August 28, 2012

“The Fable of the Weasel,” by Alexander Cockburn


The following is Alexander Cockburn’s foreword to John Reed’s Snowball’s Chance, releasing in August as part of Melville House’s The Neversink Library.

Snowball’s Chance takes its intriguing departure from Animal Farm, and set me thinking again about Orwell. These days I can’t get through almost any page of Orwell without a shudder, though in my teens I often had the Penguin selection of his essays in my pocket. I’d learned to loathe Animal Farm earlier at my prep school, Heatherdown, where any arguments for socialism would be met with brays of “and some are more equal than others” by my school mates.

Some writers admired in adolescence stay around for the rest of the journey, perennial sources of refreshment and uplift: P.G. Wodehouse, Stanley Weyman, H.L. Mencken, Flann O’Brien, to name but four I’d be glad to find in any bathroom. Now, why can Mencken delight me still, while the mere sight of a page of Orwell carries me back to memories of England and of British-ness at full disagreeable stretch: philistine, vulgar, thuggish, flag-wagging?

Maybe the answer comes with the flag-wagging. Mencken made terrible errors of political judgement. Like Orwell he could be a lout. Both men’s prose has excited awful imitators. But Mencken was a true outsider. Orwell wasn’t. To step into Mencken-land is to be lured down a thousand unexpected pathways, with firecrackers of wit exploding under one’s feet.

Contradicting Thomas Love Peacock’s famous jibe at landscapers, even on the twentieth tour of the Mencken estate there are surprises. I don’t feel that, trundling through Orwell Country. It gets less alluring with each visit. What once seemed bracing, now sounds boorish. How quickly one learns to loathe the affectations of plain bluntishness. The man of conscience turns out to be a whiner, and of course a snitch, an informer to the secret police, Animal Farm’s resident weasel.

When Orwell’s secret denunciations surfaced a few years ago, there was a medium-level commotion. Then, with the publication of Peter Davison’s maniacally complete twenty-volume collected Orwell, the topic of Orwell as government snitch 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 rushed to shore up St. George’s reputation. Some emphasized Orwell’s personal feeling toward Kirwan. The guy was in love. Others argued that Orwell was near death’s door, traditionally a time for confessionals. Others insisted that Orwell didn’t really name names, and anyway (this was the late Ian 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?

“Orwell named no names and disclosed no identities,” proclaimed Christopher Hitchens, one of Orwell’s most ecstatic admirers. Clearly, Orwell did both, as in “Parker, Ralph. Underground member and close FT [fellow traveler?] Stayed on in Moscow. Probably careerist.”

Apologists for Orwell sometimes suggest this was a sort of parlor game between Rees and Orwell, playful scribbles that somehow ended up with Kirwan. The facts are otherwise. Orwell carefully and secretly remitted to Celia Kirwan, an agent of the IRD or Information Research Department, a list of the names of persons on the left who he deemed security risks, as Communists or fellow travelers. The IRD was lodged in the British Foreign Office but in fact overseen by the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6.

Kirwan, with whom Orwell had previously had some sort of liaison, visited Orwell in Cranham on March 29, 1949. She reported to the Department the next day that she “had discussed some aspects of our work with him in great confidence, and he was delighted to learn of them.” Case Officer Lt. Colonel Sheridan annotated this report.

On April 6, a week later, Orwell wrote to his friend Richard Rees, asking him to find and send “a quarto notebook with a pale bluish cardboard cover” containing “a list of crypto-Communists and fellow-travellers which I want to bring up to date.” Rees duly dispatched the notebook and Orwell wrote on May 2 to Kirwan, “I enclose a list with about 35 names,” modestly adding that “I don’t suppose it will tell your friends anything they don’t know,” and reflecting that, although the IRD probably had tabs on the subjects already, “it isn’t a bad idea to have people who are probably unreliable listed.”

Reviewing this sequence in the London Review of Books early in 2000, Perry Anderson emphasized some important points. Orwell knew the destination of the list, and “was very anxious to keep the list hidden.” It remains thus. Though 99 names from the notebook are displayed in Vol. XX of Orwell’s Collected Works, with another 36 withheld by the editor for fear of libel, the list of 35 remains a state secret, lodged in the Foreign Office archives.

Those secret advisories to an IRD staffer had consequences. Blacklists usually do. No doubt the list was passed on in some form to American intelligence that made due note of those listed as fellow travelers and duly proscribed them under the McCarran Act.

Hitchens has written softly of Orwell’s “tendresse” for Kirwan, as though love rather than loyalty led him forward. Against the evidence under our noses he insists Orwell “wasn’t interested in unearthing heresy or in getting people fired or in putting them under the discipline of loyalty oath.” Although 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 ways of life. But Orwell made it clear to the IRD he was identifying people who were “unreliable” and who, worming their way into organizations like the British Labor Party, “might be able to do enormous mischief.” Loyalty was the issue, and it’s plain enough from his annotations that Orwell thought that Jews, blacks, and homosexuals had an inherent tropism towards treachery to the values protected by the coalition of patriots including himself and the IRD. G.D.H. Cole, Orwell noted, was “shallow,” a “sympathizer” and also a “diabetic.”

There seems to be general agreement by Orwell’s fans left and right, to skate gently over these Orwellian suspicions of Jews, homosexuals, and blacks, also the extreme ignorance of his assessments, reminiscent of police intelligence files the world over. Of Paul Robeson Orwell wrote, “very antiwhite. [Henry] Wallace supporter.” Only a person who instinctively thought all blacks were anti-white could have written this piece of stupidity. One of Robeson’s indisputable features, consequent upon his intellectual disposition and his connections with the Communists, was that he was most emphatically not “very anti-white,” Ask the Welsh coal miners for whom Robeson campaigned.

If any other postwar intellectual was suddenly found to have written mini-diatribes about blacks, homosexuals, and Jews, we can safely assume that subsequent commentary would not have been forgiving. There was certainly no forgiveness for Mencken. But Orwell gets a pass. “Deutscher [Polish Jew],” “Driberg, Tom. English Jew,” “Chaplin, Charles (Jewish?).” No denunciations from the normally sensitive Norman Podhoretz.

When someone becomes a saint, everything is mustered as testimony to his holiness. So it is with St. George and his list. Thus, in 1998, when the list became an issue, we have fresh endorsement of all the cold war constructs as they were shaped in the immediate postwar years, when the cold war coalition from right to left signed on to fanatical anti-Communism. The IRD, disabled in the seventies by a Labor Foreign Minister on the grounds it was a sinkhole of rightwing nuts, would have been pleased.

Orwell’s Animal Farm is a powerful fable, though as I’ve noted, in my experience, the effect of the fable has mostly been to deride the utopian impulse. Orwell as Weasel is a powerful fable too, as powerful as the awful saga of betrayal conducted by that other Cold War saint, Ignacio Silone. “The Fable of the Weasel” is cautionary, not least about defenders of Orwell’s conduct. If they thought what he did was okay, or even better than okay, somehow an act of sublime bravery, should one not assume that they regard snitching against Traitors to the West as a moral duty too. We have been warned. John Reed’s parody in Snowball’s Chance warns us too, how the non-Com side plays on Orwell’s very field.


ALEXANDER COCKBURN, a former columnist for The Nation and one of America’s best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. He was co-editor, with Jeffrey St Clair, of CounterPunch and the author of many books. He died in July 2012.