The Greatest Radical Journalist of His Age

Monday, April 12, 2004, brings us the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Claud Cockburn, father of other Cockburns–the brothers Alexander, Andrew and Patrick–familiar to readers of the CounterPunch website and newsletter.

Claud was the greatest radical journalist of his age, an inspiring influence not only on CounterPunch, but on many other seditious journalistic enterprises, such as England’s Private Eye, the fortnightly at whose helm he stood at a crucial moment in the early 1960s or the National Guardian founded by Cedric Belfrage, James Aronson and John McManus.

Claud was a child of empire, born in the British legation in Peking, son of Harry Cockburn, the British minister there during the Boxer rising, who had spent twenty years in Chungking and was on friendly terms with the Empress Dowager of the Middle Kingdom. Claud grew up mostly in Budapest, went to Berkhamsted school, run by his friend Graham Greene’s father. Just young enough to escape slaughter in the Great War, he went to Oxford, lived in Paris, wrote for Ezra Pound’s Dial, worked for the London Times in Berlin, saw the rise of Hitler, went to New York to describe the Crash.

He turned left, quit The Times, joined the Daily Worker, paper of the British Communist Party, founded his famous antifascist newsletter The Week, fought for the Republic in the Spanish civil war, joining the Republic militia before the International Brigades were formed. His superiors ordered him back from the front lines to assume the propaganda duties alluded to in the piece below. 1947 saw him quit The Worker and the CP, move to Ireland and start a whole new life as a novelist and freelance commentator. His first book Beat the Devil, written under the name James Helvick was turned into Huston’s well-known film of the same name. He wrote other novels, three volumes of masterly memoirs, collected in the Penguin I, Claud.

He wrote fast, with a beautifully easy style. His prose could be light, ironic, also savage. He was learned but never overbearing, cultivated but never patronizing. He respected and enjoyed people at all social levels and ages. He loved dogs. Under the force of his example who could resist the lure of journalism and none of his sons did, to the initial gloom of our mother Patricia, who knew first hand that free-lance journalism doesn’t always bring home regular slabs of bacon.

His body simply wore out when he was 77 though his mind stayed sharp till his last breath. The day before he died in St Finbarr’s hospital in Cork he dictated a column for the Irish Times to Patricia. He never soured on his ideals, never lost faith in humanity’s nobler instincts, never failed to see the humor in life.

Shortly before Claud died, amid one of the periodic uproars about upper class British spies, our friend Ben Sonnenberg asked him to write a piece for Ben’s literary quarterly Grand Street. Claud turned in a masterly essay, full of astute observations about Guy Burgess and spy mania, but also with a wonderfully tragic-comic memoir about the strange death of Basil Murray in Valencia. On this, the hundredth anniversary of his arrival in this world, we offer hisessay, “Spies and Two Deaths in Spain” as a bow to one of the greatest of the twentieth century’s journalistic agitators.


Spies and Two Deaths in Spain


Before he was revealed as a central figure-perhaps the mastermind-of the Burgess-Maclean-Philby spy scandal, the rapscallion Guy Burgess used sometimes to join me at a table in one of the bars of the House of Commons and, in the course of conversation, proclaim that he was an agent of the Soviet Government. This would come out in a drink-slurred roar, clearly audible to, for example, Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary, towering massively at the bar, as well as to any other politician or newspaperman in the place.

He would usually, somewhere in the talk, make another emphatic assertion. This was to the effect that he was the illegitimate son of the then Lady Rothschild. It was, he implied, a fact which accounted for his expert knowledge of international finance.

The claim about his illegitimacy was entirely false and quite a number of people who ought to have known better believed it. And his claim to be an agent of the KGB was true and no one believed it. It was a crude and entirely successful example of the double bluff. If anyone -and I suppose there were some such in British counterintelligence- were to report a suspicion about Burgess’s role, his superior was likely to reply with weary contempt, “I know, I know, he keeps saying so himself.”

The ploy about Lady Rothschild appealed to people as a fairly titillating piece of gossip. It was useful to Burgess and he employed it for the same reason that his contemporary Brendan Bracken, Britain’s Information Minister throughout the war and an immensely successful political and financial pirate, used to claim that he was the illegitimate son of Winston Churchill. Reading the excitingly simplistic accounts of successive spy scandals in British publications, I find it useful to recall these facts about Burgess, which indicate in their own simple way how complex the detection of spies in our midst can be. We have had spy scares every few years, and I have no doubt, are going to have more of them. In the same way, scares about terrorism-together with more or less fraudulent analyses of the supposed activities and motivations of terrorists-will certainly proliferate as the nervous system of the general public increasingly demands sedation in the face of horrifying phenomena.

