And what a web they wove!

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The Webbs, early in their marriage

A century ago, the Webbs, Sidney (1859-1947) and Beatrice (1858-1943), were the power couple of British Labour. Together they help form the Fabian Society, whose devotion to the idea of a socialist UK played a major role in shaping Labour Party policy and creating the modern British welfare state. They took part in the founding of the London School of Economics. They carried out research, published studies, and sat on committees, all with the goal of establishing an entirely new social and economic order. For a time Sidney was a Labour minister.

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The Webbs in later years

“Together, we could move the world,” Sidney once said of their relationship. “Marriage is a partnership. It is the ultimate committee.” (That last sentence should give you a pretty good idea of how their minds worked.) The immense scale of their influence is undeniable; the merits of their efforts to alter the British system are subject to debate. Certainly much of what they helped to achieve was genuinely admirable. But the activity that capped off their careers can only be described as a world-class example of useful stoogery.

We’re referring here to their promotion of Soviet Communism.

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With George Bernard Shaw, a fellow Fabian

The Webbs didn’t start out as admirers of the USSR. During the 1920s they recognized that Soviet Communism and Italian fascism were two sides of the same coin – and equally appalling.

But that changed. In 1935, after visiting the USSR and perusing economic data supplied to them by the Kremlin, they published a book of over a thousand pages entitled Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? It was nothing less than a celebration of Stalinism. The Webbs cheered on forced collectivization, applauded the Gulag, even rationalized the mass murder of the kulaks. (“It must be recognised,” they wrote, “that this liquidation of the individual capitalists in agriculture had necessarily to be faced if the required increase of output was to be obtained.”)

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In Russia, 1932

“Old people,” Beatrice said, “often fall in love in extraordinary and ridiculous ways – with their chauffeurs, for example: we feel it more dignified to have fallen in love with Soviet Communism.”

Despite their private qualms about the Moscow show trials, in which Stalin railroaded his rivals, they publicly gave the trials their support. They acknowledged that the Soviet people were being fed a diet of pure propaganda, but argued that the BBC was doing essentially the same thing to the British populace. They flat-out denied that any famine had occurred in the Ukraine. They also denied that Stalin was a dictator, characterizing him instead as “a shrewd and definitely skilful manager.” And they gushed endlessly over the wonderfulness of everyday existence in the Soviet Union, where people lived “in an atmosphere of social equality and of freedom from servility or ‘inferiority complex’ that is unknown elsewhere,” and experienced an utter “absence of prejudice as to colour or race.” In the USSR, they enthused, “The Worship of God is replaced by The Service of Man.”

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Nick Cohen

Between 1935 and 1937, Stalin had amped up the terrorization of his people to a level unmatched in human history. Nick Cohen has summed it up as follows: “Whole races were being transported, the Communist party was being massacred, every petrified citizen knew they must denounce or be denounced.” How did the Webbs respond? By taking out the question mark in the title of their book. In the 1937 second edition, it was entitled Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation. If, as Cohen puts it, that question mark had “delicately suggested it was possible to doubt that the Soviet Union was a workers’ paradise,” now all doubt was gone: “The Webbs responded to the creation of a slave economy by dropping the question mark.”

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Malcolm Muggeridge

Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, pronounced that the two editions of the Webbs’ Russia book were “about the most unrealistic books ever produced by able people.” The historian A. J. P. Taylor said that Soviet Communism was “the most preposterous book ever written about Soviet Russia.” Malcolm Muggeridge – who had reported (honestly) from the Soviet Union – later wrote that the Webbs “knew about the regime,” including the evils of the Cheka secret police, “but they liked it.” Once Beatrice said to him, “Yes, it’s true, people disappear in Russia.” Muggeridge recalled that she had “said it with such great satisfaction that I couldn’t help thinking that there were a lot of people in England whose disappearance she would have liked to organize.”

But he was so charming!

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Guy Burgess in Moscow, 1962

After Soviet spy Guy Burgess defected to Russia, what was his life like?

First he and fellow traitor Donald Maclean were held under house arrest for several months, if not years (reports vary), and were interrogated the whole time. Burgess was then installed, alone, in a dacha in a village near Moscow, where he was constantly under armed guard and was not allowed to go outside without permission.

For five years after their disappearance, the USSR maintained a public silence about the fate of Burgess and Maclean. Nobody in Britain was sure whether they were alive or dead. Then, in 1956, Richard Hughes of the Sunday Times was called to a Moscow meeting at which the two defectors handed him a joint statement in which they denied having been Soviet agents and claimed to have gone to the USSR to work toward “better understanding between the Soviet Union and the West.”

