Giving up a promising career

Geoff Andrews’ biography of James Klugmann: The Shadow Man: At the Heart of the Cambridge Spy Circle (London: I.B.Tauris, 2015) A review.

David Purdy
13 January 2016

James Klugmann, the subject of this biography, has hitherto appeared as a shadowy figure in the story of the Cambridge spies: Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. He was a much-loved figure in the British Communist Party, which he served with devotion from the early 1930s until his death in 1977, but very few of his comrades knew him well. Even the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who knew him better than most, comments in a pen-portrait: “What did one know about him? He gave nothing away.” (Interesting Times, p.123)

Farfield boarding house at Gresham's School, built 1911.

Farfield boarding house at Gresham's School, built 1911. Wikicommons/ Adam Stanworth. Some rights reserved.Geoff Andrews provides a full and compelling account of this remarkable, but reclusive man, drawing on three sets of sources: Klugmann’s personal papers; his MI5 file, the public records relating to his wartime service in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and Soviet intelligence archives; and interviews with his former comrades, colleagues and friends. As a historian specialising in the history of ideas and political movements, whose previous works include New Times: The Final Years of British Communism, Andrews sets out to illuminate the choices made by a leading Communist intellectual in the context of the times in which he lived and the dilemmas he faced. In this, he succeeds admirably, highlighting en route the inherent tensions between partisan commitment and personal integrity.

From privileged outsider to student communist

Born in 1912 into a prosperous and liberal Jewish family in the Belsize Park area of Hampstead, Klugmann won a scholarship to Gresham’s School in Norfolk, the nursery of several notable Communists and left-wingers: Tom Wintringham and W.H. Auden left before Klugmann arrived in 1926; Benjamin Britten, Donald Maclean and the Simon brothers, Roger and Brian, were all his contemporaries. Gresham’s had a progressive reputation. It was the first public school to join the League of Nations Union and it shunned corporal punishment, leaving the boys to police themselves, subject to just three rules: no smoking, no swearing and no “impurity”.

Under the “honours system”, however, boys were expected to confess their own transgressions.  If they did not, their peers were expected to inform on them. According to Auden, writing in 1934, this regime led to a fearful and furtive atmosphere. “The best reason I have for opposing fascism,” he observed, “is that at school I lived in a fascist state.” “At school I lived in a fascist state.” W.H.Auden

Klugmann always felt himself to be an outsider at the school, a clever “oddity” who won most of the prizes, but was hopeless at games, never became a prefect, was suspicious of power and hated all orthodoxies. It is generally supposed that he was a repressed homosexual, but nothing is known of his intimate life. He was, however, fortunate in finding a father figure and mentor in Frank McEachran, then in his early twenties, who later became the model for the character Hector in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys. Officially, McEachran taught French, but his interests encompassed philosophy, literature and history and he championed the liberal humanism that he saw as the heritage of European civilisation, warning against the “religion of nationalism” then sweeping across the continent.

Klugmann followed in the footsteps of his older sister Kitty. After graduating from Girton College with a degree in Moral Sciences, Kitty joined the Communist Party (CP) along with her husband-to-be, Maurice Cornforth, a postgraduate philosophy student who gave up a promising academic career to become a professional revolutionary, just as his brother-in-law was to do a few years later.

Having won a Modern Languages Exhibition at Trinity College, Klugmann went up to Cambridge in the autumn of 1931. An outstanding scholar who got on well with his tutors and fellow-students, he also played a leading role in the Cambridge University Socialist Society (CUSS), which brought together left-wing social democrats, Communists and ILP (Independent Labour Party) supporters. Membership of CUSS grew from 200 in 1933 to 600 in 1935, some 25 % of whom were CP members. The student movement spread to other British universities, though Cambridge was its centre. It was in this milieu that Klugmann got to know Guy Burgess and the others who later became involved in espionage.

From reluctant spy to Stalinist hack

From 1935 to 1939, Klugmann moved to Paris, hoping to combine research at the Sorbonne on the intellectual origins of the French Revolution, with leadership of the Rassemblement Mondial des Étudiants (RME), the World Student Association, a body established and funded by the Comintern. It was a forlorn hope: as the international storm clouds gathered, research took second place to politics. Worse still, Klugmann found himself forced to choose between his duty as a Communist and the dictates of his conscience. As the international storm clouds gathered, research took second place to politics.

