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Secretly Serving Stalin
, March 9, 2014
This review is from: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Kindle Edition)
This enjoyable and informative book gives us an insight into the life of Kim Philby and the dark corridors of the secret world he inhabited. During and after the Second World War Philby was employed by Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), but was all the time secretly working for the Russian secret service, which had recruited him in the 1930s.
Macintyre knows how to write a good book about the workings of the secret services, as is shown by his previous forays, "Agent Zigzag", "Operation Mincemeat" and "Double Cross". This book matches them: the narrative flows rapidly, pulling the reader along with it.
Macintyre focuses not just on Philby's deceit of SIS, but also on his deceit of his friends. He does this by telling the parallel stories of Philby and of his friend and colleague in SIS, Nicholas Elliot. Philby and Elliot came from similar privileged backgrounds, but whereas Elliot stayed loyal to the British state and ruling class, Philby threw in his lot with Stalin.
For me, what makes Philby interesting is that he was motivated by political principles. He genuinely believed that by spying for the USSR he was advancing the cause of a fairer and more peaceful world. Like many others in the 1930s he could see that capitalism was a system based on exploitation and inequality, a system which was dragging the world into economic crisis and war, and a system which had given birth to the monstrosity of fascism. (We see similar developments today.)
But what Macintyre does not make clear is that the Russian state that Philby decided to serve had moved a long way from genuine Marxism. The 1917 Russian Revolution, led by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, had been a genuine workers' revolution, with working people exercising power through the "soviets" (elected workers' councils). But by the late 1920s any remnants of the gains and democracy of the revolution had been destroyed by Stalin and the bureaucratic ruling class that had usurped power and turned Russia into a state capitalist tyranny.
Philby's tragedy is that he dedicated his life to a totalitarian state which called itself socialist, but which was just as exploitive a system as the one in the West. Perhaps there was some excuse in the early 1930s for Philby being unaware of the true nature of the USSR, but he stuck loyally by the Stalinist regime even when its crimes could not be ignored, right up to his death in 1988. (Whereas genuine Marxists had long been advocating the slogan of "Neither Washington Nor Moscow But International Socialism", and pointing out that "The Free World is not really free and the Communist World is not really communist".)
In his own autobiography ("My Silent War"), Philby acknowledges that at one point he saw that "much was going badly wrong in the Soviet Union", but he says that he decided to "stick it out, in the confident faith that the principles of the Revolution would outlive the aberration of individuals, however enormous." Sadly, what had gone wrong in the USSR was not just an "aberration", it was a full-scale counter-revolution.
Finally, although it can be entertaining to get a glimpse of the secret world by reading books like Macintyre's, we need to remember that the real world of the secret services is a nasty one. They do not just spy on each other. They spy on (and often persecute) dissenting voices within their own countries, and they conduct dirty tricks such as the toppling of elected governments (as the CIA did in Chile). The secret services on both sides of Philby's "silent war" are villains.
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