From the underground to espionage
From Chapter Five
Espionage and the Roots of the Cold War (Frank Cass, London, 2002)
In the 1920s the repression faced by newly created Communist Parties demonstrated the need for the clandestine techniques developed in Russia before the Revolution. In the following period, which began when the ultra-leftist 'Third Period' coincided with the 1929 Wall Street crisis, another expression of konspiratsya made itself felt in the West. Soviet intelligence began to recruit middle class American, German and British communists/
The vehicle for the recruitment was frequently the Communist International and a number of recruits believed, initially, that they were working for Comintern rather than for Soviet intelligence. This period also saw the Comintern intensify its call for legal communist parties to construct an illegal apparatus. Specifically, Comintern also issued instructions for parties to select a group of members who would cease to be open about their membership. These two interconnected tracks, one covert and the other overt, one involving espionage and the other underground political work, form the subject of this chapter.
The American communist underground
The Central European and Russian tradition of underground work was brought to the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) not only by Comintern doctrine but also by the many immigrant workers who for a long period made up the majority of that party's membership. This tradition was so strong that in the early stages of the formation of the CPUSA Comintern ordered the party to cease operating as underground cells and to have a public presence.
During the 1930s however, Soviet intelligence agencies co-operated closely with the political underground of the CPUSA. The details of this co-operation and of the functioning of the CPUSA's underground figured prominently in one of the Cold War's most controversial episodes, in which an ex-CPUSA member, Whittaker Chambers, testified that a leading civil servant, Alger Hiss, was a secret party member and had collected information to give to the Russians. The broad sweep of Chambers' allegations are now beyond doubt. Recent searches of the Comintern archives have revealed a number of documents that not only tend to confirm Chambers' claims but also give some insight into the methods of konspiratsya. These documents show the close and witting connection between leaders of the CPUSA, such as Browder, and Soviet intelligence and the close co-operation between the NKVD and Comintern, the former often using the files of the latter to vet candidates for espionage tasks.
Chambers had been a CPUSA member since 1925, had worked as journalist on the Daily Worker and in 1932 was briefly appointed editor of New Masses, a party literary journal. In 1932 he was asked by the CPUSA to work in its underground organisation. The underground in the period of the early 1930s closely and elaborately followed the practices of konspiratsya. In his account of his work in the CPUSA underground, Chambers devoted a section to outlining techniques which are very similar to those in the Comintern's Rules for Party Conspiratorial Work.
All meetings were by pre-arrangement. For example when I met Don [John Sherman] we would agree before we parted when and where we would meet next. Telephones were always assumed to be tapped... For unscheduled or emergency meetings there was a 'reserve meeting place.' .... Before any meeting, at least half an hour and preferably one or two hours, should be spent wandering around town, changing conveyances and direction to make sure there was no surveillance.
Meetings were arranged in busy public places like diners or movie houses, with punctuality always vital. If members of the apparatus were arrested they had to assert their innocence at all times and divulge nothing. 'Decades of underground experience had shown that any suspect who admits to one fact, however trifling he may believe it to be, will end by telling all,' declared Chambers. During Chambers' first period in the underground a New York dentist, Dr Phillip Rosenbliett, was an important link. His surgery and waiting room acted as a liaison point, with 'patients' who were given messages or material when they saw the dentist. In the slang of the Russian underground, Rosenbliett's surgery was a yafka..
But while the New York underground group knew the theory, they did not always practise it. In this first period, as Allen Weinstein noted, the underground apparatus was 'crude and haphazard'. Chambers was very indiscreet, maintaining non-party friendships and ostentatiously hinting to some party members that he was doing 'secret work' (behaviour which brings to mind the behaviour of Guy Burgess, below). Some members of his underground group knew each other socially and met collectively at a safe house on 51st Street, a practice which later changed to prevent members of the same group knowing the identity of others, Chambers recalled. Chambers' New York based underground group was responsible for maintaining a communications system (using microfilm and 'secret writing') which used German seamen as couriers between Germany and the Soviet Union and the United States. Its other role was to gather industrial and military information on behalf of the Soviet Union. In this period, Chambers' group acted in liaison with a succession of Soviet illegals who were their bosses. Chambers' personal role was a courier between the Soviet illegals and Max Bedacht, the head of the CPUSA's various underground groups.
