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Stalin’s man in the British Foreign Office: The lives of Guy Burgess

 

 

Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess
By Andrew Lownie
Hodder & Stoughton, 2015, 427 pages

 

Review by Phil Shannon

 

July 16, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess was, as his very name suggests, cut from Establishment cloth, and he effortlessly climbed the ladder of Britain’s top institutions – Eton, Cambridge, the BBC, MI5, MI6, the Foreign Office – impressing all the right people in mid-twentieth century. Because of their “class blinkers”, however, as Andrew Lownie quotes Burgess in Stalin’s Englishman, none of his elite peers suspected that one of their own could be a communist secretly spying for the Soviet Union for over a decade.

 

Radicalised during the 1930s Depression, when even exclusive Cambridge glowed Red, Burgess joined the British Communist Party. He was an exemplary socialist activist, intellectually sharp and destined for the upper echelons of the civil service, qualities that made Burgess attractive to Soviet intelligence.

 

Keen to advance the revolutionary cause at a time when Stalin’s Soviet Union was all but equated with socialism by supporters and opponents alike, Burgess readily accepted the prestigious post of Soviet spy. He had to volubly renounce his true political convictions and make a pretence of sympathy with Nazism, to gain the full trust of the Establishment. The Cambridge history professor, G. M. Trevelyan, was just one of those taken in by the deception, declaring, in a job reference for Burgess with the BBC, that Burgess had been cured of the “communist measles that so many of our clever young men go through”.

 

Burgess’ aptitude for making personal connections amongst Britain’s elites culminated in his position in the Foreign Office as private secretary to the deputy Foreign Minister where he was at his most productive, passing over four thousand secret diplomatic documents to Moscow in the early 1940s. With exposure imminent following the breaking of Soviet intelligence codes, however, Burgess was extracted to Moscow in 1951 where he spent his last twelve years in a life of classical music, books, cheap liquor and homosexual longing.

 

He sorely missed London, New York and his English friends, including more Old Etonian homosexual Marxists than one would think possible. He remained totally unassimilated to Russia. Visitors found him looking tired and sad but politically unrepentant, if frustrated – “I’m a communist … but I’m a British communist, and I hate Russia”, he exasperatedly told one caller.

 

Why did Burgess spy? Lownie opts for psychology - espionage gave Burgess a moral purpose and satisfied his “love of mischief”; it enabled him to assert power and to control people; it flattered his desire to belong to an elect social group. One of his Soviet contacts, however, gave a more succinct, and more fundamental, answer – “Guy Burgess believed that world revolution was inevitable” and, despite “having reservations about Russia’s domestic and foreign politics”, he “saw Russia as the forward base of that revolution”.

 

Lownie grants little legitimacy to this core ideological motivation – his book has the obligatory reference to Burgess (and the other famous Cambridge spies) as unpatriotic “traitors” but this conventional meaning of treason was conceptually irrelevant to the Marxist Burgess whose betrayal was proudly aimed at the capitalist class and its political system, however deformed his aim was by being refracted through the distorting mirror of Stalin’s bureaucratic police state.

 

Burgess was no respecter of capitalist state secrets (which showed the imperialist reality of US-UK state planning for a post-war capitalist order) but by only leaking to a rival state, however, Burgess has no claim to be a political ancestor of contemporary whistle-blowers. Burgess’ legacy would have shone more brightly had he stuck with organising early morning picket lines to support bus strikes, joining Hunger Marches, or becoming a Marxist professor.

 

Lownie rarely broaches these higher-order issues. Instead, we get a worm’s-eye, not a bird’s-eye, view – a mass of pedestrian narrative and unsynthesised character assessments of Burgess from those who knew him. These reveal a flamboyant, if slovenly and conceited, lover of ideas and conversation, alcohol and men. Lownie’s book, however, is much less forthcoming on Burgess the dedicated socialist, sadly wasted by the Stalinist betrayer of all things socialist.

 

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