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Acts of the Apostles

After Long Silence

by Michael Straight
Norton, 351 pp., $17.50

To Europeans, the 1930s are an unforgettable decade. Those who were young then were marked by it for life, and still, in their old age, live under its shadow: not till they are dead will it sink into its historical context and become objectively comparable with other periods. For those were very special years, different from the decades that had preceded and would follow them. Society was divided not only by class or nation but also, more sharply than is usual, by generation.

The shift came about the time that Hitler took power in Germany. I was myself an undergraduate at that time and could observe the change. The problems of the 1930s loomed before us all: economic, political, ideological; but young and old faced them from radically different positions. The old hated war and feared Bolshevism: they remembered 1914-1918 and the revolution in Russia. The young, who remembered neither of these events, were more tolerant of both. They were prepared to regard communism and even war as preferable to the new and visible horrors of economic chaos and fascism. The period of crisis began with the Spanish Civil War in 1936; it culminated in 1938, at the time of the Munich surrender—the last victory of those who, through fear of war, believed in unconditional “appeasement.” Munich, in particular, divided generation against generation within families. The division was healed next year, but only by the palpable failure of appeasement and the sheer necessity of a new, defensive war.

I have said that the shift came about the time when Hitler came to power. That was January 1933. Next month, the Oxford Union debated the famous motion “That this House will in no circumstances fight for king and country.” I well remember the furor which followed the passing of that motion. Afterward it was said that Hitler and Mussolini were much encouraged by it. But in fact the event was insignificant. Hitler was not then a dictator, nor did he yet have an army: his public utterances were professions of peace. The motion was therefore unrelated to any real threat. It was an expression of the pacifism, and the unreality, still surviving from the 1920s; and its author was the London philosopher C.E.M. Joad, an elderly pacifist whose opinions had been formed long ago. In the following years, as the menace of Marxism grew, the attitude of the young would change. Under the impact of events, pacifism would dissolve and in a period of political and ideological bewilderment the propagandists of a new faith would see their chance: the Communist International would move in.

Omne ignotum pro magnifico. To the young of 1933 Soviet Russia was unknown except through its propagandists, and as the bugbear of their elders and of the bourgeoisie in general. Ever since the revolution it had been sealed off from the West. Only a few privileged visitors had penetrated it, and they, of course, had only seen what they had been shown. Therefore, when the Western, capitalist world was in confusion and it seemed that capitalism could be saved only by the “fascist” methods adopted first in Italy, then in Germany, the bewildered young turned toward communism—to the smiling face of communism that was presented to them—and saw it, if they wished, as the magic talisman that might yet save the world. It happened that, precisely at this time, the Bolshevik government was adopting a new policy that greatly helped this process.

In the early years of their power, the Russian Bolsheviks had preached world revolution. Only by being spread to the rest of Europe, Lenin believed, could communism be perpetuated at home. But by 1923 that policy had failed: Mussolini’s victory in Italy, as Hitler recognized, had been the turning of the tide, and Stalin fell back on the policy of “socialism in one country.” In order to consolidate his own dictatorship over Russia, he was prepared to accept the legitimacy of the noncommunist world and to seek conventional relations with it. But acceptance did not mean trust, and the old aims were not renounced, only suspended. So the revolutionary Comintern went, effectively, underground and operated at the new level. The idealistic young, in capitalist countries, were now to become not open propagandists of the communist cause but secret agents of Stalin’s machine.

This change in itself put a premium on a particular class of recruit. What Stalin now needed was not proletarian agitators but young men who, in the normal course of events, might hope to prosper within capitalist society: the intelligent products of good families, good schools, good universities; young men who, through their social status or their education, would have, or could be expected to acquire, contacts within the governing elite of their countries. Of course, such men would not prosper, or acquire such contacts, unless they kept their communist allegiance strictly secret. That in itself imposed a further condition. Since any active espionage entailed the risk of exposure, such a risk could not be justified except by the gravest necessity. Therefore, short of such necessity, these young men must lie low. Ultimately, when they had arrived, they might be used. Meanwhile, they were “moles.”

As is well known, the most prolific breeding ground for such moles was at Cambridge University. Why was this? On the face of it, Oxford would have seemed more promising. Oxford was the scene of the famous Union debate. Just before that, the Oxford University Communist Society—the “October Club”—had been dissolved by authority: an invitation to its members to go underground. Oxford is traditionally more political than Cambridge. But Oxford, as far as we know, produced no Russian spies, whereas Cambridge can glory in the names of Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, not to speak of smaller fry. How are we to account for this? Was it a mere accident: the presence of a particularly expert angler at that wellstocked pool? Or was it the consequence of some particular quality of the place?