The illegals represented the GRU, the intelligence wing of the Soviet Red Army which, at that time, was the main Soviet intelligence organisation. The most significant of the illegals was 'Ulrich' (Alexander Petrovich Ulanovski) who had been a revolutionary under Tsarism and had worked in the 1920s for the GRU in China. In the 1932-34 period the New York group had little success in industrial espionage and, in one instance, when they contacted CP members working at a submarine building company and were able to photograph blueprints, one worker soon confessed to the FBI. The compartmental structure of the underground organisation preserved it from exposure.
In 1934 the GRU agent Ulrich disbanded the group and began transferring agents like Whittaker Chambers to the-then leader of the CPUSA underground, Joseph Peters. Peters' experience with underground work began in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. After being transfered to the CPUSA in 1924, Peters became responsible for organising its underground group in New York in 1930. In 1931-32, he was in Moscow, attached to the Anglo-American Secretariat of Comintern, as a trainee in organisational matters.
In 1934, Peters introduced Whittaker Chambers to the next phase of his work for the underground. He was to be a courier and liaison worker for a CPUSA party branch of government officials in Washington. The branch, known in accounts of this period as 'the Ware group', after its key member, Harold Ware, met as a group in an apartment. Members knew each other by their real names, paid dues and discussed how to operate in the 'New Deal' government agencies for which they worked. In this period, although members of the group copied government documents for the CPUSA the group was not primarily an espionage group. Later though, some members engaged in espionage.
Many of these CPUSA members worked for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and a number lost their jobs when it was purged of left wing influence in 1935. By this stage, a key player in the events, lawyer Alger Hiss, had moved from the AAA to a Senate committee investigating the armaments industry and, according to Chambers, copied a number of State Department documents which were then photographed and given to Russian contacts. Hiss's transfer to the Senate committee prompted Peters to separate Hiss and another communist, Harry Dexter White, from the Ware group and form the basis of a more secret group. Both were clearly 'going places' and conspiratorial safeguards were stepped up.
In one odd episode in 1936, Peters proposed that the purloining of government documents become more systematic and that they be sold to their Russian contact, 'Bill' to raise money for the CPUSA. Apparently 'Bill' saw one set of documents obtained from a senior Treasury officer, Harry Dexter White, and rejected them as uninteresting. But shortly afterwards his attitude changed and the 'second apparatus' began to pass secret material to the Russians. In part this was because Hiss had moved once more, to the office of the Assistant Secretary of State, Francis Sayre, and because a new Russian contact, Boris Bykov, had begun to urge Peters and Chambers to begin to systematically collect government documents. This they did, using a number of covert CPUSA members.
The techniques of konspiratsya followed by Chambers, Peters and their Soviet contacts in this period generally accorded with that of The Rules for Party Conspiratorial Work, although there were differences. Chambers' adherence to conspiratorial methods in this period became more discreet than it had been in New York. However, as he noted himself, he broke at least one rule of underground work and became a personal friend of Alger Hiss. This action did exactly what the designers of the conspiratorial techniques feared: it endangered Hiss's security. Years later Hiss had to explain to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee how it was that he had known Chambers so closely, including lending him money.
Another breach of the practice of compartmentalising underground work occurred when, according to Chambers, Bykov also arranged to meet Hiss face to face to discuss how the latter could obtain State Department material. While such a meeting was a breach of conspiratorial method, in other instances Bykov rigidly (and absurdly) followed his tradecraft training. Bykov evaded non-existent surveillance by violent and rapid movements, jumping on subway trains as they were about to leave, entering large stores and leaving by a second exit, suspecting all window-shoppers as geheimpolizei (secret police). Bykov also insisted, for example, that Chambers give money to four of his Communist Party sources, a proposal that Chambers rightly rejected as crude and dangerous. After negotiation, Chambers agreed to give each an expensive Oriental rug, along with words of thanks from Soviet authorities. This too featured in establishing a case against Hiss and other recipients. But another side of Bykov's behaviour, Chambers argued, damaged some of the unwritten rules of underground work:
by almost every word he uttered, and the tone he uttered it in, he gave me pointedly to understand that he did not trust me. Underground work cannot exist without mutual trust. For a man not to be trusted in the underground is the next step to being charged with disloyalty to it. And the fact that a man is suspect destroys in advance practically any chance that he might have to establish his innocence. The walls simply cave in and the ground drops from under his feet.
