The Spy Who Came in from the Cold takes place at the height of Cold War tensions, when the competition for dominance of Europe between the Communist Soviet Union and the Capitalist West was at its fiercest. Most of the novel’s characters are spies on one side or the other of this ideological divide. But the novel is less interested in answering the ideological question of whether the right system for running human society is a Communist one or a Capitalist one than it is in examining the ways in which the two battling systems justify the loss of innocent lives that results from their war for supremacy.
The spies on the Western side—Leamas, Control, and Smiley—are ostensibly fighting to defend liberal democracy, a system which values the rights of individuals and seeks to protect their freedoms from state oppression. This system prizes its ability to function democratically and according to the rule of law (the principle that the law applies to all members of a society equally). The rights of the individual are not meant to be sacrificed in the name of a larger goal set by the state.
The East German spies like Fiedler and Mundt defend an entirely different set of principles. They hope to spread Communism, an ideology that promises to bring peace and prosperity to all people by redistributing wealth. Communist doctrine says that, to create this fairer, better world for the vast majority of people, it may be necessary to kill certain enemies that get in the way.
Each side sees its actions as justified by its principles, but as it spies on its enemy and works to uncover and stop agents spying in its territory, each acts with inhuman cruelty, disregarding the loss of innocent lives and the human instinct to remain loyal to specific people instead of organizations or ideas.
Communists like Fiedler see these sacrifices as worth it: after all, it is part of the Communist ideology that the transition from Capitalism to Communism will require the deaths of both enemies and innocents. They are aware of the many innocent people whose murder has been justified ideologically by Communist leaders like Stalin, and they intend to continue to be just as merciless in carrying out the killing they see as necessary.
Others, like Mundt and Leamas, are cynics, working as spies not because they believe in a cause. For Leamas, spying is one of the only jobs he is good at, so he pledges his life to it, despite feeling disgust for the bloodshed he sees. Mundt, on the other hand, has been a Nazi, but becomes a Communist who betrays Communism and spies for the British. He is the novel’s true villain. Although the novel holds up Communists’ insensitivity to the value of human life as despicable, the novel shows its true message – that each side is capable of equal evil – by having the coldblooded killer Mundt fight on the British side of the Cold War battle.
Liz Gold, the one protagonist who is not involved in intelligence collection, is a member of the Communist party because she believes in fairness, peace, and equality. Like many Communists of that era, she is still largely unaware of the acts of state violence and genocide that have been committed in the name of Communism. During this time, the knowledge of Stalin’s crimes was only just starting to spread to those outside of the Soviet Union, and Liz is shocked to see the evidence of this attitude toward human life when she is in East Germany, especially during her conversation with the Prison Wardress—but she also sees the British willingness to allow Mundt to arrange for her to be brought to East Germany for the trial as perhaps a more terrible abuse. Liz looks back at the way she was manipulated and feels sure that any ideological justification for what was done to her would ring hollow. The novel suggests through Liz’s character that individual morality should trump ideology.
The novel compares the two systems: one which believes that the deaths of innocents may be necessary for the greater good, one which claims that there is no excuse for extralegal killings. But it shows that these two systems operate in much the same way. Although in Britain, state-sanctioned violence is not used against domestic political opponents, but to defend the political system against foreign enemies seeking to undermine liberal democracy, the spies responsible for defending this system often break with the principles they are defending by killing innocents and rejecting the truth. For the other side, ideas are considered more important than people, and so the death of an innocent person can always be justified as necessary for the greater good of society, no matter how farfetched this seems. In Le Carré’s harsh worldview, both systems are thus ultimately characterized by inhumanity, hypocrisy, and a cynical view of the value of human life and social progress.
Ideology and Morality ThemeTracker
Ideology and Morality Quotes in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
"Thus we do disagreeable things, but we are defensive. That, I think, is still fair. We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night. Is that too romantic? Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things"; he grinned like a schoolboy. “And in weighing up the moralities, we rather go in for dishonest comparisons; after all, you can't compare the ideals of one side with the methods of the other, can you, now?”
Leamas was lost. He'd heard the man talked a lot of drivel before getting the knife in, but he'd never heard anything like this before.
"I mean you've got to compare method with method, and ideal with ideal. I would say that since the war, our methods—ours and those of the opposition—have become much the same. I mean you can't be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government's policy is benevolent, can you now?"
He shook his head. "Sorry, Liz, you've got it wrong. I don't like Americans and public schools. I don't like military parades and people who play soldiers." Without smiling he added, “And I don't like conversations about Life.”
"But, Alec, you might as well say—"
"I should have added," Leamas interrupted, "that I don't like people who tell me what I ought to think."
She knew he was getting angry but she couldn't stop herself anymore. "That's because you don't want to think, you don't dare! There's some poison in your mind, some hate. You're a fanatic, Alec. I know you are, but I don't know what about. You're a fanatic who doesn’t want to convert people, and that's a dangerous thing. You're like a man who's . . . sworn vengeance or something." The brown eyes rested on her. When he spoke she was frightened by the menace in his voice.