The two ancient universities of England, as Macaulay wrote, have always had distinct characters. Oxford, in this century, has been gayer, more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan: ideas there overflow, collide and mingle with other ideas, and are diluted or complicated in the process. Cambridge is more esoteric and intense, even solipsistic: its ideas (where they exist) gather steam and build up pressure in the sealed test tubes of introverted coteries. It is difficult to imagine the philosophy of G.E. Moore, with its complacent cult of “good states of mind,” or the sanctimonious teaching of E.M. Forster, with its subordination of public virtue to private relations, being received in Oxford. And what is one to say of the “Apostles,” the egregious secret society of self-perpetuating, self-admiring narcissi to which Moore and Forster, Burgess and Blunt, belonged? Could it have existed at Oxford? Would it not there have been blown up from within, or laughed out of existence?

However that may be, the fact is that Cambridge was the pool in which Stalin’s anglers fished, and in which they made their greatest catch. Hitherto we have had no account of the pool except from the outside; for Philby’s memoirs—a work of propaganda written in Russia—give nothing away, and Blunt’s promised memoirs, for which British publishers were outbidding each other a few years ago, have suddenly disappeared from the horizon. Now at last we have a view of the pool from inside, from one of the fish who, having taken the fly, broke away, escaped—with the hook still in his jaw—to his home waters, and now, after many adventures, tells his tale: Michael Straight.

Michael Straight is an American brought up in England. His father, Willard Straight, became familiar to me when I was studying the strange career, in China, of Sir Edmund Backhouse; for as a young man he had worked in China for an American finance house, raising loans for China as afterward, during the war, for the Allies. In China, Willard Straight met Dorothy Whitney, whom he later married. She was heiress to a great American fortune. The Straights were a cultivated, highminded, public-spirited couple, devoted to liberal causes. They founded The New Republic, of which Michael Straight would later be editor. After the early death of Willard Straight in 1918, his widow married an Englishman, “Jerry” Elmhirst, and they made their home in England, at Dartington Hall, in Devonshire.

There they established a “progressive” school and a cultural center which still survives under other auspices. The two Straight sons received an unconventional early education at the school, and afterward went to Cambridge. The elder, Whitney, became a British subject. Conservative and conventional, “more British than the British,” he went in for motor racing, fought in the RAF during the war, and died in England in 1979. He does not feature much in this book. Michael, the younger son, was very different. Like his parents, he was liberal and unconventional, with cultivated interests, and after some hesitation he would decide to remain American. Nevertheless, it was his English education that determined his life and gives form and interest to his book.

Before going to Cambridge (to Trinity College, of course), he spent a year at the London School of Economics, then dominated de jure by Sir William Beveridge, de facto by that self-important fantasiste, Harold Laski. There are agreeable portraits of both Beveridge and Laski in this book, as also of the rabid fanatic V.K. Krishna Menon, “a perpetual student, in a perpetual rage.” The school was a hotbed, or oven, of half-baked radicalism. That was a good start. But more important were the years at Cambridge. There Mr. Straight quickly gravitated toward the radical-chic Marxist world. His teacher was at first Maurice Dobb, the economist, who was a member of the Communist Party, then the classical economist Denis Robertson, whom he deserted in order to seek tuition from Keynes’s maverick disciple Joan Robinson.

The lectures of Maynard Keynes were, to some extent, a corrective. But how could any lectures prevail against the current of events and the pressure of contemporaries? For Straight’s years at Cambridge were 1934 to 1937, the years in which Hitler was establishing his dictatorship in Germany and Stalin, in Russia, while destroying his own rivals in show trials and monstrous purges, was presenting himself to his gullible admirers in the West as the champion of liberal democracy, the leader of the united “Popular Front” against Nazism, the only hope of preserving peace in the world. The influence and friendship of Keynes provided Mr. Straight with his long-term stability; but immediately he found himself carried along by the communist enthusiasm of his time and place.

Why did Mr. Straight, with his cultured, privileged, liberal background, slide so easily into the Cambridge communist world? Perhaps it was because of such a background, which, in a time of crisis, can be a source of weakness, not of strength. He refers to his sense of guilt because of his inherited wealth, and of rootlessness because of his cosmopolitan upbringing: he “lacked a sense of loyalty to British or American institutions.” However, that cannot be the whole story, for others who had less wealth to inspire guilt and whose roots lay in solid English earth slid as easily as he: a friend of mine, who was at the same college at the same time, has assured me (perhaps with some exaggeration) that he was the only scholar of his year who was not a communist. Nor did such wealth, or such rootlessness, draw others (like his brother Whitney) in the same direction. We are forced to conclude that these factors merely lubricated the slide, or are invoked as later rationalizations: that the real motive was the fashion of the time, similarly rationalized. Undergraduates are gregarious. Easily carried away by apparently idealist slogans, they move in shoals, following some luminous, charismatic pilot fish. The young in Germany did the same thing at the same time. The direction was different but the reflex action was the same.

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