The George Orwell Paradox: From Spy Target to Informant

Listen to A History of the World in Spy Objects podcast: Daniel Arsham - Animal Farm

Big Brother was watching when Orwell sought work as the Paris correspondent for Workers’ Life and again when he became involved in London’s Booklovers' Corner, a 1930s left-wing bookshop. The chief constable of Wigan, England - a mining town in northern England - also asked Scotland Yard for a briefing on the young writer, who was researching a book about working-class life and staying in an apartment arranged by the local Communist party.

Orwell was seen as a threat, one "dressed in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours", Special Branch noted in 1942. Much like the communist-fearing US during the Red Scare, Britain saw Soviet subversion as ‘an enemy within’ but the spies weren’t quite sure what to make of Orwell. Special Branch described him as a man with ‘advanced communist views’ but MI5 saw him as a man who ‘didn't hold with the Communist Party nor they with him’.

In fact, Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) was an anti-Stalinist leftist who foresaw a future of thoughtcrime and doublethink, a man whose influence and ideas still resonate in everything from David Bowie's Diamond Dogs to the Bioshock: Infinite video game. His name itself evokes the concept of an 'Orwellian nightmare’, a dystopian scenario characterized by oppressive government control, pervasive surveillance, and the suppression of free thought and expression. 

Orwell’s once-secret 1936 file and passport photo, released in 2005


Orwellian thought provocateur

Born in India in 1903 and schooled in England, Orwell described his family as 'lower-upper middle class' in The Road to Wigan Pier - a well-to-do family without money. He joined Burma’s Imperial Police for five years but quit abruptly. It was a departure the security services mulled over as Orwell eked out a living as a journalist and writer in Paris in 1928 before returning to England.

He was “a bit of an anarchist in his day and in touch with extremist elements", a record in the files said, describing him as having "undoubtedly strong left-wing views," but "a long way from orthodox Communism". Security files also disclose details from his passport application, noting the tattoo marks on the backs of both hands. 

George Orwell aka Eric Arthur Blair

While Orwell may have had brushes with communism, he adopted an anti-Stalinist stance after fighting in the Spanish War, getting shot in the throat by a sniper, and witnessing communist atrocities first-hand.

While in Spain, the Homage to Catalonia author and his first wife, Eileen Blair, were under the watch of yet another intelligence service, Stalin’s NKVD secret police. Giles Tremlett, author of The International Brigades, found security service papers lodged in a Moscow archive after the war. 

“They add fuel to the thesis that Orwell developed in Homage to Catalonia, and later in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, that Stalin was intent on transforming communism from a social and political ideal into a tyranny headed by a single man,” Tremlett told the Observer.

Orwell’s later satirical work, Animal Farm (1945), is an anti-utopian satire and a commentary on communism under Stalin, a challenge to the oppressive regime.

A History of the World in Spy Objects - Animal Farm Cels
Listen to A History of the World in Spy Objects podcast: Daniel Arsham - Animal Farm


The George Orwell Paradox: From Spy Target to Informant

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Listen to A History of the World in Spy Objects podcast: Daniel Arsham - Animal Farm

Big Brother was watching when Orwell sought work as the Paris correspondent for Workers’ Life and again when he became involved in London’s Booklovers' Corner, a 1930s left-wing bookshop. The chief constable of Wigan, England - a mining town in northern England - also asked Scotland Yard for a briefing on the young writer, who was researching a book about working-class life and staying in an apartment arranged by the local Communist party.

Orwell was seen as a threat, one "dressed in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours", Special Branch noted in 1942. Much like the communist-fearing US during the Red Scare, Britain saw Soviet subversion as ‘an enemy within’ but the spies weren’t quite sure what to make of Orwell. Special Branch described him as a man with ‘advanced communist views’ but MI5 saw him as a man who ‘didn't hold with the Communist Party nor they with him’.

In fact, Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) was an anti-Stalinist leftist who foresaw a future of thoughtcrime and doublethink, a man whose influence and ideas still resonate in everything from David Bowie's Diamond Dogs to the Bioshock: Infinite video game. His name itself evokes the concept of an 'Orwellian nightmare’, a dystopian scenario characterized by oppressive government control, pervasive surveillance, and the suppression of free thought and expression. 

Orwell’s once-secret 1936 file and passport photo, released in 2005


Orwellian thought provocateur

Born in India in 1903 and schooled in England, Orwell described his family as 'lower-upper middle class' in The Road to Wigan Pier - a well-to-do family without money. He joined Burma’s Imperial Police for five years but quit abruptly. It was a departure the security services mulled over as Orwell eked out a living as a journalist and writer in Paris in 1928 before returning to England.

He was “a bit of an anarchist in his day and in touch with extremist elements", a record in the files said, describing him as having "undoubtedly strong left-wing views," but "a long way from orthodox Communism". Security files also disclose details from his passport application, noting the tattoo marks on the backs of both hands. 

George Orwell aka Eric Arthur Blair

While Orwell may have had brushes with communism, he adopted an anti-Stalinist stance after fighting in the Spanish War, getting shot in the throat by a sniper, and witnessing communist atrocities first-hand.

While in Spain, the Homage to Catalonia author and his first wife, Eileen Blair, were under the watch of yet another intelligence service, Stalin’s NKVD secret police. Giles Tremlett, author of The International Brigades, found security service papers lodged in a Moscow archive after the war. 

“They add fuel to the thesis that Orwell developed in Homage to Catalonia, and later in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, that Stalin was intent on transforming communism from a social and political ideal into a tyranny headed by a single man,” Tremlett told the Observer.

Orwell’s later satirical work, Animal Farm (1945), is an anti-utopian satire and a commentary on communism under Stalin, a challenge to the oppressive regime.

A History of the World in Spy Objects - Animal Farm Cels
Listen to A History of the World in Spy Objects podcast: Daniel Arsham - Animal Farm


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Orwell’s list of ‘crypto-communists’

Incredibly, the man once accused of communist tendencies and the creator of Big Brother, was by 1949 surreptitiously working for British intelligence. He drew up a list of names of ‘crypto’ (secret) communists for Britain’s Foreign Office Information Research Department, the spies who led the UK propaganda war. 

Orwell’s contact was Celia Kirwan, a former flame who visited the author while he battled tuberculosis at a sanatorium in England. Orwell had proposed to her years earlier but they were simply friends at that point - friends in high places. During her visit, Celia and Orwell discussed the secretive projects the IRD was doing “in great confidence, and he was delighted to learn of them, and expressed his wholehearted and enthusiastic approval of our aims,” according to Britain’s National Archives and Foreign Office records. 

Orwell listed the names of suspected communists who might betray Britain if they were hired to work as writers in the propaganda unit. In his now-famous letter dated April 6, 1949, Orwell writes: “I could also, if it is of value, give you a list of crypto-communists, fellow-travelers or inclined that way and should not be trusted as propagandists.”

Orwell wanted his list to be ‘strictly confidential’. It includes dozens of literary luminaries of the ‘40s including J. B. Priestley, the novelist and playwright, and Manchester Guardian industrial correspondent John Anderson, described by Orwell as: "Probably sympathizer only. Good reporter. Stupid."

Orwell the informer

Orwell wasn’t just concerned about British authors, artists, and diplomats. There were also several Americans on his list including Charlie Chaplin (with a question mark next to his name) and DAVIES, Joseph E (US) who Orwell describes as JOBS: Previously ambassador to USSR. ''Mission to Moscow'' (& film of ditto.) REMARKS: Very stupid.

Writer and journalist Janet Flanner was also named: JOBS New Yorker (''Genet''), REMARKS: Previously violent red-baiter, changed views about war years. Dishonest careerist. Appears to have swung back somewhat recently (1949).

American author John Steinbeck didn’t fare much better: STEINBECK, John (US), JOBS: Novelist (''The Grapes of Wrath,'' etc.) REMARKS: ?? Spurious writer, pseudo-naif.

The 1984 film rights, like Animal Farm, were bought by spies


Nineteen Eighty-Four

Orwell collapsed with tuberculosis after writing the first draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four and typed the second version of his novel while recovering in bed. He collapsed again when he had finished and died on January 21, 1950. The CIA, US Army, and British spies began courting his young widow, his second wife Celia, almost immediately hoping to buy the firm rights to Animal Farm. The CIA closed the deal with a promise of cash and an introduction to Hollywood movie star Clarke Gable. The Brits settled for the rights to turn Animal Farm into a comic strip. 

Even before Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949, US publishers were plotting to exploit Orwell’s novel as an attack on Soviet totalitarianism. They wrote to FBI supremo J. Edgar Hoover for an endorsement, according to FBI records.

Hoover declined but the FBI examined the advance copy, determining it to be a veiled attack on the Soviets rather than the US. The Soviets thought exactly the opposite. Both used Orwell’s work in their battle for hearts and minds after his death. By the ‘60s and ‘70s, the US security services were monitoring George Orwell societies and university film clubs to see if they were a cover for subversive pro-socialist behavior.

More than 41m copies of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have been sold in the decades since. Orwell may be dead, but his work continues to speak for itself: "Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed - no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull."

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Own a Piece of Cold War Movie History! Dive into our collection of rare treasures from our film archives - original, hand-painted movie cels, perfectly paired with their original drawings. These extraordinary artifacts were pivotal in creating the 1954 animated classic Animal Farm, a cinematic gem financed by the CIA as a propaganda tool to fight communism during the intense Cold War period.

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