Newspaper - Obituary by Delia Davin on Monday December 18, 2000
David Crook, ex-Stalinist agent, dies in China
A communist who fought against Franco, spied for Stalin and wrote a classic
book on change in China
Delia Davin [Guardian] - Monday December 18, 2000
In 1959, with his wife Isabel, David Crook, who has died aged 90, published
Revolution in a Chinese Village. Through that classic study and other writings
and talks, the Crooks provided a positive picture of China to the outside
world at a time when cold war simplifications were the norm. It was as a result
of his experiences in the Depression-hit America of the early 1930s that Crook
became a communist. It was a political commitment that shaped his life.
Born in London, his middle-class Jewish family was prosperous in his early
childhood, but later lost its money. He was educated at Cheltenham College
and at the age of 18 left London for New York. There he worked in the garment
trade, but in 1935 also completed a degree at Columbia University. Back in
Europe, Crook was smuggled into Spain in 1936 to join the International Brigade.
His fighting career there came to an end in 1938 when he was recruited by
Stalin's Communist International (Comintern) to spy on Trotskyists and anarchists
within the republican movement. From Spain, he was sent to Shanghai, to report
to his Soviet mentors on the small group of Trotskyists around the American
Frank Glass. There he lectured in English language at a mission university
and enjoyed the cosmopolitan pleasures that Shanghai then offered. A memoir
written towards the end of his life makes it clear that later, with a changed
perception of Stalinism, he regretted much of his work as an agent.
In the summer of 1940 Crook travelled to Chengdu in west China where he met
Isabel, the China-born daughter of Canadian missionaries who was conducting
a village survey. They became engaged, and after long, hazardous journeys
to England, made separately, they were married in London a year later. David
joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to India, Ceylon, and Burma while
Isabel served in the Canadian Women's Army Corps. At the end of the war, after
a period of postgraduate studies, they decided to return to China, then in
the throes of civil war. In 1947 they evaded a nationalist blockade to cross
into a communist-controlled area in north China. There they observed the land
reform and collected material for Revolution in a Chinese Village.
The Crooks also began long careers as teachers of English, later continued
at what became first the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute, and then the
Foreign Studies University. They made thousands of young Chinese proficient
in English and many of their ex-students reached the highest ranks in the
foreign ministry and in academia. David and Isabel, honoured and trusted by
the Chinese, occupied with their work and their young family and positive
about China's post-revolutionary progress, lived fulfilled lives until the
onset of the Cultural Revolution. They greeted this new movement enthusiastically
but, like so many of the Chinese intellectual and political elite, they soon
became its victims. Crook was arrested on spying charges in 1967 and was imprisoned,
mostly in solitary confinement, for more than five years. He survived the
experience with astonishing resilience. On his release in 1973 he took up
work with undimmed enthusiasm, joining an editorial team that produced a Chinese-English
dictionary still in use today. The couple's three sons went abroad to live
and study while they renewed contacts with friends in Britain, the United
States and Canada and began to take regular home leave.
Perhaps Crook's imprisonment and what he learned from his sons' experiences
abroad contributed to a new reflectiveness. In the last two decades of his
life he showed a flexibility and an ability to change and adapt his views
that is unusual late in life. He reappraised his own past and became ambivalent
about his work as an agent in Spain and in Shanghai. However he remained proud
of his membership of the International Brigade and was immensely pleased when
the Spanish government conferred honorary citizenship on all the foreign veterans.
He took an interest in the many new radical movements in the west and was
especially open to the ideas of the new sexual and environmental politics.
Although regularly reiterating his faith in Chinese people and the Chinese
revolution, he no longer took an uncritical attitude to everything that occurred
in China. He sympathised with the student movement in 1989, was horrified
by its violent suppression in Tiananmen Square, and showed his feelings by
declining invitations for official occasions at which those responsible would
Crook's last years were spent in the simple family apartment in Beijing that
he and Isabel had occupied since the 1950s. He occupied himself reading, writing
and swimming. Perhaps most of all he enjoyed the frequent visits of family
members and friends who were drawn to this lively household by the couple's
generous hospitality and the intense interest that they retained in life and
He is survived by Isabel,and their sons; Carl, Michael and Paul.
