Monthly Archives: April 2014

When MI5 spied on the left…

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Guest post by Merilyn Moos

Review of “A Matter of Intelligence. M15 and the Surveillance of Anti-Nazi Refugees 1933-50” by Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove.

The concern of the police and security services with lefties is not new. A book has just come out which looks at MI5’s behaviour towards the political refugees from Nazism. Their role has so far been hidden from history.

MI5 were over-concerned with German – and subsequently Austrian – Communist refugees, indeed much of their resources were devoted to their surveillance and investigation. Although nobody knows exactly how many German Communists there were in Britain up till the November 1938 pogrom (Krystalnacht), we are probably talking of about twenty comrades who identified themselves as German Communists. There were a few dozen other people who were on the fringe of the German Communist Party, or who passed through the UK on their way, usually, to the US, but altogether, there were not many people in the UK who could have been reasonably categorised as German Communist refugees..

There were reasons for this. The Home office did not want Communists and, according to Brinson and Dove, from after the end of World War Two, the Prussian Secret Service gave information to the MI5 about their Communists. The Home Office would have been well prepared. Moreover, a tragically small percentage of people who applied for the right to land in the UK received permission to do so. This did not just apply to left refugees, but also to Jews (sometimes an overlapping category) and everybody else: industrialists, Social- Democrats etc, seeking refuge. The greater the need for asylum, for example after the 1938 Pogrom or the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the more difficult it became to get in.  In addition, German KPD refugees in the years immediately after the Nazis gained power generally wanted to stay nearer than Britain to build and maintain some sort of illegal KPD organisation which could influence the German anti-Nazi struggle.

So why were MI5 so obsessed? Two if not three of their bug-bears coincided in the person of the German anti-Nazi refugees: firstly, they were German, secondly, they were Communists and God forbid, many of them were Jews as well. Kell, who had risen to be the MI5 boss, was far more sympathetic to the fascists than the communists. The British Union of Fascists he saw at one time as a patriotic bunch, representing the interests of all, unlike those Communist class warriors.

MI5 did not just spy on the refugees- opening their mail was their favoured pursuit (advantageous when, as is my case, you want to research some of these people!) They also infiltrated the groups and friendship networks. The Communist exiles lived in dread. They were not allowed to participate in political activity as a condition of being granted temporary rights of residence but this was something many of these people, who had given their all in the opposition to the Nazis, pre- and post- 1933, found difficult to do. A small KPD group in exile was established which went against these restrictions, leaving them very aware of the possibility of betrayal: which did indeed occur.

Nor did MI5 stop with the end of the war. By mid-1940s, the USSR was seen as the enemy. Although there were a few ‘ex’-Nazis floating around, the Nazi system had collapsed and insofar as it had ever been, Nazism was no longer seen as the threat. My mother’s files were still being sent to the CIA in the early 1950s. Recently opened MI5 files have divulged that they were still keeping a close eye on Peter Pears in 1951 on the grounds that he was the Vice-President of the Musicians Union for Peace and a member of the League for Democracy, both described by M15 as ‘Communist Front organisations’. Two years later, in 1953, MI5 were concerned with Pears’ partner, Britten, as a well- known pacifist. MI5’s file on Priestley started in 1933 and effectively continued till 1960. What alerted them appears to be that he was a member of the early National Council for Civil Liberties in the 1930s. As late as 1956, MI5 had a report, presumably from a ‘spy’, of a meeting which Priestley attended about police powers! He was, they said, associated with left-wing causes, but the appreciation that ‘none [were] Communist inspired’ did not stop the surveillance.

But there is hope yet.  What emerges from this book is how much MI5 bungled everything: their priorities were to keep an eye on lefties but they concentrated on people who were harmless and let other ‘real spies’ slip by. MI5 failed to identify or prioritise the very few cases which could be defined as a ‘security risk’. They failed to spot Klaus Fuchs, the ‘atomic spy’ for the USSR until late in the 1940s. In the case of his fellow atomic spy, Englebert   Broda, it failed to take any action at all. In the case of Edith Tudor- Hart, they may have kept policemen on watch outside her house and intercepted her mail in the 1930’s, but they did not even realise she was a member of the Communist Party, never mind a crucial agent. In the meantime, however, many political refugees were left feeling overwhelmed with a fear of being spied on and deported.

