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William Boyd on Kim Philby: how did a privileged young Englishman become a national traitor?

The story of how Philby and four other privileged young Englishmen became spies or double agents for the USSR borders on a perverse sense of national pride.

Comrade Kim: Philby in Moscow in 1968, five years after defecting to the USSR. Photo: Rex Features

Comrade Kim: Philby in Moscow in 1968,
five years after defecting to the USSR.
Photo: Rex Features

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal 
Ben Macintyre
Bloomsbury, 352pp, £20
 

The English can justifiably point to real and lasting achievements in three particular areas of human endeavour: dictionaries, bespoke gentleman’s tailoring and betrayal. Treason is as old as history but the serial betrayals of the so-called Cambridge Five before, during and after the Second World War are unique and continue to exert a fascination that borders on a perverse form of national pride. Five young men, privileged and well-educated members of the British elite, decided for one reason or another to become spies or double agents for Soviet Russia: Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, John Cairncross, Anthony Blunt and, of course, the greatest betrayer of them all, Kim Philby.

Blunt’s case is highly intriguing in its own right. Not only was he a Soviet double agent but he ascended to the pinnacle of the British establishment: he became head of the Courtauld Institute and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, and he was knighted. In a way, Blunt is a perfect study in English hypocrisy – in that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”, as Hamlet put it – but in crude spying terms he was pretty small beer. On the other hand, Harold Adrian Russell Philby (Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge), always known by his nickname “Kim”, was the real deal, arguably one of the most successful double agents ever, one who was highly prized by his Russian handlers over his many years of diligent service to them.

The details of the damage he wreaked in his three decades of betrayal from the 1930s to the 1960s have been consigned to the annals of spying history but Philby the man – the individual, the myth – seems to grow ever larger in the folk memory of the British intelligentsia. There is something about his nature, and how he managed to hoodwink everybody, that is utterly compelling and goes beyond mere espionage. The case of Kim Philby appears to tell us something profound about ourselves and our country and we cannot, it seems, get enough of him. Ben Macintyre’s new investigation of the master spy’s case – although, as the author admits, adding to an already voluminous literature on the subject – is a hugely engrossing contribution to Philby lore.

Macintyre elects to see Philby and his activities through the lens of a friendship; a friendship with a fellow MI6 operative, Nicholas Elliott (1916-94). By coincidence another book about Philby has appeared simultaneously, Kim Philby: the Unknown Story of the KGB’s Master Spy (Biteback, £20), written by another former friend and MI6 operative, Tim Milne, who died in 2010. Milne knew most of the players in the Philby story and his is a valuable, judicious insider’s account. However, Elliott’s role in Philby’s life proved more significant.

Elliott and Philby started their spying lives together – one honourable, one highly dishonourable – and they remained close for decades, Elliott always innocent of his friend’s duplicity. But, by one of the juicier ironies of fate, Elliott was present at the moment of Philby’s defection to Moscow – and indeed may even have engineered it. There is an almost Jacobean dramatic arc to this story of simultaneous betrayal of both a dear friend and a country. Two types of loyalty are exploited and ruthlessly undermined.

Briefly, the narrative of Philby’s spying history follows this trajectory. He was officially recruited as a Russian agent by one Arnold Deutsch in 1934. Philby was 22 years old. The young Philby’s motive at the time was ostensibly ideological – he believed absolutely in the communist cause as the only way that fascism could be combated. As a journalist, he worked secretly for the Soviet NKVD security service during the Spanish civil war (bizarrely, he was decorated by Franco, an award that preceded his OBE in 1946). The trouble with this intellectual position was that, to any sentient being, it became morally unsustainable with the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 which divided Poland. At once the scales had to fall from the eyes of British communist fellow-travellers: Stalin’s Russia was not the workers’ utopian dream state. Brutal realpolitik functioned there just as anywhere else.

What this means is that the ideological incentive for betraying your country no longer really holds. When we look at the activities of the Cambridge spies post-1939, there had to be other motives operating – and here, I believe, lies the key to the enduring interest in Philby. Why did he do it? How could he sustain the enormous, unimaganable pressures of living a double life from 1933 until 1963, when he finally defected to the Soviet Union? This is the mystery at the centre of the Kim Philby affair.

There was something of a lull in his clandestine activities after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but once he was recruited into the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in 1940 he was contacted anew by the Soviet secret service’s London rezident and resumed his life as a double agent. Philby provided useful information during and immediately after the war, but his period of greatest value to the Russians began when he was posted to Washington, DC in 1949 to serve as first secretary at the British embassy. Here, he was able to supply the Soviets with prized material to do with US nuclear capability as well as CIA activities. And yet it was also his period of greatest jeopardy. Philby’s friendship with his fellow traitors Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (whose recruitment he had initiated) placed him in a baleful spotlight when the two men defected to Russia in 1951.

However, even though suspicions were raised and Philby was repeatedly interrogated, the consensus in the SIS was that Kim couldn’t possibly be working for the other side – no, not old Kim, excellent fellow that he is. The pressure was such, though, that he was obliged to resign.

Perhaps his apotheosis as a double agent occurred when in October 1955 Harold Macmillan, the then foreign secretary, exonerated him, stating in the House of Commons: “I have no reason to believe that Mr Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his country.” Philby gave a bravura press conference afterwards claiming that he had “never been a communist”. For a double agent, one supposes, such a public moment of state endorsement and credulity must be an inconceivable triumph. Philby went back to his old trade as a journalist, ending up based in Beirut and working as a correspondent for the Observer and the Economist. His experience and his cover as a journalist soon proved too enticing for the SIS and he was re-recruited; one of his oldest friends in the service, Nicholas Elliott, being of particular help.

Philby rejoined the club and went to work. But by then a series of Soviet defections was pointing the finger more and more at Philby being the “third man”, the crucial mole in the British Secret Service. The strain was finally getting to him and his developing alcoholism was attracting attention. Nicholas Elliott was sent to interrogate Philby and extract a confession. Elliott offered immunity in return for all the details of his spying activities for the Russians. Philby stalled, and while Elliot waited for him to make another appointment, he slipped away and was hidden on board a Russian freighter bound for Odessa. It was 1963. The double life was over.

Such a summary does no justice to Macintyre’s marvellously shrewd and detailed account of Philby’s nefarious career. It is both authoritative and enthralling, and the contrasting lives of the two “friends” works as a most effective way of exploring the social context and values of the SIS and the upper levels of British society. The book is all the more intriguing because it carries an afterword by John le Carré. In the late 1980s, le Carré had a series of confidential meetings with Elliott during which he took copious notes (which he made available to Macintyre for this book). He concluded that Elliott, who ever since had been overshadowed by the scandal of the Philby defection and his perceived blunders, wanted to transmit, covertly, his own version of events to someone who would understand – and who better than John le Carré, aka David Cornwell, a former spook, too.

Macintyre’s reading of Elliott’s own confession to le Carré, and his analysis of Philby’s movements just before he defected, as well as the actions (or non-actions) of the SIS, lead him to float the idea that Philby hadn’t outwitted the incompetent SIS in defecting – in fact the SIS wanted him to defect. It was better for all concerned for Philby to be in Moscow than on trial in London, where the concentrated unpicking in court of his wholesale treachery since 1941 would be a humiliation too far. From Moscow, his revelations could be dismissed as Russian propaganda.

Who can say? One of the pleasures of writing about espionage is that you are
almost licensed to concoct your own conspiracy theories; all that’s demanded is plausibility, and Elliott and Macintyre’s gloss on events is highly plausible. Was the SIS populated, in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s words, by people who were “by and large stupid, some of them very stupid”, or was there a sophisticated triple-bluff going on in Beirut in 1963, run by the very clever heads of Nicholas Elliott and Dick White, the then “C” (director) of MI6? Incidentally, Elliott’s judgement of Trevor-Roper was that he was “wet and useless. Something perverse inside him.” However, whatever the intricacies of Philby’s exfiltration from Beirut to Moscow, what is undeniable is that Philby and the Cambridge Five expose attitudes and complacencies among the British elite and ruling classes that show, if not arrogance, then astonishing sins of omission.

To put it simply, Philby got away with his betrayal for so many years because his colleagues, men of his own class and education, couldn’t believe that an Englishman of his type – stereotypically “charming” and popular – would ever dream of being a double agent for the ghastly Russians. The shock-waves detonated by his defection shook the British establishment and its espionage organisations to their foundations.

Intriguingly, le Carré gave some indication of the vehemence of this feeling in an introduction he wrote to a book on Philby published in 1968, five years after the defection, called Philby: the Spy Who Betrayed a Generation. “The avenger stole upon the citadel and destroyed it from within,” he wrote ominously, going on to describe Philby as “an aggressive upper-class enemy . . . one of our blood and [who] hunted with our pack”. The language is heightened, gravid with raw outrage. Trevor-Roper, another betrayed friend, went even further, speculating shrilly that Philby had become a traitor as a result of a kind of “death of the mind” through his espousal of communism, poisoned, having “drunk from the chalice of that secret church”. The tone is almost biblical, such is the fury and hurt at the scale of the violation of trust.

All of this is symptomatic of attempts to understand, to find – now that we know the “how” – a credible response to the anguished question: “Why?” Macintyre recounts various explanations offered by those who knew Philby: his enormous egotism, the addictive thrill involved in outwitting others, or the brutal fact that once you were sucked in to this dangerous game there was no escape.

My own supposition in the case of Philby – and it can’t be proved, of course – is that it was an example of the old adage that sometimes it can be as easy to hate your country as it is to love it. If you were a privileged left-wing idealist in the 1930s, Britain in her self-satisfied imperial pomp could seem a very rebarbative place. Philby hinted at this in a newspaper interview he gave after he defected in 1963.

He “loved England”, he averred, claiming that he felt himself “wholly and irreversibly English and England as having been perhaps the most fertile patch of earth in the whole history of human ideas”. Asked why he then had so systematically betrayed this paragon of a nation, he said he had felt a “humane contempt for certain contemporary phenomena that prevented England from being herself”. The unreflecting use of “English” and “England” –  not “Britain” – is very revealing and is the candid language of his class. Philby calls it “humane contempt” – but I think “contempt” on its own will explain almost everything. 

William Boyd’s latest novel is “Solo” (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge