V.G. Kiernan on treason

Some drooping memories of Cambridge before the war have been revived of late by various writings. One is an autobiography, Reading from Left to Right, by a Canadian, Professor H.S. Ferns.[1] Few socialists of the Marxist persuasion – practically the only sort of people I got to know at college – seem to write memoirs; most of them probably feel that there are always more useful things to be done. Henry Ferns deviated from socialism long ago, but became a distinguished historian. His book, both entertaining and informative, looks back over a lifetime of abrupt, unforeseeable changes of outlook. Then there have been three books concerned with another Canadian of our time, Herbert Norman, a Cambridge Communist who turned into a respected member of his country’s diplomatic service, was hunted by the Cold War pack, and ended, a suicide, at Cairo. He has become something of a symbol of Canadian independence from America, but scholars from both countries took part in a conference held a few years ago to assess his life and work: I was invited to speak about his time at Cambridge. The conference papers, edited by Roger Bowen, have been published, and Dr Bowen has also written an appreciative biography. Japanese studies being his subject, he is well qualified to weigh up the writings on modern Japan of Herbert Norman, a missionary’s son who grew up there. Very different is a viciously McCarthyite attack on him by an American, J. Barros (who has had the bad taste to thank me for some small assistance I gave him before I discovered what he was up to).[2] This has stirred up some controversy, and Barros was very effectively dealt with in a long review in the Canadian Forum (November 1986) by Reg Whitaker of York University. Henry Ferns, too, had a word to say about him in the same issue of the paper.

And there has lately been another outburst of barking and braying about ‘Cambridge traitors’. It has come to be a perennial resort of reaction, when it is left without any fresher topic for claptrap, to indulge in these spasms of virtuous indignation about the wickedness of a small number of idealists of years ago. William Empson was stirred to an opposite kind of ire by one of many hack works, The Traitors by Alan Moorehead, who ‘specifically denounced them for having had the impudence to obey their own consciences’, instead of understanding that a citizen’s duty is ‘to concur with any herd in which he happens to find himself. The old Protestant in me stirred.’

I went to Cambridge, to read history, in 1931, and stayed seven years. My undergraduate time was passed in premises – staircase I, no 2 – on the ground floor of the Whewell’s Court annexe of Trinity College. Close by were two incongruous neighbours: A.E. Housman, anchored by misanthropy to this out-of-the-way spot, and James Klugmann, the chief Communist student organiser, and later a life-long Party worker. I.2 was not an ideal residence. When a gust of wind blew, the small fire, over which toast could be made with the help of a long fork and much patience, threw out billowing clouds of smoke, enough sometimes to drive me out into the court gasping for breath. During vacations mice nibbled at the backs of my books. Most of the thoughts of years in that cramped room have vanished, as they no doubt deserved to. Traces of sundry things have survived a half-century, the best of them books. Early in my second year I was reading for the first time Boswell’s Hebrides, a cherished companion ever since; it was a tea-time luxury, accompanied by one daily cigarette, a limit I was not wise enough to keep to for long, and I can still see the electric blue of the October sky as dusk gathered. Later on I moved to a nobler abode, in Great Court, on the top floor of a staircase beside the main gate. Here I was surrounded by the ‘mighty dead’, and could listen on summer nights to the fountain’s murmur, and on spring days walk out, when work stuck fast, and look at the daffodils by the riverside.

In those days the deportment of senior Cambridge was oppressively genteel and ritualistic. Sciences flourished, as some had always done; history was in a stagnant condition, and at Trinity in particular was heavily overlaid by conservatism and clericalism. There was in general a stifling atmosphere of closed windows, drawn blinds, expiring candles, sleepwalking; outside, a mounting tumult of history in the making, instead of history laid to rest in neat graveyard rows of dusty tomes. With amenities such as the Backs, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and a second-hand bicycle on which to explore the placid countryside, I was reasonably content, attended lectures as by law obliged, and took their stale fare for granted, like the weather. I became a socialist, then a Communist, before graduating to Marxism, the historical materialism that has been my Ariadne’s thread ever since. Slow conversion may last longer than sudden enlightenment; and convictions, as Nietzsche said, are the backbone of life.

