State and revolutionaries

Security blanket

By definition, no member of the establishment considers themselves an ‘extremist’. As loyal and patriotic supporters of the bourgeois democratic order, establishment and pro-establishment figures view all those who oppose this order as either evil or mad - or quite possibly both. Whatever the case, these ‘extremists’ are clearly outsiders, suspicious and potentially subversive. Therefore it is only right and proper to keep a close eye on them - the price of freedom, after all, is eternal vigilance. The rules of the game are clear.     

This cosy world view has been punctured, partially, by the revelations of ex-MI5 agent David Shayler. Self-righteous indignation has greeted his admission that MI5 had been - and still might be, for all we know - keeping tabs on such well-known subversives as former Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath, Jack Straw, Harriet Harman and Peter Mandelson, to name just a few. But MI5’s interest did not stop at obvious political figures. For whatever curious reason, its agents monitored closely the activities of “subversive bands” like UB40, Crass and the Sex Pistols. It goes without saying that John Lennon was followed closely, given his membership of the International Marxist Group and pro-IRA statements and activities in the early 1970s.

Shayler’s disclosure about ‘comrade’ Mandelson have caused a particular fuss, especially the fact that MI5 was adding information to his file as late as 1992. He has vehemently denied being a Young Communist League member (let alone a CPGB one), describing it as a “pure smear”. Those of us who remember the politics of the YCL of this period might be tempted to say this is clear evidence that his political ideology has remained remarkably consistent, but that would be to underestimate the anti-communist paranoia of the secret services, and the establishment in general. It would not be an exaggeration to say this Cold War-fueled, anti-communist fear of ‘reds under the bed’ (and in the BBC, Houses of Parliament, the cabinet, etc) amongst some MI5 employees amounted to an obsession, in an almost clinical sense of the word (remember the barking Peter Wright, the so-called ‘spycatcher-general’?). This obsession has led to the file on Arthur Scargill reaching 40 volumes, which surely must be some sort of record - and also a back-handed compliment. But the substantial MI5 infiltration of the NUM is now open knowledge, thanks primarily to Seamus Milne’s book, The enemy within. The ‘Libyan gold’ scandal, which saw all the bourgeois press pursuing Scargill like hounds on a hunt, turned out to be a classic MI5 sting.

One of the most interesting facts to have emerged is that the secret service has records in “the low hundreds of thousands” of volumes, according to an unnamed senior officer in The Guardian, and that it operates a ‘traffic light’ system (ie, green files are the ‘hottest’ and red files are ‘inactive’). Even if we make the big assumption that the MI5 officer was being straight, this represents a good chunk of the population who have fallen under the secret service’s beady eye.

Naturally, Shayler’s washing of MI5 dirty linen in public has provoked much liberal outrage - ‘Why are they spying on us, instead of genuine subversives?’ Surely this is a disgraceful waste of time and money. This was the injured tone adopted by John Wadham, director of the civil rights group, Liberty, who complained bitterly about how M15 had “abused its role”. Similarly Bruce Kent, ex-tank commander and vice-president of CND - which fights for a non-nuclear or ‘conventional’ imperialism - moaned in The Times about “government misuse of the security services” (Letters, September 2). Wadham and Kent obviously think that M15 should concern itself only with ‘legitimate’ activities - ie, spying on ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’. 

The Observer took this argument a stage further. It believes that MI5 should be “abolished” and its “legitimate functions” transferred to the police and MI6. Its editorial went on to argue:

“In an age of European war or the imminent prospect of it, when continental regimes were succumbing to internal subversion, its role was defensible. Britain did not succumb, of course, but there were enough committed anti-democrats involved in events such as the General Strike of 1926 to rationalise its surveillance of communist trade unionists on democratic grounds ... Today, apart from the IRA and loyalist terrorists, there are no plausible threats to British democracy from internal subversion” (August 31).

In other words, MI5 is without a clear-cut role to play. There is no longer a foreign power (ie, the Soviet Union) to fight, which enabled it to brand its targets as traitors or agents of an enemy power. The ‘war against drugs’ is a partial filler for MI5, but still does not provide the focus it needs.

The response of Jack Straw showed his ‘commitment’ to open government. He refused to answer enquiries about the number or nature of MI5’s files, saying he would follow the practice of past governments - and this from a man described by MI5 as a “communist sympathiser” when he was president of the National Union of Students from 1969 to 1971. For good measure, the government slapped an emergency injunction on the Mail on Sunday, which was threatening to publish more of Shayler’s ‘shocking’ revelations. The grounds given were that such material “caused serious harm to British national security”. Shayler is now believed to be hiding in Amsterdam, and is planning to write a book about his experiences in MI5.

As revolutionaries we must assume that MI5, and bodies like it, are listening to everything we say and watching everything we do. However, that does not mean we should become paranoid either - we should not build up MI5 into an all-knowing, all-powerful, invincible super-orgnisation, as if the James Bond films were for real. For all of the fact that it has the power of the state behind them, members of this organisations can still be extraordinarily ill-informed and incompetent. When Stella Remington became head of MI5, she gave a public lecture as part of its ‘openness’ drive. In this speech she confidently asserted that the Trotskyist critique of the Soviet Union was based on the notion that it was a state capitalist formation ...

The real point is that MI5, and the bourgeois state behind it, can be beaten, if we have a mass movement behind us. In such a situation, all of MI5’s files will amount to virtually nothing. You can even guarantee that some of them will defect to the revolutionary movement - especially if their six-month, intensive course on ‘communism - what is it?’ was any good.

Communists, unlike liberals, say that the secret service has no right to spy on anybody. MI5 has no legitimate functions whatsoever. It is an organ of the ruling class and must always be viewed as such, whether it is raging a ‘war against terrorism’ or a ‘war against drugs’. The best defence the revolutionary movement has today against the likes of MI5 is political openness - and a zealous maintenance of organisational security.

On the other hand, the best recipe for state infiltration is a culture of secrecy and conspiratorial politics, an ideal environment for agents to enter and operate in.

Eddie Ford