The public nervous system may be soothed by false explanations. But unless people are encouraged to look rather more coolly and deeply into these same phenomena of espionage and terrorism, they will make no progress towards any genuine self-defense against either.

At this point, it may be wise to remember that there are those whose hysteria on these subjects leads them to believe that any cool analysis amounts almost to a condonation. Such hysteria is of obvious help to spies and terrorists. Let us also note that nobody in any country can

truly and totally evaluate the harm an enemy’s spies may have done. The real experts in anti-espionage are a great deal more ready to admit this than the horrified public. Even the outstanding Russian dissident, Andrei Sakharov, “father” of their hydrogen bomb, is reported as saying that the secrets betrayed by Klaus Fuchs were of minimal importance in the development of the weapons in the Soviet Union.

A constant element among the facts and fiction about espionage is what we may call “Belief in the Spy as Superman.” All intelligence agencies have a vested interest in convincing the world of their machinelike efficiency. Particularly in wartime, but at other times too, the notion of the spy successfully uprooting our secrets, like a pig uprooting truffles, is alarming in itself, and also because it fits and extends the idea which almost everybody has, that the enemy is not only wickeder but also cleverer than we are. Malcolm Muggeridge once told me how, while working for MI6 during the war, he became for a time profoundly depressed by what appeared to him the ineptitude and even clownish folly of some of our intelligence procedures. His gloom lifted when, after the Allied landings in Italy, his German opposite numbers scampered out of Naples without even burning their vital documents. To his relief he saw from them that the Germans had been proceeding with an ineptitude and folly at least equal to our own.

A frequent element in spy-alarm, notably in Britain and France, is the belief that spies belong to, and are protected by, a higher social and financial class than the common citizenry of the country on which they are spying. An awkward bit of this last element is that it often chances to be true, as is apparent to students of the relationships between certain members of the German and British nobility not only before the outbreak of World War II, but in the intrigues directed particularly against Churchill during the autumn and winter of 1939-1940.

The most insidious of the bases for fear of spies is subtler than the others, yet quite as dangerous. It is rarely formulated but runs roughly, and often subconsciously, like this: if some of our best educated citizens who have had every advantage our society can offer are nonetheless prepared to dedicate themselves to an ideology destructive to that society, may it not be just possible that there is something dangerously wrong with our own philosophy of life?

It is exactly this element that accounts for the extraordinary outburst of outraged surprise with which the British public greeted the exposure of Anthony Blunt as a KGB agent. As in the case of Philby and Maclean, here was a young man of good family who had enjoyed to the full the educational, cultural, and social advantages of a reasonably affluent student at one of Britain’s two senior universities. He was as far from deprivation as anyone could get. There was no visible cause for him to turn against society. The thought that, despite all this, some extraordinary power of attraction in Communism’s alien and hostile doctrines had seduced him was terrifying. To judge by the tone of many British commentators, it was as alarming as a discovery that a witch-doctor had been secretly at large, exercising black-magical powers over the citizenry.

Such thoughts paralyze the capacity to see and deal rationally with the problem. The true explanation is a great deal simpler. Blunt and the other young men concerned were at Cambridge during the Great Depression. About three million were unemployed, and at that time to be on the dole or in low-paid employment in Britain meant poverty that was often near the starvation line.

John Gunther, in his book Inside Britain, notes the astonishment of American visitors at the docility of the British working class under such conditions and the absence of revolutionary outbursts. In this desert of misery, Cambridge was an ostentatious oasis of civilized comfort. It is not at all surprising that Blunt and others should have, with some deep feelings of guilt, questioned the justification for such a state of affairs. On the contrary, it would have been surprising had any sensitive and informed young man coolly accepted his position as though by divine right. The Communists did not require secret recruiting sergeants; the economics of the time were doing the job quite well enough. By contrast, only a few years earlier at Oxford, when the economic situation was less spectacularly dire, the majority of the student population was almost entirely apolitical. If, as some recent publications have suggested, there were Soviet recruiters at the Oxford of that day, they should have been fired for incompetence. Politics was in the main a replay, more or less histrionic, of the Liberal-Conservative struggles of the years before the First World War, with Labour adding no more than flavoring to a familiar stew.

