I recently read Andrew Lownie’s book STALIN’S ENGLISHMAN The Lives of Guy Burgess. I am old enough to remember the furore and media frenzy over the Cambridge five spy ring. How Burgess and Maclean absconded. The Kim Philby shock and so on, so I came to this book with great interest.
One comes out of this enthralling read wondering whether you would have really liked Guy Burgess (as all children seemed to have done) or utterly abhorred him (as most of the society hostesses of the time seem to have done). I have to confess to a puerile reaction. I think I would have liked him very much. A brilliant mind. Extensive knowledge of history, the arts, music. A sense of humour. An almost Wildean figure in scathing repartee not least.
But above all, I believe we should give him credit where it is due. He was an ideologue through and through. He believed in a better world, he believed in fighting against fascism. His spying was not inspired by the motive of any pecuniary gain. Just as we have to grudgingly admit of Margaret Thatcher that she was a Conviction politician, whether we liked her politics or not, so we have to admit of Guy Burgess that he was a man of conviction, whether we like the idea of spying or not.
It is a debate we may have over Edward Snowden as well, but be that as it may. Guy Burgess appears to have been a man of rare brilliance who destroyed himself through excess. Just about an excess of everything. Nevertheless a man sincere in his beliefs who acted on them out of conviction.
Given the state of affairs today, I found this quote, from a man credited with “a power of historical generalisation which is one of the rarest intellectual faculties..” * rather apt and something that we should perhaps still bear in mind, despite the changed historical circumstances. Guy Burgess maintained:
“You’ve either got to choose America or Russia. People may have their own view which to chose, but Europe is something wishy-washy that simply does not exist.“
* A quote by Goronwy Rees,page 325, hard back edition.