A spy in the house of drudge
Geoff Andrews The shadow man: at the heart of the Cambridge spy circle IB Tauris, 2015, pp276, £20
British communist James Klugmann (1912-77) - the subject of this book - is still a notorious figure. As this book shows, he was never able to live down the fact that he had prostituted himself before Stalin in 1951 with the authorship of a book entitled From Trotsky to Tito, which attempted to put some execrable meat on the ravaged bones of Soviet misinformation that Tito’s Yugoslavia had been penetrated by Trotskyite and imperialist agents. Klugmann had previously been a major populariser of the achievements of Yugoslav ‘official communism’.
Worse, he had been active in the British Special Operations Executive during World War II, and had become intimately involved with the work of Tito’s partisans, playing a not inconsiderable role in switching Winston Churchill’s support towards Tito. So Klugmann was not just an example of a communist intellectual carelessly repeating lies from higher authority, but, in his case, a communist intellectual writing up toxic narratives that he knew - and everyone else knew he knew - were complete garbage.
My first reaction on reading this book was one of pity, partly because Klugmann, unsurprisingly, made himself ill through his actions (p168); and partly because the emaciation of intellect through Soviet-inspired hogwash is a depressingly familiar story. However, this pity is not an attitude that can be maintained for long. This, I would argue, is because such a reaction is predicated on a failure of historical imagination in relation to alternatives. The main sense I get from this biography is of someone trapped in their political trajectory from ‘Cambridge communist’ to the twilight world of Soviet intelligence, through to the mundane and narrow existence of a post-war party functionary inside a movement that was being steadily gripped by crisis. Truly understanding what this tragedy meant relies upon our perception of an alternative: a CPGB that was able to think its way out of a reliance on the less-than-intrepid dogmas of ‘official communism’. However, this absence of alternatives does contain an element of truth, in that the opportunity that party members did have to think themselves out of their predicament often had highly unsatisfactory and broken outcomes (thus, those who were highly critical of the CPGB’s post-war line often combined this with a wretched and self-defeating adulation of the Soviet Union). But, in this book, Klugmann tends to shift around merely as an object of either our pity or contempt.
Author Geoff Andrews might object to this, given that, as someone in and around the CPGB’s late and unlamented Eurocommunist faction that ran the party in its last decade (he was involved with Marxism Today in the 1980s, as it became a totem of anti-communism), he does have an apparent alternative that is retrospectively projected onto Klugmann. In Andrews’ narrative, there was a process of ideological renewal in the CPGB underway in the 1960s, which became a kind of intellectual precursor for the exciting innovations that his faction was to undertake in the 1980s (it is difficult to write this without a heavy dose of sarcasm, I am afraid).1 Klugmann is pictured as someone central to this renewal with his emphasis in latter years on humanist themes (see The future of man, 1970) and his role in the interminable and mostly banal communist-Christian dialogue of the 1960s and 1970s. This was paralleled by the CPGB’s adoption of ‘Questions of ideology and culture’ in 1967 that, as an admission of past Stalinist heresy, suggested that cultural and scientific work could no longer be dominated by bureaucratic decree.2
The problem with presenting the so-called shift to Marxist humanism in this fashion is that it fails to see that its emergence in the CPGB was bound up with an initial defensive attempt in the 1950s to deal with Stalin’s legacy by the ‘official communist’ movement. Thus Emile Burns, speaking at the party’s national congress of 1954, said: “It is wrong … for any comrade in discussing such scientific and cultural questions to take a rigid line of trying to impose some particular views on his colleagues …”3 By the time that the CPGB elaborated such themes in the 1960s they were only significant as a somewhat stale and flatulent recital on ground already trod.
Klugmann, of course, was no Eurocommunist in any public sense; rather he loyally nailed his colours to the mast of the CPGB’s right-centrist leadership, which sponsored the rise of the Eurocommunists in the 1970s as an attempt to defeat the entrenched left opposition already mentioned. Rather, Andrews pictures his subject as a shadowy figure helping younger Euros formulate arguments that he was too cautious to broadcast to the world at large (p218).
Whatever flimsy role Klugmann played in such manoeuvres, Eurocommunism in its various ‘national’ guises did not represent any qualitative break from the objectionable ‘high Stalinist’ rituals of earlier periods. Thus, in a British context we had the unedifying spectacle in the 1980s of the leading Eurocommunist faction expelling whole swathes of comrades in a quantity and venomous manner that made activists positively pine for the leadership of Harry Pollitt and Rajani Palme Dutt (both unlikely candidates for retrospective awards for openness and democracy).
The practice of ‘democratic centralism’ - in fact, bureaucratic centralism - was used brutally to silence critics and bludgeon the opposition. Marxism Today, under its ‘trendy’ wrapping, had the practical consequence of muzzling communists and leading to a form of legalised asset-stripping, where the party was funding something that was bleeding it to death. Underpinning the faction’s attempt to trail behind feminist, anti-racist and peace movements were the same shoddy myths about the popular-front politics of the 1930s that the CPGB had been peddling for years. So what we are left with is essentially the form of an alternative that was underpinned by the politics of ‘official communism’, as it evolved in Britain under the tutelage of the Soviet Union. By attempting to portray Klugmann as some kind of spiritual guide to Eurocommunism, Andrews only seals his subject further into a bureaucratic tomb.
