David Crook, ex-Stalinist agent, dies in China

Richard Fidler rfidler at SPAMcyberus.ca
Tue Dec 19 07:28:30 MST 2000

David Crook

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 be present.

 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

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