Late in June, the elite left-wing Guardian newspaper—Britain’s version of the New York Times—carried this headline: DID LOVE OF THIS WOMAN TURN GEORGE ORWELL INTO A GOVERNMENT STOOGE? Below the headline appeared a picture of a very beautiful woman, Celia Kirwan, who befriended George Orwell during the last year of his life, when he was dying of tuberculosis, and who worked for the British foreign office.
Like the question whether a man has stopped beating his wife yet, the headline implied that Orwell was a stooge, whether Celia Kirwan turned him into one or not. And if he was a stooge, would that not cast a moral shadow on his last two (and greatest) works, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four?
Prompting the Guardian to ask the “stooge” question was a carbon copy of a list of 38 names of intellectuals, found among Kirwan’s belongings after her death, that Orwell had provided at her request for foreign office use. Orwell suggested that the people on his list might be unreliable as anti-Soviet counter-propagandists, since they were either secret or open sympathizers with the Soviet cause. The foreign office at the time worried about the effect that Soviet propaganda was having on world opinion and wanted to counter it with propaganda of its own.
The worst thing that could have happened to the people on Orwell’s list was that the government would not have employed them to write counter-propaganda: hardly a punishment to compare with a spell in the Gulag. Some on the list, moreover, were clearly unreliable: the Anglo-American Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Walter Duranty, for example, whose mendacity in the pages of the New York Times about the Soviet Union is now notorious; or Peter Smollett, a journalist for the Daily Express who was actually a Soviet agent.
The headline’s implication is clear: what Orwell did was morally reprehensible (the story itself, however, was fairer to the author). The Guardian would now acknowledge, however reluctantly and belatedly, that the Soviet Union of Orwell’s day was a tyranny responsible for the deaths of untold millions of its own citizens: but Orwell was still wrong to have cooperated with the British government in preventing the extension of the Soviet system to other parts of the world, including Britain.
During the 1930s, the Guardian suppressed the eyewitness accounts of its correspondent, Malcolm Muggeridge, of the Stalin-created famine in the Ukraine, which killed millions. When one of the Guardian’s most respected writers on foreign affairs, Richard Gott (author of a much read book on Latin American guerrilla movements), turned out to have taken a payment from the KGB, the paper dismissed it more or less as a joke, a youthful indiscretion at worst.
What the “stooge” headline reveals is how liberal intellectuals in the West remain unwilling or unable to face up to their own inglorious recent past, not unlike France regarding its Vichy era. The intellectuals now admit that communism was bad; but to have been anti-communist was far, far worse.