Book Review-Red List: MI5 and British Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century-David Caute Verso, pp. 352, £20

David Caute’s new book is a well-written and deeply researched account of the widespread British Secret Service’s covert surveillance of British writers and intellectuals in the last century. Caute’s work on official documents held at the National Archives shows the massive surveillance of anybody deemed a threat to National security. MI5 opened Letters, tapped phones, private homes were bugged, and hundreds of people were under constant surveillance by Special Branch agents.

Those watched included journalists, academics, scientists, filmmakers, writers, actors, musicians and, in some cases, the ordinary public. Caute lists more than 200 victims, but the figures will be much higher as more files are released to the National Archives.

MI5 spied on such prominent figures as Arthur Ransome, Paul Robeson, J.B. Priestley, Kingsley Amis, George Orwell, Doris Lessing, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, Dorothy Hodgkin, Jacob Bronowski, John Berger, Benjamin Britten, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Kingsley Martin, Michael Redgrave, Joan Littlewood, Joseph Losey, Michael Foot and Harriet Harman.

So wide-ranging was the surveillance that even Winston Churchill’s cousin Clare Sheridan who was sympathetic to the Russian revolution, was investigated. According to writer Alan Judd, she was never a Communist, but “she got herself to Russia, lived in the Kremlin and sculpted busts of Soviet leaders, including Trotsky, Zinoviev, Dzerzhinsky and Lenin himself. She subsequently had a relationship with the pro-communist Charlie Chaplin and survived attempted rape by Mussolini. She travelled the world broadcasting anti-British views and was monitored by MI5 until they concluded that she was neither a spy nor a security threat but merely ‘extraordinarily indiscreet’ and had a passion for international mischief-making’. She was later reconciled with her cousin, spent time at Chartwell during the second world war and converted to Catholicism.”[1]

MI5 was set up in 1909 and was tasked to look into “activities designed to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, violent or industrial means”. MI5 came into its own during the first world war. Its use of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) against perceived revolutionaries, pacifists, democratic socialists, and anti-war activists. Members of the Independent Labour Party, such as Fenner Brockwaycame in for special scrutiny.

MI5’s task became especially acute when in 1917, the Bolshevik revolution occurred, which threatened to escalate into a worldwide revolution. The spectre of the socialist revolution haunts the secret service even today.

As Caute shows in his book, most people investigated and labelled subversive were no such thing. One such figure mentioned by Caute is the writer Arthur Ransome who, although was sympathetic to the Russian revolution and interviewed both Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, was never a revolutionary as this quote from his book Six Weeks in Russia shows, “I should have liked to explain what was the appeal of the revolution to men like Colonel Robins and myself, both of us men far removed in origin and upbringing from the revolutionary and socialist movements in our own countries. Of course, no one who was able, as we were able, to watch the men of the revolution at close quarters could believe for a moment that they were the merely paid agents of the very power which, more than all the others, represented the stronghold they had set out to destroy. We knew the injustice being done to these men to urge us in their defence. But there was more to it than that. There was a feeling, from which we could never escape, of the creative effort of the revolution.”[2]

In the post-war period, Caute’s book shows that the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain) took up a large part of MI5’s spying activity. All its leading cadre and large numbers of the CPHG (Communist Party Historians Group) were under constant surveillance. Caute believes the CPGB was not revolutionary and harboured no plans to overthrow capitalism.

According to the Trotskyists of the Socialist Labour League, who opposed Stalinism from the left, they were “a group of embittered doctrinaires without roots or perspectives or the ability to learn from their mistakes; a coterie of well-meaning university Dons and writers who have something to say on every subject except the class struggle taking place under their noses; not a party paying lip-service to Marxism but dominated by whichever faction happens to be in control in Moscow.[3]

Caute’s study of the Communist Party Historians Group highlights a historian’s difficulty in using and writing about these documents. It is not just a question of saying how and why people were spied upon, but any study must place the spy’s actions in the social and political context of the time. As Madeleine Davis writes:

“The release of MI5 files on Thompson and Hilton added to those of prominent party intellectuals already available, provides a fresh set of primary sources for and a renewed opportunity to consider these issues in their context, while the Thompson material has extra significance given the continued embargo on his papers.14 These files present problems as sources for historians interested in the human subjects of surveillance rather than its techniques and policy contexts. The secret, partial and incomplete nature of the material, retention or redaction of documents, and the difficulty in many cases of cross-checking against other sources limits their usefulness.

