In The Guardian of November 27, the writer and ex-secret service officer John le Carré (real name David Cornwell) bade an affectionate farewell to an old informer of his. The recently deceased ‘Harry’ was a long-term member of the CPGB, a stalwart of Party work and a deep entry mole in our ranks, attending weekly debriefing sessions with the likes of le Carré and other MI5 controllers.
Le Carré’s valediction is deliberately obtuse. He teases us with the idea that “it is even possible that what I am telling you is fiction, and it never happened at all”. However, even through his veiled comments, we are able to discern the outline figures both of ‘Harry’ and, more usefully, of state agents as a type.
First, in general they are often extremely useful - to the Party, that is. In order to be effective as an agent, they must work hard at being a communist. Thus, they tend to make themselves useful, valued and trusted Party comrades. For example, le Carré reports that ‘Harry’ “had taken on all the dirty jobs, in the evenings and weekends, that other comrades were only too glad to be relieved of ... Gradually, through diligence and devotion to the cause - you might say both causes - he rose to become an influential and valued comrade”, even apparently being entrusted with “semi-conspiratorial errands”.
The most famous agent in the ranks of the revolutionary workers’ movement - Roman Malinovsky of the Bolsheviks - made himself far more useful than the lowly ‘Harry’. As leader of the Bolshevik in the Tsar’s duma, he was responsible for rousing tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of Russian people to revolutionary action through his speeches. Despite himself, he made new communists by the score - a byproduct of diligently carrying out the instructions of the revolutionary party which was necessary if he was to operate as a state agent. Of course, we do not keep a moral ledger of these things. We do not forgive Malinovsky the hundreds he sent to imprisonment, banishment or death when we set it alongside the thousands he attracted to our movement. Justifiably, the Bolsheviks put a bullet in his head when he gave himself up after the October Revolution. Other ‘Harrys’ take note.
Second, the quality of the information most such agents divulge in a country like Britain is, frankly, crap. Le Carré admits that the errands ‘Harry’ was given “seldom amounted to anything of substance in the intelligence marketplace”. Indeed, a great deal of effort appears to have been expended in keeping up the poor man’s spirits. His MI5 controllers would pat him on the head and generally be nice to the chap: “... this lack of visible success didn’t matter, we assured Harry, because he was the right man in the right place, the essential listening post”.
In order to bolster this poor dupe’s morale, the security professionals and hapless ‘Harry’ would stage dry run exercises, preparing for the day when the sky grew black with dastardly Soviet paratroopers and ‘Harry’ was installed as the local commissar. “That’s when you’ll become the linkman for the resistance movement that’s going to have to drive those bastards into the sea,” they assured him in all seriousness.
Clearly, it was necessary to shore up the egos of agents such as ‘Harry’ with this type of childlike nonsense. After all, the man was being paid a pittance, was unable to supply worthwhile intelligence and - apparently - had been engaged from “late childhood” in crass duplicity against a group of people that even he recognised as “idealistic”. His controllers needed to supply the man with a moral framework in which to locate and justify his actions. It is worth noting that even those trapped into spying against the Party through financial or sexual embarrassment had to be assured what they were doing had a certainly ‘morality’, that it prevented a greater harm being done.
Finally, and most encouragingly, we are given yet more confirmation of what is perhaps our greatest strength as a political movement. The class enemy and its servants such as le Carré are simply incapable of understanding our politics.
For example, le Carré describes ‘Harry’s motivation for becoming an agent thus: “[He] was one of the poor bloody infantry of honorable men and women who believed that the communists were set on destroying the country ... and felt they had better do something about it.” Yet he locates his handling of ‘Harry’ 40 years or so ago. The notion that the CPGB by the late 1950s into the 60s - riddled with reformism, crystallised in the abject British road to socialism - was bent on anything as radical as “destroying the country” should have been enough to raise doubts about MI5’s and ‘Harry’s’ sanity, let alone his worth as a paid state asset.
I am reliably informed that part of the induction for new MI5 employees used to be a study of the BRS. This alone should have been sufficient to convince them that the Party as then constituted politically represented no revolutionary challenge to the state. Apparently not, though. It is worthwhile remembering in this context that through the offices of Malinovsky, the tsarist secret service actually thought it a good idea to work hard at exacerbating the divisions between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, reasoning that a split party was de facto a weaker party. With hindsight, they probably regretted that.
We are not indifferent or blasé to the activities of the ‘Harrys’ of this world. However, the only real defence against them lies in the arena of politics, not any counter-surveillance measures we adopt as an organisation.
First, we are open. Despite themselves, the sects on the left that run political police regimes internally to discipline the views of their members create ideal conditions for the state agents to flourish.
Second, we are fighting for politics that accord with the development of humanity and world society. It is this which ultimately lends our ideas their vital strength and means that those who disseminate them - whatever their personal motivation - do us a great service. Marxism is powerful not because of the money it generates, the hordes of secret agents at its disposal or the brilliant technical measures it may adopt to fight state surveillance.
It is powerful, Mr le Carré, because it is true.