Remembering Malcolm Muggeridge: Marked by Mobility and a Search for Morality

From left: Pope John Paul II talks with Larry Niven, National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., and Malcolm Muggeridge in the early 1980s.

The British writer, journalist, and public intellectual died 30 years ago next month. He sought to overcome darkness within and outside himself.

Malcolm Muggeridge died 30 years ago and had so variegated a career that it is hard to bring into focus and evaluate—acidulous literary wit; journalistic, satirical, and historical writer; influential broadcaster and interviewer; world traveler; editor, memoirist, and the most influential lay Christian apologist since the death of C. S. Lewis in 1963. But his extraordinary life and achievement can best be understood in light of two themes or dimensions. The first was unusual in his time but has subsequently become a common feature of contemporary life: mobility. The second remains painfully problematic: the quest for an authoritative morality in a radically pluralistic, relativistic era.

The experience of “modernity” as conceived by our great contemporary sociologists (such as Daniel Bell, Robert Nisbet, Philip Rieff, Peter Berger, and David Martin) is largely the experience of an unprecedented mobility among and within the world’s populations, but also of unprecedented disorientation—anomie and fanaticism. Muggeridge’s experience of mobility was social, occupational, and geographical-cultural. Born in 1903 to a Fabian-socialist, lower-middle-class family in the London suburb of Croydon, he attended coeducational state schools and graduated from Selhurst High School before going up to Selwyn College, Cambridge, in 1920. To matriculate at Selwyn he had to be quickly baptized and confirmed in the Church of England, and thus subsequently found himself in a social-cultural-economic milieu dominated at Cambridge by affluent male graduates of single-sex elite public schools, most with at least a smattering of classical languages. (G. K. Chesterton uncharitably called the Oxford and Cambridge of this era “playgrounds for the rich.”) Muggeridge found the experience disorienting and unfulfilling, studied natural sciences in a desultory way, and graduated with an undistinguished degree and few prospects. He had done some supply teaching at the John Ruskin Central School in Croydon while at Cambridge, and after graduation he got a job teaching English in Travancore, in the far south of India, at a small Christian college where students needed to be prepared in English literature for the national exams of British India. Muggeridge felt strongly that the Anglocentric curriculum was utterly irrelevant to the future of India, sympathized with the quest for Indian independence, and managed to see and correspond with Mahatma Gandhi, whose asceticism impressed him.

After his three years of teaching in India, 1924–27, he had enormously wide subsequent experience of occupational and geographical mobility: a brief spell in England and Belgium in 1927 and marriage; another teaching job, in Egypt, 1927–30, during which he managed to publish articles in The New Statesman; recruitment to write for the Manchester Guardian and return to England, 1930–32, during which he also wrote a novel and a play; correspondent for the Guardian in Moscow, 1932–33, with publication of firsthand investigative reports on the murderous Stalinist terror-famine in Ukraine, reports that cost him his job both in Moscow and in Manchester; work for the International Labour Office of the League of Nations in Geneva and writing and publication of a satirical-documentary novel, Winter in Moscow (1933–34); return to India as editor of the Calcutta Statesman, 1934–36, during which he befriended Bengali intellectuals; return to England to write for the Beaverbrook-owned London Evening Standard, 1936–40, with publication of a study of Samuel Butler (1936), writing for a magazine edited by Graham Greene, and writing an existential novel, In a Valley of This Restless Mind (1938; highly praised by Evelyn Waugh in The Spectator), and a satirical-documentary history, The Thirties (1940), that was reviewed and praised by George Orwell, who became a good friend for the remainder of his life.

The outbreak of World War II led Muggeridge to enlist in the British army in 1940. With wide experience and French-language abilities, he was recruited to British intelligence and subsequently sent as a spy to neutral Portuguese Mozambique, in southeast Africa, 1942–44, remaining in contact with another intelligence agent in west Africa, and friend, Graham Greene. Muggeridge was subsequently recognized and promoted for his anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist services in Mozambique and South Africa. As a Francophone, he was then sent as a military liaison to de Gaulle’s Free French, briefly in London, then in Algiers, southern Italy, and finally in Paris, 1944–45, where he knew de Gaulle and Jacques Soustelle (subsequently a post-war French minister of information) and engaged in military-security activities, for which he was later awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur by the French government.