By 1938, extensive espionage was under way in Washington but Chambers' feelings of disillusionment were growing, partly because of the great purges in the USSR, partly because of Bykov's outlandish behaviour. Worried that his defection could bring reprisals, he preserved some government documents and microfilm as 'insurance'. Years later they were produced as evidence to establish Chambers' credibility and to damn Hiss. These documents show that Soviet intelligence had a significant window into secret American diplomacy. They included a large number of copies or summaries of State Department documents and cables dealing with military and foreign affairs matters between January and April 1938. Other material was in Hiss's handwriting and some copied cables and documents appeared to be typed on Hiss's typewriter. Clearly far more than this was given to the Russians and Hiss's espionage and that of others continued during World War Two.
The 'Cambridge group'
In Britain in the early 1930s the overlap between Comintern and Soviet espionage was less pronounced than in the United States, as far as we know. The best known group of spies, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, all studied at Cambridge University where they developed into communists. Unlike the Washington-based apparatus of the CPUSA, they did not operate as part of any underground political apparatus but worked directly with Soviet intelligence officers. Even though Philby placed himself in the tradition of underground workers, there was no history of underground work in Britain, nor any real need for it, as compared, say, with Russia.
The actions of this group during the 1930s, as they moved from university leftism towards espionage, form a case study both in the links between Comintern and Russian intelligence and in the practical application of the rules of conspiracy. While the stories of the Cambridge group have been told and re-told, it has to be remembered that this trajectory of recruiting young enthusiasts on the basis of politics in an advanced, democratic society and transforming them into intelligence agents, was, at the time, a step into uncharted territory. Cold war accounts by journalists promoting the myth of Philby's 'icy calculation and ruthless dedication' have been dented by accounts based on Soviet archives which show instead his psychological dependence and vulnerability. Similarly, the following re-interpretation, based on several studies which use KGB files, emphasises the compromises with the rules of conspiracy, rather than the imagined well-oiled machine of Soviet espionage.
The recruitment of the key figure, Kim Philby, shows the seamless nature of the distinction between the Comintern underground and Soviet intelligence. In 1933 the conclusion of Kim Philby's studies at Cambridge coincided with his decision to become an active Marxist. In doing so he asked the advice of a Cambridge academic and CPGB member, Maurice Dobb, 'how I should go about it'. As others have remarked, instead of simply recruiting him to party membership, Dobb advised him to contact the Paris-based World Committee for the Relief of Victims of German Fascism.
Though the founder of the Committee, Willi Munzenberg, was a talent spotter for the KGB, there is no evidence he saw the potential of Philby. Members of his Committee in turn advised Philby that he could best help the anti-fascist cause in Vienna working for the Comintern-based group which went under various names, International Organisation for the Assistance of Revolutionaries, Red Aid or MOPR, its Russian acronym. Years later Philby explained clearly his transition. The Munzenberg group was 'a perfectly legal and open group'. This group then 'passed me on to a communist underground organisation in Vienna.' The work of MOPR became crucial in the period 1933-34 which saw a bloody attack on the Austrian Left, with the shelling of workers' apartments and the lynching of a number of its leaders. Thousands of Austrian communists and socialists were on the run, joining thousands more fleeing the first waves of Hitler's repression in Germany.
