James Klugmann, a complex communist

An intellectual who spent his career inside Britain's communist party, and who was long regarded even by many of his comrades with a degree of pity, may seem an unlikely candidate for reappraisal. But the life of James Klugmann, who was born on 27 February 1912, was also intertwined with some of the 20th century's biggest themes and controversies: depression and fascism, war and communism, loyalty and betrayal, political commitment and moral courage. Geoff Andrews, who is writing Klugmann's biography, reflects on an influential yet haunted man.

Geoff Andrews
27 February 2012

James Klugmann is a figure who for many years has appeared regularly but without distinction in the annals of the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Klugmann is known principally as the party’s own historian and as the editor of its theoretical journal Marxism Today (in the years before Martin Jacques transformed the publication), while his life as a communist has been depicted in familiar terms as the story of a brilliant intellectual who graduated into a dull party functionary.

The release of the file held on him by Britain's domestic intelligence agency MI5 and the opening of relevant Moscow archives, however, make a reassessment of James Klugmann's career timely. For this documentation, and my researches for a forthcoming book on Klugmann, reveal that his extraordinary life included a period as an inspiring international student leader at the peak of the Spanish civil war; as the (unofficial) political mentor of several of the "Cambridge five" who worked covertly for the Soviet Union (including a short period as a reluctant spy himself); and as the officer in the Special Operations Executive, Britain's wartime intelligence network operating behind the lines in Nazi-occupied Europe, who was largely responsible for shifting Churchill’s support behind Tito in Yugoslavia in 1943-44.

In the context of a personal and political journey that reflected the wider hopes, fears and illusions of British communism over many decades, Klugmann has long remained an elusive character. "What did one know of him?", Eric Hobsbawm asked rhetorically in his autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life. Hobsbawm regarded Klugmann in the 1930s as an intellectual guru, and later became a fellow member of the CPGB's history committee, so was more familiar with him than most. But, Hobsbawm said, "He gave nothing away".

Norman John Klugmann - his full name misled more than one MI5 officer - was born on 27 February 1912 to a prosperous Jewish family in the middle-class north London district of Hampstead. At the progressive Gresham’s School he was taught by Frank McEachran (who had earlier made a big impression on WH Auden, and was the model for Hector in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys). It was at Gresham’s too that Klugmann and his close friend, the future foreign-office spy Donald Maclean, first became interested in communist ideas. Both went on to win modern-languages scholarships to Cambridge.

When Klugmann arrived in Cambridge at the beginning of the 1930s there were almost 3 million unemployed in Britain and the threat of fascism was in the air. He joined the Communist Party in 1933, in his first year as a postgraduate, and that same autumn - working with John Cornford, the brilliant young poet and activist who would die in Spain three years later - took over the leadership of the university's communist student organisation.

From their base at Trinity College, they recruited rapidly and expanded their public campaigning beyond the university, organising peace demonstrations and actions in support of trade unionists. The unemployed hunger-marchers who had walked from the industrially ravaged north-east reached Cambridge in early 1934, and for many privileged undergraduates the encounter with these working-class men was both a humbling experience and a formative moment in their decision to join the Communist Party. Like many of his contemporaries, Klugmann was profoundly moved by their struggle, and his awareness of class politics was heightened after being sent to the south Wales coal-mining community.

As communist student leaders, Cornford and Klugmann were very different characters. Cornford was the charismatic talisman, impatient with academic conventions and eager to connect the activities of the student party to the working-class politics of the city. Klugmann was quieter, with a warm and engaging personality, and relied on gentle if persistent persuasion. In the words of Anthony Blunt, his postgraduate tutor, he was "the pure intellectual of the party. He was the person who worked out the theoretical problems and put them across… it was primarily he who decided what organisations in Cambridge were worth penetrating and what were not".

In British universities at this time, the communists enjoyed intellectual hegemony over the student left (including respectively the Socialist Society at Cambridge and the Labour Club at Oxford), partly because the wider political context was one where the Labour Party had split with its minority leadership under Ramsay McDonald choosing to join a deeply unpopular "national government". Among those who joined the CPGB in Cambridge were Guy Burgess, Margot Heinemann, Victor Kiernan, Brian Simon, Michael Straight, and (later) Eric Hobsbawm. At Oxford, the trend was similar, with figures such as Denis Healey, Iris Murdoch and Philip Toynbee attracted to communism.

The degree of political commitment amongst this generation went much deeper than the fashionable, superficial rite of passage it is often portrayed as. This was reflected in both its unprecedented internationalism, expressed in strong opposition to rising fascism across Europe, and in its contempt for a polarised, unjust and class-ridden British society.

