Proud to be subversive

True spies BBC2, 9.00pm, Sunday October 27, November 3, 10

For a number of reasons this TV series should be compulsory viewing for communists. First, it serves as a useful reminder to older comrades and a valuable lesson to new cadre that, whatever the political conditions pertaining at any given time, the secret UK state - comprising in this instance the security service (MI5) and its executive arm, the special branch - has essentially one simple strategic objective: namely, to defend the status quo, by ensuring the stability and hegemony of the ruling class. This means preserving the existing system of property relations, all the oppression, alienation and other anti-human shit that are inseparable from the capitalist mode of production and class society. Secondly, it gives us some handy tips about the tactics and operational methodology that the enemy is deploying against us and thus suggests appropriate counter-measures. At the outset, however, we need to forget the inevitable hype, and recognise that Peter Taylor's programmes, of which two have so far been transmitted, in no way represent some kind of breakthrough in investigative journalism. As Taylor himself remarks, he received "extraordinary" cooperation from special branch: "Twenty-first century chief constables have been open about the way the war on domestic subversion is fought" (Radio Times October 26). He would have us believe that nobody asked to see his scripts or demanded endless re-editing of the material, but we can be certain that the retired special branch officers who constitute the bulk of his source material were careful to clear their contributions with the appropriate authorities before taping their interviews. As to why the programmes have been permitted, and why now, there are again both strategic and tactical considerations. The demise of the USSR and the Soviet bloc states, together with the consequent virtual collapse of 'official communism', left the secret services bereft of one of their principal raisons d'être. The long decades of the cold war had been a golden age for them, but suddenly they had to justify their existence, and, more importantly, their bloated budgets, by identifying new threats to the safety and security of the realm. For MI5 (at least for a time) this was easy. The Provisional IRA was still active. For the secret intelligence service (MI6) the problem was solved by supposedly redirecting some of their fabled expertise to the war against international drug trafficking and organised crime. Since the continued activity of both services was obviously essential to the functioning of the state, the government was compelled to put them on a statutory basis, even placing their activities under a form of 'democratic' oversight in the form of parliamentary committees - albeit composed of safe stooges who could be relied on not to ask any awkward questions. Perhaps it was a sign of their triumphalist confidence in the new world order and their new-found role within it that both services set about moving to palatial new headquarters astride the Thames. It might, of course, be pure coincidence, but the tactical reasons why True spies could have received such unprecedented cooperation from the secret state in this particular period are not difficult to understand, and convey a degree of informed foresight on the part of the enemy. After its long slumber during this strange period of reaction, our atomised and somnolent working class is beginning to show some, as yet tentative, signs of resurgence in terms of industrial action. Some workers, at least, have got off their knees. The Blair government's handling of the FBU's threatened strike action is indicative. Of course, the Labour Party is doing all it can behind the scenes to obtain a negotiated settlement at the least possible financial cost, but in the meantime the old Thatcherite rhetoric of anti-trade unionism is deployed by them in the pages of the tabloids. Andy Gilchrist is a "Scargillite"; the action of the firefighters could put lives at risk; it is "irresponsible", even "criminal". Hence, the screening of True spies, with its reminders of a time when the working class exercised some real muscle in society, must certainly be seen by the government as helpful because it frightens the conservative middle classes and has them baying for a strong hand. Notwithstanding its fundamental inadequacies, the series does in some sense represent something of a landmark. Remember that only a few years ago everything pertaining to the special services was a state secret: the very existence of MI6 was routinely and ludicrously denied in parliament. Ironically, this review is being written at a time when MI5 'whistle-blower' David Shayler is about to get sent down for telling us about the nefarious and incompetent activities of the service during his brief tenure as a desk officer. Whatever you may think of Shayler and his motivation as an evidently ambitious but unpromoted and disaffected intelligence officer, the man deserved his day in court and evidently did not get it, in so far as his public interest defence was ruled out of order by a prior hearing. He should, perhaps, have bided his time and followed the example of his boss, Dame Stella Rimington, one-time director general of MI5, by writing an approved memoir. Risibly puffed up by The Guardian as an earth-shattering disclosure of what really goes on in the secret state (the book that "the establishment tried to stop"), in the event Stella's startling revelations, subject to prolonged vetting by Whitehall, and written in the prose of Women's Weekly, had all the seismic potential of a wet fart. By contrast True spies publicly tells us rather more than Stella ever would have done (though she is happy to earn a crust by appearing in the show) and certainly more than Shayler ever sold to the Mail on Sunday for £40,000. The focus is not on Shayler's tales of dubious plans to bump off foreign potentates, or the fact that Jack Straw once had a file in MI5, but on the war being waged by the secret state against our own class, day in, day out. Undermine Subversion - a category which Peter Taylor evidently has no ideological problems with - has been at the heart of the first two episodes. 