George Orwell was a reactionary snitch who made a blacklist of leftists for the British government
It is fascinating seeing people in the 21st century, especially self-declared leftists, still lionizing George Orwell, the worst kind of reactionary turncoat.
For years, the cat has been out of the bag: George Orwell secretly worked for the UK’s Foreign Office. At the end of his life, he was an outright counter-revolutionary snitch, spying on leftists on behalf of the imperialist British government.
“Orwell’s List” is a term that should be known by anyone who claims to be a person of the left. It was a blacklist Orwell compiled for the British government’s Information Research Department, a propaganda unit set up for the Cold War.
The list includes dozens of suspected communists, “crypto-communists,” socialists, “fellow travelers,” and even LGBT people and Jews — their names scribbled alongside the sacrosanct 1984 author’s disparaging comments about the sensibilities and impulses of those blacklisted.
The document was declassified by the British government in 2003. The leading neoliberal newspaper The Guardian reported at the time that the blacklist “contains the names of 38 public figures, from the actors Charlie Chaplin and Michael Redgrave to the author JB Priestley, whom Orwell suggested should not be trusted by the IRD as anti-communist propagandists.”
Timothy Garton Ash, the historian who obtained the document, revealed that Orwell gave the blacklist to his close friend Celia Kirwan, who worked for the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department, from his sickbed in May 1949.
Orwell had told Kirwan in April that the list included journalists and writers who “in my opinion are crypto-communists, fellow-travellers or inclined that way and should not be trusted as propagandists.”
“There seems to be general agreement by Orwell’s fans, left and right, to skate gently over Orwell’s suspicions of Jews, homosexuals and blacks, also over the extreme ignorance of his assessments,” wrote legendary radical journalist Alexander Cockburn, sardonically referring to the anti-communist blacklist as “St. George’s List.”
“If any other postwar left intellectual was suddenly found to have written mini-diatribes about blacks, homosexuals and Jews, we can safely assume that subsequent commentary would not have been forgiving,” he added. “Here there’s barely a word.”
Cockburn’s The Nation article on the subject, “St. George’s List,” is difficult to find today. I have republished it in full below. The article was also expanded into “The Fable of the Weasel,” Cockburn’s foreword for John Reed’s Animal Farm parody Snowball’s Chance.
Apologists insist Orwell simply “sold out” later in life and became a cranky conservative, yet the story is more complex. Orwell had a consistent political thread throughout his life. This explains how he could go from fighting alongside a Spanish Trostkyite militia in a multi-tendency war against fascism to demonizing the Soviet Union as The Real Enemy — before returning home to imperial Britain, where he became a social democratic traitor who castigated capitalism while collaborating with the capitalist state against revolutionaries trying to create socialism.
Sure, the USSR did some objectionable things, but it was also the only large country in the entire world that supported the Spanish Republicans in their fight against fascism (excluding a bit of extra support from Mexico). The Soviet Union understood that one cannot have a revolution if one cannot even defeat the fascist counterrevolution first — a lesson many on the left still have not learned today.
Yet leftists like Orwell and his devoted followers continue to lament Kronstadt and revel in their ideological purity — while conveniently living relatively comfortable lives in Western imperialist countries that commit much more heinous crimes throughout the world every day.
Orwell spent WWII writing about how evil the Nazi-destroying USSR was
George Orwell’s infantile politics are most evident in his magnum opus, 1984. And one of the most important reviews of this book was not by a political scholar or philosopher, but rather by none other than science fiction master Isaac Asimov.
In his review of 1984, Asimov rips the novel to shreds. He also points out a shocking fact that conveniently escapes the myriad disciples of the British author: George Orwell spent the peak years of genocidal destruction of World War II writing a childish story about how evil the Nazi-killing Soviet Union supposedly was.
As Asimov points out:
He [Orwell] wasn’t much affected, apparently, by the Nazi brand of totalitarianism, for there was no room within him except for his private war with Stalinist communism. Consequently, when Great Britain was fighting for its life against Nazism, and the Soviet Union fought as an ally in the struggle and contributed rather more than its share in lives lost and in resolute courage, Orwell wrote Animal Farm, which was a satire of the Russian Revolution and what followed, picturing it in terms of a revolt of barnyard animals against human masters.
He completed Animal Farm in 1944 and had trouble finding a publisher, since it wasn’t a particularly good time for upsetting the Soviets. As soon as the war came to an end, however, the Soviet Union was fair game, and Animal Farm was published.
