A SPY NAMED ORPHAN: The Enigma of Donald MacLean
Bodley Head, 2018, 440 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
At Cambridge University in the 1930s, Donald MacLean was popularly known as Donald MacLenin because he was a Red-hot undergraduate, a Communist Party member who railed against “the economic situation, the unemployment, vulgarity in the cinema, rubbish on the bookstalls, the public [private] school, snobbery in the suburbs, more battleships, lower wages”.
None of his radicalism, however, stopped MacLean from being hired by the Foreign Office, as Roland Philipps recounts in his biography of the famous Soviet spy (one of the famous Cambridge five - Burgess, Philby, MacLean, Blunt, Cairncross). As the FO boffins saw it, MacLean’s campus political fervour could be dismissed as the ‘passing fancy of youth’ (in the words of one of MacLean’s ‘handlers’) especially amongst such ‘scions of the bourgeoisie’ as MacLean, son of a senior anti-communist politician, and a graduate, with blue-ribbon academic and sporting honours, of prestigious private school and elite university.
Besides, despite their (presumably) temporary Marx crush, the FO valued the Cambridge (presumably ex) communists who formed a rich talent pool of analytically sharp intellects with the added benefit that they, as former Reds, would be invaluable because they knew how the political enemy thought.
The FO knew its target demographic well (rich, upper class students, half of whom had, after all, acted as ‘volunteer’ strike-breakers during the 1926 General Strike) but MacLean, however, was made of stouter political stuff, having fallen permanently out of love with, in his handler’s words, the ‘intellectual emptiness and aimlessness of the bourgeois class to which he belonged’.
Britain’s diplomatic and intelligence services, however, were not the only ones fishing for recruits in the radicalised universities of the Thirties. Stalin’s regime, facing capitalist and fascist hostility, was also on the lookout for covert assistance from abroad.
As most socialists of the time mistakenly saw Stalin as the almost apostolic embodiment of Marxism, those Western communists tapped on the shoulder to clandestinely help Moscow were predisposed to assist, especially (in the words of Kim Philby) through their ‘enrolment in an elite force’ of revolutionaries.
Although he rated the actual business of espionage as ‘like being a lavatory attendant – distasteful but necessary’, MacLean passed UK and US diplomatic state secrets to Moscow for a decade with a WikiLeaks intensity (but a much narrower audience) in the firm belief that he was assisting world peace and socialism.
The psychological toll from continually denying his true self in public, however, became a debilitating strain that was only relieved by chronic alcoholism. MacLean’s loose lips during his booze binges risked blowing his cover - at a dinner-party with a Minister from the newly-elected Labour government, for example, MacLean stormed out, saying that ‘this government is just as bad as any other British government – suppressing coloured people’, prompting the observation by another guest that evening that MacLean ‘looks like a Tory and talks like a Communist’.
In her report to Moscow, another of Maclean’s handlers noted the personal tensions arising from MacLean’s unsustainable double life, appending to her praise for the ‘good and brave comrade’ the caveat that ‘he’s been totally detached from party work where he might have grown and learned’. Gone, for MacLean, was the opportunity for uninhibited debate and discussion amongst a wide range of comrades, replaced by his stunting confinement to the hated world of “stuffy formal dinners and receptions”, his colleagues’ incessant chatter about the ‘communist menace’, their hyperbolic exaggeration of the Soviet threat, and their casual class loathing of the lives and potential political power of the non-Oxbridge lower orders.
Clandestinity had forced the separation of MacLean from class and ideological struggle, and from the lifeblood of comradeship. MacLean could have been a superb radical intellectual grounded by active membership in a working class Marxist party but his political world had, instead, shrunk to the humdrum office drudgery of document copying.
When MacLean was eventually about to be tumbled, with a long spell in Wormwood Scrubs awaiting him, he was exfiltrated to Russia in 1951, where he found job satisfaction as a researcher on foreign policy and as an advocate for peaceful detente between East and West. With Stalin still in power, however, official Moscow was still paranoid about double agents, so MacLean was not entirely safe - as a Russian friend put it, ‘MacLean was decorated with the Order of the Red Banner. He might equally well have been shot’.
MacLean was relieved when Stalin died in 1953 and although he initially supported the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungary revolt, MacLean opposed the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, fraternised with Solzhenitsyn and other dissidents, and wrote on his ballot paper for the Supreme Soviet that whilst dissidents are held in prison ‘I can not participate in elections’.
It was a calmer but somewhat anti-climactic end to a high, but ultimately faux-climactic, life of espionage. Much of the Cambridge spies’ efforts yielded little return – Stalin famously dismissed as ‘disinformation’ the covert intelligence that signalled the devastating invasion by Nazi Germany of the Soviet Union, whilst high-level espionage material also failed to add substantively to anything which was not already discernible through intelligent observation and objective interpretation (assets which MacLean possessed in abundance).
Philipps’ biography of MacLean, with its focus on espionage tradecraft, spy psychology and adventure narrative, has all the political depth of a Boys Own Bumper Book of Spies, and lazily rests in an ‘our spies good, their spies bad’ framework. It only lightly intersects with the bigger political dimension of the spy drama. Whilst the book automatically associates, with Pavlovian predictability, the ‘t’ words (treason, treachery) with MacLean, the real betrayal going on was the corruption of socialist values and revolutionaries’ lives by Stalinism, which in turn had its roots in the capitalist military and economic war waged against the fledgling Bolshevik state, a war which created the material scarcity and isolation that nurtured the rise of a privileged, undemocratic, bureaucratic class.
The Stalinist casualty roll was gigantic and it included MacLean amongst its number. Donald MacLean, socialist, was more betrayed than betrayer.