James Klugmann and Guy Burgess: the wasted lives of spies

According to their latest biographies, two of the cleverest men at the heart of the Cambridge spy ring failed to achieve anything — or even caused much damage

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

The Shadow Man: At the Heart of the Cambridge Spy Circle Geoff Andrews

I.B Tauris, pp.288, £20, ISBN: 9781784531669

Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess Andrew Lownie

Hodder, pp.448, £25, ISBN: 9781473627369

Geoff Andrews’s ‘Shadow Man’, James Klugmann, was the talent-spotter, recruiter and mentor of the Cambridge spy ring. From 1962, aged 21, I stayed frequently at the large north London house where Klugmann (1912–1977) stored the overflow of his vast library. My hosts, who treated me almost as family, were members of the Communist party, as were lots of their friends whom I met. They included a good many of the dramatis personae of Geoff Andrews’s life of Klugmann (as well as several of the Hollywood Ten in exile from McCarthyism; curiously, none of them features in this biography).

Klugmann was a party functionary, loved and revered by my hosts and others as the CP’s chief theorist. ‘Those who knew him in later years,’ says Andrews, ‘found it extraordinary that this owl-like, donnish, avuncular, bespectacled and eccentric Billy Bunter could have parachuted into Yugoslavia or shared Mao’s base camp at a height of revolutionary agitation.’ He played a crucial role in the SOE, persuading Churchill and the Allies to back Tito and the Partisans. It is possible he died a virgin — Andrews thinks that he sacrificed his homosexuality to the party he stubbornly never left, saying: ‘Even his sexuality seems to have been repressed from an early age because of damage he perceived it would cause the Party.’

Andrews is not the first to credit Klugmann with ‘converting’ Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Michael Straight (though not Kim Philby) to communism, but the release of Klugmann’s MI5 file and Soviet intelligence files appears to show, too, that Klugmann manipulated them to fake breaking with the Party. Andrews says he crossed the line of being an honestly open Party member to committing espionage when he — as he himself seemed to feel — betrayed his friendship with John Cairncross by presenting him to the Soviet spymaster, Arnold Deutsch,
in 1937.

Born to affluent German Jewish parents in Hampstead, Norman John Klugmann’s mother’s family, the Rosenheims, lived at several addresses in Belsize Park, near Lytton Strachey. James (as he renamed himself at school) was at the posh Hampstead prep school, the Hall, and then at Gresham’s, in Holt, Norfolk, which W.H. Auden had left the year before, and where his own group included Benjamin Britten, and future comrades Donald Maclean and Bernard Floud. He won a Modern Languages exhibition to Trinity College, Cambridge. Klugmann’s elder sister, Kitty, preceded him at Cambridge, going up to Girton in 1926 (the same year her brother started at Gresham’s) to read Moral Sciences.

A cartoon of Lenin, drawn by Guy Burgess

A cartoon of Lenin, drawn by Guy Burgess

Kitty paved the way for James, by joining and becoming disillusioned with the Labour Club, then giving it up in favour of the Cambridge University Socialist Society, which spawned an embryonic communist cell. She also frequented the Moral Sciences Club, where she encountered G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Maurice Cornforth, a postgraduate who was to become her husband. This is where I began to doubt Andrews’s grasp of the Cambridge background. (He relies on a poor source, T.E.B. Howarth’s Cambridge between the Wars.)

Cornforth, he says, ‘was regarded as a brilliant student by Moore, and… one of Wittgenstein’s brightest students’. I knew Klugmann’s brother-in-law when I was writing G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles (1979); I found no evidence of these claims, and the sole reference to Cornforth in Ray Monk’s life of Wittgenstein is as a communist.

Most writers on the Cambridge spies have supposed that the ring originated in the secret Cambridge Conversazione Society, the Apostles. Andrews has obviously not consulted my book (which most scholars realised was based on their archives, though I couldn’t say so then), for the only spy he names as an Apostle is Burgess. Klugmann himself was almost certainly considered but rejected as an Apostle; but Blunt and Straight were ‘brothers’, as were plenty of left-leaning non-spies who figure in Andrews’s story, and in Andrew Lownie’s Stalin’s Englishman: they range from Moore, Russell and Wittgenstein to the younger Victor Rothschild, Alan Hodgkin, Eric Hobsbawm, Arnold Kettle, Julian Bell, Dennis Proctor and Alister Watson.

Lownie has evidently had access to the Apostles, though he discounts the group’s importance in the formation of the spy ring. On the other hand, he castigates (his own simplified explication of) Moore’s argument that only states of mind are good in themselves, and that personal affection and the contemplation of beauty are ‘the only supremely good states of mind’. ‘It is perhaps not surprising,’ he comments acidly, ‘that the Apostles should prove to be so open to communist infiltration.’

Contrasting his own time as an Apostle (1903–10) with the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes said (in My Early Beliefs) that his own contemporaries were immune to the allure of communism because Marxism was ‘the final reductio ad absurdum of Benthamism’, the brand of utilitarianism Moore had extirpated for his generation. Had Lownie understood the lifelong fraternal bonds that gripped the Apostles, and the nature and (cryptic) descriptions of the Apostles’ discussions (he dismisses them as ‘abstract ideas’), he would have appreciated Keynes’s point. The Society was the crucible in which the Marxism of 15 ‘of the 31 Apostles elected between 1927 and 1939’ was fomented, and supplied the motivation for Blunt, Burgess and Straight to join Maclean, Philby and Cairncross in covert activities.

Despite its failings, there’s world-class gossip here. Lownie denies Blunt and Burgess could have been lovers, for though Burgess was prodigiously endowed, both were bottoms. He has been working assiduously on this teeming book for 30 years, and it still needs considerable editing to disguise the traces of this. Characters are often identified long after they are first introduced, and the apparatus is a mess. In an early note he mis-describes Paul Robeson as ‘a black, homosexual communist actor’, while he later tags him as the ‘great’ man who was a former lover of Burgess’s friend, the actress Coral Browne. ‘Penrose’, cited frequently, and a major source, is mysteriously not in the index or bibliography, but turns up on p. 389 as ‘Barrie Penrose, Conspiracy of Silence, Collins, 1986’ in note 2 to the appendix. Alarmingly, however, notes 1-5 to the Appendix exist in limbo, not actually attached to anything in the text, where the first citation is note 6.

Unlike Andrews, Lownie doesn’t make Klugmann central to the Cambridge spies as he needs Burgess to be the lynchpin of the group. (And both authors omit Cedric Belfrage, an older Cambridge-educated Soviet agent who reported to Kim Philby.) Neither Klugmann nor Burgess seem to have achieved anything, or to have caused any real damage. The brilliant Burgess, with his filthy fingernails and boozy breath redeemed by coruscating wit, and the clever, lovable Klugmann, whose biographer finds he sacrificed ‘his own conscience and intellectual integrity’, are merely sad instances of lives wasted in the service of not very much at all.

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'The Shadow Man', £17 and 'Stalin's Englishman', £21.25 are available from the Spectator Bookshop, Tel: 08430 600033. Paul Levy is the author of Moore: G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles.

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  • mikewaller

    As I have always hated the bastards, the idea that their lives were pointlessly squandered has cheered me up for Christmas!

  • cromwell

    Traitors both along with 5th man Victor Rothschild.

  • Callipygian

    Cough. Every non-straight person dies a virgin, strictly speaking, if that’s their only experience.

  • jim

    Creepy misfits.