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Michael Mason writes about the debate in London University on whether Anthony Blunt should keep his emeritus chairMichael Mason
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Vol. 2 No. 5 · 20 March 1980

Michael Mason writes about the debate in London University on whether Anthony Blunt should keep his emeritus chair

1698 words

Why has the Blunt affair generated so much callous humbug? Two highly regarded spy novels of recent years – The Human Factor and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – are based on the idea of a ‘mole’ in the British Intelligence services. In neither book does any particular opprobrium attach to treachery. The emphasis is on personal ties rather than national ones (which are implied by both authors to be something of a fake). In Greene’s novel especially, the pains of being a spy, and above all the wretchedness of the separation from home and love which follows exposure, are memorably evoked. These books have been read by many people, and they are additionally famous in televised and filmed versions. Their reputation is certainly due in part to the sensible, convincing stand they take on treachery. But the British public has more humanity at its command for the phantoms of Greene’s and Le Carré’s imaginations than for the flesh-and-blood Anthony Blunt. In these days his name seems scarcely to be perceived as denoting a fellow human being. The letters BLUNT in the headlines have become a kind of mantra of hatred.

The intelligent literary exploration of political disloyalty goes back much further than these spy novels of the 1970s. The first important text is Julius Caesar. In a broader view, Western culture has accorded an extraordinary standing to certain political subversives. The two men we think of as the towering examples of selfless virtue, Christ and Socrates, were put to death for political crime. It seems to be sufficient that a subversive individual is only a little removed from us in time and space (to the committee-rooms of the American Congress in the 1950s, for example) for our perception of him to be susceptible of inversion. When the gap is supplemented by a difference of ideology, as in the case of contemporary Russian dissidents, we feel able to admire subversion in a highly explicit form.

In other words, our culture is capable of seeing that treachery is a complex and uncertain matter – except during the excitement of the hunt and kill. Anthony Blunt’s actions in the last war and afterwards probably constitute a particularly difficult instance of political disloyalty, calling for unusual delicacy of judgment. The facts would have to be absolutely definite first – especially in view of this country’s alliance with Russia against Germany. Then Blunt’s action should be assessed in the relative lights of patriotism, belief in social good, and duty to individuals. In all that has been publicly uttered about this man since early November 1979 there has seldom glimmered a recognition that the affair possesses even this broadly-sketched kind of complexity.

Society’s cruel and irrational response to the newly exposed ‘traitor’ does resemble a very familiar though baffling feature of our personal relations. Most of us show a surprising readiness in everyday life to attribute conscious malevolence to our fellows, although only a very little introspection would suggest the doubtfulness of this analysis of human motivation. Men like to think that they are acting for good reasons. If their actions are determined by impulses they would acknowledge to be bad, they generally conceal this fact from themselves, and explain their actions in terms they find morally acceptable. The consciously malevolent human personality is a piece of mythology, and his appropriately mythological embodiment is Satan (there has, in fact, been some mention of the ‘diabolical’ personality of Blunt).

The British are perhaps unusually prone to voluntary self-deception where the morality of people in public life is concerned. A moment of very pure humbug was reached in the Blunt affair when the Observer printed as proof of his depravity a story about Blunt disparaging a man behind his back after being complimentary to him at dinner. A proof of his common humanity, it might be thought.

In the general execration of Blunt there may even be some stifled incredulity as to his Satanic personality, but he has also been at the receiving end of a certain dissatisfaction with the double standard in our national life. It is a peculiarity of the whole affair that Blunt is seen to be closely affiliated with the very Establishment which, with our consent, tells us so imperfectly and condescendingly what is going on. On top of all this. Blunt is an art historian. There was a joke headline current in November: ‘Spy Discovered to be Art Historian.’ It is not frivolous to suggest that Blunt’s profession has been a further irritant to public opinion. Works of art, new and old, are often extremely expensive, and the objects of a respect which can seem insufficiently explained. Visual art, more than any other branch of cultural activity in this country, has associations with plutocracy and mystification. But there is a sad irony if Blunt is thought to be implicated in these aspects of the institution of art. The main theme of his work on painting springs from his dislike for social and intellectual exclusiveness in art. The other myth about Blunt which the art history can be shown to call in question is that he sought or was especially gratified by his association with the centres of official power in this country.