Some who delve needlessly deep into the motivations of international spies, and double and triple agents, have made much of the fact that many of what may be called “The Cambridge Group” of distinguished Soviet agents can be shown to have been homosexual or to have had homosexual connections. But let us note that at Oxford in the mid-twenties, homosexuality was as fashionable and obtrusive as Communism was not. From the London press, which liked to paint lurid pictures of goings-on at the university, you could have gathered that the undergraduates were about evenly divided between flaunting and artistically outre homosexuals and sturdy British “hearties” upholding the values for which the preceding generation had died in the war.

Such nonsense apart, it is certainly true that in the most flamboyant and “trend-setting” intellectual circles homosexuality was in some cases so nearly de rigueur that aspiring writers, artists, and above all actors, actually felt compelled to pretend to be homosexual. The slang word for it was “so”. In reply to the greeting “How are you?” a common reply was: “So so, but not quite so so as sometimes.” A friend of mine who had the most “normal” sexual tastes started a literary magazine which, it was immediately suggested, should have been called Just So Stories. When an undergraduate was actually sent down for homosexual practices, astounded observers held competitions to suggest what amazingly spectacular misbehavior he must have indulged in to merit this extraordinary action by the authorities.

Another odd fact is that at that time “womanizer” was a term of abuse. I knew a normally lusty American Rhodes Scholar who could hardly believe that even among those who vigorously deplored the existence of homosexuality, “womanizing” was worse than immoral; it was unspeakably vulgar. This must have had its historical roots in the long ages when Oxford was so successfully isolated by lack of transport from the outside world that prostitutes were the only women available during term time to all but the richest students who could afford gigs and other horse-drawn vehicles to get them at least as far as Reading. By my day the majority of heterosexual people were able to find ways and means of satisfaction, even in term-time, but always under the still somewhat inhibiting fear of being dubbed “womanizers”.

It is a pity that so many who write of Oxford and Cambridge in the relevant years are so crassly ignorant of the prevailing atmosphere. They remind me of Mr.Vladimir, the Imperial Russian diplomat in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, as he lectures the title character:

“And Mr. Vladimir developed his idea from on high, with scorn and condescension, displaying at the same time an amount of ignorance as to the real aims, thoughts, and methods of the revolutionary world which filled the silent Mr. Verloc with inward consternation. He confounded causes with effects more than was excusable; the most distinguished propagandists with impulsive bomb throwers; assumed organization where in the nature of things it could not exist; spoke of the social revolutionary party one moment as of a perfectly disciplined army, where the word of chiefs was supreme, and at another as if it had been the loosest association of desperate brigands that ever camped in a mountain gorge.”

We find a Mr. Vladimir at every corner today, spouting his confident but dangerously misleading lectures.

Still, in the areas of spying and terrorism, even the best are inclined to leave out from their sapient and (so far as they go) truthful analyses the factor of unpredictability. Or nonsense, if you prefer. Brooding on this situation, I constantly keep in mind my own experience in the field of espionage, or rather, counterespionage.

Early in the Spanish Civil War I was what, if one were inclined to pomposity, might be called a section leader of the counterespionage department of the Spanish Republican Government dealing with Anglo-Saxon personalities. My job was principally to vet applications by British and Americans for visas to enter Republican Spain.

It was, as I realized rather late, a “no win” situation for me. Either I allowed in some supposed friend of the Republic who turned out to be a secret enemy, in which case I could very well be shot as a saboteur. Or, overcautiously avoiding this risk, I might exclude some character suspect to me who would later turn out to be a loyal friend of the Republic and a potentially powerful propagandist in its cause. Saboteur again.

It was under these circumstances that I had to consider the application for a visa for Basil Murray, son of Professor Gilbert Murray, whose family and connections were luminaries of the British liberal academic and political world. I was astonished, and more than a little suspicious, when Basil, in making his application, explained that having hitherto lived the life of a roustabout at Oxford and layabout in London, he had suddenly seen the light and wished to dedicate himself to the cause of the Republic. Specifically, he wanted to give radio talks from Valencia, where the government was now established.

Knowing and liking Basil, but still not quite convinced of the strength of his new resolutions, I discussed his application with the Foreign Minister, who thought that I was mad even to consider rejecting the son of so distinguished a figure in Britain who was as well the cousin of the British Foreign Secretary. (This last was untrue, a detail invented by Basil to help in obtaining his visa.)

Basil came to Valencia, and with much sweat and dedication produced several excellent broadcasts. Then he suddenly fell in love with a girl of whom one may say that had she had the words I am a Nazi spy printed on her hat, that could hardly have made her position clearer than it was. I reasoned with Basil, but found him besotted with love and convinced that, in some bigoted way, I was deliberately thinking ill of this splendid creature.

