The Comintern underground in Shanghai
[This is part of Chapter 4 of 'Espionage and the Roots of the Cold war' (Frank Cass, London). The book deals with the connection between underground communist political activity and Soviet espionage from 1917 to 1940s.]
On May 1, 1929 an unusual meeting of trade unionists took place in Shanghai. The communists who organised the meeting later regarded it as 'perhaps the biggest single feat of illegal organisation' at the time.
It was a copybook version of the kind of illegal activity under conditions of savage repression which was described by the Comintern Commission on Illegal Work:
"A guildhall on one of the busiest thoroughfares in the Settlement was booked. Factory workers went to the hall in groups of three or four. Their times of arrival were carefully staggered. They were still arriving when a policeman walked into the hall to ask what was going on. He was politely disarmed and locked in a small room. The meeting was held, 400 people heard a 45 minute May Day address and dispersed into the night. Then the policeman was released."
The description is by a British communist, George Hardy, who worked underground in Shanghai for Profintern, Comintern's trade union wing. Hardy's task was to stimulate the left wing trade union movement in China and in South East Asia and he worked closely with historic leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC) such as Chou En-lai, Deng Hsiao-ping and Liu Shao-chi who were all active in the underground trade union movement, particularly that part centred in Shanghai.
In the period 1928-32 Shanghai was an industrialised city and a busy centre of trade. In the extra-territorial International Settlement and the French concession, British, Japanese, French and German businesses flourished. With its protected status, its relatively modern communications and its European community, Shanghai provided the logical place for building an underground apparatus which would represent the ECCI to the Communist Party of China. It was the contact point from which Comintern military experts could be spirited through the lines separating the Nationalists and the Red Army; it was the place where the future leaders of the American Communist Party were blooded. Shanghai drew writer Agnes Smedley to Red China's cause. The Shanghai underground drew German communist, Richard Sorge, who later worked for Soviet intelligence in Tokyo.
Little wonder then, that when an American military intelligence official investigated 'the Sorge affair' and Soviet intelligence he was led back to the Comintern apparatus in Shanghai, a city he described as 'a veritable witch's cauldron of international intrigue, a focal point of Communist effort'.
China had been at the centre of hopes and fears of a second communist revolution for most of the 1920s, especially after the defeat of the German uprising in 1923. Although the Communist Party of China (CPC) ultimately carried through a revolution based on its strength among peasants, in the period between 1920 and 1933 its strategy included a primary role for the urban working class.
The period between the defeat of the CPC in 1927 and the departure of most CPC leaders from Shanghai to the soviet areas in 1932-33 has been somewhat neglected by historians, partly because of a certain orthodoxy in scholarship which saw urban events largely in terms of their relationship to rural revolution.
This chapter will study the Comintern's apparatus for underground trade union work in Shanghai in the period 1928-32. This period was one of savage repression directed against the Communist Party of China and the trade union movement which it heavily influenced, the All-China Labour Federation (ACLF). The focus of Comintern trade union activity was the Pan Pacific Trade Union Secretariat (PPTUS) which, under its Russian name TOS [Tikho Okeanskii Sekretariat] was the far eastern wing of Profintern. The PPTUS in Shanghai was responsible for both support for the ACLF and for developing 'red trade unionism', as it was called, in South East Asia, Korea, Japan and India. The PPTUS apparatus was in turn, part of a larger network of clandestine organisations in Shanghai, notably the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern and Soviet military intelligence.
The underground work of the PPTUS can be schematically divided in the following way. In the initial period between 1927-1929 the American communist Earl Browder was the leading PPTUS figure; between 1929-1930 the British communist George Hardy was in charge of the work; between 1930-1931 when the trade union work was controlled by 'Leon' and 'Kennedy', the code names for two American communists who appear to be James Dolson and Charles Krumbein. In June 1931 the underground apparatus in Shanghai was severely disrupted, though not destroyed, by the arrest of two Russians who were officers of the Comintern's International Liaison Department (OMS). The two OMS officers administered the apparatus which supported the PPTUS and the Far Eastern Bureau of Comintern and worked as a language teacher and his wife under the pseudonyms of M. and Mme Hilaire Noulens. Their arrest meant the capture by the Shanghai Municipal Police of a vast quantity of administrative records which are now held in Washington, USA. Together with newly opened Comintern archives, in Moscow, they allow a valuable insight into the functioning of the Comintern and Profintern underground apparatuses in urban China.
The Communist International through Grigory Voitinsky first made contact with Chinese radicals in 1920. The following year Voitinsky helped found the Communist Party of China (CPC) which remained very small until 1925. In this year a national trade union conference formed the All-China Labor Federation (ACLF) whose leaders included many prominent communists and which immediately affiliated to trade union wing of the Communist International, Profintern or the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU).
The period 1925-27 saw the Chinese labor movement reach its zenith, only to crash to defeat. In large part, the growth of the labor movement depended on the political alliance formed between the Communist Party of China (CPC) (with the full support of the Soviet government) with the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT). In May 1925, shortly after the formation of the ACLF, a strike at a Japanese textile mill in Shanghai was brutally suppressed leading to nationwide boycotts and strikes against foreign companies and institutions. In June British troops shot Canton students and workers sparking a 16 month strike against the British in Canton-Hong Kong. In Shanghai workers twice rose up against warlord control in late 1926 and early 1927. Finally, in March 1927 an armed workers revolt took over Shanghai shortly before KMT troops entered and took control. But in April, alarmed by the unrest, Chiang Kai-shek turned on the CPC and its union supporters, bloodily breaking the alliance between them. From that point onwards the KMT government used systematic police and military terror against real and alleged communists and all CPC political and trade union work in cities was conducted in secret.
