Orwell Himself as Big Brother
In “1984,” George Orwell’s bleak fantasy of life in a nightmarish authoritarian world, Big Brother is everywhere and denunciations are the stuff of everyday life. The state monitors ordinary homes. Children inform on their parents, and parents on their colleagues. Privacy is banned.
In an era of clashing ideologies, Orwell’s terrifying depiction of the ways in which an all-powerful state could destroy individual human dignity, published in 1949, won him fame as an opponent of totalitarianism.
But, it has emerged, Orwell wasn’t above a little informing himself. A stupefied Britain learned two years ago that the author had denounced “crypto-communist” writers and academics in the West to the government. Now the names are coming out.
This week, many of the British and American literary and establishment figures who are featured on his Big Brother list of suspects will be identified for the first time in a new complete edition of his work, to be published Thursday by Secker & Warburg. The edition isn’t being published by a U.S. outlet but is being distributed in the States by Secker, says the publisher.
“I don’t suppose it will tell your friends anything they don’t know,” the author wrote in a 1949 cover note as he handed over the list of 130 “fellow travelers,” secret party members and cocktail-party communist sympathizers known unkindly by Soviet state founder V.I. Lenin as “useful idiots.”.
Orwell continued: “At the same time, it isn’t a bad idea to have the people who are probably unreliable listed"--as well as the most openly leftist of British intellectuals, including writers George Bernard Shaw and J.B. Priestley, Orwell listed actor Charlie Chaplin, singer Paul Robeson, filmmaker Orson Welles and novelist John Steinbeck--whom he also excoriated in a brutal commentary as a “spurious writer” and “pseudo-naif.”
Even his own friends, including the poet Stephen Spender, did not escape mention. Spender was listed as a “sentimental sympathizer, & very unreliable. Easily influenced. Tendency towards homosexuality.”
If the people on his list “could get inside the Labor Party as an organized body,” Orwell warned, “they might be able to do enormous mischief.”
As a writer distressed by the social inequities of European life earlier this century, Orwell--and thousands of other intellectuals from all over Europe--had gone to Spain during the civil war of the 1930s to fight against fascism. But his exposure there to some of the more lurid Communist and Stalinist extremist groups on his own side left him with an enduring distrust of the far left.
Orwell suffered personally from the actions of apologists for the Soviet system, says Peter Davison, editor of the 20-volume “Complete Works of George Orwell.”
Stalin’s friends in England tried to stop the publication of another Orwell attack on totalitarianism, “Animal Farm.” It was turned down by publisher Victor Gollancz--on the grounds that it would damage the Soviet image in the West--and by Jonathan Cape, who took the advice of an anonymous official in the World War II-era Ministry of Information.
Davison believes the official was Peter Smollett, chief of the ministry’s Russian section, who figures on Orwell’s list as “almost certainly agent of some kind.”
The author made the list two years into a battle with the tuberculosis that was to kill him a year later, at age 46. He compiled it at the request of a close friend, Celia Kirwan, who had once turned down his offer of marriage. Kirwan worked for a secretive organization inside the British Foreign Office called the Information Research Department, which at the time was an anti-Communist propaganda unit.
Handwritten in a little blue notebook, Orwell’s list had begun as a private exercise based on instinct and guesswork. He would cross off names or add question marks to entries if he later changed his mind. Of the 130 names in his notebook, he only passed on 35 to Kirwan.
Orwell’s supporters stress that his list, offered cautiously and without fanfare, was in sharp contrast to the blanket denunciations and anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy era in America.
As a sympathetic report in the center-right Daily Telegraph newspaper put it: “It is not a hit list or blacklist, but a record of those whom Orwell considered deceptive--and thus a collection of people whose influence needed to be resisted and whose offers of help needed to be carefully scrutinized.”
The argument of Orwell’s supporters is that, by the time he compiled the list, there was no longer much excuse for anyone in the West holding the idealistic pro-Soviet views that had been fashionable earlier in the century. Many of the evils of Stalinism had already been made public.
“What did it mean to be pro-Soviet in 1949?” columnist Anne Applebaum asked in the London Evening Standard in a passionate defense of Orwell. “In 1949, transcripts of show trials had been published, Gulag survivors’ memoirs had appeared, the existence of mass murders was known.
“In 1949, more to the point,” she added, “the Soviet Union was also still actively engaged in trying to undermine the democracies of the West, even the democracies of the ‘English-speaking races.’ To sympathize with the Soviet Union in 1949 was to sympathize with a political ideology whose ideas and weapons really did threaten the most fundamental principles of our civilization.”
Bill Hamilton, with the London literary agency, A.M. Heath, that represents Davison, also said he believes there was no moral ambiguity in Orwell’s action.
“What he did was a legitimate exercise, particularly in 1949,” Hamilton said. “It was serious life-or-death stuff then.”