‘Red List’ – New book gives a valuable insight into the world of M15 and the pro-communist wannabes it monitored
Red List – MI5 and British Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century by David Caute, Verso (2022) 404 pp. £25.00)
Review by Trevor Grundy
THE HISTORIAN and journalist David Caute is a man of the Left. He knows the former Communist world well but has never been a party member, or one of its subterfuge acolytes.
In Red List he draws on recently de-classified files held at the National Archives (TNA) at Kew in south-west London, to tell us about the activities of the not so secret any longer M15 state security network.
We need to know more about these men and women in MI5 and MI6 who, so many novelists say, guard us while we sleep.
They were tasked with investigating, monitoring and preventing subversion, defined as ‘activities designed to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, violent or industrial means.’
Caute, the author of so many seminal works on Africa and a biography of Franz Fanon, tells us about the state operation to monitor the activities of a small number of journalists, academics and scientists considered by MI5 and its controllers as candidates for subversion.
When history ended (ho hum) according to the American political specialist Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 The End of History and the Last Man, many people of the so-called Left of British politics were certain that for several decades M15 had abused its powers by monitoring the legal activities of patriotic activists who dared speak openly about subjects they should have been quiet about.
In the course of over 400 pages, David Caute gives us the names and sketches short profiles of some of the two hundred men and women targeted by MI5.
The book is divided into six chronological sections, three pages of acronyms, and an Introduction by the author. Here is a book that cries out for photographs but sadly, the only ones we get are on the front cover. And some of the names mentioned in the text are not included in the Index, George Orwell one of them.
Limping proletariat: Ex-Communist Party Member (in Southern Rhodesia) the novelist Doris Lessing recovering after a fall at the home of one of her white wealthy mining magnate friends in Lusaka after Zambia’s Independence in 1964 (Picture: Courtesy of the late Mike Faber).
Some of the people under MI5’s microscope are household names even today. They include novelists Doris Lessing and George Orwell, the singer Paul Robeson, the novelist Christopher Isherwood, and poets W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and C. Day-Lewis.
Others are not so well-known now but they were in their day – Arthur Ransome, J.B. Priestley, Kingsley Amis, Dorothy Hodkin, Jacob Bronowski, John Berger, Benjamin Britten, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Redgrave, Joan Littlewood, Joseph Losey, Michael Foot, Harriet Harman, P.M.S. Blackett, Joseph Needham, E.P Thompson, Harold Laski, C.L.R. James, Bruce Kent.
(Note to the reader: Look them up on Google. To detail them here would take up too much space).
This is a fascinating, well-written book that should be on the shelves of libraries throughout the land as young politicians who have read Fleming and le Carre but who are un-familiar with the real world of intrigue and espionage. get ready to cope in an isolated post-Brexit Britain which is open to internal as well as external threats.
The book’s main selling point is the widespread belief that M15 did a Stasi job on so many British intellectuals.
Phones were tapped, letters were opened, sexual activities were put under the microscope by people with little to do other than glue their eyeballs next to keyholes on upper-class bedroom doors.
The main motive of the those monitored was to bring about a proletarian revolution.
Only a handful of people in this book with impeccable working-class credentials appear.
Caute makes clear that if you had a good Oxford voice you were ‘on side’ but if you spoke showing your roots close to Bow Bells, you were most certainly from the wrong side of the track, a possible danger to King/Queen and country.
Monitors and most of the monitored were drawn from the same privileged class from Britain’s elitist public schools.
George Orwell described life at Eton as ‘ five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery.’
The book is never short of background material.
When in 1908 the Secret Service Bureau (later MI5) was formed, its principals Commander Mansfield Cummings and Captain Vernon Kell were less concerned with the spread of Bolshevism than threat of the Kaiser’s agents.
Caute tells us that the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was active during that horrendous confrontation between Germany and the rest of the world (1914-1918) and granted powers to censor news and detain, or restrict movements of individuals, without due process of law.
Punitive measures did not need the consent of Parliament, only Order of Council authorised by DORA.
Very few editors objected.
Habeus Corpus was operative until it was most needed.
Caute writes- ‘For Kell, who was to head MI5 until the onset of the Second World War, secrecy and its cousin anonymity, were paramount. Parliament and the Press obliged. The security and intelligence services did not officially exist and their personnel, whether officer or support staff (largely upper-class women) were forbidden to disclose where they worked even to their families.’
MI5 faced little opposition from the Labour Party during the build up to war in 1939 and Caute explains that the main dissenting opposition came from the small Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Stop the War Committee.
An ex-Etonian’s guide to working class life and poverty in England and France
Delightful tales abound.
So many of the people put under M15’s microscope came from well-off middle to upper-middle class families.
When they were young, many of them had their first taste of the world outside the nursery and away from nanny when they went to Eton, Harrow, Winchester College.
Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s books The Public School Phenomenon and The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny tell us so much about the people the English Establishment trusted without question because of their education, their class, their charm and their accents. (*1)
Then at around eighteen or nineteen years of age, off they went to Oxford and Cambridge where as children of the rich they became champions and self-appointed leaders of the poor who they had read about but never met.
But they knew when university (where lifelong loves and feuds were born) ended that they could return to their nursery nests and that nanny would be there loving and worrying, that the clock would still be stuck at ten to three and there would be honey for tea.(*2)
George Orwell knew them well and spoke about the Auden Circle saying that nearly all of the younger writers fitted easily into the public school- university – Bloomsbury pattern. ‘The few who are of proletarian origin are of the kind that is de-classed early in life, first by means of scholarship and then by the bleaching tub of London culture.’
Boys and girls from that class, often dressed the same way when they were children, were told by their parents that they should speak when spoken to.
But, wow, did they let fly when their elders weren’t around. And as adults, they rarely stopped yapping.
Caute writes – ‘Typically, they (those who fell under the suspicion of MI5) were unafraid to express dissenting views of the national interest. Most were perceived by M15 as guilt by association, real or imagined, with the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Together they constitute MI5’s invisible Red List.
W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood . . .
. . . three little lairds from school are we
At one point in the 1930s, W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender were suspected of feeding top security stuff to the Soviet Union.
All three ended-up pillars of the English literary establishment. Auden a colonel in the American Intelligence Services during the war, Isherwood an upper-class novelist in America and Spender appointed Poet Laureate by the USA Library of Congress in 1965.
Today, two are of them are ‘poster-boys,’ in the gay community, thanks to a poem by Auden in Four Weddings and a Funeral (*3) and the musical Cabaret based on Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.
The long- serving Communist Cyril Connolly was still working for the Sunday Times when he died in 1974 and the daddy of them all, the Marxist academic Eric Hobsbawm ended by turning turtle and batting for the other side.
Caute shows us that in the ‘designer-socialist’ journal Marxism Today the Jewish academic who adored and never criticised Stalin, urged the Labour Party of Neil Kinnock to abandon its sectarians and extremists, come to terms with reality, operate in a market economy and go along with its capitalist requirements.
The words of that other Marx – Groucho – must have taken over: ‘These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.’
Comments Caute – ‘It is difficult to explain why the M15 files released in 2014 should terminate in 1963, when Hobsbawm was only forty-six and had a further fifty increasingly influential years ahead of him as a Marxist luminary.’
If these were the enemies of British democracy, it would be embarrassing to meet its friends.
The respected historian Alan Judd says this in his review of David Caute’s book in The Spectator –
‘Most of the files are boring, largely comprising press cuttings, attendance lists, police reports, gossip from the (bugged) headquarters of the Communist party and the opinions of colleagues. The truth which emerges is that many of these people were initially thought to be worth looking at because they were active members of the Communist Party, or sympathetic to it, and were in positions to threaten national security.’
Very few did anything of significance. And changing minds in the 1950s was common.
Anthony Benn, aka Viscount Stansgate, at an anti-Robert Mugabe rally in Central London in 2005
At that time he was President of the Stop the War Coalition and MI5 spooks kept an eye on him (Picture: Trevor Grundy)
But there were exceptions.
Caute said that the well-known upper-class socialist Anthony Benn, secretary of state at the Department of Industry in October 1974 suffered spectacular harassment. ‘His telephones were tapped and his house was mugged. His domestic refuse was being stolen by a man in a Jaguar car. The family received more than a dozen calls or visits from ‘ journalists’ inquiring about the health of his children.’
But to liken M15’s monitoring of the manque revolutionaries Caute writes about to the activities of Stasi or the KGB, the Gestapo or SS is ridiculous.
Compared to their counterparts in Europe, British communists and fascists were a a fairly gentle breed of men and women.
Leon Trotsky put his finger on the British socialist pulse in his 1925 essay Wither England.
Writing about the people posing as pace-makers for socialist change, the great pamphleteer said it was interesting how MacDonald combined a crassly biological theory of society with an idealistic Christian hatred of materialism.
Setting the tone of things to come, MacDonald said in a speech to unemployed and hungry miners – ‘You speak of revolution, of catastrophic changes, but look at nature; how wise is the action of the caterpillar when it envelops itself in the cocoon; look at the worthy tortoise, and you will find in its movement the natural rhythm for the transformation of society. Learn from nature!’
One wonders if Ramsey MacDonald and the British prophets and poets who admired him had ever seen a caged gorilla at Regents Park Zoo, yet alone one in the wild.
Trotsky never visited Britain but his language was rich with sarcasm when talking about the Fabian socialists young Britons were told to take as their socialist role models. Those that did, were often put under MI5s misty microscope but to what purpose?
What is amazing is the collective naivete of so many of the well-educated, well-informed nitwits.
Men and women educated at the finest universities money and contacts could afford were stunned to find out that Stalin actually killed people.
They knew all about the The Holocaust after the Second World War but were like the Three Monkeys deaf, dumb and blind when it came to condemning their one-time hero Stalin for his war on peasant farmers (kulaks) in the Ukraine in the 1930s.
The Russian dictators collectivisation programme caused at least four million deaths by starvation and is known in that tragic country as The Holdomor.
Orwell despised these here today and gone tomorrow tourists of the revolution. He believed their main aim was to dip toes into places where Leftists supported local revolutions, stick around for a week or two, write a book and return home to check the bank account.
What would any of them add up to when it was all over and revolution turned into reality?
The great historian Arnold Toynbee wrote about the French Revolution in his Introduction to The Gods of Revolution by Christopher Dawson (Sidgwick & Jackson, London 1972):
‘While the ideologues and the Terrorists occupied the foreground of the stage, the background gave ample room for people whose main concern was not either theories or massacres, but the sly acquisition of real estate on advantageous terms.’
Show me a man or woman who ever got close to the aftermath of a revolution who’d disagree with that.
So, the M15 suspects did nothing knew when they fled from the barricades and returned home sadder, some even wiser.
And the full-time spie and part-time spooks?
Alex Leamas summed them up perfectly in The spy who came in from the cold when he said in a moment of terrible self-awareness –
“What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”
The literary critic William Epson wrote a poem mocking the political postures of young writers like those in Auden’s circle of mainly homosexual friends and his poem is a catalogue of their useless gestures.
Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end.
What is there to be or do?
What’s become of me or you?
Are we kind or are we true?
Sitting two and two, boys, waiting for the end.
Big Brother aka George Orwell (above) really was watching you.
The story of George Orwell and his denunciation of so many of his erstwhile socialist colleagues in the late 1940s is worth a book on its own.
Take in what he said about Auden and his followers who he called ‘the Nancy Poets’ (Nancy being a widely used word to describe gay men in Orwell’s day).
He wrote to Nancy Cunard who was publishing a book about poetry in the 1930s in which Auden and his friends left such a deep mark and said, ‘Please stop sending me this bloody rubbish . . . I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and Spender.’
He mocked Auden for spending so little time in Spain during the Civil War and returning so fast to write a book about Spain and the Spanish, subjects he knew so little about.
In particular, war and battle- scarred Orwell was enraged by a few lines in one of Auden’s ‘Spanish War’ poems which spoke about the need for ‘the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.’
Orwell said that the phrase about the acceptance of ‘necessary murder’ could only be written by a person to who murder is at most a word. ‘
Orwell wrote, ‘Mr Auden’s amoral-ism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much left-wing thought is playing with fire by people who don’t now that fire is hot.’
After Auden moved to America with Isherwood, he converted to Christianity and changed those controversial lines to ‘. . .the conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder.’
Orwell knew how to smash and trash rival writers.
No doubt he had taken on board some of the writings of of Aleksandr Herzen, Russia’s greatest political philosopher, who wrote about’ members of the intelligentsia who did their utmost to undermine the old order while clinging to their comfortable old ways and honey-filled days, high-minded liberals, people who ‘light the fuse and then try and stop the explosion.’
Ramsay MacDonald – Pacemaker for British socialists and Fabians
He told would be-revolutionaries to learn from the wise ways of the caterpillar
I have always found it odd that an ex-Etonian and former colonial policeman should be a guru for British socialists.
That Orwell detested and mocked Stalinists is well-known. Anyone who has read Homage to Catalonia knows why.
But what he did in 1949 shortly before his death, takes away the breath of even his most fervent admirers.
The Foreign Office designed Information Research Department (IRD) was a propaganda unit set up by the Labour Government in 1948.
It fed stories to journalists and the BBC who put them out as the voice of truth and building belief that the World Service of the BBC spoke truth to power fearlessly.
While he was receiving treatment for tuberculosis in March 1949, Orwell wrote down the names of individuals he once knew and worked with but who he now branded as ‘fellow travellers’ (FTs) admirers of Moscow who might do harm to Britain as the Cold War arrived.
The list didn’t become public until 2003.
Orwell list names 135 well known writers and artists.
The British Press had known about this list for several years before it was officially made public by The Guardian newspaper in 2003.
Close friends of Orwell said he was right to do what he did.
‘I think George was quite right to do it,’ said Celia Kirwan, one of Orwell’s few close friends and sister-in-law of the novelist Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon) who visited the author of Animal Farm and 1984 at his sanatorium.
She said – ‘And, of course, everyone thinks that these people were going to be shot at dawn. The only thing that was going to happen to them was that they wouldn’t be asked to write for the IRD.’
To cut to the chase – They were not to write because they were not British Foreign Office propagandists like George Orwell.
David Caute: A man of the Left but never a Communist
A writer with the courage to lift rocks and study what’s beneath.
David Caute’s book is full of these small but significant details. MI5 rumbled and grumbled along with a help from its class-soaked stooges who believed you were suspect if you spoke like Michael Caine but ‘onside’ if you had the accent, wit and charm of a Guy Burgess.
And the full irony is here: while M15 and part-time spooks were going through the love letters of suspects, Kim Philby was moving closer to becoming the head of M16. The Queen’s pictures were guarded by a Russian spy and top British diplomats were getting ready to do a bunk to Moscow.
Quis custodet ipsos custodes?
Clothed in a cloak of red, white and blue, none of the monitors has written their memoirs. If they had tears to shed, they won’t be shedding them now. The Official Secrets Act makes sure of that.
But Auden was a special case as a naturalised American.
He must have felt a twinge of regret when he re-examined things he said and wrote in the 1930s, a short period of time which in his poem September 1, 1939 he branded ‘a low dishonest decade.’
He had at long last the courage to wonder if his plays and poems called for a British form of fascism, not communism.
Reviewing in 1966 his play The Orators, which he wrote in the 1930s, he said –
‘My name on the title page seems a pseudonym for someone else, someone talented but near the border of sanity, who might well, in a year or two become a Nazi.’ (*4)
One of the cleverest things the Soviets ever did in that ‘low dishonest decade’ was get hold of and then flatter and pay heavyweights from Cambridge University.
Kim Philby was the Soviet’s most useful recruit. There were others whose names we might never know.
While M15 was monitoring the sexual peccadilios of a collection of gay ex-public schoolboys, Philby got close to running M16, before bolting to Moscow and staying there until he died.
Who in the establishment would ever suspect these well-educated, typical Englishmen of treason?
The words of Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Ernest spring to mind when she was told there was a liar in her family.
‘My nephew, Algeron? Impossible! He is an Oxonian.’
So, who is to say that the British didn’t do the same, choosing polished, well-mannered intellectuals with social clout and excellent media connections to pose as people dangerous to the British state, while one of its main security wings waved them towards feeble- minded members of the British Communist Party and anyone one or any organisation that posed a threat to what’s loosely called The Establishment .
What a book that would be.
But that depends on things changing at the National Archives at Kew.
Maybe someone of real clout will say ‘enough is enough’ and open up.
What more does this sad, declining, isolated country have to hide?
It should happen. It will happen. Just don’t hold your breath.
(*1) The Public School Phenomenon (1976) and The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny (1972) by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy published by Hodder and Stoughton.
(*2) The last four lines of Rupert Brooke’s poem The Old Vicarage, Granchester written in Berlin in 1912.
(*3) Song by W.H. Auden
(*4) Quoted on p.94 of The Auden Generation – Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s by Samuel Hynes, (The Bodley Head, 1976)
Trevor Grundy is an English journalist who worked in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966-1996. He is a member of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) and a life member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).