In Celia’s Office

Friday, April 30, 1999

When the Soviet wave of the future receded, it left among its detritus in the West a variety of gasping life-forms that, one thought, would not long survive exposure to the light. One would have underestimated their tenacity. Recently there have been two notable examples: the excoriation (now repeated) of George Orwell for helping his own Western democratic government and the mild obituaries of Alger Hiss, who betrayed his. In the first of these cases (as will appear), the present writer has an, if not unique, at least uncommon, locus standi. As both cases show, though the Cold War may be over in the sphere of reality, it is still being waged mentally in some Western circles.

The expression Cold War was, indeed, never used only to describe the international tension. It was also a hostile label for the publication in the West of facts and opinions unpalatable to the Soviet government; those committing such offenses, including Orwell, were often called “cold warriors.” In such cases, the thought, if such it can be called, seems to have been that to seek or promote truths would be harmful to international understanding—as though world peace could be successfully based on a foundation of falsehoods—or, in Orwell’s words, that “Anglo-Russian relations are more likely to prosper if inconvenient truths are kept dark.”

Nineteen Eighty-Four was meant as an attack on Stalinism. The memory hole, doublethink, facecrime, faked confessions, rewriting of history—these are all Soviet phenomena.

These anti–Cold War irregulars do not seem to have been aware of the way the West or any noncommunist attitudes anywhere were regarded in the Soviet Union itself. My favorite image of the Cold War appeared in the Soviet magazine Perets. “Cold War” sits, an icy figure, in the back of a cart. She is clasping a hydrogen bomb, and her nose is the barrel of a machine gun. Microphones labeled Voice of America and Radio Liberty are stuck behind her. She is whipping ahead her two steeds, under a yoke with a Star of David and a Ukrainian Trident: they are a hunched, swarthy, hook-nosed, black-bearded Jew, wearing a shtreimel, and a squat, thuggish Ukrainian Nationalist in Nazi uniform and covered with swastikas and dollar signs. A note explains that Zionists and Ukrainian nationalists have “formed a bloc.” The illustration is exceptional, though not unique, only in its overt anti-Semitism. As to Uncle Sam and John Bull, they seldom appeared except with bayonets for teeth, dripping blood and threatening death.

Orwell, of course, remained a socialist, but this made it worse! For on this view he had an overriding allegiance to the supposed brotherhood of socialists. But he preferred—greatly preferred—a nonsocialist democracy to a “socialist” despotism. This seems rational, if only on the not very recondite grounds that conservatives did not massacre socialists, while Communists did.

Orwell found it indefensible, too, that “huge events like the Ukraine Famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles.” So he felt it was of the utmost importance that people in Britain and the West should see the Soviet regime for what it really was, his aim being, as he put it, “the destruction of the Soviet myth” in their minds. This was the quite open intent of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both were based on and meant as an attack on Stalinism. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party is explicitly shown not to have emerged from capitalism but in fact to have “expropriated” the capitalists. Ingsoc “grew out of the earlier socialist movement and inherited its phraseology,” and, while rejecting anything Orwell regarded as socialism, justified its actions “in the name of socialism.” The memory hole, doublethink, facecrime, faked confessions, rewriting of history, the Spies, the Trotsky figure Goldstein—these are all Soviet phenomena.

Orwell noted, too, that most criticisms of his own and the general anti-Stalinist position were “smear and ridicule”; that words such as rabid were always used of anti-Communists, however reasoned and rational; that “if from time to time you express a mild distaste for slave-labor camps or one-candidate elections, you are either insane or actuated by the worst motives”; and that now, he might have added, if you give advice to your own government’s agency combating such aberrations, you are a snitch.

It emerged that Orwell had a list of people he knew whose attitudes to Stalinism he distrusted; that he had given this list to Celia Kirwan (as she then was); and that she had given it to the Information Research Department of the British Foreign Office, where she then worked. (In one account, she is quoted sinisterly as giving this information to “The Department”—like the title of the Kafka novel.) The charge thus amounts simply to his having made available to an agency of his own government his honest, if not infallible, opinion of the political attitudes of a number of members of the Western intelligentsia to a despotic power hostile to it and to its principles. Orwell is charged with “betraying” his acquaintances. He would, one imagines, have taken a different view of what betrayal consisted of.

