“Ursula never saw Richard Sorge again. Perhaps their romantic relationship was already over, but for Ursula it never really ended.
Ursula returned to her dreary dinner guests. No one noticed that her heart was broken.”
Hmm. This is the story of Ursula Kuczynski, a colonel in the Red Army and one of the world’s most successful spies – Agent Sonya of the title and of the sub-title Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy. It’s not an untold story, or at least some of it is not untold, not least by Kuczynski herself in her autobiography, though this is the fullest version we are likely to read. Kuczynski was a German Jewish Communist who worked in several countries – including in a bookshop in America (you really have to watch that type) and spied in most of them. She was the handler of Klaus Fuchs and Melissa Norwood (the subject of the book The Spy Who Came in from the Co-op) and her work ensured that the Soviet Union was privy to the detail of Western plans for nuclear weapons, enabling the East and West to have Mutually Assured Destruction. She would argue that this helped create peace, or at least that it was able to defend the Soviet Union.
As the sub-title and the sub-Mills and Book opening quote suggest, this is a typical Ben McIntyre book aimed at the popular market. No bad thing, but over-writing is over-writing and we could have done with less. The story, however, fascinates and McIntyre calms down a bit.
Sonya – one of her many names – was a radio operator, a courier, an organiser and a handler. Her life was often at risk. Richard Sorge, a fellow spy mentioned earlier was tortured and hung, in Japan, and that could have been her fate too. She was, however, possibly even more at risk from her own side – on pages 138/139 there are details of friends, fellow spies, comrades “swept away in the butchery” that was Stalin’s Russia in 1937 and 1938, the period of the Great Purges that did so much to weaken the Soviet Union as the war with Germany approached. She was in the Soviet Union during this period and was only too aware of the fate of others. Despite this she kept the faith and her big successes were still to come.
In England, as Mrs Burton of Avenue Cottage, Summertown, Oxford she lived a quiet life, cycling around (taking in dead letter drops), drinking tea with her neighbours and making scones. Throughout her spying career she got away with a lot as a mother of three, because spies are never mothers of three. Yet sixteen days after the top secret “Quebec Agreement” between Churchill and Roosevelt to collaborate on building the atom bomb the Soviet Union knew, thanks to Sonia. This was before the Cold War when Britain, the Soviet Union and America were allies.
One of the particularly fascinating parts of the book is about the “Hammer” group of spies. This was a group of exiled German Communists parachuted into Germany to act as spies towards the end of the war, who would report on troop movements and provide information for bombing missions to the Americans. Their direct command was the OSS – the American intelligence organisation, the Organisation of Strategic Services – but they were under the real control of Sonya.
After Klaus Fuchs was arrested. Sonya skipped the country, moving to the German Democratic Republic. Although she had been under suspicion, nobody here knew of her real role in the UK. Or did they? McIntyre revisits whether Roger Hollis, the big cheese in the UK spy world, was really a double agent. Whatever, she escaped to a desk job in the GDR but was caught up in the Government anti-Semitic hysteria in the GDR in 1953. Astonishingly, a new career awaited as she became a successful writer – “Ruth Werner, novelist.” She’d outwitted everyone.
Available from Five Leaves here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/…/agent-sonya-lover-mother-soldie…/
Towards the end of this book, a memoir of the historian’s life with and love for Raphael – Ralph, Raph – Alison Light, another historian – writes of the obituaries that quickly appeared in all the broadsheets. “As well as being grateful, I was taken aback by how swiftly Raphael’s closest male friends could write about him, how readily they occupied the public space.” At that point I rested, wondering whether to write this review, as someone who neither knew Samuel directly or Light at all. What right have I to intrude on this public space, this public grief? I have not even lost a partner, so how could I understand? So if there are yawning gaps in this review, reader, forgive me. They are there on purpose.
Alison Light will be known to some readers for her books of social history and for her spell as an editor of Feminist Review. Raphael Samuel may be familiar to older readers of for the History Workshop project. Samuel was a secular Jew to whom, according to this book, Jewishness was not important, though there were shadows of his Yiddish past. He happily fried bacon in the morning before setting off for Ruskin College and the mezuzzahs on his doors were from previous residents at his house in Elder Street in East London. We would come to know this house well through the book, a five storey Huguenot house with an outside toilet and with books, papers, folders and Lever-arch files spilling out of every room, every space.
A Radical Romance is not a biography of Samuel, still less of Light – but it did make me want to know more about both people. The couple were twenty years apart in age, leaving her as a youngish widow when her husband died at 62. He had previous lovers, previous significant others and – keeping everything – there’s letters from them to Samuel. But he also kept the sort of “see you later” notes busy people would leave for their partners, addressed to Honey, to Sweetheart, sobriquets he would use in everyday life.
