Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2

V: Comintern Work in Western Armed Forces
in the 1930s

We are grateful to David McKnight for his location and translation of an archive document on a little known aspect of the work of the Communist International: underground work in the military forces of the non-Communist world. Some of the consequences of such underground work – which also extended to work in the civil service and diplomatic service – were the espionage witch-hunts of the Cold War. This article introduces a document found in the Comintern archives in 1996. A longer treatment of many aspects of underground work will appear in David McKnight’s book Conspiracy Against the State, to be published by Frank Cass.

In addition, for issues relating to the security services and Communism, see David Turner’s recently awarded PhD thesis: Reds at the Heart of the Empire: Aspects of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the Medway Towns, 1920–1943, Canterbury Christchurch University College/University of Kent. His website http://www.canterbury.u-net.com/ contains valuable material and bibliographies.

As an important background to this Comintern document stand the events of the Invergordon Mutiny in 1931. Led by a Communist, sailors among a fleet in Invergordon struck against naval lower-deck pay cuts imposed by the National Government in the economic crisis. Chapter Two of The Balham Group: How British Trotskyism Began (Pluto Press, London 1974) describes events thus:

Excitement grew when, on 15 September, the men of the Atlantic Fleet at Invergordon refused to obey orders to sail, and, in tidy Navy fashion, took over the ships, ‘refusing to serve under the new rates of pay’. The government quickly appeased the sailors; but teachers and civil servants, not given in that period to militant protest, now marched and met in great numbers. In Britain’s major cities, the unemployed in tens and scores of thousands surged in turbulent protest, often clashing violently with the police. The men of money began shifting their cash away from Britain, government credit tumbled and on 20 September, a government set up to keep Britain on the gold standard was forced to go off it. On 11 October, postal workers, civil servants, teachers, unemployed and trade unionists staged a 100,000-strong united demonstration in Hyde Park.

The strike had some success, with all cuts for public servants being restricted to 10 per cent. But another consequence was the strengthening of the law against sedition. In 1934, the Incitement to Disaffection Bill was introduced to replace the Mutiny Act of 1797, which made it an offence to seduce a member of His Majesty’s Forces from his duty or allegiance. Captain R.A. Henderson’s Invergordon Papers 1931 are deposited at the Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge.

For further reading, see Dave Sherry, Red Letter Days: 15 September 1931 – The Invergordon Mutiny, Socialist Review, no. 244, September 2000; Alan Ereira, The Invergordon Mutiny: A Narrative History of the Last Great Mutiny in the Royal Navy, and How it Forced Britain Off the Gold Standard in 1931, Kegan Paul, London 1981; David Divine, Mutiny at Invergordon, Macdonald, London 1970; David Turner, Navy on Strike, Militant, 22 November 1991; Anthony Carew, The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy: 1900–1939; The Invergordon Mutiny in Perspective, Manchester University Press, Manchester 1981; Alan Coles, Invergordon Scapegoat: The Betrayal of Admiral Tomkinson, Sutton Publishing, Glos 1993; R. Spector, The Invergordon Mutiny, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Volume 14, no. 1, Autumn 2001; Len Wincott, Invergordon Mutineer, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1974; Where is Len Wincott?, Socialist Current, Volume 1, no. 1, May 1958; Martin Ceadel, The First Communist “Peace Society”: The British Anti-War Movement 1932–1935, Twentieth Century British History, Volume 1, no. 1, 1990, pp. 84–6; Kenneth Edwards, The Mutiny at Invergordon, Putnam, London 1937.

Communist International, Work in the Army

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011