Orwell wrote this childish novel — now basically mandatory reading in US high schools — in 1943 and 1944, at the height of the Nazi Holocaust.
That is to say, while the genocidal Nazi regime was mowing down Red Army soldiers with warplanes, tanks, and machine guns — and while SS officers were shoving Jews, Romani, and disabled people into ovens and gas chambers — George Orwell was occupying his time writing a story about barn animals and how Stalin was a big mean pig.
The Battle of Stalingrad, one of the largest battles in human history, ended in 1943 — the year Orwell began work on Animal Farm. In this battle alone, half a million Soviet soldiers sacrificed their lives to defeat fascism.
In the entire war, more than 26 million Soviets died — compared to just around 400,000 Brits and 400,000 Americans. Even virulent right-wing colonialist and racist Winston Churchill, an inveterate anti-communist, had to admit the undeniable fact that “it is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army,” or, as he repeated in 1944, “it is the Red Army that has torn the guts out of the filthy Nazis.”
But if you were to read Orwell, you would think that the Soviets were the real evil ones. As Asimov observed in his review, in 1984, “Orwell didn’t want readers to mistake the villains for Nazis. The picture is of Stalinism, and Stalinism only.”
In fact Orwell had nothing at all to say about the enormous Soviet sacrifice in World War II. He was much more interested in demonizing the USSR and everything it stood for. Because, like much too many anti-communist “leftists,” Orwell’s hatred of communists exceeded his hatred of genocidal fascists (something he shared in common with Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain).
Isaac Asimov was no communist; he was much more of a progressive New Deal Democrat. But even he was shocked at Orwell’s childish personal obsessions, noting that, “to the end of his life, he [Orwell] carried on a private literary war with the communists, determined to win in words the battle he had lost in action.”
Asimov was also struck simply by how bad 1984 is as a piece of literature. “I read it and found myself absolutely astonished at what I read,” he recalls. “I wondered how many people who talked about the novel so glibly had ever read it; or if they had, whether they remembered it at all. I felt I would have to write the critique if only to set people straight.”
But there is a reason we remember Orwell. And it is not because of his literary prowess. It is because of the novel’s political utility to reactionary capitalist and imperialist governments. Asimov is careful to point out:
By the time the book  came out in 1949, the Cold War was at its height. The book therefore proved popular. It was almost a matter of patriotism in the West to buy it and talk about it, and perhaps even to read parts of it, although it is my opinion that more people bought it and talked about it than read it, for it is a dreadfully dull book — didactic, repetitious, and all but motionless.
From British colonial officer to anti-communist snitch
None of this is to even mention the earlier life of George Orwell, the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair (of no know familial relation to Tony Blair, although their fake “left-wing” politics are certainly related). The son of a British colonial officer from a wealthy landed family, Orwell made no secret of the fact that he began his career as a British imperial official working in the Crown’s colonies in southeast Asia.
Sure, Orwell later denounced his past work on behalf of the British empire, but he held on to his colonialist mentality.
Orwell’s politics are social chauvinist in the rawest sense. It is no coincidence that many of his avowed admirers today lionize and whitewash “revolutionary” extremist militias in Syria and Libya, while at the same moment violently condemning progressive revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, and beyond as mere “Stalinist bureaucracies.”
That is to say, it should come as no surprise that the architect of Animal Farm is adored by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Michael Weiss. George Orwell was the first in a long line of Trots-turned-neocons.
“St. George’s List,” by Alexander Cockburn
The following article was first published as Cockburn’s column “Beat the Devil” in The Nation on December 7, 1998
In our last installment we left the two most notable anti-Communist literary figures in postwar England about to enjoy a country weekend together, with George Orwell visiting Arthur Koestler’s cottage in Wales. This was Christmas 1946. Also present were Koestler’s second wife, Mamaine, and her twin sister, Celia Kirwan. Orwell took a shine to Celia and indeed proposed to her soon after they were back in London. She turned him down.
The most notorious component of the subsequent transactions was the remission by Orwell to Kirwan of a list of the names of persons on the left whom he deemed security risks, as Communists or fellow travelers. The notoriety stems from the fact that Kirwan worked for the Information Research Department, lodged in the Foreign Office but in fact overseen by the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6.
When Orwell’s secret denunciations surfaced a couple of years ago, there was a medium-level commotion. Now, with the publication of Peter Davison’s maniacally complete twenty-volume collected Orwell, the topic of Orwell as government snitch has flared again, with more lissome apologies for St. George from the liberal/left and bellows of applause from cold-warriors, taking the line that if Orwell, great hero of the non-Communist left, named names, then that provides moral cover for all the Namers of Names who came after him.
