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Aftershocks of 1937

Alexander Cockburn, in a piece he recycled for publication the year he died, wrote that he “learned to loathe Animal Farm” while at prep school because “any arguments for socialism would be met with brays of ‘and some are more equal than others’ by my schoolmates.”  He appreciated George Orwell’s essays, which he read while at Oxford in the early 1960s, but his respect for the author had been fully extinguished by 1998 when it was confirmed that Orwell provided British Intelligence with a list of people he considered Communists, “crypto-Communists,” or “Fellow Travelers.” Alex’s father, Claud Cockburn, was among those named (of course).

“Orwell’s List” warrants a Wikipedia page of its own, supported by 26 footnotes. (Alex called it “Orwell’s snitch list.”) In 1949, as the Cold War was heating up, Orwell had provided 135 names of people he thought the Information Research Department ought not to hire, with terse comments about their political unreliability. The IRD, as defined by Wikipedia: “a secret propaganda wing of the UK Foreign Office dedicated to disinformation warfare, anti-communism, and pro-colonial propaganda. It became both the largest wing of the Foreign Office and the longest running covert government propaganda department in British history.”

Alex described the IRD as “an outfit that, at the time of Orwell’s listmaking, was strenuously reaching out to Ukrainian nationalists, many of whom had enthusiastically assisted the Nazi Einsatzgruppen as they went about liquidating Jews and Communists.” The IRD was finally ”disabled in the seventies,” he added, ”by a Labor Foreign Minister on the grounds it was a sinkhole of right-wing nuts.”

Alex dubbed Orwell “St. George... patron saint of the Cold War liberals.” About an erstwhile friend who had downplayed the snitch list’s significance, he wrote: “‘Orwell named no names and disclosed no identities,’ proclaimed Christopher Hitchens, one of Orwell,’s most ecstatic admirers.’ Clearly, Orwell did both, as in ‘Parker, Ralph. Underground member and close FT (Fellow Traveler)...’  Against the evidence under our noses Hitchens insists Orwell ‘wasn’t interested in unearthing heresy or in getting people fired or putting them under the discipline of loyalty oath.’“

 In fact, Alex warned, “Orwell’s secret advisories to an IRD staffer had consequences. Blacklists usually do. No doubt the list was passed on in some form to American intelligence that made due note of those listed as fellow travelers and duly proscribed them under the McCarran Act.”*

(The “McCarthy Era” was named for the junior senator from Wisconsin, but Pat McCarran of Nevada seems more deserving. The McCarran Act —”The Internal Security Control Act of 1950”made red-baiting a matter of federal policy. Among its provisions was one empowering the government to deny passports to political dissidents. In 1952 the State Department prevented Linus Pauling from attending a conference in England at which he would have seen and known immediately how to interpret Rosalind Franklin’s images of the DNA molecule. Those images would enable Watson and Crick to describe the double helix and win the Nobel Prize (which was not shared by indispensable Roz).

Alex pointed out the bigotry of comments Orwell made about individuals on his list: “It’s plain enough from his annotations that Orwell thought that Jews, blacks, and homosexuals had an inherent tropism towards treachery to the values protected by the coalition of patriots including himself and the IRD.” 

Orwell had listed Stephen Spender (“Tendency towards homosexuality”), Isaac Deutscher (“Polish Jew”), Dreiberg, Tom (“English Jew”), Chaplin, Charles (“Jewish?”), and Paul Robeson (“very anti-white Wallace supporter”) Alex counterpunched, “Only a person who instinctively thought all blacks were anti-white could’ve written this piece of stupidity. One of Robeson’s indisputable features, consequent upon his intellectual disposition and his connections with the Communists, was that he was most emphatically not ‘very anti-white.’ Ask the Welsh coal miners for whom Robeson campaigned.

“If any other postwar intellectual was suddenly found to have written mini-diatribes about blacks, homosexuals, and Jews, we can safely assume that subsequent commentary would not have been forgiving. There was certainly no forgiveness for Mencken. But Orwell gets a pass.”

The conflict between the admirers of George Orwell and Claud Cockburn is rooted in Spain, where both writers had gone in their early thirties to defend the Republican government, a “Popular Front” coalition of Socialists, Communists, Anarchists and liberals that had narrowly prevailed in a February 1936 election. In July 1936 the military, led by pro-fascist General Francisco Franco, attempted a coup aimed at restoring the wealth and power of the feudal-estate landlords and the Catholic Church. Hitler and Mussolini promptly provided arms to Franco and sent combat troops as well as pilots to bomb villages in a one-sided air war. The British, French and US governments declared and enforced their official neutrality, depriving the Republic of desperately needed weapons. (Germany and Italy had pledged neutrality, too, but didn’t practice it.)  By October ‘36 Russia had begun providing military advisers and materiel to the Republic; Communist influence within the government was becoming predominant; and “International Brigades” of volunteers organized by the Comintern were arriving in Spain to fight. Also at the behest of the Comintern, Claud Cockburn, who was reporting for the Daily Worker under the byline Frank Pitcairn, became the government’s chief liaison to the foreign press. 

