A fresh set of files released to the general public today (September 28th) at the National Archives (TNA) at Kew, south-west London, reveal the considerable lengths to which the British domestic Security Service, MI5, went to keep close watch on leftwing historians who they believed were potential risks to national security or were communist ‘fellow travellers’.
However, what the files also demonstrate is the degree to which MI5 officers became over-reliant on gossip and hearsay, and sometimes made serious errors in the judgements they made and the information they collected and subsequently placed in their secret files. Moreover, in most cases, the intelligence collected together did not elicit any direct evidence of treachery, but revealed more about the private lives, personal habits, sexual affairs, or rather mundane social activities of the historians concerned.
Scholars such as Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and E.P. Thompson, for example, who were all associated with either the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), or with the ‘New Left’ in the 1960s, were all watched and carefully monitored, with their telephones tapped, their private letters secretly opened, and their partners or wider family members illicitly watched by the ‘Watchers’ for any additional information that could be obtained
Personal files on Hobsbawm and Hill were released to the National Archives two years ago, but new information on both men, together with more detailed information on E.P. Thompson, has been provided today. Historians can now begin to build up a better overall picture of the MI5 monitoring operations of leftwing historians. The latest round of files released today provide some additional background to these historians, together with the political networks and social circles they moved in.
According to the files, the Security Service took a particular interest in the Communist Party’s ‘Historians Group’, as MI5 officers were worried that ‘Britain’s ablest and most creative communists’ (as they put it) could potentially wield significant influence on Britain’s university campuses and students in the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War.
On the other hand, what the files also make clear is how some of the leading Communist historians were slowly becoming disillusioned with the CPGB (founded in 1920) and its notably slavish devotion to the Soviet Union and all things Russian. A file on E.P. Thompson, for example, records how a combination of the impact of Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (made in a so-called ‘Secret Speech’ in 1956) and the crushing by Russian tanks of the Hungarian uprising in the same year, caused Thompson to engage in some serious soul-searching about his personal political beliefs, and he began to ask searching questions about the legitimacy of the Communist Party’s pro-Soviet line in Britain.
The Security Service took a special interest in the CPGB’s headquarters in King Street, near Covent Garden in central London, an HQ that had been the Party’s base of operations in the UK since the 1920s. At one secretly recorded meeting, held at the HQ in the mid-1950s, MI5 eavesdroppers heard the considerable anger that some of E.P. Thompson’s CPGB colleagues were beginning to feel towards the historian for his increasingly outspoken views on the Soviet Union. Thompson was eventually suspended from the Party, and he officially resigned his membership over the brutal treatment of the rebels by the Soviet army in the Hungarian uprising in November, 1956.
Thompson, of course, later became one of the leading advocates of a ‘New Left’ perspective on history in the 1960s and 1970s, an approach which sought to break free from both Soviet East and the capitalist West, and also promoted the study of history ‘from below’, especially economic and social history and the role of ‘class’.
Nevertheless, as the MI5 files clearly show, Thompson, as with a number of his other leftwing friends and associates, remained a ‘subject of interest’ to the Security Service, as did many of the other historians who joined him in the pursuit of a more independent-minded leftwing stance on the study of the past. Thompson’s best-known piece of history arguably remains The Making of the English Working Class, which was published in 1963, and has become something of a ‘classic’ text in the historiography on British social history.
The National Archives have provided a very useful commentary on the new file releases by the historian Professor Christopher Andrew, the author of the ‘official’ history of the Security Service and a leading expert on many intelligence-related aspects of British twentieth century history.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University