From Socialist Review, No. 208, May 1997.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Though I do not disagree with the main thrust of Alex Callinicos’s article, Where does political power lie? (March SR), I think he omits to mention a crucial aspect of the problem. Vital sections of state functions lie beyond the purview, let alone control, of either the government or parliament.
Take, for instance, the first Labour government. Ramsay MacDonald, the prime minister, asked to see his own personal security files. This would have given him some idea of the type of information collected by the intelligence services and its accuracy. Yet, despite him formally being their head, MI5 and MI6 denied MacDonald access.
The fatal consequence of this lack of control came a few months later. The intelligence services forged the Zinoviev letter, a document that purported to show the Labour government was in cahoots with the Communist International. The Tories gleefully seized on the document, filling newspapers with red scare stories. Thanks to the Zinoviev letter, the Labour Party suffered a crashing defeat at the general election.
Similarly, in 1974 a disaffected section of the intelligence services devised the Wilson plot, an attempt to overthrow the duly elected government of the country. They stirred up trouble in Northern Ireland, including the Orangemen’s strike, and fed the media character assassinations and innuendoes about Labour politicians.
While their conduct was completely unconstitutional, no action was taken against them. Had it not been intelligence officers but some other kind of state employees – say, civil servants or teachers – do you think the whole affair would have been just quietly overlooked?
But there are other privileged groups whose actions sometimes remain hidden and beyond critical scrutiny.
Quite naturally, after the Second World War almost everybody in Britain was intensely anti-Nazi and specially loathed those who had committed wartime atrocities. Yet this did not prevent the top brass of the military and foreign office arranging secret ‘ratlines’, the means whereby the Klaus Barbies and Eichmanns were spirited away to avoid retribution.
Ante Pavelic, leader of the Croatian Ustashi, who fought against Tito and the partisans in Yugoslavia, had personal habits that were hardly nice: by his office desk he liked to keep a wastepaper basket full of the eyeballs of anti-fascists he had tortured and killed. However, after 1945, despite the Yugoslav authorities giving the street and number of the house in Innsbruck, part of the British occupation zone, where Pavelic lived, the British army refused to hand him over.
In the same way, without any sanction from cabinet or parliament, let alone public debate, Anglo-American undercover agents took over supporting and supplying resistance movements that had previously fought alongside the German army. In the Baltic States and the Ukraine they sustained the armed struggle against the Red Army till at least 1952. Surely people in this country would not have backed this provocative behaviour had they known it was taking place.
In 1957 an Oxford undergraduate wrote an article in the student magazine, Isis in which he told how, while doing national service, he discovered British submarines were secretly landing saboteurs on the Latvian coast and sending fast motorboats into Leningrad harbour to test its radar defences. For revealing these acts of subversion by the British state, he was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.
High ranking officials, aware that ‘knowledge is power’, are often economical with the truth. Reformist politicians are not merely hamstrung, as Alex Callinicos points out, because of the way they divide political and economic issues, but also because they do not possess the full facts upon which to make policy decisions.
Tony Benn admitted as much. When he was minister of energy in the Wilson government, top level civil servants were careful not to inform him about a nuclear disaster that had occurred in Siberia, 1,000 miles from Sverdlovsk, which had strewn a huge amount of radioactive contamination over a wide area. Had he known this, Benn says he would not have sanctioned the construction of the nuclear power station at Hartlepool, a project that destroyed 7,000 miners’ jobs.
If the establishment will conceal relevant information on the comparatively piddling issue of building a nuclear power station, we can be sure it will use much more energy and ingenuity in concealing information on the gargantuan issue of destroying capitalism and building socialism. Any politician who thinks otherwise is blind – and will lead only those with similar visual impairment.
Last updated: 17.3.2011