The final blow for many of these anti-Nazis was internment in 1940 when anti-Nazi and a few Nazis were packed together in internment camps, some in very poor conditions. Amidst talk of a ‘fifth column’ and the enemy within, MI5 saw its task, sometimes against Home Office advice, to intern people who had the rights to temporary abode in a foreign -‘democratic’ – country because they had opposed Nazism and had to escape or die.

Why has so little light been cast on MI5’s disgraceful activities during this period? Brinson and Dove suggest their record does them no favours so they have preferred it kept quiet. This book has finally pulled together how Mi5 operated in relation to a number of anti-Nazi exiles. It is also of interest because unlike so much that is written in relation to the lead-up to the war and the barbarism of Nazism, this is a book which finally looks at the people who chose to stand up against Nazism in Germany and Austria, the people in whose shoes we tread, despite our disagreements with the Communist Party, and the responses of the British State to them.

Marxism in Mono  

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We inherit from the wreckage of the British left a single approach towards the question of organisation. It says that although the revolutionary party has no interests other than those of the working class, the class is divided, with some parts showing greater degrees of class consciousness. While the recognition that most workers are not yet revolutionaries sounds at first like a dispiriting insight, all is not lost. The distinctive Communist solution to the problem of uneven class consciousness is said to have been to form a revolutionary party, composed only of the most class conscious people. And, such a party will be more effective than any other party, because its members say and do the same things.

In the last year we were told repeatedly that this model of a small party, able to have an effect out of all proportion to its size only because of its members’ constant unanimity of thought and action, explains the success of the Bolsheviks in 1917.

But Lenin did not advocate the virtues of ideologically homogeneous parties between 1889 and 1903, when he worked in diverse groups and then a party (the “RSDLP”) with other socialists (Martov, Plekhanov, Bogdanov) who were at every point of the future social democratic “left”, “right” and “centre”. Nor was he a “Leninist” between 1903 and 1914, when the RSDLP was split at times into three, four and then five distinct blocs, just two of which were the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, and Lenin called for a re-unification of the party, under the influence of a Socialist International dominated by the “centrist” leadership of the German SPD. Between 1914 and 1918, when Lenin worked with pacifists and “centrists” in the Zimmerwald International, he did not make a festish of political homogeneity. About the only credible moment when you could plausibly say that Lenin and the Bolsheviks argued for a party with no more than one view in it, came in 1920, when the Communist International announced that it would accept membership applications only from parties that signed up to “twenty-one conditions”. The conditions excluded parties led by those who had supported the recent war. “Left” and “centrist” Marxist parties (eg the Italian Socialist Party) were allowed to join the International while, generally, parties of the “Right” were excluded. But seeing this as the moment when “Leninism” was born, securing the victory of 1917, is far-fetched for two reasons.

If this really was the moment when Leninism began, how could it explain the success of the Bolsheviks in October 1917 – three packed years earlier?

And, if Lenin was busy in 1921 creating an ideologically pure, single-tendency international, in order to benefit from the supposed organisational benefits of ideological homogeneity, then why did the International devote such a large amount of its limited efforts, at the exactly this time, to an attempted deep alliance with syndicalists and anarchists: including Bill Haywood and the leadership of the IWW, Rosmer and the leaders of the CGT?

Because, in all the several million words of Lenin’s Collected Works, you will never find the claim that he had invented the idea of a revolutionary party of a new type, the justification for this party has to be recreated back in time, from the writers who formulated a new theory of organisation during Lenin’s final illness.

So if you want to understand why it was that in autumn last year, right in the middle of a bruising faction fight, Alex Callinicos suddenly began praising Lukacs’ “master-work” History and Class Consciousness, a book about which he had previously been highly sceptical, it is because Lukacs was writing in 1922, after the defeat in Hungary, and after Kronstadt, with the revolution visibly dying but (crucially) before Lenin’s actual death.

It was tremendously important to the leaders of the SWP to reassert their authority, without admitting that the political model on which they were relying was that of early Stalinism. Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness appears at that final moment where it is just about possible to pretend that his theory was untainted by the onrushing forces creating a dictatorship all around him.

One of the most powerful arguments against revolutionary politics remains the notion that Russian history somehow “proves” that any revolution must end up in defeat. The ideological homogeneity required by imaginary Leninism is a part of this story.

If we want any future party to regain the trust of the hundreds if not thousands of people who have been made more distrustful of revolutionary politics by the disaster of the last 12 months, it would be no bad starting point to insist – we are serious about making a revolution, we know it will be difficult, but that commitment to the project of transformation is what unifies us. Beneath this core idea, we will discuss and debate, and hold to many views.

