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21 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 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.

Phil Webster.
(England)
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 22, 2014 5:23:27 PM PDT
Eric Rachut says:
As Richard Pipes has made quite clear, Stalin did not subvert the wonderful state founded by the Bolsheviks's coup e'etat in October 1917 (the real Russian Revolution happened in February), he simply expanded on the dictatorship of Vladimir Lenin.
Mass murder, the gulag camps and all are Lenin's doing.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 23, 2014 12:03:23 PM PDT
P. Webster says:
I'm very familiar with the view put forward by Pipes and many others that Leninism led directly to Stalinism. I just don't agree that the evidence supports that view.

The February Revolution got rid of the Tsar, but it brought to power the Provisional Government which continued to take part in the bloodbath of World War One.

October would only be a "coup" if the Bolsheviks took power without majority support. In fact they only took power when they had won a majority on the soviets, with the previous majority of SRs and Mensheviks having been voted out. Even the Menshevik Martov admitted that the workers were solidly behind the Bolsheviks by October.

The isolation of the Russian Revolution, the horrors of the Civil War and intervention by foreign powers in support of the White armies destroyed the foundations of the new regime. But to consolidate his rule in the 1920s Stalin had to physically destroy the last vestiges of soviet democracy and murder most of the old Bolsheviks.

No doubt you will not agree with any of what I've said here. So we'll have to agree to differ!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 21, 2014 1:55:54 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 21, 2014 2:00:22 PM PDT
"Philby's tragedy is that he dedicated his life to a totalitarian state which called itself socialist, but which was just as exploitive [sic] a system as the one in the West." Please elaborate on that one, with specific justifications for your idea that Capitalism and Stalin's USSR were equally bad systems. I can't wait.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 22, 2014 1:53:39 AM PDT
P. Webster says:
Firstly, my Oxford English Dictionary says that "exploitive" and "exploitative" are both acceptable.

Secondly, capitalism is based on two key features:
(1) The extraction of surplus value (profit) from the working class (both manual and white collar workers) by the capitalist class.
(2) Competition between the rival capitalists, which leads to a "race to the bottom". The unplanned nature of this competitive production leads to periodic crises. In the case of the Stalinist bureaucratic tyranny in Russia, the competion was largely military competition with the West. The competition between rival capitalist/imperialist states often leads to war.

From your sarcastic tone, I don't expect you'll agree with a word of this!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 22, 2014 2:40:30 PM PDT
Ian Kaplan says:
You should read Lenin's essay on terror. The Cheka was Lenin's creation. The core problem is the Marxist idea of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Dictatorship always turns bad, as it did in the Soviet Union, in China and in Cuba. Any power that has no check on it will not end well.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 23, 2014 1:51:06 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 23, 2014 1:59:56 AM PDT
P. Webster says:
I agree with you when you say: "Any power that has no check on it will not end well." But initially the workers' councils ("soviets") were designed precisely to keep a check on power.

The "dictatorship of the proletariat" for Marx was the rule of the majority (the proletariat) and was meant to be the prelude to the disappearance of the state. Marx based his idea on the Paris Commune, which had a highly democratic structure until it was crushed. All officials were elected, subject to recall at any time, and paid only the average worker's wage.

In his book "The State and Revolution", Lenin makes it clear that this is exactly what he wanted to see. Also, John Reed's book "Ten Days That Shook The World", for example, shows how democratic the soviets were in their early days.

Unfortunately the Civil War started by the "Whites" and the invading foreign armies undermined this democracy, leading to the founding of the Cheka etc. Stalin then later put paid to the whole democratic ideal with his bureaucratic tyranny.
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