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Big Brother with a high moral sense

We should not judge George Orwell too harshly, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft ; he was more right than wrong
IN THE EVENT, 1984 came and went. The whole world was not living under the totalitarian nightmare foreseen in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the most famous prophetic novel of its age. Within five years, Soviet Russia and its empire had collapsed, and others could write (a little complacently) about "the end of history", with the universal triumph of liberal democracy and the free market.

Now George Orwell himself stands accused of his own brand of totalitarianism, or of proto-McCarthyism. In 1948, an innocuous-sounding Information Research Department was set up within the Foreign Office by Christopher Mayhew, then a junior minister, now the 83-year-old Lord Mayhew. Its purpose - to counter Communist propaganda - was hidden even from sections of the Labour government to which he belonged: as Attlee told Mayhew, "I don't think Nye Bevan needs to be troubled".

The IRD employed Celia Kirwan, a close friend of Orwell's to whom he had once proposed marriage and whose twin sister was married to Arthur Koestler, author of that other famous disquisition on Stalinism, Darkness at Noon. At Celia's request, Orwell wrote out a list of Communist sympathisers and fellow-travellers, which appears in the monumental new Works of George Orwell published next week. This little list of 130 names has caused dismay; even the Daily Telegraph called it "George Orwell's Big Brother dossier". But is it?

Orwell has become the secular saint of our age, invoked by both left and right. Like any saint, he had his faults. His affection for the working class was patronising (though wasn't warm-hearted patronage better than the contempt for the poor which was then so prevalent?). At the same time, he hadn't entirely freed himself of the prejudices of his age and class, including a touch of anti-Semitism: those who like to sniff this out will be as shocked as I was amused to find Tom Driberg included in the list as an "English Jew".

But Orwell's conduct in the last years of his life was not only perfectly explicable, it was in many ways heroic. His list is literally feverish: he was dying of consumption when he compiled it. It might seem to have a ring of paranoia; but then paranoiacs have enemies too, and for more than 10 years Orwell had been embattled on the independent left.

He served bravely in the Spanish Civil War, returned to tell the truth about what the Stalinists had done there in Homage to Catalonia, and was traduced for his pains. During the Second World War, when he wrote his anti-Stalinist fable Animal Farm, it was turned down by successive London publishers as a slur on our glorious Soviet ally.

As to the list, any student of the period might say that not only are the names on it familiar enough, Orwell's remarks are perceptive and sometimes even generous. DN Pritt is described as an "almost certainly underground" Communist but also a "Good MP (ie locally). Very able and courageous". Pritt, a Wykehamist barrister who became a bencher of the Middle Temple, was indeed a pure fellow-traveller. He was elected as a Labour MP in 1935 but his views developed, in the words of a sympathetic biographer, "into a virtually uncritical acceptance of the Marxist-Leninist approach". Pritt was expelled from the Labour Party for writing a defence of the Russian attack on Finland in 1939 and was thereafter an unremitting Soviet apologist.

All of which is well-known to older hands in a Labour Party which once flexed every muscle to exclude Communists through "a system more elaborate than anything known since the repeal of the Test Acts", as AJP Taylor once put it. And yes, he too is on Orwell's list, accurately described as "Anti-American", which Taylor certainly was, but also as having taken an anti-Communist line at a conference organised by the Communists in Poland.

Old Labour hands would surely smile with delight at Orwell's succinct bio-blurb for Dick Crossman: "Political climber. Zionist (appears to be sincere about this). Too dishonest to be outright FT [fellow-traveller]." This last is a curious reflection of the way Orwell recognised sincerity in his enemies: he never doubted that many Communists were sincere by their own lights.

That would be a flattering description of JB Priestley. Orwell called him a "strong" Communist sympathiser, which prompted a most unwise letter from Priestley's biographer, Judith Cook, insisting that he was never a Soviet apologist. As David Pryce-Jones has pointed out in turn, Priestley's account of his journey to Russia in 1946 is a classic of its kind.

It was a "famous legend that the visitor to Russia is constantly spied on", Priestley claimed. There were no secret police in Russia "unless they were disguised as sparrows". Collective farms were worked by "smiling peasants and women ... They were citizens and not serfs of the soil ... the wide Soviet land glitters and hums with their dance and song." And so onwards and upwards to the socialist dawn where show trials and labour camps were quite unknown. Who looks worse now, Orwell or Priestley?

To condemn Orwell is at best to use hindsight. At worst it means using warped double standards, what Ferdinand Mount has called the asymmetry of indulgence between tyrannies of left and right. If Orwell had been asked by a friend in the FO in the late 1930s to provide a list of fascist and Nazi sympathisers, would this now be held against him?

Orwell did not only have what Evelyn Waugh calls an "unusually high moral sense and respect for justice and truth". He was a remarkably astute observer - and remarkably far-sighted. Unlike so many of his contemporaries on the left, he saw through Stalinism and satirised it in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, two books which appear to be read by young people today with alarmingly little comprehension of what they are about.

But he did not become a reactionary, insisting to the end of his life in January 1950, aged 46, that he was a democratic socialist. In 1947, he had warned against those Americans who thought of "suppressing the American Communist Party ... which would probably mean using the same methods as the Communists, when in power, use against their opponents", advice which was shortly forgotten.

More strikingly still, he prophesied 50 years ago that "the great powers will simply be too frightened of the effects of atomic weapons ever to make use of them". And in contrast to the horrific vision of the future for which we still use the word "Orwellian", he thought it possible that "the Russian regime may become more liberal and less dangerous a generation hence".

That not only happened, it led to the internal decay of Marxism-Leninism and the final collapse of Soviet Russia. Perhaps the year we should associate with Orwell isn't 1984 but 1989.