The Guardian reported on Saturday that George Orwell gave the British government a list of 38 suspected or actual communist sympathisers.
It never looks good when individuals who provide the state with lists of names and such activity raises a whole host of moral questions but quite why there should be such a fuss about this list confounds me.
First of all, it is worth a reminder that Orwell did not run to the state volunteering his list of names in a bout of McCarthyite enthusiasm.
He was asked to provide information on who would not be reliable partners in counter-propaganda against the Soviets. Clearly communists or Soviet sympathisers were not reliable partners in such a project.
The Guardian’s documents indicate that Orwell chose to respond positively to the request. It was a moral and political decision. Morally, Orwell must surely have had to weigh up whether the potential damage he could cause to those individuals was worse than the harm they might do. That Orwell was anti-communist is hardly news and given his fears about the Soviet Union it is not a surprise that he decided to provide the list.
The accusation of treachery can hardly be placed at the door of Orwell. If he was a communist or even a fellow-traveller then clearly that would be a different matter but he was a committed anti-Soviet. Could anyone read 1984 and be surprised that Orwell feared the totalitarian state?
So in other words, there is no shock or scandal in this story. I can’t help wondering if the glee with which some have reacted to this story doesn’t have something to do with the way in which Orwell has been adopted by some heretis on the left such as Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps there is still some propaganda and counter-propaganda in action on the left?
Orwell’s anti-Soviet stance is widely acknowledged to have its roots in his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. In the Scotsman today George Kerevan takes a look at that period of Orwell’s life and points to a story which is a real scandal.
The death of young Independent Labour Party activist and International Brigader Bob Smillie in Spain after his arrest by the NKVD made him the first high-profile British victim of Stalinist repression.
Kerevan says: He should be a Scottish hero, but decades of Stalinist propaganda in the Scottish Labour movement have buried his memory
And how many other British victims of Stalinism were there? At least in Smillie’s case his membership of the ILP ensured that, at the time, his death was highlighted. But for those associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain who died or disappeared in Stalin’s USSR, there was no-one to raise a voice – especially not their own party.
It is easy to dismiss people who half a century ago were attracted to the communist ideal. Perhaps they were naive but when they moved to the USSR they found themselves not comrades but simply foreigners – the easiest people to denounce in witchunts.
Rose Cohen (former girlfriend of Harry Pollitt; editor of Moscow Daily News, was shot with her Ukrainian husband, David Lipetz in 1937. Pat Breslin, an Irish communist, died in a gulag in 1942. Abraham Landau, a young Jewish CPGB member from London working at the headquarters of the Communist Youth International, was arrested in January 1923 and executed two weeks later as a spy.
George Hanna (Comintern courier; sent to labour camp in the late 1940s and tortured; not released until 1957), Rosa Rust, daughter of well-known British communist Bill Rust; deported with the Volga Germans during Second World War. William Wheeldon, shot in the purges.
There are more names, mostly long forgotten. As they were communists the British establishment hardly shed any tears about them and their ‘comrades’ back home did little to help and even less to publicise their cases.
These are the real scandals from the history of British communism – the forgotten stories of lives destroyed or ended by Stalinist repression. George Orwell got a taste of Stalin’s thugs in Spain and felt he should speak out. Who can blame him?