The Communist Party's fortunes were boosted in the period by the Comintern's adoption in 1935 of a "popular front" strategy, which replaced its sectarian "class against class" line that had depicted social democratic parties such as Labour in Britain and the SPD in Germany as "social fascists". The change of course was crucial both in extending communism's appeal and in increasing the scope for broad alliances on the left. The Left Book Club, for example, had 60,000 members and 200 discussion groups by the mid-1930s, and the party exerted great influence among poets, writers and artists. Many on the left, involved in an international fight against fascism, solidarity with the hunger-marchers and the unemployed, and the beginning of the Spanish civil war, were convinced they were engaged in an epochal struggle on behalf of humanity and justice that had to be won.

Many of Klugmann’s contemporaries had direct experience of fascism in Germany and Austria; several were to fight and die in Spain, including his closest ally John Cornford. Cornford’s poems home to his last girlfriend, Margot Heinemann (who was to remain a close friend of Klugmann for the rest of his life), became symbolic of the sacrifice and idealism of his generation. James Klugmann’s own internationalism took a different turn. He had already decided to commit his life to the communist cause, and on the recommendation of the CPGB leadership he moved to Paris in 1935, ostensibly to carry out postgraduate research, but in reality to work for the World Student Assembly for Peace, Freedom and Culture (RME), a Comintern-controlled organisation with a membership of some 1,500,000 members in forty-six countries.

The peak of influence

In Paris, he divided his time between the Bibliotheque Nationale and the RME offices, where as the organisation's political secretary he organised student campaigns and raised "Aid for Spain" while living in a hotel in the centre of the French capital. In 1938, accompanied by his friend and Oxford communist Bernard Floud, he visited India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, China, and the United States; a remarkable tour during which he met Jawaharlal Nehru and Mao Zedong, and addressed large student gatherings on questions such as Indian independence and opposition to the "colour bar" in the United States.

But for Klugmann’s close Cambridge contemporaries, communist internationalism would have more covert implications. The arrival in 1934 of a controller working as an "illegal" for the Soviet Union's NKVD spy agency (the forerunner to the KGB) - Arnold Deutsch, who worked under the codename "Otto" - led to the recruitment of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and Michael Straight in 1934-36.

Much has been written about the treachery of the privileged Cambridge spies. Yet it is important to remember the growing dismay at the appeasement of fascism in the higher ranks of British society as well as the widespread belief among ordinary communists - not just privileged Cambridge students - that loyalty to the Soviet cause was regarded as the best way of defeating fascism. Eric Hobsbawm, who went to Cambridge just after Klugmann and worked as a translator for him in Paris, admitted in his autobiography that if Moscow had asked him to work on its behalf he would have done so. "We knew such work was going on, we knew we were not supposed to ask questions about it, we respected those who did it and most of us - certainly I - would have taken it on ourselves, if asked. The lines of loyalty in the 1930s ran not between but across countries’.

Many leading communists felt such divided loyalties. This was certainly true of Klugmann, who was an open communist and never attempted to hide his convictions. His brief and reluctant role as an NKVD agent was to torment him for the rest of his life. The release of the relevant Moscow archives confirms that he too was recruited by Deutsch in 1936.

Klugmann’s role differed from those of his contemporaries; he was seen more as a talent-spotter in identifying likely recruits - not dissimilar to his work amongst communist students at Cambridge, where his historical knowledge, political acumen and lucid explanations of Marxist ideas were highly regarded. He had also grown friendly with John Cairncross, a retiring, working-class Scot sympathetic to communism, with whom he shared an interest in German and French literature. Cairncross had been a postgraduate student at Trinity and by 1937 was now working at the foreign office. After unsuccessful attempts were made by Burgess and Blunt to recruit Cairncross, Klugmann was approached and reluctantly agreed on the approval of Harry Pollitt, the CPGB's general secretary.

On a May evening in 1937, Klugmann, who had returned briefly from Paris, introduced the unsuspecting Cairncross to "Otto" in Regent’s Park and then - according to Cairncross in his autobiography - made a hasty retreat. Cairncross was in 1999 exposed as the "fifth man" for passing the decoded "Ultra" transcripts of Nazi military plans to the Soviet Union; though he had come under suspicion much earlier, in 1951, when his signed papers were found in Guy Burgess’s flat after the latter had flown to Moscow. Cairncross never forgave Klugmann over the fellow Cambridge man's contribution to his recruitment.

