The Communist Cell at Cambridge University, Part 1Jonathan Bowden
Edited by Alex Kurtagić
Part 1 of 2
The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Bowden’s Vermin. The book was written sometime between 1990 and 1991. The text has only been lightly edited for punctuation, spelling, and capitalization.
The first communist cell in Cambridge University was founded in 1931, and this was due to the efforts of [Rajani] Palme Dutt. A group of Marxist sympathizers already existed, and they were grouped around the economist Maurice Dobb. Palme Dutt supported the establishment of the cell—although there is no doubt that the order came from the Comintern. Two undergraduates in particular laid the groundwork of the cell and these were David Haden-Guest, a philosopher, and John Cornford, who died in Spain.
Haden-Guest was politicized along with E. J. Hobsbawn and many others—in Berlin in 1931, as fascists and communists fought in the streets. The young man had left for Germany a pacifist and a socialist, and he returned a revolutionary communist.
The University authorities preferred to look the other way, particularly if dons—like Dobb, Bernal, and Pascal—kept in the background. Moreover, the sheer size of Trinity College, with its many clubs—catering for bridge, rugby, King, and Empire—was useful camouflage. Interestingly, the young Enoch Powell was at Trinity during this period, although he never met any of his contemporaries—Philby, Burgess, Klugman, and Maclean.
Powell had an unusual routine—he rose at dawn and worked, almost without a break, until nine-thirty, when he retired. As a consequence, he won most of the ‘glittering prizes’, but he never met anyone and considered that he had ‘wasted his time’. During this period Powell was a Nietzschean, a vitalist, a believer in the life-force, and a man who believed in the Church of England as a guarantee of stability.
I prefer a more thoroughgoing nihilism; a Right-wing nihilism, where nothing outside the individual exists and there is everything to play for. As a consequence, I reject any authority placed on the individual—but not out of pity, but because it gets in my way. In short, I reject power only due to the fact that I am not exercising it. Hence, my ideal—such as it is—is a form of individualistic fascism, where nothing exists except power. In such a scenario the Third Reich would never have existed, because everyone would have resembled Hitler. All of which means I am a Stirnirite; a Nietzschean, a Right-wing nihilist, depending on which you prefer. My world is a world in which friendship resembles an alliance between two superpowers. In this cosmos, power and self-transcendence are the purpose of existence. Not that existence has a purpose, of course; it is meaningless—its purpose is an absence of purpose. In a sense I could be called an individualist or an existentialist or a survivalist or a post-modern conservative or a Right-wing nihilist (although I am too Right-wing to be conservative and too nihilistic to be Right-wing).
According to Donald Maclean, only Marxism could save Britain from the ruling class, whether it was Tory, Liberal, or Labour. Moreover, Donald Maclean felt liberated by the death of his father—although his ‘ghost’ allegedly visited him in the gardens of Trinity Hall. Once he was freed from his father’s influence, he set out to study Marxist doctrine. Indeed, he felt liberated, and the Calvinist faith of his fathers had given way to an equally unyielding faith. According to Christopher Gillie, who arrived at Trinity Hall in 1932, Donald Maclean’s transformation was logical in the extreme. He began to study Marxist theory with Jack Klugman and after reading Lenin’s Materialism and Empirico-Criticism, he joined the Communist Party.
James Klugman had already been busy in his recruitment of Guy Burgess, whose exploits were notorious. Burgess’ joie de vivre was infectious, and he soon struck up a friendship with Donald. Moreover he could turn his charm on and off like electricity, and his malicious wit made him many friends and enemies. A large number of people noticed how close he was to Blunt—and Anthony Blunt was the son of a Surrey clergyman. He wrote for the art magazine, The Heretic, and taunted the ‘toughs’ by bowling a hoop down the Bath Road.
