Ironic unpredictability

Philip Bounds marks the Orwell centenary

If George Orwell had lived, he would have reached his 100th birthday in the last week of June. His novels, essays and articles have converted thousands of people to socialism, yet many British communists still seem to loathe him with a passion. Even now, nearly 70 years after Harry Pollitt’s famously bad-tempered review of The road to Wigan Pier (Daily Worker March 17 1937), he is still ritually denounced in our publications as a bourgeois maverick who aimed to destroy socialism from within - a sort of Tory fifth columnist in the camp of the working class.

Why have communists been so blind to Orwell’s greatness? The obvious, but slightly uncomfortable answer is that he had a genius for satirising our faults. On most of the occasions when he attacked us for our ‘leader-worship’, our dishonesty or our craven attitude towards the USSR, he was right and we were wrong - the truth is as simple as that. Yet many communists still believe that they have a very good reason not merely for hating Orwell, but for branding him a ‘police spy’ and a ‘stooge of the intelligence services’.

This is the so-called ‘revelation’, featured in The Guardian back in 1996, that towards the end of his life he supplied a list of communist sympathisers to the information research department (IRD), an obscure organisation on the margins of the British foreign office. Perhaps the most useful tribute we can pay to Orwell in his centenary year is to show that even here, on the most controversial territory imaginable, his behaviour was by no means as dishonourable as his critics have claimed.

The IRD was established by the Attlee government in 1948. Its brief was to produce anti-communist propaganda materials that could be used throughout Europe. In March 1949, while receiving treatment for tuberculosis at a sanatorium in Gloucestershire, Orwell was approached by the IRD and asked to write a pamphlet. His contact was Celia Kirwan, an old friend to whom he had unsuccessfully proposed marriage after the death of his first wife.

Already too ill to take on new work, Orwell offered to supply Kirwan with a list of British intellectuals whom he suspected of communist sympathies. His professed motive was to ensure that the IRD did not inadvertently employ people who might be tempted to subvert its goals. His love for Kirwan might also have had something to do it.

Not many of the 45 names on the list would have taken Kirwan or her colleagues by surprise, as Orwell himself acknowledged, but some of the marginal comments revealed a happy talent for skewering an entire personality on a handful of words. Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, was mordantly described as a “decayed liberal - very dishonest”. The poet Stephen Spender was characterised as a “sentimental sympathiser”, who was “easily influenced” and had a “tendency towards homosexuality”. And in a wicked piece of innuendo that puts The Daily Telegraph’s reporting of the Galloway affair to shame, Orwell observed that the great radical barrister, DN Pritt, was “said to handle more money than is accounted for by his job”.

So why are Orwell’s leftwing critics so mistaken when they describe this relatively footling matter as evidence of high treachery? The most serious charge which can be levelled against them is one of gross dishonesty. Scores of Marxist and Marxisant writers, including several who really ought to know better (eg, Terry Eagleton, Scott Lucas and Paul Foot), have insisted that Orwell was collaborating with the intelligence services when he was clearly doing nothing of the sort. The IRD was not in the business of spying on dissidents, nor was it involved in law enforcement or supplying information to employers or other government departments. The last point is especially important. As Peter Davison, the editor of Orwell’s Complete works, has recently made clear, “… the names remained within the IRD and were never passed to the secret service”.

Indeed, at the time when Orwell sent Kirwan his list, the IRD might reasonably have been described as a sort of state-funded adjunct of the Labour left. As Christopher Hitchens has pointed out in his recent book Orwell's victory (Penguin, 2002), most of the people who worked for it in its early days were Tribune socialists whose main purpose in life was trying to persuade the Attlee administration to take a more radical line. None of these people opposed communism because they wanted to shore up British imperialism or the rule of the stock exchange, but rather because they saw the ‘deformations’ of Stalinism as the main factor impeding the advance of socialism. Nor were they slow in defending the rights of communists when they appeared to be under threat. Orwell himself signed a petition in 1948 which protested against discrimination towards communists in the British civil service, and publicly objected to the length of the sentence meted out to the nuclear spy Allen Nunn May in 1949.

All of which brings us to a historical irony of the first order - one which Orwell would surely have rued. In the final analysis, no one benefited from the anti-communist onslaught of the IRD and its Bevanite allies as much as the Communist Party of Great Britain. At the onset of the cold war, in spite of their remarkable achievements since the mid-1930s, British communists were still willing to do almost anything to appease their sponsors in the Kremlin. In 1948 alone they cheered the defenestration of Jan Masaryk in Czechoslovakia, defended Stalin against charges of anti-semitism and acquiesced in the myth of Tito’s treachery.

It was only a major change of heart, an outright repudiation of what Orwell called its “sentimental Russophilia”, which allowed the CPGB to recover its influence in the labour movement and go on to lead the massive industrial struggles of the 60s and 70s. The shift away from uncritical pro-Sovietism was obviously caused by a variety of factors, including the traumas of 1956 and an easing of the cold war, but it is clear that sustained exposure to Orwellian invective also had its part to play.

Orwell’s work for the IRD also raises the issue of the left’s attitude towards the state. The unspoken premise of Orwell’s critics is that any attempt to exploit the resources of the state, even in a conscious effort to advance the socialist cause, is somehow to sell out to the forces of reaction. It hardly needs saying that this Disneyland caricature of Marxism can only lead to disaster. As Orwell knew very well, no real shift in public attitudes can occur without some sort of effort to ‘occupy’ the bourgeois state and bend it to radical purposes. The only alternative is to retreat into a syndicalist or anarchist bunker, where political impotence is the invariable consequence of theoretical purity.

George Orwell would have been the last person to say that there are no enemies on the left. There is no question that he hated the Communist Party and wished to see its influence destroyed. Yet it was his own acute critique of Stalinism, amplified by his colleagues on the Tribune left and the solemn pamphleteers of the IRD, which helped to knock the authoritarian edges off the British communists and bring them into a creative relationship with wider forces on the left.

As we celebrate the work of one of England’s greatest radicals in his centenary year, this amusing example of the unpredictability of history should serve as our starting point.