We had no time then to assimilate Marxist theory more than very roughly; it was only beginning to take root in England, though it had one remarkable expounder at Cambridge in Maurice Dobb, to whom a section is devoted in Professor H.J. Kaye’s recent study of British Marxist historians.[3] We felt, all the same, that it could lift us to a plane far above the Cambridge academic level. We were quite right, as the rapid advance of Marxist ideas and influence since then has demonstrated. Our main concerns, however, were practical ones, popularising socialism and the USSR, fraternising with hunger-marchers, denouncing fascism and the National Government, warning of the approach of war. We belonged to the era of the Third International, genuinely international at least in spirit, when the Cause stood high above any national or parochial claims. Some of us have lived to see multinational capitalism, instead of international socialism, in control of most of the world: but at the time we had not the shadow of a doubt that capitalism was nearing its end. It was both too abominable, and too inept and suicidally divided, to last much longer. Socialism would take its place, and mankind be transformed not much less quickly.

At such a time, punctilios of ‘loyalty’ to things of the dying past seemed as archaic as the minutiae of drawing-room manners. And it was about the defenders of the old order that a strong smell of treason hung. We saw pillars of British society trooping to Nuremberg to hobnob with Nazi gangsters; we saw the ‘National’ government sabotaging the Spanish Republic’s struggle, from class prejudice, and to benefit investors like Rio Tinto, blind to the obvious prospect of the Mediterranean being turned into a fascist lake and the lifelines of empire cut. From Spain the vibrations of civil war spread over Europe. The frenzied enthusiasm of the French Right for Franco was the overture to its eager surrender to Hitler in 1940. Amid that tumult the sense of an absolute divide between ‘whatsoever things are good’ and everything Tory was easy to acquire, and with some of us has remained unshakable. Our watchword was Voltaire’s: Ecrasez l’infâme.

Feelings like these were to carry a small number of our generation, from Cambridge and elsewhere, into acts of ‘treason’, in the lawyer’s meaning, not the only or best one. Those acts, amounting in sum to very little, have been sedulously embroidered and exaggerated, and the public has been continually reminded of them. For good measure, politics and sex have been mixed up, as if radicalism went hand in hand with homosexuality. In fact, an innocent could live in left-wing Cambridge without ever suspecting that such a thing existed, outside of Classical literature. The aim of all this pseudo-patriotic hubbub is to distract attention from the distempers of our ancien régime, keep people from thinking about the nuclear war they may well be drifting towards, and make them fancy that without zealous leaders to fend off a legion of spies and subversives, all would be lost. It also helps to nourish the illusion of Britain as a great power, with priceless secrets to be stolen. Writing books about secret-stealers is an easier way than most of earning a living; it benefits from the vogue of spy films and novelettes, symptom of an uneasy society in need of the reassurance of happy endings. ‘Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction,’ as Mrs Thatcher said when telling the House one of her whoppers. It can certainly be made to look stranger and more fearsome.

I have no doubt that the extent of Herbert Norman’s departure from rectitude was to start a small Indian Marxist group at Cambridge, which I inherited from him when he left. Some of its members were closely watched while at Cambridge, and arrested as soon as they went home. Norman had grown up in the Japanese countryside, still half-feudal, and must have been better able than the rest of us to imagine what life was like for Indian peasants under the British rulers who were obstinately denying independence to the country – Churchill most obstinately of all.

Guy Burgess was one of those – James Klugmann and John Cornford were the chief – who helped to induct me into the Party. We belonged to the same college, and hence to the same ‘cell’. I remember Burgess as a rather plump, fresh-faced youth, of guileless, almost cherubic expression. I heard him spoken of as the most popular man in the college, but he must have suffered from tensions; he smoked cigarettes all day, and had somehow imbibed a notion that the body expels nicotine very easily. He told me once a story that had evidently made a deep impression on him – of a Hungarian refugee who had been given shelter at his home, a formerly ardent political worker reduced to a wreck by beatings on the soles of the feet. I came on Burgess one day in his room sitting at a small table, a glass of spirits in front of him, glumly trying to put together a talk for a cell meeting that evening; he confessed that when he had to give any sort of formal talk he felt foolish. I never saw him after our exit from Cambridge. He did what he felt it right for him to do; I honour his memory.