These epic events in China in 1927 coincided with an idea originated in Australia and taken up vigorously by the Communist International. In 1921, amid rumours of a new war, the Australian trade union movement proposed that a regional organisation of Pacific trade unions be formed. Though raised by Australian delegates at the 1922 Profintern congress the idea languished until 1925 when the general secretary of Profintern, Alexander Lozovsky informed his executive bureau of the Australian plan to convene a conference of Pacific trade unions in Sydney in 1926. While supporting the initiative, one of the Comintern's Far East specialists argued that Sydney was too far from the 'main lines of communication' and that Australia's racist immigration policy made difficult the entry of delegates from Asia. 'It might therefore be proposed , that although the initial step is being taken by the Australian comrades, the congress should be convened not in Australia but in a real Pacific country in Shanghai or Canton', he said. This is what occurred. Organised at too short notice, the conference attracted few Pacific unions, however a Profintern delegate, 'Comrade Rubanoff', (Rubinstein) ensured that groundwork was laid for a further conference in China in 1927.
The 1927 conference of Pacific unions, planned for Canton, was suddenly moved after a counter-revolutionary coup which destroyed the ACLF and its local leaders. The venue then moved to Hankow which was controlled by a local government of Left KMT and communists.
The Pan Pacific Trade Union Conference opened on May 20 at the People's Club in Hankow after a welcome parade of tens of thousands of workers organised by the local trade unions. In the course of a week the conference heard reports on political and labour movement conditions in Indonesia, Japan, the United States and China. Among the speakers from the All-China Labor Federation was Lui Shao-chi. Fourteen of the 22 Japanese delegates were arrested on their way to China and the Australian government refused to grant passports to its trade union delegates.
The importance of the gathering and the relatively legal conditions in which it was held was indicated by the presence of the secretary general of Profintern, Alexander Lozovsky. But even while the conference was sitting, the Soviet mission in Peking was sacked. The American communist Earl Browder emerged as a key leader from the conference which also elected him editor of the Pan Pacific Worker which was initially published openly in Hankow. Browder forecast a triumphal future for the PPTUS which would 'help tear down the numerous barriers of language and race prejudice which have kept the mighty armies of workers in the Pacific apart for so many years.' But the CPC-KMT split of 1927, ending with the defeat of the ill-judged Canton uprising in December 1927 forced Browder and the PPTUS to operate in a period of savage repression and deep clandestinity.
Browder had led an American trade union delegation to the founding congress of Profintern in 1921 and in the 1920s, when he spent most of his time in Moscow or China, he was a leading member of the American communist party. From 1930 to 1945 he was secretary of the CPUSA. Working with Browder for the PPTUS was the less well known figure, Charles Johnson (whose code names were 'Stein', 'Steinberg' or occasionally 'Charlie'), a 46 year old Latvian who was born Karl Ernestovich Yanson. Already a Bolshevik, in 1908 he migrated to the United States where he later headed the left wing of the American Socialist Party which split in 1919 and helped form what became the Communist Party of the USA. From 1920-22 he represented the American party in Moscow at the Communist International and from 1923 was a member of the Profintern Executive Committee where he became known to the head of Profintern, Lozovsky and Pavel Mif (Mikhail Firman) a specialist on China.
From its formation in 1927 the Pan Pacific Trade Union Secretariat was responsible for a number of functions. First, it wrote and printed various publications initially, the Pan Pacific Worker then, after this was moved to the United States, the Far Eastern Bulletin which appeared in both English and Chinese. Second, it provided both advice and money to ACLF. At this time, before the real beginning of guerrilla war, this was the strategic core of the Chinese communists and the PPTUS officials met weekly with the All-China Federation of Labor leaders. Third, it supported and promoted red trade union work in the Philippines, Japan, Malaya, India, Indonesia and other South East Asian countries.
The PPTUS was quite open about its own existence within Shanghai. Publications, such as the Far Eastern Bulletin, defiantly proclaimed on their masthead that they were published in Shanghai. The Statutes of the PPTUS stated that the 'seat' of the Secretariat 'is to be situated in the city of Shanghai, China. The Shanghai police and the Kuomintang authorities thus knew that the PPTUS operated under their noses and were constantly alert. And although no Comintern officials were arrested until June 1931 a number of officials and militants of the All-China Labor Federation who worked with Comintern were arrested, jailed or executed.
To conduct such work a variety of conspiratorial techniques were used to send and receive mail, to hold meetings, to print and distribute documents, to hold larger conferences and to distribute money. For uncoded letters, a system of couriers operated irregularly between Shanghai and the Soviet Union via Harbin, with the dangerous border crossing often assisted by Soviet diplomatic staff and the Soviet security police, OGPU. However most mail was sent using the normal postal system (with people such as Browder signing himself 'Russell' or 'Morris') with a variety of cover addresses. A great deal of mail to and from Moscow was addressed initially to cover addresses in Berlin where Comintern had an elaborate 'post office' for re-routing mail to its true destination. In case of casual postal inspection, the letters were sometimes couched in a personal tone. For example, those to Profintern's chief, Lozovsky, from the Comintern representative in Australia, Sydor Stoler, usually began 'Cher Papa!' and were signed 'Votre fils qui vous respecte et aime.' . Left wing newspapers and magazines intended for the Far Eastern Bureau of ECCI could be sent openly by addressing them to the 'Universal Clipping Service, GPO Box 1565, Shanghai'.
