"Hobsbawm was a marked man, and he knew it"
March 27, 2015 8:09 AM   Subscribe

The two sides in the Cold War, finding each other irresistible, ended up in a contrapuntal relationship where, as George Urban put it, ‘they marched in negative step, but in step all the same.’ They had their spies, we had ours. They had their files, we had ours. True, we didn’t have gulags. But what kind of democracy is it that congratulates itself on not having gulags? Never mind the dragnet surveillance, the burglaries, the smearing of reputations, the bugging of public telephone boxes, cafés, hotels, banks, trade unions, private homes, all this legitimised by the thesis that everyone is a potential subversive until proven otherwise – the problem is that the defenders of the realm took on the symptoms of the disease they were meant to cure.
– In the essay Stuck on the Flypaper historian and journalist Frances Stonor Saunders goes through the recently released MI5 file on Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm [previously] to explain how the British secret service surveilled and interfered with the lives of British citizens during World War II and the early part of the Cold War.
posted by Kattullus (11 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Basselope GAP!
posted by poe at 8:13 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Um, about those gulags...
The US incarceration rate of about 700 per 100,000 is still the highest in the world and rivals the estimated rate for the Soviet Union at the height of the gulags in the 1950s.
But, in fairness, I suppose the US prison system wasn't as extensive during most of the Cold War.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 9:17 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, this is about MI5, Britain pretty much reached peak Gulaginess on the 19th century and never really recovered post-war.
posted by Artw at 9:25 AM on March 27, 2015


A fascinating piece; thanks for posting it. Since it's quite long, I'll excerpt a section of more general interest for those not into Hobsbawm:
Official British anti-communism has attracted much less attention than its American counterpart, with its perspiring, malodorous knuckleheads jabbing their lists before the cameras. In Britain, the steps taken, with cross-party agreement, involved a much quieter programme of mass vetting and a subsidiary practice known as the ‘purge procedure’, by which suspect civil servants or employees of businesses working on sensitive government contracts (‘List X’ firms) were removed from their jobs. ‘Positive’, or ‘developed’ vetting – known as the ‘full sheep-dip’ – involved telephone checks, the opening of mail, Special Branch inquiries, employers’ records, and a series of what Cornwell describes as ‘strenuous interrogations’ of the (witting) subject. There were two possible outcomes: pass or fail. Being a communist meant a fail. Other ‘character defects’ deemed to impair the subject’s professional ability were ‘profligacy with money, alcoholism, drug-taking, unreliability, dishonesty, promiscuity’. Promiscuity usually implied homosexuality (MI5 kept a ‘Pink List’ until 1994, though it’s doubtful any of its own homosexuals featured on it). ...

Habituated as it was to standing outside the law (there was no statutory basis at all for MI5 until 1989), the Security Service exempted itself from positive vetting, relying instead on a system of personal references. Anthony Blunt, having been refused entrance to the wartime Intelligence Corps after MI5 found traces of his previous communist associations, managed to talk his way into MI5 with the support of influential contacts. He went on to pass a good deal of classified material to his Soviet handlers. When Kim Philby joined the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, fellow officer Hugh Trevor-Roper was ‘astonished’, as he knew him to have been a communist in the 1930s. Trevor-Roper was actually cheered by Philby’s ‘unusual recruitment’, wrongly believing that his superiors, usually so ‘lunatic in their anti-communism’, had decided to forgive the ‘mere juvenile illusions’ of an otherwise brilliant candidate.

In the world beyond their own artificial vivarium, the spooks were lusty superintendents of the vetting and purge procedures. One cannot be surprised by, or waste indignation on, the fact that 14,000 positions in the atomic industry were positively vetted, although this didn’t prevent the espionage activities of Alan Nunn May or Klaus Fuchs. Nor, outside of the List X companies and a further three thousand designated ‘security points’, or ‘sensitive junctions’, was the purge procedure imposed on the private sector, though some businesses acted on their own initiative. In April 1949, the central council of the John Lewis Partnership voted ‘to exclude communists from membership and to ask present and future staff to sign a declaration that they are neither members of the Communist Party nor in sympathy with its doctrines’. A second resolution recommending similar action in the case of fascists was defeated.