Already he and other friends, like Louis MacNiece and John Betjeman, were cultivating a deliberately artistic pose. Indeed, when he went up to Trinity in 1930, he associated with an undergraduate at Jesus who wore pearls and painted his room red and black. These were the sort of people who had Aubrey Beardsley prints on the walls and who read from the Yellow Book in rooms full of incense In 1932, after two years as a research student, Blunt was elected Fellow of Trinity College, where he proceeded to his doctorate on Italian painting (1400-1700). By this time, he had become a convinced Marxist, and he was always to be found in the company of Guy Burgess and other party members.
[ . . . ]
In his confession in 1979, Blunt declared that he became a Marxist in 1935-36. He said that he had a sabbatical year from Cambridge in 1933-34, and when he returned he found that most of his friends were Marxists. This was due, he said, to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and he found the communists to be a ‘very remarkable group’. There was Guy Burgess, James Klugman, Jack Cornford, and so on, and he thought that they were a remarkable group of enthusiasts. They were naive—though none the worse for that—and they were highly intelligent and sophisticated. He was particularly impressed with Guy Burgess, who was totally convinced and an open member of the Communist Party. During conversations with Burgess about history ‘and other matters’, he became convinced that the Marxist interpretation of history was correct. Apparently Guy Burgess told him that the best way to help ‘anti-fascism’ was to spy for the Russians.
During the interview, Blunt denied a sexual relationship between him and Burgess—something which is contradicted by Goronwy Rees. According to Rees, this is a ‘convenient falsehood’, because Burgess boasted openly of his ‘conquests’, and Blunt was certainly one of them. It is also surprising that Blunt was ‘converted’ by two younger men, Klugman and Burgess, when he was in a senior position. According to Rees, Burgess was already an open communist, and Blunt remained an éminence grise in the background. Another connection between Burgess and Blunt was their joint membership of the élite intellectual society known as The Apostles. Founded a century earlier, The Society—as it was called—indulged in the pursuit of Beauty and Truth. In Tennyson’s day the society was also embroiled in radical politics, although this was little more than an affectation.
Indeed, The Apostles had attempted to help the liberal General Torrijos overthrow the Bourbon King Ferdinand, and this little escapade ended in bloodshed and grief. Tennyson was well out of it; he was detained in Cambridge at the time and never made it to Spain. Later, he wished to forget the whole episode, which is glossed over in a few lines in the official biography.
The Apostolic radicals in Cambridge in the 1930s looked to radical changes of a similar kind. The object of the communist members was to disrupt The Society from within until the extremist minority gained control. During this period, Burgess introduced Donald Maclean to Kim Philby, who was still a socialist and a member of the Labour Club. Maclean knew only too well that conversion to communism caused family difficulties, and Klugman had fallen out with his father over his communist faith. His father was a life-long Liberal, who believed in Free Trade, while his mother was apolitical. During a family argument, Klugman admitted that he had been a Party member for some time, and this doomed his attempt to become a Cambridge Fellow—although he did not want it any other way: it was a ‘marvellous moment to be alive’. Klugman believed that the Revolution was at hand, and he declared that he would have ‘laughed himself sick’ if anyone doubted it. Maclean shared this optimism and he saw communism rampant in Britain, although he continued to enjoy Cambridge life, particularly sport. He was popular with both ‘hearties’ and ‘aesthetes’, according to Christopher Gillie, and he rowed, swore, kicked balls, and seduced women. His supervisor hoped that he would do more work, but the Dean of Trinity Hall expected him to grow out of his Left-wing views.
There was a whiff of rebellion in the air at Cambridge, as undergraduates mouthed slogans to discomfort their dons. Christopher Gillie was certainly antagonized by many Fellows, who said there was a good deal of uncertainty among young dons, and this was recognized by Herbert Butterworth, the Master of Peterhouse.