Their statement made headlines. Thenceforth both men began communicating regularly with relatives and chums in the UK. Burgess wrote a piece for the Sunday Express denouncing U.S. foreign policy. Nobody high up criticized this; but when Burgess’s former friend Goronwy Rees published a series of intimate articles about the “real Guy Burgess,” Rees became an Establishment pariah: he was dismissed from a university position and dropped by friends who felt he’d betrayed Burgess. (They apparently didn’t mind that Burgess had betrayed his country.) One of these friends wrote to Rees: “Guy was such a charming, cultivated, civilised and loveable person.” That he worked for Stalin, apparently, was irrelevant; what mattered what the charm.

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Burgess and his mother in Sochi, Russia, 1956

Mind-bogglingly, the British government let Burgess ship his furniture and other possessions from London to Moscow. His mother was permitted to visit him annually (she taught his cooks how to make his favorite dishes) and to send him food shipments several times a year. He corresponded freely with several friends, including Harold Nicolson. The British government even arranged for the contents of his London bank account to be transferred to him in Russia, and didn’t stand in his way when he ordered groceries from Fortnum & Mason, clothes from Turnbull & Asser, shirts from New & Lingwood, and books from Collet’s on Charing Cross Road. British authorities didn’t even strip him of his citizenship: he was designated a non-resident British subject, which meant he could receive money legally from the UK.

In Russia, Burgess continued to work actively against British interests. He wrote a spy-recruiting manual, helped counterfeit official British and American documents, and composed letters that were mailed to British MPs and Western newspapers bearing the signatures of private citizens who didn’t, in fact, exist. He was considered the mot useful of all British defectors.

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Andrew Lownie

He also led a more orderly life than he had in Britain. He had to. When he drank too much, his “minders” gave him a “talking-to.” His mother, who after his father’s death had never made an effort to control her constantly out-of-control son, observed that “Soviet discipline is good for Guy.” As Burgess biographer Andrew Lownie writes, “Burgess was a spoilt child, indulged by his mother,” and “had never been given boundaries.” For some people, indeed, this is indeed the appeal of totalitarianism: the idea of freedom is terrifying; they are incapable of self-control; they crave a strong authority above them, restricting their movements and punishing them for any violation of the rules.

Still, in a 1959 interview with Canadian TV, Burgess said: “My life ended when I left London.”

Three years later, he told British visitors that while he was “a firm believer in communism,” he didn’t “like the Russian communists.” He was even more vehement with another visitor, saying: “I hate Russia. I simply loathe Russia. I’m a communist, of course, but I’m a British communist, and I hate Russia!” The difference, of course, was that in the UK he could be a Communist while living under the capitalist system. What was the fun of being a Communist in a Communist country?

Stalin_JosephOne thing seems clear. Burgess, we suspect, didn’t really want to see Britain transformed into a Communist state. What he wanted was to continue to live in a capitalist Britain where he was fully free to enjoy the manifold privileges and pleasures that were available to him as a member of the Establishment. At the same time, however, he wanted to be able to play the part of the rebel – without, of course, ever having to pay the slightest price for it. There was, in short, no moral or philosophical foundation underlying any of his actions. As one BBC colleague commented after his defection: “He had literally no principles at all. None at all.” Another acquaintance agreed: “There was a solid core missing….épater le bourgeois. That’s what really started him off.” What a shallow reason, indeed, to serve a monster like Stalin.

Guy the spy

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Guy Burgess

After Cambridge student Guy Burgess went to work as a spy for the Soviet Comintern, he resigned his membership in the British Communist Party and pretended to have joined the political right. In 1936, with a glittering set of recommendations from well-placed friends and acquaintances, he got a job as a radio producer at the BBC.

Circa 1940: Sir Harold Nicolson, (1886-1968), English diplomat, author and critic sitting before a BBC microphone in a radio studio. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Harold Nicolson, c. 1940

Almost immediately, he proved his value to his Kremlin masters: he introduced pro-Russian radio programming (diplomat Harold Nicolson, a friend of Burgess’s, complained that thanks largely to Burgess’s efforts, BBC coverage of the Soviet Union was “completely distorted”); he was involved in the broadcast of speeches by high-level politicians and military officers whose gossip he readily passed on to Moscow; and he used his position at the Corporation to help established his Cambridge friend and fellow spy Anthony Blunt as an on-air art expert. He also recruited various friends as spies.

