After Strange Gods

Review of Treason of the Heart: From Thomas Paine to Kim Philby by David Pryce-Jones

In just over 200 pages, David Pryce-Jones has briefly and sharply told the story of the Englishmen who worked against their country to make heroes of revolutionary foreigners, or took sides in foreign racial and national wars. He has a chapter on Tom Paine, the archetype; one on the guillotine-lovers, a third on Napoleon-addicts. Then follows a chapter on the Greeks, led by Byron; a fifth on the Poles and Hungarians; two on the break-up of the Ottomans; a ninth on Zionism; one on Arab-lovers, and two final ones on those who loved Hitler and Stalin. It is a gruesome catalogue and makes for painful reading (here his concision is a real merit) but should prove a handy book of reference for anyone who wants to look up examples of this kind of monster.

What impels people to hate fellow countrymen and love foreigners (often unsavoury ones, too; Garibaldi is the only one on Pryce-Jones’s list to come out with credit)? First is lack of friends. Here, as in most respects, Paine set the pattern, for he was incapable of meeting anyone without quarrelling with them immediately. His most fervent admirer admitted: “He has an extraordinary knack for making enemies.” Over a century later, another adulator of the Left, H.M. Brailsford, was friendless. He loved the world, his biographer wrote, “because he had no one else to love”.

Another common motive was ferocity. This was usually first in theory, but was sometimes practical too. The pro-Arab Richard Burton, known from schooldays as “Ruffian Dick”, was a keen and accomplished swordsman. The anti-Austrian fanatic John Peaud used to write down in a notebook the number of enemies he killed or wounded. He said Italian independence was important to him, “but I am also very fond of shooting.” Other enthusiastic killers were Orde Wingate and Richard Meinertzhagen, both keen Zionists.

Another motive was self-abasement. Pryce-Jones tells us of the English lady, Madeleine Slade, who loved Gandhi, and “who sits there worshipping him like a dog-handing him his spectacles, adjusting his loincloth, giving him his food […] He just treats her as though she wasn’t there.” (The writer is Aldous Huxley.) Harry Pollitt, who served the Soviets hand and foot in similar manner, said: “If I’d been summoned to Moscow and knew for a fact that I’d be shot in the back of the neck the moment I landed I shouldn’t have hesitated.” Oddly enough, such masochistic worshippers did not like others in on their act. Pollitt hated the craven Hewlitt Johnson, Dean of Canterbury  — “that bloody red arse of a Dean.”

Sheer stupidity was another factor. A typical Stalin admirer was the composer Michael Tippett, whose published letters, says Pryce-Jones, “reveal a mind too incoherent for rational thought”. Another dim type was Lord Londonderry who, after a meeting with Hitler, became an admirer and described him as “a kindly man with a receeding [sic] chin and an impressive face”. Gertrude Stein, who while not English, fits into this category, proposed Hitler in 1934 as an obvious candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize: “I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize, because he is removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left element, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace […] By suppressing Jews […] he was ending struggle in Germany.”  Clive Bell, another idiot, thought that Europe under Hitler’s rule would be “heaven on earth” compared with the risk of war. 

Some of the least intelligent types were the Arabophiles (and still are), notably the women. Claire Sheridan, who went to live in Biskra, Algeria, wrote that all Arabs seemed “tall, handsome and elegant”. Lady Evelyn Cobbold laid down that “the heart of an Arab has no room for anything if not for love, pure, true and constant.” Claire Sheridan had “never heard of an impotent Arab”. Freya Stark could be witty. But her senses deserted her when she came to the Jews: “I can’t see that there is any kind way of dealing with the Zionist question except by a massacre now and then […] the world has chosen to massacre them at intervals and whose fault is that?”

But lack of intelligence cannot always be advanced as an excuse. Two of the worst      examples Pryce-Jones produces were both elected heads of Oxbridge colleges: Christopher Hill, the fervent pro-Soviet apologist who doubted whether the Gulag had ever existed, and Joseph Needham, who licked Mao’s boots. Where they led others followed. Tony Benn called Mao “the greatest man of the 20th century” and Giscard d’Estaing referred to him as “a lighthouse for humanity” the man who killed 70 million of his compatriots. Then again, Charles James Fox was not stupid. But he nonetheless hailed the French Revolution with his fatuous: “How much the greatest event it is that ever appeared in the world. And how much the best!”

However one should not be too censorious. Few of us have an exemplary record in this area. I recall writing a shamefully silly article welcoming the revolt of the students in Paris in May 1968, one of the most absurd non-events of the 20th century. Only that noble man Raymond Aron got it right at the time. I also hailed Castro’s takeover in Cuba, though I had already been subjected to a personal harangue by that monumental bore (it is true that he gave me a box of excellent cigars). Pryce-Jones, I suppose, has never fallen for the heady wind of change, and therefore can afford to be censorious. I think he underrates and misjudges Hazlitt who, as Charles Lamb said, “sometimes does bad things but is not a bad man”. He is hard on poor old Glubb Pasha, with whom I once had a long talk and who struck me as a simple, decent fellow. Kingsley Martin, whom I knew well, was much more worried by his mistaken moral choices than Pryce-Jones gives him credit for. 

But I forgive the author for the occasional items of information which were new to me. I did not know, for instance, that Coleridge burnt the words “Liberty and Equality” with gunpowder onto the lawns of two Cambridge colleges. And I liked the portrait of the egalitarian communist Douglas Garman, who lived with the billionaire Peggy Guggenheim in Paris. He studied Marx in a shed at the end of their garden while she lay in bed wearing fur gloves and reading Proust. 

Among Pryce-Jones’s immense cast of characters, it is not always easy to see where conviction ends and sheer eccentricity begins — or how much wickedness to attribute to malice aforethought and how much to the simple inability to think clearly.

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