Philby's work for MOPR began his underground career. Working first as a courier then as an activist smuggling refugees out of Austria, Philby came in contact with the tradition of konspiratsya. It is clear that this was a purely political activity and Philby had not yet been recruited to Soviet intelligence because at this stage he made little attempt to hide his leftists beliefs from other Britishers whose assistance he sought. As well, we now know from a personal memoir in the KGB archives to which limited access has been given, that Philby initially tried to join the CPGB on his return from Austria. A suspicious party official told Philby to come back in 6 weeks. Participating in May Day was the last open action Philby took as a communist. A number of accounts have credited KGB illegal Teodor Maly with the spotting and recruitment of Philby in Austria. But in his KGB memoir Philby indicates that it was the left-wing Austrian photographer, Edith Tudor Hart, who met him through his wife and passed his name to an KGB illegal worker in Britain, Arnold Deutsch. Deutsch personified the trajectory of many revolutionaries-turned-spies, having worked as a courier for Comintern's OMS, in Europe, Palestine and Syria. Deutsch recruited Philby and instructed him at great length in the art of konspiratsya, to the extent that sometimes Philby expressed frustration with his teaching:
Otto and I met regularly. And he taught me the rules of conspiracy. He hammered them into my head: how to call the necessary person on the phone, how to check, how to recognise a tail in a crowd, and other basics. I got sick of it once and asked politely: 'Otto you are telling me this for the tenth time. In the same words. I have memorised it. Like poetry.' 'The tenth time?' he asked, 'Well that's only the beginning'.
From 1934 onwards, Philby constructed an identity to hide his real beliefs and behaviour, joining the Anglo-German Friendship Society and running a pro-German newsletter . He successfully angled for a position as journalist on The Times and covered the Franco side of the Spanish Civil War and systematically cut off connections with left-wing Cambridge friends. By mid-1940 Philby, with Burgess's assistance, had secured a low-level job in the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI 6). There he taught something similar to underground technique to agents who were to be dropped into occupied Europe to conduct sabotage and propaganda. As he later noted, he was uniquely qualified for this. 'The first fact to distinguish me from my colleagues was that I was alone in having had personal experience of life underground. Not one of the others had ever dreamt of lowering his voice when passing a policeman in the street.'
Philby's conspiratorial practice was more thorough and careful than that of Burgess and Blunt. Yet like all of his colleagues he was several times betrayed by his sloppiness, only to be rescued by the incompetence of others. His memoirs, My Silent War, opens with a dramatic incident in which he was picked up by the Francoist Civil Guards while he was a Times journalist in Spain. He was questioned about his reason for not carrying a trifling local permit and his luggage thoroughly searched. Unknown to the police, he was still carrying rice-paper instructions on enciphering messages in his pocket which he had received from his Russian contact in England. As a search of his body was about to begin he emptied his pockets, throwing his wallet in such a way that his captors turned to make a grab for it, allowing him a second for 'a crunch and a swallow' to destroy the dangerous rice-paper. As Philby later concluded, 'the really risky operation is not usually the one which brings most danger, since real risks can be assessed in advance and precautions taken to obviate them. It is the almost meaningless incident...that often puts one to mortal hazard.' A better justification for the 'rules of conspiracy' could hardly be found.
Throughout all this time, Philby was in regular contact with his Soviet case officer, meeting regularly in Narbonne, a French town just over the border from Spain. Another, more dangerous incident in Spain was to surface in 1951 when he was interrogated while under suspicion from SIS. Asked how he had supported himself in Spain while not on the Times staff, Philby faltered. The whole exercise had been in fact financed by the Russians who had even used Burgess as a conduit for funds. His interrogator, MI 5's Dick White, took this stumble as 'absolutely significant' and Philby was sacked from the SIS shortly after.
Donald Maclean was the first of the Cambridge group to enter the heart of the British government when he successfully applied to join the Foreign Office in 1935. Recruited personally by Philby the previous year, he was probably the most productive agent of the group, sending thousands of cables and reports from London, Paris and Washington over 16 years.
