Michael Redgrave.
Orwell asked that his list remain secret not because there was anything shameful about it, but because he feared it was libelous. Where he could say the same thing publicly, he did. Many of those on his list are people Orwell wrote against in the Tribune and in his “London Letter” for Partisan Review. There is no analogy to the behavior of those like Elia Kazan, who named names before House Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan betrayed friends in order to protect himself. People lost their jobs and had their lives ruined as a result. Orwell named enemies, not friends. And they weren’t his personal enemies, they were people he believed to be enemies of liberty. Nor were their civil liberties infringed as a result. The only consequence of appearing on Orwell’s list is that you weren’t likely to be asked for help by the British Foreign Office.
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