However, one area where Klugmann may truly have been a progenitor of the Euros (as they were disparagingly known) was in his sensitivity to the actual origins of the CPGB’s programme, The British road to socialism, which was drawn up by the British party leadership under the supervision of Stalin. According to Dorothy Thompson, she had relayed a story to Klugmann on the top deck of a London bus that had been told to her husband, Edward, around Stalin’s involvement in the BRS. At which point, Klugmann “went pale, got up and got off the bus” (p195).
The tendency of various post-war leaderships had always been to clothe the BRS in a ‘national’ guise and downplay Stalin’s involvement (although general secretary John Gollan did publicly spill the beans in 19644). Thus Klugmann, in one of his final articles for Marxism Today in 1977, sidestepped the issue of direct Soviet involvement with the BRS by making reference to scarcely more edifying influences from Dimitrov (Bulgaria), Gomułka (Poland), Gottwald (Czechoslovakia) and Thorez (France), alongside a more ritualised reference to Harry Pollitt’s Looking ahead (1947).5 However, the more loudly various ‘official communist’ organisations (and factions such as the Euros) trumpeted their indigenous, ‘national’ reforming qualities, the more securely they locked themselves into a generalised Soviet-inspired graveyard.
Nevertheless, it was this ‘national roads’ jargon, often incorporating themes of social patriotism, which became firmly fixed in the ‘official communist’ imagination. This shines an interesting light on another controversial phase of Klugmann’s career: that of communist mentor to some of the famous Cambridge spy ring (Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt) and his role in recruiting John Cairncross to Soviet intelligence. Surely, his job of ‘talent spotter’ in this arena defiantly cuts across the more ‘respectable’ indigenous image that he and others in the CPGB attempted to cling onto in latter years.
Klugmann was somewhat different from his more famous contemporaries named above, in that he was an open communist. This puts him firmly in the mainstream of the CPGB, in that spying for the Soviet Union (which usually meant passing on information gained in government departments, the military services or industry) was a major occupation for the party’s rank and file during World War II (although the CPGB would yank members away from open party work if it felt that the intelligence was important enough). Klugmann was an interesting case in this regard, in that he did voice concerns about the nature of this work, over and above more immediate worries that CPGB members might have about such undertakings: ie, being caught and prosecuted by the British state, particularly after national organiser Dave Springhall was imprisoned for receiving secret information in 1943.
In 1945, Klugmann met up with Bob Stewart, then responsible for clandestine contacts between the CPGB and Moscow. In a conversation recorded by MI5 microphones and presented by Andrews, Klugmann makes a number of references to his unhappiness at working for those whom Stewart calls “buggers” and “bloody insistent”: namely Soviet intelligence agents. Klugmann says that he hopes “never to be told to do two jobs which are really contradictory” and that “they [the Soviets] are out for themselves” (p103). Stewart empathises with Klugmann wholeheartedly throughout the exchange.
These are fascinating glimpses into a situation that Klugmann clearly perceived had gone awry. Of course, on a basic level, he could just have been recording his doubts about the methods of Soviet intelligent agents, which was still an awkward conclusion for Klugmann to be drawing about servants of the ‘workers’ state’. It would be nice to think that Klugmann had perceived the truth: that the Soviet Union was acting in its own national interest during World War II and, while it found the spying activity of CPGB members useful, its concern for a revolution in Britain and the health of the British party was almost non-existent. Unfortunately, we have to doubt the likelihood of that scenario.
Social patriotism was alive and well in the CPGB, as exemplified by the rebellion of general secretary Pollitt, JR Campbell and MP William Gallacher in 1939 upon receipt of the Comintern’s instructions that World War II was an imperialist war and it should be opposed. Later, of course, after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, this social-patriotism (which built on a certain ‘national’ emphasis that was alive in the popular front period before the war) was given a mighty fillip, as the CPGB sought to integrate itself into Britain’s war effort.
This did not completely blunt the internationalist perspectives of years gone by, but such internationalism was debased and garbled by the growing social patriotism it had to co-exist with. This mixture is well illustrated by Douglas Hyde, a leading party member on the Daily Worker in this period, discussing the issue of whether spying was ‘unpatriotic’. In hindsight, we might say, belligerently, ‘yes’. However, Hyde put it this way:
At no point did the question of its being unpatriotic enter into our thoughts. We were, after all, agreed that a communist Britain would be a better Britain, that we should not see communism in our lifetime if Russia was allowed to be crushed and that, therefore, in defending Russia from our class enemies we were fighting for ‘our’ Britain. The conventional attitude to patriotism and love of country was easily dismissed with the question: ‘Whose country - theirs or ours?’6
It was this strange amalgam of patriotism and misguided internationalism focused on the Soviet Union that was the likely frame for Klugmann’s doubts about his position and it was this perspective that formed so much of the CPGB’s and Klugmann’s dispiriting trudge through the post-war decades.
1. For more detail on this see G Andrews Endgames and new times: the final years of British communism London 2004, pp73-104.
3. Cited in T Russell, ‘Soviet culture and criticism’ The Marxist Quarterly Vol 1, No 3, July 1954.
5. J Klugmann, ‘A brief history since 1945’ Comment February 5 1977.
6. D Hyde I believed: the autobiography of a former British communist London 1951, p147.