One of the most striking episodes throwing light on his conspiratorial practice occurred in 1938 when he began a sexual liaison with his Soviet case officer, known only by her code name 'Norma'. The choice of a female case officer was perhaps an example of too-clever conspiratorial practice, in which women were often thought to arouse less suspicion than men. In this case the KGB estimated Norma and Maclean's late night contacts would be less likely to arouse suspicion, according to Costello and Tsarev. The liaison resulted in exactly the kind of security problem which the Russians feared: 'Norma' revealed to Maclean the codename by which he was known ('Lyric') as well as her own. The Russians came to know this because of another elementary breach when Maclean hand-wrote a letter, signed 'Lyric' to the KGB, welcoming the resumption of contact which had been broken for six months because of the Stalin purges of the intelligence services. Later that year Maclean was assigned to the Paris embassy and 'Norma', although reprimanded, was also re-assigned to Paris. The problems with their relationship did not end there. Maclean then fell in love with an American woman, Melinda Marling, in Paris and a stormy confrontation broke out between himself and 'Norma' in January 1940. On top of all this Maclean compounded the problem by revealing to Marling his actual role as diplomat-spy. With some difficulty, the matter was resolved by physical separation of 'Norma' from Maclean, largely due to the German invasion of France.
The most indiscreet of the Cambridge group was Guy Burgess as many accounts have repeatedly pointed out. We now know that his recruitment to Soviet intelligence was forced on his recruiter, Alexander Orlov. As Maclean began cutting his ties with overt communist politics and building up a right wing front, Burgess refused to accept this and eventually forced Maclean to admit his real reasons and then demand inclusion in the conspiracy. The incorporation of Burgess into the group introduced a continuing unstable element, which in 1951 finally proved disastrous when he defected on the spur of the moment with Maclean. Burgess thereby drew attention to Philby, his close friend.
Another reason for KGB reluctance to recruit Burgess was his membership of the CPGB from 1932 and his trip to Russia in 1934, on which according his own fanciful account he said he met Piatnitsky and Bukharin. The separate visits to Russia by both Burgess (1934) and Blunt (1935) are also a testimony to the contingent and almost haphazard process of recruitment, in contrast to the portrayal in popular accounts of a well-oiled plan run by all-knowing Soviet masterminds. According to the rules of conspiracy, such a wanton show of political preference was absolutely ruled out if one was being recruited to the intelligence service. Burgess later joined the staff of an extreme right-wing parliamentarian and became a member of the Anglo-German friendship society. Yet both as a BBC talks producer and in private his left wing beliefs continued to bubble to the surface. In 1936 Guy Burgess told a friend Goronwy Rees whom he was trying to recruit: 'I want to tell you that I am a Comintern agent and have been ever since I came down from Cambridge.' Whether Burgess believed his work was for Comintern or whether it was merely a convenient way of initiating the recruitment, it indicates that on some level there was a seamless connection between working for the Comintern underground and working for Soviet intelligence. Despite his erratic conversion to the Right, Burgess joined SIS in 1938 though he was later terminated in 1940, only to join the Foreign Office some years later.
Anthony Blunt, a Cambridge don by the early 1930s, was formally recruited to Soviet intelligence in 1937, according to recently released KGB documents, much later than earlier accounts. This explains the seemingly cavalier act (for an intelligence agent) of openly writing left-wing art criticism such as his 1937 essay 'Art Under Capitalism and Socialism'. His initial role was largely as a talent spotter and he recruited the son of a wealthy American family, Michael Straight. Straight later recalled a briefing by a Russian on conspiratorial technique who 'said a few trivial things about telephoning from public booths to avoid detection. Then he departed. He was more like the agent of a small time smuggling operation than the representative of a new international order.' After this Straight was given half a torn paper as a recognition symbol for a later meeting in the US and worked with Soviet intelligence until the Nazi-Soviet pact.
Blunt's left wing articles, and his 1935 trip to the USSR, subsequently almost blew his cover. In 1939, as he took tentative steps toward his goal of penetrating British intelligence by joining in the Field Security Police, he was questioned about them. Again, wartime laxness saved the day. In any case Blunt was accepted into MI 5 in 1940 where he soon transferred to his preferred section -- counter-espionage -- enabling him to report on measures against Soviet and German intelligence.
