Kafkureaucracy Note:
The Hobsbawm File
2 April 2015

Also in the current issue of the LRB (37/7) is Frances Stonor Saunders’s report on MI5’s thick file on the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. The report covers a twenty-year period dating from the beginning of World War II to a moment in the Sixties when the bureaucratic clock ran out, fifty years ago. MI5, Britain’s version of our CIA, cannot release files that are less than fifty years old. It is further prohibited from releasing files kept on living persons, which is why Hobsbawm, who made repeated requests, was never permitted to see what MI6 “had” on him.

What they had, it turns out, proved absolutely nothing unless glanced through the agency’s ludicrously circular suspicions, all founded on that most essential of bureaucratic proclivities, the idea that, once you have come to the attention of an organization charged with gathering important information, you can never cease to be one. This doesn’t mean that the spooks will keep tabs on you just in case. It means that they will see betrayal in your every move. The Hobsbawm file is thick with evidence — taken from correspondence and phone calls — that Hobsbawm’s relations with “Moscow” and with any kind of party orthodoxy were openly hostile. To an intelligent observer, this would have suggested reducing the intensity of surveillance. To the bureaucrat, of course, it was proof positive of Hobsbawm’s devilishly clever malignity.

Following his reprimand, Hobsbawm pulled his neck in, but MI5, working on the principle that any change in demeanour must be a stratagem, a calculated deception, continued to monitor him. Their suspicions were further aroused when Southern Command reported that Hobsbawm knew he was being watched. For a surveillance operation to be effective, it must go unnoticed by the target; nothing should be discernible, not a whiff. Literally. Cornwell [John le Carré] recalls that MI5 burglary teams in the 1950s – tasked with breaking and entering for the purpose of photographing records or installing eavesdropping equipment – were acutely conscious of leaving behind their own smell (habitual smokers in a non-smoking house, unfamiliar aftershave, women’s scent and deodorants etc). Hobsbawm was now, in MI5 usage, ‘surveillance sensitive’, which would explain his muted posture and the interruption of contact with Kahle: he was trying to throw them off the scent.

That Hobsbawm might instead be attempting a retreat from what he later described as a ‘combination of priggishness and immaturity’ (an unwitting echo of his commanding officer’s view, as expressed to MI5, that he was ‘patriotic’ but ‘juvenile’ in his judgments) was never considered. Nor was the possibility that this passionate anti-Nazi could do something more useful in the war effort than teaching soldiers the correct pronunciation of ‘Wo ist das nächste Bordell?’ This is how intelligence works: it’s a parallel universe of unfalsifiability where evidence is fitted into a context already believed to be true. Just as when Alice B. Toklas throws down the map and shouts at Gertrude Stein: ‘This is the wrong road!’ Stein drives on: ‘Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it.’

So, Hobsbawm’s file continued to gain mileage.

Meanwhile, of course: Philby, Maclean, Burgess, and Blunt — the agency’s own. This quartet of traitors proves not so much that MI5 didn’t know what was going on — suggesting that stepped-up precautions would have found the  toffs out. What it proves is that the mere creation of organizations such as MI5 leads inexorably to the darkest kinds of espionage. An unintended but inevitable consequence of its founding is that MI5 exists to host counterspies. How could it not? What could be more attractive than the opportunity to game a system that, in order to assure regularity and to minimize the effects of idiosyncrasy, substitutes rules and procedures for individual judgment? Who can be fooled more easily than clerks taught not to think for themselves?

(And then, of course, the obvious stupidity of entrusting the security of a superpower to bureaucrats is used to “justify” rogue activities.)

What we can learn from this is that security operations decay when they become routine. In police forces, routine operations lead to looking the other way at best and outright corruption at worst. The comic books have it right: it would make more sense to hire free-lance teams of brilliant misfits to ferret out the information that would either prove or disapprove official hunches. One per customer: no repeat investigations by the same team.

Bureaucracy is yet another example of the misapplication of Industrial-Revolution discoveries to the civil life of human beings. It purports to solve the problem of trust. How can you be sure that Official X is doing what he’s supposed to be doing? You can institute rules and procedures to trammel the activities of Official X, if that makes you feel better. But this is as effective as a diet of cholesterol triggers. The fact is that you cannot, ever, be sure about Official X. You have to trust him. You have to use your judgment. You and Official X have to be good at what you do, and good people as well. There are no shortcuts. And why should there be? Bureaucracy is, after all, merely a pipe dream that promises an end to the need to pay attention to boring matters.


Beyond the general dim-wittedness of bureaucratic policing, the Hobsbawm file lights up the aurora borealis of anti-Communist anxieties, which raddled the developed world as soon as the Tsar and his family were shot, and Paris flooded with the beleaguered owners of salvaged samovars. Vladimir Putin is currently teaching us that we should have done better to confess our fear of Russia. We seemed to believe that the nation that the Bolsheviks conquered had formerly been a dreamland of ballets, palaces, and odd French. We pretended that Peter the Great, stylistically a Westerner, was a figure of the Enlightenment. We forgot about the awful Ivans and the bad Boris. We forgot about the lockdown of civil society enforced by a monastic establishment as grim as ISIS. And now they are all coming back, waking up like Sleeping Ugly.

It was because we were really afraid of Russia that we feared the world-wide spread of Communism. (There is really no other way to explain “Nixon in China.”) It was the fear of Russia that made us that warranted, in Eric Hobsbawm’s instance, the constant antagonism of an Anglo-German, Marxist scholar who never, as an adult, committed the slightest breach of faith. It was our fear of Russia that inspired our leaders — everyone but Churchill, and then Roosevelt — to prefer Hitler to Stalin.

When I was a student, there was a puzzle that caused a lot of discussion. How was it that, at their most radical, fascism and communism were equally totalitarian and dehumanizing? It was as though political activity took place not in an arc, from right to left, but in a ring, in which the extremes simply fused.

Thinking about this yesterday, and knowing a lot more than I did as a student, I saw that the very different attitudes toward human nature that are exhibited by the left and the right lead to the same horrors because neither the left nor the right respects human nature. The left is unhappy with the tendency of human beings to fall short of their potential, and it tries to legislate, and then to coerce, improvements. (This is one of those lamentable afterlives of Enlightenment ideas.) The right is unhappy with the tendency of human beings to complain about falling short, and it tries to silence “opposition.” The left disapproves of human nature; the right wants to pander to it. Neither sides accepts the unavoidable complications of human nature. Our political philosophies all begin with statements of where we want to go. It is time to begin with an understanding of who we actually are.