Codename Intelligentsia

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This is a very good book. It makes an important contribution to the history of British Communism. Russell Campbell painstakingly chronicles how the Communist Party transformed the upper class socialist Ivor Montagu, a younger son of Lord Swaythling, into a shabby apologist for the very worst excesses of Stalinism, someone even prepared to work for the Russian secret police, the GRU.

Montagu is perhaps best known today as the founder of the English Table Tennis Association and more importantly as a major figure in the history of British film and film culture. He was an opponent of film censorship, a champion of Soviet cinema, an associate of director Sergei Eisenstein’s and worked for film company Gaumont and after the Second World War for Ealing Studios.

Less well-known is his history on the Left. He had first joined the British Socialist Party in 1918 when he was only 14, had been a member of the Labour Club at Cambridge University, indeed he was one of its delegates on Cambridge Trades Council. He was a member of the Holborn Council of Action during the 1926 General Strike, visited the Soviet Union and engaged in an extensive correspondence with Trotsky. He visited him when he was exiled to Turkey. Montagu campaigned for Trotsky to be given refuge in Britain in 1930, only for the Labour government to refuse.

He was an admirer of Trotsky’s Communism and Terror, argued with him about his Where is Britain Going?, praised his autobiography, My Life and congratulated him on his History of the Russian Revolution. They were friendly enough for him to send Trotsky books by Keynes, Wells, Shaw, O’Casey, DH Lawrence and others. Their correspondence continued for a short while even after he had joined the Communist Party in August 1931.

In the course of the 1930s, Montagu was transformed into a Stalinist hack of the worst kind, a stalwart of the Daily Worker. He became an enthusiastic apologist for the Great Terror, defending the Moscow Trials, even when people he knew and respected were swept away. He was one of those who certainly knew of the British Communist, Rose Cohen’s innocence, but remained silent when she was arrested and disappeared.

He defended the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Russian invasions of Poland and Finland and after the War supported the imposition of Stalinist tyranny over Eastern Europe. He was wheeled out to endorse the post-war Titoite purges, although MI5 surveillance files reveal that he knew Otto Katz, a longstanding friend, was innocent of the crimes he had confessed to, and was actually wondering whether to speak up on his behalf. Nevertheless, on Stalin’s 70th birthday, he sent the mass murderer a personal telegram expressing his “warm love and wishes for many more happy years of inspiration to mankind”!

And he was not just an apologist for Stalinism: in 1940, he began work for the GRU, primarily as a “talent spotter”, codenamed “Intelligentsia”.

As Russell puts it, his life is a “melancholy story of the havoc wreaked by Soviet Communism”.