Was George Orwell a McCarthyite?


In 1996, it was revealed that George Orwell gave a list he compiled of suspected Communists to a representative of MI-5. Since then, Orwell has been decried as a snitch and McCarthyite by the Left. This name-calling if nothing else, does open a fruitful historical inquiry about Orwell and the Cold War–namely, was George Orwell a McCarthyite?

Premature might be a better description since Orwell died before McCarthy emerged as a national phenomenon in the early 1950s. But the comparison is still potentially fruitful. For Orwell survived into the postwar years, the dawning of the Cold War, functioning as a writer until a tubercular attack in 1949, dying in 1950 and it is this period that provides the answer to Orwell as a McCarthyite. By contrast, examining Orwell in the 1930s and war years, when he fought a lonely battle against the prestige and popularity of the Stalinists would not draw out as useful a comparison as when the tide turned in Orwell’s favor after 1945. Did he take advantage of this tide as did McCarthy, who made his post Pepsi-cola attack only from the safe aftermath of the Hiss case?

The answer would be no. Although his foes were unpopular because of their knee-jerk defense of Stalin’s postwar behavior, Orwell adhered to his libertarian principles of freedom for all by refusing to support the banning of the Daily Worker. Even more telling, Orwell recoiled from James Burnham’s use of the international communist conspiracy that would be equally employed by McCarthy:

“In principle, the Communist Parties all over the world are quisling organizations, existing for the purpose of espionage and disruption, but they are not necessarily as dangerous as Burnham makes out. One ought not to think of the Soviet government as controlling in every country a huge secret army of fanatical warriors, completely devoid of fear or scruples and having no thought except to live and die for the Workers’ Fatherland.”

Here you have a writer, if not laboring under the same amount of Cold War hysteria as that which appeared in the early 1950s (Hiss, the Soviet acquisition of the A-bomb, Korea, Klaus Fusch, the Rosenbergs, ) still not without formidable pressures in the world of 1947 (Poland, Turkey, Iran, the anti-Semitic purges under Stalin). And amidst these pressures, he refuses to succumb to easy generalizations, but instead offers sober qualification:

“When public opinion is dormant, a great deal can achieved by groups of wire pullers, but in moments of emergency a political party must have a mass following as well. An obvious illustration of this was the failure of the British Communist Party, in spite of much trying, to disrupt the war effort during the period 1939-1941….one should not assume, as Burnham seems to do, that they can draw their followers after the, whatever policy they chose to adopt.”

Orwell offered equally sober counter-arguments to Burnham’s lumping of fellow travelers in with this international Stalinist army:

“…one ought not hurriedly to assume that they are equally dishonest or even that they are all equally dishonest or even that they all hold the same opinions. Probably some of them are actuated by nothing worse than stupidity.”

A far cry from McCarthy’s blanket charges against Owen Lattimore (“Hiss’s top boss in the State Department;” the “Kremlin’s no. 1 agent”), John Stewart Service and George Marshall (both “agents of the Kremlin”). Orwell might have charged Lattimore with being a communist in everything but name but he might have shied away from conspiracy-so-immense charges regarding Service and Lattimore. Regarding China, they may have just been stupid. McCarthy never considered such an eventuality of human folly; for whatever reason, be it political gain, sincere anti-communism, or both, he regarded foes such as Service and Marshall as conscious agents in a conspiracy. Nor did Orwell impute his foe’s patriotism as did McCarthy when he promised to teach good old-fashioned Americanism to Adlai Stevenson and saw a plot afoot by Dean Acheson’s Korean involvement which would result in the deaths of American boys for the benefit of Red China. In the world of the atomic bomb, Orwell still saw patriotic possibilities rather than Burnham/McCarthy’s friend/foe prism:

“The question is not whether the “cryptos” and “fellow-travelers” advance the interests of the USSR against those of the democracies. Obviously they do so. The real question is, how many of them would continue on the same lines if war were really imminent?”

Unlike Burnham and later McCarthy, Orwell did not favor outlawing the Communist Party in the absence of war (“it is justifiable to suppress a political party, if you are fighting for your life”). As befitting the author of 1984, he was eerily prophetic about the rise of McCarthy and his base of support when, regarding this proposed suppression, he cautioned:

“One has only to think of the people who would approve. The appeal of (Burnham’s) program must be to conservatives…[and] the strongest intellectual influence in it would probably be that of the Catholic Church.”

Juxtaposing a writer who died before the rise of a politician runs the risk of being ahistorical. But recalling Orwell’s rejection of Burnham does offer some evidence as to how he would have reacted to McCarthy. Burnham supported the idea of an international communist conspiracy, made up of unpatriotic fellow travelers, and favored the suppression of the CPUSA-all stances endorsed by Joseph McCarthy in later years. In short, McCarthy echoed Burnham; Orwell critiqued him and this offers proof that Orwell was not a McCarthyite.

What of the infamous list? One list does not a McCarthy make. When called upon by the Truman Administration to submit this list to the quiet channels of the government, McCarthy refused. Orwell instead gave his list to the government and cautioned that these were only probable communists or people that could not be relied upon in the event of a war with Russia. His was a proposed quiet investigation while McCarthy’s was highly public, and according to the accounts of the FBI and American intelligence, highly damaging to uncovering communist espionage. However, one chooses to regard this action, the idea of making Orwell into a McCarthyite simply because both men at one time in their lives had a list of probable communists is thin and does not hold up.

Unlike McCarthy, Orwell was not concerned with punishment or wrecking careers. He had curious outbursts of mercy when his enemy was exposed; he protested the sentencing of Atom Spy Alan Nunn May as overtly harsh while accepting his guilt. He was interested, as Christopher Hitchens has written, only in intellectual clarification in the battle of ideas, not political gain. And for those wishing to still attach the blacklister label, they should consider the definition of an ideological impeccable source: blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo defined a blacklister who testifies against others for profit. Orwell, dying of TB, asking for no pay from MI-5, and having written about the people he had on the list years before, does not fit this definition.

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.

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