Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Communists? Red Scares, Then and Now

by John Medhurst

16 October 2016

Poster, 1937. IISG/Flickr.

The left-wing campaigning organisation Momentum was established in late 2015, with the explicit purpose of ensuring the election – and subsequent re-election – of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Much of the mainstream media – in the form of the Sunday Times, Channel 4’s Dispatches and a legion of hangers-on launched a carefully prepared and orchestrated ‘red scare’ campaign against the organisation and all who support it, painting Momentum as an incubator for ‘loony lefties’ and communists of all stripes. Some drew parallels with the infamous ‘Zinoviev Letter’, a fictional communist missive to discredit and undermine the first Labour government of 1924. What lessons can be drawn from this uncanny historical parallel? 

Numerous claims made about Momentum – that it is a tightly knit conspiracy of ‘hard left’ Marxists, has a secret agenda to destabilise British politics by subversion of the Labour party, and has a level of centralised organisation hidden from the public and media – parallel the claims made in the early 1920s about the newly-formed Communist party, and its malign influence on the larger Labour Party. At the height of the 1924 general election, the Daily Mail published a letter purportedly from Grigori Zinoviev, president of internationalist communist organisation Comintern to the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) central committee. The Zinoviev Letter, as it became known, claimed that a Labour government would resume diplomatic relations between Russia and Britain, which would result in the mobilisation of the working classes in favour of the communist cause – and as such, it was taken as proof of communist designs on the Labour party. This letter was entirely fictional; as fictional as the claims made about Momentum or the contents of Tom Watson’s dossier on Trotskyist entryism into the Labour party.

The most interesting thing about the use of the letter is that, unlike a newly-radicalised Labour party under Corbyn, who explicitly advocates anti-austerity policies, the Labour party of 1924 posed hardly any threat to established power and privilege. Britain’s first Labour government – a minority administration that came to power after the December 1923 general election – did not aim to implement a socialist programme of any kind. The leadership of the Labour party had far more in common with the cautious trade union bureaucracy than the enthusiastic socialist militants that had brought Glasgow to a halt in 1919 or with the Labour councillors of Poplar in London’s East End led by future Labour leader George Lansbury, who in 1920 had refused to cut local services to the poor and had been surcharged and arrested for setting an illegal budget.  

The first Labour cabinet reflected this. Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald combined the offices of prime minister and foreign secretary. Most of his cabinet – Snowden, Thomas, Henderson – were conservative in thought and deed. Only the new health minister, assertive Glaswegian John Wheatley, had any genuine socialist conviction, and significantly it was only he who made any durable impact during Labour’s short term in office. Lansbury was left out of the cabinet after King George V expressed concern to MacDonald that he had once, flippantly, threatened to treat him as Cromwell had treated Charles I.  

Nevertheless, reform of a sort was attempted in two key areas: housing and education. Wheatley’s 1924 Housing Act was designed to address the chronic housing shortage that had followed the war, with which neither Liberals and Conservatives concerned themselves. It it charged local councils with greater responsibility for building a good stock of public housing, and increased government subsidies to do so. It was also, arguably, the first and only example of socialist house-building planning that the first Labour government committed itself to, by promising the building industry that the scheme would run for 15 years.

Further to this, education secretary Charles Trevelyan’s attempted to implement a more progressive education policy, which raised the school leaving age and planted the seeds of eventual secondary modern education. However, these gestures towards social justice were not typical of Labour’s approach to elective power. From colonial secretary Jimmy Thomas’s love of formal court attire and his assurance to his civil servants that he was “not going to put up with any mucking about with the Empire”, to chancellor Philip Snowden’s severe economic monetarism, Labour leaders did their best to re-assure the ruling class of Great Britain that its interests were safe in their hands.

Even so, such was the social revolution induced by Labour’s mere appearance at the dispatch box that the perception of their threat to established power was wildly at odds with reality. The most elitist and undemocratic elements of the British ruling class – the solid nexus of the armed forces, the City and Whitehall – recalled with dismay MacDonald’s pacifist opposition to the war and his attendance at the 1917 Leeds Convention, which had supported the Russian revolution. To these elements of the British state any threat to their eternal power, however marginal, was unacceptable. Above all they feared friendly relations with Soviet Russia, brought closer by MacDonald’s diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, one of the first acts of the incoming Labour ‘overnment. From that fear emerged the Zinoviev Letter.   

It was appropriate that the cause of the Zinoviev Letter was Britain’s relations with the Soviet Union, for it focused on the one area of policy where crucial differences existed between Labour and the political establishment. That establishment, especially the recently created MI6 (responsible for secret service operations outside the UK) and the military high command, had close relations with Russian ‘Whites’: those fought against the communists, and had been exiled or forced to flee. This alliance was forged during Britain’s intervention during the Russian civil war on the side of the Russian ‘White’ armies; an intervention that had led to the British occupation of Archangel in 1919.

