Orwell and Empire: Anti-Communism and the Globalization of Literature

By Rubin, Andrew N. | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview
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Orwell and Empire: Anti-Communism and the Globalization of Literature

Rubin, Andrew N., Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

This article explores the cultural process through which British colonialism was rearticulated by the institutions and discourses of American anti-communism. Focusing on George Orwell, the author provides a critical account of the British and US governments' efforts to advance the distribution of George Orwell's Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four--through adaptations, translations, films, cartoons, and subventions. The article concludes that these endeavors did less to disseminate "cultural values," than they did to reproduce existing social relationships.


For decades, George Orwell's blue quarto notebook, filled with the names of one hundred and thirty-five "crypto-communists and fellow travelers," languished, mostly unexamined, in the George Orwell Archives in London, attracting only passing interest from the few scholars granted permission by Orwell's estate to examine the material. In his 1980 biography of Orwell, Bernard Crick, for example, made only a brief allusion to the list, writing that Orwell worried about "communist infiltration ... and kept a notebook of suspects." (1) Many of those listed, Crick said, "are plausible as possible underground or front members, but a few seem far-fetched and unlikely." (2) A decade later, Orwell's authorized biographer Michael Shelden speculated that Orwell was "engaged in a continuous exercise of determining who was sincere and who was not." The notebook was "primarily to satisfy [Orwell's] own curiosity," Shelden wrote. (3)

The notebook included the names of those whom Orwell suspected of having affiliations with the Communist Party, or sympathies with the very idea of "communism." (4) Among them, he mentioned poets such as Stephen Spender, whom he described as a "sentimental [communist] sympathizer," "very unreliable," and "easily influenced." (5) George Bernard Shaw was, he wrote, "no sort of tie-up, but reliably pro-Russian on all major issues." (6) The historian A. J. P. Taylor was "anti-American"; Isaac Deutcher was "a sympathizer"; Richard Crossman was a "political climber" and "too dishonest to be an outright f[ellow] t[raveler]"; J. B. Priestley was "a strong sympathizer," "very anti-USA," and "makes huge sums of money in the USSR." (7) The Scottish poet Hugh McDiarmid was "probably reliably pro-Russian" and "very anti-English." C. Day Lewis was "not completely reliable" and the Irish playwright, Sean O'Casey, was "very stupid." (8)

Orwell's notebook of "crypto-communists and fellow-travelers" inscribed "communism" in the form of various threats to the homogeneity of English culture. He observed, for example, that the historian Isaac Deutcher was a "Polish Jew"; that Ian Mikardo, a columnist at the Tribune, was "silly" and "Jewish"; that the writer Cedric Dover was "Eurasian"; that Paul Robeson was a "US Negro" and "very anti-white"; that the MP Konni Zilliacus was "Finnish" and "Jewish"; that the biologist J. D. Bernal was "Irish"; that Louis Adamic was "Jugo-Slav" and "very anti-British"; that Vera Dean was "Russian"; and that the French intellectual E. Mounier, author of La Pensee de Charles Peguy (1931) was "slimy." (9) Indeed, Orwell once wrote to his friend Dwight McDonald that he could "smell" a crypto-communist. (10) Irish and Scottish writers, such as Sean O'Casey, Liam O'Flaherty, and Hugh McDiarmid, were recast and refashioned as communist threats: "I think we should pay more attention to the small but violent separatist movements which exist within our own island," Orwell wrote in 1946; "They may look very unimportant now, but, after all, the Communist Manifesto was once an obscure document, and the Nazi party had only six members when Hitler joined it." (11)

From the one hundred and thirty-five names in the notebook, Orwell drew up a more limited list of thirty-five, which he sent to the Information Research Department (IRD) on May 2, 1949. (12) "It isn't very sensational and I don't suppose it will tell your friends anything they don't know," he wrote the IRD; "At the same time it isn't a bad idea to have the people who are probably unreliable listed.

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