Just as my arguments ran finally into a blind alley, the girl herself suddenly quit the Republic for Berlin in the company of a high-ranking officer of the International Brigade who proved also to be an agent of the enemy. Although I was naturally careful not to belabor Basil with I-told-you-sos, he fell into a deep melancholy both at the loss of the loved one and the disclosure of her political vileness.

Soon after, wandering bitterly disconsolate along the quays of Valencia’s harbor, he saw a tiny street menagerie of the kind that in those days was a common form of popular entertainment in Spain. The little group included an ape. And this ape, Basil said, was the first living creature that–since the defection of the Nazi agent–had looked at him with friendly sympathy. He bought the ape and took it with him to the Victoria Hotel, which was the hotel housing all visiting VIPs.

The next I knew, I received a call from the management of the Victoria, who said furiously that they had already strained themselves to the limit by putting up all the foreign visitors I had recommended, and that now, by God, my latest protege was demanding a room for an ape. After I had pointed out that there were apes enough already living in the hotel, so that one more would hardly be noticed, it was agreed that Basil be moved to a room with a large bathroom, in which the ape might be accommodated.

This arrangement worked well enough for a matter of forty-eight hours. Then Basil, still disconsolate despite the friendly eyes of the ape, drank heavily and fell asleep naked on his bed in the fierce humid heat of a Valencia afternoon. He had locked the ape in the bathroom, but the ingenious and friendly animal became bored with this isolation and longed for the company of its new master. Somehow it picked the lock of the bathroom door and came into the bedroom looking for a game or frolic. Finding the new master disappointingly unresponsive, the ape made vigorous efforts to rouse him, biting him over and over again and finally in frustration biting through his jugular vein.

Apart from my personal regret at the loss of my old acquaintance, I was compelled to see that the situation would be politically damaging. One could surmise at once what a hostile British press would make of the news that a brilliant young Englishman of distinguished family had sought to work for the Red Republic, and had, within a very short time, been bitten to death by an ape. It was possible quickly to announce that Basil had died of pneumonia as a result of the treacherous Valencia climate.

It was also arranged that the British Government should send a light cruiser or frigate from its Mediterranean fleet for the purpose of carrying Basil back to Britain. A small cortege of suitable officials from the Republican Foreign Office accompanied the remains to the quayside. It was only when the remains were being moved to the cutter for transfer onto the frigate that a member of the cortege noticed that they had been joined by the ape. It sprang into the stern sheets of the cutter.

Faithfully, it followed Basil up the companionway. It appeared on the spotless deck and there, in a gesture suitable for solemn occasions (learned, no doubt, from the owner of the menagerie), it raised its fist in the Red Front salute.

A British warrant officer–having doubtless been warned of the dangerous and even bestial character of the Reds and of the necessity for vigilance while the ship was in a Red harbor–reacted swiftly, drew a pistol and shot the ape dead. Its body fell overboard and disappeared into the Mediterranean. Basil, I believe, had a fine funeral in England, and the episode was closed.

But not really. For weeks afterwards I was pestered by the menagerie owner demanding compensation and heart-balm for his grief at the demise of the ape. He said that when he had sold it to Basil he had not at all envisaged the possibility that the creature would be brutally murdered by the forces of British imperialism, shooting down that helpless animal as ruthlessly as they had shot down innumerable people throughout the Empire.

In addition, the British diplomatic mission to Republican Spain immediately spread the story that we, the Republicans, meaning in this case me, had murdered Basil-poison in the wine, one of them said. Anarchists and others suspicious of the coalition government somehow spread a story that through the government’s carelessness or connivance, a British agent had been introduced, and then killed when on the verge of damaging exposure. Enemies of the Murray family, and those disgusted that Basil should have worked for the Republic, spread in England the story that Basil had had improper relations with the ape. They even, I found later, substituted a bear.

As late as the 1950s a close and loving relative of Basil’s was delighted to hear from me the true story, which confirmed the genuineness of Basil’s determination to do something constructive with his life-however grotesque the actual outcome.

Footnote: And being a great connoisseur of propaganda techniques, Claud would certainly have enjoyed CounterPunch’s savage new dissection of the propanda blitzes surrounding the Empire’s attacks on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, described in Cockburn and St Clair’s new history, Imperial Crusades. You want a blow by blow diary of how these wars were sold, and how they were fought? It’s one click away, a history up there with Tacitus and Macaulay.



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.