The Duchess of Atholl: Nobility For Stalin

In the film version of George Orwell’s book Keep The Aspidistra Flying, the main character, a struggling writer, assumes correctly that because a benefactor of writers is wealthy, said benefactor is therefore a communist.

This assumption was very much a reality in the upper class intellectual world of 1930s Britain. For it was not only the expensively educated like Stephen Spender and W.H. Audenand on a more sinister level, Kim Philbywho were pro-Stalin, but also Nancy Cunard, the daughter of a shipping magnate.

This zeitgeist was so pervasive, that this pampered faction had a titled conservative in their ranks; who, ironically, defended Stalinism out of British imperialist motives.

This figure was the Duchess of Atholl aka Katherine Marjory Stewart-Murray, who despite representing the Conservative Party member in Parliament clashed with her fellow conservatives because of their support for appeasing Hitler.

Very much a “premature anti-fascist,” she expressed her disgust at the government’s deal-cutting with and outright support of fascist dictators by frequently resigning; first as Conservative Whip in 1937 because of a friendly British government agreement with Benito Mussolini; and finally, quitting her seat in Parliament in 1938 because of Neville Chamberlain’s continuous appeasement of Adolf Hitler.

It would inevitably be her fervent support of the leftist Loyalist government in Spain during their civil war against a Hitler-backed military rebellion led by General Francisco Franco that earned her the moniker “the red duchess” from Conservatives.

Such a derogatory title, indiscriminately hurled by Conservatives at those whose “leftism,” even of the mildest variety made them “traitors to their class,” was, despite its snobbishness and/or fascist motivations, nevertheless on the mark; for Atholl very much earned her reputation as a Stalinist supporter during the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. Stalin himself even sent a praise-worthy cable to her.

Despite her maverick behavior regarding the British right, Atholl might have been consigned at best, to being a historical footnote had not George Orwell immortalized/castigated her in print. What earned the anti-communist writer’s scorn was how the Duchess defended the Communist Party line that the anti-Stalinist but authentically anti-fascist POUM were a fifth column for Hitler.

In spite of the contradictions in the Stalinist party line, she nevertheless defended every facet of it. She argued that the POUM “fascists” carried out their traitorous activities by seizing large amounts of weapons, which were used in so-called street battles with the Loyalist government; but also—to affirm how the Stalinist-controlled forces represented the “people”—represented only a small part of the population.

From there, she parroted the equally contradictory propaganda that these “fascists” deserved their executions while at the same argued that they were “humanely” treated by their captors.

Unfortunately for her, the inconveniently-honest George Orwell served as a front-line soldier in the POUM as well as being present while on leave at the so-called attempt of his unit to “overthrow” the Loyalist government. Orwell had a unique vantage point to see that the Party line of protecting the government from these “traitors” was in reality a frame-up by Stalin to murder off his opposition.

In the trenches, Orwell personally witnessed the bravery and authentic anti-fascism of a soldier who was imprisoned for “fascism” and later “died” while in custody. The solder was a 22-year-old named Bob Smille, who Orwell later learned that he did not die, as claimed by the Stalinists, from appendicitis, but from vicious kicks to the stomach by his captors.

Orwell never forgot Smille, and the “police state” heresy hunts of the innocent he witnessed. Orwell himself was chased out Spain by the Stalinist secret police and later, declassified Soviet documents revealed they had him marked for execution. He eventually used these experiences in constructing Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Nor did he forget the Duchess, who embodied his two paramount hates: Stalinism and British imperialism. It was not just the lies the Duchess peddled in Spain that angered Orwell but her imperialist motives for doing so.

Orwell, the anti-imperialist, caught these motivations in her Party-line book, Searchlight On Spain. In a review, Orwell located her anti-Franco sentiments in her fears that a Franco victory would imperil Britain’s imperial control of India.

Nor was Orwell won over by her post-war switch to anti-Stalinism when he wrote in 1946, writing:

“it is only about seven years since {Atholl}…was the pet of the Daily Worker and lent the considerable weight of her authority to every lie that the Communists happened to be uttering at the moment. Now she is fighting against the monster helped create. I am sure neither she nor her Communist ex-friends see any moral in this.”

Despite his criticisms of her, or maybe because of them, Atholl reached out to Orwell to speak at her League for European Freedom. Although agreeing with the organization’s anti-Stalinism, he could not get past her support for British imperialism and rejected the invitation on that basis:

“Certainly what is said on your platform is more truthful that the lying propaganda to be found in most of the press, but I cannot associate myself with an essentially Conservative body which claims to defend democracy in Europe but has nothing to say about British imperialism. It seems to me that one can only denounce the crimes now being committed in Poland, Jugoslavia, etc, if one is equally insistent about ending British’s unwanted rule in India.”

Pro-Orwell leftists claim that this response made three years away from his death invalidates conservative claims that Orwell was one of their own. However, Orwell had a soft spot for British imperialists like Winston Churchill. During the war, he paid the Prime Minister the ultimate compliment of being a premature anti-communist by detecting that the Bolsheviks were totalitarian from the start; and the equally laudatory comment that if Britain required a socialist government to fight Hitler’s, Churchill would be at the head of it.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

Latest from History

The Other One Drop Rule

Seeing as historical racism and historical guilt/corruption of blood are apparently all the rage of discussion

Thanks for visiting our site! Stay in touch with us by subscribing to our newsletter. You will receive all of our latest updates, articles, endorsements, interviews, and videos direct to your inbox.