Capitalists, Communists, and Spies

8 Apr

We haven’t written anything in donkey’s years (we don’t really know what that means, but our ol’ mum used to say it, so it’s good enough for us.) We started to write something about Matt Taibbi’s book The Great Derangement, which is all about politics, religion, and stuff like that there.  Then, after listening to DVDs of Ben Macintyre’s book A Spy  Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal we figured we’d write about that.  Then, got interested in the famous Detroit Industry Murals of Diego Rivera, and yep, we figured we’d write about them.  It seemed like a mixed bag, but politics was the common thread tying these seemingly disparate subjects together.

Kim Philby was the (in)famous head of Britain’s MI6 who spied for the Russians for decades.  As described in Macintyre’s book, Philby and his colleagues were a boozy lot who more or less fell into the spy trade.  It seems that all one really needed to do in those days was to have graduated from one of the upper crust colleges, and, once in possession of the old school tie, to discreetly put out the word in the right circles that one wanted to join the spy biz.  This is an oversimplification, but not a very gross one; both Philby and his MI6 colleague Nicolas Elliot made their entrances into the business following more or less this formula.

Philby  was an odd duck.  He wasn’t Russian, but he along with Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, seems to have become a convert to Soviet Communism while a student at Cambridge and never questioned his decision, even after the horrors of life under Stalin came to light.  Unlike his friend Burgess who seems to have offended just about everyone,  Philby was charismatic and liked by all who met him.  For the longest time, the only ones who seemed at all suspicious of him were his Soviet paymasters, who thought him too good to be true.

We liked Macintyre’s book.  In fact, we want to actually read it; we feel like we cheated by listening to it on DVD as we shuttled to and from our work place.  One cool thing about the DVD version though, is the narrator ( whose name escapes us at the moment.)  If he’s quoting a Frenchman, he adopts a French accent.  If the speaker is Russian, he adopts a Russian accent.  It’s quite funny when he does an American accent, not because he’s not good at it (he is) but because it’s always the same American accent, even when the American he’s quoting is from the South.

What stuck us about Macintyre’s book is that, here’s this guy who’s aiding the Communist cause every chance he gets, while all the while going to his posh club, taking long, liquored-up lunches with friends, and living the life of a capitalist.

Diego Rivera, on the other hand, was a self-identified communist who acted like he was a capitalist (we were determined to tie these two disparate characters together, even if we had to use a shoehorn to do it.) Unlike Philby’s works, Rivera’s are masterpieces, and when he painted the 27 frescoes that comprise the Detroit Industry Murals, he was at the top of his game.  (Don’t take our word for it, visit  and slide down the page to check them out.)  We like art and we like the murals, so what’s our beef with Rivera?  Well, in our humble opinion, the guy was a tightwad.  Rivera was to be paid $10,000 to paint the murals, but when his patron Edsel Ford saw the preliminary sketches, he more than doubled Rivera’s fee (the settled-on amount was something weird  like 20,899 – if we weren’t so lazy we’d look it up.) The cost of materials would also be borne by his patrons, but Rivera was expected to pay his assistants from the 20K+ he’d been given. So here’s this guy, being paid what was not a bad chunk of change during the Great Depression, and what does he do?  He turns around and pays his four main assistants 12 bucks a week (at the time, the workers in Ford’s plant received $5 per day.) Other assistants didn’t get paid at all.  One of the main assistants later got $18 a week after he threatened to protest in front of the museum saying that Rivera was unfair to labor.  He got the bread, but he also got the silent treatment from Rivera for a long time after that.

It’s not that we have anything against Diego Rivera.  On the contrary, we think him a great artist.  It’s just that we think that if you say you’re a Communist, you really ought to share the wealth, ‘cause that’s theoretically what you’re supposed to do when you make that  statement.

This guy was making more than Rivera’s assistants

We could rhapsodize for hours about the murals and attempt to beguile you with trivia (did you know that Dick Tracy appears on the South Wall among a depiction of folks touring the car plant), but we hope we’ve piqued your interest enough that you’ll research them on your own.

OK we didn’t manage to work in the Taibbi book in this one, but hey, maybe later.


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