Although David Lloyd George had in fact conceded some recognition of the Soviet Union in March 1921, full diplomatic recognition had to await the first Labour government. Whilst MacDonald was in no sense ‘pro-Soviet’, his recognition of the Bolshevik regime in February 1924 incensed the wealthy White emigrant community in London and their sympathetic contacts within the Foreign Office. First of those was J.D. Gregory, the senior official in the Foreign Office’s Northern Department responsible for policy towards the Soviet Union.  

The legal recognition of the Soviet Union was a blow to anti-Bolsheviks inside and outside Whitehall. A further blow was the proposed Anglo-Soviet Treaty, which promised to resolve outstanding property claims arising against the Soviet government from exiled White Russians, and advanced diplomatic relations still further. More importantly, as W.P. Coates argues in his book on the letter, “the ratification of the Treaties would have destroyed the last hopes of certain ex-property owners in Russia (who in pre-revolutionary days had coined fortunes in exploiting the national resources and working classes of Russia) of ever re-entering the country on such favourable terms as pre-war days” Gregory had strongly opposed the treaty and he had written to E.V. Sablin, chief representative of the Whites in London, to assure him that FCO policy towards them remained the same and that he would be glad to see him “unofficially” at any time.

Sharing this perspective, the Times asserted on 12 August 1924 that “British interests have been hastily committed to the support of a revolutionary organisation that openly boasts of the treaty as a triumph over our own national institutions”, and complained that “the revolutionary aims of the Communists of Moscow” had now been assisted by Great Britain. The draft treaty was signed on 8 August 1924 but could not become operative until ratified by the House of Commons. For the exiled White community and their sympathisers within the Foreign Office it was therefore essential that House of Commons business be disrupted, preferably by the removal of the Labour government and the installation of a Conservative administration.

The government provided the perfect gift, in the form of the ‘Campbell case’, which derived from an article written by leading Communist Harry Pollitt in the Worker’s Weekly, 27 July 1924. The article was standard anti-war rhetoric, but it concluded with a call to British soldiers that “neither in class war nor military war will you turn your guns on your fellow workers”, and “in every barracks, aerodrome and ship” they should establish committees of men that would then organise the armed forces to “use your arms on the side of your own class”.  

On 5 August eight special branch officers raided the central London offices of the Communist party and arrested Campbell, who was charged under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797. Although Labour’s own attorney general had authorised the charge, it stung left wing Labour MPs into action. James Maxton of the ILP pointed out that the article had mainly called for soldiers not to fire on striking workers. Resolutions of support poured in from Labour CLPs and trade unions.  Under immense pressure from its own members, the government backed down and Campbell was set free.  

The Tory press roared with rage at the government granting what the Morning Post labelled “a license for sedition!”. The Conservatives and Liberals smelled weakness, and moved a motion of censure in the Commons. MacDonald unwisely made it a question of confidence, and with combined opposition votes for the Motion of Censure the Labour government resigned on 9 October 1924. A new general election was called.

On the same day the FCO received from the secret intelligence service (SIS) station in the Estonian capital Tallin a copy of what came to be known as the ‘Zinoviev Letter’. It contained instructions that the CPGB must show “the greatest possible energy in the struggle for the ratification of the Anglo-Soviet Treaty” as a step towards revolutionising the British working class. It added that communist cells should be set up in the British armed forces, uncannily similar to the call for action in the article that had led to the Campbell Case. The SIS also sent copies to MI5, Scotland Yard and all armed forces Ministries with an assurance that “the authenticity is undoubted”, although at that point the letter had not been properly investigated at all.

The contents of the copy – (no original was ever produced) – was sent to MacDonald, who was in Scotland campaigning. On 17 October MacDonald replied that all care must be taken to properly authenticate the letter. He also ordered that a formal letter of protest to the Soviet Charge D’Affaire in London, Rakovsky, be drafted but not sent unless he authorised it. A draft was sent to him on 23 October, which he amended and sent back on 24 October.  He had not authorised sending the protest, and the Zinoviev letter had not been authenticated. Despite this MI5, on its own authority, had already sent copies of the letter to all army commands on 22 October, apparently to alert them to the danger of subversion within the ranks.

There were, though, other forms of subversion going unnoticed. One of MI5’s ex-agents, the oddly named Donald im Thurn, appears to have come into possession of the letter (which could only have happened through his former colleagues) and then distributed it to the press and Conservative party central office. He may have been assisted in this by Joseph Ball, Head of MI5’s ‘B Branch’, a zealous Tory who had such close contacts with Conservative central office that he later went to work for them. Whatever the exact sequence of meetings and contacts between im Thurn, Ball and the Tory party, it is indisputable that Conservative central office and the Daily Mail both received copies of this highly sensitive document in the middle of a general election campaign, and before the prime minister had signed off on any action regarding it.  