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Stanley Baldwin

But that wasn’t all. The Soviets, as it happened, really lucked out. Soon after going to work at the BBC, Burgess was also tapped by the office Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to serve as a “secret courier between No. 10 Downing Street and the French government.” He was then hired by British intelligence to secretly report to it on the Prime Minister’s activities. In short, he was spying on the PM for British intelligence, and spying on both of them for the Soviets, to whom he provided a rich trove of material. His work for British intelligence also involved liaising with anti-Nazi groups around Europe and serving on the Joint Broadcasting Committee, which fed pro-British radio shows to the U.S. and Europe. The top-level connections he now enjoyed in Britain gave him “access to highly confidential information about the preparations for war” that proved extremely helpful to the Soviets. In particular, his tip-off that the British government felt it could easily defeat Hitler alone, and thus had no serious intention of allying with the USSR against him, helped convince Stalin that his only salvation lay in a temporary alliance with the Nazis.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin with Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov who was Foreign Minister (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov with Stalin

In 1944, he was tasked with planning postwar British propaganda for the Foreign Office, and in that capacity had access to “almost all material produced by the Foreign Office.” The material he fed to the Russians at this point was “dynamite.” And it just got better: in 1946 he became private secretary to a top Foreign Office official and began to take part in the formulation of foreign policy. Thanks to him, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, knew what the British and American position on Berlin was before the Brits’ own delegates to the 1947 London Conference did.

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Hector McNeil

Yet nobody in British intelligence suspected what Burgess was up to; on the contrary, so highly trusted was he that when his superiors decided that there was need to fight Soviet propaganda with propaganda of their own, they tapped Burgess to help formulate it. Indeed, his immediate boss, Hector McNeil, trusted Burgess so much that McNeil asked him “to report on anyone who might be suspicious on the staff.”

More tomorrow. 

GDR lapdog: Brecht’s third act

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Brecht testifying before HUAC

After World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee caught up with Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht, who’d fled his native Germany when Hitler took power and spent the war being tortured – namely, by what he saw as the hellish vulgarity of southern California. On October 30, 1947, he appeared before HUAC, accused of having written “a number of very revolutionary poems, plays, and other writings.” While denying  (correctly) that he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, he managed to avoid confessing that he was, in fact, a believing Communist. In any event he ended up being let off the hook, and the next day he left the country.

Almost exactly a year later, he returned to his homeland for the first time in fifteen years, settling in East Germany, where he was lauded as a local hero. For all his theoretical enthusiasm for Communism, however, and his eagerness to accept all the goodies that the Berlin government was prepared to hand over to him, Brecht was cynical enough not to convert the money he’d earned (and continued to earn) in the Free World into into soft Warsaw Bloc currency; instead, he banked his cash in Switzerland – a decision that enabled him to live high on the hog the rest of his life, a beneficiary of capitalist largesse surrounded by people immured in Communist poverty. He also made sure to hang on to an Austrian passport that he’d acquired after the war.

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Brecht with Hanss Eisler, 1950

But none of these lingering links to the bourgeois West kept the East German government from treating Brecht as a national treasure and as an iconic Communist author. In Berlin, he was given his own theater. In 1955, the USSR awarded him the Stalin Prize, its own equivalent to the Nobel Prize. In return, Brecht – who, as we’ve seen, carped constantly about the evils of California sunshine – was an obedient subject of the commissars. Champions of Brecht have emphasized his quiet complaints about various aspects of governance behind the Iron Curtain. These defenders distort the record. Stalin was one of the great monsters of human history, and Brecht had a pretty good knowledge of what he was doing and had done – but he never raised his voice in criticism of Uncle Joe. On the contrary, he outspokenly supported some of Stalin’s most brutal acts.

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Walter Ulbricht

He was, to quote John Simon, consistently “deferential” toward Communist leaders – and cowardly in his readiness to gang up on the system’s victims. Hanns Eisler, composer of the GDR’s national anthem, had a sister who was no fan of Stalin, and Brecht’s verdict on her was heartless and unequivocal: The swine has to be shot.” Brecht’s own wife was Jewish, but he didn’t complain about the Soviets’ treatment of Jews, either. His habit of sucking up to GDR authorities is reflected in a shameless, toadying letter to party leader Walter Ulbricht, written after the armed suppression of a popular uprising: “History,” Brecht wrote, “will pay its respects to the revolutionary impatience of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany….At this moment I must assure you of my allegiance to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.”