Individuals who saw something of the machinations of government from the inside must have seen much to disgust them. If details of whatever secrets they gave away are still being hushed up, it must be because they were secrets discreditable to their superiors. We are always hearing nowadays of ‘sensitive papers’. Paper is not sensitive, but those who write on it often have good cause to be, and prefer to blush unread. Anthony Blunt was quoted in his Times obituary (28 March 1983) as saying that he acted during the war ‘from a conviction that we were not doing enough to help a hard pressed ally’. It is a political if not mathematical certainty that the same men who were adamant against collective security before 1939 were hard at work after 1941 to ensure that the conflict would end with Russia bled nearly to death, as exhausted as Germany. They were treacherously imperilling the whole Allied war effort and the chances of victory. When another Cambridge man, Leo Long, made his public recantation in November 1981, it appeared that what he had taken part in doing was to give Moscow more British information about German troop movements than the British Government chose to give it. Why did he feel obliged to sound so shamefaced? As he said, the information could do no harm to Britain.

If it is the case, as alleged early in 1982, that Maclean was trying at the end to influence Britain away from support of the American intervention in Korea, he was doing something very praiseworthy. It seems that Norman, by that time head of the Canadian mission at Tokyo, fell foul of General MacArthur, whom he had hitherto got on quite well with, by trying to dissuade him from intervention. At home, Sir John Pratt, dismissed from the Foreign Office for opposing the Korean War, stumped the country, in spite of his age, and denounced it in fiery terms. I was his chairman at a big meeting in Edinburgh when he referred to his campaign as one of invective against the Government: ‘invective’, he said very truly, belonged to an old, honourable tradition that ought to be revived. It is indeed a mark of political decadence that there has been so little of it against Mrs Thatcher’s regime: none since the war has more deserved it.

Treason has never been easy to define precisely, a fact illustrated by the long series of Tudor laws about it. It is an accusation easy to bandy about, but one that can be levelled in different directions. Antony in Shakespeare’s play succeeds by his demagogy in turning popular feeling against the conspirators, and sets the crowd shouting: ‘They were traitors!’ They had plotted against a usurping dictator; Caesar had plotted against the Republic. In recent years Rome has been canonising batches of Catholics whom Queen Elizabeth’s judges sentenced as traitors. Two centuries ago British conservatives were abusing Yankee rebels in the same strain. During the French Revolutionary wars Tory Britain had open arms for all French reactionaries who were plotting against their own country, and welcomed them as allies against it. All the modern empires regarded resistance as treasonable, and employed multitudes of native collaborators, who in the eyes of nationalists were betraying their own people, like black policemen in South Africa today. A Russian who abandons his native land and settles in a hostile country is always credited with the most laudable motives, like the archetypal author of I chose freedom.

An honest Soviet dissident like Sakharov is, unquestionably, to be admired. So are the few Englishmen in British India who gave aid to nationalists or Communists. One of them, Michael Carritt, has written a light-hearted account of his brief career in the Indian Civil Service.[4] At vastly greater risk, a few Frenchmen in Algeria gave aid secretly to the rebels. Admirable too, though unlikely to be admired by Tories or Reaganites, is the young Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, jailed for 15 years on charges including the giving of information to foreign journalists about the attack on Vietnam.

Toryism’s record shows an elastic conception of loyalty, inspired by fidelity to the interests of class or party much more than of nation. Winston Churchill’s father Randolph, when the Tory Party was blocking the way to Home Rule for Ireland, coined the slogan ‘Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right’ – a call for insurrection. In 1914 it was repeated by Carson, when a Liberal government was again about to concede Home Rule, or what is nowadays called devolution, and numbers of officers refused, with whole-hearted Tory approval, to take part in any coercion of Ulster. What would they have thought if their men had refused to take part in suppression of a colonial revolt in Africa or Asia? The object of the Army mutiny, as it was very properly called, was to preserve Tory ascendancy in Ireland; the effect was to ensure the loss of most of Ireland to the United Kingdom, and the partition with its legacy of endless trouble. At the time, the Ulster affair may have been one of the factors that induced Germany to gamble on war, and induced the Liberal Government to join in the gamble, as an escape from its embarrassments.

