Anthony Blunt: No Sort of Traitor
Did Anthony Blunt —that frail, effeminate, learned man — ever dream that we would be responsible for so much confusion?
Consider, first, the sorry plight of the left wing. Blunt might have been one of their heroes, for he turned his back on his past — the public school, one of the more exclusive Cambridge colleges — to become an agent for Russia, which has nourished so many left wing false hopes and delusions. Yet Blunt also enraged the left because the personified the cohesive protectiveness of their arch provocator — the Establishment. And worse, Labour ministers, including Wilson and Callaghan, connived in this apparent exercise of the Establishment looking after its own. No wonder Willie Hamilton fumed in the House of Commons: ” . . . feelings of outrage . . . I have never felt so sick, angry and frustrated . . . squalid conspiracy in high places . . .”
Then there are the Tories, who work most comfortably on the assumption that the best of all possible property societies is one run by an indulgent elite from the best families, schools, clubs, regiments . . . This elite pretend that they hold their privileges as an act of kindness to the rest of us; they don’t really own those thousands of acres, stately homes, works of art, stocks and shares. They merely hold them in trust for the less fortunately born majority in society. If this theory is to be at all presentable, it is essential that no member of the elite should let the side down. When one of them does — and, in the case of Blunt, in the worst possible way, by spying — the Tories too are thrown into confusion, aggravated by the knowledge that their ministers also knew about, and protected, the spy.
Brilliant Young Men
And out of all the confusion emerges a picture of British capitalism which does not meet the demands of modern, thrusting, super-competitive capitalism. The Blunt affair, like its predecessors in the Great Whitehall Spy Drama, was taken by many people as evidence that Britain is run by a bunch of effete, disreputable upper class twits who all went to the same school, and who are too stupid, or too corrupt, to recognise a spy even if he was delivered to their In Tray in manacles. Well, there is nothing to be gained by discussing the accuracy of that caricature; it is more useful to point out some of the lessons to be learned from the infamous scandal of Anthony Blunt.
We have already said that Blunt is a very learned man — although it is another matter whether his talents would ever have seen the light of day had he been born into a working class family, who rely on selling their labour power to live. There is little demand among employers for experts in the works of Nicolas Poussin. But then the other spies Blunt was associated with — Philby, Maclean, Burgess — were also very clever. Burgess, said Blunt, was ” . . . one of the most remarkable, brilliant, and one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known”. (He might also have used words like ‘drunken’ and ‘abusive’ except that such minor faults can be overlooked in one of such rare gifts.) Philby too was once highly thought of, the rising star in the Secret Service, described by Hugh Trevor Roper (The Philby Affair) as ” favoured by society, liberally educated, regarded by all who knew him as intelligent, sensitive, transparently sincere”.
Now the working class are depressingly willing to pay their respects to people who are described as ‘intellectuals’ even when, like this bunch, they are blind to some obvious facts of reality. Blunt has told us their version of reality in the Thirties:
. . . in October 1934 I found that . . . almost all the intelligent and bright undergraduates who had come up to Cambridge had suddenly become Marxist [sic] . . . and there was this very powerful group, very remarkable group of Communist intellectuals in Cambridge . . .
(This provoked a doctor to write, irritably, to the Daily Telegraph from Moreton-in-theMarsh: “I was up at Cambridge in 1935 and many of my circle were bright. But had any of them expressed Marxist views he would have been debagged and thrown into the Cam”)
But what was happening in Russia at that time to impress all those incredibly brainy undergraduates? In 1934 the 17th Party Congress was held, with perhaps many of the participants being as brainy as those bright young men in Cambridge. Unfortunately, their leader Stalin was not favourably impressed with them, and soon afterwards he had over half of them shot, along with nearly three-quarters of the Central Committee they had elected. This was a comparatively minor incident in the horrifying story of imprisonment, torture and murder which characterised Stalin’s rule over Russia. One estimate of the total casualties during these years appeared in Robert Conquest’s book The Great Terror. Conquest used a variety of sources — participants’ accounts, official statistics and the 1959 Census — and he came to the conservative estimate of 20 million dead.
