Pete Seeger, Stalinist toady

Pete Seeger

Born in 1919, the folk singer Pete Seeger was son of two high-profile figures in classical music – his father a composer and musicologist, his mother a violinist and teacher at Juilliard – and his siblings, like Pete himself, went on to be successful (one of them was a radio astronomer, the other a teacher at Manhattan’s Dalton School). Seeger became a radical early on, apparently under the influence of his father: at age 17, he joined the Young Communist League; six years later, he joined the Communist Party.

Woody Guthrie

In the 1940s, he collaborated with Woody Guthrie and a number of other well-known folk singers. He also helped found a folk group called The Almanacs that was ideology under the Kremlin thumb. Songs for John Doe, an Almanacs album on which Seeger played and sang, faithfully reflected the anti-FDR and anti-war (and, indeed, Hitler-friendly) Soviet line of the period following the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and Russia. When, shortly thereafter, Hitler violated the pact by invading the USSR, Moscow instantly reversed its position and ordered its American lackeys to do the same.

Accordingly, Seeger and his pals removed Songs for John Doe from the market and destroyed all the copies they could get their hands on. They then put out an album entitled Dear Mr. President, which was essentially a love letter to FDR and an enthusiastic call for all-out war to defeat the Nazis. It was right out of Orwell: we have always been allies with Eurasia; we have always been at war with Eastasia. Such was the mentality to which Seeger subscribed – this man long celebrated as a hero of the people, of liberty, and of free expression.

Henry A. Wallace

Yes, Seeger & co. expressed some admirable sentiments: they sang about racism and anti-Semitism. Then again, at the time it was an integral part of the Moscow line to emphasize America’s unequal treatment of blacks and Jews. If the Kremlin had suddenly, for whatever reason, ordered American Communists to reverse their line on racism and anti-Semitism, what would Seeger have done? Given his immediate, unquestioning turnaround on FDR, it’s a fair question.

When the U.S. entered the war, Seeger joined the U.S. Army and spent the duration entertaining troops in the Pacific. In the 1948 election he supported third-party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, who was famously soft on Communism (if not, in fact, an all-out closet Communist). It was Wallace who said in a 1946 speech that the U.S. had no more in common with Britain than with the Soviet Union and whose refusal to disavow his endorsement by the Communist Party USA alienated even Norman Thomas, the country’s most prominent socialist. But his views didn’t alienate Seeger.

Alvin Bessie, Stalinist soldier

Dalton Trumbo and wife

We’re talking this week about the Hollywood Ten – a group of Hollywood scriptwriters who enjoyed ample rewards for their talents in capitalist America even as they espoused a political system under which the very jobs they thrived at didn’t exist and in which their own stubborn contrarianism would likely have landed them in front of a firing squad. We’ve already devoted a good deal of attention to the most famous of the Ten – Dalton Trumbo, the colorful hero of a 2015 movie starring Bryan Cranston. But the other members of the group, all of whom refused either to answer questions about their political history or, in the phrase of the day, to “name names,” are no less interesting in their own right.

Alvah Bessie

Take Alvah Bessie (1904-85). The son of a successful New York businessman, he attended Columbia University, spent four years as a member of Eugene O’Neill’s acting troupe, the Provincetown Players, then, in 1928, went to Paris to become an expatriate writer like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Returning to the U.S. the next year, he contributed stories and essays to most of the best American magazines of the day.

He did something else, too. He began moving in Communist circles, and in 1936 joined the Party. Two years later, like many other American Communists, he went off to Spain to fight against Franco and for the Republic. At the time, much of the left-wing media in the U.S. and elsewhere presented the struggle as a straightforward clash between fascism and freedom, but as George Orwell famously recorded in his classic Homage to Catalonia, the Republican side was strongly under Kremlin influence and was subjected to a great deal of pressure to toe the Stalinist line and to crush any hint of non-Communist dissent. In Orwell’s view, indeed, the Soviets in Spain oversaw a “reign of terror.”

George Orwell

Like Orwell, Bessie wrote his own account of the Spanish Civil War. His book, entitled Men in Battle, was published in 1939. In it, as the title suggests, he recounts everyday life at the front, in the heat of warfare. Unlike Orwell, however, he doesn’t complain about the Soviets. He was, as they say, a “good soldier.” He belonged to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which was one of the International Brigades that, as Allan H. Ryskind records in his 2015 history Hollywood Traitors, were “a Stalinist creation.” Just to make sure there’s no doubt about the matter, Ryskind spells it out: Bessie “was fighting for the Stalinist wing in the civil war.”

