Podcast review: The People Vs J Edgar Hoover

How far will ruling class go to defend capitalism?

Ryan Aldred, Plymouth Socialist Party

The People Vs J Edgar Hoover documents the life and legacy of the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Hoover built and shaped the FBI from its infancy to the reviled institution that it is today.

The series certainly doesn’t pull any punches in highlighting Hoover’s murky dealings. The series does a good job of charting Hoover’s rise to power, and provides context, raising some of the turbulent periods which gave rise to the FBI. But, at times, it can be shallow in its analysis.


For instance, it asserts that “the Watergate burglary marked the beginning of a new era, of a time when the people could demand accountability from those in power.” But this discounts the effects of mass social movements taking place at the time.

During World War One, Hoover worked in the ‘Alien Enemy Bureau’, gathering files on foreign nationals, outlining their political beliefs and deporting those viewed as a threat to national security. From there, he went on to head the Radical Division, tasked with policing left-wing movements, and responsible for deporting thousands of people.

After World War One, Hoover was ordered to destroy the files he had gathered on thousands of people, but he instead transferred them to what would become the FBI.

With thousands of strikes, race riots and social unrest, Hoover’s ruthless determination to root out those who had any association with socialist or communist ideas got him quickly promoted. He personified the determination among the ruling class to maintain the capitalist system.

In one instance, 10,000 arrests were made in a single day. Initially this was supported by the media. They began to waver when the lack of due process and denial to accessing lawyers became abundantly clear.

The series goes into great detail about the lengths that were resorted to, often illegally, to prevent socialist ideas from taking hold. The series emphasises that workers were fired or discredited for as little as having membership of the Communist Party.

Organisers were blacklisted. FBI agents went to employers to intimidate those willing to hire left wingers.

The FBI purports to uphold law and order through strict adherence to the US Constitution. But J Edgar Hoover, and by extension the entirety of the FBI, often bent and broke the rules to satisfy the needs of the capitalist state.

The series refers to the ‘deep state’, explaining it as a state operating in its own interests. While there were elements of this happening. US presidents were, nevertheless, not only complicit but welcomed Hoover keeping the working class at bay, whatever they thought of his tactics.

Martin Luther King

Later episodes highlight the despicable role the FBI played in monitoring and persecuting black people. Civil rights protestors were routinely bugged and had their phones wiretapped. The FBI feared Martin Luther King Jr (MLK) because of his popular appeal to millions, which it felt it could not control.

In the same way as the FBI later went on to try to intimidate anti-Vietnam war protestors, MLK received an anonymous letter with a tape spelling out that if he didn’t kill himself, he would be exposed as an adulterer, days before he was ultimately assassinated. Vigilante action by the Citizens’ Commission in the 1970s exposed these shady dealings, persecution of black people and harassment of left-wing activists, creating a huge public outcry.

As we go into a period of increasing class battles, this series gives great insight into the lengths the capitalists will go to in order to maintain their system, and is certainly worth a listen.

The People Vs J Edgar Hoover is available at bbc.co.uk