He was gratified, however, by the honours he received from academic institutions. Most of these were withdrawn in the early days of the affair, and his chair at London was probably the most substantial British academic honour he retained. Despite the performance of other academic bodies, it was to be hoped that the Convocation of the University of London, moving less precipitately, would not surrender to the general humbug. Here was an institution which might recognise the complexity of Blunt’s case, and the need for a careful assessment of facts and moral issues.

In the event, the debate was too short to give much sense of which considerations swayed the members of Convocation in their voting. Those who spoke for Blunt were predictably more temperate than those who wanted to take away his chair (from this camp came some familiar mythologising about the ‘coldblooded traitor’). It would be interesting to know how many of those who voted for Blunt accepted the opposition’s view that the man’s political past was relevant to his title to a chair. There was some spirited reference to the almost complete uncertainty about the facts of Blunt’s spying career, but only one speaker made the proposal that his actions could be morally defensible in their historical context. It may be that most people in the majority bloc took the weaker view that Blunt was a proven criminal, but that this was irrelevant to the matter of his chair, which was a strictly academic award.

Certainly there was a danger that Blunt’s work as an art historian (despite repeated lip-service to it by his opponents) would be seen in less than its proper proportions. Not only has Blunt been an exceptionally able, versatile and productive scholar, but art history has dominated his life to an extent that can be lost sight of in the excitement about his spying. The subject has evidently absorbed him since his schooldays, and at a time when art history had very little academic standing in this country he was working in the subject with the ‘pertinacity’ and ‘single-mindedness’ he admires in Poussin. This was complete professionalism in the absence, virtually, of a profession.

At this early period he was also the Spectator’s art critic, often appearing alongside Graham Greene on the cinema. In these pieces of journalism, which were sometimes candidly socialist, there is a coat-trailing, speculative, labile note which Blunt has never allowed himself to strike in his post-war writing. Against this background, the restraint of his later work, the fear of ‘dangerously strong feelings’ expressed in the book on William Blake (another man tried for sedition), and the self-control of his personal demeanour, start to seem much more like a protective anaesthesia or the numbness of scar-tissue than cold-bloodedness.

There were other acts of self-mortification. The Mannerist aesthetics expounded in Artistic Theory in Italy were not congenial to Blunt, though this is not acknowledged. Before the war he thought of the Surrealists as essentially Mannerist because they imitated a mental content – and their art was consequently too narrow, just as abstract art was too narrow because of its interest in formal properties alone. The attack on formalism (especially in relation to Poussin) has been kept up, but the obviously sincere and rather stirring remarks about art’s responsibility to the general concerns of mankind no longer accompany it.

In the socialist art criticism, Blunt was unhappy about the idea of artists working for the state, however, and his prose betrays this sometimes (‘It can be almost established that not all dictatorships are fatal to the arts,’ Spectator, 22 November 1935). All through his career he has been attracted by artists who were ignored or not approved by official opinion, but supported by a small group of sympathetic patrons or friends (and here lies the irony of the popular view of Blunt as an Establishment man): Mansart, Borromini, Poussin and Rouault (granting his links with the Fauves). As with the Victorian club which Blunt joined at Cambridge, the animating idea is apostolic. There can be sensed in Blunt’s writing, despite its impersonality, a deep admiration for spiritual fervour which converges in a very Marxist fashion with a determinist, source-tracing habit of mind. So the Work of Blake, Poussin and Borromini is shown to be involved with mysteries and at the same time is demystified by reference to Renaissance art, or Stoicism, or late Roman architecture.

At present it will seem to many people unthinkable that Anthony Blunt should be written about in this way: as a human being in the round, not impelled by unusually malevolent feelings. As history abundantly shows, this will quite soon seem to be the appropriate and interesting way to look at him. History also has a habit of damaging the reputations of the people who put traitors on trial. The University of London is to be congratulated on the good opinion it will have secured for itself.

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Letters

Vol. 2 No. 6 · 3 April 1980

SIR: We were most impressed by Michael Mason’s article on Anthony Blunt (LRB, 20 March) and would like to offer our heartfelt approbation for his sentiments. Mr Mason’s comment, ‘his actions could be morally defensible in their historical context,’ seems to be the first recognition of the fact that Blunt is termed a ‘traitor’, basically, for opposing Hitler and Fascism, something for which one feels he ought to be congratulated. As John Cairncross recently said when asked why he became involved in the Russian spy network in the Thirties, ’I wanted to oppose Fascism and I had many Jewish friends.’