It was during World War II – specifically, in 1943 – that Bessie began writing movies for Warner Brothers, notably Objective, Burma! , for which he received an Oscar nomination. As a big Hollywood name he had access to people at the top of the American Communist Party, including its president, Earl Browder. Ryskind reports a conversation that suggests that Bessie was even a more hard-line Communist than the head of the Party himself. Browder’s – and the Party’s – official position was that the U.S. should undergo a peaceful transition from capitalism to Communism. Bessie rejected this notion: he believed in nothing less than a violent overthrow of the U.S. system.

Albert Maltz

If Bessie was more of a Communist than Browder, he was also more of a Communist than at least one of his fellow Hollywood Ten members, Albert Maltz (1908-85). In 1946, Maltz, a veteran of  the New York theater, a Communist since 1935, and an Oscar nominee for Pride of the Marines (1945), published an article in the Party’s weekly New Masses complaining that the Party was too strict in policing writers, expecting them to cleave strictly to the party line and produce crude propaganda. Among those who savaged Maltz for his dissent was Bessie, who at a Party meeting, according to one witness, “denounced” his fellow screenwriter “with bitter vituperation and venom.” After HUAC and prison, Maltz moved to Mexico, where he resumed writing films, including the Cinemascope spectacle The Robe (1953).

As for Bessie, he didn’t last long at Warners. Two years after going to work for the studio, he was fired. The anodyne account of his career in the Hollywood Reporter says that he was dismissed for supporting striking studio workers – which, of course, makes Bessie sound virtuous and the studio bosses pretty rotten. In fact, there was a struggle underway at the time between two unions, one Kremlin-controlled and one anti-Communist, that sought to represent Hollywood workers, and Bessie was squarely on the side of the Stalinists. Called before HUAC in 1950 and subsequently imprisoned and blacklisted, he quit the Party in the 1950s and wrote about his Blacklist experience in a 1957 novel, The Un-Americans, and a 1965 memoir, Inquisition in Eden.

Salvaging Heidegger?

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Martin Heidegger

We’ve been exploring the curious case of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), whose public loyalty to the Third Reich and support of its anti-Semitic policies didn’t keep him from being a hero to philosophers and philosophy students around the world, some of whom managed to convince themselves that his Nazism hadn’t been prolonged, or deep, or authentic, or important to his work. These fans, however, were rocked by the 2014 publication of a set of his diaries – known as the Black Notebooks because of the color of the blank volumes in which they’d been scribbled – that provided ample evidence that Heidegger had, in fact, been a genuine and profoundly dedicated devotee of Nazi thought (Jew-hatred included) throughout the Hitler era, and that he viewed this ideological proclivity as inextricable from his own philosophical oeuvre.

hitler1One of the reviewers of the Black Notebooks was Joshua Rothman, who recalled in The New Yorker that reading Heidegger had supplied him with one of the two or three most profound intellectual experiences of his life. “I was in my late twenties, and struggling with a dissertation on the nature of consciousness (what it is, where it comes from, how it fits into the material world). This had turned out to be an impossible subject. Everything I read succeeded only by narrowing the world, imagining it to be either a material or a spiritual place—never both.” (Why not study neurology? Oh, never mind.) Then he read Being and Time. It was as if, having been trapped on the ground floor of a building, I had found an express elevator to the roof, from which I could see the stars. Heidegger had developed his own way of describing the nature of human existence. It wasn’t religious, and it wasn’t scientific; it got its arms around everything, from rocks to the soul.” He then turned to another Heidegger book, The Essence of Truth, wherein Heidegger “proposed a different and, to my mind, a more realistic idea of truth than any I’d encountered before. He believed that, before you could know the truth about things, you had to care about them.” (This seems wrong on the face of it: after all, it is possible to know, say, that Ashgabat is the capital of Turkmenistan without caring in the least about this information. But again, never mind.)

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Joshua Rothman

Rothman reported on a recent confab at which philosophers had gathered – in a sort of philosophical equivalent of an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council – to figure out what to do about the explosive contents of the Black Notebooks. His account shed a fascinating light on the mentality of academic philosophers. One prominent participant started off by making clear the importance to him of career considerations. “I’m the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute,” he said, “and I actually want to be that for a longer time.” The audience laughed. “If we would say that Heidegger really was an anti-Semitic philosopher, then,” he added, “yeah, that would be really a catastrophe, in a certain way, for me.”