Of course, all this argument would be merely by the by, if it really was the case, that ideologically homogeneous parties characterised by unanimity of thought and action were, in general, more successful than any other kind of party. There are good reasons why this is unlikely to be true.

First, it is a general principle of organisational survival that most successful organisations practice some sharing out of tasks. By definition, this requires inviting individuals to do different things, in the hope and expectation that their contribution will amount to more than the sum of their parts. Asking everyone to do the same things, or insisting, as Cliff used to say in the 1990s “we are a party without experts” means in practice that there is no accountability around key tasks, no focus on the capacity of the individual to contribute their different contacts, their skills, etc.

Second, it is an observable reality that political practice often works best when the organisation is characterised by strong personalities, divergent to the extent of having different experiences and temperaments.

Within Russian Communism Trotsky was a more effective political orator before a mass audience than Lenin, and had a base outside the Communist Party that Lenin lacked. Lenin, on the other hand, could bring to inner-party discussions his authority as the leader of the Bolshevik faction since its inception. The two men had different analyses of the first world war and how best to end it, of whether to seek peace with Germany and on what terms, and of whether or how Russia could ever be socialist. They did different things too: one built a party, the other an army. And they filled the leading circles of their organisation with individuals also characterised by strong and divergent personalities (Kollontai, Bukharin, Zinoviev, etc).

Within IS, too: Cliff was capable of recruiting such strong-minded and divergent personalities as the trade unionists Jim Higgins, Geoff Carlsson and Duncas Hallas, the propagandists of popular culture David Widgery, Stephen Wells and Peter Sedgwick, the unreconstructed Marxist men of 1970-1972-era IS alongside the Kollontai-Marxists, Norah Carlin, Anna Pacsuzka and Kathy Ennis, and alongside all of them the philosophers Alasadair Macintyre, Nigel Harris and Michael Kidron. It was after 1979 that the party bunkered down and insisted on its members’ political sameness.

Third, political communication in an age of electronic reproduction is based on relationships rather than a single source of expression. The brilliant veneer of capitalism in this stage of its evolution is all bound up with the myth that it is possible for the purchasers of commodities to acquire a product which has been perfectly tailored to their exact needs at this precise moment of time.

In age of electronic communication; the most effective message will be the ones that are carried by different people with different audiences, in which the divergence of approach between different comrades will be creative, because they combine a degree of individuality and a degree of collective purpose.

To grasp the anachronism of “Leninism” as a method communicating to a mass audience, it is worth imagining how, in the epoch of 1917, a musician might have amplified a sound. The obvious way to do it would have been to bring together many other musicians with the shared purpose of recreating that sound (perhaps, a single note: E). You can imagine an entire orchestra in which every single performer holds their instrument and every person plays at the same time the same note. Such a performance would sound just like that instant, near the start of the performance of a musical or a pantomime, where the orchestra tune up by playing (briefly) the same note. That noise is what happens when everyone does actually do the same thing.

Music begins when you allow musicians to play different notes, and you allow the sounds to interact with each other. A song in stereo is richer than one in mono.

The left will become more effective by learning to work together in doing different things.

Neoliberalism and the employment form

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This piece was originally published last month in the RS21 Bulletin 1, but since the bulletin doesn’t seem to be available anywhere on the web, I thought I would repost it here. The attempt to analyse the trend towards much higher rates of self-employment has been made more timely by a number of reports since then also noting this trend. According to a piece in yesterday’s Independent, about 4/10 of all jobs created under the coalition have been self-employed, with a median salary of just £12,000 p/a, or about half the national wage…

A large part of the reason why Marxism matters is the coherence with which Marxists argue that all the things which make capitalism unbearable are also capable of a direct solution. If only the people who build, feed, clothe, produce and service capital (the workers) would see the identity of their interests and rise up against their employers, the system would be doomed.  What is obvious to those who want to overthrow capitalism is also obvious to those who seek to maintain it. In particular, in an epoch where the bosses have been winning (“neo-liberalism”) their supporters have tried to convert a temporary ascendancy into permanent, structural, advantages.

Some of the ways in which these changes are introduced is through the law, for example (a century ago) in the creation of the company, as a device to exclude workers’ ability to sue the employer personally; or (more recently) in the formal splintering of large companies into smaller units, limiting employer’s vulnerability to being sued to tiny fractions of a business which can be closed down when they are challenged. I can think of a large private business providing care services to vulnerable adults. Recently it divided its business into 200 legally separate “companies”, each employing an average of fewer than 10 people. When a worker says that “X” company is their employer, a personnel manager will respond by insisting that they are in error, it is in fact “X 1520 Ltd”, “X 2010 Ltd”, etc. This is a manoeuvre aimed at limiting workers’ ability to resist collectively, especially in the context of anti-union laws which limit workers’ rights to strike together against different employers.