With this precedent in mind, it is easy to understand why it went without saying that British officers would decline to act against white rebels in Rhodesia. Ian Smith and his followers were levying war against the Crown; they received unstinted sympathy from the overwhelming majority of Tories. A speaker at a Tory Conference who ventured to criticise them was howled down. Wilson as prime minister once ventured to remind Parliament that there were penalties for treason, or connivance at it: no Tory took any notice, and no action was taken. Since they own England, Tories naturally feel entitled to do as they like. Their encouragement of Smith was accompanied by wholesale evasion of the embargo imposed on Rhodesian trade: this, too, went unpunished. Tories have continued to cherish fraternal feelings towards the white savages of South Africa, their partners in upholding the natural right of capitalism to exploit its victims: quite indifferent to the moral damage to Britain, but also to the material losses to be expected from an alienation of black Africa and most of the Commonwealth.

It was the end, as Gaitskell said, of a thousand years of history when Britain was hustled by the Tories into the Common Market, and the abandonment of part of its independence. No referendum was held, because everyone knew that the vote would go against it. When Reagan carried out his bombardment of Libya, to please his right-wing voters and warn all other objectors to the American hegemony, Mrs Thatcher deemed it ‘unthinkable’ that Britain should decline to join in. Would it have been equally unthinkable if Reagan had been bombarding the USSR? Men were tried and hanged at Nuremberg for the kind of crime that this precious pair were committing. It seems clear, moreover, that Britain has taken part in under-cover aid to right-wing insurgents in Nicaragua, in breach of American as well as international law.

Most friendships, said Dr Johnson, are either partnerships in folly or confederacies in vice: the Anglo-American connection is both. Toryism has been selling British independence for a mess of pottage, or of nuclear explosives, and at a time when America’s many better qualities are in eclipse, when noisy reaction, political inanity, aggressive jingoism, hold sway, and arms-dealers and the Pentagon, Eisenhower’s ‘military-industrial complex’, are selling mankind’s future for thirty trillion pieces of silver. Mrs Thatcher has been happy to play to the American gallery with her long string of anti-Soviet tirades, like the one so loudly applauded at Washington four years ago. How anyone, incidentally, can listen with pleasure to that detestable voice is one of our modern mysteries. Politicians are often given away by their voices, and that proportion of her career which has not been carefully concealed from the public has been one long hiss or scream.

When Franco began his rebellion and brought Moorish mercenaries and foreign troops and bombers into Spain to make it safe for landlords, capitalists and priests, almost all Tories cheered him to the echo. From their attitude then it may be imagined what it would be in a parallel situation at home. Human affairs, res humanae, are uncertain and obscure, as we learned from our Latin primers: but it is as certain as anything human can be that informal exchanges of views are always under way across the Atlantic, on a variety of confidential levels, to ensure that if ever Britain’s ‘nationalists’ decide that the time has come for action they will not find themselves alone. There will be an open door not only for American forces, but for Germans, Chileans and other champions of free enterprise. The sell-out to America has masqueraded as a quest for the Holy Grail of a ‘special relationship’: here is its reality.

By way of a small rehearsal, during the 1983 Election American money was made use of for ‘dirty tricks’ purposes against opponents. So was information, true or false, from MI5. The secret-service organisations, or rather secret societies of the Right, which the public is induced to pay for without asking what they are doing, form a special submarine cable between Toryism and its American congeners. Vastly more serious than the allegation that a handful of their members have been agents of Moscow is the fact that, collectively, they are agents of Washington. It has been belatedly coming to light that they were involved in a plot to ‘destabilise’ a Labour government – a plot impossible for them to have conceived without the approval of high Tory personages and in collusion with American colleagues. If this was not treason, what ever can be? Destabilising foreign governments has been a tactic through the centuries: it has been left to the USA to make it a cornerstone of foreign policy. Labour’s leaders were too timid to make any real protest, though the question was one of British independence as well as of their party’s fortunes. The people concerned are now bent on preventing any enquiry, and have spent a good deal of the taxpayer’s money to that end.