By 1945 this kaleidoscope of mobility had given him a quarter-century of extraordinary occupational, cultural, and geographical experience. He left the British military as a major and reentered private life in England as a writer, journalist, and editor, in spite of attempts to get him to enlist in post-war British intelligence. Despite his personal liking for the later-notorious, high-ranking British Communist spy Kim Philby, Muggeridge confidentially and prophetically warned British intelligence, to no avail, of what he thought was Philby’s fundamental untrustworthiness. In London during the war, he had already met and intensely disliked the then-unknown Communist spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, and he played a long-term role in helping to expose them and Donald Maclean, whom he knew in Washington, D.C., when Maclean was, shockingly, at the British embassy as first secretary. This story has been brilliantly and memorably told in his friend Andrew Boyle’s book Climate of Treason (1979), which led to the final identification of Blunt as the “fourth man” of the Cambridge Communist spy ring by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the floor of the House of Commons. This was the occasion of one of Muggeridge’s most brilliant essays, “The Eclipse of the Gentleman” (Time, 1979), as yet not republished.

From 1945 on Muggeridge wrote for the Evening Standard and the Daily Telegraph, for which he served as Washington correspondent during the Truman administration and of which he was appointed deputy editor in 1950. He published another satirical novel, Affairs of the Heart, in 1949. As early as 1941 he had begun broadcasting on radio for the BBC, commencing an intermittent affiliation that would last nearly a half-century and lead to what are widely considered among the greatest television interviews (Bertrand Russell, Lord Reith, Leonard Woolf, de Gaulle, Salvador Dali, Svetlana Stalin, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) and documentaries (inter alia, on British India, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the travels of Saint Paul) ever made, several turned into books (e.g., Muggeridge through the Microphone, 1966). He served as editor of the satirical magazine Punch, 1953–57, where he was fired for printing an irreverent poem about the royal family. From the early 1960s on he wrote frequently for the most influential intellectual journals on both sides of the Atlantic—Encounter, The New Statesman, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, National Review—a series of essays and reviews of high literary quality that were subsequently gathered into equally influential volumes such as Tread Softly, for You Tread on My Jokes (1966) and The Most of Malcolm Muggeridge (1969).

By his many foes on the right (splenetic monarchists, British imperialists, South African racialists—he publicly rebuked Apartheid in 1968) and the left (Bloomsbury aesthetes, anticlericals, communists, and fellow travelers), Muggeridge was increasingly hated, with one critic calling him “an agile nihilist.” As the Sixties developed he became more and more apparently religious and culturally conservative and pessimistic, encouraging his young friend Christopher Booker to write a book satirizing “neophilia.” He mocked British imperialism, the snobbery of the British monarchy and class system (“The Queen and I,” The New Republic, 1961), for which he was temporarily banned from the BBC, and even satirized the post–World War II “totemization of Winston Churchill” (Esquire, 1961), whom he had admired as a national leader during the war.

Although a fierce and dogged anticommunist after his disillusionment in Russia in 1932–33, he wrote one of his most powerful satirical essays against U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy, “Senator McCarthy McCarthyized or the Biter Bit” (Punch, 1953), in which he argued that McCarthy’s abusive behavior and tactics had actually helped the American and international communist cause, and he pointed out that McCarthy’s 1946 Senate victory over liberal but “intensely anti-Communist” Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin was accomplished with the overwhelming support of Wisconsin communists and fellow travelers who wanted to get rid of La Follette. Muggeridge noted, quoting subsequent congressional testimony, that La Follette “was one of the very few members of the Senate to see, in advance, the appalling dangers of the mood in which President Roosevelt approached the Yalta Conference, to the point that he actually went to see the President before he left for Yalta to plead with him to take a tougher and more realistic attitude towards the Russians.” Alger Hiss actually accompanied Roosevelt to Yalta and went on to Moscow afterwards. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out four decades later, the secret, decoded transcripts of the intercepted Russian Venona communications proving KGB infiltration of important sectors of the U.S. intelligentsia, research institutions, and government (Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, the Rosenbergs, the nuclear physicists Klaus Fuchs and Alan Nunn May) were actually kept from Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, and Truman only realized the seriousness of the espionage problem after he had disbanded the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), with the defection of Russian cipher expert Igor Gouzenko in Canada in late 1945 and the subsequent testimonies of Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers. (See Moynihan, Secrecy: The American Experience, 1998; John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, 2010.)