Those on the non-Com left have rushed to shore up St. George’s reputation. Some emphasize Orwell’s personal feelings toward Kirwan. The guy was in love. Others argue Orwell was near death’s door, traditionally a time for confessionals. Others have insisted that Orwell didn’t really name names, and, anyway (this was Ian Hamilton in the London Review of Books), “he was forever making lists” — a fishing log, a log of how many eggs his hens laid — so why not a snitch list?
Christopher Hitchens hastened into print in Vanity Fair with a burrito con todo of these approaches. “Orwell named no names and disclosed no identities.” Actually, he did both, as in “Parker, Ralph. Underground member and close FT [fellow traveler]? Stayed on in Moscow. Probably careerist.” Presumably these secret advisories to an IRD staffer whom Hitchens describes as not only a “trusted friend” and “old flame” but also-no supporting evidence offered for this odd claim-“a leftist of heterodox opinions” had consequences. Blacklists usually do. No doubt the list was passed on in some form to American intelligence agencies that made due note of those listed as fellow travelers and duly proscribed them under the McCarran Act.
Hitchens speaks of Orwell’s “tendresse” for Kirwan. He insists Orwell “wasn’t interested in unearthing heresy or in getting people fired or in putting them under the discipline of a loyalty oath,” though as opposed to the mellow tendresse for secret agent Kirwan, he had “an acid contempt for the Communists who had betrayed their cause and their country once before and might do so again.”
Here Orwell would surely have given a vigorous nod. Orwell’s defenders claim that he was only making sure the wrong sort of person wasn’t hired by the Foreign Office to write essays on the British way of life. But Orwell made it clear to the IRD he was identifying people who were “unreliable” and who, worming their way into organizations like the British Labor Party, “might be able to do enormous mischief.” Loyalty was the issue.
There seems to be general agreement by Orwell’s fans, left and right, to skate gently over Orwell’s suspicions of Jews, homosexuals and blacks, also over the extreme ignorance of his assessments. Of Paul Robeson he wrote, “very anti-white. [Henry] Wallace supporter.” Only a person who instinctively thought all blacks were anti-white could have written this piece of stupidity. One of Robeson’s indisputable features, consequent upon his intellectual disposition and his connections with the Communists, was that he was most emphatically not “very anti-white.” Ask the Welsh coal miners for whom Robeson campaigned.
If any other postwar left intellectual was suddenly found to have written mini-diatribes about blacks, homosexuals and Jews, we can safely assume that subsequent commentary would not have been forgiving. Here there’s barely a word about Orwell’s antiSemitism — “Deutscher (Polish Jew),” “Driberg, Tom. English Jew,” “Chaplin, Charles (Jewish?),” on which the usually sensitive Norman Podhoretz was silent in National Review and which Hitchens softly alludes to as “a slightly thuggish side” — or about his crusty dislike of pansies, vegetarians, peaceniks, women in tweed skirts and others athwart the British Way. Much of the time he sounds like a cross between Evelyn Waugh, a much better writer, and Paul Johnson, as in Orwell’s comment that “one of the surest signs of [Conrad’s] genius is that women dislike his books.” The racist drivel about Robeson and about George Padmore — “Negro. African origin? Expelled CP about 1936. Nevertheless pro-Russian. Main emphasis anti-white” — arouses no comment.
Then there’s the IRD, an outfit that, at the time of Orwell’s listmaking, was strenuously reaching out to Ukrainian nationalists, many of whom had enthusiastically assisted the Nazi Einsatzgruppen as they went about liquidating Jews and Communists. One IRD man working in this capacity was Robert Conquest, a big Orwell fan and Kirwan admirer. I discussed his role in an exchange with him in The Nation in 1989, one I remember Hitchens said he’d read closely, which makes his studiously vague reference in The Nation to “something named the Information Research Department” disingenuous. Conquest, in the TLS, cites a letter of Orwell’s to Koestler as evidence that Orwell was well aware of what the IRD was up to with the Ukrainians and approved.
When someone becomes a saint, everything is mustered as testimony to his holiness. So it is with St. George and his list. Thus, in 1998 we have fresh endorsement of all the cold war constructs as they were shaped in the immediate postwar years, when the cold war coalition from right to left signed on to fanatical anti-Communism. The IRD, disabled in the seventies by a Labor Foreign Minister on the grounds it was a sinkhole of right-wing nuts, would have been pleased.
Originally published at BenNorton.com on December 14, 2016.