Simon Kunitz
London SW1

Vol. 2 No. 7 · 17 April 1980

SIR: Michael Mason’s defence of Anthony Blunt (LRB, 20 March) is depressing, even for many who think that London University was probably right on balance to leave him his emeritus chair. There is nothing whatever in Blunt’s career as a spy for Stalin to support parallels with Christ and Socrates, nor to evoke regret that only one speaker at the London debate ‘made the proposal that his actions could be morally defensible.’ If Mr Mason believes that Blunt acted out of ‘belief in social good’ then he should produce some evidence, rather than accuse the overwhelming majority of his fellow-countrymen of humbug, cruelty and irrationality. It will seem to many a far simpler hypothesis that anyone who actively wished Stalinism on his fellows, knowing full well what that meant, acted out of hatred for them, or at least for a sizeable proportion of them.

Assessing Blunt’s actions is not at all a matter for ‘unusal delicacy or judgment’, it is perfectly standard: I may murder my neighbour and announce that I have done it for society’s good, or even for his own. That will not help me at my trial, nor, I imagine, will it bring moralists flocking to my support, for those who believe that such matters can be settled by Benthamite arithmetic are now hard to find. What Mr Mason totally misses is that the general view is not at all cruel: the worst that has happened to Blunt so far is to have been hissed out of a cinema – unpleasant, but better than being hanged! Mr Mason confesses himself baffled by the simple certainties of his fellows, and I imagine Blunt must have been too, on the subject of politics: but it may still be the case that the public are absolutely right.

Yorick Wilks
Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex

SIR: Michael Mason’s article about the Blunt affair assumes that the seething block headlines and screams of loathing that were on display in the tabloid newspapers mirrored the attitude of the general public. This may not be so. The popular press half-creates, half-perceives the opinions of its readers. It has a duty to sell itself and sensationalism is a favourite device. If the Blunt affair had been treated to any degree of understanding it would have made a poor story. It would have been necessary to play it down. Editors could hardly have been expected to forgo its latent sensational elements and, of course, took the path to the front pages. A recent New Statesman survey on the press coverage of the run-up to the May General Election showed that people are not easily swayed by what they read in the press, and can spot attempts to force opinions upon them. Perhaps more people are sympathetic to Anthony Blunt than Michael Mason supposes.

Thomas Blaikie
London NW1

Vol. 2 No. 8 · 1 May 1980

SIR: In his letter in your last issue, Yorick Wilks claims to believe that Anthony Blunt was motivated by ‘hatred for his fellows, or at least for a large proportion of them’. I cannot think that this is his considered opinion. Professor Wilks is a university teacher. He must respect evidence (although he reiterates a piece of gossip from Privite Eye), and the facts about Blunt’s actions are almost completely uncertain. Professor Wilks is an adult human being. He must have enough acquaintance with human nature and the world to know that opposing political creeds cannot be explained by simplifications like ‘hatred’. No doubt there are ordinary people in Russia who would hastily suppose that Professor Wilks hates them. Let him reflect on how such a fallacy could arise, and how stupid and pernicious it would be.

In his heart he cannot be confident that his letter about Anthony Blunt is truthful, and consequently he should be ashamed to have written it.

Michael Mason
London WC1

Vol. 2 No. 10 · 22 May 1980

SIR: My original letter to you said I was depressed by Michael Mason’s defence of Anthony Blunt. He now writes (Letters, 1 May) that I should be ashamed of having written it. Since he has upped the ante, and your letters are running four to one in support of Blunt, may I have one more word? The clause that made Mr Mason cross was ‘anyone who actively wished Stalinism on his fellows, knowing full well what that meant, acted out of hatred for them …’ I did not make the claim that Blunt was motivated by hatred for his fellows, as Mr Mason misquotes me back. He reminds me that I am a university teacher. Fair enough, and so is he, and that requires reading sentences right through, word by boring word.

As to the clause above, I cannot see how any civilised person could dissent from it. It is like condemnations of cannibalism or the elimination of the unfit: one does not have to count heads to know the status of such claims in our society. At least, I assume that is obvious, though Mr Mason’s fluster disturbs me a little.

Yorick Wilks
Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex

Vol. 2 No. 18 · 18 September 1980

SIR: About six months ago you published a remarkable article by Michael Mason about the debate in London University on whether Anthony Blunt should keep his emeritus chair (LRB, 20 March). It was a reasoned appeal to consider Anthony Blunt ‘as a human being in the round’ instead of treating his very name as ‘a kind of mantra of hatred’; and the author concluded that the University of London had won a good opinion of itself in history by its vote on that occasion.

Yet all the ‘callous humbug’ against which Michael Mason was protesting, the easy assumption that any public person in disgrace is a double-dyed villain, the general eagerness to cast the first stone – all this has been seen again in still greater measure, not indeed in the vote of the British Academy itself, but in the vilification of Anthony Blunt by the small minority who have now succeeded in ousting him from the Academy since the vote was taken; and another more personal, and far more poisonous, attack has been made on him from another quarter since then. Those who maintain that Blunt should have been formally expelled from the Academy have had no difficulty in showing, with the example of Lysenko and other instances of the suppression of free inquiry and the promulgation of officially prescribed doctrine under the Stalinist regime, that the Soviet system is the negation of those scholarly values for which the British Academy stands; and Blunt has been accused of plotting to impose such a system on the United Kingdom ‘during the best years of his life’. But this, it seems to me, is reading back into the events of thirty to forty years ago all that we now know of the state of affairs in Russia, and imputing motives derived entirely from present attitudes to a young man who acted as he did from his deeply held convictions at that time.

Even those who have defended the Academy’s refusal to expel Anthony Blunt, on the ground that an academic institution should not concern itself with questions of morality, have generally been at pains to make clear that they do not themselves condone his wickedness; and the words ‘traitor’ and ‘treason’ have been freely bandied about on both sides of the argument. I think it is time to call a halt to this ‘holier than thou’ disposition, and to try to discern, calmly and dispassionately, why Anthony Blunt did what he did, and what in fact it was.

The charge of treason in the technical sense has been very fairly put on one side by a legal authority who himself shares the view of the minority that Blunt should nevertheless have been expelled from the Academy. A ‘traitor’ engaged in ‘treason’ is someone who aids and abets an enemy with whom his country is at war, and what Anthony Blunt did for most of the war was to give help to an ally enthusiastically acclaimed as such by the whole country. Even the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, while it lasted, did not make Russia an enemy country. What Anthony Blunt did then (and afterwards) was determined by what he had done before war broke out; and it is to his actions in the Thirties, and what his motives were then, that anyone with a true sense of history should direct his attention. We do not know in detail what those actions were; but we should be able to understand why he took them.

The tone and temper of that thankless decade has frequently been described; but much of it seems to have been forgotten lately. Against a background of mass unemployment at home and the gathering forces of Fascism abroad (with menacing threats at home too), many of the brightest spirits among the young, forced into political awareness by an apparently supine attitude on the part of their own government, believed fervently in Marxist revolution as the best hope of a new deal for the world. Anthony Blunt was one of those. He only differed from most of the others by grasping, when it offered, the opportunity to follow his convictions to their logical conclusion; and it was a strong, if misguided sense of personal responsibility that led him to take that course. One writer who did make a serious effort to recapture the atmosphere of those days yet gave him less than credit for that. He compared him unfavourably with Roger Casement, who paid the penalty of execution for his treason; and he saw in ‘honour’ the light that failed in Blunt’s case. But Anthony Blunt is as honourable a man as Brutus was, and no question of treason arises in what he did then. He held no official position, and betrayed no trust by entering into private communication with another government.

What exactly he did thereafter, when the war came and he did hold an official post, we do not know: but, whatever it was, it was not ‘treason’. He left his official post directly the war was over and returned to his own professional work; and he severed himself from further communication with the Russian authorities. The one outstanding black mark against him is that he allowed those contacts to be revived, and used them on more than one occasion to save his friends, and so earned for himself the opprobrium of being the ‘Fourth Man’ in the Burgess-Maclean and Philby affairs. Yet, even here, those who feel sure they would have acted differently if caught in the same predicament may congratulate themselves on their prudence, but need not feel proud of their superior rectitude. Blunt himself has told us that what he regrets most is having been lured into the trap in the first place, rather than his loyalty to friends once he was caught in it.

All in all, I cannot think that it adds up to a picture of the villain he has lately been made out to be. For my own part, I will only say that I am still proud to count him as one of my dearest friends.

Dennis Proctor
Lewes

Vol. 2 No. 19 · 2 October 1980

SIR: I am grateful to you for publishing my long letter about Anthony Blunt (Letters, 18 September), but the letter as it appears contains a printer’s error which makes me attribute to Anthony Blunt himself something which was only put forward as a surmise of my own: viz. that ‘what he regrets most is having been lured into the trap in the first place, rather than his loyalty to friends once he was caught in it.’ As far as I know, all that Anthony Blunt himself has said is that he bitterly regrets his past actions, and this is what I wrote in my letter. All that followed was merely my own estimate of the relative weight which he attached to his part in the Burgess-Maclean and Philby affairs – ‘I suspect that’ was the expression I used – and Blunt himself should not be held responsible for what some may think a mistaken scale of values.

