AFTER Guy Burgess, the celebrated ‘Third Man’ in the Cambridge spy ring of the 1930s and ’40s, had fled to Moscow, he said, ‘My life ended when I left London.’ He lived the remainder of his life out of context, in a land where politics was supposed to be about policies not personalities. ‘The Comrades,’ he wrote to a friend in England, ‘tho’ splendid in every way of course, don’t gossip in quite the same way about quite the same people and subjects.’
The general understanding of Burgess has been that he was just that – a compulsive gossip who contributed little or nothing to the socialist cause of making the world safe for anti-Americanism. But Andrew Lownie cites considerable evidence to show that, far from fluttering frivolously in the shadow of Kim Philby and Donald Maclean, Burgess was actually the most productive of the three spies. ‘The material he was supplying was dynamite,’ Lownie writes, referring to the Anglo-American planning of the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945, and British plans for an attack on Soviet forces in eastern Europe, curiously code-named Operation Unthinkable.
In the late 1940s Burgess had ‘access to almost all papers that came to the Foreign Office ministers, including the minutes of meetings of the Cabinet, the defence Committee and Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff’. He handed the Soviets two thousand documents relating to the merging of the British, American and French zones in Germany to create the Federal Republic and the Berlin airlift. Moscow paid him a bonus of £200 for that. But he was supplying so much paperwork that he asked to be given a suitcase as well, simply to carry it all. To facilitate travelling on the Soviets’ behalf, he was also given more money to buy a car. While other spies were sheltering in doorways with the brims of their hats turned down, le Carré-style, Burgess bought a ‘gold’ Rolls-Royce which he used to drive at terrifying speed, justifying his choice of brand by saying it would protect him in the event of an accident as Rolls-Royces are ‘solidly built’.
The irony of all this was that Stalin and his kommissars, being secretive, suspicious and cynical, disregarded much of what Burgess sent, fearing a plant by British Intelligence. However, his main Russian contact in London, Yuri Modin, summed him up by saying that he was really the leader of the Cambridge spy-ring, being the most energetic, enterprising and imaginative. ‘He was the moral leader of the group,’ Modin wrote. ‘He was the most outstanding and educated [important word in Russia] among all the five.’
Why did Guy Burgess do all this? His answers varied, but they had a common theme. Modin summed them up by saying that ‘Burgess believed that world revolution was inevitable. Like his Cambridge friends, he saw Russia as the forward base of that revolution. There was no alternative… he saw the Soviet Union as the world’s best hope.’ A left-wing American friend described Burgess’s view of Communism in the 1930s as akin to a belief in the dawn of a New Age. ‘The old age was dying – disintegrating economically and socially.’ In the 1950s, Burgess said he was in Moscow ‘preventing World War III’.
There was also a strong element of anti-Americanism in Burgess, as there was in Philby and Maclean. He thought any country not protected by the Soviet Union, whether communist or not, would be ‘kicked around by the Americans’. Burgess thought the Americans were ready to risk starting another war in order to make the world safe for anti-Communism. He also said prophetically, ‘There is no such thing as a European policy. You’ve either got to choose America or Russia… Europe is something wishy-washy that simply does not exist.’
If that well summarises what might be called the ‘public’ aspect of Burgess, Lownie is clear and coherent on the ‘private side’ too. Though geopolitics explains why Burgess became a spy, it was family circumstances which explain why he went about his spying in the grotesquely unconventional way he did. For a start, he often used to say, when drunk, that he was working for the communists. Not only that, he never kept to any office schedule (except for one period in the 1940s in the Foreign Office when he had such enormous opportunities for intelligence-gathering), neither did he wash very carefully, nor allow many hours of the day to pass before he started drinking. He stank of nicotine, and chewed garlic continuously. Sometimes he slept in his clothes. Goronwy Rees’s wife said he ‘delighted in knowing everything and everybody, making the most noise, making himself felt…. But his words often contained a malicious sting and one was left feeling uncomfortable’. Goronwy Rees himself wrote, ‘He was persistent in a way a child is persistent, who always knows it will have its own way if it is willing to behave badly enough. And in this persistence there lay a formidable power of the will, which because of the general disorder and absurdity of his personal life, for the most part went unnoticed.’
