The following article was first published as Cockburn’s column “Beat the Devil” in The Nation on December 7, 1998
In our last installment we left the two most notable anti-Communist literary figures in postwar England about to enjoy a country weekend together, with George Orwell visiting Arthur Koestler’s cottage in Wales. This was Christmas 1946. Also present were Koestler’s second wife, Mamaine, and her twin sister, Celia Kirwan. Orwell took a shine to Celia and indeed proposed to her soon after they were back in London. She turned him down. The most notorious component of the subsequent transactions was the remission by Orwell to Kirwan of a list of the names of persons on the left whom he deemed security risks, as Communists or fellow travelers. The notoriety stems from the fact that Kirwan worked for the Information Research Department, lodged in the Foreign Office but in fact overseen by the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6. When Orwell’s secret denunciations surfaced a couple of years ago, there was a medium-level commotion. Now, with the publication of Peter Davison’s maniacally complete twenty-volume collected Orwell, the topic of Orwell as government snitch has flared again, with more lissome apologies for St. George from the liberal/left and bellows of applause from cold-warriors, taking the line that if Orwell, great hero of the non-Communist left, named names, then that provides moral cover for all the Namers of Names who came after him. Those on the non-Com left have rushed to shore up St. George’s reputation. Some emphasize Orwell’s personal feelings toward Kirwan. The guy was in love. Others argue Orwell was near death’s door, traditionally a time for confessionals. Others have insisted that Orwell didn’t really name names, and, anyway (this was Ian Hamilton in the London Review of Books), “he was forever making lists” — a fishing log, a log of how many eggs his hens laid — so why not a snitch list? Christopher Hitchens hastened into print in Vanity Fair with a burrito con todo of these approaches. “Orwell named no names and disclosed no identities.” Actually, he did both, as in “Parker, Ralph. Underground member and close FT [fellow traveler]? Stayed on in Moscow. Probably careerist.” Presumably these secret advisories to an IRD staffer whom Hitchens describes as not only a “trusted friend” and “old flame” but also-no supporting evidence offered for this odd claim-“a leftist of heterodox opinions” had consequences. Blacklists usually do. No doubt the list was passed on in some form to American intelligence agencies that made due note of those listed as fellow travelers and duly proscribed them under the McCarran Act. Hitchens speaks of Orwell’s “tendresse” for Kirwan. He insists Orwell “wasn’t interested in unearthing heresy or in getting people fired or in putting them under the discipline of a loyalty oath,” though as opposed to the mellow tendresse for secret agent Kirwan, he had “an acid contempt for the Communists who had betrayed their cause and their country once before and might do so again.” Here Orwell would surely have given a vigorous nod. Orwell’s defenders claim that he was only making sure the wrong sort of person wasn’t hired by the Foreign Office to write essays on the British way of life. But Orwell made it clear to the IRD he was identifying people who were “unreliable” and who, worming their way into organizations like the British Labor Party, “might be able to do enormous mischief.” Loyalty was the issue. There seems to be general agreement by Orwell’s fans, left and right, to skate gently over Orwell’s suspicions of Jews, homosexuals and blacks, also over the extreme ignorance of his assessments. Of Paul Robeson he wrote, “very anti-white. [Henry] Wallace supporter.” Only a person who instinctively thought all blacks were anti-white could have written this piece of stupidity. One of Robeson’s indisputable features, consequent upon his intellectual disposition and his connections with the Communists, was that he was most emphatically not “very anti-white.” Ask the Welsh coal miners for whom Robeson campaigned. If any other postwar left intellectual was suddenly found to have written mini-diatribes about blacks, homosexuals and Jews, we can safely assume that subsequent commentary would not have been forgiving. Here there’s barely a word about Orwell’s antiSemitism — “Deutscher (Polish Jew),” “Driberg, Tom. English Jew,” “Chaplin, Charles (Jewish?),” on which the usually sensitive Norman Podhoretz was silent in National Review and which Hitchens softly alludes to as “a slightly thuggish side” — or about his crusty dislike of pansies, vegetarians, peaceniks, women in tweed skirts and others athwart the British Way. Much of the time he sounds like a cross between Evelyn Waugh, a much better writer, and Paul Johnson, as in Orwell’s comment that “one of the surest signs of [Conrad’s] genius is that women dislike his books.” The racist drivel about Robeson and about George Padmore — “Negro. African origin? Expelled CP about 1936. Nevertheless pro-Russian. Main emphasis anti-white” — arouses no comment. Then there’s the IRD, an outfit that, at the time of Orwell’s listmaking, was strenuously reaching out to Ukrainian nationalists, many of whom had enthusiastically assisted the Nazi Einsatzgruppen as they went about liquidating Jews and Communists. One IRD man working in this capacity was Robert Conquest, a big Orwell fan and Kirwan admirer. I discussed his role in an exchange with him in The Nation in 1989, one I remember Hitchens said he’d read closely, which makes his studiously vague reference in The Nation to “something named the Information Research Department” disingenuous. Conquest, in the TLS, cites a letter of Orwell’s to Koestler as evidence that Orwell was well aware of what the IRD was up to with the Ukrainians and approved. When someone becomes a saint, everything is mustered as testimony to his holiness. So it is with St. George and his list. Thus, in 1998 we have fresh endorsement of all the cold war constructs as they were shaped in the immediate postwar years, when the cold war coalition from right to left signed on to fanatical anti-Communism. The IRD, disabled in the seventies by a Labor Foreign Minister on the grounds it was a sinkhole of right-wing nuts, would have been pleased.