Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 June 2002

I apologise for returning to the subject of George Orwell’s list of alleged Stalinist sympathisers, but Elizabeth C Hazlehurst’s letter a fortnight ago (Tribune June 14) demands a response — not least because she got her facts wrong.

What actually happened was this. With his friend Richard Rees, Orwell in the late 1940s compiled a notebook listing people prominent in literary and political circles, mainly in Britain and the US, who they thought might be “crypto-communists” (secret members of the Communist Party) or “fellow-travellers” (non-members of the CP who publicly defended Stalin’s Russia).

There were — are — 135 names in this notebook, and most were published in a volume of Peter Davison’s edition of Orwell’s Collected Works in 1998 (the ones not published were those of people who were still alive, and they were excluded to avoid the possibility of libel actions).

There are four important factual points here:

  • This was a speculative list two friends put together for their own amusement. It was not intended for wider circulation, let alone publication.
  • Although some of the names in the notebook have notes appended that identify them as probable covert CP members or even Soviet agents, far more are defined as merely naïve, dishonest, sentimental or silly in their attitudes to the Soviet Union and the CP.
  • Orwell and Rees were largely accurate in their assessments. Nearly everyone in the notebook had expressed gushing admiration for Stalinist Russia or participated in CP-run campaigns.
  • The list in the notebook was not the list Orwell gave in 1949 to Celia Kirwan, a former girlfriend who had asked his advice on who should and who should not be asked to write by the Foreign Office propaganda outfit for which she worked, the newly established Information Research Department. The IRD list contained only “about 35” names, according to Orwell, and it has never been published: for reasons best known to the Public Records Office, it has been withheld from release. Although the names Hazlehurst mentions in her letter — Nancy Cunard, Cecil Day Lewis, Tom Driberg, John Steinbeck, Orson Welles et al — are in Orwell’s notebook, we don’t yet know whether they are on the IRD list.

Of course, the facts aren’t what are really at stake. The big questions are whether Orwell was right to compile his notebook for his own purposes and whether he was right to hand over the shorter list to the IRD.

On the first of these, I fail to see how anyone can object to a political journalist keeping tabs on his or her subjects’ political affiliations and backgrounds. Every political journalist does it. Unless you know, say, that the chair of campaign A is a member of the central committee of a Stalinist micro-party, or that the leader of trade union B is affiliated to a Trotskyist groupuscule, or that the columnist for respectable broadsheet C was once a lobbyist for Slobodan Milosevic, or that the Tory MP for D has repeatedly taken freebie holidays in Northern Cyprus, you miss important stories.

Handing over the shorter list to the IRD is more controversial — but I still don’t think that it amounted to more than a minor error of judgment. The purpose of the list was to advise the Foreign Office about whom not to hire to write articles, pamphlets and books for a new outfit that had been set up by the Labour government to counter Communist propaganda abroad with arguments for democratic socialism.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to argue that the IRD should never have been set up on the grounds that a democracy should have no recourse to propaganda — and there is a strong case for believing that in later years its role in spreading rumour and disinformation was reprehensible.

But in 1949, the idea of the IRD did not seem at all shady. There was good reason to fear Stalin’s intentions in Europe. The Soviet Union, itself a vile dictatorship, had ruthlessly suppressed nascent democracies in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, imposing pliant puppet dictatorships and imprisoning democratic socialists. West Berlin was under Soviet military blockade, and it seemed to many that Stalin was preparing for all-out war. Orwell was by no means alone on the Left in thinking a British socialist propaganda effort justified.

If there remains a case against Orwell’s action, it is that he did not know to what use his list would be put by the state. That was certainly a risk — but in the circumstances of the time it was an understandable one to take. It certainly should not be allowed to besmirch his reputation.

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