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Babette Babich

Rothman appreciated the honesty of this admission; yet the ensuing remarks by many of the philosophers in attendance exhibited a reflexive desire not to get at the truth, however intellectually uncomfortable and professionally inconvenient, but to rescue Heidegger from himself – to find some way to preserve and esteem his philosophy in spite of his Nazism and anti-Semitism. One prominent philosopher, Babette Babich, made an argument that Rothman summed up as: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

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

Yet the baby and bathwater metaphor is utterly inappropriate here. A baby and bathwater are two different things. A philosophy is of a piece – a man’s commitment to Nazism cannot be neatly separated from the rest of his thinking about life. However much some of Heidegger’s admirers may wish to isolate his Nazism from the rest of his philosophy, then, it’s an impossible task.

But no great loss. There are many other potential life guides out there – among them writers like George Orwell, who saw totalitarianism (in all its forms) for what it was, despised it, and expressed his contempt in clear, unpretentious language from which most philosophers would be well advised to learn. 

Second-generation Stalinist

Yesterday we met the late Claud Cockburn, a propaganda tool of Stalin’s who passed himself off as a legitimate journalist.

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Alexander Cockburn

Cockburn had three sons, all of whom became journalists of varying degrees of legitimacy. The oldest, Alexander – born in 1941 and educated, like his father, at Keble College, Oxford – was, more than his brothers, the keeper of their father’s flame and the follower in his footsteps. Which is to say that he routinely wrote columns celebrating his father’s legacy, shamelessly repeated his father’s flagrant lies, and himself made a career of defending Stalin, the Soviet Union, and, later, post-Soviet Russia.

Presumably because he was the son of such an illustrious, well-connected hack, Alex Cockburn made his name quickly, going straight from Oxford to the Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman and then – after relocating, in familiar British-journalist fashion, to the U.S. – to the Village Voice, then The Nation. In the 1990s he co-founded the loony-left rag CounterPunch, of which he served as co-editor until his death in 2012. When he died, Cockburn, like many another Communist, was given a thorough whitewash in the New York Times and other mainstream media, which memorialized him as a brilliantly crusading journalist and honorable liberal truth-teller.

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Irving Howe

In fact there was nothing liberal about him. As Harold Meyerson wrote after Cockburn’s death, a “contempt for liberals and social democrats was a hallmark” of his work; he “took particular pleasure in calumniating” anti-Communist socialists such as George Orwell and Irving Howe, because their “democratic scruples” threatened Cockburn’s own “claim to radical rectitude (not to mention communism’s claim to socialist legitimacy).” In short, he was the very tintype of his dad.

As with his father, Alex’s politics were always of a piece: ardently pro-Soviet, anti-American, anti-Israeli, and – not to mince words about it – unapologetically anti-Semitic. One of the things that made CounterPunch distinctive, as it happens, was that he actually allowed into its pages – which were mostly populated by far-left nuts – the occasional piece by a far-right nut who shared his own virulent Jew-hatred.

Exactly how anti-Semitic was he? This anti-Semitic: in 2009 he ran an article by Alison Weir accusing Israel of kidnapping Palestinians in order to harvest their organs for transplant.

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Josef Stalin

As for his devotion to Stalin, we’ll quote Meyerson again: “Alex never ceased casting Stalin in the best light possible, consistently downplaying the number of Russians (including virtually all the original Bolsheviks) who died by his hand.” He defended Stalin’s signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. He blamed postwar totalitarianism in Eastern Europe on the Cold War – in other words, on the West, rather than on Stalin, who’d actually imposed the totalitarianism. Though firmly opposed to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he defended the USSR’s earlier incursion into that country. He also applauded the fact that the USSR had stolen America’s nuclear secrets, “thus ending the US monopoly on Armageddon, and in my view making the world a safer place.” In fact, the U.S. monopoly had lasted four years, long enough for the U.S. to have exploited that monopoly in the same way Hitler or Stalin would have done in a heartbeat – namely, by using it to subdue the entire planet.

“Pitcairn’s” propaganda

Yesterday we began looking at the late Claud Cockburn, a paid Stalinist hack whose lies about the Spanish Civil War moved George Orwell to write Homage to Catalonia, a forthright, meticulously observed account of that war – and of the bloody war-within-a-war that the Cockburn and his fellow Kremlin functionaries waged against their supposed Republican allies.