Much of the information about this was available at the time, but it did not impress those brilliant students at Cambridge. Some of them were even prepared to justify the August 1939 pact between Russia and Nazi Germany. “We argued”, said Blunt, “that it was simply a tactical necessity . . . ” In fact he carried his enthusiasm a bit too far, continuing to pass British secrets to Russia after the two staters were in the war on the same side. This illustrates not only his blind devotion to the blood-soaked dictatorship but also the actual fragility of the unity between capitalist powers, even when they call themselves the Allies.
But it was not only Blunt and his fellow geniuses who have been confused, because several prominent politicians said they had quite forgotten being told that a senior member of the royal household was a Russian spy. One of these politicians is Lord Brooke, who could never be accused of being an intellectual and who ‘forgot’ quite a few things during his time as Home Secretary. So how much more do the leaders of capitalism ‘forget’? Do they ‘forget’ the realities of capitalism — its power cliques, its privileges for the few, its international conflicts, its cynicism and deceit? Do they ‘forget’ that the whole rotten mess is kept in being by the very people who suffer under it — the working class — the people who get excited about the Blunt Affair because they have been induced into a trance of patriotism? And who will help them ‘remember’?
One thing to remember is that international conflict is ineradicable under capitalism. Those conflicts are fought out by all appropriate means and not just in the military sense; all sides have an elaborate machinery of espionage. Those who operate that machinery develop an especially cynical devotion to the interests of the master class they serve. The schemes they hatch often have an arithmetic a lot more intricate than that of a simple double cross.
Concepts in Privilege
If one side uncovers another’s spies they usually give vent to a great blast of innocent indignation, which is designed to obscure the fact that they have their own agents busily at work. Thus Burgess, Maclean and the rest had their counterparts — Volkov, Petrov, Dolynytsin and, arguably the significant of them all, Penkovsky, who passed to the Western powers thousands of items of secret information, including some on Russian rocketry, notably at the time of the Cuban crisis.
Nobody needed Anthony Blunt to tell us that capitalism is a society in which a small minority are privileged a long way above the rest of us. But he throws an interesting light on the extent of that privilege. His job in the royal household, for example, consisted of looking after the Queen’s pictures, rehanging them and redecorating the rooms where they hang (or at any rate ordering other people to do the actual hanging and decorating). As a flunkey to a super-parasite, he lived in a different world to the rest of us, with concepts and expectations quite foreign to those of the majority. He described his interrogations between 1951 and 1964 as ‘mainly comfortable conversations’. This is in stark contrast to the treatment habitually handed out to workers who ‘help the police with their inquiries’ over some offence against capitalism’s laws. On the very day of Blunt’s press conference, a fatal ‘accident’ inquiry in Glasgow was told by a former policeman of how sickened he had been at the violence meted out by the police there to a man who later died from his injuries. There are few ‘comfortable conversations; between the police and the workers they arrest in places like Glasgow.
A great deal of indignation has been spilled out over Anthony Blunt, but outraged workers would do better to direct their feelings against this social system itself. Capitalism is a society in which one class, although numerically insignificant, owns the means whereby the rest of us live. That fact is central to all privilege — the aristocrats, the clubs, the old boy network, the cover-ups in high places. It is also a society in which a lot of effort goes into persuading us that we should devote ourselves to the work of keeping capitalism going on the orders if some super-intellectual beings. Anthony Blunt has provided the latest piece of evidence to show what a myth that is. Workers should not trust leaders, no matter how allegedly brainy or evidently stupid they are; they should organise their own confidence to run society on a different basis, in their own interests.
The sordid story of Blunt and his clever friends is but a minor episode in the horrendous, cynical passage of a society which can operate in no other way. Blunt betrayed his own ruling class, but to capitalism itself he was no sort of traitor; he was, and remains, its most devoted, if devious, servant.