In this first year of Big Brother, we’ve turned to Orwell. What did he say about the ways we lie to ourselves and each other? What did he say about a history that had no mooring in facts? What did he say about who we become when we deny the things we’ve done, and deny the things that have been done in our names?
For good reason, we’re all fixated on Orwell, who devoted himself, through literature, to these impossible quandaries. But our interest in Orwell is, curiously, also a testament to that which we fear: that our politics, our cultures, our narratives of ourselves, are in their essence ignorant, or self-deceptive, or at their very best, avoidant.
Big Brother was untouchable, and so, perhaps, is Donald Trump, and so, perhaps, is George Orwell. It was not by serendipity that I came to the subject of Orwell; I attended public school in the 1970s and 80s, and with the vestigial arms of the Congress for Cultural Freedom still in operation, Orwell was presented to me in the manner of Saint George. For nearly three decades, the CIA had been engaged with Russia in a cultural “Cold War,” the terminology of which was Orwell’s own coinage. Orwell was professionally tied to the Information Research Department, which would later morph into MI6; the IRD was charged with the British part of the soft war against the Russians, in which Orwell was an active part. Orwell, disgusted with Stalin and his atrocities, sided with the Right in the post-World War II realignment of the Allies. Animal Farm, which presented the failure of Communism in fable form, was the IRD’s greatest success; the slim volume was massively translated and distributed worldwide, and foisted on students like myself, in the form of a book and a film, for the next forty years. Orwell’s compliance with government forces has been variously justified: he was at the end of his life and manipulated by attractive young women; he was wary of the Right but believed their involvement was a necessary concession—after all, Stalin was a monster.
Orwell’s early death engendered myriad mysteries, the most enduring of which is Orwell’s “list.” Orwell, in his later years, compiled a kind of shit list for the IRD. The list red-flagged communists, who were for the most part people Orwell didn’t like personally, for reasons that were couched in not-endearing xenophobic language. It’s unclear to what extent the list damaged people, and what Orwell’s intentions and expectations had been. The New York Review of Books seemingly had the last substantial piece on the subject, in 2002, but more information has been declassified since.
In 2012, I made a run at another Orwell mystery: the origin of Animal Farm. It had long been whispered that Orwell based Animal Farm on a little known short story, the title of which might be translated “Animal Riot,” by the Russian historian, Nikolai Kostomarov (a translation by Tanya Paperny is published in Pank). The rumor was customarily pooh-poohed, but Orwell was someone who consulted sources. His analogs for 1984, for example, are well known: The Iron Heel by Jack London, We by Evgeny Zamyatin, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, among others. Orwell looked at comparable titles in the same way he worked as a journalist; he had a significant discovery process, and to excellent effect. In the words of Orwell biographer Bernard Crick, Orwell “greatly improved and transcended” his borrowings.
In the course of finding Kostomarov’s story, getting it translated into English, connecting the dots on how Orwell might have seen the story, I also assembled an Animal Farm timeline, which traced Kostomarov’s story as well as the use of Animal Farm by the CIA. (The Paris Review: Animal Farm Timeline.) I cut my draft down from 15,000 to 4,000 words, and published my findings (Revisionist History: Harpers). It was my intention to follow up the Animal Riot piece with a piece that made sense of Orwell’s list, but I couldn’t figure it out.
I got this far: Orwell turned over several lists to the IRD; there were at least two lists, one in a handwritten notebook of 135 names, and one in a typed document of 35–38 names. The second list redacts the first. Additionally, there are seven names that have never been declassified, and any IRD conclusions or documents are notably absent. The obvious takeaway is that the still unknown names mattered, that those seven paid a price during the Cold War. Were they an “A” list? Or, also possible, if the seven names weren’t present the notebook of 135, was the notebook a subsequent effort, following up on a shortlist that had already been provided?
We really don’t know. Maybe there isn’t enough information out there to know. Or maybe we’ve just made a mess of what is there. With the declassifying of documents concerning the lists, and the declassification of documents concerning the covert efforts of the soft war, one would think our understanding would have progressed, but what has happened instead is a melding of informed and uninformed discussion. All the levels of unknowledge have been weaved together into chaotic nonsense, which there has not been a concerted effort to sift through, because some people, like Orwell, stand above the facts.
In 1972, the Times Literary Supplement published Orwell’s essay, “The Freedom of the Press,” which I considered for The Believer. In “Freedom of the Press,” originally written in 1945 as a proposed preface to Animal Farm, Orwell made very clear that much of censorship, if not most of censorship, is self-directed, that we don’t talk about certain things “because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.” And here we are, in 2017, looking at Donald Trump through the eyes of our saint, and not saying a word about the damn truth.