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George Orwell’s list

“Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”
George Orwell, Politics and the English language (1946)

In 1998, the Daily Telegraph broke a story titled “Socialist Icon Who Became An Informer”. The article spoke of George Orwell, named an informer due to his comprising a list for the British intelligence agencies, naming people who were hiding their attraction to communism/Stalinism from the public, pretending to be (democratic) lefties. Paul Lashmar and James Oliver in their book Britain’s Secret Propaganda War called it a ‘black list’, saying that the image of Orwell took a blow never to recover from.

A page from Orwell’s list (source)
A page from Orwell’s list (source)


Let’s see how the events took place and if the accusation stands.

In 1948 the IRD (Information Research Department) was founded, a branch of the Foreign Office, aimed to enlist writers for the production of material that would propagandize for democratic socialism, in a time when, soon after WW2, the danger arose of a part of the public becoming enchanted by Stalinism.

A member of IRD, Celia Kirwan, Arthur Koestler’s sister-in-law, who Orwell knew personally and had asked to marry him years ago, visited him in 1949 in the sanatorium he was treated for tuberculosis (which killed him less than a year later), in order to enlist him. He offered some names but denied to write himself for the IRD, for health reasons and because he wouldn’t write on commission. But he gave her a list of 38 names (other sources say 35) of people the IRD should avoid approaching, as they were hiding their true intentions and were in fact opposed to its goals. The names included public figures, writers, actors and politicians, of which he only knew a few in person.

These are the facts, and the allegations against Orwell could be summarized like this:

  1. Orwell colluded with secret services.
  2. He comprised a black list.
  3. He named communists, thus betraying the ideals he defended of civil liberties and against any form of totalitarianism.
  4. He betrayed the trust of the people on the list.

Let’s see if the accusations hold any truth.

  1. When one hears the term “secret service” he would imagine shadowing figures, abductions, imprisonments, torturers, treachery, executions. As was already said, the IRD was a purely bureaucratic department, with the purpose of defending democracy and fighting communism as well as fascism through the production of propaganda material. The fact that it was a branch of the Foreign Office is the only thing that formally makes it a “secret” department. Arthur Koestler and Bertrand Russell, among others, have collaborated with IRD.
  2. A black list is, and has been, a collection of names, available to people in charge of hiring and firing, to be denied employment on the merit of their political beliefs and not their work productivity. This is the reason why a black list is so abhorrent and only such a list can ever be called “black”. Orwell’s list does not fulfill this requirement; the people on the list wouldn’t be declined work from their desired profession, only from an IRD assignment.
  3. Orwell was already on the wagon with IRD’s goals. He was a vigorous (and publicly admitted) adversary of Stalinism, when his lefty contemporaries had failed to hold their guard up against the threat of a utopia that could become, and was already becoming, a totalitarian regime, or had consciously turned a blind side to the “necessary” vulgarities of the soviet leader, intended for the common good. Books and articles he had written had this purpose, so he didn’t have to be convinced on writing the list. A list he actually started to compile many years before, in a different context, when during WW2 he tried to guess, along with his friend Richard Rees, which of their countrymen would switch sides to Nazism, if Hitler managed to conquer England. Rees describes it as a “parlor game” where they “discussed who was a paid agent of whom and estimate to what lengths of treachery our favourite betes noires would be prepared to go”. They continued this game after the war, substituting Hitler for Stalin.
  4. In fact, Orwell had publicly attacked people that ended up on the list. He didn’t do in private something he didn’t do in public. Besides, how much harm can a list do that contains names of people he didn’t know in person? He simply deduced the secret feelings of writers, through their writings and their actions, wrote publicly about them, and made these conclusions common knowledge to the IRD as well. He didn’t communicate personal conversations to a third party. Does that make him a snitch?

The fact of the matter is that the list didn’t hurt anyone and could not hurt anyone. It was a list of people not to be approached by the IRD for anti-communist propaganda reasons, not a list that could lead to a McCarthyan witch-hunt. He himself wrote to Kirwan about the list: “I don’t believe [the list] will teach your friends anything they don’t know”. Moreover, Orwell was on record a few months before his death not to favour the outlawing of the Communist Party, and had even signed an open request for the reduction of Alan Nunn-May’s sentence for having delivered nuclear formulae to the Soviet Union; therefore, we shouldn’t think of him to be a ‘rabid’ anti-communist, as his opponents describe him to be, even if he indeed was an adamant anti-Stalinist.

And we should not forget that opposite him stood the Stalinist regime –it is that against which he stood. He had experienced this regime up close and personal, though by proxy, and knew what it was capable for. In Spain, where he participated in the Civil War against the fascist Franco on the side of the radical forces (anarchists, Trotskyites communists, democrats…), until the communists factions, seeing that the anarchists started to take the lead of the revolution and would therefore take charge of the country if Franco was defeated, launched a counter-revolution persecuting the anarchists and Trotskyites (and Orwell himself), reaching to the point of having executions of their leaders and not only. Orwell managed to get out of the country in time and returned to England.

Of course all this haven’t dissuaded Orwell’s enemies from accusing him of being a traitor and a snitch, and of course Orwell had many enemies, both on the right, due to his attacks on imperialism and fascism, and the left, on account of his anti-Stalinist writings.


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