The Soviets’ Bagman in Britain

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 22 February 2020

Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist–Leninist) (CPGB-ML) carrying banners and Stalin postsers at a May Day parade // May 2016

Jeremy Corbyn has been dogged throughout his time as leader of the British Labour Party by his associates. Having Seumas Milne, a believing Stalinist and general conspiracy theorist, as his spin-doctor and primary strategist is actually among the least disgraceful things about Corbyn. Corbyn was, despite later attempts at obfuscation, a vocal supporter of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). Corbyn was paid £20,000 for pro-Iranian propaganda by the clerical regime. He laid a wreath honouring Black September, the deniable unit of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) responsible inter alia for the mutilation and murder of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972. Then there was Fidel Castro, HAMAS, Hizballah, and on and on.

Thus, when it was revealed, two years ago this month, that Corbyn supplied political and other intelligence to the secret police of Communist Czechoslovakia, it was unsurprising. Corbyn was known to have supported the Soviet side in the Cold War, from Castro’s Cuba to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua; had he known of Soviet support to PIRA, it would not have turned him against them. So, it was all taken very much in stride. Putting aside the lament that it should have been a bigger scandal that the Leader of the Opposition was once an “operational contact” for the Soviet Bloc, it was an interesting look at how the Soviet Union, through its satellite states, sought to cultivate sympathisers and exert influence in Britain—and how little is known, even now, about the scale and success of such things.

Somebody who could have shed more light on this was Reuben Falber, a senior official of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and its key liaison with the KGB. When he died on 29 April 2006, he took most of his secrets with him. Still, what is known of Falber’s career gives some insight and such insights are by no means all retrospective.

FALBER AND THE SOVIET UNION

Falber was born in 1914 in west London to Polish-Jewish immigrants, left school at 14, and tried to embark on a career as a hairdresser. Falber joined the CPGB shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in July 1936, and was briefly called up to the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1941, but was discharged after six weeks due to short-sightedness that would get progressively worse all his life. Working his way up through the youth committees of the CPGB in the 1940s, Falber moved onto the executive committee in 1965. Falber oversaw the Organisation Department and became Assistant Secretary-General of the CPGB in January 1968, making him one of the three leading members of the CPGB at that time.

In late 1991, about a month before it was all over for the Soviet Empire, Falber admitted to being the conduit through which the KGB fed the CPGB with funds. This money had kept the CPGB newspaper, The Daily Worker (The Morning Star as of 1966) in operation and in the 1980s funds were directed to the more Eurocommunist-inclined Marxism Today under Martin Jacques’ editorship. The logistics of this were that “Falber would meet KGB men at Hampstead Heath or Barons Court tube station, where they would hand him huge bundles of used sterling notes in plastic bags. The cash was then stashed in the loft of Falber’s bungalow in Golders Green.”

Falber justified this treacherous behaviour—for which he was not sorry (“Non, je ne regrette rien”, he said when asked for comment)—by saying that after the massacre of Budapest, with many people leaving the Party, the CPGB had needed Soviet support to remain functional. Falber said that the first payment of £14,000 was given in 1958. Falber claimed that only a “select handful” of CPGB leaders were aware of the payments from Moscow. This is likely true. Falber’s claim that the last payment came in 1979 is more dubious.

The CPGB was, on at least one occasion in the 1960s, paid $100,000 by the KGB—an extraordinary amount of money for the time—and this does not seem to have been an anomalous figure for the decade.

The leaked documents in 1991 also showed that money was “owed” to Pergamon Press, a publishing house that printed Soviet technical books and biographies of Communist leaders; it was owned by Robert Maxwell until it was sold to a Dutch publisher a few months before these revelations, and there was no concrete proof that the KGB had paid Pergamon. The documents showed that the Soviets had budgeted 12.6 billion rubles in January 1991 for “friendly firms”, of which The Morning Star was listed as one, around the world.