There is another element which should be mentioned in any discussion of konspiratsya and the tradecraft of espionage. Burgess and Blunt, while they were surely instructed in the methods of konspiratsya, must surely have already learned a great deal about clandestine meetings, messages and the habits of secrecy from their experience as homosexuals in a deeply repressive British society. In this sense they were prime candidates for intelligence. Similarly, Whittaker Chambers was a repressed homosexual, having a number of casual lovers during his period in the CPUSA underground. In this context the comment of one of Guy Burgess' lovers, Jack Hewit, about the milieu in which they moved, is telling. 'There was a sort of gay intellectual freemasonry which you know nothing about. It was like the five concentric circles in the Olympic emblem. One person in one circle knew one in another and that's how people met.' Though they are not concentric, the analogy of the Olympic circles is an apt representation of the compartmentalised structure of a conspiratorial organisation, which was sometimes know as the 'chain' system. In addition, Burgess's charm and his ability to make contact with homosexuals in high places was one of his most useful qualities for the Russians, even though they scorned his sexuality as a perversion and detested his bohemian and libertine character.
The KGB defector, Alexander Orlov, who was personally aware of the recruitment of Burgess, singled out the targetting of homosexual Western diplomats for special mention. Writing in the mid-1950s, he observed that his strategy had been 'remarkably successful'. Orlov goes on to make a point remarkably similar to Jack Hewit comment about ' gay freemasonry': 'The Soviet intelligence officers were amazed at the sense of mutual consideration and true loyalty among homosexuals.' He was almost certainly referring to Burgess and his recruting attempts in his circle.
The most significant lesson that can be learned from the history of the Cambridge group is that while the 'rules of conspiracy' are easy to formulate, concrete circumstances temper or occasionally sweep them aside. The elementary principle of compartmentalising different underground workers was breached from the start when Philby personally recruited Maclean. The recruitment of Burgess, initiated independently of Moscow by Orlov, compounded this breach of konspiratsya much to the anger of Moscow, as Costello and Tsarev note. The three even referred to each other, jokingly, as 'The Three Musketeers'. In 1936 Moscow Centre complained at length about this breach of security but little could be done.
Later, in 1941 Moscow became increasingly alarmed at continuing contact between Philby, Blunt and Burgess. It demanded that its case officer stop this practice but he replied that it was 'impossible' and this breach of conspiratorial practice became an added element in the Centre's growing suspicion that Philby might have been a double agent.
The original handlers of the group, Maly, Deutsch and Orlov, were men who originally learned the rules in political circumstances and then applied them to intelligence. Unlike later professional KGB officers, they tempered the rules to fit the situation and this probably explains both the daring success of the Cambridge group as well as its flaws. Yet they also drummed the lessons of konspiratsya into the group. It is interesting to note Deutsch's reasons for the need to imbue the Cambridge group with awareness of conspiratorial practice:
WAISE [Maclean], SYNOK [Philby] and our other agents in England have grown up in a climate in which the legality of our Party is upheld in an atmosphere of democratic illusions. That is why they are sometimes careless and our security measures seem exaggerated to them. If any relaxation of security was permitted on our part, they would become even more undisciplined. That is why, when running them we should stick strictly to the essential security measures even at the risk of cutting faintly ridiculous figures.
The breaches of conspiratorial practice were not all on the side of the 'relaxed' agent-handlers like Maly, Deutsch and Orlov. Philby's secret reports from the Franco side in Spain were mailed by him to an address in Paris which he later found was the Soviet embassy. Though coded, in invisible ink and signed by pseudonyms it would not have taken long to identify him, had the reports been copied by the French police and passed on to the Franco side.
The eventual exposure of the Cambridge group, however, was not due to such breaches but to the breaking of coded Soviet cables which pointed to Maclean as a source of information when he was stationed in the US. That they were not identified until relatively late was partly due to the success of conspiratorial technique (and also to the inefficiency of British intelligence and the tumult of the Second World War).
Comintern's underground : combining legal and illegal means
From the earliest days of the Great Depression, Comintern had strongly promoted the construction of underground organisations in affiliated parties, arguing that depression would quickly lead to war with consequent savage repression. In the democratic west, this did not occur but the triumph of Nazism in Germany was sufficient to sustain this strategy throughout the 1930s. In 1933 Comintern issued its most definitive public statement of 'conspirative' principles. Much of the statement drew on the 'Rules for Party Conspiratorial Work' already discussed. In the concrete circumstances of the early 1930s, namely the brutal attacks aimed at communists in central Europe, this statement argued that illegality provided the best defence. Slowness in accepting this, it said, was due to 'legalist superstitions'. In the place of Leninist doctrine calling for the combination of legal and illegal work, Comintern tipped the balance toward illegal work. Its cardinal point echoed the experience of the Russian underground.
The basic principle of illegal work of the Communist Parties -- worked out through decades of Bolshevik underground activity -- is the ability to preserve the mass character of the party in its underground activity during the most savage terror. The essence of illegality does not lie in hiding a small group of people from the enemy; it lies in carrying on uninterrupted mass work.
Compartmentalisation was one key. Important sections of the party, such as the leadership and the printing and distribution apparatus had to be isolated from each other. It was 'impermissible to use the same address or quarters for different organisations. Tying them up in one big knot aggravates the dangers of a raid', it argued. Another hazard of underground work, based on the Russian experience was the tendency to concentrate too many secrets in the technical (printing and administrative) apparatus and then to neglect this apparatus. Codes, address lists and safe houses had to be frequently changed. An illegal party had to be surrounded by 'a large cadre of sympathisers and revolutionary, non-party activists'. The German experience meant that centralisation of party work, so long a feature of Bolshevism, had to be tempered so that central organs were at least physically separate. An independent local leadership was also needed 'which will be able to react immediately to events, without waiting for directives from the centre.'
This and other calls by Comintern for conspiratorial organisation took root in individual communist parties not only because of their loyalty to Comintern but also because it responded to local conditions. The upsurge in communist militancy in the West, as a result of the Depression and the 'Third Period' leftism led to an accompanying tightening of legal and extra-legal repression aimed at that militancy. In turn this provided the conditions in which the practical application of the principles of konspiratsya became a realistic option. In the following section, I examine an aspect of the political underground which was downplayed by Comintern in the early 1930s-- the struggle to combine legal methods as well as the more usual illegal methods.
Combining legal and illegal methods
For most of the decade of the 1930s the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was engaged in a battle to remain a legal political party. Although its struggle through the courts set important legal precedents Australian common law, its use of 'bourgeois justice' began in an almost shame-faced manner. The leadership of the party was clearly wary of appearing to believe in 'legalist superstitions'. The struggle took place during the long reign of a conservative federal government from December 1931 until 1941 which also passed laws aimed at repressing militant unionism.
At the beginning of this period, the Communist Party of Australia was in the throes of internal upheaval. In December 1929 the annual CPA conference had dismissed most of its existing leadership for 'right wing deviationism'. This internal upheaval was followed by the intervention of a Comintern 'instructor', Herbert Moore Wicks, who 'bolshevised' the CPA. Wicks (who used the name Herbert Moore in Australia) was a member of the CPUSA and encouraged a dogmatic approach, brooked no opposition and expelled several leading communists.
The election of 19 December 1931 saw the sweeping defeat of a brief, ineffectual Labor government which had been overtaken by the events of the Depression. Its replacement was a government led by the United Australia Party under Joseph Lyons and his deputy John Latham. It took office amid popular fears of communism and a campaign promise to outlaw it.
One week before this triumphant win by conservatism, the CPA leadership realised that it was not prepared to face outlawry and that there was '[a]lmost complete absence of satisfactory underground contacts' and this put the party into 'a very weak position to meet the situation of illegality'. The Political Bureau decided on an elementary plan of action which sketched out a pattern which would become familiar for the next 30 years. '[An] Apparatus must be prepared so that we can function in the event of being declared illegal' and a 'second line of leadership' had to be developed to replace arrested leaders.
At the end of December 1931, a report to Central Committee spelt out precautionary measures in more detail.