David Crook, revolutionary, teacher and writer, born August 14 1910; died
November 1 2000
A LIFE OF DEDICATION DAVID CROOK (1910 2000) I. Epstein
Appropriately, the memorial meeting for David Crook, writer, educator and old and devoted friend of China and her people, began with the singing of the Internationale, as he himself had willed.
For David, who died on November 1,2000 at the age of 90, had lived most of his life, and most of the previous century, as a convinced Communist and internationalist. Born of middle class British Jewish parents in 1910, he began his political life in the 1930s when studying at Columbia University in the United States. The U.S., which in the previous decade had appeared as a model of burgeoning prosperity "two chickens in every pot and two cars in every garage" had suddenly plunged, into the deep and prolonged global depression of the capitalist system. Multitudes of unemployed went hungry. Colleges became hubs of social protest. David, who had joined the U.S. Communist Youth League, went with fellow students to help coal miners on strike against low pay and maltreatment in Harlan county, Kentucky but they were forcibly blocked from doing so.
After returning to England, he joined the British Communist Party. In 1936 he volunteered for the International Brigade fighting for the Spanish Republic against the armed revolt of fascist General Franco backed by the military intervention of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
While in Spain, David read Edgar Snow's book,"Red Star Over China," Spain and China were then close in spirit, co pioneers in armed resistance to fascism. David's lifelong interest in China was sparked, and he himself took a teaching job in Chengdu, in China's western province of Sichuan, and there met his Canadian future wife Isabel Brown , born in the country and close to its people.
In 1939, when World War II broke out in Europe, David joined the British air forces, serving in India and Southeast Asia till the war's end in 1945.
Afterwards, he was briefly in New York again, working with Edgar Snow and others in support of the Industrial (Gung Ho) Cooperative movement in China.
In the meantime, Chiang Kaishek, with U.S. backing, was resuming civil war against the forces led by the Chinese Communists which had fought hardest and best against the Japanese invaders. From England, David and Isabel came once more to China bound for the Liberated Areas with an introduction from the British Communist Party, intending to gather on the spot material about the Chinese revolution in the years since Snow's book. During their in depth study of the land reform in one Chinese village, they were accepted as comrades in Party life and studies, including "the salutary practice of criticism and self criticism" as Isabel recalled in her talk at the memorial meeting.
Originally, they had planned to to go to England to write up their research.* Instead, at the request of the Chinese Communist Party's Foreign Affairs Committee, they began the career in education that would last the rest of their active lives in a school to equip future diplomats of the coming new China with the English language. Over the decades, scores of their students would become ambassadors and other senior officials representing China abroad.
Isabel Crook, speaking for the family told of the years of research and teaching in the Liberated Area. She stressed how much she and David appreciated being included there in Party life, in particular its practice of criticism and self criticism, and of their decision to stay in China on two occasions.
The first was in 1948, when, having completed their rural research in the Liberated Areas, they were preparing to return to England. But they were asked, on behalf of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, to stay to equip future diplomats and other foreign affairs workers of the dawning new China,
The second time was in 1959 60 , when China's relations with the Soviet Union and between the world's Communist Parties became strained, David had been offered. was prepared to accept, a good position at Leeds University. But soon, as Isabel said, Khruschev abruptly recalled thousands of Soviet experts working in China If David too left then, he would be seen as taking the Soviet side against the Chinese. So he told the school's Party Secretary that he and Isabel might delay their departure. The the response was "Stay." And, Isabel said at the meeting,"we stayed to this very day."
In the storms of the cultural revolution, David, like so many others, was unjustly imprisoned for five years. But, Isabel said, he never blamed China. All in all,"David's life and that of our entire family has been immeasurably enriched by our participation in the Chinas' great but tortuous revolution."
Speaking for the University, Senior Professor Mei Ruyi, once a student of David's, then a lifelong friend, told of David's deep feeling for the Chinese people, and his having won the respect and love of his students. In the hard years of the early '60s, David had cut his own salary in half. Prof.Mei also recounted how, after David's release from wrongful imprisonment, Premier Zhou Enlai "declared his rehabilitation in the Great Hall of the People and made a public apology."
