The Undercover Egghead

The September issue of History Today contains my article on Isaiah Berlin, titled ‘The Undercover Egghead’. (see )  Regular readers will recall that this was the subject of a seminar I led at Buckingham University almost two years ago, and that I had been struggling with the editor of the magazine to get it published after a premature announcement he made last September. Under the terms of my copyright agreement with the magazine, I am allowed to post it the piece on my personal website, but the software I use to maintain my website sadly does not permit the importation of documents of this size.  Readers who are interested, but are unable to find a copy of the magazine, can contact me at for the PDF.

I am pleased with the outcome. I like the artwork. A few errors crept in (for instance, the dating of the photograph of Berlin: he died in 1997), but nothing else significant, I think. I would update the text a little if I re-wrote it now, as I have discovered new facts about my subject, but I did not want to provoke any further delays, and my latest findings will find their place in my thesis, to be completed shortly.

I shall be very interested in the response. Already, I have heard of fascination by Berlin-watchers who had suspected something was not quite right with the great man, but hadn’t been able to put a complete picture together. Maybe the picture will never be complete, but I think my research shows that a more comprehensive biography of Berlin is required, something more piercing and more analytical than Michael Ignatieff’s homage of 1998.

I want to express here my thanks to Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor, amanuensis and curator of the Berlin flame (see ). While not always understanding my methods, and sometimes being out of sympathy with what he calls my ‘conspiracy-mongering’ approach, Henry has always been extraordinarily helpful in responding to my inquiries, and has graciously allowed me access to some texts that have not been published. It may be a fortunate coincidence that the fourth and final volume of Berlin’s Letters is being published next month: I hope that the publicity surrounding that event, and the appearance of my piece, is mutually beneficial. Henry invited me to the launch party for the volume, but I could not justify the trans-Atlantic journey.

Berlin’s stature as a dignified spokesperson for personal liberties must remain questionable, and I believe the research process will continue, as new observers and historians add their own perspectives, and offer the fruits of their research. Was Berlin an ‘agent of influence’ for the Soviets? My conclusion is that he was probably persuaded, through the threat of harm to his relatives in the Soviet Union, into providing some information to them, but I can’t help concluding that his encouragement of the respectability of Marxist study, as revealed in his 1939 book on Marx, was his own endeavour, although probably encouraged by his friend Guy Burgess. I leave the rest for my thesis.

Meanwhile, a renowned Sovietologist died this month – Robert Conquest. (A few years ago, after reading a couple of his works – ‘Reflections on a Ravaged Century’, and ‘the Dragons of Expectation’  ̶   I wrote a long letter to him in Palo Alto, posing some questions that arose from my reading, since I was about to set out to that area to visit our son. I hoped to meet him, and shake his hand. He did reply, but did not answer my questions, and said he was too busy to see me.) What caught my eye from the obituaries of this great man – who educated the western world about Stalin’s crimes in books such as The Great Terror  ̶  was the fact that he had been for a short time a member of the Communist Party. Now part of the research for my doctoral thesis has involved the analysis of why British Intelligence was not able to detect Soviet spies in its midst, even with the help of hints of identification from the Soviet defector, Walter Krivitsky. Since Moscow was very particular about the commitment of its spies – and their couriers as well  ̶  candidates would have had to show a fierce dedication to Communist principles and rigour before they were recruited. But this did not have to involve membership of the Communist Party: in fact it was preferable if the agents were never associated with the CP, as it made them less traceable. It is nevertheless a fact that each agent must have undergone a period when he (or she) demonstrated openly strong leftist sympathies – Blunt, Burgess, Philby, Cairncross, Maclean, Long, etc. etc.  ̶  before their recruitment was approved by Moscow Centre. They all had such a phase, mainly in Cambridge University clubs, Maclean even confessing to his selection board for a diplomatic career, in a bold moment of semi-candour, that he had not completely shed such beliefs. On the other hand, Jenifer Hart was a secret member of the Party. Yet MI5 had enough to go on to vet all these people.

So what about those who did join the CP, if only for a short time? Denis Healey (b. 1917, still going strong) was one notorious example who lasted a lot longer. He joined in 1937, but stayed there for a few years, seeing out the Nazi-Soviet pact, and not resigning until after the fall of France in 1940 (why then, o beetle-browed one?). He was still rambling on about ‘revolution’ after the war, yet turned out to be a respectable middle-of-the-road politician. (My professor has hinted to me that Healey was actually employed by MI6 all this time, which might just be plausible, I suppose, although the cover seems to have been taken a bit too far.) Was Robert Conquest’s flirtation just a youthful fling, after which he became disillusioned? But then he was recruited by MI6, and went to Bulgaria. How did they know it was just a fling? Or had he joined the CP with MI6 guidance? That would appear unlikely, as his cover would then have been blown for any undercover intelligence operation overseas. It all just shows what a careful methodology has to be applied by counter-intelligence officers trying to determine a suspect’s true beliefs and motivations. I wish I had had the chance to question Dr Conquest about it all before he died.

The usual set of Commonplace items can be found here. (August 31, 2015)


Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Media, Politics

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