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Claud Cockburn

In his book, Orwell catalogued the systematic “discrepancies” and “fabrications” that ran “all through the accounts in the Communist press” of events in the Spanish war. Citing a report, for example, in which “Pitcairn” (Cockburn’s pen name) described the POUM as possessing much more in the way of weaponry than it really had, Orwell stated that: 

…these tales about tanks, field-guns, and so forth have only been invented because otherwise it is difficult to reconcile the scale of the Barcelona fighting with the P.O.U.M.’s small numbers. It was necessary to claim that the P.O.U.M. was wholly responsible for the fighting; it was also necessary to claim that it was an insignificant party with no following…The only hope of making both statements credible was to pretend that the P.O.U.M. had all the weapons of a modern mechanized army.

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George Orwell

All in all, Orwell pronounced it “impossible to read through the reports” about the Spanish Civil War that appeared in the Communist press “without realizing that they are consciously aimed at a public ignorant of the facts and have no other purpose than to work up prejudice.” Thus Cockburn’s statement that the Trotskyites fighting on the Republican side had been suppressed by the Popular Army (that is, the Spanish Republican Army, the main Republican faction):

The idea here is to give outsiders the impression that all Catalonia was solid against the “Trotskyists.” But the Popular Army remained neutral throughout the fighting; everyone in Barcelona knew this, and it is difficult to believe that Mr Pitcairn did not know it too. Or again, the juggling in the Communist Press with the figures for killed and wounded, with the object of exaggerating the scale of the disorders.

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Hendrik Hertzberg

This, then, was Claud Cockburn – a bought-and-paid-for propagandist for Josef Stalin. A Kremlin mouthpiece who, like America’s own Walter Duranty, disguised himself as an objective reporter.

And yet, as we’ve said, Cockburn enjoyed immense respectability among the media establishment on both sides of the pond. Remembering him four years ago, the New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg managed to make Claud’s appalling politics sound like merely one of several equally important, and equally colorful, personal attributes. Claud, wrote Hertzberg,

was a wit, a Communist, and a talented journalist — quite a combination. [Imagine writing, with obvious admiration, that someone “was a wit, a Nazi, and a talented journalist — quite a combination.”] Claud was versatile enough to report for both the Times (of London) and the Daily Worker (also of London). [Imagine writing, again with obvious admiration, that someone “was versatile enough to report for both the Times and Der Stürmer.”] In the nineteen-thirties, he started a scabrous, funny, influential, and badly printed paper called The Week, edited by him and discreetly financed by the Comintern. [Imagine…oh, never mind, you get the idea.] The Kremlin, alas, got its money’s worth; but on matters to which Moscow was indifferent (or which happened to serve its interests), The Week broke news that was true and important.

Note that “discreetly”; note that “alas.” The overall effect is to make propagandizing for (and accepting money from) Stalin look not like a reprehensible activity but like a sign of, as Hertzberg puts it, admirable professional versatility.

Shrugging at genocide: E.H. Carr

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Orwell with BBC colleagues

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.

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E. H. Carr

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.”

carrbookAt 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.”

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David Pryce-Jones

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.

George Orwell Bbc MicrophoneAs 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.

The beloved Scottish poet…who loved Hitler and Stalin

This week we’re poking through George Orwell’s 1949 list of writers and journalists whom he suspected of being “crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way,” and therefore not to be trusted by the British government. We’ve seen that in one case after another, Orwell was right on the money.

Here’s another.

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Hugh MacDiarmid

Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) was widely considered the great Scottish poet of his day, and is now viewed as something of a Scottish hero. He was also a Stalinist and self-declared “Anglophobe.” Born under the name Christopher Murray Grieve (MacDiarmid was a nom de plume), he was, in the 1920s, an enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini – and of fascism in general, which he considered a version of socialism. In 1923, he “argued…for a Scottish version of Fascism, and in 1929 for the formation of Clann Albain, a Fascistic para-military organisation that would fight for Scottish freedom.” In 1928 he helped found the Scottish National Party and became a leading champion of Scottish independence. In the 1930s he joined and was expelled from the British Communist Party; in 1956 (the year Soviet tanks crushed Hungary’s democratic revolution) he rejoined the Party.

Hugh MacDiarmid...Scottish modernist poet Hugh MacDiarmid (1892 - 1978, left), 21st August 1962. (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
MacDiarmid in 1962

Some of his wartime writings – which weren’t published during his lifetime – reveals a mind drawn even more passionately and perversely to totalitarianism than most of his published work suggested. In a 1940 letter, he wrote that while “the Germans are appalling enough…the British and French bourgeoisie…are a far greater enemy.” In June of the same year, on the eve of the Battle of Britain, he wrote (but didn’t publish) a poem that included these lines:

Now when London is threatened

With devastation from the air

I realise, horror atrophying me,

That I hardly care.

macdiarmid2The next year, writing to his friend and fellow poet Sorley MacLean, MacDiarmid maintained that while the Axis powers might be “more violently evil for the time being,” they were, in the long run, “less dangerous” than the government in London and in any event “indistinguishable in purpose.” In other words, Scotland might well be better off under Hitler than under Churchill. (MacLean disagreed: “I cannot see what the Nazis would give Scotland when they give Vichy to France, Franco to Spain and Quisling to Norway.”)

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Orwell with his son, Richard Horatio Blair

These documents, note well, didn’t come to light until recently – the letters in 2010, the poem in 2013 – when they were discovered by scholars in the archives of the National Library of Scotland. Their publication made headlines; as James MacMillan wrote three years ago in the Telegraph, they reveal MacDiarmid to have been “a clear and Scottish example of that melding of nationalism, fascism and Leftism which seemed so seductive to young idealists at the time.” But Orwell didn’t need to see that poem or those letters to know just what a foul stooge for totalitarianism – of whatever stripe – Hugh MacDiarmid really was.

More to come.

Smollett: the spy who got away

Yesterday we discussed George Orwell’s 1949 list of literary and journalistic colleagues whom he viewed as “crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way.” Among them, we pointed out, was New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who at the time was considered the ultimate authority on the Soviet Union – but whose name has since become synonymous with shameless journalistic dishonesty and the systematic whitewashing of tyranny.

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George Orwell

Another name on Orwell’s list was that of Peter Smollett. Born in Vienna in 1912 as Hans Peter Smolka, he relocated in 1933 to Britain, where, according to writer Daniel J. Leab, he “wrote pro-Soviet travel journalism for various US outlet during the 1930s, became a naturalized British subject in 1938, changed his name, and after the war’s outbreak joined the Ministry of Information, where he energetically organized pro-Soviet propaganda and suppressed ‘unfavorable comment’ on Stalinist Russia.”

Animal-FarmHis title at the Ministry was Head of Soviet Relations. At the height of the war, when Orwell sent Animal Farm, his classic indictment of Soviet Communism, around to various publishers, one of them, Jonathan Cape, was “reported to be initially keen on the manuscript,” but “bowed out after consulting an ‘important official’ at the Ministry of Information, who advised against publication.” That official was Peter Smollett. On his list, Orwell described Smollett as “a very slimy person” who was “almost certainly [an] agent of some kind.”

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Kim Philby’s 1990 USSR commemorative stamp

He was right. After his death in 1980, Smollett/Smolka was revealed to have been an agent of the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which, in addition to performing espionage, ran the Gulag labor camps, conducted mass executions, and carried out mass deportations of various minorities and farmers. The Mitrokhin Archive, which we discussed a while back, records that Smollett was recruited as a spy in 1939 by double agent Kim Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge Five, and that his NKVD cover name was ABO. Smollett’s wartime NKVD work, notes Henry Hemming, “was held in high regard by Moscow.” Not only did he pass top-secret information on to the Kremlin (working first under Philby and later under another one of the Cambridge Five, Guy Burgess); he was also an invaluable pro-Soviet propagandist. In communications to higher-ups at the Ministry,

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Guy Burgess in Moscow, 1956, after his defection to the USSR

Smollett would exaggerate Soviet concerns, refuse to give in to them and then suggest as a quid pro quo a more Soviet-friendly stance on other issues. He maintained, for example, that the Soviets were exceptionally thin-skinned and, as such, no stories about Stalinist persecution could be broadcast. Smollett encouraged the BBC to run stories that exaggerated the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USSR….Elsewhere Smollett pushed the idea that after the war the USSR would be too weak to do anything other than rebuild.

The result of Smollett’s efforts was substantial. Hemming describes it as a “red haze” that “swept over Britain after the entry of the USSR into the war.” What he means is that Britain, thanks in large part to Smollett’s initiatives, was given a consistently prettified image of life under Stalin. As Hemming puts it, Smollett “helped to blur the line between the heroic Russians and the brutal Soviet regime.”

