Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 September 2007
I know it’s a bit late to give you my take on the materials released at the beginning of the month by the National Archives – but I’ve not had a chance before now, so you’re lumped with it. I’m talking about the surveillance files on George Orwell, of course, which occupied the up-market papers for a day or two four weeks ago and since have been completely forgotten.
The documents show that Orwell was tracked by Special Branch and the spooks pretty much from the point at which he decided to quit the imperial police in Burma in 1928 until his death in 1950. The files include reports on his most mundane journalistic activities researching The Road to Wigan Pier – and one Special Branch plod described him in 1942 as holding “advanced communist views”. Cue an outburst of surprise that the powers-that-be could be so stupid as to mistake the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four for a communist-sympathising subversive.
Now, there is certainly something newsworthy about the author of two of the 20th century’s most famous warnings against totalitarian surveillance being watched over and reported on by Britain’s security state – and the files make fascinating reading. (You can get them free as downloads online here.) Yet it’s not so strange that the security state took an interest in Orwell – and the truth is that the people who kept an eye on him were by no means as daft as most commentators on the newly released material suggest.
Orwell was an avowed revolutionary socialist for at least five years of his life, from 1936 to 1941, and he was sympathetic to revolutionary socialism both before and after this period. He fought for a militia in the Spanish civil war that was explicitly dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, then joined the Independent Labour Party during its most intransigent and rhetorically insurrectionist phase. He discussed with Herbert Read the possibility of setting up an underground guerrilla anti-war resistance movement if war came. And then, in the first couple of years of the second world war, he argued that only a revolution could save Britain from fascism. He saw the Home Guard – yes, Dad’s Army – as a would-be revolutionary proletarian militia.
As he wrote in Tribune on 20 December 1940: “We are in a strange period of history in which a revolutionary has to be a patriot and a patriot has to be a revolutionary. We know, even if the Blimps don’t, that without a radical change in our social system the war cannot be won.”
There was even a brief point when he was a communist fellow-traveller. Despite the disparaging references to the Communist Party in The Road to Wigan Pier and his vehement anti-communism from 1937 until his death, before his experience of the Stalinist suppression of the revolutionaries in Spain in 1937 he was not unsympathetic to the communist line. Before his eyes were opened by the Barcelona May Days, he almost joined the communist-dominated International Brigades.
In other words, Orwell was for a significant period of his life a vocal subversive – if one with very little chance of success – and it shouldn’t come as any surprise that there are Special Branch and security service files on him. If there was going to be a revolution in Britain in the late 1930s (and OK, it wasn’t very likely) Orwell was going to be part of it, if only as the first victim of a Stalinist firing-squad.
What is genuinely remarkable, by contrast, is that the files, or at least those that have been released, are for the most part accurate. Apart from the goof by the Special Branch officer who over-enthusiastically claimed Orwell to be a communist sympathiser in 1942 – a report, incidentally, that some superior dismissed as crap – there is little that is other than routinely factual. There is also no evidence that any of the material collected on Orwell did him any harm: he was cleared to work for the BBC in 1942 and as a war correspondent for the Observer in 1943 (although he didn’t do it for a couple of years, becoming literary editor of Tribune instead).
Whether the state should monitor those it sees as subversive is, of course, another question. When I was a revolutionary – and I was, honestly – my comrades and I took it for granted that we were monitored by the state. After all, we were its enemy, and we posed a threat. Since giving up on that revolution stuff, I’ve taken the view that surveillance needs to be kept to a minimum and strictly controlled. But where do you draw the line? Twenty years ago I would have been outraged at tabs being kept on cuddly Paul Foot and harmless Tariq Ali. Now I worry that intelligence on Islamist crazies is utterly inadequate.