The Failure of Modern Politics to ‘Come in from the Cold’ | By Philip Stachnik

JOHN LE CARRE’S NOVEL The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a good book. Probably a great book. That is about all any review of the classic novel has to say about its quality. Having won awards like the Crime Writers’ Association’s ‘Dagger of Daggers’ for the best crime novel of a fifty-year period and holding a spot on TIME Magazine’s list of All-Time 100 Novels, it comes with a pedigree that no review, positive or negative, coming nearly half a century after its release is going to change. That being said, while nothing new written about le Carré’s work is going to change its status as a modern classic, there is a lot of reason to get into just how important this book is to the contemporary reader. A read through it draws attention to many of the failings still facing modern politics and, unfortunately, its driving ideas are still painfully relevant today even after its Cold War setting has come and gone. le Carré’s work is still very much essential reading for the politically-minded person today.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is in many ways stuck in a very specific time. Set in Cold War Europe, the plot follows the British intelligence agent Alec Leamas as he goes on one last undercover job in the hopes of taking out his hated East German counterpart. While working this last job and hoping to finally ‘come in from the cold,’ though, the assumed lines of right and wrong and good and evil that Leamas has always fought for as a member of the West’s undercover army begin to blur. By the end of the work le Carré reveals a world in which the ideological war Leamas finds himself in is waged with the same moral vacancy on both sides. Focused most strongly in a divided Berlin, the city divided arbitrarily by a wall works as a microcosm for le Carré’s whole plot. Just as an arbitrary wall divides two parts of the same city, the moral lines drawn between liberal democracy and totalitarian communism are meaningless to the author when they use the same nefarious means to support themselves. The novel focuses heavily on this theme while weaving a complex and entertaining story that packs a lot of entertainment into what is a fairly quick read.


All the entertainment in the world doesn’t make a politically-targeted book especially relevant to the contemporary reader. In 1963 the western readers to which it was originally marketed would have been themselves swept into the Cold War and personally scared of an increasingly large and ominous communist bloc capable of affecting their lives. To this reader, the idea that democracy and capitalism did not lead to inherently morally superior governments might have legitimately been quite a shocking and thought provoking proposition. To a contemporary reader this is not so much the case. After decades of questionable conflicts in the name of democracy – from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq – modern skepticism of intervention by democratic powers is more strongly fueled then ever. Additionally, the end of the Cold War and the lack of a political threat to Western Hegemony as tangible as the old Soviet Union has removed the irrationality produced out of fear of being removed from the face of the Earth in a nuclear war. Today, is the message presented by le Carré – that the seemingly noble goals of democracy damage the very values it seeks to protect – anything more than painfully obvious?

I think the answer to this is both yes and no. On one hand, people nowadays are regularly willing to call attention to government transgressions of ideological principles, in the pursuit of their own political agendas. The conflict between Wikileaks and the United States’ Government over the release of information which showed America to be behaving badly in ways contradicting their supposed missions can be seen as a clear example of this. The video posted by Wikileaks of an Apache helicopter gunning down civilians and journalists in a war waged supposedly to establish democracy is a very clear example of the transgressions of democratic politics. This demonstrates the common desire not to accept at face value the bold claims of governments and an understanding that dirty tactics regularly underlie ideological victories. I believe therefore that where le Carré’s points need further consideration is not in revealing the transgressions of big governments, but instead in stressing the importance of ideological comprehension and consistency in the political goals of everyday people.


It is in understanding how le Carré’s critique of the moral vacancy of Cold War superpower competition applies to the political action that one takes in their own life that le Carré’s work is most important. While on one hand the book appears quite cynical, creating a tragic story in which nobody wins but the monolithic governments which manage to perpetuate their seemingly never ending conflict against each other, le Carré also suggests subtle ways in which this dour conflict could be improved. One aspect with which the author particularly damns Leamas (and indeed all his colleagues in British Intelligence) is in emphasizing that they operate without a guiding philosophy. They do their job of fighting the communists and they do it well, but for no other reason than an antagonism which they are taught to believe without understanding the reason for it,  or the purpose of it. Many of their communist counterparts are portrayed to behave in much the same way, and on both sides we see images of characters who – despite initially being seen positively as strong-willed and dedicated – are increasingly portrayed as crude and revolting cogs working in a system that controls their behaviour. In contrast to this, one of the few characters – who the author describes first with utmost contempt before eventually describing him as a good and moral man – is an East German official. Despite performaning acts which undoubtedly harm individuals who are largely innocent, this official always acts towards goals he understands while following a philosophy he believes in. This shows that le Carré’s point is not that politics is always dirty, and in turn, that pursuing ideological goals is pointless. While it is clear that he sees even the most benevolent ideology as needing immoral actions to support it, he suggests that so long as it is done with an understood purpose pursued with rational and sincere objectives, there is at least the potential for achieving an overall good. The tragedy of the novel is not that conflict between big governments steps on little people’s toes, but instead that this damage is done without a proper understanding of the reasoning behind it and therefore without conscious meaning.