While deafening us with shouts of liberty, our rulers are swathing us in all manner of invigilation, two-footed or electronic. Tory governments in the past, too, were addicted to use of police spies and agents provocateurs against progressives. Police spying was ubiquitous in all Western colonies or semi-colonies, and habits formed there have persisted. Kell, the founder of MI5, was in China at the outset of his career, and then for some time in Tsarist Russia. Like Bulldog Drummond’s Black Gang, it always saw its business as hunting subversives of all sorts, including trade-unionists.

A clique of politicians and generals manoeuvred ‘democratic’ Britain into the alliances that landed it in the First World War, and a similar process is going on underground today. The BBC correspondent Alistair Cooke once remarked that in Washington ceremonial gatherings are always being held in honour of foreign visitors to whom nobody has anything to say, while decisions are taken by small groups, often through telephone calls. It is hard to see how anyone could be a ‘traitor’ to the Washington plotters and their European jackals, any more than to Nazism. If we want to discover who is really undermining British welfare and safety, we need look no further than Downing Street.

The Tories came into office determined to sell off a vast stock of national wealth, at cheap rates, to their party and its financial backers, and to any voters who could be bribed: in other words, to plunder the nation they profess so much devotion to. By now an immense sum has been deftly transferred from the public domain to the pockets of Tories and, in good measure, their friends abroad. There was a foretaste of what was to come when Amersham International, the radioactive isotopes business, was sold in February 1982 at a price £23 million below its market value. The Government was accused of making a fool of itself, but it was the taxpayer it was making a fool of, and what was politely termed mere ignorance and stupidity, venial faults in any Tory Administration, ought to have been branded as a swindle. This year two Tory MPs, caught cheating when other public property was on sale, had to agree not to stand for re-election: they were given a pat on the back by their party chairman for making ‘honourable’ amends for an ‘error of judgment’.

This sort of national asset-stripping is not new, except in scale. Indeed the history of capitalist property accumulation everywhere has consisted largely of ‘privatising’ public resources, giving away North American forests to railway corporations, for example. Plundering the state has been a besetting temptation to men in power. No sooner was the breath out of Henry VIII’s carcass than the noblemen who surrounded his young son were laying hands on generous acreages out of the Crown lands, on which the government depended for a good part of its revenue. During the 18th and early 19th centuries Parliament was busy voting the village common lands off the map, mostly to be added to the estates of the landowners who were doing the voting, and the rest of their species. In old Scotland, where royal minorities were always happening, a king had the right on coming of age to take back lands granted away from the Crown during his nonage. A similar right ought to be vested now in the British public, to be exercised when – if ever – it comes of age.

Human nature being nearly as frail as Tories always tell us, when dismissing socialism as a pipe-dream, it ought to have been insisted on that ministers, MPs, and all others responsible for the privatising – or privateering – operations, should submit to a self-denying ordinance, like Parliament in the Civil War. There ought to have been the fullest guarantees that none of them or their families or hangers-on would benefit personally. No such assurances have been forthcoming. There has always been room in the City for conjuring-tricks of a more or less unsavoury kind, but hitherto a decent reticence has been observed. Now, dizzy with success over the vast hoard of pearls scattered before the swine, it is grunting with indiscreet loudness. We are coming closer to the monstrous regiment of stockbrokers that Marx saw in Bonapartist France in 1853: ‘the whole state machinery transformed into one immense swindling and stock-jobbing concern’. And this goes with a further disastrous decline in industrial activity, and its relegation to the background by the sway of speculative finance, the most parasitic, semi-aristocratical, cosmopolitan type of capitalism. From stealing village commons our profiteers went on to rob villagers in Asia and Africa; now they have come back to plundering us again.