At the same time, having received MacDonald’s amendments to the draft protest, Foreign Office officials immediately sent the letter of protest (signed not by MacDonald or even by Lord Haldane, deputising for the prime minister at the FO during the period of the election, but by J.D. Gregory) and later passed copies of the protest to the British press, thus, in the mind of the public, authenticating the letter. The Daily Mail, through either Ball or Im Thurn, had already come in to possession of what appears to have been at least one (possibly two) copies of the Zinoviev Letter – before MacDonald had even received the Foreign Office’s draft letter of protest.  

A few years later the editor of the Daily Mail at the time, Thomas Marlowe, confirmed that on 23 October he had received a message from “an old and trusted friend” which read “There is a document in London which you ought to have. It shows the relations between the Bolsheviks and the British Labour party. The prime minister knows all about it, and is trying to avoid publication. It has been circulated today to Foreign Office, Home Office, Admiralty and War Office”. It has never been confirmed who Marlowe’s friend was, although it clearly had to be a senior civil servant, possibly within SIS or MI5, and with knowledge that Im Thurn was hawking the letter about London.  

With the approval of the Foreign Office, the Daily Mail then published a full copy of the Zinoviev letter with great fanfare. The general election was only five days away. Four years later MacDonald said “To this day I cannot understand how for six hours when it was known I was at the end of a phone in Aberavon I was not informed of the Daily Mail’s intentions or of the Foreign Office’s intention to send a note to Rakovsky”.

Rakovsky immediately denied that the letter was genuine, and pointed to inaccuracies that indicated the letter was a forgery (amongst many, it was headed ‘Third International’, a title not used since 1920 when it was replaced by ‘Communist International’). Surprised that the protest had been sent, MacDonald telegraphed the Foreign Office for an explanation. He was told that as he had initialled the draft protest officials had taken that as indication he wished it sent and published. This was a lie. MacDonald had not initialled the draft, and more importantly the Foreign Office had violated clear policy between Britain and Russia that if issues of contention arose between them diplomatic efforts would be made to resolve them before letters of protest were sent.

The general election of 29 October took place amidst widespread and hysterical ‘Red Scare’ allegations. The Conservatives gained a majority of seats, and formed the new government, which lasted until 1929. The Labour vote held relatively steady, whilst the Liberals collapsed. It seems likely that the Red Scare frightened liberal voters into the Tory camp, thus producing a Tory majority.

We should not overstate the impact of the Zinoviev Letter, but neither should we dismiss it. Although the Labour government had already resigned when it became public, the plan to produce (or at least exploit) the letter was clearly initiated by elements within the British state well before then, at a time when they could not have known the government would resign so soon. Published by a rabidly anti-Labour newspaper just days before the 1924 election, it is hard to judge what affect it had on the outcome, but it certainly undermined and confused MacDonald and Labour ministers at a critical time and damaged their reputation with middle-class electors.

The importance of the Zinoviev Letter lies in its clear demonstration that the political establishment (in this case the senior civil service, the SIS and the Tory press) had no scruple in employing covert and illegal methods to smear, frustrate and remove a legitimately elected social democratic government. As the threat to them posed by that government was small, their response was correspondingly amateurish and relatively trivial. But when faced with bigger threats to their interests, the response was ramped up.  

More than four decades later, in December 1966, the Foreign Office admitted that in preparing the latest in the official series of “Documents from British Foreign Policy 1919-1939” for publication, it had discovered that its copy of the original draft of the letter of protest sent to MacDonald in Scotland, and also the only carbon copy of the actual letter of protest sent to Rakovsky signed by J.D. Gregory, were “missing”. It had no explanation for this.

In a period when a thin veneer of unity appears to have settled on to the Labour party, it may seem that similar attempts to subvert and sabotage Corbyn and the transformative project he leads have receded. They have not. When the real battle begins, i.e. the implementation of structural change within the party and the deselection of reactionary right-wing MPs by local parties, we can be certain that more ‘reds under the bed’ scare stories will emerge, backed up by secret film of public events, misquotations and exaggerations, character assassination and outright falsehood, all boosted, dignified and promoted by a rabidly anti-Corbyn media.

We must take the Zinoviev Letter as a warning: that a media intimately enmeshed with the establishment will, when convenient, abandon the truth in favour of smoke and mirrors, lies, mud-slinging, black propaganda, smears without substance. That cries of communist entryism have long proved useful in discrediting any progressive tendencies within parliament, and spreading fear amongst the general public. That when these lies are left unchallenged, such fear-mongering can work like a charm.

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