Paul Anderson, Tribune column, May 20 2003

In marked contrast to the hoo-hah in the press over Cambridge Spies, the BBC’s big-budget television dramatisation of the already familiar tale of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, the genuinely newsworthy revelation in a new book of the identity of the Soviet agent who spied on George Orwell and other members of the Independent Labour Party contingent in Spain during the civil war in the 1930s has so far gone unremarked everywhere but the Guardian.

The story appears in a splendid new biography of Orwell by Gordon Bowker, and is the result of an extraordinary piece of historical detective work – aided by just a little bit of luck.

Back in the early 1980s, Bowker went to China to write for the Observer about the filming of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, and during his trip met several Western communists who had gone to live in China as admirers of Mao Zedong’s revolution. One of them was an Englishman in his seventies, David Crook, who had arrived with his Canadian wife Isabel in the late 1940s. The Crooks had written several books on the impact of the revolution on a remote village and were now working as teachers in a Beijing university. Crook’s enthusiasm for the regime was undimmed even though he had spent seven years in prison during the Cultural Revolution. He told Bowker that he had fought for the Republicans in Spain in the 1930s and had gone to China after reading Edgar Snow’s sympathetic account of Mao, Red Star Over China.

Bowker wrote up Crook’s story for the Listener and thought no more about it. But many years later, after publishing acclaimed biographies of the authors Malcolm Lowry and Lawrence Durrell, he started researching his book on Orwell. And in the Orwell archive in London, he came across a mention of a David Crook in a letter to Eileen Blair, Orwell’s first wife, who had followed him to Spain and worked there in the office of the British Independent Labour Party in Barcelona.

Could this be the same David Crook? Bowker managed to find one of Crook’s sons in London – who, to Bowker’s amazement, told him that his father had spied on Orwell for the Communist International. Crook was by now very ill after suffering a stroke in Beijing – he died in 2000 at the age of 90 – but, said the son, had talked at length to a researcher in the United States and had admitted his role in Spain.

With this lead, Bowker tracked down the researcher, then scoured the archives – and turned up crucial Soviet intelligence files (in International Brigades collections in New York and London, of all places) that show conclusively that the David Crook he met in China had indeed become a Comintern agent in Spain in early 1937 after fighting in one of the International Brigades, which he had joined on the recommendation of Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. They also show that, as part of the Stalinist campaign to liquidate Trotskyists and all other serious rivals on the revolutionary Left, he infiltrated the ILP contingent in Barcelona that was allied to the far-left (but non-Stalinist) POUM. As readers of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia will know, the POUM and its anarchist allies, hitherto the dominant force in the Catalan capital, were brutally suppressed in a Stalinist coup in May 1937.

Bowker says that Crook passed on everything he could find out about the ILPers – including Orwell – to his secret-police controllers, and that none of the ILPers seems to have suspected him. He was certainly one of the sources (along with at least one other British communist) for the indictment for treason issued by a Stalinist-controlled tribunal against Orwell and his wife just after they fled Spain in June 1937. It described both of them, wrongly, as “rabid Trotskyites”, and was intended to be their death warrant.

Beyond this, Crook’s precise role is murky. It is possible that he had sufficient scruples to help Orwell and others escape arrest in a raid by the Stalinist-controlled Spanish secret police, but it also likely that he played a small role in the notorious murder of Andres Nin, the POUM leader, and various other Stalinist crimes in Spain. Whatever, he remained a Comintern agent for at least another three years, ending up in China, before returning to Britain and joining the RAF. During the second world war, Bowker says, he served in RAF intelligence in Asia and the Far East.

It’s a fascinating story – and one that breaks new ground. Bowker has put together the most compelling evidence so far published of direct involvement by British communists in one of Stalin’s dirtiest crimes against socialism.

George Orwell by Gordon Bowker is published by Little Brown at £20.

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