Bottom line: however opposed Brecht may have been to Nazism, he chose to sit out the war in America – all the while constantly running down his hosts and neighbors, whose valiant sons were putting their lives on the line to liberate his homeland. And as fierce as his opposition to Nazism, apparently, was his nauseating readiness to kowtow to the Soviet variety of totalitarianism. Brecht – who died in 1956, a year after gratefully accepting the Stalin Prize – ended his life a useful stooge for Communism, as thoroughly barren of heroism as were the characters in his grim, misanthropic plays. 

The top ten stooges of 2016

Time again, kids, for our annual top-ten list. As before, these aren’t necessarily the worst human beings we covered last year; they’re people whose deplorable activities stood out in some way or another. One more thing: this time around, we’ve decided to forego the old cranks and creeps and focus instead on relatively youthful stooges – young-to-middle-aged characters who are especially worth keeping tabs on because their most high-profile and influential stoogery probably lies ahead of them…alas. Anyway, here goes:

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Max Blumenthal

To quote Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Max Blumenthal “is quite simply one of the most biased, anti-Semitic, terrorist-defending, Israel-has-no-right-to-exist haters out there.” And here’s what fellow leftist Eric Alterman had to say about Max’s 2013 anti-Israel screed Genesis: “this book could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club.” The vile spawn of ethically bankrupt Clinton lackey Sidney Blumenthal (one of the slimiest operatives ever to set foot inside the Washington Beltway), Sonny Boy routinely equates the Jewish state with Nazi Germany; this year he praised a massacre of IDF soldiers by Hamas commanders. In short, he’s as low as they go – and a dyed-in-the-wool chip off the old block.

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Nick Dearden

In 2016, while other fans of chavismo hid in shame as the system they’d celebrated brought the Venezuelan economy to its knees, British activist Nick Dearden was actually cheering what he described as that country’s “food revolution.” What on earth was he talking about? Answer: a new law that bans genetically modified seeds and prohibit the sale to corporations of “indigenous knowledge” in the field of agriculture. The result, Dearden enthused, would be “a truly democratic food system” that made the Bolivarian Republic “a beacon of hope.” Tell that to all the people who are eating their pets and breaking into bodegas to steal bread.

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Malcolm Harris

When Occupy Wall Street went bottom-up, blame focused largely on Malcolm Harrisa founder of the movement who’s been accused by fellow left-winger Mark Ames of exploiting OWS to “build his own brand.” Meaning what? Well, when leaders of Occupy Redlands in California invited Harris to give a lecture, they heard back from a speakers’ agency: the fee would be $5,000, plus travel and hotel. This year Harris wrote a piece called “Who’s Afraid of Communism?” – a call for millennials to reject capitalism and take a fresh, “nuanced” look at Mao and Stalin. When the Revolution comes, will he still be allowed to charge five grand for a speech?

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David Sirota

In June, we met chavismo enthusiast and former Bernie Sanders flunky David Sirota. Described by Newsweek in 2003 as “well schooled in the art of Washington warfare,” by the New York Times as a guy with a “take-no-prisoners mind-set” toward Republicans and centrists, and by election expert Nate Silver as a dude who plays “fast and loose with the truth,” Sirota wrote an article after the Boston Marathon bombing expressing the hope that the perpetrator was a white American. Like Dearden, moreover, Sirota has cheered Venezuela’s “economic miracle.” Of course, the only “economic miracle” in Venezuela is that the country, despite its massive petroleum resources, now has to import oil. 

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Colin Kaepernick

On August 26, San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick protested racism in America by refusing to stand up for the National Anthem before a game. This started a trend that has spread to a variety of sports at every level. Whatever one thinks of it, one part of this episode is unambiguously contemptible: at his press conference that day, Kaepernick wore a T-shirt covered with pictures of Fidel Castro and Malcolm X. The message was clear: the U.S. is a contemptibly racist nation and Cuba a model of racial harmony. Pure Communist propaganda, of course: in reality, aside from being a totalitarian state, Cuba is a country where intense racial prejudice is still a fact of life. Too bad Kaepernick is so ill-informed – and that his ignorance has given rise to such a divisive movement.

Five more tomorrow.

 

Prisoners in Paradise

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Noel Field

Last week we started examining the curious life of Noel Field, American diplomat turned Stalinist spy, as told in a splendid recent biography by Kati Marton.

In our last installment, we saw that Field was exposed as a spy in 1948 by Whittaker Chambers. Seeking refuge and a new meaningful life in service to Communism, Field traveled to Prague – where he was promptly arrested, questioned, and tortured until he confessed to being an American spy. His torturers knew this was a lie, but they wanted Field to provide false “evidence” against other Communists so that they could be executed as traitors – and he obliged them, turning over no fewer than 562 names.