Yet carelessness and misunderstandings by Moscow and its Berlin 'post office' dogged the communications of the Far Eastern Bureau (FEB) and PPTUS. Bulky envelopes aroused the suspicion of customs authorities who opened mail and questioned the box holder. An exasperated letter from Shanghai reported that 'owing to all these acts of carelessness on the part of our comrades, we have now lost three safe addresses within the last six weeks, and they are now keeping a very close watch on all post boxes.' The commercial cable system was used for urgent messages but 'business' language was employed. When Johnson ('Stein') left Shanghai he cabled Alexander: 'leaving Shanghai turned over business new manager i gave also complete outline immediate business transactions joint meeting chinese shareholders - steinert.' [sic] (An attempt was made in 1930 to send information from Moscow via radio but this appears to have been an experiment. )
The PPTUS illegal apparatus in Shanghai was funded from Profintern headquarters in Moscow. The budget of the PPTUS is unclear but at one point in October 1929, the PPTUS representative, George Hardy reported that he had been without funds for two months and asked Moscow to 'cable $10,000 (Gold) and despatch messenger immediately with balance'. The PPTUS, in turn, regularly gave money to the All-China Labor Federation, to the Philippines Congress of Labor and to other Red unions in South East Asia. Profintern paid for the Australian edition of the Pan Pacific Worker, for instance, cabling $200 from Germany to the Australian union leader, Jock Garden, in June 1929. Much of the Russian funding for Profintern's activities worldwide was remitted in complex transactions through Swiss and German banks to businesses established by the OMS, typically import-export companies which habitually use cables and exchange money.
The Browder-Johnson period
The first major task which faced Browder and Johnson in this period was the holding of a full meeting of the Secretariat in February 1928 under conditions of complete illegality. Chaired by the Australian delegate Jack Ryan, who represented the ACTU in Shanghai, the meeting was attended by representatives from the Philippine Workers Congress, the Trade Union Education League (USA), the National Minority Movement (UK), the Japanese red trade union federation, the Hiogikai, the Far Eastern section of the Russian unions, an Indonesian union group and the All-China Labour Federation. The meeting discussed the difficult new conditions in China and the collapse of the ACLF. A report noted that in the recent revolutionary upheaval 'the red unions never had any well planned and detailed organisational system. So at the blow of the political reaction and in the process of transformation (from legal to underground) the organisation has been disintegrated [sic].' Another resolution, drafted by Johnson (Stein) urged the ACLF to fight for legalisation and to use 'all existing legal possibilities'. The February meeting decided to hold its next conference in Australia, prior to the 1929 congress of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
Apart from organising this meeting and arranging delegates for the Fourth Profintern Congress in Moscow in March, the work of the PPTUS had been confined to the production of the Pan Pacific Worker which was done under conditions of savage repression. 'Our printing arrangements have broken down entirely,' reported Browder in May.
The trouble came from the Chinese workers in the shop, who resigned in a body rather than continue to print what they thought endangered their necks. The crisis came after another print shop, suspected of having printed a 'red' leaflet had its whole staff of 17 workers taken out and shot. It seems impossible to resume printing at this time, although we may be able to soon, having some encouragement from the proprietor who 'wants the money'.'
Although banned, occasional statements by the PPTUS were published in China Outlook, an American missionary publication. Largely because of these difficulties an Australian edition of Pan Pacific Worker began to appear in April.
While the Pan Pacific Worker hailed the red labour movement of China, the actual position was very different. In early 1928 Browder reported to Lozovsky that in Hankow the labour movement had been 'completely wiped out. Of the large cities, only Shanghai and Canton have any open labour movement and in both places it is under the control of the Kuomintang. The illegal trade unions are largely destroyed'. The 'yellow' unions of the Kuomintang, were 'gaining in power and influence'.
But the problem was even worse. When 35,000 silk filature workers went on strike the red union, the ACLF, was taken by surprise. Browder complained that the Chinese Communist Party had effectively fused the ACLF with the party. By allocating the leading ACLF cadres to other political work, it had 'practically abolished' the ACLF. Generally, Browder argued, the Communist Party displayed 'inexcusable confusion about and underestimation of TU work'.
The equivocal position of the Chinese Communist Party on political work in trade unions was a problem which for years dogged the successive Comintern cadres who staffed the PPTUS in Shanghai. Ultimately, the success of the CPC would lie in its work among peasants but in this period its outlook strongly influenced by the Russian revolution decreed that the working class would transform China. Even so, a resolution from the central committee of the CPC in April 1928 noted that practice did not necessarily fit theory:
In regard to the situation in all of China, it seems in general the peasants are radical and the workers are backward. The workers are now engaged in no active struggles, and show no development of the illegal trade union organisations. Although the Party organs have committed many military opportunist mistakes in the peasant uprising yet they still lead such actions continuously ..... Even where formally a trade union is maintained in fact it is only another name for the Party nucleus, and there are no non-Party members in it (as in Shanghai).
The resolution went on dutifully to urge a 'fight against the tendency of neglecting the labor movement' and urged that the party should 'make the labour movement [the] most important and fundamental work of our Party' so that the workers become the 'advance guard of the peasants and toiling masses.'
In spite of police terror, radical working class action was not entirely absent. When Japan staged a military incident in Manchuria in 1928 spontaneous anti-Japanese feeling erupted in Shanghai which the yellow (KMT) unions tried to channel. A trade union committee against imperialism was established on which the Communists had 7 out of 21 positions but after the local garrison commander took charge of one meeting the seven communists 'were so terrorised that they did not dare to say a word.' On May 30, National Humiliation Day, six factories in East Shanghai went on strike and an anti-KMT demonstration which Browder estimated at 1,500 took place in the international sector of Shanghai. In the Chinese sector of Shanghai, slogans were milder but industrial action more widespread. The Times correspondent reported that 'Communist agitation around Shanghai, though underground, is very active. Elsewhere on the street walls appear mysteriously defaced slogans such as 'Down with Chiang Kai-shek', 'Down with the Kuomintang'....The strike in the French concession holding up the tram and electricity and water services obstinately continues and is a purely political affair, the men having no real complaint.'
In the last half of 1928 relations between Browder and Johnson deteriorated, with Browder making official complaints to Lozovsky and during his absence even refusing to leave the key to the PPTUS post office box with Johnson. In December, Browder returned to the United States and from there began to edit an American edition of Pan Pacific Worker.
The Hardy period
In February 1929 Charles Johnson (Stein) handed over the Profintern work in Shanghai to a new cadre allocated by Comintern, the British communist, George Hardy. Hardy, whose code name in his reports was 'Mason', had been a member of the Industrial Workers of the World in Canada, the USA and Australia before becoming a member of the Political Bureau of the British Communist Party in 1925-26. In 1923 he participated in the German revolution and in 1928 he became a member of the Profintern Executive Bureau. Before travelling to China posing as a well-to-do businessman, Hardy had experienced underground work in several countries. In Shanghai he became a key figure in Comintern liaison with the Chinese Communist Party. When Profintern tried to withdraw him from Shanghai in late 1929 the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party protested, arguing that he understood conditions in China better than other functionaries with whom they dealt.
One of Hardy's tasks in the first half of 1929 was to organise the attendance of union delegates at the second Pan Pacific Trade Union conference to be held in August. After the 1927 Hankow conference, Australia had been proposed as the venue of the next conference with the support of the new national trade union federation, the ACTU. But in June 1928 the conservative Bruce government, fearful of the threat to the British Empire and White Australia, announced that it would ban the entry of delegates. The PPTUS therefore decided that the second conference would be held on Soviet territory in Vladivostock. The conference was dominated by the recent Soviet-China border clash and the need to 'defend the Soviet Union' and by the prevailing leftist approach which saw reformism as the main danger to the workers' movement. To this extent the conference marked the Soviet domination of a body which originally had a more genuinely internationalist appeal. Alert to the gathering, Japanese, Chinese and British police prevented many delegates from attending Vladivostock and a second, secret conference was held in Shanghai, attended by delegates from Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaya.
Hardy's approach to trade union work in China was, like Browder's, critical of the CPC's labour movement strategy. At one point he reported to Moscow that 'in China the Party as a whole has not even fully grasped the full significance of trade union work' and 'even the PB [Political Bureau of the CPC] is not clear on all [trade union] questions.' Nevertheless, during 1929 there was mild resurgence of the labor movement. 'Terrorist tactics' were less readily applied by the KMT, reported Hardy. 'This does not mean that there is any evidence that white terror is being discarded as a weapon against the workers for hundreds are still being executed and tortured and it only means more are receiving long prison sentences for such offensices [sic] as distributing literature ... instead of being sent indiscriminately for execution.' In June 1929, according to The Times, the Nanking Government issued 'drastic regulations' for a weekly search for communist literature in all bookshops. The KMT-influenced Printers Union warned its members that printing such literature 'will be punished mercilessly'.
During this period the ACLF organised its May Day meeting at a guild hall in the centre of Shanghai referred to above. Such tactics were discussed later at a special conference in Moscow of trade unionists who worked illegally or semi-legally where a Chinese union organiser, 'Liu Tsien', described conditions in Shanghai. Meetings were organised within factories in such a way that they could disperse in a few minutes. For example, sometimes two communists would start a fist fight and workers would gather. The 'fight' would then stop and the fighters would then deliver a short speech to the crowd. At other places, workers' meetings were organised under the cover of a small company shareholders' meeting. 'Liu Tsien' reported that meetings in theatres were held where police were captured to prevent them raising the alarm. But he warned that poorly organised attempts at such meetings had resulted in the loss of many comrades. His report also confirmed Hardy's view that the role of factory nuclei was practically nil and that party committees substituted themselves for workers' nuclei.
While underground techniques had to be rapidly adapted and applied, another key problem which confronted Hardy was to convince the Chinese communists to take advantage of the extremely small 'legal' possibilities in the situation. After the defeats of 1927 the ACLF had strength only in the seamens' union and the railways union. A number of red unions had been taken over by KMT forces while the union of postal workers and the Mechanics Union had never been under the ACLF umbrella. The postal workers, for example, were run by 'disciples' of a Shanghai underworld figure who played a considerable role in the 'yellow unions'. Yet the only 'legal' opportunities for trade union work were those created by the existence of 'yellow unions', a designation which covered a range of non-communist unions under the control of the KMT or of employers.
Such legal work was difficult for at least two reasons quite apart from the obvious problems of illegality and terror. First, at the level of the Chinese Communist Party, a 'putschist' approach was strong. This tended to downplay demands based on the basic needs of workers and to emphasise revolutionary calls for uprisings and armed struggle. Second, the Communist International itself, from the Sixth World Congress in 1928, followed a strategy which was similar to the local 'putschism', emphasising the imminence of revolution and damning any co-operation with 'reformist' forces.
In spite of these evident similarities between the CPC and the ECCI, the question of legal work in yellow unions crystalised differences between the two. The CPC leadership tended to dismiss the minority within its ranks who favoured legal work as Rightists. The memory of the bloody defeat of 1927 after a period of open, legal co-operation with Kuomintang forces was still very fresh. As well, a number of communists who had recently worked in 'yellow unions' had gone over to the KMT. Yet legal work in reactionary organisations was an established principle of conspiracy. Hardy had the difficult task of resolving this contradiction. At a plenum of the ACLF in February 1929 Hardy criticised the minority within the ACLF which wanted to concentrate on forming red unions within all yellow unions. This amounted to accepting a minority status and relinquishing the possibility of independent red unions. In place of this Hardy urged a flexible strategy. In areas of traditional ACLF strength, red unions would be maintained; but in yellow unions, red fractions would be built to take advantage of legal opportunities, as the minority suggested. Elsewhere, in what he called the 'fascist unions', the ACLF would keep trying to build a small cautious base.
The weakness of the ACLF was due to a number of factors, according to Hardy. Apart from the effects of terror, the CPC often failed to distinguish between itself and the union federation. Thus instead of the unions calling for struggle for better wages and shorter hours, it issued calls for armed revolt. Such calls when expressed by the CPC leader Li Li-san were later to lead to a major split between the CPC and Comintern. Thus within the party opposite tendencies existed, one wanting to do mainly legal work in yellow unions to avoid repression, the other ignoring any legal possibilities.
At the Tenth Plenum of the ECCI in July 1929, the Comintern's key expert on organisation, Piatnitsky turned to this question and asked: 'But why do the Chinese comrades still waver on the question as to whether to work or not to work in the Kuomintang unions? What is the result? The Red unions are small outfits and the Kuomintang unions are mass organisations.' In response a representative of the Chinese party, 'Tsui Wito' [Chu Chiu-pai] asserted that some work was being done in yellow unions but also linked the desire to conduct legal work with the bogey of 'Right opportunism.'
In September 1929 the ECCI officially endorsed the direction of Hardy and Piatnitsky, criticising the 'remnants of sectarianism which still prevail' in the party. At the same time it argued that the Communist Party of China 'must raise the question of resumption of a legal existence by the Red trade unions, even if it were under another name and without official sanction, in connection with the revival of the labour movement. The actual leadership of these unions however, must continue to work on a conspirative basis'.
In November 1929 the Fifth Congress of the once mighty ACLF was held under illegal conditions in Shanghai. Hardy gave a report, which concluded with the silent 'shouting' of slogans in illegal fashion: 'by one comrade announcing the slogan and each forcibly raising their right hand with a clenched fist'. Although he estimated that 'we can reasonably expect some improvement in the proletarian base of the party', this was to be the last national ACLF conference until 1948.
Underground struggle in South East Asia
While direct contact with the Chinese labor movement was possible in Shanghai, elsewhere in South East Asia the cultivation of left wing trade unions by Comintern took place at several removes.
The most successful activity occurred in the Philippines where an organised trade union movement, the Congresso Obrero de Filipinas (COF) was well established and operated with a degree of legality. While the COF was prevented from attending the 1927 PPTU conference, it later affiliated and sent a delegate to the February 1928 Secretariat meeting in Shanghai. The PPTUS maintained close contact with both COF leader, Crisanto Evangelista, and the leader of the peasants' federation, Jacinto Manahan, who were undoubtedly among those Browder earlier referred to as 'as nucleus of devoted and energetic comrades' in the Philippines.
Both men visited Moscow to attend the Fourth Profintern congress in early 1928 and in early 1929 there was an upswing in class struggle which George Hardy attributed to 'close contact the PPTUS maintains with our Filipino comrades'. At the same time Hardy had to deal with a personal clash between Manahan and Evangelista after the former withdrew from the COF because Evangelista criticised him for allowing prayers at a peasants conference. But in May 1929 the COF split, with Evangelista leading a breakaway group. The Far Eastern Bureau of Comintern accepted the split and Hardy reported that the new COF (Proletariat) soon greatly increased its membership. Hardy issued instructions that the COF (Proletariat) hold a workers conference to decide on a 'national programme of action and demands' and to discuss Soviet-China tensions and other international trade union questions. McLane's linking of this split to the formation of the Communist Party of the Philippines in August 1930 is borne out by Hardy who argued that '[o]ur position will always be weak in the Islands until we can form a party group. Evangelista is hesitant ... [and] has given press interviews of a very social democratic character'. To remedy this Hardy urged the dispatch of an American comrade who could work there illegally.
A letter from Hardy to Australian communist Jack Ryan telling him that 'the Philippine comrades are doing extremely well' gives the flavour of the PPTUS work:
We are contemplating organising a united front conference in the Philippines in order to make a final effort to destroy all the reactionary elements and their organisation. Already their membership has fallen to 8,000 and their main strength is in the tobacco industry..... we are now engaged in a strike which involves unions affiliated to the reactionary organisation as well as our own. If we can win this strike it will give a great impetus to our position in this industry.
Overall, the Comintern archives tend to confirm McLane's analysis which emphasised the significance of the PPTUS and of American communists in shaping the Philippines political and union situation.
In Singapore and Malaya there was less success. The roots of the communist movement in Malaya lay in the contact between communists such as Sneevliet, Tan Malaka, Alimin and local leftists and trade unionists in the 1920s. By mid-1928 Browder could report that in 'Singapore and the Straits Settlements, an underground trade union movement is very active, which is led principally by Chinese workers who have been trained in the Canton trade union movement'. But the following year, George Hardy reported more coolly that there was 'some evidence of activity in Singapore'. In Malaya, he said, 'most of the members of the Committee of the Chinese Communist Party' had been arrested and some were executed including 'our representative'. But he added that Shanghai was 'completely isolated from Indochina, Indonesia, Siam and Korea'.
Overseas Chinese workers were organised in the Nanyang Federation of Labour, which attended the 1929 conference in Shanghai for delegates barred from the Vladivostock conference. Hardy established that the federation was based in Singapore, had 5,000 members including a small number in Thailand and Indonesia and used seamen as couriers to communicate with its members.
In February 1930 Hardy sent his 'best confidential translator and a very good comrade' to Singapore to urge local red trade unionists to become delegates for the Fifth Profintern Congress but this plan collapsed in a wave of arrests in Malaya in April. The arrests occurred immediately after the founding of the Malayan Communist Party at a conference attended by Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh). Some of those arrested were later executed after deportation to China. Yong, following earlier scholars, interprets the founding of the MCP as a 'brilliant tactical move' by the Russian-based Comintern to weaken CPC influence in Southeast Asia but while there was tension between the Comintern representatives such as Hardy and the CPC, there is no evidence in Comintern archives of a rivalry taken to such extreme lengths.
Contact with India was a problem for the PPTUS which was never solved. In 1927 the Indian Trade Union Congress tried to send delegates to the Hankow conference but they were not permitted to leave India. At the beginning of 1928 a PPTUS representative, probably the British communist T. R. Strudwick, went to India but he was not allowed to land. The Australian communist, Jack Ryan, attended the Ninth All-India Trade Union Congress in December 1928 having departed secretly from Australia aiming to secure TUC affiliation to the PPTUS. He reported that 'CID men followed me night and day ever since I reached Bombay' and that an American union delegate was arrested and deported. But a vote by the AITUC to affiliate to the PPTUS was narrowly lost. Hardy also tried to make contact with radical forces in British colonies such as India and Malaya through the British Communist Party but complained: 'They look upon the PPTUS as they look on all colonial work -- it is of third rate importance to them.
Communists and left trade unionists in Indonesia had early contact with those in Malaya but the situation in the Dutch colony was, if anything, more repressive than in Malaya. At the 1927 Hankow conference the delegate from Indonesia, Musso, reported that trade unions could not function legally and that simple conspiratorial techniques were used: 'Javanese workers find other means of coming together and preparing actions against their oppressors. Numerous auxiliary organisations in the form of social and sports clubs have sprung up in spite of the vigilance of the police and the spies.' Browder reported 'no direct connections' with Indonesia while in early 1929 Musso wrote that attempts to reorganise the party 'have been crushed' and the unions dissolved. Sugono, the chairman of the Central Committee was tortured by the Dutch. In February 1929 Hardy sent a Chinese courier to arrange for delegates to the Vladivostock conference but this had proved fruitless.
Delegates from Japan's left wing union federation, Hyogikai, attended the Hankow conference and meetings of the PPTUS in Shanghai in 1928 as well as the 1929 Vladivostock conference. Repression of red trade unions and of the Japanese Communist Party was savage from the late 1920s onwards and this made regular contact with Shanghai very difficult. The necessity to operate illegally made even simple communication very complex. Hardy complained that he was forced to write totally coded letters to safe addresses which changed four times in the space of 12 months. At the June 1929 conference the Japanese delegate did not appear because Hardy received the details of the rendezvous from Japan only half an hour before the appointed time and the delegate left Shanghai without making contact. The methods of maintaining contact included the discreet publishing of certain numbers in the left wing Japanese press denoting the current codes, a method used by the Bolshevik press. While in 1928 the PPTUS hailed the left Hyogikai, Hardy privately acknowledged that it had lost much of its strength.
The PPTUS under 'Leon' and 'Edward': 1930-1931
Hardy left Shanghai in mid-1930 and went on to lead the Profintern's maritime work through which it operated an international courier service. His replacement by 'Leon' was accompanied by a sharp deterioration in the security of Comintern activities and a break in contact between Moscow and Shanghai which lasted from June until late 1930. The security of the conspiratorial work in Shanghai also changed. In September 1930 Leon reported to the Profintern in Moscow that the bureau had issued its first bulletin but this was 'technically almost unthinkable and extremely risky'. However the Bureau continued to work closely with the ACLF and maintained good contacts with the left wing Filipino trade unions. An organiser was based in Hong Kong with a brief to work with trade unions in Indo-China and Malaya.
In January 1931 after this period of disruption a new plan for work was decided and the leadership of the PPTUS was reconstituted on instructions from Profintern. New leaders of the PPTUS, 'Leon' and 'Edward', were appointed and their activities can be followed using both the new Soviet archives and the long standing records of the Shanghai Municipal Police. 'Edward' (or 'Kennedy') was an American, Charles Krumbein, who arrived in Shanghai in early 1931. The previous year he had been jailed in Britain where police believed he was a Comintern representative. While in jail his partner, Margaret Undjus, visited him. In Shanghai, the two lived together under the names Mr and Mrs Albert E. Stewart with Undjus using the name 'Alice'. The identity of 'Leon' is less certain but a British intelligence analysis suggested that he was probably James Dolson, an American journalist and communist who had been associated with Comintern activities in China from 1927-28. Dolson's presence in Shanghai in 1931 is confirmed by other Russian material.
The major preoccupation of the PPTUS was assistance to the ACLF, including the re-commencement of the journal Pacific Worker. But the ACLF was badly damaged by a major split in the CPC (see below) and much of the first half of 1931 was spent re-building small trade union groups within the tram, rail, textile and seamen's unions. A wave of spontaneous strikes in the cotton and silk industries where the workers were mainly women lifted hopes that the tide was turning and 'Alice' made systematic contact with women workers.
Beyond Shanghai, the work of the PPTUS continued. In April-May 1931, 'Leon' visited the Philippines where he found 'the same handful of 4-5 comrades' were trying to manage the new Communist Party, the trade union federation and the peasants' federation. The arrests of the Filipino trade union and peasant leaders Manahan and Evangelista for sedition following the founding of the Communist Party of the Philippines in November 1930 led to a PPTUS campaign of solidarity. In early 1931 the PPTUS began to have regular contact with Japanese communists and the trade unions which they led. Around May the Indonesian communist, Tan Malaka, was found living in Shanghai in a debilitated state. After medical treatment and rest, he was due to go south to establish contacts in Indonesia and India. Their continual frustration with colonies like Indonesia, Malaya and India led the PPTUS to write an 'open letter' criticising American, Dutch and French CPs for neglecting colonial work and demanding that the Executive Bureau of Profintern discuss this.
This frustration also resulted in determination to develop work based in Singapore and Malaya, evidently because it offered access to India and Indonesia, as well as having a growing left wing movement. This decision to work in the British colony was later to become crucial to the fate of the PPTUS. In early 1931 the PPTUS decided to send two cadres on visits of 6-8 weeks 'during which time they are to find out and establish permanent connections with Indonesian and Hindoo comrades in Singapore and through them with these respective countries.'
At the beginning of 1931 the underground trade union movement in China received a serious blow. This came not from the KMT government but from within the Chinese Communist Party. Over the previous two years criticism by the ECCI had been growing of the adventurist political strategy proposed by a key member of the CPC Politbureau, Li Li-san. This had culminated in a letter from Comintern in November 1930 and the arrival at this time of a Comintern representative, Pavel Mif, who helped unseat Li Li-san at the fourth plenum of the CPC in January 1931. The plenum also isolated the 'Right' faction (creating a three-way split) one of whose key leaders was a leading trade unionist, Lo Chang-lung.
The ACLF, perhaps closer to the day to day concerns of workers, was a base of opposition to Li Li-san's strategy which called for immediate armed uprisings and political strikes. In February 1931 'Leon' reported disturbing information among the state of underground communist work among trade unions in Shanghai. At a fraction meeting of ACLF cadres, 18 out of 19 had voted against the line of the fourth plenum, that is, against the clear wishes of the Comintern and the CPC majority. This split in the party resulted in most of the union activists in the ACLF breaking away and this left the CPC and the PPTUS with very few forces, reported 'Leon'. He railed against the treachery of the 'Right' faction. 'This faction used our people, our apparatus, our printing press, our money -- for their own fractional purposes. The Treasurer of the ACLF (Ou-Yu-Min) absconded with over 3,000 Mex, probably under Lochanlun's orders.'
Worse than this, all earlier assumptions about the strength of the underground union movement were discovered to be false. Before the split, he explained, he had believed that the membership of the red trade unions in Shanghai was between 700-800. 'It is now clear that what really existed was -- an apparatus, self-contained and almost completely isolated from the mass and their daily struggles (with but very few exceptions).' When he asked about previous claims, the Chinese comrades 'smile and shrug their shoulders and say they were never true!' To help retrieve this drastic situation, 'Leon' also passed on to Moscow the request of Chinese party that Lui Shao Chi be sent back to help lead the trade union work.
The situation worsened in April and June 1931 when two events badly damaged the Comintern apparatus in Shanghai and severely tested the effectiveness of its conspiratorial practices.
The first occurred in April 1931, when a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC, Ku Shun-chang, was arrested by the KMT in Hankow and revealed details of CPC organisation leading to the arrest of a large number of communist cadre in Shanghai. Key CPC leaders who escaped arrest disappeared but in spite of such precautions the general secretary of the CPC, Hsiang Chung-fa, was arrested and executed in June 1931 .
The arrest of Ku Shun-chang and his co-operation with the KMT meant that the Far Eastern Bureau of Comintern and PPTUS apparatuses also had to take rapid precautions and a 'wild state of disorganisation' followed as they struggled to preserve their lives and their organisation. Just before his arrest, Ku had organised an unsuccessful attempt to smuggle two Soviet military advisers to the Red Army and so they had to leave immediately.
The PPTUS leader, 'Leon', was on the point of returning from the Philippines, to rejoin his colleagues Krumbein ('Kennedy') and Margaret Undjus ('Alice'). On June 9 Krumbein reported to Moscow that most of the members of the Far Eastern Bureau had left and that the arrests since April had 'to a very large degree shattered our apparatus'. He closed his letter with the following: 'we feel certain that if we once can get our comrades on the correct track that things will take a rapid turn.'
A rapid turn began on June 1, when a courier for Comintern's OMS, Joseph Ducroux, was arrested in Singapore. Ducroux had travelled from Shanghai to Hong Kong where he had met the Vietnamese communist, Ho Chi Minh. Shortly afterwards, British police intercepted an 'invisible ink' letter from Ho Chi Minh to a leading Malayan communist which set up a meeting with Ducroux. This plus some unusual behaviour by Ducroux led to the his arrest along with several members of the Malayan Communist Party immediately after the meeting.
Ducroux had been on a mission for OMS to India and when passing through Shanghai had been given a Shanghai postal address used by OMS. When arrested, police found both the Shanghai address as well as some reference to Ho Chi Minh. This breach of conspiratorial practice which broke down the compartmentalised structure of two other fields of work led to the arrest of Ho Chi Minh and to the arrest in Shanghai of two key Comintern cadres, Jakov Rudnik and Tatiana Moiseenko. The latter, working under the pseudonyms of M. Hilaire Noulens and Mme Noulens, posed as a language teacher and his wife.
In fact, Rudnik and Moiseenko stood at the conspiratorial heart of the Comintern's Shanghai apparatus. Both had worked for Soviet intelligence in the 1920s and then for Comintern's OMS. As OMS officers, they were responsible for the entire technical and administrative support for the Far Eastern Bureau of Comintern and for the PPTUS. On top of this, following the crisis engendered by the April arrest of Ku, a large number of the PPTUS and FEB documents were given to Rudnik and Moiseenko for safekeeping since it was accurately assumed that Ku was unaware of the identities of the OMS officers.
Shortly after the British police arrested M. Noulens (of whose activities they had no inkling at first) they began to discover a treasure trove of letters, cables, finance records, addresses, ciphers and bank books, all related to the Comintern. These is turn allowed them to establish the movements of Comintern officials as well as their code names. In an analysis of the 'Noulens case' one year later, British intelligence declared that it 'afforded a unique opportunity of seeing from the inside, and on unimpeachable documentary evidence, the working of a highly developed Communist organisation of the 'illegal' order ... one moreover which ... is still in operation in spite of the set-back'. Of particular interest was a large number of letters from 'the notorious Annamite communist, Nguyen Ai Quac' (Ho Chi Minh). The 'most outstanding document' was a report from the CPC on the revenge killings of members of the family of Ku, carried out under the direction of Chou En-lai.
