How much do you have to despise your own country in order to betray it? And — more important — why are so many so eager to do it? That’s the question posed by David Pryce-Jones in his scintillating new book Treason of the Heart, a brisk trot through the pages of British history offering a rogues’ gallery of rotters from Tom Paine to Lord Byron to Houston Stewart Chamberlain to Blunt, Burgess, Maclean, and Philby. To a certain class of Englishman and -woman, it seems, any place they hang their hat is home, as long as it’s not in Britain.
“Treason involves the repudiation of loyalties to country and to kith and kin,” Pryce-Jones writes in his introduction:
Radicals in one generation after another repeatedly reject their own nation and countrymen, transferring their loyalties on to some other model in impressive instances of wishful thinking and ignorance of the true state of things. . . . Rogue aristocrats and intellectuals, so-called “treasonable clerks,” have had the freedom and the means to abuse the very privileges they enjoy, leaving humbler folk to pay for it, often with their lives. First comes the language of commitment and incitement, then come the corpses.
This is actually a pathology that infects too much of what we call “liberalism” in our time. As Robert Frost famously said, a liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel, and there does seem to be something in the liberal mind that is constantly at war with its circumstances and surroundings. Now, one can (as liberals surely do) view this heroically, as a perpetual quest for justice in the teeth of an uncaring, unfeeling, unjust society. Or one can (as conservatives generally do) see perpetual rebellion as a form of arrested adolescence that combines imagined moral superiority with a peculiar kind of impotence that manifests itself in the revolutionaries’ willingness to have others die in their millions for their pet causes.
The fact is, as Pryce-Jones makes abundantly clear in his exhaustive study, these people see themselves not as agitators but as architects, not as traitors but as heroes. Unlike real revolutionaries, however, their zeal to tear down their own institutions comes not from the misery of their circumstances but from their security within them — their alienation is psychological, not physical. Often children of privilege, they are only too happy to have done unto others what they would not have done unto them.
The antecedent for this book is Paul Johnson’s delightfully deconstructive Intellectuals (1988), which autopsied such philosophical and literary mountebanks as Rousseau, Marx, Shelley, Brecht, and Sartre, who were able through astounding feats of intellectual legerdemain to completely compartmentalize themselves from the consequences of their action and advocacy. It’s a veritable parade of moral monsters, made more frightening by the general esteem in which most of them are still held in academe and the pages of the New York Times.
Pryce-Jones’s goal is at once more and less ambitious. Rather than a series of in-depth character studies, he treats the reader to a Leporello’s catalogue of miscreants, beginning with a long look at Tom Paine — surely the most annoying of the founding fathers, and the one who most deserved the rope had things worked out differently.
Paine was a born malcontent, whose championing of liberty was the product not of a desire for freedom but of a hatred of the status quo. “For him, liberty was not a desirable end in itself but simply the tool most fitted for pulling down the existing order.” It didn’t much matter to Paine whether he was discomfiting England in the colonies or in Paris during the French Revolution, where he became for a time a hero, despite his lack of French. From his digs at White’s Hotel, the foreign revolutionaries’ clubhouse, he watched friend after friend carted off and executed, until finally the Committee of Public Safety caught up to him as well, and packed him off to the Luxembourg prison under a death sentence, which he escaped: Robespierre signed the death warrant, but four days later got the chop himself. Undeterred and unenlightened, Paine remained in Paris, conspiring with Wolfe Tone and his Irish revolutionaries and, when that didn’t pan out, with Napoleon, whose boots he was only too happy to lick until, like Beethoven, he fell out of love with the Little Corporal and retired to his farm in New York State to live out the rest of his bilious days.
Paine was far from alone in his admiration for the French Revolution: A host of British fellow travelers managed to reconcile the aspirations of the revolutionaries with the savagery of “à la lanterne” and the guillotine, thus presaging Stalin’s (or was it Kaganovich’s?) famous aphorism about omelets and eggs, later parroted by Pulitzer Prize–winning Timesman Walter Duranty in one of his propaganda dispatches masquerading as journalism. (Duranty was, of course, a Brit.) Many of the names will be unfamiliar to Americans, but even such luminous useful idiots as Wordsworth come in for some choice Pryce-Jones scorn. Of one Wordsworth poem, he writes: “Here was an early example of agitprop. Instead of drawing moral conclusions from the violence happening all around him, he splurged [the] vocabulary of denigration all over the victims.” It is an article of faith among the modern Left never to “blame the victim,” but when it comes to revolution, all bets are off: They deserved it for not realizing they were simply cogs in the wheel of the great machine of oppression, the ignorant swine.