In 1982 when there were American outcries about information leakage for fifteen years from Cheltenham to the Russians, the Guardian made the comment that this flood appeared to have done no perceptible harm. Life seems to jog along just the same whether the Official Secrets mystification is being eavesdropped or not. Much the same can be said of the whole spy scare, kept going for reasons mostly remote from the ostensible one. Searching for spies and traitors to explain why things are as they are is always a search for excuses. ‘We are betrayed by what is false within’: not Mrs Thatcher’s ‘enemy within’ – miners, for instance, who object to being thrown out of work and have to be ridden down by police storm-troopers with horse and hound – but the falsity engrained in the entire fabric of capitalist society. The real anti-patriots are those who deepen and worsen it, for their own benefit. They are far more of a danger to Britain than any givers-away or sellers of ‘sensitive papers’, chiefly concealing no more than official trumpery and balderdash.

Morally, the ‘treason’ of the Thirties cannot for a moment be compared with the morass of crooked dealing, profit-gorging, deception, looting of national resources and indifference to national welfare, that make up the world of Thatcherism. The latest bright Tory idea is to let agriculture follow industry into decay, and turn loose a barbarous horde of ‘developers’ over what is left of the countryside. One way or another, the country is being drained of vitality, while constantly assured that all is well, because National Security (or Official Secrecy – to Mrs Thatcher the two terms are synonymous) is being vigilantly preserved, and no soldiers with snow on their boots are marching along Whitehall. So far as our unemployed and old people, at any rate, are concerned, they must be feeling like the famished labourer in the Anti-Corn Law cartoon: ‘I be protected, and I be starving.’

‘If treason prospers, none dare call it treason,’ and so far Thatcherism has prospered and been allowed to practise its philosophy. Mrs Thatcher takes it upon herself to lecture the nation on its moral shortcomings, and blame its permissiveness for sapping the foundations of law and order. She lectures the Russians on the subject of human rights. On the Anglo-American view, human rights are essential for socialist countries, but can be dispensed with in Latin America, South Korea and elsewhere because there the people enjoy the supreme felicity of free enterprise, alias capitalism, which makes up for every drawback. Mrs Thatcher has had only the kindest words for the Indonesian regime, built on the bones of the hundreds of thousands massacred in 1965, and conspicuous for its conquest of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, where at least a third of the population is reported to have been killed or driven into exile, with the help of Western arms sales and diplomatic support. Future historians, if any survive to look back on all this, will find our ‘civilisation’ the hardest of all to comprehend from the language of its statesmen, more indecipherable than any Egyptian hieroglyphics.

If every nation gets the government it deserves, hard though it may be to think of any nation deserving a government like Britain’s in recent years, these years speak ill for the British people, or a large section of it. For some years after the war, Tories could claim that they were not as bad as they used to be: with some truth, because they were not allowed to be. Since then, they have been allowed to behave worse than ever, and have flourished accordingly.

Garaudy, the French Marxist and former Communist, wrote of his and my generation, with our eyes on Hitler, Franco, McCarthy: ‘We were fighting absolute evil: how, then, could we not feel that our cause was the cause of absolute good?’ Painful experience showed that the second of these beliefs was in part illusion. But our ideals and aims were valid, and mean as much now as they did then. If we have not been invariably right, our opponents have been almost infallibly wrong, in anything where public morality or human progress is concerned. After a decade or two of uneasy recovery following the war, economy and society are sinking into another quagmire. None of our fundamental problems have been solved, and on present lines never will be. In Rome, in times of emergency, a ‘final decree’ of the Senate gave plenary power to the consuls to save the state. In Britain now, a government once elected, even by a minority of the electorate, can feel free to claim plenary power to do whatever it likes, and without telling anyone what it is really doing. It is to Britain’s credit that the majority of voters have always been against Thatcherism: but we have been learning that a minority government can do the country immense harm, moral and material, much of it beyond repair. The system of representation that allows this is indefensible, the case for a change has become unanswerable. The alternative is going to be a dictatorship of the rich.

[1] University of Toronto Press, 1983.

[2] E.H. Norman: His Life and Scholarship, edited by R.W. Bowen. University of Toronto Press, 1984. Innocence is not enough: The Life and Death of Herbert Norman by R.W. Bowen. Douglas and McIntyre, 1986. No Sense of Evil by J. Barros. Denau, 1986.

[3] The British Marxist Historians, Oxford, 1984.

[4] Mole in the Crown, privately published, 1985.