George Orwell and the British Foreign Office

By Fred Mazelis
9 September 1998

When a new 20-volume edition of the collected works of George Orwell appeared about two months ago, included among the books, essays and voluminous correspondence of the famed British writer and journalist who died nearly 50 years ago was a list of some 130 prominent figures he compiled in 1949.

The list consisted of short comments, sometimes pithy and sometimes superficial, on intellectuals, politicians and others whom Orwell considered to be sympathetic to the Stalinist regime in Moscow. Among the names were cultural figures Charlie Chaplin and Paul Robeson, writers J.B. Priestley and Stephen Spender, journalist Walter Duranty (New York Times Moscow correspondent and defender of the Moscow Trials) and Joseph Davies, US Ambassador to the USSR during WWII.

It turns out that Orwell, who called himself a democratic socialist and who, before he wrote Animal Farm and 1984 , first became prominent in the 1930s for the powerful social criticism of Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier , turned over some 35 of these names, a year before he died in 1950, to a secret government unit called the Information Research Department. This was an arm of the British Foreign Office that had been set up for the purpose of organizing anti-Soviet and anticommunist propaganda.

These revelations have rekindled an old debate over the nature of Orwell's political legacy, as well as the nature of Stalinism and the fight against it. As the author of books which satirized the Stalinist political regime and warned of the dangers of totalitarianism, Orwell has been hailed by reactionary defenders of the status quo, even though his history and his views were far more complex than the anticommunists would suggest.

It is necessary to place Orwell's evolution in its historical context, not to justify what he did with his list, but rather to understand and learn from this experience.

A whole generation of workers and intellectuals moved sharply to the left in the 1930s, in response to the Depression, the rise of Nazism in Germany and the growing struggles of the working class. Many looked to the Soviet Union for leadership, and mistakenly identified the Stalin regime with the great struggles and ideals of the 1917 Revolution.

Within the middle class intelligentsia, there was also a definite stratum which turned toward Stalinism precisely because it recognized that it was not revolutionary. Liberals attracted to the Stalinist policy of the Popular Front saw in it a bulwark against the working class. This was the role of Duranty and many others.

Orwell, to his credit, was neither a dupe of Stalinism nor a bourgeois liberal defender of the Moscow regime during this period. He took up an intransigent struggle against Stalinism from the left, at a time when this was the most unpopular position to take amongst liberal intellectuals. When Homage to Catalonia was published, Orwell was virtually ostracized for this account of the Spanish Civil War which laid bare the Stalinists' treachery against the Spanish and international working class. The Stalinists and their supporters were enraged by the book's exposure of their role in strangling a genuine revolutionary movement through the same bloody methods then being utilized inside the USSR. In the ensuing years Orwell found it increasingly difficult to get his writings published.

After the conclusion of the Second World War, many former "lefts" rapidly became anticommunists. With the temporary restabilization of world capitalism and the Stalinist regime in the USSR and the division of the world into spheres of influence of the rival imperialist and Stalinist blocs, socialists and radical intellectuals like Orwell came under enormous pressure to line up with one side or the other in the Cold War.

Many erstwhile Stalinist sympathizers, still equating the Soviet regime with the Russian Revolution, now discovered their hatred of socialism, blaming Stalin's crimes on the Bolsheviks and the 1917 Revolution. Onetime revolutionary opponents of Stalinism also made their peace with capitalism. Trotskyist leaders like Max Shachtman and James Burnham of the American Socialist Workers Party, as well as writers like James T. Farrell, made their way at varying tempos into the anticommunist camp, beginning with the rejection of the defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and ultimately supporting the US in Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. On the other side, erstwhile revolutionaries or self-styled Marxists like historian Isaac Deutscher and prominent leaders of the Fourth International like Michel Pablo capitulated to Stalinism, concluding that it represented the wave of the future in the form of what Pablo termed "centuries of deformed workers' states."

Orwell died of tuberculosis at the age of 47, and there is no way of knowing exactly where he would have ended up politically if he had lived another two or three decades. At the same time, as his list and what he did with it indicates, he was being pushed towards the kind of despairing anticommunism which characterized many intellectuals in the period following the Second World War.

