George Orwell Creates a Who’s Who List of “Crypto” Communists for British Intelligence Forces (1949)


Jour­nal­ist and nov­el­ist Eric Blair, known for all of his pro­fes­sion­al life by the pen name George Orwell, staunch­ly iden­ti­fied him­self as a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist. For exam­ple, in his slim 1946 pub­li­ca­tion Why I Write, he declared, “Every line of seri­ous work I have writ­ten since 1936 has been writ­ten, direct­ly or indi­rect­ly, against total­i­tar­i­an­ism and for demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism as I under­stand it.” Despite the wide­spread blur­ring of lines these days between social­ism and communism—whether through igno­rance or delib­er­ate misleading—the dis­tinc­tion was not lost on Orwell. Though he sup­port­ed an equi­table dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth and pub­lic insti­tu­tions for the com­mon good, he fierce­ly opposed Sovi­et com­mu­nism as anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic and oppres­sive. As Orwell biog­ra­ph­er John Newsinger writes, one “cru­cial dimen­sion to Orwell’s social­ism was his recog­ni­tion that the Sovi­et Union was not social­ist. Unlike many on the left, instead of aban­don­ing social­ism once he dis­cov­ered the full hor­ror of Stal­in­ist rule in the Sovi­et Union, Orwell aban­doned the Sovi­et Union and instead remained a social­ist.”

Of course, Orwell’s anti-com­mu­nist sen­ti­ments are famil­iar to every stu­dent who has read Ani­mal Farm. Less well known is the degree to which he con­tributed to anti-com­mu­nist pro­pa­gan­da, even cor­re­spond­ing with British secret ser­vices and keep­ing a black­list of writ­ers he deemed either “cryp­tos” (secret com­mu­nists), “fel­low trav­ellers” (com­mu­nist sym­pa­thiz­ers), or out­right mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. Orwell’s involve­ment with the Infor­ma­tion Research Depart­ment (IRD), a pro­pa­gan­da unit formed in 1948 under the UK’s For­eign Office to com­bat Stal­in­ism at home and abroad has received a good deal of atten­tion in the past few decades, in part because of the dis­cov­ery in 2003 of a pri­vate note­book con­tain­ing his orig­i­nal list. Even before this rev­e­la­tion, biog­ra­phers and his­to­ri­ans had known about the list, which Orwell includ­ed, in part, in a let­ter to his love inter­est Celia Kir­wan, who worked for the IRD, with the instruc­tions that she keep it secret due to its “libelous” nature. Orwell intend­ed that the writ­ers on the list not be asked to work for the IRD because, in his esti­ma­tion, they were peo­ple who could not be trust­ed.

Reac­tions to Orwell’s list have been very mixed. When the sto­ry first broke in the late nineties, Orwell’s long­time friend Michael Foot said he found the list “amaz­ing” and out of char­ac­ter. One of the peo­ple named, Nor­man Macken­zie, ascribed the list to Orwell’s ill­ness, say­ing that the writer was “los­ing his grip on him­self” in 1949 dur­ing his final strug­gle with the tuber­cu­lo­sis that killed him that year. Orwell biog­ra­ph­er Bernard Crick defend­ed his actions, writ­ing, “He did it because he thought the Com­mu­nist Par­ty was a total­i­tar­i­an men­ace. He wasn’t denounc­ing these peo­ple as sub­ver­sives. He was denounc­ing them as unsuit­able for counter-intel­li­gence oper­a­tion.” On the oth­er hand, late left­ist fire­brand jour­nal­ist Alexan­der Cock­burn con­demned Orwell as a “snitch” and thought the list was evi­dence of Orwell’s big­otry, giv­en his sus­pi­cion of Paul Robe­son as “anti-white” and his denounc­ing of oth­ers due to their rumored homo­sex­u­al­i­ty or Jew­ish back­ground. He makes a com­pelling case. What­ev­er Orwell’s moti­va­tions, the effect on the named indi­vid­u­als’ pro­fes­sion­al and polit­i­cal lives was mild, to say the least. This was hard­ly a McCarthyite witch-hunt. Nonethe­less, it’s a lit­tle hard for admir­ers of Orwell not to wince at this col­lab­o­ra­tion with the state secret ser­vice.

Below, see the list he sub­mit­ted to Kir­wan in his let­ter. Fur­ther down is a list of names, includ­ing those of Orson Welles and Kather­ine Hep­burn, that appeared in his note­book but not on the list he gave to the IRD.

Writ­ers and jour­nal­ists

Aca­d­e­mics and sci­en­tists


Labour MPs


Peo­ple named in Orwell’s note­book, but not appear­ing on the final IRD list:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Orwell Explains in a Reveal­ing 1944 Let­ter Why He’d Write 1984

George Orwell Reviews Mein Kampf (1940)

George Orwell’s Five Great­est Essays (as Select­ed by Pulitzer-Prize Win­ning Colum­nist Michael Hiltzik)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.