A debriefing of Klugmann in 1945 conducted by Bob Stewart (who was responsible for the party’s undercover work), which was picked up by an MI5 microphone in the party’s King Street offices, reveals that Klugmann himself had been deeply troubled by his involvement in Cairncross's ensnarement by the NKVD. At the meeting he reflects on the approach from Soviet intelligence, and - evidently keen to unburden himself of the whole spying question - admits that he had "got very, very much mixed up in it. If I was told to do that and nothing else, I’m quite willing as much as anybody else. Anybody can be a hero and [accept] six years' jail, if you think what you are doing is right...".

The dilemma of whether to help Soviet intelligence troubled him greatly, leaving him "absolutely flummoxed" and having many "sleepless nights". Klugmann himself felt it was a mistake to mix two types of work (public and covert) and that he would undertake such work only if it was authorised by the party. This was also Hobsbawm’s position, who told me in an interview in 2009 that it was a "bad principle to mix party work and intelligence work". The key question was: "who was giving the authority to ask for intelligence work?"

Klugmann returned to Cambridge from Paris two days before war broke out, on the agreement of the Comintern, and in 1940 enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Service Corps. However, on the recommendation of a senior officer who had been at Gresham’s, he was soon recruited to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was shortly on a boat to Cairo to work for its Yugoslav section. He clearly impressed his superiors with his political knowledge and his ability to speak several languages, including, along the way, Serbo-Croat and Arabic. His rise through the ranks was rapid, leading him eventually to become a major, with responsibility for briefing SOE agents on intelligence missions. Thereafter there was a continuing tension between his SOE superiors' estimation of him as "hard working, trustworthy and loyal’ (in the words of Bolo Keble, his commanding officer) and MI5 dispatches which continually warned that he was a security risk who should not be given access to any secret work.

The SOE refused to comply with this, on the grounds that Klugmann's knowledge of the political situation in the Balkans, including his access to the communist partisan leader Marshall Tito, was invaluable. It is now clear that Klugmann played a major part in moving SOE strategy away from support for the royalist General Mihajlovic’s Chetniks in favour of Tito’s partisans. It is not the case, as some later sensationalist accounts have maintained, that this was done on orders from Moscow; the evidence does suggest, however, that Klugmann manipulated reports to give a more encouraging view of partisan strength. He later admitted to Stewart that securing support for the partisans was an objective of what he called "concerted political work".

In fact his popular-front politics which he had found so fruitful in international student politics, took on a new significance in the very different circumstances of the Balkans where an alliance between the allies and Tito made military sense in defeating the Nazis. He was also able to draw on his ability as a brilliant political communicator in unofficial lectures given at a Cairo villa to groups of exiled Croatian-Canadian communist miners as they waited to be sent on missions. His SOE colleague Basil Davidson recalled Klugmann’s effect on his protégés in his memoir of the time:

"Clasping his hands together with the cigarette between his lips, he demanded greater effort….You’ve got to see that this war has become more than a war against something, against fascism. It’s become a war for something, for something much bigger. For national liberation, people’s liberation, colonial liberation".

It was a visit by Churchill himself in January 1943 which proved crucial to the change in policy. German intelligence reports intercepted by British intelligence had confirmed that partisan positions in Yugoslavia were strong, while the Chetniks in some locations were found to be collaborating with Germans. This enabled Bolo Keble, a conservative who had established an unusual friendship with Klugmann (even reportedly bundling him into a lavatory on one occasion to avoid a security check), and Captain William Deakin, the newly arrived SOE intelligence officer and friend of the British prime minister, to make their case. After a combination of Klugmann’s political insight, Deakin’s advice, and a mission to Yugoslavia by Churchill’s "special envoy" Fitzroy Maclean, the prime minister was convinced that exclusive support for Tito was the best strategy to defeat Nazi forces.

The troubled post-war

After a period working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRAA) at the end of the war, Klugmann returned to London as a rising star in the Communist Party, with the prospect of a good job in the party hierarchy. He was at the peak of his influence and one of the party’s leading intellectuals. Some thought he would be given a position in the new Labour government, but in the event he edited the party journal World News and Views which allowed him to continue meeting anti-colonial and eastern European leaders.

However, Klugmann’s world was to change during the cold war. In the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Comintern in 1948, he was asked by Moscow to publicly denounce Tito, the communist partisan leader he knew better than anybody in the CPGB.The resultant publication From Trotsky to Tito was an intellectually dishonest work and marked the decline in Klugmann’s status as a revered party intellectual. After this, Eric Hobsbawm told me, Klugmann was "an intellectually broken man".

