Orwell's list

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In 1949, shortly before he died, the English author George Orwell prepared a list of notable writers and other persons he considered to be unsuitable as possible writers for the anti-communist propaganda activities of the United Kingdom's Information Research Department. A copy of the list was published in The Guardian in 2002, and the original document was released by the Foreign Office soon after.[1]


The Information Research Department (IRD) was a propaganda unit set up by the Labour government in 1948 based at the United Kingdom's Foreign Office, after the start of the Cold War.

Celia Kirwan, who had just started working as Robert Conquest's assistant at the IRD, visited Orwell at a sanatorium where he was being treated for tuberculosis in March 1949.[2] Orwell wrote down the names of persons he considered sympathetic to Stalinism and therefore unsuitable as writers for the Department and enclosed it in a letter to Kirwan.[1] The list became public in 2003.[3]

Having worked for Cyril Connolly's Horizon magazine, and briefly as an editorial assistant for Humphrey Slater's Polemic, Kirwan was Arthur Koestler's sister-in-law and one of the four women to whom Orwell proposed after the death of his wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy in 1945.[2][4] Although Koestler had supported such a match, Kirwan turned him down.[5]


Orwell based his list on a strictly private notebook he had maintained since the mid-1940s of possible "cryptos", "F.T." (his abbreviation for fellow travellers), outright members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, agents and sentimental sympathisers. The notebook, now at the Orwell Archive at University College London, contains 135 names in all, including US writers and politicians.[6] Ten names had been crossed out, either because the person had died or because Orwell had decided that they were neither crypto-communists nor fellow travellers.[1] The people named were a mélange: "some famous, some obscure, some he knew personally and others he did not."[7] Orwell commented in New Leader in 1947:

The important thing to do with these people – and it is extremely difficult, since one has only inferential evidence – is to sort them out and determine which of them is honest and which is not. There is, for instance, a whole group of M. P.s in the British Parliament ([Denis Nowell] Pritt, [Konni] Zilliacus, etc.) who are commonly nicknamed "the cryptos". They have undoubtedly done a great deal of mischief, especially in confusing public opinion about the nature of the puppet regimes in Eastern Europe; but one ought not hurriedly to assume that they all hold the same opinions. Probably some of them are actuated by nothing worse than stupidity.[8]

The notebook contained columns with names, comments and various markings. Typical comments were Stephen Spender "Sentimental sympathiser... Tendency towards homosexuality", Richard Crossman "Too dishonest to be outright F. T.", Kingsley Martin "Decayed liberal. Very dishonest"[9] and Paul Robeson "very anti-white. [Henry] Wallace supporter".[10] Journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft considered Orwell's remarks "perceptive and sometimes even generous", going on to say that "DN Pritt is described as an 'almost certainly underground' Communist but also a "Good MP (i.e. locally). Very able and courageous'".[11] Among the names, Orwell selected 38 which he forwarded to Kirwan.[1]

Richard Rees discussed the names with Orwell, later commenting that it was "a sort of game we played – discussing who was a paid agent of what and estimating to what lengths of treachery our favourite bêtes noires would be prepared to go."[12][full citation needed] Orwell asked Rees to fetch the notebook from Orwell's former residence on the Scottish island of Jura, Scotland in early 1949, thanking him in a letter of 17 April.[1]

One of Orwell's biographers, Bernard Crick, thought there were 86 names in the list and that some of the names were written in the hand of Koestler, who also co-operated with the IRD in producing anti-Communist propaganda.[13]

Orwell was an ex-colonial policeman in Burma and according to Timothy Garton Ash, he liked making lists: 'In a "London Letter" to Partisan Review in 1942 he wrote, "I think I could make out at least a preliminary list of the people who would go over to the Nazi side if the Germans occupied England."'[1]

Reactions to the list

The British press had known about the list for some years before it was officially made public in 2003. In 1998 the Daily Telegraph "broke" the story with the headline "Socialist Icon Who Became an Informer".[14]

Michael Foot, the former leader of the Labour Party and a friend of Orwell's in the 1930s and 1940s, was "amazed" by the revelation. Richard Gott, who in 1994 had resigned as literary editor of The Guardian after admitting that he had accepted travel expenses from the KGB, in an unrelated case, referred to Orwell's list as only a "small surprise".[13]

The journalist and activist Norman Ian MacKenzie noted "Tubercular people often could get very strange towards the end. I'm an Orwell man, I agreed with him on the Soviet Union, but he went partly ga-ga I think. He let his dislike of the New Statesman crowd, of what he saw as leftish, dilettante, sentimental socialists who covered up for the Popular Front in Spain [after it became communist-controlled] get the better of him."[15]

Bernard Crick justified Orwell wanting to help the post-war Labour government. "He did it because he thought the Communist Party was a totalitarian menace," he said. "He wasn't denouncing these people as subversives. He was denouncing them as unsuitable for a counter-intelligence operation."[13]