The struggle to combat the intensive Stalinist propaganda effort was left until 1948 to the Orwells and Koestlers. But Britain’s Labour leaders had taken a decision to fight back at home and abroad. At the time, many of us, including myself, were strongly for Labour and its Bevanite left wing—which took the hard anti-Stalinist line until some years later.


The Information Research Department (IRD)—a much smaller equivalent of the Political Warfare Executive of the time of the struggle against Hitler—was set up by Clement Attlee’s government, sponsored by its foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, and overseen by Christopher Mayhew, Labour MP and at the time parliamentary undersecretary at the Foreign Office. Its role was to promote and propagate research precisely into the areas of fact then denied, or lied about, by Sovietophiles.

I worked at the IRD for a number of years, for a time sharing an office with the beautiful Celia Kirwan (and, like Orwell and others, fell for her; some poems resulted, of which a few survived—one, “Generalities,” appeared in The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse).

IRD was in no sense an intelligence or security department. Its central staff were ordinary members of the Foreign Service, serving for two or three years before going on to other posts. It received Foreign Office dispatches and papers for minuting, when its view seemed appropriate, as with any other department.

The department’s secrecy simply consisted of supplying its material on a confidential basis. It was not, of course, secret from the Soviets, and their agents in Europe occasionally attacked it; but on the whole they seem to have taken it for granted. The confidentiality was, it seems, due largely to the wish not to provoke a tedious and time-consuming uproar from the anti-Stalinists of the time. There was a sensitivity to the accusation that the British government was indulging in such a thing as propaganda.

That Orwell had no objection to this sort of “clandestine” activity is plain enough. His letter of September 20, 1947, to Arthur Koestler urged Koestler to allow a Ukrainian translation of some of his work to be circulated in the western zones of Germany. This had been done with Animal Farm, with his warm approval; and, highly relevant to our point, he added, “it is well to treat it as a matter of confidence and not to tell too many people this end, as the whole thing is more or less illicit.” And to the question of whether Professor Harold Laski should be approached, Orwell commented “by no means let a person of that type know that illicit printing in the Soviet languages is going on in the allied zones.” More generally, he complained that governments were doing nothing, so that “one must do what one can privately.” He was already operating as a sort of private IRD.

In the anti-anticommunist hysteria, anyone accused of anything was innocent of everything, with accusers like Whittaker Chambers falsely vilified.

I do not have, or cannot find, the original paper I wrote for IRD on communist methods of obtaining confessions, elaborated much later as a chapter in The Great Terror (at the time I served, too, on a committee chaired by Sir Henry Tizard on brainwashing, a matter of some practical urgency after the pressures put on British POWs in Korea). But I still have three such papers of mine: one on “Peaceful Coexistence in Soviet Propaganda and Theory”; one on “Communism and National Rights”; and one on “United Fronts—a Communist Tactic,” this last on the fate of parties and leaders in such fronts in Eastern Europe. They all stand up as clear and true briefs on themes much distorted or blocked out in certain Western minds at the time.

An American radical wrote a few years ago that I had been employed in IRD on “falsification” and “black propaganda.” I pointed out that, after leaving IRD, I was intermediary and editor for seven volumes of its materials, appearing as the Soviet Studies series in 1968–69, and that if any falsehood could be detected in these highly factual and richly annotated books, his case would be made. But if not—a fairly abject apology you might think would be in order. (I didn’t get one.)

I left IRD, insofar as I had an intellectual motive, because I could not get anyone interested in the obscurer but not (I thought) impenetrable intrigues and maneuvers within the Kremlin, which constituted all there was of Soviet politics. Strange, for you might have thought that this would have been of importance to diplomacy. I took a job at the London School of Economics to write my first major book on Soviet matters, Power and Policy in the USSR, covering just that theme. While Soviet leaders do not come out of this particularly well, it is overwhelmingly a matter of factual investigation and deduction, with very little on the human rights or terror side. Its basic motive was, in fact, not morality but curiosity, the discovery of the real.

