Big Brother with a high moral sense

We should not judge George Orwell too harshly, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft ; he was more right than wrong

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon would turn Britain into a 'communist dictatorship, warns Sarah Vine  

Election 2015: much of the concern about the ‘legitimacy’ question is misplaced

John Rentoul
Ukip leader Nigel Farage  

Election 2015: Ukip is a non-sectarian, non-racist party with a forward-thinking plan for Britain

Nigel Farage
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power