Professor Peter Davison, editor of Orwell's Complete Works, said the really disappointed people will be those who claimed to have been on the list but were not.[15]

The historian John Newsinger considered it "a terrible mistake on his part, deriving in equal measure from his hostility to Stalinism and his illusions in the Labour government. What it certainly does not amount to, however, is an abandonment of the socialist cause or transformation into a footsoldier in the Cold War. Indeed, Orwell made clear on a number of occasions his opposition to any British McCarthyism, to any bans and proscriptions on Communist Party members (they certainly did not reciprocate this) and any notion of a preventive war. If he had lived long enough to realise what the IRD was actually about there can be no doubt that he would have broken with it".[16]

The journalist Neal Ascherson was critical of Orwell's decision to give the information to the IRD, claiming "there is a difference between being determined to expose the stupidity of Stalinism and the scale of the purges and throwing yourself into the business of denouncing people you know."[17] The journalist and activist Paul Foot said the revelations would not detract from Orwell's reputation as a great writer, noting "I am a great admirer of Orwell, but we have to accept that he did take a McCarthyite position towards the end of his life."[17]

The journalist and writer Alexander Cockburn was strongly critical of Orwell's actions, referring to the notebook as "a snitch list". Cockburn attacked Orwell's description of Paul Robeson as "anti-white", pointing out Robeson had campaigned to help Welsh coal miners. Cockburn also claimed the list revealed Orwell as a bigot: "There seems to be general agreement by Orwell's fans, left and right, to skate gently over Orwell's suspicions of Jews, homosexuals and blacks".[10]

Celia Kirwan said:

I think George was quite right to do it. ... And, of course, everybody thinks that these people were going to be shot at dawn. The only thing that was going to happen to them was that they wouldn't be asked to write for the Information Research Department.[1]

The list

Sources vary as to the actual number of names on the list (figures range from 35[14] to 38).[3] Names on the list include the following:[1]

Writers and journalists

Academics and scientists


Labour MPs


Names in the notebook

Some of the people named in Orwell's notebook, but not appearing on the final IRD list, were:


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 Garton Ash, Timothy (25 September 2003). "Orwell's List". The New York Review of Books. 50 (14). Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 26 April 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Obituary The Guardian
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 John Ezard "Blair's Babe – Did love turn Orwell into a government stooge?" The Guardian, 21 June 2003
  4. Orwell, Sonia and Angus, Ian (eds.). The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4: In Front of Your Nose (1945–1950) (Penguin)
  5. Celia [Goodman] in Stephen Wadhams Remembering Orwell, Penguin Books, 1984
  6. "George Orwell's List" by Timothy Naftali The New York Times, 29 July 1998
  7. Michael Shelden Orwell: The Authorised Biography William Heinemann 1991
  8. George Orwell "Burnham's View of the Contemporary World Struggle" Collected Essays Volume IV
  9. George Orwell Unpublished Notebook 1948
  10. 10.0 10.1 "St. George's List", Alexander Cockburn, The Nation, 7 December 1998.
  11. "Big Brother with a High Moral Sense" by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. The Independent, 28 June 1998]
  12. Richard Rees Letter to Ian Angus 10 June 1967
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 "Orwell is revealed in role of state informer" by Tom Utley Daily Telegraph 12 July 1996 www.arlindo-correia.org
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Why Orwell Matters" by Timothy Garton Ash. The Hoover Institute
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 "Blacklisted writer says illness clouded Orwell's judgement" by Fiachra Gibbons guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 24 June
  16. John Newsinger in Socialist Review Issue 276 July/August 2003
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 17.5 17.6 17.7 17.8 "Orwell's little list leaves the left gasping for more", Ros Wynne-Jones, Independent, 14 July 1996. Retrieved 12 January 2013.
  18. 18.00 18.01 18.02 18.03 18.04 18.05 18.06 18.07 18.08 18.09 18.10 18.11 18.12 18.13 18.14 18.15 18.16 18.17 18.18 "Orwell named Charlie Chaplin as communist sympathiser", Yorkshire Post, 24 July 2003. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 "Archaeologist fingered by Orwell" British Archaeologist No. 73
  20. 20.0 20.1 Mark Hollingsworth and Richard Norton-Taylor Blacklist:The Inside Story of Political Vetting The Hogarth Press LONDON 1988 ISBN 0-7012-0811-2
  21. 21.0 21.1 D. J. Taylor Orwell: The Life Chatto & Windus 2003
  22. 22.0 22.1 "The Lost Orwell" by Gordon Bowker. Independent, 6 August 2006.
  23. Davison, Peter eds. "The Lost Orwell" (London: Timewell Press, 2006) p. 150
  24. John Rodden, The Unexamined Orwell University of Texas Press, 2011, ISBN 0292725582, (p. 323).
  25. 25.0 25.1 Guardian Andy Croft Ministry of Truth Review of Christopher Hitchens Orwell's Victory
  26. "Big Brother with a High Moral Sense" by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. The Independent, 28 June 1998