by Timothy Naftali
The New York Times, 29 July 1998
"A happy vicar I might have been Two hundred years ago," George Orwell wrote in 1947. But instead he lived a life of political engagement in what he called a "tumultuous, revolutionary age." The British were reminded last month just how engaged he was, when excerpts from his diaries were published there. Though Orwell's disputes with fellow leftists were legendary, there was some surprise at new evidence that the creator of Big Brother had informed for the British Government in the late 1940's.
In his crabbed scrawl, and with characteristic acidity, Orwell secretly wrote down the names of prominent figures who he felt were so enamored of the Soviet Union that they had lost their political independence. He sent some names to a propaganda unit of the British Foreign Office, suggesting they were not fit for writing assignments. "It isn't a bad idea," he said, "to have the people who are probably unreliable listed."
He was wrong-headed in a number of his listings. Stephen Spender, whom Orwell labeled a "sentimental sympathizer" in 1949, contributed an essay the next year to "The God That Failed," an indictment of Communism. And some comments are simply appalling. The anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual overtones of his notes are clear.
Nevertheless, we should resist the temptation to condemn all of these secret scribblings as Orwellian double-think. The author of "1984" maintained that he "named names" not because of any private vendetta or opposition to dissent, but because totalitarianism posed a greater threat to liberty than providing information on those with a history of supporting the Soviet Union. This was a hard-won conviction, born of his experience with Stalinism in the Spanish Civil War. "The conscious enemies of liberty," he wrote, "are those to whom liberty ought to mean most."
The Orwell revelations should coincide with a re-examination of our own history of anti-Communist inquests, which began 50 years ago this month. From the moment Elizabeth Bentley, a former courier for Soviet intelligence, testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in July 1948, the hunt for Communists became a national obsession. Once Senator Joseph McCarthy hijacked these investigations in 1950, they became tainted, and the choice that some made to fight Communist influence was dismissed as lacking any moral basis.
Although new documents from Russian archives substantiate much of Bentley's testimony, public and scholarly discussion of Communism and anti-Communism remains stuck in the language of the past. In some quarters, it is still fashionable to defend American Communists as paragons of free speech and to decry the actions of anti-Communists as authoritarian.
The distortions may rob future generations of the chance to understand the cold war and dilemmas faced by those who felt compelled to expose the clandestine Stalinist movement in America yet feared they would be accused of McCarthyite excess.
The treatment of two great Americans, Paul Robeson and Elia Kazan, illustrates the prevailing double standard in judging activism in the cold war. Robeson's brilliance as a singer and an actor was not always matched by his political judgment. Yet his pro-Soviet views and his defense of Moscow's intervention in Hungary in 1956 have been forgiven because they sprang primarily from his anger at American racism.
But such forbearance has not been extended to Elia Kazan, the director whose "On the Waterfront" was recently voted one of the 10 best movies by the American Film Institute. In 1952, with the Korean War raging and acting on his belief that domestic Communism was still a danger, Mr. Kazan testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, naming eight actors who like him had belonged to the Communist Party in the 1930's. Now nearly 90 years old, Mr. Kazan was recently rejected by his peers for two lifetime achievement awards, one by the American Film Institute.
Like Paul Robeson, Elizabeth Bentley and Elia Kazan obeyed their consciences. Unlike him, they were right about Communism. Yet to many they remain beyond rehabilitation, even if they testified sincerely, and even if their anxieties have been validated by history. To equate their actions with McCarthy's rampage is as wrong as painting each American progressive or Communist as a Stalinist agent. Like George Orwell, they struggled with hard choices in a difficult time. This should make us circumspect about the moral lessons of the cold war.
Here is an excerpt from George Orwell's list of possible "crypto-Communists & fellow travelers" published in "The Complete Orwell," edited by Peter Davison. Orwell, who initially intended the list to be private, jotted used shorthand notes. FT refers to fellow traveler; CP stands for Communist Party. Spelling and punctuation are as in the original. The parentheses are Orwell's, and brackets show passages he crossed out. (Some names, like Upton Sinclair and Fiorello La Guardia, were crossed out altogether.) Mr. Davison inserted the dates of the subjects and the italicized explanations.