Orwell had sought to join the International Brigade in the autumn of ‘36 and arranged an introduction to Harry Pollitt, the head of the British Communist Party (who had recruited Claud Cockburn to write for the Worker in ‘34). “Pollitt after questioning me,” Orwell wrote, “evidently decided that I was politically unreliable and refused to help me.” 

Orwell got to Spain in December ’36 via Britain’s small Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was affiliated with the anti-Communist Partido de Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (POUM). He served from January through April ‘37 on a relatively quiet section of the Aragon front (west of Barcelona) controlled by POUM and Anarchist troops. He took a sniper’s bullet through the neck that miraculously missed his vocal cords. Back in England he wrote Homage to Catalonia, which was published in 1938. In it he blamed Communist sectarianism for the defeat of the Republican forces and dissed Claud Cockburn by pen name.  ”Orwell accused Cockburn of being under the control of Stalinist handlers,” is how Wikipedia puts it.

The Comintern —the Third International— had been founded by Lenin after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia to link the Communist Parties of Europe and to promote national liberation movements in Asia, Africa, and South America.) Stalin would use it to pursue his private-power interests. The tragedy of Soviet history is something that occasionally came up in conversations with Alex. I can’t reproduce his scintillating riffs, but here are two essential one-liners: “Notice that nobody ever gets called a Leninist?” And, “If you think highly of Lenin, who has more reason to despise Stalin?”

To be continued…


  1. Jonah Raskin May 2, 2021

    If one wanted to name the era after anyone it ought to be named after Nixon, not McCarthy or McCarran. Nixon led the anti-communist crusade much of the time, beginning for real in 1947 when he ran for Congress and promptly joined HUAC. How ironical that he went to China and met Mao before Watergate. I come from a family of communist party members, and grew up in the culture of the CP, which had some real benefits, but the communist idea of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” wasn’t any better than any other dictatorship. Living under Stalin was no fun. In Spain and elsewhere, the Communists hated the Trotskyites and the anarchists much of the time and would just as soon shoot them as shoot Franco’s men. The good guys lost the Spanish Civil War because the Roosevelt administration didn’t help them. I had relatives and friends who fought against fascism in Spain and then in WWII with the US Army and as a reward (Ha Ha Ha) were indicted under the Smith Act and went to jail. They never went to boarding school like Cockburn. It don’t help the cause to idolize the Soviet Union, Stalin or the CP USA which betrayed (in my view) the working class, and by the 1960s was largely moribund, an organization undo by the anti-communists and by its own flaws and contradictions.

  2. Rye N Flint May 5, 2021

    Wow. I had no idea about Orwell! This was a very enlightening article.

  3. Rye N Flint May 5, 2021

    RE: The 3rd Russian revolution

    “The left-wing uprisings against the Bolsheviks, known in anarchist literature as the Third Russian Revolution,[1] were a series of rebellions, uprisings, and revolts against the Bolsheviks by oppositional left-wing organizations and groups that started soon after the October Revolution, continued through the years of the Russian Civil War, and lasted into the first years of Bolshevik rule of the Soviet Union. They were led or supported by left-wing groups such as some factions of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and anarchists. Generally, the uprisings began in 1918 because of the Bolshevik assault on soviet democracy, the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (which many saw as giving overly generous concessions to the Central Powers also seen by some as limiting the revolutionary potential causing the workers, soldiers and peasantry outside the Soviet state to rebel against the continuing strife caused by the war), and opposition to Bolshevik socioeconomic policy. The Bolsheviks grew increasingly hard-line during the decisive and brutal years following the October Revolution. These rebellions and insurrections occurred mostly during and after the Russian Civil War, until around 1924, though there did exist various small-scale insurgencies until World War II.

    The Bolsheviks fought the forces of the pro-Romanov monarchists, reformist Social Democrats, former Imperial Army officers and soldiers in the anti-communist White Armies along with several foreign nations sending in interventionist forces, aid and supplies for the White Armies. Despite this, Vladimir Lenin regarded the left-wing opposition as the most threatening the Bolshevik regime faced, describing the Kronstadt rebellion as “undoubtedly more dangerous than Denikin, Yudenich, and Kolchak combined”.[2]

    Generally speaking, right-wing enemies of the Bolsheviks were fought by the Red Army, because they existed primarily outside the territory it controlled, and left-wing enemies were dealt with by the Cheka, as they were usually within this territory.[3]

    Some members of the Bolshevik Central Committees considered allowing an independent area for Makhno’s libertarian experiment,[37] an idea fiercely opposed by both Lenin and Leon Trotsky, War Commissar of the Red Army. After each successful repulse of White Army forces, Trotsky ordered fresh attacks against Makhno and the Anarchist Black Army, halting only when White forces threatened to once again defeat the Red Army in the field. At the instructions of Moscow, the Cheka sent two agents to assassinate Makhno in 1920. After repudiation of two military alliances, and the final defeat of White General Wrangel in the Crimea, Trotsky ordered the mass executions of Makhnovist sympathizers, followed by the liquidation of many of Makhno’s subordinate commanders and his entire headquarters staff at a “joint planning conference” in November 1920. By August 1921, Makhno and the remainder of the Anarchist Black Army had been forced into exile. ”

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