Shortly before he died, Eric Hobsbawm told me of his irritation – I would put it no stronger than that – at being prevented from seeing his MI5 file. Despite some lobbying in the House of Lords on his behalf, he was told it would not be released in his lifetime. His wish to see it was not driven by concern at the nature of the surveillance, which he had long suspected. Rather, it was the opportunity to piece together missing aspects of his own history that most interested him. Now that his files have finally been released, it is this historical resource-- MI5 files offer unexpected gifts to researchers if used judiciously and with context--and not the absurdity of his perceived threat to national security that is most striking.
This does not mean we should ignore the blundering attempts by MI5 to keep tabs on him, the exaggerated ‘risk’ they insisted he posed over many years when they intermittently tapped his phone and opened his mail, or the mean-spirited attempts to obstruct the early career opportunities of a promising historian. I counted no less than twelve different misspellings of his name, including ‘Hobsball’, ‘Horsbawm’, ‘Hogsbawm’, ‘Hoborn’ and ‘Oxborn, presumably Osborn’, amid missed opportunities to search his luggage at customs or prevent him talking politics with his fellow soldiers.
Hobsbawm first came to the serious attention of MI5 in July 1942 when, as a young Sergeant in the Army Education Corps, he was accused of pronouncing ‘partisan’ views at the regular current affairs discussions. Worse still, according to one of his commanding officers, ‘Hobsbawm has a tendency to produce left wing literature and leave it lying about’. He had even asked one of the Education Corps’ warrant officers to join the Communist Party. For such ‘abuses of his position’ and ‘ill-judged propaganda’, the young Hobsbawm was forbidden to have any further role in teaching current affairs and thought unsuitable for the intelligence corps.
In retrospect, all this seems futile and amateurish. The year before he was called in to explain himself, his friend and one-time ‘guru’ James Klugmann, a young communist intellectual (and, as we now know, a reluctant spy), who was serving as a private in the Royal Army Service Corps, had set up an impromptu ‘boat university’ en route to Cairo where he acquainted his large army audiences of clerks and fitters with a crash course on Marxism and the crucial role of the Soviet Union, now that it had entered the war. Klugmann had eluded the clutches of MI5, whose failure to keep him at home enabled him to embark on a remarkable career in the Special Operations Executive, rapidly rising to the rank of Major in its Yugoslav section where he played a key role in persuading Churchill to switch allegiance from the royalist Mihailovic to the communist Tito.
Nor, in hindsight, does MI5’s attempts in 1945 to dissuade Miss Shelmerdine of the BBC’s staff department from employing Hobsbawm in its educational unit, on the grounds that he was likely to use it to ‘obtain recruits for the Communist Party’, sound convincing. After all, Guy Burgess had just ended an eight year stint at the Corporation where he produced The Week in Westminster at the same time as he was passing information to his Soviet intelligence controller.
Other than that, the constant monitoring of Hobsbawm’s work as an academic and the imposition of obstacles at different moments seems unnecessarily puerile. Into the mid-1950s, MI5 was still holding debriefings with one of his former Cambridge contemporaries who had spent a year in the Communist Party in the late 1930s. As late as 1962-63, MI5 saw fit to write to the CIA and FBI to warn them that Hobsbawm had been awarded a twelve month grant by the Rockefeller Foundation to study revolutions in Latin America.
By the mid-1950s, Hobsbawm had found an academic post and had become a professional historian. He was also chairman of the Communist Party Historians Group, a gathering of an outstanding generation of Marxist historians, whose collective endeavours did much to establish a British Marxist tradition and precipitated the future direction of working class ‘history from below’. Yet this group was destroyed by the events of 1956, a combination of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin and the Soviet invasion of Hungary later that year. Much has been written about those events and its implications for the British left, but Hobsbawm’s MI5 files provide further insight into the effect it had on both the Party and his own career.
In particular they reveal the attitude of the British Communist Party leadership towards him; they initially expected him to join his friends and fellow historians John Saville and Edward Thompson and leave the Party. For some years MI5 had picked up behind the scenes discussions from a hidden microphone placed in one of the meeting rooms at the Party’s Covent Garden headquarters. During these tense months, MI5 surveillance captured some of the traumas and fears facing the Party in the wake of an exodus of many of its leading intellectuals and the resulting suspicion towards those who remained. The files demonstrate that Hobsbawm, far from carrying on as a relatively uncritical Party loyalist--as some have claimed--decided to ‘stay in and fight on’. He was an increasingly isolated figure, regarded at the time with a contempt and hostility from some Party apparatchiks that exceeded even MI5 denunciations.
Bill Wainwright, a journalist turned apparatchik, told fellow Party leaders that he expected Hobsbawm to leave, as he had maintained close relations with Thompson, Saville and other dissidents and had co-signed a public denunciation of the invasion of Hungary in the New Statesman and Tribune. Hobsbawm was, he added, ‘a swine’, and ‘two-faced’, while his jazz writings under the pen-name Francis Newton, merely revealed the class nature of his politics given he was obviously making a ‘canny screw’ from it. Nora Jeffrey, another soulless bureaucrat, remarked that Hobsbawm’s very presence at meetings was enough to ‘spread cynicism’; he didn’t even need to speak. Reuben Falber, a dour functionary who later achieved some notoriety for hoarding ‘Moscow Gold’ in his Golders Green loft, thought him an ‘opportunist’.
The Party’s General Secretary Johnny Gollan initially wanted him off all committees, though his predecessor, Harry Pollitt, by this time in the twilight of his career, merely thought him a ‘young rogue’. In the end, Wainwright hauled him in and told him he had to stop writing for Universities and Left Review (a forerunner to New Left Review) or face expulsion from the Party. It is doubtful if it would have come to that, but for Hobsbawm this was evidently the clear sign that his priorities lay elsewhere. He continued attending the meetings of what would become the first New Left--while maintaining some reservations about it--but his withdrawal from Party committees was final and allowed him to concentrate on his historical writings, for which we should all be grateful.
This article was first published on the openDemocracy website.