Vetting of sensitive posts was presented as a perfectly sensible policy, a national security matter, and insofar as the practice was discussed at all, it was not controversial. Yet it provided legitimacy and cover for a far wider programme of top secret political screening whose details are only now beginning to emerge. At the BBC, for example, upwards of 50 per cent of all staff were vetted without their knowledge. This programme, whose existence was officially denied until late last year, was co-ordinated by MI5 and the BBC’s chief assistant to the director of personnel, later retitled manager special duties. Working out of Room 105 (the numeral ‘5’ always denotes the mothership) this assistant, in liaison with a designated MI5 handler, arranged for the top jobs and those that involved access to classified material to be given the full sheep dip.​ All other positions – current staff as well as new applicants – were processed through ‘normal vetting’, of which the subjects were unaware. Here there was no pass or fail, but if MI5 (cryptically referred to in Room 105 as the College) uncovered anything in the subject’s background to suggest unreliability, a red symbol resembling a Christmas tree was stamped on the subject’s file. Only in exceptional cases was the BBC required to submit to MI5’s veto; generally, the corporation was allowed to use its own discretion, but many employees have testified over the years that their careers were unexpectedly interrupted or impeded by the Christmas tree.

When the programme began to be wound down in the late 1980s, between six and eight thousand posts out of twelve thousand at the BBC were being vetted.​ This included engineers (might pull the plug), cleaners (might rummage through a desk or plant a bomb), producers (might seek to hold people to a particular view), and anybody who was put in front of a microphone (ditto, with knobs on). MI6 was also involved in the screening, but no details of this have ever been disclosed, nor is it possible to confirm the arrangements by which both MI5 and MI6 allegedly obtained BBC cover for its operatives. Additionally, every BBC employee was required to sign the Official Secrets Act.​
Official anti-communism is a species of lunacy that awaits a full investigation; the conjunction of extreme paranoia about communism with indifference to Nazism (the Nazis were anti-communist, hence automatically good chaps we can work with) is especially telling. Mind you, communism was and is repellent (I can't really respect anyone who, like Hobsbawm, stuck with it after the crimes of Stalini were revealed), but so are many other ideas and movements that governments seem to feel no special need to persecute, and the sweeping up in the net of anyone who seemed even vaguely "leftist" or dissident is so outrageous and so insane it is painful to think about.

On a personal note, I was glad to see the mention of "his grandfather, a Jewish cabinet-maker called Obstbaum (the ‘H’ was probably acquired from a Cockney immigration officer)"; I always wondered about his odd name, and now I know!
posted by languagehat at 9:29 AM on March 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


Artw, fair enough! Pardon my assumption that "The two sides in the Cold War" referred to the US and USSR, not Britain/West and the USSR.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 9:32 AM on March 27, 2015


It is a terrific article. Two things struck me:

1. The collusion between MI6 and the Gestapo in their tracking down and spying on anyone remotely left-wing.

2. Just how long black-listing has been around:

"(which started life at the end of the First World War as the Defence Black List), a ‘register of persons potentially dangerous to National Defence".

Given the recent and on-going scandals of police spying on all kinds of people, including Labour party MP's, and the continued fight against black-listing, it sounds like nothing much has changed.
posted by rolandroland at 12:11 PM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


A couple things I took from the article:

The sheer scale of the paranoia of the secret services:
When the programme began to be wound down in the late 1980s, between six and eight thousand posts out of twelve thousand at the BBC were being vetted.​ This included engineers (might pull the plug), cleaners (might rummage through a desk or plant a bomb), producers (might seek to hold people to a particular view), and anybody who was put in front of a microphone (ditto, with knobs on).
Second is the fact that Orwell apparently gave the British government a list of suspected communists immediately before his death.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 2:01 PM on March 27, 2015


The sheer scale of the paranoia of the secret services:

That 'paranoia' may have been in part a continuing response to the emergence of a radical extra-parliamentary left in Britain in the late 1960s coupled with The Troubles kicking off again in Northern Ireland from 1969 onwards.
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:22 PM on March 27, 2015


Interesting. The previous thread is quite good.
posted by clavdivs at 4:22 PM on March 27, 2015


They had their spies, we had ours. They had their files, we had ours. True, we didn’t have gulags. But what kind of democracy is it that congratulates itself on not having gulags?

They killed millions of their own, we.....did I mention that we had files?

No small thing, not having gulags. And at least Britain was a democracy.

(I read the author's book on John Hawkwood a few years ago, and quite liked it - a vivid prose style, at least for the first chapter or so, after which she became bogged down in too much detail. But at least she was objective. She does no one any favors here with lines describing American anti-communism "with its perspiring, malodorous knuckleheads jabbing their lists before the cameras". I see your "vulgar" Joe McCarthy and raise you one shoe-stamping Khrushchev.)

Rant over. For information, good stuff. Presentation - needs work.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:25 AM on March 28, 2015


For those who are interested, you can see how Hobsbawm's newly released intelligence files are listed and described on the National Archives website. They're within the larger series KV 2, "Communists and Suspected Communists." The other files in the series may give some understanding of the sheer scope and volume of the surveillance and documentation undertaken by MI5 and who else was being spied on concurrently.
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:43 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


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