New Book Reveals the British Security Service’s Surveillance of Major Artists 

In a recent New Statesman article, British commentator Paul Mason argues that the Labour left should push for higher defense spending. Evoking antifascist struggles in the Spanish Civil War and World War II, he calls for a “distinct, progressive agenda” on military expansion to stave off Russian aggression and remedy a “lack of social resilience and failing trust in democracy.” Using the language of liberation, Mason beats the drums of war in a magazine once targeted by the Security Service, commonly known as MI5.

Coincidentally, Mason himself may be tied up with British intelligence, per recent reports. As such, his war hawking parallels MI5’s infiltration of leftist cultural spaces in the 20th century. Veteran journalist David Caute’s new book, Red List (Verso), dives into declassified files from this era, unveiling a vast range of painters, sculptors, filmmakers, writers, and academics who were surveilled for their perceived political affiliations and blacklisted from gainful employment — even when no such affiliations existed.

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David Caute, Red List: MI5 and British Intellectuals in the 20th Century, Verso Books, 2022 (courtesy Verso Books)

“The central problem with meaningful histories of Intelligence and Security Services is the jealous padlocking of files, which remain closed to independent historians,” Caute writes in the introduction, rejecting Christopher Andrews’s claims that the agency respected personal boundaries. This point defines Caute’s text, which nobly attempts to parse together tidbits of scandalous spying. The author digs into the weeds to identify which listed names actually did sympathize with the Soviet Union and join Western left organizations, occasionally confirming suspicions but often debunking them.

Caute paints a vivid picture of MI5’s perspective on communist influence, which it broadly labeled as “subversion.” He details the agency’s New Year’s card from 1918, which “depicted a loathsome Subversion, smoke billowing from its nostrils, crawling on all-fours towards a British fighting man in the garb of a Roman centurion.” Caute describes the personification of MI5 as Britannia impaling the creature with a trident, speaking to the political violence afforded to British officials.

From the agency’s covert founding in 1909, MI5 took a hardline stance against the Russian Revolution, which began four years earlier. Their extreme paranoia, and Neo-Classicist notions on what constitutes quality art, is matched by extreme racialized conspiracies. As an example, Caute points to an unsigned internal memo claiming that the “chief Bolshevik leaders are not Russians but Jews who carefully hide their real names.” Black and Indian men, too, were viewed as suspicious for appearing in public with White women, perhaps reflecting a deeper insecurity from the agency’s top brass.

Clare Sheridan photographed by Bertram Park

For Brits opposed to social and economic inequality at home and abroad, antiwar and labor movements introduced new methods of organizing the masses. MI5 agents tried desperately to catch people in the act by bugging phones and homes, intercepting mail, and shadowing suspects in public, but their findings ended up largely inconclusive. While some intellectuals were indeed members of trade unions, the Socialist Workers Party, and Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), others merely corresponded with members or expressed mild criticism of the British government. “But a colour-chart of political allegiances show that for the Security Service pale red tended to run like watercolour into deep red,” Caute laments.

At its best, Red List reintroduces us to lost generations of artists and writers, many of whom opposed imperial wars and British colonialism in India but disappeared into the annals of history — perhaps due to MI5 influence. Painters such as Paul Hogarth and Julian Otto Trevelyan are re-appraised for their cultural contributions, including as an editor at the New Left Review and teacher of David Hockney, respectively. Caute details the tribulations of Clare Sheridan, a first cousin of Winston Churchill, who visited Moscow to create busts of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, and later rejected forceful advances from fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Other names may surprise readers for their familiarity, such as the poet Cecil Day-Lewis (father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis), prominent author and Hockney muse Christopher Isherwood, and poet W. H. Auden. Golden Notebook author Doris Lessing is cited for her membership in the CPGB’s Writers’ Group and drama reviews for the Daily Worker newspaper. Caute notes ironically that the agency scrutinized “personal contacts and affiliations, but [showed] little interest in the content or literary style of their books, whether fiction or non-fiction.” Still, Marxist art critic John Berger had an MI5 file based entirely on his ideas. 

Chalk sketch of Cecil Day-Lewis by Sir William Rothenstein

In many ways, Caute seems the right man for this job. He details his personal experience with the BBC Director-General and MI5 confidante Ian Trethowan, who fought to censor a 1981 documentary about the agency. He also recalls his shock when Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm — who had an extensive MI5 file — positively reviewed Caute’s first non-fiction book, Communism and the French Intellectuals, 1914-1960. This interweaving of personal anecdote and historical documentation can make readers feel as if we are seated alongside Caute, now 85, as he thumbs through the list. 

That said, Caute’s writing rarely adheres to a coherent narrative, favoring more of an inventory format. His own inserted judgments, too, risk accusations of political fence-sitting. He somewhat dubiously compares Soviet Russia with Nazi Germany as “totalitarian states,” conflating Hitler’s appropriation of Marxist language with the original aims of the Bolshevik Revolution (a particular Dada collage comes to mind). Much like George Orwell, who features prominently as both a democratic socialist and a government informant, Caute positions himself as an even-headed advocate of democracy — a decision that may clutter more than it clarifies. 

Other concerns arise in representation. The chapter on Black liberation, for example, details the files on C. L. R. James and Paul Robeson but otherwise focuses on White Africanists who worked there before and during the decolonization period, including in the service of Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah. If Black British radicals had files on them, as was the case with Claudia Jones, it is unclear why Caute did not discuss them at length. Without that context, questions still remain on the racial implications of MI5 surveillance at home.

Chrisopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden photographed by Carl Van Vechten

“I won’t know until I’m dead whether my dealings … earned me an MI5 file,” Caute expresses toward the end. Despite the trove of information, many files are still redacted, locked away, or otherwise destroyed, and we may never learn the whole truth. (Conveniently, MI5 was only officially acknowledged in 1989.) Rather than learn from their blunders, the British state maintains its mission in crushing dissent while concealing its influence in left-wing media. As the Security Service draws from the same playbook today, Red List exemplifies how capitalist superpowers can control their own history and the legacy of radical art. 

Red List: MI5 and British Intellectuals in the 20th Century by David Caute (2022) is published by Verso Books and is available online and in bookstores.


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