With their identities still unknown, the two OMS officers were tried, sentenced to death, then jailed instead and survived to return to Russia in 1939, a date which, ironically, ensured that they survived the worst Stalinist repression. On their return, they wrote a detailed report which is now available. Combined with other Soviet archives and the British analysis, we can now grasp the underground structure in Shanghai and get a picture of its operation. The Far Eastern Bureau, staffed by eight or nine Europeans, was oriented to China and was the source of an annual subsidy to the CPC of $95,000. It was also responsible for the selection of students to attend the Communist University of the Peoples of the Far East. The PPTUS had a staff of three Europeans and directed a subsidy of about $25,000 per year to the ACLF, as well as liaising with red unions in South East Asia, Japan.
The conditions in Shanghai required a high degree of skill in conspiratorial work. The OMS judged that meetings between Comintern officers and the CPC in public places such as cinemas, cafes and parks were far too dangerous and so private apartments had to be used. Rudnik ('Marin') noted that before he began work in Shanghai, he was told that a number of professional people would be able to make their apartments and offices available for conspiratorial purposes. But nothing like this occurred. Renting multiple apartments, he discovered, was complicated because most of them were leased by four large companies. This meant that a large number of passports and pseudonyms had to be used by Rudnik and Moiseenko to avoid obvious questions regarding one man's apparent need for so many apartments and offices. To add to this, the two most senior figures in the FEB, Pavel Mif and Ry'llski ('Austen') spoke only Russian, making translation and interpreting a major task. Mif could not walk around Shanghai in daylight hours because it was judged that, as the former director of the Communist University for the Peoples of the Far East, he might meet former students who had betrayed and now supported the KMT.
Both the FEB and PPTUS used the normal postal service but all letters between Shanghai and Russia were sent to Berlin to the address of 'some petty communist' who transmitted them to an intermediary from whom they were sent to Moscow. Long cables were broken into coded portions, 'each portion being sent to a different address and out of its proper sequence in the composite message'. Similarly, a system of couriers operated between Russia and most of the major centres in East and Southeast Asia.
Rudnik was meticulous in his conspiratorial technique, but not perfect. An American report into the 'Noulens Affair', prompted by the discovery that Richard Sorge had spent 1930-32 in Shanghai, noted that while under arrest, Rudnik asked to change into a grey suit. Examination of the suit by the Shanghai Municipal Police revealed that 'the three tabs bearing the tailor's name had either been deliberately cut out or frayed, so that they were illegible. Most of the buttons had been changed too. The trouser buttons, however, were untouched.' Tailor's marks on the buttons led to the identification of Rudnik with another person, 'Mr Alison', adding another small piece to the jigsaw puzzle of Comintern in Shanghai.
How effective was the system of conspiracy which was used by the Far Eastern Bureau, the PPTUS and the two OMS officials?
On first glance it would seem to have failed dramatically. The arrests of Rudnik, Moiseenko, Ducroux, the Malayan communists and Ho Chi Minh were severe blows; the apparatus and connections from Shanghai to Singapore were unusable; the mass of documents offered British and American intelligence an insight into Comintern which was unparalleled since the Arcos raid in Britain in 1926.
Yet the damage was limited. In spite of being able to identify a number of Comintern officials by code name, residence, dates of arrival and travel and personal habits, the British were unable to arrest any of these individuals. Except in the case of 'Edward' and 'Alice' (Krumbein and Undjus) no independent identification was established, meaning that figures such as Pavel Mif and Gerhart Eisler (later a top official in East Germany) slipped through the net. As well, there is no evidence of damage to the officials and apparatus of the Chinese Communist Party. We can conclude therefore first, that the system of establishing false identities and the use of pseudonyms largely worked well. Second, in spite of the collapse of compartmentalisation between the FEB and the PPTUS (Rudnik held the records of both), the more significant 'compartment', between the CPC and the Comintern, remained solid. Third, the raid did not affect Soviet military intelligence based in the city and one of its principal officers, Richard Sorge, followed the progress of the trial and did not leave Shanghai until late 1932.
This was also the conclusion of the British police and intelligence who thought it 'unwise to take too optimistic a view' of the raid and arrests. It was 'to be regretted that Austin, Schneider, Stewart (Kennedy) and Margaret Undjus (Alice) should have been able to cover their tracks and slip away unscathed. And it is a tribute to the efficacy of the system of concealment employed by these people that, except in the case of Stewart and Margaret Undjus, so few of their personal details have been betrayed by the papers as to render their reappearance in the same area, or elsewhere, free of any grave risk to themselves.'
Moreover, the British discovered that the Rudnik-Moiseenko arrests did not stop the continued functioning of the Comintern apparatus. While the trial of those two OMS officers was proceeding during the latter half of 1931, they had reason to believe that the remnants of Comintern were reporting it to Moscow:
[E]ven when the confusion resulting from the Noulens' raid was at its worst, the conspirative system previously estasblished was still effective enough to afford freedom of manoeuvre to the remains of the organisation for the purpose of remodelling its lines and withdrawing its threatened personnel, that the organising centres at Moscow and Berlin never really lost their grip on the situation and that gradually and furtively the Comintern's Far Eastern staff are re-establishing themselves.
We can be less certain about the consequences for the Chinese Communist Party's underground trade union work but it is clear that the practice of the CPC underground was much less successful. This was not only because of severe repression but also because of major strategic mistake. The fundamental problem lay in the CPC's unwillingness or inability to work in a 'mass' way in the manner prescribed by Lenin's re-invention of the Russian conspiratorial tradition. The only way to break out of conspiratorial isolation was to look to the 'yellow' trade unions and to conduct 'legal work' within them. This was made impossible by a combination of the ECCI's Third Period policies which discouraged this and by the CPC's own putschist orientation and its memory of the 1927 disaster which was preceded by co-operation with KMT forces. The consequence was that, as more recent Chinese scholarship points out, 'the [CPC] underground had no strategy to join hands with the neutral elements in the labor movement ... and attacked all organisations other than the red unions.'