The Magazine

A Hundred Years of Muggery

The life and times of Malcolm Muggeridge.

May 5, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 33 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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The time has come to take back those lines. Wolfe establishes that Muggeridge had a sort of epiphany as a very young man, being overwhelmed by a rural sunset which "in its all-embracing beauty conveyed a oneness" and deciding "that to identify oneself with the spirit animating it and giving it meaning, contained the promise of ecstasy." This trope recurs in an undergraduate study that Muggeridge did at Cambridge, based on the "Evidences of Christianity" by the early-nineteenth-century natural philosopher William Paley. The result may be no more than the Argument from Design writ large, but there's no reason to doubt Muggeridge's sincerity about it.

Continuing this rather soft-centered, impressionable attitude to the Numinous, Muggeridge made the voyage to India that so many progressive-minded young Englishmen undertook in those days, and he was duly impressed with the saintliness and simplicity of Gandhi. But paradox intrudes itself here at once. When Muggeridge was not being awed by spiritual simplicity, he was being attracted by religious complexity. He wrote about his "love" for "the inconsistencies of Christianity" and his belief that "faith must be based on doubt." He was still a long way from Roman Catholicism, but his quest for the "inclusive"--for a reconciliation between the sacred and the profane, as well as between the simple and the difficult--already involved catholicity.

PERHAPS, like St. Augustine, he didn't want full acceptance quite yet or, knowing himself pursued by the Hound of Heaven, was prepared to give it time to catch him. Meanwhile he had a certain toughness and curiosity to keep him going. He saw plainly that the British day in India was waning (he was ahead of his time in this respect), and he was soon to see through communism, the grand illusion of the twentieth century. Enlisting at the Manchester Guardian, another flagship of the English bien-pensant class, he was quick to realize that its lofty policies masked an institutional hypocrisy about, among other things, the true source of the newspaper's income. Satirizing this in his first novel, Picture Palace, he made the valuable discovery that there is no intolerance like liberal intolerance. (The paper's owners took harsh legal steps to ensure that the novel was suppressed.) Thus, when he became the Guardian's correspondent in Moscow in 1932, he was riper than perhaps he understood for a crisis of belief.

A.J.P. Taylor told him as he was embarking, "If the Russians do not come up to your expectations, don't take it out on them." Muggeridge's reply is worth quoting: "No, no. It will be Utopia. I must see the Ideal even if I am unworthy of it." This Mosaic echo is evidence that Muggeridge already had a religious cast of mind. Of course, it was not only the Left in those days that believed in the virtues of a planned economy and hungered for an alternative to post-Versailles chaos and misery. But the disillusionment in Muggeridge's case was on a scale commensurate to the original fantasy. Stalin's Russia hadn't just fallen short of the ideal; it had become a plain Hell for the body and the mind. His reports from the Ukraine in the year of the famine stand comparison with André Gide's "Retour de l'URSS" and Eugene Lyons's "Assignment in Utopia" as irrefutable evidence of a new barbarism. The ancillary lesson he drew, about the gullibility and credulity of Western intellectuals, was to last Muggeridge the rest of his life.

Muggeridge's sheet isn't as snow-white, however, as some of his admirers like to believe. A previous and more hagiographic biography, written by Richard Ingrams, mentions that in his dotage Muggeridge became prey to anti-Semitic outbursts and paranoid suspicions. I had thought that this late lapse was the extent of it, but Wolfe bluntly points out Muggeridge's lifelong susceptibility to this most toxic of all prejudices. And in "Winter in Moscow," a 1934 novel that dwells on the most lurid aspects of Judeo-Bolshevism, he gave full vent to his dislike. Some subsequent exposure to Nazi ideology and practice qualified, but did not entirely dispel, this disfiguring element.

WHILE HE WAS THUS engaged in becoming a failed novelist and a brilliant journalist (his book "The Thirties" remains a classic snapshot of what his friend Claud Cockburn called "The Devil's Decade") and managing to turn up always in the right place at the right time, his private life was a cauldron of adultery, misery, and penury. He fought incessantly with Kitty, whom he may not have forgiven for his repeated betrayals of her, and she requited this by openly bearing another man's son. (The boy was to become in some ways Muggeridge's favorite child.)