Not only was George Orwell one of the most brilliant writers of the twentieth century; he was the indispensible observer of twentieth-century totalitarianism, clear-eyed about the tyrannies of both left and right – and about the stooges of tyranny that crossed his path. This week we’ve been looking at Orwell’s 1949 list of colleagues he suspected of being “crypto-communists” or “fellow travellers” and therefore unfit for employment by the British government’s Ministry of Information. When the list came to light decades later, as we’ve noted, Orwell was savaged by many of his fellow leftists for being a traitor to his own side; in fact, the British Stalinists working to destroy Western freedom and replace it with totalitarianism were the traitors.
Among the names on the list were those of Peter Smollett, a British official who tried to quash the publication of Orwell’s masterpiece Animal Farm and who (years after his death) was revealed to have been a Soviet spy, and beloved Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, a fan of both Mussolini and Stalin who (in one posthumously published poem) expressed indifference to the Nazi bombing of London. Another name: E.H. Carr (1892-1982).
Who was Carr? He was a historian who taught at Cambridge, Oxford, and the University of Wales and who was best known for his fourteen-volume (!) History of Soviet Russia. Like MacDiarmid, he was capable of warming up to fascists and Communists alike. All in all, the stooges on Orwell’s list were a pretty loathsome crew, but Carr may well hav been the most loathsome. As British historian David Pryce-Jones wrote in a 1999 essay, this was a man who nursed an intense “belief in power”; who was unwavering in his conviction “that his own country could do no right”; who was certain that “[c]apitalism and democracy were doomed” and that “[t]he individual had to belong to the collective.”
At first, the collective he admired was the one Hitler was fashioning in Germany. Carr publicly defended Nazi aggression and considered its victims “beneath notice.” But then he exchanged Adolf for Uncle Joe. When Stalin swallowed the Baltic states, he said that their forced absorption into the USSR was better than incorporation into the Nazi empire. Carr wasn’t alone in undergoing this conversion: Orwell himself commented at the time that “all the appeasers, e.g. Professor E. H. Carr, have switched their allegiance from Hitler to Stalin.” Thereafter, Carr considered the Soviet Union, in Pryce-Jones’s words, “the model society of the future,” and said so frequently in the British media, notably the Times. In his view (to quote Pryce-Jones again), “Communist governments imposed by Stalin in the satellites of eastern Europe ought to be recognized. The Communists had both the right and the authority to take over Greece…..The Soviet suppression of uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia hardly ruffled him. Soviet force and terror were automatically equated with red-baiting and McCarthyism in America.” In his Soviet history, “[t]he indifference to the murdered millions is astounding.”
To be sure, like many Communists in the West, he was a model hypocrite: “While maintaining that capitalism was dead, he was constantly on the telephone to his stockbroker. His letters beseeching for funds and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation or university sponsors refer to his need to be comfortable.” Also like many Western Communists, he labored to demolish his ideological enemies: “Hugh Seton-Watson, Edward Crankshaw, George Katkov, David Footman, and his own former pupil Norman Stone were among the many colleagues against whom Carr intrigued or whom he openly criticized, in the hope of destroying them and their professional reputation.” Finally, like many fervent disciples of extreme ideologies that profess concern for the powerless, he was brutal to his several wives. Pryce-Jones:
Enclosed in his ego, he paid no attention to any of them, discarding them like tissues….The nastiness was unlimited. Anne developed a sarcoma, and, on the day that one of her daughters was due to have a very serious operation, Carr informed her that the marriage was over, that he was leaving her for Joyce. In due course he left Joyce for her closest friend, Betty Behrens. …Soon Betty had a nervous collapse and moved to an asylum, whereupon Carr tried to take some of her considerable fortune.
As Pryce-Jones sums up: “here was someone who would have had no trouble at all signing death warrants in a police state.” But of course that’s precisely the type of person who, living in freedom, is attracted to murderous totalitarian regimes. They never identify with those dispatched to the Gulags or death camps; they always see themselves in the role of commissar, warden, executioner. That’s one of the many things that Orwell, in his time, certainly understood – and to which we, in our own time, in a world no less threatened than Orwell’s by liberty-crushing ideologies and their fans, should be constantly alert.