Friday, May 11, 2018

Cambridge Spies: Monday, May 7 2018

My Film Group settled down with wine and chips, to enjoy Cambridge Spies (2003), a four part series created by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Thanks to Kristine and Ivor for lending the DVD to us!

This is not the BBC's best miniseries ever. Written by the experienced writer for television, Peter Moffat, and directed by Tim Fywell, a not so experienced director, it is slow and not always coherent. Cambridge Spies is not a documentary, as the story had been changed a bit to make for a more dramatic production. The basic facts are correct: the spies came from privileged families and had Cambridge University in common; they were homosexuals; they were communists; they all spied for the Soviet Union. They continued in their belief in the Communist Ideology all their lives.

The cast consists of attractive actors. Tom Hollander plays Guy Burgess, Toby Stephens is Kim Philby, Samuel West takes the part of Anthony Blunt, and Rupert Penry-Jones plays Donald Maclean. Watching them perform made the three hours we spent watching the first three parts of the series well worth while. It helped overcome the poor direction. I first saw the miniseries when it was released, butI don't remember the homosexual sex scenes. Perhaps I had just forgotten. We enjoyed the miniseries in spite of its flaws.

Before labelling the spies as traitors, it's necessary to examine the times in which they lived. The Great Depression and the Stock Exchange Crash of 1929, had cast the promise of Capitalism into shade. The rise of Fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain, was seen as a threat. The only hope for the world seemed to many to lie with Russia and the Communist ideology. The unfeeling arrogance of many of the incredibly rich English upper class and the extreme poverty of many of the working class, also influenced the Cambridge Spies. They wanted to see change in the world. Their ideology told them they were not traitors, but rather, heroes wanting the greater good.

The Cambridge Spies thought they could contribute to that change by working for the Soviet Union. In the beginning, they were young idealists attracted by the Utopia preached by Friedrich Engles (1820-95), Karl Marx (1818-83) and Lenin (1879-1924). They probably had read The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (1867-83)  and other writings by Engles and Marx. They believed the Communist philosophy and Socialist economics that form the ideology. It states that history consists of the "class struggle", and that "the forcible overthrow of all social conditions" was an unfortunate, but necessary prelude to creating a Socialist society. A Utopia where "the workers of the world" have followed Engles and Marx's exhortation, united and taken over the "tools of production." Russia interpreted this to mean that it was necessary to take all businesses, including farms, from their owners and give them to "the workers", in the form of the State. The Soviet Union become the embodiment of the ideal Communist and Socialist Utopia. Even Burgess was disappointed when he had to flee to Russia and he saw the reality.

Of course, at that same time between the two World Wars and just after the Second World War, many people were convinced that British society had to change even more than it already had been. The gap between the wealth of the richest people, and the extreme poverty of the poorest, was too wide. After the Second World War, the electorate voted into power the British Labour Party, who instituted many changes. Among these changes were heavier taxation, the implementation of the National Health Service, and other social programs to help the poorer sectors of society. Businesses were "Nationalised" for a while, before it was understood by the results, that this is not always too good an idea. Britain had its revolution, but from within, and without violence. Those people who worked for change within the society were considered reformers, not traitors.

I saw this program when it first was aired on TV. I enjoyed it then, and enjoyed seeing it again. It was thought-provoking, and revived my memories of reading the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital in the 1960s. These writings appalled me at that time as being so radical. I had to read Das Kapital three times, taking notes, to be sure that I was understanding what Marx was expressing. I did get it the first time, but found his argument that the only true worth of a widget is the labour that goes into producing it as showing his lack of understanding the true nature of business. If only it were that easy! I found when I was in business, that there is a market out there at will only pay so much for what is being sold. Also, there are the costs to a business capitalizing it and of managing it, and also of the equipment and materials, and then the cost of labour. Engles and Marx didn't appear to have studied economics.

When history is revisited and all the millions of deaths that have resulted from this philosophy and economic system are considered, the mind boggles. When one considers that Hitler, or Stalin, might have invaded Britiain, and contemplates the horrific pictures that possibility conjures up, it rather puts the Second World War into perspective.

Cambridge Spies provoked lots of thought and discussion.

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