CHAPLIN, Charles 1899-1977 (Anglo-American). (Jewish?). JOBS Films
CUNARD, Nancy 1896-1965. JOBS Anti-fascist & anti-imperialist organisations. Pamphlets. REMARKS Probably only sentimental sympathiser. Silly. Has money.
CROSSMAN, Richard 1907-74. JOBS MP (Labour) Coventry. Save Europe Now. Books. New Statesman helps to direct . Sunday Pictorial.. REMARKS ?? Political climber. Zionist (appears sincere about this.) Too dishonest to be outright FT.
COLE, G D H 1889-1959. JOBS Economist, author of many books. REMARKS Sympathiser only. Shallow person. Diabetic. ??
DURANTY, Walter (Anglo-American) 1884-1957. JOBS American papers. Correspondent in USSR many years. Various books. REMARKS Discreet FT. Probably no organisational connection but reliable.
DAVIES, Joseph E (US) 1876-1958. JOBS Previously ambassador to USSR. "Mission to Moscow" (& film of ditto.). REMARKS Very stupid.
FLANNER, Janet (US) 1892-1978. JOBS New Yorker ("Genet"). REMARKS Previously violent red-baiter, changed views about war years. Dishonest careerist. Appears to have swung back somewhat recently (1949).
INGERSOLL, Ralph (US) 1900-1969. JOBS PM (editor) "Top Secret" (anti-British). REMARKS Probably no organisational tie. Dishonest demagogic type.
LEWIS, C Day 1904-1972. JOBS Poet etc. Selector of Book Club (with Priestly & Daniel George). Orion (helps to edit). MOI during war. REMARKS Previously CP. Probably not now completely reliable. Said to have changed since Czech coup d'etat.
LIEBLING, A J (U.S.) 1904-63. JOBS New Yorker ("Our Wayward Press"). REMARKS ?
NIEBUHR, (initials?) Reinhold. 1892-1971. JOBS Theologian (Protestant). REMARKS ? NB Two people of this name? I don't believe the famous RN is a FT. He has a great deal of sense.
NEARING, Scott (US) 1883-1983. JOBS Old figure in the leftwing movement. Journalist & writer. REMARKS Qy. whether open CP member? I should have thought he had dropped out long ago, like J F Horrabin (whom I thought he rather resembled when I met him. A nice type.)
O'CASEY, Sean (Eire, lives in England) 1880-1964. JOBS Playwright. REMARKS Q open CP? Very stupid.
PRIESTLEY, J B 1894-1984. JOBS Novelist, broadcaster. Book Club selector. Appears to have changed latterly (1949). REMARKS Strong sympathiser, possibly has some kind of organisational tie-up. Very anti-USA. Development of last 10 years or less. Might change. Makes huge sums of money in USSR. ??
PEPPER, Claude (US) 1900-89. JOBS Senator. REMARKS Said to have modified views recently.
ROBESON, Paul (US Negro) 1898-1976. JOBS Actor, Singer. REMARKS ?? (People's Convention.) Very anti-white. Wallace supporter. Henry Wallace, US Vice-President, 1941-45.
SPENDER, Stephen 1909-95. JOBS Poet, critic etc. Literary organisations of various kinds. (UNESCO). REMARKS Sentimental sympathiser, & very unreliable. Easily influenced. Tendency towards homosexuality.
SHAW, GB 1856-1950. JOBS Playwright. REMARKS No sort of tie-up, but reliably pro-Russian on all major issues.
STEINBECK, John (US) 1902-68. JOBS Novelist ("The Grapes of Wrath," etc.). REMARKS ?? Spurious writer, pseudo-naif.
WALLACE, Henry 1888-1965. JOBS USA Previously vice-president. Editor in Chief New Republic. Many books (on farming etc.) Unofficial connection with PCA Progressive Citizens of America. REMARKS Probably no definite organisational connection. Very dishonest. (ie intellectually).
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