FALBER’S COMRADES

Alongside Falber in the late 1960s, the other two leading CPGB officials were the Secretary-General, John Gollan, who had been secretary of the youth wing of the CPGB, the Young Communist League (YCL), and Bert Ramelson, the CPGB’s industrial organiser, who was, like Falber, Jewish. The disproportionate presence of Jews was a feature of several Communist parties,[1] and was notable in the CPGB. Among the social bases for the CPGB was the Jewish East End of London,[2] which provided one of the two seats the CPGB won in the 1945 General Election.[3]

Possibly Ramelson’s greatest influence was through his mentoring of Arthur Scargill, an undisguised Marxist and admirer of Joseph Stalin, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) from 1982 to 2002. Scargill instigated the illegal, year-long miners’ strike in March 1984, attempting to bring down Margaret Thatcher’s government. Unwilling to hold an election even within the NUM, Scargill seemed unclear on the concept of democracy and misjudged what it meant to confront a government with as strong an electoral mandate as Mrs. Thatcher possessed. Scargill not only failed disastrously, he dragged a lot of other people down to defeat.

Gollan was made general-secretary of the CPGB in May 1956 and died in 1977. Gollan’s tenure was racked with crises. His very promotion to the leadership was as a result of a crisis, namely the February 1956 “secret speech” by Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev, denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality and the purges. The speech became public around the world in June thanks to Israeli MOSSAD,[4] but it had been known about—at least in outline—quickly among the Soviet-loyal Communist parties, having circulated first in the Soviet Union itself. Gollan’s predecessor as secretary-general of the CPGB, Harry Pollitt, was opposed to Khrushchev’s “revisionism”, and resigned.

This ideological turmoil only got worse for Gollan. In November 1956, the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Uprising, a devastating blow to the credibility of the Communist movement. In the aftermath of the Second World War, with the Soviets having served as part of the Grand Alliance against Hitler, the Communists were able, by focusing on “anti-fascism” and “peace”, to call upon a certain amount of popular legitimacy—enough, as mentioned, to get two MPs into the House of Commons. The repression in Hungary ended this fantasy vision of Communism, not only for the general public but for many Communists, some of whom had been able to stick it out through Kronstadt, Holodomor, and Yezhovshchina.

Khrushchev was deposed in a coup d’état in October 1964 and a re-Stalinization process was undertaken by his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, but the reverberations from the “revelations” about Stalin continued. Mao Zedong took up the mantle of anti-revisionism and Red China began to drift from the Soviet sphere. The Sino-Soviet split intensified throughout the 1960s, creating dissent if not actual splinters within Communist parties all around the world, the CPGB included. The decade closed with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, this time not to suppress a rebellion, as in Hungary, but to destroy a regime that was merely experimenting with a more humane system—“socialism with a human face”, as it was said. The term “tankies” came into use to describe those who condoned these actions and continued their membership in the Communist Party. It was a dwindling number.

The CPGB fragmented just as Gollan died.

BETTER DAYS FOR BRITISH COMMUNISM

Pollitt’s term as Secretary-General of the CPGB (1929-56) was the high-water mark for the Party. This was a period when devotion to the Communist cause was fanatical in a way that could not even be imagined, let alone felt, by the last two decades of the Cold War. It was a time when Western elites, especially in intellectual and cultural fields, were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Communists and the Soviet experiment. The KGB’s forerunners were able to recruit the best of the best in the West, and the Soviet system—at least in its foreign intelligence apparatus—was not so rigid and sclerotic that it did not have space for eccentrics like Arnold Deutsch, the recruiter of the Magnificent Five, who turned British intelligence inside-out.

The logic of the Soviet system quickly took over, though. Pollitt had been briefly removed before his resignation, in late 1939, when he supported Britain’s declaration of war against Hitler. The Nazi-Soviet alliance remained strong at that moment, so Stalin had Pollitt sacked, only restoring him when the Nazi armies attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. The interim leader, incidentally, had been Rajani Palme Dutt, a CPGB hardliner unmoved by the events of 1956, who became somewhat infamous for declaring that whatever errors had been made were no more than “spots on [Stalin’s] sun”, which even at the time was considered so extreme he was made to apologise.[5]

SPIES AND SUBVERSION

The CPGB was accused throughout the Cold War of taking “Moscow gold” and this was dismissed as a Right-wing smear—right up until the documents became available to show that this accusation was perfectly true. The accusation that the Soviet Union supported terrorist groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang was considered a “conspiracy theory” by the great and good during the same period, yet that was true, too. So, what to make of the CPGB—and its close allies, fronts, and dependencies, like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Were they all spies?

The answer from a legal perspective is “no”. Membership of the CPGB was not itself a criminal offense—unlike in the U.S., where the Supreme Court held for a time that membership in the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) involved advocating the forcible overthrow of the government, and such advocacy was illegal. Nor were members of CPGB considered axiomatically as agents of a foreign government and thus reachable under laws against espionage. (There were exceptions, e.g. Percy Glading.) But here it gets tricky.