Dennis Proctor
Lewes

Vol. 2 No. 23 · 4 December 1980

SIR: I hate to prolong this wretched business by a single day, but I must thank you for publishing (Letters, 18 September) Sir Dennis Proctor’s letter about Professor Anthony Blunt in the very number in which Mr Boyle was concocting once again his witches’ brew. Not only is it a humane letter: its scrupulous concern for the distinction between fact and conjecture, evidence and hearsay, does a lot to restore one’s faith in the human intelligence. Those who have written most dogmatically on this subject are clearly unaware that such distinctions exist.

‘Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?’ I have no doubt what will be the judgment of history on Anthony Blunt; on the work of a great scholar; on a lifetime’s devotion to what was once called ‘the common good’; on a man of honour and a man of peace. Let us be clear that the bitter personal attack on him has been made, not in the name of justice (it was made clear at once that the law had no case to bring), but viciously and often, it would seem, with the grossest motive – personal aggrandisement and personal gain. As Dryden says, and he, alas, had good reason to know it: ‘We have no moral right on the reputation of other men. ’Tis taking from them what we cannot restore to them.’ If it is the duty of Anthony Blunt’s friends – and I am proud to be one of them – to try to shift this monster that has been foisted upon him so it is our right, in the name of common humanity, to say: ‘enough’.

Elizabeth Mackenzie
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

Vol. 3 No. 21 · 19 November 1981

SIR: ‘Investigative journalism has many triumphs to its credit,’ writes Noël Annan in your issue of 15 October (LRB, 15 October) before going on to explain why Tom Bower’s book. Blind Eye to Murder, about Nazi war criminals, isn’t one of them. Nor, for not very different reasons, which is what prompts me to write this letter, is the ‘exposure’ of Leo Long – in the eyes of the press another sort of war criminal. What did Mr Long do: he gave Britain’s allies – the Russians – information which would assist them in the war against Britain’s enemy, the Germans. ‘Self-confessed traitor,’ says the press: ‘hound him, hound him.’ I remember that at the time of the ‘Blunt crisis’ you published a piece (LRB, 20 March 1980) in which one of Anthony Blunt’s fellow academics pointed out, as academics do, that there were moral complexities in the affair which the press, in its crusade against Blunt, had wholly ignored. There are few moral complexities in Mr Long’s case. As I understand the word, one can’t betray one’s country to an ally. Nor was the Soviet Union our enemy then because it is – is it? – our enemy now. Mr Long no doubt violated the Official Secrets Act, in its wartime version: but that is not an offence for which we ought to require people, 40 years after the event, to have their right hands cut off in the marketplace or – our nearest equivalent – to eat shit on television.

Kate Graham
Southampton

Vol. 2 No. 20 · 16 October 1980

SIR: Both Sir Dennis Proctor (Letters, 18 September) and Michael Mason (LRB, 20 March) are led by their enthusiasm for Anthony Blunt into grossly overstating their case. It is simply not true that all the ‘good guys’ were pro-Communist in the 1930s, and that the appalling character of Stalin’s dictatorship was only discovered later. And to gloss over the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact with the bland remark that it did not make Russia an enemy of ours is, to put it politely, disingenuous. Just who, between September 1939 and June 1941, was actually opposing the evils of Fascism, in arms? Not Stalin, not Russia, not communists anywhere, not Blunt, but millions of ordinary people who, it seems, are now regarded by Blunt’s apologists as having thereby shown themselves lacking in the more refined moral sensibilities. Finally, we are invited to admire the moral rectitude of his actions after the war, in aid of Burgess, Maclean, Philby and their Soviet masters, as showing how loyal he was to his friends. If that is all, why was it so clandestine? Could and should he not have trumpeted forth to the world his faith in them and their cause? I am not sure that loyalty to one’s friends is such a great virtue if one is so ashamed of them that it has to be kept secret.

The fact is that Blunt has shown himself to have been a silly, vain man with an utterly unjustified confidence in his own intellectual grasp and understanding of the world in which he lives, and the sort of inflated egotism that enabled him to act upon his beliefs despite everything.

David Kew
Horam, Sussex

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