Employers are also increasingly re-labelling their workers as “independent contractors” rather than employees and trying to move whole groups of workers from formal employment into self-employment. Formal self-employment makes it harder for the unions to organise in industries such as construction in which each small group of workers engaged through a particular sub-contractor is legally separate, does different tasks, works different hours, wears different uniforms, and every individual worker is responsible for their own taxation, is treated legally as their own business, etc. And it is not just construction. I can think of a high street bank which recently reclassified tens of thousands of its employees, overnight, as self-employed contractors.

Other jobs which would once have been done by employed staff are now typically done by independent contractors: for example, in book production, you would expect copy-editing, proof-reading, indexing, even marketing, all to be done by contractors these days. There are US cities where tens of thousands of workers are engaged on a piece by piece basis, doing forms of semi-skilled white collar labour on their PCs, with people voluntarily spending much of their days in chain coffee stores, as much as anything in an attempt to recreate the physical congruity and fraternity of an old fashioned workplace.

The relabelling of employment as self-employment in the UK overlaps with the use of agency contracts, the vast majority of which relabel the agency worker as an independent contractor. This practice is encouraged by agency Regulations which require agencies to set out the employment status of their workers, and by the decisions of Judges, who for reasons embedded in our “deep” legal culture (i.e. the common law) accept employers’ arguments that in a tripartite relationship the worker can probably sue neither the agency nor the end-user when their employment rights are breached.

The state has also contributed to the shift from employment to self-employment. For some years, it appears to have been the discrete policy of those in charge of taxation to reward workers crossing from employment to self-employment. Self-employed workers, by treating themselves as a businesses can offset their “business costs” (eg telephones, travel) against the cost of their business and as a result pay lower taxation, which is calculated on their “profit” (ie the amount they declare after deductions), not their “turnover” (ie what used to be considered their wages).

In the final years of New Labour and continuing under the present Coalition, there was a trend for benefits advisers to encourage the unemployed to declare themselves as self-employed, with promises that certain benefits (eg family tax credits) would be protected. Unemployment numbers were reduced, but hundreds of thousands of people ended up working as very small businesses, with turnovers in the dozens of pounds or less per week.

Presently, there are estimated to be almost exactly 5 million businesses in the UK, the large majority of which will be small companies “employing” no-one other than their single “owner”.

Over the same time, the number of people declaring themselves employed or self-employed has also risen. In June 2012, there were an estimated 4.2 million self-employed workers in the UK – with the numbers having increased by around 9% (370,000 people) since the recession had begun in 2008 (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_298533.pdf). And there are in addition the millions of workers who are simply unemployed (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lms/labour-market-statistics/february-2014/table-a01.xls).

The total picture then is that while a majority of people who are working are still in “classic” full-time employment, this majority is shrinking, and it is no longer possible to see it as a large majority.

None of this is to suggest that the working class has been successfully divided into distinct groups of employed or self-employed people, nor still is to suggest that the class has been permanently defeated. As well as breaking people apart, capitalism is always also bringing them together in new combinations.

One hundred years ago, the British working class had to learn to overcome other divisions, eg the deep distinction between Protestant and Catholic workers (which took its form in Orange marches, anti-Catholic riots, etc) and which was overcome by mass strikes in Liverpool, Glasgow and Belfast. The most notorious instance of casualised work in British history – the docks – had been completely de-casualised by the end of the 1960s.

To overcome the problem caused by the trend towards self-employment new forms of organising have to be found which are tailored to people’s experience of the work they actually do.

It is already common, for example, where groups of workers have come to the UK as migrants, and do not speak English as a first language, for unions to actively recruit bi-lingual organisers. Or to give an example of self-employed workers: the fact that London taxi drivers are self-employed does not prevent RMT and Unite from organising them. The trick is to begin by admitting that there is a problem. Once it is acknowledged, ways can be found to re-learn habits of solidarity.