It was particularly welcome to have Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan later write of one of my books that my role had been to “sense that the democratic contest with the Marxist-Leninist regimes was not just a struggle over ideas but also over facts.” Moynihan’s name is also appropriate to the point that in the United States, as in Britain, the clearest-minded and firmest opponents of, and understanders of, the Soviet system were Democrats, “hard liberals,” and above all my friend the late Senator “Scoop” Jackson.

As to fact seeking, this also implies a dislike of lies. And over the following years, the whole Stalinist phenomenon (called by Pasternak “the inhuman reign of the lie”) presented itself to me as the subject of much more horrifying research, with books on the terrors of 1930–33 and 1937–38 (I have just been shown Octavio Paz’s comment, in 1972, that my Great Terror “closed the debate”). Still, if the establishment of the realities was a useful and necessary task, and had some effect on those susceptible to evidence, it was a more pedestrian and lesser matter than the profounder impact of Orwell. As the philosopher Grigoril Pomerants told Dave Remnick, “Orwell understood the soul, or soullessness, of our society better than anyone else.”


Soon after the original Orwell row came the death of Alger Hiss, evoking a few sympathetic, or at least tolerant, obituaries. But the horror of Hiss’s career is that he continued right up to his death to maintain falsehoods that upheld the repute not only of himself but of Stalinism in general, and so slandered others equally dead, and distorted significant truths about our epoch.

We now read that the Hiss trial and McCarthyism in general made anticommunism unpopular or unfashionable or unacceptable. Hiss was thus presented, as against the real position, to have been an innocent victim of McCarthyism. Of course, he was exposed before, and not in connection with, McCarthy’s irresponsible demagoguery.

McCarthy provoked, or rode on, a wave of “anticommunist hysteria.” This in turn provoked a longer-lasting upsurge of anti-anticommunist hysteria. Anyone accused of anything was innocent of everything, with the accusers like Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley falsely vilified. In Britain, in any case—and even more in France—the “hysteria” was all on the Stalinophile side.

Very few would still actually deny Hiss’s guilt. Sam Tanenhaus’s recent book on Whittaker Chambers, in which Hiss’s guilt is laid out flatly, has received favorable reviews in most of the leading American journals, left and right. After Hiss’s first few appearances and statements, it was already perfectly clear that he was lying, though proof of actual espionage came a little later. Even at the time, many on the radical left grasped this. And it was in these circles that understanding the motives—psychological rather than intellectual—of Hiss’s defenders was most perspicuous. As Philip Rahv, editor of Partisan Review, put it in 1952, this stratum “fought to save Hiss in order to safeguard its own illusions.”

Beyond a certain point, refusal to accept the facts amounted, as Orwell thought, to an intellectual crime or a form of insanity. It was a blind hope on which too many had wasted their mental and moral capital. There is, indeed, a certain pathos in the way some were deluded on the whole Soviet issue. A couple of years ago, I was sitting at dinner next to a prominent American former Communist who had worked for the U.S. party until the late 1950s. He volunteered, sadly, that the record of the 1938 Bukharin trial (791 pages in the English edition) had been so “convincing.” That leading Old Bolsheviks (including Jews) had become agents of Hitler? Really?

We now learn that even the published text was not a full and genuine transcript. Bukharin’s “last words” in court, on March 12, 1938, had over 120 lines cut, in at least seven cases by Stalin personally, before publication. So even the falsification itself went through a refalsification!

We can see Orwell and Hiss as representatives over the whole period of truth and democracy, on the one hand, and lies and totalitarianism, on the other. But this is not to say that such a straightforward view is even yet unanimously accepted in the West. Contrary attitudes die hard. We should remember that it took fifty years—and the release of the Soviet documents—before Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre, obvious from the start, was fully accepted here. Even now, we find book after book, article after article, arguing that the West is as much to blame, or more to blame, than Stalin and his agents. Such stuff is usually the product of academe, with professorial appointments still often made on the basis of political correctness—not so much that the appointers know or care about Stalin or the Cold War as that they seek allies in their own struggle against democracy or reality. Chekhov’s advice to the Russians of his time to “squeeze the slave out drop by drop” might be applied to minds in the West not yet fully cleared of the taint of a later servitude.