Say that Falber is telling the truth, and only a few senior CPGB leaders knew of the Party’s Soviet financing. This might serve as legal protection for the others, though it does not do much for Falber. His taking money from the KGB, and the use he put it to, are the actions of an agent—a spy. But even for the others: it is not as if it was not widely assumed the CPGB was Soviet-funded and -controlled, and any intelligent person understood that the Party was working on behalf of Soviet aims. From a political standpoint, therefore, it is very difficult to regard CPGB members as anything but operatives of a hostile revolutionary government. And even the legalistic defence is very shaky in an institutional sense.

The CPGB served the KGB as a talent-spotter for domestic agents and logistics-support outfit for Soviet Illegals, helping to fabricate “legends” and so on. James Klugmann, the official historian of the CPGB, was recruited as a formal agent of the then-NKVD by Deutsch in the 1930s only after Pollitt gave his approval. It is true that Pollitt’s approval was ceremonial—there was not a chance he would refuse the Soviets, nor would they have listened to him if he did. But it is telling that the NKVD wanted the CPGB leader involved and even more telling the lengths the successor agencies of the KGB, the FSB and SVR, went to in trying to conceal just how closely the KGB had coordinated with “fraternal parties” in the West.[6] Again, whatever excuses might be made for individuals, the CPGB as an institution was supporting the political warfare and espionage of a hostile foreign power.

What gives the most pause for thought is that even before the CPGB began to decline, it was voluntarily limiting its membership in order to maximise its effect. In the early 1940s, Pollitt, acting on instructions from Moscow and doubtless with the example of the Cambridge Five in mind, began to tell the most promising Communist believers not to join the CPGB or otherwise associate with the visible Communist apparatus, not to waste time selling The Daily Worker on the street, and instead to focus on getting Firsts at university and securing high positions within the state and establishment.[7] It would be interesting to know where those who took Pollitt’s advice are now.

 

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REFERENCES

[1] To take just the Soviet case: In Russia before 1917, the discriminatory laws, the prevalence of antisemitism in the society, and the inability of the Tsarist government to effectively suppress it and protect Jews from pogroms created both push and pull dynamics that drew Jews disproportionately into the revolutionary movements. Though generally opposed to the Bolshevik coup when it happened, Jews were steadily convinced the Reds were the lesser-evil as war ground on and they were exposed to the Whites and various forms of Ukrainian and Polish nationalism. The result was that, as historian Robert Service notes in his biography of Leon Trotsky (p. 231), “Jews and Latvians were heavily represented in the soviets, as well as in the Cheka, but not in the Red Army since their literacy and numeracy made them invaluable administrators.” The end of this compact came when Stalin’s paranoia took on antisemitic form in the late 1940s: he began with purges and show trials against Jews in senior positions in the regimes in the East, notably in Czechoslovakia with Rudolf Slansky and his comrades, and was preparing a massacre of Jews in the Soviet Union itself, under the cover of the “Doctor’s Plot”, when he was felled by a stroke in 1953. It was only right at the end that Mikhail Gorbachev was able to lift restrictions on Jews in the Soviet government—a reform the old guard fought more tenaciously than any other, regarding their loss on this matter as “the triumph of Zionist subversion”.

[2] Jason L. Heppell, “Party Recruitment: Jews and Communism in Britain”, in, Jonathan Frankel [ed.], Dark Times, Dire Decisions: Jews and Communism (2005), pp. 148-9.

[3] Philip Piratin, a Jewish activist who had been engaged domestically against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s and internationally in trying to get Britain to intervene against General Franco’s forces, won on the CPGB ticket in the Mile End constituency, which is now part of Stepney in the borough of Tower Hamlets. The other CPGB MP in 1945 was William Gallacher, who was elected in West Fife (now Dunfermline and West Fife) in Scotland.

[4] Ronen Bergman, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations (2018), p. 57.

[5] Stuart Macintyre, Review of Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study of British Stalinism (1993) by John Callaghan and Harry Pollitt (1993) by Kevin Morgan, Science and Society, Spring 1997.

[6] Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (1999), p. 63.

[7] Peter Hennessy, The Secret State: Preparing For The Worst 1945-2010 (2010), p. 23.

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