Thus Muggeridge had by the mid 1960s an extraordinary range and variety of experiences, encompassing social, occupational, and geographical mobility, and participation in some of the most momentous events and observation of some of the most important personalities of the 20th century, including writers. For example, his conversation with Nobel laureate André Gide in Algiers in 1944 left him with a powerful sense of evil genius and “the nihilism of the aesthete” (Raymond Aron’s phrase), while his later meeting in France with the writer and Résistance figure François Mauriac, also a Nobel laureate in literature, left him with an enduring sense of nobility. (So active was Mauriac in trying to rescue unjustly imprisoned French citizens during the vengeful “purification” of 1944–45 that he was known in the prisons as “St.-François des Assises,” Saint Francis of the courts.)

Yet the existential quest for a transcendent morality that would order and evaluate these developments had become increasingly agonizing. Evelyn Waugh had said in 1938 of Muggeridge’s novel In a Valley of This Restless Mind that “its range includes satirical reportage and something very near prophecy.” Many years later the Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor said that Muggeridge’s novel Winter in Moscow was the best English-language book ever written on Soviet Russia, an evaluation reaffirmed more recently by the historian Norman Stone. In 1940, George Orwell praised Muggeridge’s satirical-documentary chronicle The Thirties, and the two men became such close friends that Orwell asked Muggeridge to write his biography. He never did, but he contributed a powerful essay on him, “A Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” to Miriam Gross’s volume The World of George Orwell (1971). He said of Orwell that “he loved the past, hated the present, and dreaded the future.”

As is inevitable with truly great satire, the satirist had become a moralist. Over the four decades from 1920 to the ’60s, Muggeridge increasingly felt the pull of “transcendence and grace” (his phrase). By the ’60s he had become an independent, churchless Christian, and much of his activity and writing in the last three decades of his life were devoted to defending and resurrecting the Christian tradition. He made a series of powerful documentaries for television, including Something Beautiful for God (1970–71) on Mother Teresa of Calcutta; royalties of the book version supplied the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta with their largest source of income for many years afterward. He made a series of films entitled “A Third Testament,” on Saint Augustine, Pascal, William Blake, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, following it with a book (1976). He wrote essays on Simone Weil and Dostoevsky, books on Jesus (Jesus Rediscovered, 1969; Jesus: The Man Who Lives, 1975) and Saint Paul (first as a film with his old Cambridge clergyman friend and don Alec Vidler, retracing Saint Paul’s voyages, then the book, Paul: Envoy Extraordinary, 1972). He drew attention to the survival and prospering of Christianity in Russian and Eastern European anticommunist figures such as Solzhenitsyn, Anatoli Kuznetsov (author of Babi Yar), Svetlana Stalin, and Mihajlo Mihajlov, seeing them in the tradition of Dostoyevsky, whom he venerated and whose The Devils he thought the great, prophetic novel of the 19th century. He had searched for, found, and visited Dostoyevsky’s then-abandoned, untended grave in Leningrad on his way out of the Soviet Union in 1933.

But the great literary work of the last part of Muggeridge’s life was the two-part autobiography Chronicles of Wasted TimeThe Green Stick (1972) and The Infernal Grove (1973). In it he narrated the chronicle that has been briefly outlined here, but also showed the maturing of certain fundamental insights and ideas that had developed over many years. As a young boy in Croydon he and his schoolmates had been taken into central London to see inexpensive productions of Shakespeare’s plays, and he subsequently became a lifelong reader of Shakespeare, with King Lear a source of persistent interest and inspiration, a kind of fifth gospel. For certain of his fundamental perceptions of the nature of reality as ultimately metaphysical and moral, he was indebted to Shakespeare, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Samuel Johnson, and Blake: All but Bunyan were Londoners, like him. Though Muggeridge admired enormously his Fabian-socialist father, a sometime-MP with the Labour Party, H. T. Muggeridge (1864–1942), and was a favorite of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, his family relations by marriage, his experience of the 1920s and ’30s made their secular-utilitarian worldview increasingly unpersuasive and demoralizing to him, an experience intensified by working on the Manchester Guardian for the progressive editor C. P. Scott, whom he thought to be hypocritical, pompous, and self-serving, and by his own experience in the Soviet Union in 1932–33, in the society the Webbs wrote about as “a new civilization.”

Among Muggeridge’s contemporaries it was the idealistic, impecunious writer Hugh Kingsmill (1889–1949) who meant most to him. The Poisoned Crown (1944), in which Kingsmill criticized the corruption and cruelty of power-worshipers, was central to his vision of things, and he wrote an introduction to Michael Holroyd’s 1964 biography of Kingsmill. Kingsmill argued a mystical Shakespearean-Blakean view that there were perennial human conflicts between lovingkindness and power and between imagination and will, and that the modern era particularly had seen the satanic hunger for Blake’s “poisoned crown,” the lust for amoral power, in humankind’s technological rape of nature and in totalitarian power maniacs such as Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung, and that against this post-moral Nietzschean will-to-power—Saint Augustine’s libido dominandi—only lovingkindness and imagination could ultimately triumph, though not necessarily visibly or in this life. Kingsmill was a fellow traveler with Christians, as was Muggeridge for the first part of his life; and Muggeridge took Simone Weil to be making the same argument in her reflections on gravity and grace.

Child of an explicitly secular, anticlerical home, Muggeridge was nevertheless impressed by some of the Anglo-Catholics he met at Cambridge, Alec Vidler and Wilfred Knox, and went out to India to teach in a Christian college. But from what he subsequently wrote, one can surmise that the vast expanses and seasonal recurrences of India, its heartbreaking poverty but timeless beauty and even the human dignity amid that poverty, and Gandhi’s extraordinary personal authority, deeply affected him. Like George Orwell in Burma, he took the Indian side against the snobbish, dying, decaying British Raj, and one might say that a transcendental longing and consciousness were intensified in him, one that got no succor during his subsequent time in Egypt and was only aroused anew in his furtive visits to teeming, passionately devout Russian Orthodox church services under Stalinist persecution in the Soviet Union in 1932–33.

Subsequently the problem raised later so eloquently by Solzhenitsyn in his Nobel lecture, One Word of Truth (1970), of how to find a binding, universal ethic beyond but not in denial of modern pluralism, beyond but not in violation of science and empiricism, the authoritative one beyond the demoralizing many, was clearly the existential challenge for the mobile, Argus-eyed, sharp-witted, and sharp-tongued Muggeridge. The autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time is one of the great books of the past hundred years because it illuminates this quest through a true, world-historical, satirical-documentary narrative that nevertheless takes on the everyman character of a perennial parable in which the pilgrim seeks through justice, lovingkindness, and imagination to defeat within and outside himself the foolishness and selfishness that perpetually disfigure human relations and make so much misery in a very beautiful world.

M. D. Aeschliman, professor emeritus of education at Boston University and professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland (1996–2019), edited a new edition of Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1934 satirical-documentary novel Winter in Moscow in 1987. The third edition of his The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism has recently been published by Discovery Institute Press, and in French translation by Pierre Téqui (Paris). The first edition (1983) contained an introduction by Malcolm Muggeridge.

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