"If I were you," he said roughly, "I'd mind my own business."
Leamas was sweating. Peters watched him coolly, appraising him like a professional gambler across the table. What was Leamas worth? What would break him, what attract or frighten him? What did he hate, above all, what did he know? Would he keep his best card to the end and sell it dear? Peters didn’t think so; Leamas was too much off balance to monkey about. He was a man at odds with himself, a man who knew one life, one confession, and had betrayed them. Peters had seen it before. He had seen it, even in men who had undergone a complete ideological rehearsal, who in the secret hours of the night had found a new creed, and alone, compelled by the internal power of their convictions, had betrayed their calling, their families, their countries. Even they, filled as they were with new zeal and new hope, had had to struggle against the stigma of treachery; even they wrestled with the almost physical anguish of saying that which they had been trained never, never to reveal. Like apostates who feared to burn the Cross, they hesitated between the instinctive and the material; and Peters, caught in the same polarity, must give them comfort and destroy their pride.
They'd talked about it in the meeting of her party branch. George Hanby, the branch treasurer, had actually been passing Ford the grocer's as it happened, he hadn’t seen much because of the crowd, but he'd talked to a bloke who'd seen the whole thing. Hanby had been so impressed that he'd rung the Worker, and they'd sent a man to the trial—that was why the Worker had given it a middle page spread as a matter of fact. It was just a straight case of protest—of sudden social awareness and hatred against the boss class, as the Worker said. This bloke that Hanby spoke to (he was just a little ordinary chap with specs, white collar type) said it had been so sudden—spontaneous was what he meant—and it just proved to Hanby once again how incendiary was the fabric of the capitalist system. Liz had kept very quiet while Hanby talked: none of them knew, of course, about her and Leamas. She realised then that she hated George Hanby; he was a pompous, dirty-minded little man, always leering at her and trying to touch her.
He drove seventy kilometres in half an hour, weaving between the traffic, taking risks to beat the clock, when a small car, a Fiat probably, nosed its way out into the fast lane forty yards ahead of him. Leamas stamped on the brake, turning his headlights full on and sounding his horn, and by the grace of God he missed it; missed it by a fraction of a second. As he passed the car he saw out of the corner of his eye four children in the back, waving and laughing, and the stupid, frightened face of their father at the wheel. He drove on, cursing, and suddenly it happened; suddenly his hands were shaking feverishly, his face was burning, his heart palpitating wildly. He managed to pull off the road into a lay-by, scrambled out of the car, and stood breathing heavily, staring at the hurtling stream of giant lorries. He had a vision of the little car caught among them, pounded and smashed, until there was nothing left, nothing but the frenetic whine of klaxons and the blue lights flashing; and the bodies of the children, torn, like the murdered refugees on the road across the dunes.
She had reservations about Germans, that was true. She knew, she had been told, that West Germany was militarist and revanchist, and that East Germany was democratic and peaceloving. But she doubted whether all the good Germans were on one side and all the bad ones on the other. And it was the bad ones who had killed her father. Perhaps that was why the Party had chosen her—as a generous act of reconciliation. Perhaps that was what Ashe had had in mind when he asked her all those questions. Of course—that was the explanation. She was suddenly filled with a feeling of warmth and gratitude towards the Party. They really were decent people and she was proud and thankful to belong.
“But what I mean is this: suppose you had done that, suppose it were true—I am taking an example, you understand, a hypothesis, would you kill a man, an innocent man—”
"Mundt's a killer himself."
"Suppose he wasn’t. Suppose it were me they wanted to kill: would London do it?"
"It depends . . . it depends on the need . . ."
“Ah,” said Fiedler contentedly, "it depends on the need. Like Stalin, in fact. The traffic accident and the statistics. That is a great relief."
"You must get some sleep," said Fiedler. "Order what food you want. They will bring you whatever you want. Tomorrow you can talk." As he reached the door he looked back and said, "We're all the same, you know, that's the joke."
"As for the Jew," she continued, "he made an accusation against a loyal comrade."
"Will they shoot Fiedler for that?" asked Liz incredulously.
“Jews are all the same,” the woman commented. “Comrade Mundt knows what to do with Jews. We don't need their kind here. If they join the Party they think it belongs to them. If they stay out, they think it is conspiring against them. It is said that Leamas and Fiedler plotted against Mundt. Are you going to eat that?” she enquired, indicating the food on the desk. Liz shook her head.
"But what about Fiedler—don't you feel anything for him?"
"This is a war," Leamas replied. "It's graphic and unpleasant because it's fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it's nothing, nothing at all besides other wars—the last or the next."
"Oh God," said Liz softly. "You don't understand. You don’t want to. You're trying to persuade yourself. It's far more terrible, what they are doing; to find the humanity in people, in me and whoever else they use, to turn it like a weapon in their hands, and use it to hurt and kill . . ."