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Letters

Vol. 2 No. 18 · 18 September 1980

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Anthony Blunt and the British Academy

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

Tarot Triumph

SIR: It is improbable that, as Michael Dummett appears to say in his books on Tarot (LRB, 4 September), the Tarot pack was used merely for games. Our familiar pack was symbolical to start with; nobody in the Renaissance would invent such a random thing without making it symbolical, or claiming to. And the picture cards of the Tarot are rather aggressively mysterious.

William Empson
London NW3

Right and Left

SIR: We accept that the South African government describes all opponents of apartheid as communists, and we are not surprised when Bolsheviks call others capitalists and fascists. But to find a Conservative in Great Britain, provost of an Oxford college, throwing all non-Conservatives into one bag as ‘Leftists’, and – by a thinly-veiled implication – as sympathisers with despotism, is rather unusual. The London Review of Books should not be misused in such a way. Lord Blake writes in his review of books by Robert Conquest and Paul Johnson (LRB, 21 August): ‘There is indeed an anti-collectivist current running in much of the Western world, and even where the old parties of the liberal Left are still in power they have had to make major concessions to it in order to survive.’ In whatever way we try to understand this assertion, it is definitely wrong. Neither the liberal parties nor the liberal wing of socialist parties have ever supported collectivism or regarded it as acceptable. They have no need to make any ‘concessions’ to any anti-collectivist fashion in politics. It may be that in America some collectivists have been calling themselves liberal leftists but it has never been so in Europe, and to call liberals leftists is only confusing the issues. In the case of my – that is, Latvian – Liberal party, we regard ourselves as ‘the Democratic Centre’, and any attempt to count us part of the Left would be taken as an insult.

Robert Blake writes further: ‘All over the world the Left is bankrupt of ideas, whether in its “liberal" or its social democratic or its communist guise.’ It may be so with socialists at the moment: they appear just now to be rather subdued and bewildered. But there is a profusion of ideas in the field of Communism – wrong and impractical. I think, but rich just the same. As for liberals, we have hardly anything else.

The true Left wants to use the state and its power for establishing equality. The liberals, on the other hand, would like it to develop an order, which would increase freedom in its different forms and aspects – for all, although not necessarily in equal measure for all. Liberals, perhaps, would not demand a ‘strong state’, as Conservatives seem to do, but we want an efficient state, able to increase order and able to defend it. Conservatives ate using the power of the state to secure unity – in time and space – for the community in question.

In one way or another, all political groups recognise some value in all of these ideals. Even Conservatives would at least admit the need for ‘equality before the Law’, as a basic condition of democracy. Communists, where they have gained power, soon sacrifice, not just the ideal of liberty, but even their demand for equality, by subordinating everything to the need for the survival of their regime, and to the need for a ‘unity of socialist states’: so in practice they are more ‘conservative’ than Conservatives.

I am tempted to add that if Conservatives have such a richness of great ideas as Lord Blake pretends, then they have been rather successful in hiding them from others, but I do not want to indulge in an exchange of insults. What I would like to do is to remind ‘rightists’ that, from the standpoint of liberalism, their attempts to strengthen the unity and power of the state sometimes appear to be very close to the collectivism of the extreme Left. Furthermore, it is certainly wrong to give the impression that Robert Conquest regards only Conservatives as able to create, or defend, a ‘civic culture’ and that all others are ‘leftists’ and tend towards despotism.

Vilis Zarins
London SE 20

Allen Tate

SIR: I would be grateful for any information about Allen Tate’s years in England. I am working now on a biography of Mr Tate for Simon and Schuster.

Ned O’Gorman
2 Lincoln Square, New York City 10023, USA

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