But I did know something of Raphael Samuel’s biography, my partner being a sometime guest at his uncle Chimen Abramsky’s Friday night meals, invited by Miriam Abramsky (they were her meals, to be exact), both of whom appear in this book. More publicly, I was entranced by the story first published in New Left Review and filled out in Samuel’s The Lost World of British Communism of how, one by one, the family became communists. Twelve according to Alison Light, with The Lost World... describing how the family bookshop, once a mainstream Jewish bookshop sold taleisim (prayer shawls) at one end and and Marxist texts at the other. Being a Jewish communist was almost an ethnicity of its own.
The History Workshop books included some impressive titles, notably Jerry White’s Rothschild Buildings and Theatres of the Left, edited by Ralph Samuel and others. And their two dozen or more conferences were important – it’s hard to imagine a conference nowadays about “history from below” advertised by a poster saying “Tickets limited to 700”. This meant that everyone wanted a piece of Raphael Samuel – the house was a way-station for sophisticated scholars from around the world. Alison Light makes it clear that was not always easy for her, particularly as a younger working class woman from Portsmouth. At times she felt Spitalfields, while it was not yet so gentrified, oppressive. And the conflict between his Jewishness and her Englishness was there to be negotiated.
But now to try to address some of the yawning gap. Alison Light explains things clearly enough – how, at the huge memorial meeting someone said there were quite a few widows present. No, she wanted to say, there’s only one widow. And she talks of “widowing about”, with so much to do. Only later, at Bishopsgate Institute some twenty years later, does she go through the letters of condolence saved from public view but part of the Raphael Samuel archive. There’s letters from friends, from ex-lovers, from the man at the photocopy shop, from people who did not know her husband, from professional colleagues, from people who get her name right and wrong…. letters that had peaked at 200 a day. Reading through them she “fell into a daze, a reverie. And in that dreaming state some miracle took place, call it a romance. … Raphael was remembered. Grief turned back into love. … I saw too that what we were in other people’s eyes was also true: a happy marriage, a blessed companionship.”
Copies are available, post free, from email@example.com
David Rosenberg has demolished an assumption and disrupted a habit. I always assumed my knowledge of London’s dissenting tradition was adequate but incomplete, but this revised edition of Rebel Footprints exposed my ignorance of key aspects of even the better-known episodes in the city’s radical history.
For years, quarterly meetings in Chancery Lane have been preceded by aimless, time-killing strolls around EC4, but my next visit will include a carefully planned trudge from the Savoy Hotel, on The Strand, to Dorset Rise, just off Fleet Street. As Rosenberg reveals, the Savoy marks the site of a palace destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, while Dorset Rise is the location of an obelisk commemorating Robert Waithman, linen draper and rebellious MP.
The Fleet Street writers and rioters walk, new to this edition, also introduces us to the London Corresponding Society, which integrated the struggle for democracy with the battle against slavery. Local figures of note are ‘Freeborn’ John Lilburne, a Leveller flogged, pilloried and gaoled for attacks on the authority of the clergy, and the pamphleteer Richard Carlisle, who was repeatedly imprisoned on charges of seditious libel and blasphemy.
Another new segment, on Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, introduces us to the area’s housing campaigners, including Charles Mowbray, tailor, printer, anarchist-communist, ‘no rent’ activist, co-founder of the Socialist League and sole non-Jewish member of the Yiddish-speaking sweatshop workers strike of 1889.
Mowbray’s story, deftly outlined over a few pages, illustrates one of the strengths of the book. Rather than compartmentalising people, places and issues, Rosenberg meanders across thematic and geographical boundaries to highlight the connectedness of class struggles and celebrate the resilience and diversity of Londoners.
The book’s eleven historical excursions are crammed with fascinating detail, such as the geographical and class-based schisms in the suffragette movement, and Sylvia Pankhurst’s lifelong commitment to socialism and anti-fascism. Sylvia’s contribution to the foundation of the Women’s Social and Political Union did not, we are told, secure a namecheck on the suffragettes’ commemorative statue in Westminster.
Rosenberg’s style is clear and accessible and his scholarship impressive, but the vital element of Rebel Footprints is its passion for the capital’s history of radical change. And it’s tremendous fun. Each chapter ends with an elegantly lettered and illustrated map, and an itinerary listing significant landmarks in geographical order.
This is a welcome antidote to the focus on ‘great men’, royalty and military adventure celebrated by the heritage industry and official guidebooks. It’s also a goldmine of narratives showing conditions can be improved, racists can be resisted, better cities can be built. The publication of this new edition is a fitting celebration of the first 50 years of Pluto Press.
This review first appeared in the Morning Star
David Rosenberg’s first book – Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s – was published by Five Leaves
This book is about communal amnesia. Its author, Francis O’Gorman, believes advanced capitalism has triggered processes that detach us from the benefits of our history such as wisdom, pleasure, identity and security and we are, he says, fostering “a dedication to forgetfulness.” This leaves us with the sense that the literature, art and music of the past is valuable only as material for school and university examinations.
O’Gorman, a respected academic, is painstaking in evidencing his arguments, although there’s a digressive and free-fl owing quality to the book. A reflection on John Maynard Keynes’s notion of academic orthodoxy, for example, segues into an assessment of the educational handbook Pimp Your Lesson! which epitomises the principles of relentless “innovation” and “perfection” in teaching.