Apart from Blunt and Burgess, there were other apostles of the Left, including Julian Bell, the son of Clive and Vanessa Bell, as well as Hugh Sykes Davis and Richard Llewellyn-Davies. The Marxist nucleus of The Apostles continued to meet, and their object was to convert Britain to Marxist-Leninism. Cambridge, with its proud and independent traditions, was well chosen by the Comintern, but by 1933 it no longer stood alone. Communist cells had already been established in Oxford as well as Cambridge and at University College, London, and the London School of Economics. During the Easter vacation of 1932, an informal gathering took place in Klugman’s home and representatives came from Communist Party headquarters. Guy Burgess had already conducted reconnaissance at Oxford, and his conversational gifts made him an asset at various High Tables, particularly Maurice Bowra’s at Wadham’s (Maurce Bowra was a notorious homosexual and Evelyn Waugh once shouted at his rooms, ‘The Master of Balliol sleeps with men!’)
Although [sic] Burgess certainly mixed his own appetite for high-living and good company with any Party business that he may have conducted. Dr. Goronwy Rees, a Fellow at All Souls, met Burgess at a dinner party given by Bowra and was attracted to his ‘intellectual vividness’. Rees was a Scholarship boy from a lower middle-class home in Wales and he refrained from condemning Burgess’ homosexuality, primarily due to its prevalence in the closed world of Oxford.
Oxford is often described as the more ‘dilettante’ of the two universities, and it is sometimes described as ‘a home of lost causes’. Yet, the founding of the October Club of communist sympathizers took place in February 1933, and the King & Country debate at the Oxford Union spurred them on. This motion declared that ‘this House’ would ‘in no circumstances fight for King and Country’, and it scandalized a large section of the Establishment. However, it was harder to found a communist cell at Oxford, because the democratic socialists were well entrenched. Moreover, by 1936 the Left-wing parties were collaborating in accordance with the Popular Front, and Burgess and his contemporaries had gone out into the world.
The value to Communism of gifted upper-class academics like Blunt, Bernal, Dobb, and Parcal is difficult to quantify. In the liberal atmosphere of Cambridge they were accepted as members of a hieratic society, and their political opinions did not detract from their standing. Within these limits they conspired to influence a generation of undergraduates, and even talent-spotted for the Russian Intelligence Service. Men such as Clemens Palme Dutt and Douglas Springhall were the link between Cambridge University and the Communist Party leadership. No two religious conversions, of course, were the same, and there were some among the first wave of communist converts who doubted Guy Burgess’ sincerity. Indeed, during his first two years at Cambridge, he indulged in pleasure-seeking to the exclusion of all else, and he regarded the Communist Party as ‘un-English’. Burgess was a former naval cadet who had twice been accepted at Eton, and Sir Robert Birley, who taught history at Eton, thought most highly of him. According to Birley, Burgess had a habit of plunging ‘to the root of things’, and no character defects had ever come to light. Burgess was an Oppidan or a non-colleger at Eton, and he stayed in a house not far from the main gates. He was certainly a confirmed homosexual by this time—although he was never caught in acts of mutual masturbation while at school.
Burgess was regarded as ‘quite a card’ by most of his associates, and he had a gift for drawing caricatures of the masters. Most of his friends regarded him as ‘too clever by half’, although Lord Hartwell, the proprietor of The Daily Telegraph, retained a protective regard for him. Among his other friends were Lord Hood, whose father had reached the rank of Rear-Admiral in the Royal Navy. Guy’s father had also served in the Fleet, but ill health led to premature retirement and death.
Burgess’ family had a long and distinguished tradition of service to the Crown, and his grandfather had put down Guy’s name for the naval college at Dartmouth. However, his father’s career in the Royal Navy had not prospered, and his superiors found him to be ‘temperate’ and ‘lacking in zeal’. When he put to sea he was involved in a collision between HMS Panther and HMS Thresher, and he was admonished by the court of enquiry. Indeed, his limited powers of seamanship meant that he was held ‘unfit for service in destroyers’. Undeterred by this, Lieutenant Malcolm Burgess married Evelyn Mary Gillman in 1907, and she bore him two sons, Nigel and Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess. At his own request, Commander Burgess was placed on the retirement list in 1921, and the family home at West Meon Lodge, in Hampshire, was not a happy one. The retired naval Commander suffered from a heart condition, and he played the tyrant to his two sons, who had been spoiled by their mother. Since Guy would have to wait for entry to Dartmouth College, his father allowed him to spend a preparatory year at Eton. His name appears on each issue of the Eton College Chronicle until it disappears and resurfaces in 1927. During this intervening period of thirty-three months, Guy showed great academic promise and scooped most of the school prizes—although his father was to die a sudden and horrifying death during this period, which had a profound effect on the boy. According to his official record of service, Guy Burgess’ father died at West Meon Lodge, West Meon, on the 15th of September 1924. He was said to have died of atheroma of the aorta and valvular disease of the aortic valve, but his son, Guy Burgess, knew different. On the night in question, he was roused by his mother’s voice and he rushed to her aid, whereupon he found his mother pinioned beneath the inert body of his father, who had expired during the act of making love. The boy had to tear the half-warm corpse of his father off his mother, and he managed it with difficulty. As can be imagined, the size of his father, the cries of his mother, the physical exertion, and the smell of semen were traumatic. Indeed, he could never speak about the incident for many years, and it filled him with a mixture of disgust and grief. Whether his aversion to sexual relations with women began here is a moot point. He certainly found their bodies to be ‘repulsive’—although homosexuality is an orientation, not an affection. Homosexual acts may result from certain circumstances, but homosexuality is a biological fact, not a psychological aberration. In any event, Guy Burgess was always so good at inventing excuses that the friend in whom he confided does not know whether to believe him or not.
On his return to Eton, ‘Burgess major’, as he was known, was placed in the upper division of the fifth form, third remove. His Housemaster, Francis Wellesley Dobbs, could not bring himself to like the precocious Burgess, who tried to gain his esteem. Robert Birley, the historian, sensed the antipathy between Dobbs and Burgess, and he praised the boy’s devotion to a Housemaster who knew nothing about human nature. When Guy Burgess defected, Dobbs was completely flabbergasted by the news and he refused to accept it, and retained that refusal till the last. Burgess turned out to be a good sportsman and a fitfully good academic, who worked best when his pride was challenged. He was to emerge from his chrysalis in the final year, and he was ranked sixth among the Oppidans. He hoped to gain access to Pop, the exclusive Eton society, which would have enabled him to wear braid on his jacket and have boys ‘fag’ for him. (This was a submissive relationship, which Wyndham Lewis satirized in the relationship between Pullman and Satters in the Human Age trilogy.) However, it soon became obvious to Burgess’ ‘caucus’, led by Michael Berry, that the rest of the Pop were not predisposed to fall in: they ‘preferred not to have him’.
During this period Burgess had a homosexual fling with David Hedley, and this may have prejudiced the ‘swells’ against him over the Pop election. No trace of scandal clung to the pair while they were at school—although their relationship became notorious later on. (David Hadley was a life-long homosexual, who converted to communism before his early death.)
Eton has always prided itself on being politically broad-minded, and this was due to the High Tory ethos, and the presence of the Old and New Nobility. Communism was discussed, but it was considered to be an alien and ‘un-British’ creed—although this perversely worked in its favor according to Guy Burgess.
Burgess finally left Eton in 1929, after having won the Rosebury and Gladstone History Prizes and a History Scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. His old history master, Robert Birley, kept in close contact and went to visit his rooms in New Court during the summer term of 1931. While waiting for Burgess to arrive, he examined his bookshelves and was astonished to see an ‘array of explicit and extremely unpleasant pornographic literature’. Birley declared himself to be ‘shocked and depressed’, and he realized that something must be ‘terribly wrong’. Nevertheless, when Burgess entered and apologized for being late they talked ‘happily enough over the tea cups’.
Twenty years later Burgess sought out his old History master before his flight to Moscow, and they had a creaking and uneasy meeting.
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