On one level, Orwell's action in turning over these comments was not the same as those of the political cowards who sought to save their careers during the McCarthyite witch-hunt by "naming names" of prominent figures who had been in or around the Communist Party years earlier. In Orwell's case, there was no cowardice or personal opportunism involved. He was never a man to curry favor with the establishment, and the political characterizations on his list were by and large similar to sentiments he had expressed publicly.

At the same time, Orwell's action was a political statement. The author of Homage to Catalonia had become so embittered by Stalinist betrayals that he was prepared to make common political cause with British imperialism. He considered bourgeois democracy the "lesser evil" in relation to Stalinism. This was a political judgment which testified to his rejection of Marxism and of a genuinely revolutionary perspective.

It is interesting to compare Orwell's action with that of Leon Trotsky, the exiled leader of the October Revolution, who accepted an invitation to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington in October 1939. Trotsky was preparing to use the appearance as a platform to put forward his own views, which certainly would not have pleased the anticommunist witch-hunters. In fact, belatedly realizing this, they withdrew the invitation. Only a few weeks earlier US Stalinist leaders Earl Browder and William Z. Foster had testified before the same committee that the Trotskyists were agents of fascism who should be suppressed by the bourgeois state.

To some extent Orwell was blinded by his bitter experiences with the cowardly pro-Stalinist intellectuals and the smug pro-Stalinist liberals. His political judgments of these people were usually on the mark, but his method was a subjective one. He dismissed the historic significance of the Russian Revolution, saw nothing left to defend of this revolution, and never concerned himself with the building of a revolutionary leadership in the working class.

This finds expression in Animal Farm and especially 1984 . While there is much that is powerful in these books, Orwell's outlook also made it possible for them to be used by the anticommunists. Stalinism itself, of course, bears the major responsibility for dragging the name of socialism through the mud.

In the wake of the revelation of Orwell's list, commentators have come forward with a retrospective defense of the Cold War and sought to enlist Orwell in it on the side of world capitalism. A recent column in the New York Times goes so far as to argue that the various figures who cooperated with HUAC can all be classed with Orwell as principled enemies of Stalinism whose cooperation with the government was therefore understandable.

The comparison, as indicated above, is somewhat misleading. The attempt to use Orwell's political disorientation to justify the anticommunist witch-hunt is a distortion. Orwell, in fact, was on record in the months before he died as opposed to the outlawing of the Communist Party.

The most critical issue that is raised is the claim that there were only two choices during the Cold War: support for the capitalist democracies or support for Stalinism. This argument conveniently forgets the role of the Trotskyist movement.

The Left Opposition and the Fourth International, founded by Trotsky in 1938, consistently fought all the crimes of Stalinism against the working class, and Trotsky and other leaders of the movement paid with their lives because the Stalinist bureaucracy recognized their revolutionary opposition as a mortal danger to the Moscow dictatorship.

Orwell was always ambivalent about the genuine legacy of the October Revolution which Trotsky represented. His identification with the working class was based more on emotion and sentiment than on scientific conviction. He associated himself with centrists like the Independent Labour Party in Britain and the POUM in Spain. The ILP called for "left unity," adapting to the Stalinists and criticizing Trotsky's merciless critique of Stalinism as "sectarian." In Spain the POUM played a similar role, giving crucial support to the Popular Front government which turned around and suppressed it, while the Stalinists assassinated the POUM leaders because they could not tolerate any independent left-wing working class movement.

The Trotskyists showed that there was a socialist alternative to Stalinism, and furthermore that the bourgeois democratic regimes headed by Churchill and Roosevelt, the same regimes which praised the Soviet government at the time of the Moscow Trials and were its allies during WWII, and whose predecessors had intervened in an effort to destroy the Russian Revolution, were no defenders of democracy at all. Those who today praise Orwell as a solitary opponent of Stalinist are the same ones who deliberately censor any mention of Trotsky, the Left Opposition and the Fourth International.