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Ray Challinor

Looking Backwards

(June 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 6, 15 June–12 July 1980, p. 12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Conservative cabinet ministers are holding a festival of hypocritical speechifying. “Release the 51 individuals seized from the US-Embassy in Teheran”, they shriek, yet all this talk about respecting diplomatic procedures and practices relies upon one essential thing – a lack of knowledge on the part of their listeners.

For the British government behaved in 1918 with much less courtesy towards Soviet diplomats than the Iranians are doing today. The Russian ambassador, Maxim Litvinov, was arrested and imprisoned in Brixton jail. So was George Chicherin who, like Litvinov, was later to become Russian foreign minister. Similarly, John Maclean, that great Scottish socialist, found the Foreign Office not prepared to recognise his appointment as Soviet Consul in Scotland. He, too, was quickly pushed behind bars.

At that time, a large number of people from Eastern Europe, many of them political refugees, lived in this country. Without any diplomatic protection, they stood helpless before officially-backed persecution. For example, Peter Petroff, a wounded hero of the 1905 revolution and a close friend of Maclean, was imprisoned. Then the authorities threatened to hand him over to the White Russians, a decision that would have meant certain death. A campaign by British socialists and trade unionists, led by Mrs Bridges-Adams, stopped this from happening. But they were unable to prevent indignities occurring to Petroff’s wife. She was made to share a cell in Aylesbury prison with a prostitute suffering from syphilis. They both had to use the same eating and washing utensils.

The main reason why Britain took such actions was because its leaders were gripped by an anti-socialist frenzy. They desperately wanted to overthrow the newly-created workers’ state in Russia. By the summer of 1918, British troops had already joined counter-revolutionary forces. This military intervention would have been put in jeopardy had the Soviet embassy in London continued to function. Britain was committing an act of naked aggression against the Soviet Union; doubtless Litvinov, if he had remained at liberty, would have been able to strengthen even further the mounting “Hands off Russia” agitation.

But there was another, less obvious, reason for the British government’s action. After the revolution the bulging files of the Tsarist police fell into Bolshevik hands. At one strike this gave the Soviet government not only the names of all Okhrana agents operating abroad but also of their contacts in the British secret service. Obviously, this was highly dangerous for British intelligence. Litvinov and his colleagues, therefore, had to be silenced to prevent them from using this sensitive information.

Revolutions have a knack of uncovering the murky corners in state archives. This is equally as true of Iran as it was of Russian.

Undoubtedly, revolutionaries in Teheran will have discovered some interesting papers. These will show how the Shah’s cruel and despotic regime owed its very existence to the CIA; how America and Britain helped him to erect the panoply of his police state; and how for almost 30 years, Western support propped up this sadistic dictator.

It stretches credulity, in view of CIA subversion in various parts of the world, to suggest that a sizeable section of the American embassy staff in Teheran were not spies or CIA agents. Indeed, an interesting fact was implicit in the abortive rescue attempt; despite the detention of the 51 Americans, a network of US agents still operates in Iran.

It is fascinating to speculate what British reactions would have been if the Russians had behaved in 1918 in the same manner as the Americans did recently. Suppose a contingent of the Red Army had secretly landed in Britain with the intention of forcibly freeing Litvinov and his comrades from Brixton prison. The screams about “international piracy” and “unprovoked violation of British sovereignty” might have been even louder than the nauseating hypocrisy we hear from the politicians and press today.

Murky Connections

The files of the Tsarist secret police captured by the Bolsheviks after the revolution, proved to contain many surprises. They discovered an over-zealous police agent named Azev had hatched a plot which led to his employer, Interior Minister Plehve, being blown to pieces; that the same agent provocateur had even planned to assassinate the Tsar but fortuitously failed when one of his collaborators, a genuine revolutionary, dropped out of the conspiracy.

They also found out that Roman Malinovsky, a key man in the Bolshevik organisation and the leader of the Party’s deputies in the Russian Duma, had for a long time been a police agent. Similarly, in 1910, when the Bolsheviks were going through a bad patch, seven of its eight members in Moscow were also police agents, a fact that had none-too-pleasant repercussions for the eighth man.

The Tsarist state apparatus employed 40,000 spies in a desperate but vain attempt to eliminate subversion and so its files were detailed and voluminous. One murky area they threw light on was the close, intimate collaboration that existed between the Tsar’s Okhrana and the Special Branch, who, undoubtedly, did everything to assist their opposite number.

Opponents of Russian autocracy in this country were harassed and imprisoned. A trade union – the Russian Seamen & Firemen’s Union – that had set up its headquarters in London, after being outlawed in Russia, was smashed by the Special Branch and its general secretary, Anitchkine, arrested. Once the Civil War in Russia began, the British government exerted pressure an Russians still living in Britain, to enlist in the counter-revolutionary armies. Some of those who did were killed or injured, but Britain refused to accept liability and pay compensation to the next-of-kin.

This pattern of behaviour was not exactly new. In fact, Britain, at the very outset, modelled its force on its Tsarist counterpart. And how is this known? The information comes from a highly interesting source. William Briggs, the Chief Constable of Bradford, employed agent provocateurs and spies on a large scale to help him to quell Chartist uprisings in the city in 1840 and again in 1848. However, he became disenchanted with his anti-working a class role. After resigning from office, in 1851 he wrote a pamphlet, The Police Spy System Exposed, and, for good measure, got Engels’ close friend, James Leach, to publish it.

The case of William Briggs reveals that, when society is undergoing profound and deep-seated convulsions, no section is immune from the impact. Undoubtedly, the police are the most conservative, the most backward part of the working class. Still the state cannot always be guaranteed of their loyalty. In the strife-torn Britain after 1918, not only did the police form their own trade union and come out on strike, but individuals like Inspector Sye completely identified himself with the workers’ cause, addressing demonstrations, enduring hardships and even going to prison.

So, perhaps, Home Secretary William Whitelaw should not sleep too comfortably in his bed at night. How can he be certain of the continued loyalty of the men and women he is supposed to control? Who knows when a defector may not reveal the truth about the murder of Blair Peach and the other murders committed by the boys in blue?

Clearly, the lesson is easy to see. From Tsar Nicholas II to that shambling wreck, the former Shah of Iran, it is obvious that even the most elaborate police system is not sufficient to protect a social order that is fundamentally rotten.

* * *

One of the individuals employed to sift through the files of the Tsar’s secret police was the revolutionary writer, Victor Serge. His booklet, What Everyone Should Know About State Repression (New Park Publications, £1), has just been published for the first time in English, and is well worth reading. One of the lessons Serge draws is that socialist organisations have to consider counter-measures to protect themselves from state surveillance, hut at the same time not be overawed by the might of the enemy’s repressive apparatus.

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Last updated: 21 September 2019