The more subtle American conservatives have argued, as they tried over the years to body-snatch the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty- Four for his anti-communism alone, that he would have developed their way had he lived. God knows. In my opinion, highly unlikely. But these psychic body-snatchers must be amazed at how eager some of the left are to surrender him.
As his biographer, I was surprised that the Guardian gave half its front page to the story that Orwell had offered to a Foreign Office propaganda unit "a list of journalists and writers who, in my opinion, are crypto- communists, fellow-travellers or inclined that way and should not be trusted as propagandists". I don't find this a "revelation", as the Guardian did, nor "amazing", as Michael Foot did.
If anyone had cared to notice, on page 556 of the Penguin edition of my Orwell: A Life (1982) there is a reference to his worries about communist infiltration. A footnote described a notebook with 86 annotated names. Some were in Orwell's hand, some in that of Richard Rees, some in Arthur Koestler's. A few, I said, were entirely plausible as underground members, others as fellow-travellers, some only as occasional sympathisers. But the letter he wrote was not to accuse them of being spies but simply of being unreliable for anti-communist propaganda - which was a fair assumption for the names I recognised.
Orwell's Hungarian friend, Arthur Koestler, had been an under-cover member of the Communist Party in Germany and Spain, but then lost his faith in Spain. Like Orwell in Spain, who had never had the faith, he saw the communists at close quarters: devoting almost as much energy to suppressing other left-wing groups as fighting Franco. Koestler's novel, Darkness At Noon, was at one time as famous a polemic against communism as Orwell's Animal Farm. Both men were accused of what was later called, idiotically, "premature Stalinism". Both had had many friends among exiled east European socialists in London during the war, and had seen many of them return to join the post-war coalition governments, and then be imprisoned or killed in the communist take-overs.
They were not ashamed of anti-communist activity. They were stirrers of it. That was the point of both their books. And Orwell did not offer his list of undesirables to an impersonal government propaganda unit, but to someone he knew, who happened to work there. She was Celia Kirwan, Koestler's sister-in-law; Koestler tried to bring the two of them together in marriage and, at one stage, Orwell proposed to her. (The Guardian named her but didn't apparently know who she was.) I strongly suspect that Koestler was the joint author of the list.
There were a few Labour MPs at that time who carried two party cards. A handful may have been communist agents, but most of that unhappy few would have been fence-sitters, uncertain which way western Europe was going. In France, the party was struggling to control the trade unions, and many people feared that Italy would go communist. Stalin was not playing games. With gross optimism and ideological blinkers, Stalin believed that Europe would go, and even poured money into the futile cause of British communism. Small wonder the Foreign Office, under a Labour government, formed a small unit to hit back; and the target had to be to discredit Stalinism in the eyes of democratic socialists who had believed in the "Popular Front" alliance against Franco and who shared the wartime euphoria of "a common cause against Hitler".
I go with Orwell on this. His values were republican in the old Roman sense, not nice liberal in the Guardian sense. If liberty is in danger you fight back to defend a civil order; you don't tie your hands behind your back as the Weimar Germans did when faced by the Nazis. But don't misread Nineteen Eighty-Four. It warned not just against communism but against any kind of total power. It was not clear then that some equivalent of Nazism might not emerge from the ruins in post-war Europe. Orwell hit out in both directions, even at ourselves. The blow was aimed close at home when he has the proles being trivialised, not ideologised, by the party which gives them pornographic novels and "newspapers full of sex, violence and sport".
Some right-wing writers have robbed the libertarian half of his tomb, while ignoring the egalitarian part. That apparently makes a few of my fellow socialists still eager to discredit one of the greatest and bravest satirical writers England has known.Reuse content