Back to teaching, David collaborated on a new Chinese English Dictionary. At age 67, he began giving a new and very well received course on world history. In repeated speaking tours in America, Europe and Ocenia, and in nurmerous articles published abroad, he brought knowledge of China's achievements in socialist construction to the world. In later years. appointed adviser to the University, he made many useful suggestions. Among foreigners in Beijing, he organized political study groups to help their understanding of the new China. As a final contribution, he left his body to science. "A Communist fighter who served the people wholeheartedly, Prof Mei summed up. "His dauntless and devoted spirit will forever inspire the teachers and sudents of the University."
From the grass roots, a young man from the village site of the Crooks' social study more than a half century ago, told of David's lasting concern for its people, and of how, in a recent water shortage there, he had persuaded the county authoritiess to have a deep well drilled there to solve the problem.
From the government, Vice Premier Li Lanching wrote appreciativeely, "Comrade Crook, in his history of more than 50 years in China, devoted his energy to China's revolution and construction, contributing outstandingly to training talents for our diplomatic, foreign trade and educational fronts."
* Only in 1959 were their findings published in England as "Revolution in a Chinese Village", followed in l979, by updating sequel, titled "Ten Mile Inn" [the translated place name.]
Briton spied on Orwell in Spain
Surveillance for Soviets during civil war claimed writer's wife was having affair
Monday May 5, 2003,
George Orwell, the writer who savagely attacked the Big Brother powers of Russian totalitarianism, was spied on for the Soviet Union by a fellow British volunteer during the Spanish civil war, a new book reveals. Soviet spymasters snooped on the English writer as he became involved in rivalry between communists and Trotskyists. The communists pried into his private life to record that Orwell's wife was probably having an affair
with one of his comrades. Orwell's attacks on the corruption of the Russian revolution inflicted much damage on the reputation of the Soviet leaders.
The surveillance of Orwell during the Spanish civil war is revealed in a new biography of the author by Gordon Bowker, published on Thursday. It was during this war that Orwell began to loathe communism, which he satirised in his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Bowker writes that Orwell's experience in Spain "ultimately gave birth to his last two great novels".
In Barcelona, Orwell saw how the communists suppressed their Trotskyist allies to take control of the war against the fascists in what he called "a reign of terror". He was forced to flee Spain as the communists imprisoned their former comrades, branding them traitors. As a relatively unknown writer, he had volunteered to fight fascism in Spain in 1937 and had joined the forces controlled by the POUM, a revolutionary socialist, anti-Stalinist party affiliated to the Independent Labour party (ILP) in Britain.
It was by chance that Orwell chose the POUM, as he did not fully understand the different political groupings in Spain. But the communists - directed by Stalin - had begun to suppress the Trotskyists and infiltrate spies into the ranks of their opponents. David Crook, a young communist from London, was ordered to spy and report on Orwell, his wife and other members of the ILP contingent. He had been taught the techniques of surveillance by Ramon Mercader, a communist who later murdered Trotsky in Mexico with an ice-pick. According to the book, Crook admits that he took his orders from the Soviet espionage agency, then known as the NKVD and later renamed the KGB, and that Orwell and the other ILP members were "of special interest to me".
He insinuated himself into the ILP office in Barcelona. Soon he had the freedom of the office and, during lunch breaks, stole files and had them photographed in the Russian embassy. He was proud that within a short time, copies of all the files in the office were in the hands of his Russian handlers. Details of his activities are held in the KGB archives,
although Orwell's KGB file is still under wraps.
Among his reports was an observation that he was "95% certain" that Eileen Blair, who married Orwell in 1936, was having an affair with George Kopp, another ILP member, whom Bowker describes as "a strange Belgian adventurer". Bowker adds that Crook had been instructed by the Soviets to seek out the existence of affairs, as such information could enable the communists to blackmail vulnerable targets. In a reference to the ruling
powers in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bowker writes that Crook, who subsequently helped to kidnap opponents in Spain, was like a character "straight from the Ingsoc world of spying, intrigue, dissemblance and cold elimination". Crook passed his reports to Hugh O'Donnell, another communist from London, whose codename was O'Brien. Bowker writes that, although Orwell was oblivious to this, "the fact that the character in Nineteen Eighty-Four
who first wins the confidence of Winston Smith and then betrays him is given the name O'Brien must be one of the strangest coincidences in literature".
