Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 1


Professor Stuart Kirby (1909–1998)

STUART Kirby was the son of Edward Charles Kirby, who may have been involved in the British naval mission to Japan. He was educated in Tokyo at the American School from 1915 until 1919, and then at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe from 1919 to 1926, when he went to London University as a modern languages student. He said he had been a member of the London University Labour Party since 1927 when he applied to join the Communist Party of Great Britain on 14 October 1929. What is odd is that this was the climax of the Third Period, when CPGB recruits, above all university recruits like Kirby, must have been very rare birds indeed. Indeed, we now know that the party then was stiff with agents. The recently released files at the British Library (India Office), which contain massive reports on the Ceylonese Trotskyists and Communists, show that they could hardly step outside without it being reported to Special Branch by unnamed agents within the CPGB. So from the very beginning, his adhesion must have been noted by the security services, and in particular his facility in foreign languages – rare at the time in the CPGB.

Kirby spent some of the summer of 1932 in Russia – mainly Moscow, it is believed – on the way back from visiting his parents in Japan; at least he told his comrades that he went to Japan. A recently discovered letter in Moscow from Harry Pollitt to the Comintern in August 1932 refers to him as a very valuable party member, and protests that he was ‘sent out’ on Comintern instructions, presumably to Moscow, while his visit to his parents must have been a cover. (It is worth noting that the USSR was very concerned about Japan at this period, and someone who spoke Japanese and had a British passport would have been very useful, though the life of a Comintern courier to Japan and Korea was generally very short, and not at all merry.) Like Denzil Dean Harber, who was there at about the same time, he also spoke Russian, and although he was said to be much less outspoken about his experiences than Harber, he too broke with the party after his return. At some point in 1932, just before Hitler’s coming to power, he joined the Trotskyists, and later recruited John Archer at the LSE. Indeed, he was a very important catch for the Trotskyists.

Kirby may have been almost as important as Harber in this early period, and perhaps was even regarded for some time as the leader of the LSE group. With Harber, he split from Reg Groves in December 1933. He was one of the spokesman for the minority in the autumn of 1934, and early in 1935 he left the Independent Labour Party with Harber, and worked in the Labour League of Youth and the Socialist League. With Harber he attended the International Communist League plenum in the spring of 1935, the only British representatives to do so. He was a research economist in Rome on agricultural matters for the League of Nations during 1934–35. Harry Wicks, who did not like him, refers to his being in a meeting about then. There is little reference to him in the surviving documents, which is odd, but his name crops up a lot in interviews – though just in passing. He is never named in John Archer’s thesis, and neither Martin Upham nor Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson have any personal details about him. He was a Professor of Commerce and Imperial University in Tokyo during 1935–39, and then ceased to be active in our movement. By then, of course, the Trotskyists were clearly not going to lead any great split in the Communist parties, and were being marginalised by the Stalinists.

Kirby next appears in September 1940 in the censorship division of the Indian Army, where his linguistic talents would have been valuable, and by April 1943 he was a temporary Major in the Directorate of Indian Army Military Intelligence, nominally in the Third Madras Infantry. He ended the war in 1946, as Lieutenant-Colonel. A reading of the documents in the British Library from the India Office files shows that if anything the Indian section of the British state was far more paranoid about the left than anything in the homeland. It is difficult to know precisely what its criteria for recruitment were, but my own relatives in the censorship and/or MI6 during the war were certainly not from Kirby’s political background, coming as he did from the section of our movement that had a totally ‘defeatist’ position during the war, and with a history of Communist activities since 1929 which included a stay in Russia under Comintern instructions. He must, from that date, have been vetted for the Indian censorship before the entry of the Soviet Union into the war, and even before the destruction in September 1940 of some of the security services documentation in the blitz (that bomb allowed James Klugmann to slip through the net and play a rôle in Cairo). There is a story that Kirby told in Bangkok in the 1970s that he was at one time in the Ukraine during the war, though publicly he only claimed to have been on staff duties in Eastern, Southern and Western Asia.

Kirby’s employment profile since 1945 seems that to be that of a spook. With his considerable linguistic ability and his Intelligence background, he had a variety of foreign academic appointments, including Hong Kong and Bangkok Universities. Thus he worked in areas of considerable interest to British and Western Intelligence at the time which included the start of the Vietnam war, the great tensions in the Taiwan Straits and the earlier Korean war. One of those who met him abroad in the 1970s was astounded that he could ever have been a left-winger, and thought we were talking about the wrong man. His publications included such books as studies of the economy of the Soviet Far East (1971) which the unkind have dubbed ‘bomb-aiming manuals’. He also became something of an expert on Soviet perceptions of China from his analysis of Russian-language publications, but in general his publications do not look too riveting. Though of little interest to our readers, there is some correspondence during 1957–58 with Nicholas Kaldor about economics in the Far East, which is in Kaldor’s papers at Kings Cambridge, but there are very few other traces of him in the published record. On his odd visits to England, he may have got in touch with an old friend, then a leading member of the Socialist Labour League, whom he met for the last time in 1972 or 1973, though they stayed in touch by telephone.

Kirby returned to Britain in 1964–65, and in May 1965 was appointed Professor of Economics in Industrial Administration at Aston University. It was said to me of him that, at the time of the student unrest in 1968: ‘That girl from the SWP(IS) at Aston had heard some rumours about his Trotskyist past and nearly got onto him.’ We do not know who she was, but would be grateful if she could get in touch with us. At Aston he was given a personal Chair in October 1972, and finally retired on the last day of 1972, and was made a Professor Emeritus. It unclear what he had done for Aston to merit this academic honour, even if he had done a lot for the security services. In 1975, he went back to the Far East as Professor of Economics at the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok.

As a retired Professor of Geography of Aston University, Kirby wrote books and articles until the 1980s in military journals on the Far East, in which he often expressed extreme right-wing views. This was such that in the correspondence columns of the Royal United Service Institution Journal, poor, puzzled countryside-loving Lieutenant-Colonels (probably with tree-hugging daughters) wondered if he was correct in thinking that the ‘Greens’ and ecology movement were part of a sinister Communist plot for world domination.

Then, quite out of the blue, Kirby appeared publicly, with his name featured in Dmitri Volkogonov’s book on Trotsky, where the author thanks both his English collaborators Tamara Deutscher and Stuart Kirby in the preface. Tamara Deutscher was well-known and a liberal semi-Stalinist sort just when Volkogonov was trying to be a liberal Stalinist – that is clearly quite innocent. But Kirby was a man who, like Volkogonov, had been in Military Intelligence, and who had been out of the Trotskyist movement since 1935 or so – 56 years! In his academic work he had never published anything on Trotskyism. Enquiries have shown that he met Volkogonov at a conference in 1989 (whether for the first time or not we do not know) and these two old operators, with all the other evil old spies, got on well together. Kirby was 80 then, and had been out of our movement for 54 years – so why was he considered an expert? Had he kept an eye on matters Trotskyist for his employers during the previous half century?

Kirby died in a nursing home in 1998, and leaves a daughter. Aston had no obituary for an Emeritus Professor.

What little we have been able to discover about Kirby’s personality suggests that he was rather odd, ‘a tortured man’ was the phrase used. But then spies are odd sort of people, they have to be to undertake (and indeed to choose) that career path. We do not know when Kirby first worked for the capitalist class, or whether this was always the case.

We would appreciate any other information on him, however little, that comrades could turn up.

Ted Crawford

Updated by ETOL: 6.10.2011