Worse was to follow. In 1956 in the wake of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s atrocities, Hobsbawm, Klugmann and fellow members of the Communist Party history committee met with the leadership to discuss how the party should address its own history. Hobsbawm and others wanted the party’s history to be written by an independent historian sympathetic to communist ideas but who was not a party figure, while the leadership wanted a party historian. The opinion of Klugmann, one of the party’s leading full-time intellectuals, was crucial.

Hobsbawm recalls that Klugmann "sat on the far right-hand corner of the table and said nothing. He knew we were right. If we did not produce a history of our party, including the problematic bits, they would not go away". In fact, Klugmann himself was given the task of writing it. He spent two decades writing two volumes, which covered just the period until 1927 - that is, just before the most contentious era of the CPGB's short history.

Another outcome of the turmoil of 1956, which led to the party losing a quarter of its membership - among them many leading intellectuals including EP Thompson, Christopher Hill and John Saville - was the decision to set up Marxism Today. Klugmann was also given the task of editing the journal, initially with the help of John Gollan, who had succeeded Pollitt as general secretary. Marxism Today was an in-house publication which published safe if occasionally interesting articles on aspects of Marxist doctrine, and a long way from the eclectic "magazine" it was to become in the 1980s.

Klugmann was also put in charge of the party’s education programme; here, at least, he continued to excel as a lecturer at party schools and conferences, though it was a far cry from his earlier life as a full-time revolutionary. Even MI5, which had put him under close surveillance in the late 1940s - even sending special-branch officers to hear him speak on eastern Europe - seemed to lose interest in him (though by the same token the agency had less reason to pursue him). When Anthony Blunt was forced to confess he had worked for Soviet intelligence on the word of Michael Straight in the early 1960s, his old friend and pupil was one of those he protected.

Klugmann did recapture some of his earlier humanist communism during the more open 1960s. He was a pivotal figure in the Communist-Christian dialogue alongside Canon Paul Oestreicher, which brought ordinary communists and Christians together at large gatherings to discuss poverty and humanitarian causes. Klugmann’s humanist ideas were developed in a short book, The Future of Man, which had considerable influence among the many radical young communists who joined the party from the mid-1960s.

Yet in reality, the period offered only glimpses of the James Klugmann of the 1930s and 1940s. Like the party itself, Klugmann lacked the courage or vision to tackle head on some of the difficult questions of the time. Pete Carter, leader of the Young Communist League who had been inspired by Klugmann, came to realise that "whilst he was dedicated to the party he was also a bit scared. He wasn’t confrontational in any way. After a while I found that James was planting the bullets for me to fire. He had terrible differences with the leadership of the party, with (Reuben) Falber and (Johnny) Gollan but he would never say anything to them".

Eric Hobsbawm told me that Klugmann lacked "civic courage" in the political positions he adopted; while Martin Jacques, who succeeded Klugmann as editor of Marxism Today in 1977, says he was "extraordinarily timid" and "fundamentally unreliable": "he would never step out of line and take anyone on". Jacques says Klugmann was regarded as an "exotic figure" who provided some "intellectual decoration", but became increasingly marginal to the big strategic debates and divisions that were developing and would eventually split the party.

Klugmann was also a tormented figure. His earlier fears that his covert work may become public remained with him. After ignoring him in the 1940s and 1950s, MI5 renewed their interest in Klugmann when John Cairncross, whom Blunt had admitted was the "fifth man", was offered a deal whereby he could return to Britain from exile in Rome if he was able to extract a confession from Klugmann. Cairncross was unable to do so, but his approach and the suicide of the Labour MP Bernard Floud, Klugmann’s old friend and student comrade in the late 1930s - after being interrogated by MI5 who needed security clearance before being appointed as a minister, though there has never been any evidence that Floud was a spy - must have preyed further on Klugmann’s mind as he reconsidered the past.

Klugmann’s asthma and general ill-health had deteriorated, and he retired from the editorship of Marxism Today in early 1977. In August of that year, Andrew Boyle, who was completing The Climate of Treason, the book which led to the public exposure of Anthony Blunt in 1979, met Klugmann in a pub near the party offices in King Street, Covent Garden. Klugmann would not be drawn on Boyle’s questions on Maclean, Burgess and Blunt, but he impressed the author as having the "true spirit of the missionary", as someone who talked of the "exhilaration and adventure" of the 1930s when he truly believed revolution was near, but who was now "not looking forward" to completing the latest volume of the party’s history, the only task left for him. Three weeks later he was dead.

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