The Communist Cell at Cambridge University, Part 2Jonathan Bowden
Edited by Alex Kurtagić
Part 2 of 2
The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Bowden’s Vermin. The book was written sometime between 1990 and 1991. The original text, an example of Bowden’s incursion into higher journalism, was in sore need of editing, so an attempt has been made to fix punctuation, spelling, and capitalization as well as to excise unnecessary repetition, though the structural issues remain. Bowden never got around to doing the long-desired re-writes, having only hand-edited parts of some of his early texts before giving up.
The Cambridge communists took their activities very seriously, but in the beginning they were only loosely controlled. The idea to set up the ‘Cambridge ring’ had come from the NKVD and the Comintern; the Party leaders in King Street were only peripherally involved. They were mildly disconnected at the attention which Guy Burgess gave to a pleasant, self-effacing member of the University Labour Club called Harold Philby. What he did in his own time was no concern of the Party’s, although his conduct and demeanor would have been denounced at the average branch meeting. (One has to remember that the Italian Communist Party expelled Piers Paul Pasolini in the 1950s because his homosexuality was bringing the Party into disrepute.) Moreover, Burgess belonged to a vulgar and ostentatious group known as the Pitt Club, who were Right-wing decadents. He was also a member of the secretive and elitist Apostles—a Left-wing group of flâneurs and poseurs. Communist undergraduates, however, were treated with kid gloves, and their mentors among the Fellows were in direct contact with senior members of the executive.
Halfway through his studies Kim Philby decided to switch from history to economics, and this is how he met Guy Burgess. Philby, like his father before him, was a graduate of Westminster School. He went up to Trinity College on a scholarship in 1929. John Grigg—another King’s scholar—who knew him at the time, declared that Philby was ‘interested in politics’, but by no means extreme. They often set off into the countryside together in long hikes and had heated arguments about Philby’s ‘vaguely Socialist ideas’. John Grigg noticed that Philby had little taste for drink—and that he did not have much spending money either. He worked hard during a period of deepening economic depression and during which many Cambridge undergraduates were worried about earning a decent living. Kim was relatively solitary character who kept himself to himself. He also could not afford to ‘keep up’ with the wealthy young men who ‘hunted’ and indulged themselves. Nor was he particularly gifted academically—the material of a future don—and he belonged to the majority of students who ‘slog away’ at their set texts. Grigg and Tom Milne, another school friend who went to Oxford, often visited Philby’s home; the family lived in Acol Road, Maida Vale. The family house was large and empty, without visible pretension or airs and graces. Kim’s mother was a kind, unworldly woman with striking red hair. According to Grigg, Philby idolized his absent father, who was an adventurer and an adviser to Ibn Saud, the King of Saudi Arabia.
In a remarkable exercise in perspicacity, Burgess realized that the son of such a vigorous, self-willed man was ripe for the picking. A man who stands in considerable awe of his father is bound to feel some resentment, no matter how unconscious. Moreover, in a British Empire that was slowly disintegrating, the employment prospects of Philby Jr. were bound to be restricted. There would be fewer openings for proconsuls of Harry St. John Philby’s ability, and in the grey world that was dawning men like Philby Sr. would not find a place. In addition, the British diplomatic service—as if to cope with the decline of the Empire—was becoming more stiff, protocol-ridden, and rigid in its career structure. (It does not take a Corelli Barnett to see that the hemorrhaging of Empire was killing off the factors that had led to the Empire’s expansion.) Such a state of affairs might have suited Donald Maclean. Indeed, Donald’s widowed mother was pressing him to take the Foreign Office examination. Donald Maclean, however, did not care for this suggestion; he seems to have wanted to drive a tractor as a volunteer in the Soviet Union. The Maclean family, of course, treated this as a joke that would evaporate when Donald had to face the business of earning a living.
Philby’s father hand only contempt for the British Civil Service, and Kim shared his father’s opinion. Moreover, Guy Burgess impressed Philby with his analysis of Britain’s decline, which brought the two closer together. Nevertheless, Philby did not forsake the Labour Club to please Burgess, although his stammer prevented him from taking active part. While at school, Philby showed little interest in politics, and never visited the House of Commons. Similarly, he had little aptitude for football and cricket: the school magazine, The Elizabethan, only bothered to mention him once over a football match involving the Junior Eleven. Indeed, application rather than brilliance was always Philby’s trademark, except when it came to the facility with which he could put his ideas on paper. The oldest surviving master, Laurence Tanner, remembers Philby’s contribution to a scurrilous but well-written ‘underground’ newspaper called The Trifler.
Once, when Guy Burgess was asked what his father did, he replied, ‘My step-father is a professional gambler’. Evan James, who asked the question, did not know whether to believe him or not, and that was the trouble with Burgess. Like a character in Japanese No theatre, he hid his personality behind a succession of masks and never admitted the truth. In fact, his mother had met and married a retired army officer, Colonel John Basset, who enjoyed a mild flutter on the horses. Moreover, his indulgence of Guy’s every whim had made the young man uncontrollable long before he reached Cambridge.
By contrast, while Burgess lived well beyond his means in Cambridge, Philby never borrowed money and had a strict financial régime. He cultivated friendships with wealthy young men, like Victor Rothschild and other members of the ‘fast set’. On one occasion, Burgess dined with Rothchild and Jim Lees, a working-class student, whom he urged to take a cigar worth ‘three and sixpence each’. Rothschild, although professing some interest in socialism, was really interested in sportscars and high living. (He was always appearing in the gossip columns in Cambridge periodicals like Varsity Weekly, and he clearly relished the high life.) He also took no active part in the non-communist rump of the Labour club to which Philby and Lees belonged.
Rothschild allowed Burgess to enter his family, and Burgess soon visited the beautiful family home and met mother and sister. The quick-witted sister, Miriam, considered him to be babyish and spluttering, neurotic, and rather boyish and enthusiastic. One of his outstanding weaknesses was his lack of debating ability, and he was often [reduced] to a flood of tears. Nevertheless, Burgess had achieved what he sought, and this was entrée into the Rothschild ‘circle’. As for a future career, Burgess had no idea, although he toyed with the idea of a Fellowship. Neither he nor Philby had any inclination to be professional communists, like Klugman, Haden-Guest, and Cornford. (Moreover, Philby’s refusal to leave the Labour Club disqualified him for the role.)
* * *
All his life Philby had been an onlooker, except for that one occasion at school when he helped the Junior Eleven football team. He was a circumspect and watchful young man, who was self-conscious about his father’s reckless example of independence. Philby kept his options open, and he would not have been true to his personality had he rushed into Communist Party membership like Guy Burgess. It is ironic, therefore, that Harry St. John Philby’s rebellious individualism led his son to betray his country. Certainly, his father had no idea of Kim’s conversion to the communist cause. (When he was introduced to a charming, English-speaking Russian in London, who told him that the best way to advance socialism was as a card-carrying communist.) According to Philby’s autobiography, My Secret War, which is unreliable, his conversion to communism was a natural progression. According to Philby, he began to think seriously about alternatives to the Labour Party after it split in 1931. He began in the Cambridge University Socialist Society, and was its treasurer between 1932 and 1933. After a while, he came into contact with Left-wing opinion that was hostile to the Labour Party, and this was communist opinion. After extensive reading in what Philby calls ‘the classics of European Socialism’, his socialist viewpoint changed to a communist one. The process of transformation took two years, and by the summer of ’33 he was a convinced communist. What this record omits, of course, are the people who were behind his change of view, such as Samuel Cahan, the Resident Director of the Soviet Secret Intelligence Service in Britain. Cahan was a Jew, a man who took his orders from his Comintern superiors. His orders were to talent-spot young, middle-class dissidents who could enter the power structure. In a sense this was a Trojan Horse strategy, which called for the indoctrination of young intellectuals whom the Communist Party had never catered for. According to Walter Krivitsky, who defected to the West in 1937, the Comintern budget for France, Britain, and the United States increased enormously during this period.
