by Tom Utley
Electronic Telegraph, 12 July 1996
An icy blast from the Cold War blew through the Left-wing Establishment yesterday when it was revealed that George Orwell, one of the great heroes of twentieth-century Socialism, had secretly co-operated with the Foreign Office in its propaganda battle against Communism.
Documents released by the Public Record Office showed that in 1949 Orwell volunteered to provide the FO's covert Information Research Department (IRD) with a blacklist of writers and journalists whom he regarded as crypto-Communists and fellow travellers. The revelation has reopened old divisions on the Left, to whom Orwell has always posed an awkward problem: should they hero-worship him for his brilliantly lucid Socialist writings, or attack him for the fervent anti-Communism of his later years, exemplified by his masterpiece, Animal Farm?
The news of the writer's co-operation with the IRD was greeted by Left-wingers with varying degrees of surprise. To some, it was as if Winston Smith had willingly co-operated with the Thought Police in 1984. Michael Foot, the former leader of the Labour Party and a friend of Orwell's in the 1930s and 1940s, was "amazed" by the revelation. To Richard Gott, who resigned as literary editor of the Guardian in 1994 after admitting that he had accepted travel expenses from the KGB, it came as only a "small surprise".
But to Orwell's biographer, Bernard Crick, it was no surprise at all. He said that the novelist's notebook, containing 86 names of writers he thought sympathetic to Communism, had been lying in the Orwell archive for at least 20 years. Some of the names in it, he said, were written in the hand of Arthur Koestler, who also co-operated with the IRD in producing anti-Communist propaganda.
Professor Crick firmly supported his subject's offer to help the IRD in the days of the post-war Labour Government. "He did it because he thought the Communist Party was a totalitarian menace," he said. "He wasn't denouncing these people as subversives. He was denouncing them as unsuitable for a counter-intelligence operation. "I'm afraid there are some on the Left who still think he went too far. God knows, it's a strange mentality."
Professor Crick said it had to be remembered that in the late 1940s Orwell's friends and acquaintances were returning to eastern Europe - some of them to face death at the hands of Communist regimes. "You have to remember that these were fairly serious days," he said. "I would like to ask Michael [Foot] what the hell he would do if he had been faced with Communism."The documents show that the IRD approached Orwell in March 1949 at a sanatorium in Cranham, Gloucs, where the novelist was suffering from the tuberculosis of which he died the following year. Mr Foot said he found the letter "amazing". "There's a lot of argument about him deserting his socialism at the end of his life," he said. "I don't think that's true but I am very surprised that he was dealing with the secret service in any form."
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