Orwell’s stooges

We here at Useful Stooges would not presume to compare ourselves with George Orwell, the great English man of letters and enemy of tyranny in all its forms, but we have at least one thing in common with him. Our website could be described as a catalogue of people – some past, most present – who, as we put it on our “About” page, are “pawns of tyrants in our own time” who “either admire despotism or have figured out ways…to profit from their cynical support for it.”

1EN-625-B1945 Orwell, George (eigentl. Eric Arthur Blair), engl. Schriftsteller, Motihari (Indien) 25.1.1903 - London 21.1.1950. Foto, um 1945.
George Orwell

Orwell made a list, too. In 1949, the year he published his classic novel 1984 and not long before he died, he provided the Information Research Department, a newly established propaganda unit of the British Foreign Office, with the names of “journalists and writers who in my opinion are crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way, and should not be trusted.” In other words: people who, if hired or used in any way by British intelligence, would be likely to become double agents.

In 1996, when the existence of Orwell’s list became widely known, and again in 2003, when the list itself became public, many of his fellow men of the left condemned him as a McCarthyite, a blacklister, a rogue. Communist historian Christopher Hill called him a traitor to his side. (It is worth noting that Hill also despised Animal Farm for attacking Communism.)

christopherHill.guardian
Christopher Hill

But Orwell’s friend David Astor, the longtime editor of the Observer, had a clearer view of things: “Orwell wasn’t betraying the left – the pro-communists were betraying us.” For Britain’s misguided left, Orwell’s crime was simple: he recognized that totalitarianism in the name of Communism was no better than totalitarianism in the name of Nazism. In short, he hated Stalin every bit as much as he hated Hitler. And that was inexcusable.

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Christopher Hitchens

But Orwell requires no defense from us; anyone who wants one need only consult the splendid essay on the subject that was published in 2002 by the estimable Christopher Hitchens. (It appears in Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters,  in his posthumous collection, And Yet…,  which appeared last year, and is also behind a firewall at the New York Review of Books website.)

To this day, Orwell’s list is worth perusing. Because he was right. The people he named – journalists, historians, scientists, professors, even a couple of actors, a Member of Parliament, and a noted clergymen – deserved their places on that list. Orwell knew them for what they were. The problem is that we don’t. Most of the names on his list mean nothing to most people in the English-speaking world nowadays. That’s a shame. Because their stories illustrate that, then as now, it’s far from uncommon to find fans of totalitarianism in positions of power and influence in free countries.

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Walter Duranty

One of the names on Orwell’s list is that of Walter Duranty, our archetypal useful stooge. Duranty was the New York Times‘s man in Moscow from 1922 to 1936; he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. At the time Orwell included Duranty’s name on his list, Duranty was still a highly respected journalist. Not until years later would his dispatches from Russia come under serious scrutiny. Robert Conquest, in his 1968 book The Great Terror, condemned Duranty for systematically whitewashing the evils of Stalinism and trying to cover up the Ukrainian famine. The publication in 1990 of Sally J. Taylor’s biography of Duranty, which was appropriately entitled Stalin’s Apologist, helped trigger a serious effort to have Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize revoked. In 2003, however, the head of the Pulitzer board declined to withdraw the prize. He still didn’t get it; Orwell had gotten it more than a half-century earlier.

Another useful stooge whose number Orwell had early on was a Daily Express editor named Peter Smollett, who years later would be identified as a Soviet spy. We’ll look at Smollett tomorrow.

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