O’Gorman starts by establishing the “back-story” of forgetting, comparing the restorative power of narratives from antiquity such as The Aeneid to Christian texts, such as St Augustine’s The City of God, which blot out the past. He goes on to consider the impact of “modern forgetting” and the impact of the technology of the industrial revolution on the pace of our lives and our responses to language, literature and history.
He then tackles contemporary capitalism’s reverence of the “new” and considers the impact of the language of business planning and career development. Highlighting the way our obsessive future focus is used to justify political and economic policies, he cites George Osborne’s attempts to sell austerity in terms of delivering a “better” future for the as yet unborn. He also considers the role the concepts of clinical psychology play in alienating us from the past.
The commercialisation of academia creates a diminished sense of intellectual responsibility, an expectation of immediate gratifi cation and a lack of understanding of the effort needed to fully understand the past, O’Gorman contends, and he goes on to discuss a series of non-fiction works on the themes of place and belonging that constitute an antidote to the forgetfulness which is fostered by capitalism and modernism.
I was initially sceptical about O’Gorman’s central idea — for me, contemporary culture seems more like Mervyn Peake’s tradition-bound Gormenghast than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which “history is bunk.” But my reservations evaporated. Yes, we do live in a Gormenghast-like museum culture, but our understanding of its rituals and texts has been deliberately erased.
While Forgetfulness doesn’t cover every aspect of culture and memory, it is an engaging dissection of an important phenomenon.
This review first appeared in the Morning Star
Copies of Forgetfulness are available post free from Five Leaves Bookshop, 0115 8373097
Naomi Klein is one of a new(ish) generation of radical writers influenced by feminism, supporters of the Occupy movement and other liberation groups, all of whom are directly exploring new forms of organisation or seeking new life within older organisations. This generation includes Rebecca Solnit, George Monbiot and Owen Jones, all superactivists as well as writers. All of them also write in accessible ways and don’t clutter their left-wing views with exclusionary language. In this book Klein makes a point in writing simply, informed but without the need to make as many references as her earlier books. There is no need to know any codes or history or be a fully-formed, clued up intellectual to appreciate her writing.
Klein lives in Canada, the daughter of Jewish-American parents who’d left their country as war resisters. She is involved in Canada with the organisation LEAP, whose manifesto appears as an appendix to this book, but primarily she writes about Trump and the current new shock politics. Her book is simply structured – How We Got Here, where she draws on her No Logo history to imagine Trump as a superbrand; Where We Are Now, which concentrates on the clear and present danger of climate change; How It Could Get Worse, which was obviously written before Trump started to threaten American football players with being nuked (I am only predicting one of his future tweets…), How Things Could Get Better, which shows how mass resistance is created by the “shock doctrine” backfiring; The Caring Majority Within Reach, which offers a conclusion.
At least one of her predictions has, thankfully, come true as on the third page she suggests that Steve Bannon will be “voted off this gory reality show… perhaps by the time you read these words”. But like in any contemporary political book, events, like sorrows, do not come in single spies but in battalions. Klein knows this, noting the speed of change in capitalism but also noting the biggest change being the book’s epigram, quoting the late John Truddle, a Native American activist, “I’m not looking to overthrow the American government, the corporate state already has”. Big Oil and Big Armaments have taken over.
Klein suggests that these people’s refusal to accept climate change is the end result of their neo-liberalism. Combating climate change means regulation, Government control, responsibility and acceptance of a common interest between those in the “Green Zones and Red Zones”. There is no such acceptance. The Green Zone and Red Zone blueprint is that of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans. Guess which zone the poor lived in. Guess which zone was helped. Klein suggests there will be many more green and red zones locally and internationally as the super-rich plan to survive on their terms.
I wasn’t 100% convinced of this as there are divisions between capital, and if we die who will buy their things. You can see these divisions over social liberalism. Starbucks, Google, Facebook and Amazon enforce poverty by tax avoidance, but they are opposed to Trump’s anti-migrant policy and in favour of equal marriage. Christian right Trump supporters boycott Starbucks because of the company’s support for LGBT concerns. Many company leaders have sheered away from Trump because of his racism, and because identification with Trump damages their own brands.
When the Five Leaves’ book group discussed No Is Not Enough the other main criticism was that, while accepting the book was about the USA, there was little international connection. In particular the coincidental rise of other strong and disastrous leaders – Modi, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Kaczynski – in illiberal democracies or semi-democracies. Trump is simply the worse of a bad bunch. All of whom want to be his friend.
I was also a little confused as to how change will come – sure, from the bottom up, sure with alliances between organised labour (or labor, since we are in America) and environmentalists, but surely also with some movement within the Democrats, for who else, in local authorities and in individual states, will be able to implement change.
Despite these criticisms – no, not criticisms, discussion points – this book is important and should be read.
Copies of No Is Not Enough are available for £12.99, post free, from Five Leaves Bookshop, 0115 8373097