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Erica Wallach, 1962

This next part sounds almost like some kind of sick joke. When Field went missing, his wife, Herta, was worried. She went to Prague to look for him – and was promptly arrested. Field’s brother, Hermann, was also worried. He went to Warsaw – where he, too, was arrested. That left Erica Wallach, who had been a sort of stepdaughter to Noel and Herta and who was now married to an American GI with whom she had two small children. Erica contacted an East German official of her acquaintance and asked him to help her find Noel, Herta, and Hermann. He invited her to meet him at Communist Party headquarters on Unter den Linden in East Berlin. She went there and was immediately arrested, tried as a spy, sentenced to death, and sent to a Moscow prison to await her execution. But fate intervened: Stalin died, and instead of being executed, Erica was sent to the worst of the Gulag stations, north of the Arctic Circle, where she spent several years doing burdensome manual labor in subzero temperatures.

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Hermann Field and his wife, Kate, in later years

When all four of them – Noel, Herda, Hermann, and Erica – finally got out of prison, they owed their release to an unlikely savior. A Polish officer who had been Hermann’s torturer defected to the U.S. and held a press conference under the auspices of the CIA at which he said that the charges against all four were trumped up. The State Department immediately demanded their release, and the Communist governments complied. Noel and Herda were reunited, and discovered they had been imprisoned only a few meters from each other; but they didn’t cry until they were informed that Stalin was dead. Both still fanatical Communists, they begged to be allowed to remain in Hungary. (As Marton notes, they may well have been the first Americans to request political asylum in that country.)

When Noel found out that Hermann and Erica had been imprisoned because of him, did he feel guilty? Not at all. His main worry, where they were concerned, was that they would not say or do anything to damage the Communist cause. He tried to persuade Hermann (who had never been a Communist) to “defect” to the East in order to hand the Eastern Bloc a propaganda coup. As for Erica, instead of being glad that she could finally be reunited with her husband and children, Noel fretted that her American GI husband would poison her mind against Communism (as if her years in the Gulag hadn’t already done that). Erica was disgusted by Noel, saying: “This is just a Party man. The human being has disappeared.”

We’ll finish this up tomorrow.

Howard Zinn, Stalinist

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The young Howard Zinn

In 2003, Howard Zinn was described as “the most influential historian in America.” As of that year, his book A People’s History of the United States was selling 128,000 copies annually; total sales have now topped two million. What a remarkable coup this was for Zinn, whose parents were working-class immigrants from Russia and Ukraine and whose father worked as a fruit peddler and ditch digger. Had Zinn’s parents not emigrated to America, any child of theirs would have grown up as a peasant under Communism. And if that child had grown up to be half as outspoken as Zinn, he’d soon have ended up either in the Gulag or in front of a firing squad. That the son of such a couple could end up as a prominent historian and a wealthy man is a tribute to the reality of the American dream.

zinnbookBut Zinn himself didn’t see it that way. Indeed, perhaps the best way to sum up his life goal is to say that he was out to destroy Americans’ belief in the American dream. For Zinn was a Communist. And he wasn’t just any Communist. He was a very active Communist who belonged to a New York branch of the Party and attended Party meetings five nights a week between around 1949 and 1953.

And that wasn’t all. He taught informal courses in Communism to other Communists. He participated in various Communist front groups, such as the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee and the International Workers Order, and in a number of Communist-infiltrated organizations, such as the American Veterans Committee. Although, as noted, he ceased being active in the Party during the 1950s, his political views remained the same, as evidenced by his enthusiasm for the Castro revolution in Cuba.

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One of Zinn’s heroes

As many observers have noted, the timing of Zinn’s involvement in the Party is interesting. He wasn’t one of those who joined the CPUSA in the 1920s or 30s, when ignorance was still a credible excuse and some of Stalin’s worst atrocities remained in the future. No, he joined up after the Ukraine famine, after the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and after the USSR’s postwar occupation of Eastern Europe. By the time he signed up as an agent of the Kremlin, it was clear to any well-informed Westerner that Josef Stalin was a thoroughly evil piece of work, fully on a par with Hitler, and that the people living in the Soviet Union and its satellites were the helpless, terrorized subjects of a monstrous tyranny.

Zinn would later go on to become a prominent academic and a leader of the anti-Vietnam movement. We’ve already written here about his friendly wartime visit to Hanoi with Father Daniel Berrigan, a fellow Communist. But it wasn’t till A People’s History came out in 1980 that Zinn became famous.

We’ll get to that tomorrow.