The Spook and the Poet.


Review of James Smith, British Writers and MI5 Surveillance 1930-1960 (Cambridge: CUP, 2013)

If the secrecy of the British state is a comedy of those who work for the alleged public good believing that this can only happen in strict and long-lasting privacy, it is hardly surprising that the secret state is even more steadfast in its refusal to let the light of scrutiny shine on their work even on an historical timescale.  Thus, the 2006 and 2007 release of archives relating to the security services including the surveillance records of cultural figures in Britain in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s was notable.  However, most records were more than 50 years old, partially redacted and shorn of all material relating to Security Intelligence Service (MI6, foreign intelligence).  While the release resulted in a series of press headlines, James Smith’s (of the English Department of Durham University) is the first book length study based on these files relating to these cultural figures.

Browsing the The National Archives’ website some well known files appear, Larry Adler, the harmonica player has one, as does Jacob Bronowski, the academic best known for the television series Civilisation.  But what is most notable about this set of files (the KV2 series) is that there are only 3,700 of them covering not only communists and suspected communists, but soviet agents, the far right and individuals suspected of spying in both world wars.  Some individuals have multiple files.  There are thus no more than a few hundred communists and suspected communists with their own files.  This might be considered an intrusion of civil liberties (or, if you prefer, an attempt to monitor potential agents of a hostile foreign power) but not on a massive scale.

It might well be that the files that have been released are the tip of an iceberg, and that other files are either stockpiled or have been destroyed.  But it seems unlikely that there are, as Peter Hennessy has suggested in his book The Secret State, a quarter of million such files (Hennessy has questioned this himself in the second edition of the book).  It is difficult to imagine what intelligence on such a scale could be beyond a list of names and addresses without an operation approaching the scale of the East German Stasi.  If the evidence of the released files is anything to go by, what was spied in the period 1930-1960 cannot be considered surveillance on a Big Brother scale.  There are also some notable absences.  For example, the left-wing publisher, Victor Gollancz, for some years in the 1930s a crypto-communist who ran the Left Book Club, has no file of his own (although he does crop up in other files).  (Again, his file may be ash or in an MI5 warehouse, so perhaps not too much should be read into this.)

Smith chooses to look at three groups who were at one time or another under MI5 surveillance: first, the Auden circle, including Cecil Day-Lewis (a Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) member for a period in the late 1930s), Stephen Spender (who acted as a Soviet spy in Franco-controlled Spain) and WH Auden himself (particularly with relation to the spy, Guy Burgess).  Second, the at times openly communist folk singer Ewan MacColl and his sometime wife and artistic partner, the theatre director Joan Littlewood.  Last, he examines George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, who moved to a strongly anti-Stalinist position by the 1940s.  Although Orwell was never close to the CPGB, Koestler had been a member of the Communist Party in Germany and acted as a Comintern agent.

As is often the case with work on a breaking archive, large sections of this book follow the sources closely.  The problem is that, despite Smith’s hope, the observations of the British intelligence services throw little light on their subjects’ biography or the relationship of sections of the British intelligentsia with the organised international Communist movement.  Where the book is at its strongest (reflecting, one suspects, the depth of the archive) is with those who were party members (MacColl, Day-Lewis), leading the conclusion that while both were valuable as speakers or performers of the party while they were members, neither were controlled by the CPGB or the Soviet leadership in any meaningful way.  The files throw very little light on Auden or Orwell.  Orwell’s file is short, and mainly focuses on some surveillance from the time of his researching The Road to Wigan Pier in the mid-1930s and some background checks when he sought work at the BBC during the second world war.

In terms of what we are left with is a series of interesting snippets.  There is some interesting material about the role of Auden in the defection of Guy Burgess in 1951 (there was none, Burgess rang him the day before he absconded, but Auden was out).  There was active communist involvement in the forerunners to Ewan McColl’s Radio Ballads (but this should surprise no-one who is familiar with the Stalinist underbelly of the 1950s folk revival in Britain).  Arthur Koestler was a slippery and duplicitous weasel.  Most interestingly, Smith exposes Stephen Spender’s work for Britain’s WW2 propaganda work, casting doubt on his claims to be a complete innocent when it came to light in the late 1960s that Encounter (of which he had been literary editor since 1953, not the editor as Smith claims), had been funded by the CIA.  But the evidence that he knew of the CIA backing is circumstantial at best.

What is much more interesting is the general picture which emerges.  The first is the comical incompetence, particularly of the police and its Special Branch.  Here plod definitely plodded.  When in 1935 Cecil Day-Lewis came to the attention of the security services after he donated £5 to the CPGB, the best that the local police could come up with was his failure to wear a hat.  That he had written the poem Magic Mountain in 1933, critically acclaimed as a revolutionary statement, entirely passed them by.  Similarly, a policeman visiting the Daily Worker carnival completely failed to understand the significance of films of Russia peasants, presumably believing that communist propaganda would involve only films of workers storming barricades.  One officer was criticised by MI5 for suggesting George Orwell ‘advanced Communist views’, meaning nothing more than he was left wing.  Although MI5 showed more intelligence, in the case of Orwell they may have read some of his work and understand his anti-Stalinist position, they too were capable of flat-footed mistakes.  Most amusingly, for a while in the 1950s they speculated whether the CIA-backed Encounter might be a communist front.