Blair Peach’s gravestone

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Photograph by Sybil Cock, double click on image to enlarge

The inscription reads: “Blair – Beloved son of Janet and Clement Peach – Loved brother of Roy and Philip – And beloved friend of Celia Catherine and Rebecca – Born 25 March 1946 Napier New Zealand – Died 23 April 1979 Southall England Let them remember for all time this man as their brother and as their friend William Morris”

At the East London Cemetry and Crematorium

The Leveller names Blair Peach’s killers

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The most important article to have been published about Blair Peach’s killing was this article for the Leveller magazine, from January 1980. The Leveller, for those who don’t know, was a left-labour magazine, with contributors including Steve Bell, Julia Bird, and Tim Gompsill and the late, erudite historian of the left Al Richardson.

In January 1980, the Leveller broke the news that six police officers: Murray, White, Scottow, etc, were the prime suspects for Peach’s killing. There names had not previously been published.

Re-reading it now, there is one paragraph which leaps off the page.

“Witness accounts are unclear as to whether Peach was hit by the first officer who jumped out of the van, but it would surely not have been beyond the Cass enquiry’s power to establish who was sitting where in the van and who was first on to the street. There are two doors on the passenger side of SPG Carriers, one of the radio operators in the front seat, in this case most likely to have been Murray, as senior-ranking officer, and one for the other other four constables in the back. Strangely enough, it was the Carrier’s driver, PC Raymond ‘Chalky’ White, who was held [in June] for three days’ continuous questioning by Cass and the enquiry team…”

We know why at the early stages of the Cass inquiry his attention focussed on White: first (as the Leveller went on to explain) because White’s locker had been found to contain a cosh, and because the early medical evidence found that a cosh was a possible cause of the death. And second, because White was one of three officers, also including Inspector Murray, to have claimed falsely that Murray left the vehicle a full junction away from where Peach had been killed.

The reasons why Cass had decided that White was probably not the killer were again two-fold. First (as the Leveller went on to explain) because White had been the driver, and Cass had very little information as to how long he had been out of the vehicle. (The Leveller surmises that Cass could have asked who was sat where in the police carrier. He did indeed ask, but the officers from the van refused to say). And second, because the medical evidence was ultimately that White’s cosh was not the murder weapon, but that it was more likely to have been a police radio.

Nowhere in the Cass report was there any attempt to work out which officer might have been operating the radio. On my reading of Cass, he assumed that the chances of any officer holding the radio were just about equal. But if you go back to the Leveller piece,  you will see an additional detail, which I, for one, find telling.

As ever you can double click on the image to enlarge it and read the original article.

Finally, I’m hoping to bring out over the next few weeks two further pieces which will go into much more detail about how exactly Peach was killed. The first will, hopefully, be a piece for the London Review of Books. The second will be a pamphlet for the campaigning group Defend the Right to Protest. Until then, #JusticeforPeach.

H/t Evan Smith

The Communist Party and Blair Peach

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cp01 After previous articles looking at the reporting of Blair Peach’s death by the SWP and the IMG, today I thought I’d look at the Communist Party of Great Britain, which, after an initial period of scepticism about the Anti-Nazi League had come fully on board by late 1977, a shift marked publicly by the agreement of Ken Gill the General Secretary of TASS, an old-school loyalist to the Eastern European states, to speak at Peach’s funeral in 1979.

I’ve already given some examples of the coverage of Blair Peach’s killing in the Morning Star, which was exemplary, and indeed continues in a similar vein today.

Here, with thanks to Evan Smith, are two examples of the CP’s involvement, as a party, in the campaign. The first (top) is a letter sent by Ken Worpole, a teacher, a friend of Blair Peach and a member of the Friends of Blair Peach committee, a writer about landscape, and at times a loosely-fellow-travelling supporter of the EuroCommunist wing of the CP, in February 1980, to the party asking it to support the demonstration to coincide with the opening of the final inquest, 4 days after the anniversary of Peach’s death. “We hope very much”, Worpole writes, that “the Communist party will agree [to] sponsor this demonstration and help mobilise as many people as possible on the day as part of a drive to run the tide against the vicious “law and order” offensive being waged against the working class movement, particularly the immigrant communities”.

The second (below) is  a letter from the CP to the Home Office (and the official reply).  CP General Secretary Gordon McLennan was adding his party’s name to the demand for  a public enquiry into Peach’s death and the events at Southall. The Home Office’s reply is a typical piece of officialese, ignoring altogether the demand for an enquiry and merely repeating facts already in the public domain: that the police officers had been investigated by Commander Cass, and that the Director of Public Prosecutions had decided not to prosecute.

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The important interim pieces of information – that Cass had called for prosecutions, but been turned down by the DPP – the civil servants knew perfectly well but refused to admit. As ever you can double click on the images to enlarge them.