Orwell appears not to have twigged that the communists were spying on him. However in Homage to Catalonia, his account of his time in Spain, he wrote: "You had all the while a hateful feeling that someone hitherto your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police."
Crook and another English soldier were responsible for briefing the Soviet espionage service about Orwell and his wife. Both were subsequently accused of treason and of being "rabid Trotskyites" by the communists. Orwell wrote to a friend on his return to England: "Though we ourselves got out all right, nearly all our friends and acquaintances are in jail and likely to be there indefinitely, not exactly charged with anything but suspected of Trotskyism.
"The most terrible things were happening even when I left, wholesale arrests, wounded men dragged out of hospitals and thrown into jail, people crammed together in filthy dens where they have hardly room to lie down, prisoners beaten and half starved."
George Orwell by Gordon Bowker (Little Brown)
Professor Mei Renyi's Speech at David Crook's Memorial
My teacher David Crook peacefully passed away. But he has not left us. Aren't his shining eyes still gazing at us, inquiring "what is the news today"?
Isn't his humorous, witty remark still ringing in our ears? What is more
important, doesn't his lofty quality, his selfless, undaunted devotion
continue to inspire us and to spur us on? As his students, interpreter,
colleague, and friend, I had the chance to have a lot of contact with David,
and many unforgettable memories come back to me here and now.
In the summers of 1959 and 1960, David and Isabel revisited Ten Mile Inn in the Taihang Mountains after a lapse of ten years. To find out about the
changes in the rural areas. In the winter of those two years, they took Carl
and Michael respectively to visit revolutionary sites in Jiangsu, Zhejiang,
Hunan, and Jiangxi. From the site of the First Party Congress of the Chinese
Communist Party to the Plum Flower Villa (Meiyuan Xingchun) in Nanjing,
from Qingshuitang in Changsha to Jinggangshan and Ruijin, they carefully
studied the course of the Chinese revolution and the heroic struggle of the
Chinese people. David wanted to take this back to Britain to tell the
British people. At the time, David had accepted the invitation of Leeds
University and planned to go back to take up a teaching post in the summer
of 1961. The trips were part of the preparation. When they got back to
Beijing, the split between China and the Soviet Union surfaced, and the
Soviet Union recalled its experts, took away the blueprints, and scrapped
the agreements. China was exposed to great pressure. The situation was very
critical. Should he leave China as scheduled? David faced a grave decision.
After careful consideration and discussion with Isabel, David decided to
stay in China. He told me that Isabel and he had decided not to go back to
Britain at this time. We would go through the weal and woe with the Chinese
people. If we went back at this time, he said, it would mean we deserted the
Chinese people in their most difficult time. We could not do that. It was a
great decision. David was then 50. If he did not go back that year, it would
be almost impossible for him to go back later to find a job. What kind of
courage would it need to make such a decision?
In the three difficult years, David and Isabel continued to share weal and
woe with us. They could get special provisions, but they insisted on coming
to the teachers' dining halls to eat wild vegetable corn bun and steamed
bread made of tree leaves. David and Isabel wrote to the school leadership
and the Foreign Experts Bureau, saying that China encountered temporary
difficulty, and they wanted to make their small contribution to help the
Chinese people get over the difficulty. They asked that their salaries be
cut by half. The leadership tried to persuade them to drop the idea, but
David insisted. The cut lasted for more than 15 years.