Samuel Borisovich Cahan and his two lieutenants, Tolokonsky and Askalov, were extremely secretive in their operations. This was due to the ARCOS raid in 1937, when Special Branch raided the Russian Trade delegation in London. Guy Liddell and several other officers broke into the strongroom and found a man and a woman burning documents. After they were overpowered, the man’s underwear was found to contain names of contacts and ‘dead letter’ boxes all over the world. As a result, a rudimentary spy ring was broken up in Canada, and the French government uncovered a printing press for forging bank notes. All of this was a major rebuff for the Soviet Intelligence Service, which began to recruit ‘professional agents’ like Kim Philby. Harold Kilby Jnr. was the first to catch Cahan’s eye, thanks to the talent-spotting dons at Cambridge, with the assistance of King Street. According to the veteran communist, James Klugman, the Comintern’s hard line on party discipline led to a large number of intellectuals to defect from the Party. However, if centralization and control did lead to disillusionment among communist intellectuals, the Party hierarchy were not bothered in the least. They always distrusted intellectuals anyway, and they were more than ready to hand over control of the CPGB to Moscow. The Comintern’s skill in recruiting young intellectuals, however, was no guarantee that the Party would be able to keep them. In any event, Samuel Cahan’s instructions were precise: he had to recruit as many agents as possible who could worm themselves into the Establishment. As regards the training, instruction, and control of these candidates, the Communist Party had no role, except to provide an intermediary, Douglas Springhall, between Cambridge and the Resident Director. None of these meetings ever took place in Kensington at the Russian Embassy; they took place in ‘safehouses’, like 3 Rosary Gardens, in South Kensington. Indeed, it may well have been to 3 Rosary Gardens that Philby went in early 1933 for the meeting that changed his life.
* * *
It is extremely doubtful if the Russians ever gave a Cambridge don ‘the authority to recruit’; they were far too cynical for that. One Trinity College graduate who was almost recruited was John Lehmann, who had been the ‘secret correspondent’ for a communist front organisation in Vienna. This organisation, the Anti-War International, had Henri Barbusse—the author of Hell (L’enfer), who ended up a devout Stalinist; Romain Rolland, the Surrealist; and many others on its advisory board. The British office was run by John Strachey—the Marxist intellectual, the author of such works as The Coming Struggle for Power—who had veered away from Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Indeed, wholesale conversions between communism and fascism were quite common (one has to remember Doriot’s French People’s Party, for instance), although Strachey was always a committed Marxist. According to Lehmann, he was approached by a swarthy East European, who persistently demanded pledges of loyalty, but, after discussing this with John Strachey, he declined.
Kim Philby had already begun his double life, and he went to Vienna under supervision, already a probationary agent. On receipt of a second-class degree, he corrected the proofs of his father’s book, The Empty Quarter, purchased the Collected Works of Karl Marx, and visited the continent on a motorbike, with the connivance of Moscow Centre.
Before Philby left London, he had several secret meetings with Leonid Tolokonsky. Already he was beginning to divide his mind into two halves, and weigh every word he uttered.
On several occasions he slipped up, and had to brazen his way out. One evening in June at Trinity College, he was asked what he planned to do after university. Without calculating his response, Philby said that he planned to enter the Foreign Office, and this surprised his Fellow, Sir Dennis Robertson. Robertson told him that he did not advise this choice, because of his Left-wing views. Moreover, he earnestly hoped that Philby had not mentioned him as a reference, because ‘he would have to admit it’. On such formalities were the small-change of Cambridge staff-student relations based. For a moment, Philby felt awkward, because the idea had not been his—it had been Cahan’s—and he had resisted it. Now, faced with this rejection, he had no choice, and his Russian controllers accepted this.
By this time there were heated arguments between communists and socialists over the events in Germany. Indeed, Philby had spent the Easter vacation in Berlin with his old school friend Tony Milne, who was now at Oxford. Neither of them could understand the ease with which the German National Socialists had overcome socialist and communist opposition. Moreover, Richard Clarke, a Social Democrat, was amazed by Philby’s equanimity and his refusal to blame Stalin for the débacle. According to Philby, far from being a power-hungry tyrant or a betrayer of the Left, Stalin was the Left.
The Communist Party has not prospered since Philby’s time, and it is a shadow of its former self.
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