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The son of a prosperous Jewish merchant, James Klugmann was actually born Norman John Klugmann in London 0n 27th February 1912. In his youth, he started using James as a first name by choice, and gradually dropped the final `n’ in the spelling of his name.
Kitty Cornforth was James’ sister, and she was also a committed Communist, married to Maurice Cornforth (see separate entry), making what would later be two senior Communists brothers-in-law.
Harry Hodson, in his memoirs, recalls visiting the Klugmann family home as a friend of the elder brother, Frank. Although this testimony is slightly marred by Hodson’s recall of James Klugmann’s first given name as being `Donald’ and not Norman! Though this may have simply arisen from his reminiscences of Klugman and Donald Maclean as fellow school mates, and a consequent conflation of the two men’s names; since Frank was Hodson’s particular chum it is to be expected that the following recall, at least, is accurate, if not the precision of a name.
Hodson remarks of James Klugmann, whom he identifies correctly as the `official’ historian of the British Communist Party: “His background was impeccably bourgeois; his father was a guttural-voiced Jewish businessman in the smoking pipe trade, and the family lived in a forbidding Victorian house on Haverstock Hill, Hampstead…”
At an early point in his life having chosen `James’ as a more acceptable first name, James Klugmann joined the Communist Party in 1933, while at CambridgeUniversity. He has been accused of recruiting John Cairncross for the KGB, to become the fifth member of the infamous Cambridge spy circle, supposedly putting Cairncross into contact with Samuel Cahan, a KGB operative. More generally, his name continues to crop up in connection with the Cambridge 5. Secret Service files on Klugman include extracts from Special Branch reports and CID reports on Klugmann’s speeches, there are details of intercepted correspondence, records of telephone conversations and reports on Klugmann’s activities. A note suggests that Klugmann may have assisted in the escape of Burgess and Maclean, but there is no evidence to suggest this.
But Klugmann was at pains to deny any connection with spying during his lifetime and a long period of secret service surveillance on him threw up no obvious proof. He had however been on the fringes of such activity, which no doubt gave rise, along with his university friendships of some of those who were involved in espionage. It was long speculated that Klugmann was actively gay in his university days, like some of the Cambridge spies, but, whatever the case, he appears to have been quite celibate in his later life.
From his student activist days, James’ postal mail was regularly intercepted by the security forces, at least from 1937 (and they were consulted regularly, even long after his death, with around 1996 appearing to be the last serious reference to his records. Summary details of James’ correspondence was systematically placed in their files, for which posterity can thank them!
In 1935, Klugmann gave up an academic career to become Secretary of the World Student Association, based in Paris, travelling widely across the world. It was this role, which focused heavily on the building of the Popular Front against fascism, which seems to have motivated a life-time of security force attention. Given the recent acceptance by MI5 that its past was marked by a largely unnecessary intrusion into the lives of politically individuals that was often prompted by the prejudices of its own officers, MI5’s description of James for its operatives, which was put on file around 1938, speaks volumes: “Height about 5’ 8”, light build, broad brow, small featured face, fuzz of grayish hair, probably wears glasses, not remarkably Jewish but rather foreign appearance” [my emphasis].
During World War Two, James rose to the rank of major an unlikely outcome given his general disposition. He had joined the Royal Army Service Corps as a private in 1940 but, having a double first from Oxford and a natural flair for languages, he was soon transferred to the Special Operations Executive, apparently without a proper security assessment.
His climb to the dizzying heights of Major was largely inspired by his sheer talent. A passage in a letter sent in August 1942 by Michael Carritt, “the Organiser of the Communist Party in Bradford”, to his brother, Gabriel, was noted: “James has jumped from the lowest clerk to Lieutenant. They just couldn’t get on without him, as he was the only one who (?) could make himself understood to the native masses.”
The MI5 official noting this in the files concludes this must be Klugmann, “whom I know to have been an associate … in Cambridge” of a group of university friends that Michael Carritt was writing of to his brother. This group included Klugman, Michael Carrit, Chris (Kit?) Meredith and Ram Nahum. James had lived in the same house as Nahum along with Freddie Lambert.
Klugmann had made an “extensive tour on behalf of the World Students Association in 1938, and he seems to have been in Egypt amongst other places”, little wonder then that he now found it so easy to relate to local support staff. Perhaps he even found links with the nationalist community and this helped smooth the way for all the administrative troubles of the British forces that James now resolved.
A Photostat of Carrit’s letter was promised to an official handling army security but not before the large number of old friends, all civilians, mentioned had been thoroughly checked. It’s feasible that this delay played into James’ hands, as he now became increasingly indispensable to the military unit he was serving in. An October 2nd letter from Arnold Kettle to Helen Simon passed on news about James who “is a 2/Lt. in the Near East and, as you would expect, doing marvelously at Arabic etc.”
His files reveal that, in January 1942, the security forces were asked by a senior officer in Cairo to “vet him for most secret work and he was rightly turned down by the vetting section”. But no further reports on him were filed during 1942. In January 1943, Klugmann’s commanding officer reported that, “despite our strongly worded advice, he had been doing most secret work for S.O.E., and, as a result very largely of his Colonel’s opinion of him, he was immediately cleared for Intelligence duties also.”
Seemingly, the lack of recorded information on James arose despite his role as “one of the Force’s contacts in Cairo”. The phrase hints at a role within the Cairo Parliament, the troop’s increasingly restless debating and action organisation, which led to a wider forces’ progressive movement that some have credited for being at the heart of the unexpected 1945 election win for Labour.
In February 1942, he had been posted to the Yugoslav Section of SOE. He became a deputy director, based in Cairo and later in Bari, Italy. Through the reports he gave, Klugmann revealed the diminished role of the official Yugoslav resistance, a monarchical creation, and charged that members of its HQ were collaborators only interested in military operations against Tito’s Partisans. After the war he was attached to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in Yugoslavia.
Reports on his work for SOE, suggests he vetted agents, passing the good ones on to the Communist Partisans whilst the bad agents went on to Milaovic and the Chetniks. A 37-page verbatim conversation between Klugmann and Bob Stewart (supposedly responsible for undercover members and work) appears in the files. Klugmann’s work in the Middle East, Italy and in Yugoslavia and as solider in RASC and later SOE and as a civilian in UNRRA are all detailed. The attention paid to Klugmann in post war years would seemingly be belied for relevancy, given his humorous and placid nature and the character of his subsequent life and work.
By August 1945, James was back in London, living with his mother at 89 Belsize Park Gardens. The security forces asked that he be was put under continuous observation for the remainder of his stay in this country”. When he finally returned from service abroad, on 20th July 1946, he took up residence at 61 Talbot Road, N6, and began writing for World News and Views and handling some work in the Education Department at King Street. He wouldspend the rest of his life working for the Communist Party on theoretical questions and in Marxist education.
Special Branch took the trouble in November 1946 to send a constable to listen to James speaking to a Hampstead Communist Party branch meeting on “Problems of Peace and how they affected Germany”. James’ speech focused on aspects of the occupation of Germany that would, over the next few years, become all too familiar as being at the root of a willingness by the western powers to force relations with the USSR almost to the point of war. The policeman produced a ponderous report, noting that an audience of about 60 attended the “proceedings, which were orderly throughout”!
Klugmann’s expertise in foreign affairs continued to keep him closely watched by the security forces. MI5 was able to have written for its files, presumably by one of its plants inside the Party, a lengthy Special Branch report on the Communist Party’s national congress in early 1947. James Klugmann’s speech on US affairs at this congress greatly interested the authorities.
His Yugoslavian experiences saw him called upon to write a seemingly authoritative but virulent criticism of Tito following the split with Stalin of 1948. But the resultant work, `From Trotsky to Tito’, was later viewed with embarrassment by Klugmann.
From 1957-1977 he was also editor of "Marxism Today". He became especially interested in dialogue with Christians during the 1960s and was a keynote speaker at many theological sessions for students and others.
James was an avid seeker out of second-hand book shops on his travels around the country to speak; he was a collector of books and ephemera. His home was virtually a library, with bookshelves creeping up every wall and around every corner.
He died in September 1977. His collection of radical and Chartist literature and cartoons was donated to the Marx Memorial Library on his death.
Publications by James Klugmann:
LondonUniversity: School of Slavonic and East European Studies: www.aim25.ac.uk/cats/58/6978.htm/
MI5 files on Norman James Klugmann in the National Archives
GS private information