During the Cultural Revolution, David was wrongly put in prison for 5
years. After the Lin Biao Incident, Premier Zhou Enlai started to rectify
"leftist" tendencies in the field of foreign affairs. It was against such a
background that David was released. But the conclusion at that time was "his
activity will not be looked into under law". After David came out of prison,
on the one hand he carried on the struggle to clear himself, on the other he
asked the school to let him take up teaching. In early March, Premier Zhou
instructed the Ministry of Security to thoroughly correct its mistake, and
David was thus thoroughly rehabilitated. On March 18, 1973, at the Great
Hall of the People, Premier Zhou formally and officially apologised for the
persecution of David and other foreign friends. That very night David typed
a letter to the premier on behalf of the whole family, to express their
confidence in the cause of the Chinese people and their determination to
continue to work for the cause of the Chinese people. The following year,
David and the whole family went back to England on holiday. There were
whispers saying that after so much misery, they would not come back. David
and the family came back, to the great surprise of many people. What's more
admirable was that during the home leave, David made a lot of speeches, but
not one word about his prison life. Even when pressed, he would not talk
about his prison experience. All who had some knowledge of this admired such
David's love for the Chinese people is reflected in his concern for the
people in Ten Mile Inn, in his devotion to the teaching at Beiwai, and his
concern for the students. In 1985, David and Isabel went back to Ten Mile
Inn for the third time. At the age of 75, David went to visit his old
acquaintances. He visited the primary school and was very happy to see there
was an English teacher. When he saw that the villagers were still drinking
rainwater from the pond in the village, he was very upset. After he came
back to Beijing, he and Isabel wrote to the provincial government, the
Handan municipal government, the county government, urging them to pay
attention to the difficulty in the life of the people in the old liberated
area. A year later, people from the village came to tell him that the
government had helped them drill a deep well and that they could now have
clean water. David was greatly relieved.
Since 1948, when Comrade Wang Bingnan, on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party, asked David and Isabel to stay on to help train Chinese foreign
languages cadres, David devoted his whole life to China's foreign languages
education. In 1978, when the first group of students entered Beiwai after
the Cultural Revolution, we faced new challenges. There was the demand for
new courses. On seeing the situation, David, at the age of 68, volunteered
to offer a new course; World History. He searched books on the shelves of
foreign friends in Beijing and bought textbooks with money out of his own
pocket when he was on home leave. He designed the syllabus, wrote handouts,
gave lectures, invited guest speakers, and couched younger Chinese teachers.
The students appreciated his efforts and gradually came to like his course.
In a few years' time, he trained two Chinese teachers to take over the
When the school undertook the task of training English teachers for remote, poor, and minority areas, David and Isabel turned their home into a place
for oral training. They called in students in groups to practice spoken
English. They visited Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, and other places where the
students came from and helped raise the level of their teaching. Whenever
these students talked about these things, they found it hard to express
In his lifetime, David had made many important decisions. One was his
decision to join the International Brigade to fight in Spain on the side of
the Republican government against fascism. One was his and Isabel's decision
to accept the invitation to teach at Beiwai. Another was he and Isabel's
decision to stay in China in 1961. All the decisions showed that David was
on the side of the development of history, on the side of the revolutionary
people. Once, in discussing his memoir, he said to me, quoting Ostrovski
"looking back on my life, I have little regret." Yes, David is such a man;
he travelled thousands of miles to come to China, to the liberated area, and
later devoted himself to the cause of the Chinese people. He trained
numerous students and shared with his comrades and colleagues the twists and
turns, weal and woe, without regret. The people in Ten Mile Inn love him and
miss him, his former students love him and miss him, and the teachers and
students at Beiwai love him and miss him. He lives forever in our hearts.
Crook Family Speech at David Crook's Memorial
Beijing Foreign Studies University,
6 Nov 2000
On the occasion of this memorial, we have heard some heartwarming tributes to David. There is also another side to David's life his great gains from living and working in China. It was participation with his colleagues and students in the efforts to create a good, just society and a strong and prosperous nation that made his life in China so rich and meaningful. For this we know David would wish his family to thank the CCP, the PRC and the Chinese people who accepted him into the revolutionary ranks.
David was brought up in London, England in a non political middleclass Jewish family. At the age of 18 his family sent off to the USA to prosper. But shortly after his arrival came the great financial crash of 1929, followed by the deep longlasting economic depression. In those days there was little social security and David saw the economic underside of capitalism. Under these desperate conditions, the miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, went on strike. Political activists at Columbia University, where David was a student, organized a group to go to Harlan and investigate the matter. David joined the group. They never got to the mines. The political harrassment they met taught David a bitter lesson about the capitalist state machine. He subsequently joined the American Youth Communist League. And after graduation he returned to Britain where he joined the British Communist Party. In the following year he went to Spain in the International Brigade to defend the Spanish Republic against the onslaught of the Fascists supported by Hilter and Mussolini.
Here we wish to trace David's further political development in the course of his life in China.