The ‘disorder and absurdity’ of Burgess’s private life centred around his aggressive, uncompromising and wholly undisguised homosexuality (in an age when it was criminal). Lownie notes the absence of his father, due to war service, and then early death, saying, ‘from an early age, the young Guy Burgess began to develop a very close relationship with his mother and it was one without a balancing masculine influence’. Burgess’s own brother, Nigel, said Guy had an ‘unhealthily close’ relationship with his mother. Most years during his sojourn in Moscow, she visited him there, often accompanying him on holiday to Sochi where they would stay in a swanky Party sanatorium, while their friends put up in a local hotel with ‘the Comrades’. Even in the New Age, class distinctions remained.
However, the final point about Burgess, which is in a way the most interesting one, and which Lownie stresses throughout his well-researched and comprehensive book, is the issue of political gossip. Burgess lived at a time in history when politics was more human than bureaucratic, that is to say it was about personalities more than policies. Who is in? Who is out? What is the mood of the House/country/Capitol Hill/Kremlin? Of course, public personalities are associated with particular policies, but the dark world of political algorithms, focus groups and extreme party discipline had not yet arrived. Bliss was it still in that dusk to be alive.
W.H. Auden once wrote that gossip is a form of art because it is about the same subject as all art, which is the human spirit and how it copes and adapts to life and change. Burgess—who was friend of Auden’s—illustrated this principle well. He was one of the world’s great networkers, and it helped that he had affairs with some of the better-connected men of the day, from Anthony Blunt and Harold Nicholson to James Pope-Hennessey and Sir Steven Runciman (with whom he stayed on Eigg in the 1930s). He would sleep with anyone aged between 17 and 75. The only person he drew the line at was Donald Maclean. That, Burgess once remarked, would be like sleeping with a ‘great white woman’ (though Goronwy Rees said that the two had once been lovers).
It was purely due to the personal nature of political life in the mid-twentieth century (and before) that Burgess was able to gather so much information for his friends in Moscow. In a more modern, depersonalized society, it would have been extremely difficult. Ironically, the Soviet Union was also a bit like this, despite its image of being a coldly technocratic society. Personalities counted there too, and under Stalin, personalities’ wives were also a factor, as was the behaviour of their children and friends, even parents.
Today we live in a world which likes to pretend that it is impersonal, rational and more interested in policies than personalities, as Tony Benn used to say ad nauseam, and Jeremy Corbyn is still saying. In terms of political style (not policies, of course), Guy Burgess would have had more in common with Donald Trump or Nigel Farage than either of the two socialists. But he had something which all of them lack, which is a sense of humour. If there is a weakness in this otherwise fascinating book, it is that Lownie does not laugh with Burgess enough. This is a shame because he was one of the greatest existential rebels of twentieth-century British politics. Most of his friends were, by modern standards, seriously eccentric or something even better. Take Lord Faringdon for example. In the 1930s Burgess often used to go down to Oxfordshire to stay with Gavin Henderson in his grand house at Buscott, where his butler was the chairman of the local Communist Party cell. Henderson, the 2nd Lord Faringdon, was ‘an effete Old Etonian homosexual Marxist’ (who later calmed down and joined the Labour Party). During dinner the butler would perform his duties with appropriate deference, reminding his Lordship that there was a Party meeting afterwards in the library. There, the butler took the chair, ordering ‘Comrade Henderson’ to read the minutes of the last meeting since his Lordship was only the branch secretary.
A good part of Burgess’s popularity, and therefore his access, derived from his unembarrassed enjoyment of the company of such unconventional people. He had nothing of the po-faced, pharisaical sanctimony of so many modern politicians and pundits, especially on the left. In a wishy-washy world, it is good to be reminded of such people.
Stalin’s Englishman: the Lives of Guy Burgess
Hodder & stoughton, £17, ISBN: 978 1 473 62736 9, PP448