The second notable feature of this security effort which emerges is the lack of genuine censorship.  Smith is, rightly, keen to point to any case where this emerges.  Particularly, MI5 wished to block Orwell editing an Anglo-Indian magazine during the second world war because of his anti-imperialist views; Joan Littlewood’s work for the BBC was made difficult.  But, on the whole, these efforts were slight.  Indeed, MI5 seemed little interested in the content of literacy work.  So while they would scan communist aligned journals like Left Review for the names of contributors, they were less interested in what they wrote.  This meant that Auden, despite writing left wing plays and poetry in the 1930s, gained little attention since he kept himself away from the communist movement and its publications.  Perhaps this hints at the security services real motivation, they were less interested in political subversion, and more interested in the USSR as a foreign power with agents in the UK.  Certainly, as Smith points out, there was no incipient McCarthyism in the UK.  Those who had put their communism behind them were allowed to work for the government’s propaganda departments during the war; Ewan MacColl was allowed to enlist in the army and write songs for his companies reviews until he deserted, and even when he rejoined the CPGB after the war, continued to gain commissions from the BBC.

This returns us to the most notable feature of the book (one that is underplayed by Smith): this was a slight effort.  Surveillance of these figures was not intensive, censorship was not its purpose and the repercussions for individuals no greater than one would expect.  For sure, as Smith points out, Joan Littlewood faced problems at the BBC and repeatedly made it clear she had left the CPGB.  But it is not too cynical to suggest that if one wants to be a revolutionary, it is necessary to accept that the establishment you wish to overthrow may not wish to give you a radio programme or subsidies for your theatre group.  But there was no House Un-American Activities Committee and no hounding of former or current communists.  Perhaps the British state never felt under threat from internal subversion, or maybe the antipathy of the British establishment to any form of abstract thought made them blasé about the ideas of others, worrying only about the military power of the USSR and the secret agents thereof.

Smith’s book is not without its faults.  I found some of the understanding of the politics lacking.  The Independent Labour Party (which left the Labour Party in 1932 and was on the far left for much of the 1930s) is mentioned in the introduction, but its anti-Stalinist side is not highlighted.  There is thus very little analysis of whether the security services viewed the ILP as they did the CPGB.  Smith does not mention that Orwell was an ILP member in the 1930s, although this appears to have not interested the security services either (although it might have been possible to cross reference with their surveillance of leading figures in the ILP who they watch, such as Fenner Brockway, or files on the ILP itself).  Similarly, the understanding of the CPGBs politics in this book is limited.  Smith comments that in 1930s many intellectuals around the party were ‘pink’ rather than ‘deep red’, but in this period the CPGB’s politics were of the popular front where liberal democracy was viewed as the bulwark against fascism.  The CPGB opposed Labour ending the wartime coalition in 1945, and with the publication of the party’s programme, The British Road to Socialism, in 1951, came to accept a non-revolutionary parliamentary path to taking power in Britain.  Similarly, seeing the Cambridge Spy circle as a similar expression of Soviet interests as the Workers Music Association (a Communist front, for sure, but one whose interest in folk music was maybe semi-detached from the day-to-day concerns of the party leadership, and was certainly far from the minds of the Soviet leadership) misses the point that what the British state was interested in was Soviet power, not Communists promoting tap room folk singers as a tool for raising workers’ consciousness.

However, what I found most jarring about the book is a section near the end on ‘Orwell’s list’.  This now well-known list was given by Orwell to the Information Research Department, a Cold War propaganda arm of the Foreign Office, naming literary figures who he thought unreliable for propaganda work.  This was some years after the last note in Orwell’s security file and bears no direct relation to the sources that Smith is using.  Nonetheless, he denounces Orwell as a hypocrite for the information he volunteered to the IRD.  While I share Smith’s distaste for working with the British secret state, what we have here is little to do with history.  What needs to be understood is why Orwell had arrived at a place where he did this, his politics moving from opposition to the coming war in the late 1930s, to the belief that he would have in backing it in 1940 (albeit with the belief that it would both precipitate socialism in Britain, and this would be required to win the war), to the defence of civilian bombing of Germany by 1943 and an acceptance of the Anglo-American pact that would form the backbone of the Cold War by 1946.  His list would appear to be part of that political development, but as far as I am aware Orwell’s late politics have yet to be fully analysed and the kind of denunciation here, although quite understandable in the context of a book looking at issues of censorship and state intervention into cultural production, does not add to that understanding.  Similarly, suggesting that this makes Orwell complicit with the Cold War liberal interpretation of his work after his death, is more a statement of political belief on the part of Smith than a grounded historical analysis.

These late political interventions aside, James Smith has produced an interesting book that shows the efforts, but also the limits, of the secret state to understand and influence literature and other cultural production in Britain form the 1930s to the 1950s.

2 responses to “The Spook and the Poet.

  1. Pingback: The Spook and the Poet | British Contemporary History

  2. Pingback: Archives, Spies and the end of Empire | British Contemporary History

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