This article was first published in Times Higher Education 1/10/15
The recent revelation that MI5 suspected Doris Lessing of running a house of ill-repute is only one of a number of outlandish assumptions made by the British Security Services, who expended much time and resources in opening mail, tapping phones and keeping watch on leading communists for the duration of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s existence. Nevertheless, after nearly a decade of reading MI5 files from that era, I would argue that there is still much for historians to draw on. Beyond the alarmism, exaggeration and caricature, the files reveal a wealth of insight and fresh leads on the hopes, fears and illusions of their subjects.
It is certainly true that having set their sights on identifying “communist” suspects, all kinds of immoral, subversive and prejudicial assumptions by MI5 officers surface in the documents. Anti-Semitism, for example, was rife in the 1930s, with the frequent references to “Jewish appearance” seemingly equated with the “foreign”, “dark” side of being a subversive. There were other character traits that MI5 attributed exclusively to communists, notably their dress sense. “He has the appearance of a communist”, MI5 “watchers” noted, as Christopher Hill, later master of Balliol College, Oxford, walked through customs at Harwich in May 1936, “but his baggage…does not contain any subversive literature”. Eric Hobsbawm, later to be an even more distinguished historian, was also recognisable by “dress[ing] in a slovenly way”. The communist philosopher Maurice Cornforth, thought to be rather dapper by his comrades, is one of the few to escape a sartorial mugging by the spooks, who merely noted his “bohemian type of dress”.
MI5 reports often contain errors of fact – Hobsbawm’s files have more than 10 misspellings of his name ranging from “Hobsball” to “Oxborn” – and we know that some files are held back, others are incomplete and none are made available during the subject’s lifetime. Material is not normally released until 50 years after it was recorded. It can hardly be considered neutral: in some of the Special Branch reports or those of the watchers there is a barely concealed incredulity at the politics of those they are monitoring. During a search of the home of Communist organiser (and orator) Abe Lazarus, Inspector Haytor of the Oxford constabulary found Mrs Lazarus to be “very sarcastic. She said: ‘I am a communist and proud of it’”. Sarcasm can occasionally be found in the comments of the watchers themselves. On observing communist party apparatchiks insisting to hospital staff that James Klugmann, one of its leading intellectuals, receive the best medical treatment available, the intelligence officer thought it “surprising that communists should find it necessary to treat such a crisis in a bourgeois manner”.
For all that, MI5 files, if used judiciously with caution and context, can be very useful to the researcher. For my own research on Klugmann they have been invaluable. First, they provided the evidence of his own reluctant espionage, mainly in the recruitment of John Cairncross, the so-called fifth man of the Cambridge spy circle, and the stress and torment that remained with him as a result of that action. They also helped shed more light on his extraordinary wartime role in the Special Operations Executive where he played a key part in persuading Churchill and the Allies to side with Josip Broz Tito’s communist partisans rather than Draža Mihailović’s nationalist Chetniks, much to the chagrin of some later revisionist historians. Klugmann’s MI5 files, (along with other sources, of course), reveal the pressures of a communist intellectual in the Cold War era, as he fielded phone calls – recorded by MI5 microphones in the party’s headquarters – from Eastern European agencies, met Soviet agents for lunch and confided his apprehension at having to denounce Tito on the orders of his party after the Tito-Stalin split in 1948. In this way, the files fill a gap left by the dearth of private letters to family members, although MI5 sources should be viewed with the same critical eye that historians apply when considering other official documents.
For some historians of the Communist Party of Great Britain, the whole question of espionage remains a taboo subject, to be given a wide berth at all times. Even in the period since the Soviet archives were released, many historical accounts of the British communist party have avoided the material. That was not the case with Hobsbawm, however, one of the few to address the question in some depth in his autobiography Interesting Times (2002). Shortly before he died, Hobsbawm told me of his annoyance at not being able to see his own MI5 file in his lifetime: as a historian, he wanted to see it, so that he could fill in the gaps in his own history.