'Subversion' is enshrined in the post-war Labour government's charter for MI5 and amounts to an attempt to "overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means". Note the weasel word "undermine" which covers just about anything. But let us be clear: only the maddest and saddest of the post-war MI5 old guard can actually have believed that the old 'official' CPGB was bent on "overthrowing" parliamentary democracy. Even in the dark days of the mid-1970s, when the twin set and pearls brigade at the coalface of MI5 wondered just what they would do if Tony Benn became home secretary - and when Mountbatten was holding discreet talks with various rightwing cronies about mobilising the tanks of the Household Cavalry - nobody in possession of half a brain took the threat of revolution seriously. Any new recruit who dutifully did his homework and read The British road to socialism can hardly have seen King Street - CPGB headquarters in London's Covent Garden - as the focus of a potential armed insurrection. The point of 'counter-subversion' was twofold: to keep communists out of sensitive jobs in government departments, the public service, certain key industries and firms by 'positive vetting'; and to investigate the work of the CPGB in the trade union movement, where, thanks to the assiduous work of comrades - from Bert Ramelson, the industrial organiser, down to grassroots shop stewards and activists - it exercised an influence far beyond its strength in terms of paper membership. Resources were apparently concentrated overwhelmingly on the CPGB, the aim being to identify not only all members, but also to 'record' supporters and sympathisers. Apply to join the CPGB or just send Peter Pink a ten-bob note and you were sure of a file in Curzon Street, as someone who was intent on overthrowing - well, 'undermining' anyway - parliamentary democracy. Much the same (though to a lesser degree) goes for members of Trotskyite groups and such organisations as CND, which were deemed to be under communist control or influence. For obvious reasons of dramatic presentation, True spies primarily concentrates its attention not on the humdrum world of bureaucratic paper-shuffling, which is what intelligence work must surely be about, but on the human element. Take Ricky Tomlinson, the well known paterfamilias of the Royle Family. As most of us already knew, Ricky, a one-time member of the National Front, found his way into leftwing politics. With Dezzie Warren, he became one of the 'Shrewsbury Two', men whose involvement in building workers' strikes saw them sentenced to two years in jail. Ricky worked closely with the Workers Revolutionary Party and, more recently, appeared in the Socialist Labour Party's 2001 general election broadcast, but, when confronted by the testimony of one Tony Robinson, former Lancashire special branch officer and Victor Meldrew sound-alike, to the effect that he was regarded as not only as a subversive but a "political thug", he can only express astonishment: "Subversive, my arse. I love England." Dave Nellist, prominent Socialist Party member and former chair of the Socialist Alliance, is similarly dismayed to learn that, on instructions from MI5, special branch had placed an agent alongside him to report on the activities of what was then Militant Tendency. After all he was a democratically elected MP. Outrageous and "completely out of order" to regard him as a subversive. One wonders which planet these comrades are inhabiting. There seems to be something about the word 'subversive' that sticks in their throat. They seem to regard it as an insult rather than something which any revolutionary would proudly plead guilty to. You can, though, easily see how Joe Gormley, the openly rightwing president of the NUM, but also, as it happens, the leader of two successful miners' strikes - a man who ended up in the House of Lords, for Christ's sake - might be miffed at the idea of being regarded as a subversive. Imagine his conversation with the head of the Yorkshire special branch or whatever: 'Look here, Joe, we've got our differences, but at least you love your country. You're a patriot when all's said and done, but there are firebrands like that bastard Scargill who want to turn this country into Russia. We need your help to stop him.' Enough said. At least Arthur Scargill himself makes no bones about being "an enemy of capitalism and a supporter of socialism", for whom it came as no surprise to learn that Gormley, his predecessor as president of the National Union of Mineworkers, was a regular contact of the special branch. When asked by Taylor whether he was surprised to learn that more than 20 leading trade union officials had been in contact with the special branch, Scargill answers laconically: "Yes, it does surprise me. I thought it would be many more than that." Having been the target of the most concentrated state attack on any trade union leader in recent memory, under incessant surveillance and subjected to attempts by MI5 and special branch to smear him in the most outrageous way, Arthur knows what he is talking about. Whether he intends it or not, Peter Taylor gives us the impression that, whatever the crises concerned at any particular time, special branch had their agents on hand to deal with them, so ultimately all was well. Hence, the valiant agent "910" was instrumental in defusing the crisis at Longbridge car works and helping to defeat the dastardly efforts of Derek Robinson ('Red Robbo'), a CPGB stalwart and AUEW organiser, to thwart the introduction of the Metro and with it the loss of thousands of jobs. At times, the story becomes almost maudlin, as in the case of the poor special branch bobbies who had to grow beards and risk their lives as "hairies" by infiltrating the Socialist Workers Party - as if penetrating that organisation involved the labours of Hercules. Lessons What lessons can we learn from this partial and censored insight into the workings of the enemy? There are two basic guidelines to begin with: first and foremost our political principles and our political culture. Remember Roman Malinovsky? Lenin respected and trusted him. He became the spokesman for the Bolsheviks in the duma, but all along he was an agent of the Okhrana. Like all agents, he had to live his cover, which meant that his undoubted natural talents as an orator and agitator won many comrades to the cause of the revolution. To be sure, other comrades no doubt languished or perished in Siberia thanks to his treachery, but the point is that his betrayal ultimately made no difference. Foolishly returning to Russia, he got the bullet that he deserved. It was the discipline and the living, day-to-day democratic centralism of the Bolsheviks that negated his efforts. Secondly, vigilance, but with a very large dose of common sense. It was startling to see in the programmes how some comrades were genuinely surprised to learn that they and their organisations had been the target of state investigation and penetration as, to use the dreaded word, "subversives". But we, as communists and revolutionaries, are "subversives". Our programme is from A to Z rooted in the conviction that capitalism must be overthrown by whatever means are necessary. Hence our own organisational and personal security disciplines must match the task before us. Maurice Bernal