The National Archives have just released a series of MI5 files, including a number of files on British Marxist historians Erich Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill. 8 files on Hobsbawm have been released, with two digitised. The first of these digitised files is particularly interesting because it covers the period 0f 1956, when the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain was involved in dissenting actions towards the Party leadership. One of the Historians’ Group’ actions was the writing of a letter that criticised the Party’s support for the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which was intended for publication in the Daily Worker. It was not published the newspaper and thus the letter was sent to the New Statesman and Tribune, who subsequently published on December 1, 1956. I have blogged about the letter here.
In this file, there is the transcript of a letter, intercepted by MI5, sent from Betty Grant to Edwin Payne, both members of the Historians’ Group. Dated December 3, 1956, the letter addressed the New Statesman letter and individual members of the Historians’ Group, such as Eric Hobsbawm and John Saville. Grant’s displeasure with Hobsbawm and Saville can be seen in several statements within the letter. Concerning the New Statesman letter, Grant wrote:
In the view of the letter to the N.S. (and, I gather, also Tribune) Eric will have to make up his mind pretty soon where all this is leading to. He seems not entirely his own master now.
On the topic of Saville and his recent departure from the Party (after the publishing of the third issue of the dissident journal The Reasoner), Grant told Payne that she had appealed for him to consider re-joining the Party and working on Historians’ Group’s publications in the near future. Grant wrote that his response was ‘a sort of apologia for his political actions, which are really rather revealing, but not entirely honest’. Grant then transcribed a section of a Saville’s letter that said:
[Eric] told me in general terms what was being proposed, viz, that the new grouping was to be a Marxist Historians Group not affiliated to the C.P. I don’t think there was any alternative because although all of us outside want very much to continue the personal, political and intellectual contacts we have developed over the past decade, we should not have been prepared to continue within a Party framework. Nor, should I add, will I be prepared to accept a Party fraction inside the new organisation,…
Grant finished the letter by saying that ‘I no longer think the main task of the Hist. Gr. is to “keep sweet” those who have left or are intending to leave’.
Alongside this intercepted letter, MI5 also bugged two phone calls that shed a little bit more light on how the Party leadership reacted to the New Statesman letter. One was a ‘telecheck’ of a discussion between J.R. Campbell, editor of the Daily Worker, and George Matthews, the Party’s Assistant General Secretary, dated November 20, 1956. The file shows that Campbell read the entire letter to Matthews and finished with ‘George supposed CAMPBELL wanted to know what to do, and he would ring him back.’
The second was the transcript of a phone discussion between John Gollan, the new General Secretary of the CPGB, and Hobsbawm. Hobsbawm had written a letter, intended for publication in the Party fortnightly journal, World News, on Lenin and Party factions in the Bolsheviks and how this applied to the forthcoming Special Congress of the CPGB. Gollan said that World News would be printing the letter, but he was disappointed in Hobsbawm’s attitude, alleging that he was misrepresenting Lenin’s argument.
The telephone conversation took place on November 22, 1956, and there seems to be an undercurrent that Gollan knew that the Historians’ Group letter had been sent to the New Statesman. This is alluded to in the opening description of the call:
ERIC said JAMES had suggested he (ERIC) rang JOHNNIE to find out what happened about ‘this letter of mine which has been discussed today.’ JOHNNIE said did he mean the letter to WORLD NEWS, it was that letter and it would be going into WORLD NEWS…
Another part of the conversation that alluded to the New Statesman letter was when Gollan complained:
if you want the thing in WORLD NEWS, we’re now getting to the stage when everybody points pistols to our heads, if it doesn’t go into WORLD NEWS one week it will go into the New Statesman the next week and frankly I don’t like the whole attitude.
The rest of the conversation between Gollan and Hobsbawm makes for fascinating reading as it shows how the Party leadership tried to keep the debate inside the Communist Party and felt that the Party was being very accommodating in the letters that it was publishing in World News. Gollan said ‘I don’t think any comrade can have much criticism about what they’re getting printed now. Its a very fair crack of the whip for different points of view.’ But Hobsbawm reminded Gollan that the past behaviours of the Party press had led people to be suspicious of attempts to stifle debate. Although Hobsbawm said that no one really wanted to take the debate outside the Party press, he qualified this by saying:
there’s a lot of suspicion about the printing which has cropped up in the past… if people knew that responsible statements which are not just silly are likely to get printed they wouldn’t start saying well they’ve had to be printed elsewhere.
Gollan complained about this approach, arguing:
See comrades want to have it both ways, they want to keep the fight in the Party and they want to keep the fight outside the Party. And you can’t have it like that, life’s not like that.
Gollan then added:
I don’t like this type of attitude. I don’t think its particularly Communist and I don’t think its particularly comradely.
The CPGB’s correspondence relating to the New Statesman letter and the dissenting actions of the Historians’ Group’s members are held in the CPGB archive at the Labour History Archive and Study Centre at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. As revealing as this internal correspondence is, the MI5 surveillance files add something else to our knowledge of what was occurring within the Communist Party in 1956. The documents I have discussed here are only the tip of the iceberg!