Ron Capshaw: Named names through the windowpane
Articles » July 2000

Attacking an opponent as a "McCarthyite" has been as popular in recent years as use of the term "communist" was in the 1950s and "fascist" in the 1960s. In today's climate of political correctness, few intellectuals have escaped this label. Until recently, George Orwell had been fortunate: the only invective he suffered from was that of the fascist label attached to him by Communist Party faithfuls in the 1930s and 1940s. But when, in 1996, it was revealed that Orwell gave a list he compiled of suspected Communists to a representative of MI-5 the term "McCarthyite" was considered by some, the most prominent of them being Alexander Cockburn of the Nation magazine, to be applicable. In several issues, Christopher Hitchens of the same magazine has led both a defense of Orwell and a counter-attack on Cockburn's characterization of Orwell. If nothing else, these heated debates have provoked a question that is not irrelevant--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.

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