Beat the Devil

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, December 7, 1998 | Go to article overview

Beat the Devil


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


St. George's List

In our last installment we left the two most notable anti-Communist literary figures in postwar England about to enjoy a country weekend together, with George Orwell visiting Arthur Koestler's cottage in Wales. This was Christmas 1946. Also present were Koestler's second wife, Mamaine, and her twin sister, Celia Kirwan. Orwell took a shine to Celia and indeed proposed to her soon after they were back in London. She turned him down.

The most notorious component of the subsequent transactions was the remission by Orwell to Kirwan of a list of the names of persons on the left whom he deemed security risks, as Communists or fellow travelers. The notoriety stems from the fact that Kirwan worked for the Information Research Department, lodged in the Foreign Office but in fact overseen by the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6.

When Orwell's secret denunciations surfaced a couple of years ago, there was a medium-level commotion. Now, with the publication of Peter Davison's maniacally complete twenty-volume collected Orwell, the topic of Orwell as government snitch has flared again, with more lissome apologies for St. George from the liberal/left and bellows of applause from cold-warriors, taking the line that if Orwell, great hero of the non-Communist left, named names, then that provides moral cover for all the Namers of Names who came after him.

Those on the non-Com left have rushed to shore up St. George's reputation. Some emphasize Orwell's personal feelings toward Kirwan. The guy was in love. Others argue Orwell was near death's door, traditionally a time for confessionals. Others have insisted that Orwell didn't really name names, and, anyway (this was lan Hamilton in the London Review of Books), "he was forever making lists"--a fishing log, a log of how many eggs his hens laid--so why not a snitch list?

Christopher Hitchens hastened into print in Vanity Fair with a burrito con todo of these approaches. "Orwell named no names and disclosed no identities." Actually, he did both, as in "Parker, Ralph. Underground member and close FT [fellow traveler]? Stayed on in Moscow. Probably careerist." Presumably these secret advisories to an IRD staffer whom Hitchens describes as not only a "trusted friend" and "old flame" but also--no supporting evidence offered for this odd claim--"a leftist of heterodox opinions" had consequences. Blacklists usually do. No doubt the list was passed on in some form to American intelligence agencies that made due note of those listed as fellow travelers and duly proscribed them under the McCarran Act.

Hitchens speaks of Orwell's "tendresse" for Kirwan. He insists Orwell "wasn't interested in unearthing heresy or in getting people fired or in putting them under the discipline of a loyalty oath," though as opposed to the mellow tendresse for secret agent Kirwan, he had "an acid contempt for the Communists who had betrayed their cause and their country once before and might do so again."

Here Orwell would surely have given a vigorous nod. Orwell's defenders claim that he was only making sure the wrong sort of person wasn't hired by the Foreign Office to write essays on the British way of life. …

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