Smollett, Hemming points out, “was not unmasked during his lifetime, and instead enjoyed a successful post-war career as a respected Times correspondent and was even awarded an OBE.” But Orwell knew.

More tomorrow.

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.)

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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.

South Africa’s top stooge?

Not everyone who fought against the Nazis was fighting for freedom. The Red Army, after all, was fighting for Communism, which the Soviets promptly forced upon the occupied countries of eastern Europe after the war.

In the same way, not all of those who battled apartheid were believers in liberty.

Meet Ronnie Kasrils.

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Kasrils (left) with ANC colleagues Joe Slovo and Jacob Zuma, now president of South Africa

Born in 1938, the grandson of Baltic Jews who fled tsarist pograms to live in South Africa, Kasrils has been called Africa’s “highest-profile revolutionary from the white race.” A member of both the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party since 1960, he spent 27 years in exile owing to his ANC activities, studying at a military academy in the USSR and then doing ANC work in London and in various African capitals. The ANC in exile, wrote  R. W. Johnson in the National Interest in 2013, “was both corrupt and Stalinist,” supporting the Soviet invasions of both Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and Kasrils was nothing if not an ardent devotee of Stalin, who at one point described George Orwell’s Animal Farm as “crude, anti-Communist propaganda.”

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With Mandela and Prince Willem Alexander, now king of the Netherlands

Returning home after the end of apartheid, Kasrils joined the ruling committees of both the ANC and the Communist Party. But he was dissatisfied with the new regime, criticizing Nelson Mandela for taking the ANC down a “bourgeois” path instead of forming a “people’s republic” – that is, a Communist government. Instead of holding “on to its revolutionary will,” he charged, the ANC had “chickened out,” making a “devil’s pact, only to be damned in the process.” Citing Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Che Guevara, Kasrils insisted that a “true rebel would not have accepted” the “global corporate capitalism” that, in his view, was deforming South Africa.

kas3Naturally, he lamented the loss in 1991 of “our once powerful ally, the Soviet Union,” whose collapse destroyed his faith in “the ability of our own revolutionary masses to overcome all obstacles.” Still, he predicted in his 1993 autobiography, Armed and Dangerous, that “in years to come humanity will look back to Soviet achievements as a source of profound inspiration.”

Despite his misgivings about the direction South Africa took after apartheid, Kasrils accepted one high-ranking government position after another, serving as a member of Parliament (1994-2008), as Deputy Minister of Defence, as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, and as Minister of Intelligence. In the last-named post, according to one informed observer, Kasrils managed to turn the country’s intelligence service into “an international laughingstock,” marked by “unending, ungovernable, internecine battles” and other horrors that went beyond “even the ugliest Stalinist traditions of the African National Congress.”

kas2Meanwhile, Kasrils became a leading booster of the Palestinian cause and a fierce critic of Israel, which he routinely described as an apartheid state – a charge that outraged some South Africans, one of whom called it “a gross insult to every black South African who suffered under apartheid.” In a 2007 speech, Kasrils went even further, maintaining that Israel was subjecting the Palestinians to “hardships and methods of control that are far worse than anything our people faced during the most dreadful days of apartheid.” In an interview the same year, he further intensified his rhetoric, calling Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “a thousand times worse” than apartheid. He also compared it to “what my grandmother used to tell me about the pogroms: The Cossacks are coming, the Cossacks are coming.” Finally, pulling out all the stops, he accused Israel of “genocide.” 

kasWhile accusing Israel of the most horrific kinds of crimes against humanity, Kasrils has routinely made excuses for even the most barbaric actions by Palestinians – for example, calling suicide bombers “martyr bombers.” He’s even urged Israeli Jews “to succumb to Islamic rule,” maintaining “that the Jews actually thrived under Islamic rule.” It was no surprise to see his name, a few years back, on the list of members of the notorious Russell Tribunal on Palestine (2009-12), which whitewashed Palestinian atrocities and demonized Israel. As South African justice Richard J. Goldstone wrote in the New York Times just prior to its third session, in Cape Town, the convocation was not really a “tribunal” at all: “The ‘evidence’ is going to be one-sided and the members of the ‘jury’ are critics whose harsh views of Israel are well known.”

In short, a useful stooge for the ages.