This message that politics must be pursued not as blind oppositionalism but as a conscious pursuit of things which are worthwhile, is as timely to the contemporary reader as it is timeless. Today throughout Canada and the world we see many actions of intervention on behalf of individuals and institutions to get their own way. These conflicts can be seen in situations as diverse as student protests in Quebec, international debates over intervention in Syria’s bloody internal conflict, and party debates over a potential Liberal-NDP merger. I am not for a minute suggesting that street protests by students or discussions about political mergers carry the same sense of threat of senseless damage to the public that Cold War espionage did (although after the way Justin Trudeau performed in that boxing match who knows what he’ll do to the public Liberal delegates that spurn his views for the party) but that only underlies the importance of le Carré’s point. Without the threat of heavily-visible consequences (such as the nuclear holocaust that was threatened in the Cold War) it is quite a bit easier to betray your ideological consistency in the hopes of gaining political capital for your cause. Of course compromises must be made in order to achieve anything in practice, but a comprehension of what these must be and how far a person is willing to go is what le Carré urges his reader to pursue. Is it worth pursuing a merger for those parties on the Canadian left which might allow them the power to legislate several of their goals, even if the merger prevented them from pursuing most of each side’s particular goals due to the required compromise? How far is it reasonable to go in protesting tuition fees, and to what degree is it possible to give one’s support to a movement divided by differing and competing end goals? These questions and many others are exactly the kind that le Carré wants his reader to ponder. Rather than arguing for a certain answer though, his main point is that if you are going to devote yourself fighting for something, you better damn well know what it is and why it’s worth fighting for.

This insight is something that sadly seems forgotten in much of the political action occurring today. In my mind, western politics have become increasingly oppositional and lacking in self-conscious direction and understanding in recent years. This can be seen on many different levels. A culture of competition without a clear purpose can be seen in national governments, most notably in an American political culture dominated exclusively by two parties who regularly appear perfectly ready to adopt the ideological stance most-likely to get support rather than campaigning for one they see as legitimately worthwhile. This culture of flip-flopping can be seen in the current vociferous opposition of Mitt Romney to the ‘Obamacare’ bill passed by his presidential rival, a bill which is modeled largely on one Romney himself introduced when he was a state governor. By slamming ideas which he clearly supported whole-heartedly in the past, it is clear Romney is playing by rules which value political maneuvering over an actual ideological purpose.

Sadly though, the lack of direction displayed by government leaders is also strongly within groups that oppose them. Public protests have increasingly started to focus on strong opposition towards a certain enemy, but with lacking clearly understood or communicated goals or reasons. The strongest example of this can likely be seen in the Occupy movements which garnered tremendous support in recent years. Despite this support, they were unable to achieve much of anything of lasting substance, as they lacked a shared set of understood goals or even common grievances with which to oppose their similarly-vague enemy in the 1%. While pointless is probably too strong a word to use to describe government platforms and popular movements that act without an understanding of their purpose, it still feels painfully apt. le Carré’s work can serve as a powerful reminder that even if a group or individual achieves great political power, we are left in a situation in which great effort is exerted without much of anything being produced if it is done without an understood goal.

Conflict is unavoidable in politics. So are the realities that some people will lose political battles, some people will be treated badly, and that this will happen to some people through no fault of their own. While this conflict is unavoidable, John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a poignant reminder that only when people actually understand the goals for which they are fighting can they be sure that they will have made a difference if they actually achieve them. Failing this, we are stuck with more and more conflicts with less and less meaningful results. The fact that le Carré’s book paints such a tragic picture points to the sad reality of how often it is we fail to grasp this idea and instead compete for power causing only damage without gain.

Phil Stachnik is a fourth year student of history and politics. When not studying or working a menial job stacking books into ever greater piles he occupies his time by reading, watching films, and trying to forget just how long it will take him to finish university.


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  • Kristen

    Your argument is interesting, but you don’t prove it sufficiently. Also, if you have a taste for a bit of an odd read, you might find some of Leo Strauss’ work applicable.