The boundary between working for the Comintern and working for Soviet intelligence was fuzzy at the best of times and the NKVD, the Soviet security service, did not scruple to exploit the resulting ambiguity for its own ends. John Cairncross never joined the Party, but after leaving Cambridge kept in touch with his old friends and when he joined the Foreign Office in 1937, was targeted by the NKVD as a potential recruit. Guy Burgess made one attempt to recruit him, but when this failed, “Otto” (Arnold Deutsch), the NKVD’s man in London, asked Klugmann to arrange a meeting. Klugmann refused to do so unless the Party ordered him to. Accordingly, he was summoned by Harry Pollitt, who told him it was his duty to help recruit Cairncross. Unburdening himself after the war in a private conversation at the Party headquarters in King Street which, ironically, were bugged by MI5, Klugmann acknowledged the subtle flattery involved in being asked to undertake clandestine work, yet also expressed his deep distaste for mixing espionage with open political activity. Cairncross, for his part, felt betrayed by his old friend and suffered the consequences in his subsequent career. The boundary between working for the Comintern and working for Soviet intelligence was fuzzy at the best of times.

In the autumn of 1937, “Otto” returned to Moscow and when, shortly after, the NKVD closed its London residenza, Klugmann thought he was rid of them, though they took a different view. At all events, as he travelled the world on behalf of the RME, his movements and reports were monitored by MI5. Nevertheless, amidst the confusion that prevailed in the first two years of the war, he somehow managed to keep one step ahead of the spooks. Having initially joined the Royal Army Service Corps as a private, he landed a commission with the SOE in Cairo, moving later to Bari, where he was responsible for briefing agents and sending materiel to Tito’s Partisans in Yugoslavia. SOE recruited him on the strength of his intellect and command of languages and ignored a warning from MI5 not to employ him on secret work, arguing that his pre-war contacts with Yugoslav Communists and his knowledge of the Balkans were invaluable, as indeed they turned out to be.

Later allegations that Lieutenant Klugmann was a Soviet agent are unfounded. He never concealed his support for Tito and his judgment that the Partisans were a more disciplined, reliable and effective fighting force than the Royalist Chetniks was shared by his SOE superiors and eventually accepted by Churchill himself. After the liberation of Yugoslavia, however, when Klugmann was working for the UN Relief and Reconstruction Administration, he was again approached by Soviet intelligence. This set alarm bells ringing in MI5, who kept him under close surveillance until the early 1950s.

On his return to London in 1946, Klugmann became the Party’s expert on Eastern Europe in general and Yugoslavia in particular, and it was in this capacity that he became embroiled in a conflict of loyalties that destroyed his intellectual credibility and impugned his moral integrity. As the Cold War set in, Klugmann, now editor of World News and Views, a Party weekly, became a Stalinist hack, offering specious justifications for the trial and execution of former anti-fascist and Communist leaders who had fallen from grace, denouncing reports of the purges in the “bourgeois press”, and castigating those on the left who took them seriously. After 1951 he was a broken man, a shadow of his former self.

Starting in 1947, a major rift emerged between Tito and Stalin over Communist policy in the Balkans and the following year Yugoslavia was expelled from the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform). It fell to Klugmann to explain why the British Party, which had previously hailed Yugoslavia for its inspiring leadership, model constitution and People’s Councils, had changed its line. His most complete statement of the case against his former comrade-in-arms was set out in a book published in 1951 under the title From Trotsky to Tito. Here he charged the Yugoslav CP with various heretical deviations from Marxism-Leninism and sought to explain its “treachery” by claiming that in 1942-3 the British political and military leadership had suborned “leading elements” among the Partisan forces and the Yugoslav CP – Gestapo agents and Trotskyites – who “could be ‘trusted’ to betray the Yugoslav people’s liberation movement from the inside.” This was a preposterous claim and Klugmann knew it. As Geoff Andrews notes, the fact that he was prepared to make it shows how far he himself was morally compromised.

Klugmann continued to serve the Party for another quarter of a century, taking responsibility for political education and, from 1957 to 1977, editing its monthly journal, Marxism Today. But after 1951 he was a broken man, a shadow of his former self. It was a sad finale to his career as a professional revolutionary, best summed up by his old comrade Malcolm MacEwan, who fell out with him in 1956:

“He stood for all that was best in the Party – unselfishness, disregard for making money, lack of personal ambition, devotion to the cause and a keen intelligence – and for its most fatal defects: carrying loyalty to the point where it silenced his conscience and blunted his good sense.” (p. 242).

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData