John le Carré’s involvement with British intelligence started in the late 1940s when he was asked as a teenager in Bern, Switzerland to report on left-wing student activity, and ended shortly after the publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, his 1963 novel that inspired a whole genre of espionage fiction. Yet, apart from autobiographical references in A Perfect Spy (1986) – arguably his greatest work – he was reticent, at times evasive, and on some occasions disingenuous about the extent of his own role in the messy business of deception, betrayal and conflicting loyalties. This is most apparent in the period he spent spying on left-wing undergraduates at Oxford in the mid-1950s.
Details of his Oxford spying only came to light in interviews he gave in the 1990s, and it was not until the early 2000s that he was confronted by one of those he had spied upon. Stanley Mitchell, his contemporary at Lincoln College, was a member of the communist student group Le Carré had infiltrated, and even had his rooms burgled as his friend searched for subversive material. When they met almost 50 years later, Le Carré was accused of betraying their friendship. In their correspondence he wavered between apologising for the actions of a “nasty, vengeful little orphan with a psychopathic liar for a father and a boy-scout self-image” and justifying his behaviour on the grounds they were looking for “secret communists and potential traitors”. The friendship was said to be restored eventually but the tone of Le Carré’s last letter, in which he accused his friend of “submitting your life and excellent intellect to the cause of world communism”, and of showing no empathy for his “own journey” through British intelligence, suggests only a partial reconciliation.
David Cornwell (Le Carré’s real name) arrived at Oxford in 1952 at the height of the Cold War. The “missing diplomats”, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, were yet to be unveiled in Moscow, and McCarthyism, at its peak, was rooting out communists, fellow travellers and intellectuals from positions of influence in the US. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had already been convicted for espionage and were under sentence of execution. In Britain more restrictions on employing communists or former communists in the civil service and the BBC were in operation under MI5’s F2 section, responsible for vetting those working in government departments. Cornwell would later work for this section.
His admission to Lincoln College to study modern languages, enabled by Vivian Green who had taught him at Sherborne School and was now the college chaplain, followed four years in Switzerland where he had gained an impressive knowledge of German, had worked as a ski instructor, was recruited and inducted by MI5, and had completed his national service in the Intelligence Corps. Within months of arriving in Oxford he was invited to a meeting in nearby Woodstock where MI5’s George Leggett convinced him to continue his work for British intelligence as an undergraduate and “adopt a left-wing persona”. From later interviews, it seems Cornwell needed little persuasion to be a spy at Oxford, and he held regular lunch briefings with Leggett over the next couple of years. As he said later, helping to root out communists had given him a “cause” and alongside his membership of the Gridiron, an exclusive dining club, and the Canning Club, a forum for Conservative ideas and principles, he enlisted in the university’s various left-wing societies.
Although Cornwell maintained in his later correspondence that Mitchell and his comrades were trapped in a rigid, unyielding worldview, he would have known at the time this was far from the case. In fact, those he befriended, cultivated, observed and reported on were part of the most radical, eclectic and intellectually stimulating postwar Oxford generation. The leading figure in the Oxford left at that time was “Ralph” (Raphael) Samuel, a precocious history student at Balliol. From a Jewish and communist background (on his mother’s side), Samuel, politically restless and with an insatiable intellectual curiosity, was already a member of the impressive Communist Party Historians Group and had chosen Balliol because one of its members, Christopher Hill, taught history there. Hill would become a leading expert on the political ideas and movements of 17th century England, and along with Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson – all long-term subjects of interest to the British security services – would help transform the study of history. MI5 were already monitoring Hill as the “senior member” among the university communists.
Samuel arrived at Balliol the same month as Cornwell showed up at Lincoln, and immediately immersed himself in the university’s communist group, becoming its secretary soon after. However, in the mire of Cold War polarisation, amid growing concerns about nuclear war and recognising that the Socialist Club had been moribund for years, Samuel set his sights more widely. Keen to dispel the image of tough-minded communists reared “on the sour milk of Marxism” who used Machiavellian tricks to entice potential converts into clandestine activity, he urged his comrades to embrace the emerging humanitarian spirit among fellow students. Recruiting, cajoling and reaching out to prospective allies, he became a familiar figure in undergraduate politics.
According to Stuart Hall, who became a close friend after arriving in Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship from Jamaica, “He was simultaneously the pariah and the heart-and-soul of the Oxford political scene… practically nothing of significance happened in Oxford without Raphael being in some way indirectly involved in it.” The breadth of his feverish political activity, often accompanied by Peter Sedgwick, his comrade-in-arms, ranged from organising one of the first demonstrations against the hydrogen bomb (a campaign broad enough to include the future Conservative politician Michael Heseltine) to his lucid interventions in GDH Cole’s seminars at All Souls College: a regular gathering of left-thinking students and dons. Samuel, in this period before the tumultuous events of 1956 (such as the Hungarian Uprising and the Suez crisis), was already seeking closer links with Oxford’s Labour Club through its journal Clarion where alongside future cabinet ministers he made his case for reviving the left.
[See also: John le Carré and the spectre of British decline]
MI5 records show that Samuel’s activities were already under observation from Cornwell, presumably their “reliable and well-placed source”. Cornwell was an active participant in the left-wing societies and campaigns in which Samuel was the pivotal figure, using his friendships with Mitchell and Newton Garver, an older American postgraduate philosophy student at Lincoln, to get closer to the movements. Garver, a Quaker, had already been imprisoned in the US in the late 1940s for an act of civil disobedience in refusing the draft and his opposition to war – which had nothing to do with communism – was enough to alert Cornwell in his hunt for subversives. Cornwell searched his friend’s rooms and duly reported back on his activities, which he now saw from close quarters on peace demonstrations against the H-bomb and in the campaign to save the Rosenbergs from execution.
Cornwell attended meetings of the university’s communist club, where he could witness Samuel’s political organisation at first hand, though his presence aroused some suspicion among the comrades. Gabriel Pearson, another Balliol communist and close friend of Samuel, told the Sunday Times in 1992 that he found Cornwell “a very withheld man. There was a terrifying reticence. He wasn’t one of us. There was a public-school manner about him.” Cornwell got to know Samuel better through the Socialist Club and its magazine Oxford Left. As its editor, Samuel was determined to turn it into a broad left-wing forum that reflected his growing openness and optimism, enlisting the odd Tory to write for it as well as socialists and communists. Through his friendship with Stanley Mitchell, a previous editor, Cornwell had already put his artistic talents – he was a fine cartoonist – at the service of Oxford Left. His drawings embellished the political writings with evocative images of desolate landscapes after nuclear war, anti-American propaganda and caricatures of the rich and greedy.
Samuel’s frenetic campaign to broaden the magazine involved canvassing local businesses and restaurants, as well as left-wing associations to produce a “special peace issue” for Trinity Term, 1954. Cornwell, like others on the production side, struggled to meet his tight deadlines, and in fact was now in the process of relinquishing his “left-wing persona” because of personal difficulties and future career plans. Writing from Tunmers, the 1930s mansion in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire serviced by an Austrian cook, Polish gardener, Yugoslav maid and English chauffeur, Cornwell rebuffed Samuel’s demands and told him that his father’s imminent court case and appeal would mean more delay in sending his artwork. In fact, his father Ronnie, a serial fraudster, who maintained his lavish household through a variety of illicit business schemes, was facing more charges and the prospect of bankruptcy, putting his son’s Oxford future in doubt, which was only resolved by a private loan from his friend, and later newsreader, Reginald Bosanquet and another helpful intervention from Vivian Green.
Cornwell’s financial insecurity was one of the reasons for taking a year out, enabling him to get married and gain some teaching experience in Millfield’s prep school in Somerset before returning to Oxford to finish his degree. His year of graduation, 1956, had far-reaching implications for world politics. The British and French invasion of the Suez Canal was a reminder of colonial legacies, while Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes, and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary had lasting significance for his coterie of suspected subversives. Raphael Samuel was among many who left the Communist Party at this time and, together with Gabriel Pearson, Stuart Hall and Charles “Chuck” Taylor (a Canadian Rhodes scholar), launched the Universities and Left Review (ULR), the founding moment of what became known as the New Left. Hall and Taylor had never been in the Communist Party but shared the hope for the future of the left and the analysis of postwar capitalism. Hall commented later that 1956 “signified for people on the left in my generation the end of the imposed silences and political impasses of the Cold War and the possibility of a breakthrough into a new socialist project”.
Unlike the student left of the 1930s whose communism was founded on anti-fascist idealism, illusions about the Soviet Union (and, for some of its privileged public schoolboys, a first encounter with the working classes), Hall’s generation were gripped by the social and cultural changes that were sweeping the West. It was also defined by an internationalism that extended beyond Cold War polarities to embrace anti-colonial struggles. As a generational movement it was inspired by Jimmy Porter’s rebellion in John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger, while eclectic in its membership and structure. If its roots were in the campaign against the hydrogen bomb in 1954, it benefited from a stronger relationship with Labour friends, while its cultural appeal – as significant as its political outlook – thrived in the New Left clubs and its own Partisan café in London’s Soho, the brainchild of Samuel in a typically impetuous moment. Samuel argued later that the New Left owed more to films, plays and novels than theoretical texts, let alone the canons of Marxism-Leninism. The first issue of ULR had contributions from the artist Peter De Francia, film director Lindsay Anderson, historian Eric Hobsbawm, and GDH Cole, while the case for a new left was reiterated in the New Reasoner, the journal founded by historians EP Thompson and John Saville.
One of those influenced by the ULR’s critique of postwar capitalism was the future playwright Dennis Potter, who had been editor of the Oxford student newspaper Isis and was then considering a career as a Labour politician. In his book, The Glittering Coffin (1960), Potter chastised Labour for conforming and capitulating to the “twisted, acquisitive and hollow” capitalism that was ruining the hopes of a new working-class generation, while the impact of mass advertising was distorting popular culture. The old left had failed to question the bastions of privilege in the public school establishment.
In 1958, when the ULR was looking into the causes of the Notting Hill Riots, the control of British industry, and the writings of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart (whose seminal books on British culture had just been published), David Cornwell was ending a brief teaching career as tutor in modern languages at Eton, before he finally “entered the priesthood”, to use his later description of MI5. As Le Carré, he liked to present himself as an outsider, and his work has been acclaimed for its accurate portrayal of the decline of the British establishment, notably in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). But in the late 1950s he was still at its heart. Employed in its F division, which was responsible for monitoring the activities of the British Communist Party, he impressed superiors with his interrogations of civil servants suspected of communist links and scientists who expressed left-wing views, and was quickly moved on to running his own agents in left-wing organisations – a reversal of his Oxford role. Here, alongside his friend John Bingham (a part-model for George Smiley), he kept surveillance on British communist leaders through microphones inserted in the party’s meeting rooms, while establishing long-term friendships with his inside contacts.
After moving to MI6 in 1960 Cornwell was posted to West Germany where he was required to monitor the activities of neo-Nazis. It was during this period that he published his first book as John le Carré, A Murder of Quality (1962), but it was the publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) that made him and brought his departure from the British intelligence services. His depiction of it as a conservative old boys’ network reeking of failed careers brought criticism from his former bosses, but he was still regarded with suspicion by those who had known him on the left, some of whom he had continued to try and cultivate. In his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel (2016), Le Carré recalled difficult encounters with Lindsay Anderson when they were both helping a Czech actor to claim political asylum. He felt Anderson viewed him as “some kind of backstairs apparatchik in the class struggle”, a perception he attributed to Anderson’s experience of wartime military intelligence in India, but it seems more likely that his New Left connections had left a bad taste.
[See also: John le Carré, the great deceiver]
Le Carré was always reluctant to talk about his Oxford spying, with questions from journalists provoking intemperate, indignant responses. “I have said all I am prepared to say, and I advise you to print whatever the hell you want,” he told the Sunday Times when the paper asked him about it in 1992. There is no mention of it in The Pigeon Tunnel, published shortly after Adam Sisman’s 2015 biography. This records his encounters with veterans of war-ravaged Middle Eastern states, meetings with KGB spies, and his friendships with the great and the good. It situates his life at the heart of global politics and political intrigue beyond the dusty corridors of the British establishment. These stories, richly embellished and humorously retold, are the reflections of a progressive liberal concerned at the abuses of state power, empathetic to former inmates of Guantánamo, and hot on the trail of warlords in Rwanda. They reaffirm his status as an acute observer of a declining Britain stuck in the mire of a former world power, ill-served by its floundering elites.
Yet his late “radical persona” is as unconvincing as his earlier “left-wing persona”. Some of the causes he took up in later life were a pale imitation of the humanitarian, internationalist and anti-colonial concerns of those he betrayed in Oxford; the post-Brexit People’s Vote, for example, which he supported, would have been regarded by Samuel as “post-radical chic”. Working-class characters are absent from his novels, while unsurprisingly for a conservative critic of the New Left, his portrayal of British society in the 1960s and 1970s has little sense of the social and cultural changes that transformed those decades.
In the first, more conciliatory part of Le Carré’s correspondence with Stanley Mitchell in 2001 (published posthumously in a 2023 collection edited by his son, Tim Cornwell, as A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré 1945-2020) he accepted that he did “betray” their friendship. Yet, Le Carré told him that “by the weirdest of separate journeys, we have arrived at very much the same larger vision of mankind & its failures”. He seems to accept his earlier failings while telling Mitchell, who left the Communist Party in 1956, and who had become a distinguished scholar of Russian literature, that “radical socialism simply got into the wrong hands”. In their later exchange in 2006, after Mitchell had told him he was “sick and angry” over his betrayal – “one of the worst things a human being can do” – Le Carré, clearly rankled by his old friend’s accusations, now denied any culpability (“What did I know to betray?”) and defended his actions. Mitchell and his comrades, despite their “fine ideas and intellectual superiority”, had surrendered their integrity to an oppressive regime. Reading Le Carré’s letters to Mitchell, one gets the impression that, like many of the characters in his novels, he is in denial about the impact of his own espionage.
As Adam Sisman reminds us in his fine 2015 biography it is often difficult to distinguish fact from fiction in John Le Carré’s public recollections of the past. “One cannot help noticing how often the answers he gives do not tally. Everything he says, therefore, needs to be examined sceptically.” Much of his life was secret, as Suleika Dawson made clear in her account of their long affair, and as revealed in Sisman’s more recent book, The Secret Life of John le Carré, published earlier this year. Unlike characters in his novels, his spying during the Cold War had no significant effect on the life of his “victims”. In one of his letters to Mitchell, Le Carré compares their relationship to the friendship in A Perfect Spy between Axel Hampel, the Czech refugee and agent, and Magnus Pym, a double agent based partly on his own background in intelligence, and as the son of a corrupt and duplicitous father. It is an unconvincing analogy. Axel’s politics were shaped by the direct experience of fascism and anti-fascism, and of a different generation to those Le Carré encountered at Oxford. Magnus Pym may have chosen spying for the Soviets instead of spending his life selling the Daily Worker on street corners – the alternative presented to the Cambridge spies by their Moscow controller – but the Young Turks Le Carré monitored in Oxford had themselves given up on the party paper and had quite different life trajectories.
They went on to have fine academic careers and were influential catalysts for change in cultural studies, philosophy and history. Raphael Samuel became a prominent social historian known for founding the History Workshop at Ruskin College, the college of the labour movement, in Oxford. Here, as students, we were encouraged to draw on our own histories, to take “unofficial” knowledge seriously, to look beyond conventional frameworks and approaches, and study “history from below”. Samuel was the instigator of many historical projects and adventures, and eventually revisited his earlier personal and political commitments in The Lost World of British Communism (2006). It is difficult to imagine Samuel as a subversive threat to the British state.
Though he had been a dedicated communist in his youth, he was a challenger of orthodoxies, and driven more by non-conformist radicalism than rigid ideology (with a natural charm and human empathy) that was beautifully captured in his wife Alison Light’s memoir, A Radical Romance (2019). As a communist student leader during the Cold War, he would have expected some interest from the security services, but it would not have got in the way of his activities. He had been intrigued by the life of Abe Lazarus, the interwar communist organiser who had the ear of Oxford’s dons and proletariat alike, but whose influence declined rapidly during the Cold War. Lazarus’s MI5 file showed he had been observed and monitored for his entire political career. Had Samuel lived to see the release of MI5 files he may, like Eric Hobsbawm (who tried unsuccessfully to gain access to his), have sought another way of reflecting on the past. It might even have inspired a new project: the opening-up of a secret history free from officialdom and the influence of spy fiction writers.
[See also: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s thought experiment]