While in Spain David read Edgar Snow's 'Red Star over China". After the end of WWII when an opportunity arose, he decided to come to China hoping to write about how the Chinese revolution was progressing ten years after Snow's report. With a letter of introduction from the British Party David was welcomed into the Liberated Areas in late 1947 to study and write about land reform.
When he settled into the village of Ten Mile Inn in the Jin Ji Lu Yu Border Region, he found to his surprise that the cadres had political study every morning from 6 to 8 a.m. He asked to join and was welcomed. He saw that we were accepted as comrades not just foreign visitors.
After a few months David felt that as Party members we should have some organizational life. Since three is the minimum for a Party group he asked if a Chinese comrade could join us. Comrade Bo Yibo gave us two, Comrade Li Dihua, later a vice president of our school, and Li Huanshan, later Party secretary of Jixuetan Hospital. It was at this period of this little Party group that we first experienced the salutary practice of criticism and self criticism.
In 1948 when we were about to leave China, Wang Bingnan of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the CCP came to the village to ask us if we would stay and teach in a school set up to prepare English language personnel for the diplomatic service once China was liberated. To be assigned a revolutionary task by the Chinese Party was an honour. And after arriving at the Foreign Affairs School we were taken as comrades, and allowed to take part in the school's Party life as members of a brother Party.
After the peaceful liberation of Beijing our school moved into the city and soon after David was appointed vice head of the English Department. Before long came the San Fan movement to oppose waste, graft and bureaucracy. Since the department head was a democratic personage and David was a Party member, he had to "jump into the water" first. After revising his self criticsm three times he was found to be a "hardworking bureaucrat." He took this as a valuable lesson and later when some friends complained that the Party was too hard on him, he resolutely denied this. He understood that the Party was setting the same demands on him as on Chinese members.
Of course, David also received praise. On one occasion he was praised for his zhuren_weng. But the question then arose whether this was appropriate in the case of a foreign comrade, and so this was changed to praise for his "proletarian internationalism."
Soon after the setting up of the PRC, four British comrades were sent by the CPGB at China's request, and David was transferred to the British Party group.
By 1956 in China everything was going splendidly. David thought the period of revolution had now given way to construction, and decided we should return to Britain since things were not going so well for the British Party. The Eighth Party Congress took place just at this time and Harry Pollitt, Secretary General of the CPGB, was a guest. David therefore consulted him about returning to Britain. Pollitt's answer was: Do not leave China! The CCP has asked us to send more comrades and we find it almost impossible to find any suitable comrades that we can spare. Stay! We stayed.
Naturally the degree of our participation in the life of the school varied witb the tides of the revolution. But it was only in 1959 that we were told that we could not longer attend political study. At this point in time, differences in the international communist movement had become increasingly sharp and in our school a movement to condemn revisionism had been launched. Whatever the reason for our exclusion, David felt we were being placed in the category of employees and decided we should return to Britain, where he was offered a university teaching post. The school expressed regret but agreed that we would go at the end of the term in the summer of 1960.
That summer Krushchev suddenly recalled thousands of Soviet experts working in China. David was faced with a dilemma. If he left along with the Soviet experts, he would be seen to be taking the side of the Soviet Party against Chinese. Clearly we couldn't leave at that point. When David told our institute Party secretary, Liu Ke, that we wished to delay our departure, Liu Ke just said, "Stay." And we stayed to this very day.
When the cultural revolution came along, foreign experts were not permitted to take part. But several foreign comrades put up a dazibao urging that they should be allowed to take part. When Chairman Mao saw it he wrote a comment: Revolutionary foreign experts and their children should take part and be treated no differently from the Chinese. Thereupon the Foreign Ministry called a meeting of foreign experts in Beijing at the time and Comrade Chen Yi told us that those who wished to take part, could, but urged us to exercise the utmost caution; and those who did not wish to take part could not be pressed to.
David was among those who chose to take part on the same basis as his Chinese comrades. He was well aware that "revolution is not a dinner party" so he never blamed China for his lengthy stay in Qin Cheng prison.
In 1985 David was given the honour of being appointed an advisor to the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
David's life and that of our whole family has been immeasurably enriched by our participation in China's great but tortuous revolution.
On behalf of David's family I wish to thank the organizers of this fine, warmhearted memorial meeting.
||Summary and Guardian Newspaper Obituary