Another defining characteristic of the professional “agin’ it” class is their celebration, and adoption, of foreign manners and mores. The reason for this, as Pryce-Jones explains, is rooted in the cultural security that was once Britain’s: “As a rule, a private income underwrote the astonishing freedom of action enjoyed by so many varied and colourful British men and women, and with it, of course, went absolute confidence in their own identity.” And therein lies the rub. “Whether out of sentimentality, exoticism, or sheer contrariness, some . . . felt that the identity of foreigners was valuable in itself and ought to be protected, even occasionally adopted. The more foreign custom differed from British, the greater the protection it required. This was the soil in which many a cause could take root.” Just ask Lawrence of Arabia, or the socialist St. John Philby, a.k.a. “Sheikh Abdullah,” the Arabist who was father to the traitor, Kim.
Thus various Englishmen went in search of “tolerance” in, of all places, the decaying Ottoman Empire, explained away the lack of respect for the rule of law, and both celebrated and elevated the distinctly non-Western aspects of Turkish Islamic culture. David Urquhart began as a Philhellene, but by 1828 or so had switched sides and, as the secretary to the British ambassador in Istanbul, began not only rooting for the Turks but adopting their customs and manner of dress, preferring the noble Islamic savage to the freedom-seeking Greeks. Writes Pryce-Jones: “The Turk, [Urquhart] conceded, was far below his European counterpart in terms of capacity, but ‘above any of them in his domestic virtues or his social integrity.’”
To which the only proper answer, in the clash of civilizations, is “So what?” Either you believe in the culture that created and nurtured you or you don’t; no place is perfect, but only one place is you, try as you might to escape it. Once the British gave up on the cultural imperative to make the world England, and instead indulged themselves in a prolonged orgy of self-loathing that was accelerated by the mass slaughter of the Somme and continues to this day, it was only a matter of time before the rot of relativism fully set in. A recent photograph of Michelle Obama at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in north London shows the first lady surrounded by British schoolgirls, nearly half of whom are wearing Islamic headscarves.
And culture is what this story, at root, is all about. Pryce-Jones skillfully handles the strange figures of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the anti-Semite who agitated for the Kaiser’s victory in World War I and later moved to Bayreuth and married Wagner’s daughter Eva; and Winifred Williams, the Englishwoman who married Wagner’s son, Siegfried, and also took up residence in Bayreuth, entertaining Hitler at the annual festival of the master’s works. “She and Chamberlain, her brother-in-law by marriage,” notes Pryce-Jones, “never spoke English to one another.”
Until the ongoing British embrace of Islamism and the advent of the European Union, though, the apogee came with the Soviet Union and the Communist penetration of all levels of British society — only fitting, since London had sheltered and harbored Marx while he worked at his deviltry. “Communism in Britain involved a transfer of loyalties to a foreign power on a scale never previously experienced, far exceeding identification with the American and French Revolutions or with Nazism, and reaching deep enough to raise questions about national identity.” A succession of starry-eyed Brits went on their own personal missions to Moscow, returning with both glowing tales of the workers’ paradise and plans to install it on the sceptred isle. Some, such as Malcolm Muggeridge, quickly came to their senses, but many more, such as the scientist Julian Huxley, did not. Pryce-Jones quotes Huxley advising a visitor to the USSR to “discard some of his bourgeois ideas about democracy, religion and traditional morality, his romantic individualism, his class feelings, his judgements of what constitutes success, and pick up what he can of the atmosphere in which the Russians live.”
From there, it was but a short step to the treachery of Anthony Blunt and the Cambridge spy ring. (Interesting to note that both Blunt and Philby came from families of British Arabists.) Blunt was an art-history professor, a gallery director, and the recipient of royal honors; he came from a noble and distinguished family and had been knighted (he was stripped of his knighthood after his treachery was revealed). Philby went his father one better, seriously damaging the British and American intelligence agencies before fleeing to Moscow (with Blunt’s aid), arrogant and unrepentant to the end. “To betray,” Philby told the Australian-born British journalist Murray Sayle, “you must first belong. I did not belong.”
Pryce-Jones concludes with what may be the most serious threat to British sovereignty yet: the EU, a transnational Franco-German project that is designed to destroy the nation-state and replace it with something out of a Marxian fantasy. “Forsaking the party of war-time victors and associating with the party of war-time losers, the British are invited to think about themselves in quite different ways. . . . Much more of Jean Monnet’s legacy, and the transfer of loyalties to a foreign cause will be complete, and there will no longer be the Britain of the past to betray.”
So perhaps there won’t, in fact, always be an England. If and when that day comes to pass, it will be thanks to treasonous clerks of the kind that Pryce-Jones has identified and excoriated in this timely and provocative book.
– Mr. Walsh is the author of the novels Hostile Intent and Early Warning and, writing as frequent NRO contributor David Kahane, Rules for Radical Conservatives.