Although some triangulation is possible against the CPGB’s archive, awareness among prominent communists of extensive surveillance provoked counter-measures, including selective record keeping. It reinforced a culture of secrecy and mistrust. Thus while the volume of MI5 personal files now available has started to generate a significant literature drawing on both sets of primary sources, 15 investigation of the motives of those involved in the 1956 crisis needs also to draw on a substantial specialist secondary literature. Especially relevant is work emerging from the ‘biographical turn’ in communist historiography and work that examines both the CPGB’s cultural analysis and the party’s internal culture to illuminate the complex and contradictory reality of Zhdanovism’s implementation and contestation in the British party.”[4]

In the Chapter, The BBC Toes the Line Caute shows that MI5’s vetting of BBC staff was well-known, but the spy agency’s surveillance of independent television was not so much. In 1969, MI5 agents were particularly interested in Granada TV’s World In Action. Although not a Trotskyist, one of the high-profile journalists, John Pilger, had a large dossier on him. MI5 concluded that there was “no evidence of a conspiracy” at the programme and reported that any interest from the Communist Party of Great Britain had “diminished.” As one file claims. “Communists are less influential than Trotskyists, who, however, are too disunited to be able to execute a joint plan.”

Caute’s view of Trotskyism neatly dovetails that of MI5. Although a significant amount of time was spent by MI5 infiltrating many Psuedo left groups claiming to be Trotskyists, Caute, like MI5, thought the Trotskyist movement to be disunited. Perhaps this explains Caute’s ideologically light-minded attitude towards state penetration of the Trotskyist movement and certainly accounts for its lack of coverage in his book.

In March 2000, an article appeared on the WSWS.ORG called Was there a high-level MI5 agent in the British Workers Revolutionary Party?. Caute does not mention anything about this grave matter. As the article’s author David North explains: “A former agent for the British Security Service (known as MI5) has alleged in a sworn statement that the agency received reports from a high-level spy inside the Workers Revolutionary Party during the late 1960s. The ex-agent, David Shayler, is currently living in exile in France, where he has fled to escape prosecution for his exposure of state secrets. In his February 18 affidavit, Shayler asserts that the spy provided MI5 with reports of financial support given by John Lennon to the WRP. Shayler recounts that he was shown portions of an MI5 file relating to the agency’s surveillance of Lennon, whose socialist and anti-imperialist sentiments angered the British ruling class. The affidavit states that the material “concerned Lennon’s support for the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), a Trotskyist organisation. According to the file, a source in the WRP had reported that Lennon gave tens of thousands of pounds sterling to the WRP in the late 1960s and also provided some funds to the Irish Republican Army at around the same time.”[5]

If David Caute has any information, he must publicise it. As North points out, all those committed to democratic rights in Britain and internationally must call for the identification of the MI5 agent inside the SLL/WRP. This is important not only to expose the individual (or individuals) involved but to educate a new generation of socialists about the dangers posed by state infiltration and provocation.


[1] https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/people-of-little-interest-mi5-s-view-of-left-wing-intellectuals/

[2] Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 Paperback – 10 Sept. 2010

[3] Cited in Gerry Healy and His Place in the History of the Fourth International, David North (1991), Labor Publications, p. 30.

[4] Edward Thompson, MI5 and the Reasoner controversy: negotiating“Communist principle” in the crisis of 1956

[5] Was there a high-level MI5 agent in the British Workers Revolutionary Party?. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/03/lenn-m02.html

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