Where mail is used for confidential letters, addresses unknown to our enemies must be used. In the localities, a system of couriers must be organised to establish personal contact with the various Party organs when delivering instructions and literature...In the event of arrest, members must not answer any questions either at the preliminary hearings or in the Courts. The Party will wage a strenuous struggle for a legal existence....
To meet the threat the CPA responded in two ways. First, it was determined to continue its activity under conditions of illegality. It urged its supporters to learn from the negative example of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) which collapsed after being banned in the First World War.
The IWW made no definite preparations to meet the capitalist attack, nor did they take any steps to protect their organisation. They helped the capitalists to suppress them with their romantic talk of 'filling the capitalist gaols' and in many cases seeking voluntary martyrdom.
Second, it placed a high priority on remaining legal. 'Opportunist ideas that the Party 'will grow under illegal conditions' must be exposed as tending towards the liquidation of activity.' Mass activity against war and fascism was the answer to the proposed ban. But while it hailed 'legal methods' in principle, its practice was less than whole hearted.
The new conservative Attorney General was John Latham, a man who 'vehemently despised' communism. In May 1932 he placed before parliament a series of tough amendments to the Crimes Act, similar but more far-reaching than previous amendments introduced in 1926-28. Both were aimed at militant unionism and the CPA. The 1926-28 amendments included one year's jail for members of unlawful associations; jail or deportation for those who 'by speech or writing' advocated revolution or the destruction of property; six months jail for selling literature of an unlawful association and the confiscation of all property held by an unlawful association.
The new amendments would give power to the High Court or state Supreme Courts to 'declare' a body of people to be 'an unlawful association', thus remedying a defect in the 1926 law. Under its provisions averments presented by the Attorney General to the court constituted a prima facie case and the onus of proof lay on the body of people to establish it was not an unlawful association.
Introducing the Bill, Assistant Treasurer, Stanley Bruce, argued that it would 'help the Government excise a social cancer.' 'In these restless times when subversive doctrines are being preached, and the loyalty of the community and the stability of our institutions are being undermined, the widest power to deal with unlawful associations is essential in the interests of society,' he said.
On 1 September the federal government summonsed the publisher of the Workers Weekly , Harold Devanny, charging him under section 30 D of the Crimes Act with soliciting funds for an unlawful association. To fight Devanny's prosecution and thereby defend the legality of the party, the CPA had engaged solicitor Christian Jollie-Smith. Jollie-Smith, a founding member of the CPA, and a non-party barrister, Clive Evatt. Evatt's view was that the CPA could retain its legality through making a case on purely legal grounds. In the Magistrates Court he argued that the section of the Crimes Act under which Devanny was charged were all unconstitutional. As well, he argued '[t]here is nothing unlawful about being opposed to war.' The pleadings were to no avail and Devanny was convicted and sentenced to six months hard labour. Evatt announced an immediate appeal to the High Court.
With outlawry a real possibility and little faith in the High Court, the CPA dramatically foreshadowed its imagined future:
We must ... utilise the remaining breathing space to make sound preparations to ward off the blows of the bourgeoisie, to prove ourselves worthy comrades in arms of our heroic brothers in the Communist Parties of the White terror countries -- China, Italy, Hungary and others -- who have not only maintained but successfully built Bolshevik parties and conducted revolutionary struggles under conditions of pitiless terror.
Far from being pitiless terror, the government's legal offensive was pitifully incompetent. As the CPA's lawyers probed the government case, they found it fraught with legal blunders to the extent that the original summonses were withdrawn and re-issued. But the crucial weakness was that simple facts could not be established. The government's document conflated the work of the CPA with a number of closely affiliated front organisations such as the Militant Minority Movement (MMM), the Unemployed Workers' Movement, the International Labour Defence and the League Against Imperialism. In this case, there can be no doubt that the ad hoc committee planning the anti-war demonstration was effectively in the hands of the CPA, but the government's case assumed rather than proved this.
Behind the scenes the CPA had its own wrangles. Clive Evatt's advice provoked a torrid debate in the CPA leadership about defence tactics. From the start of the case the Political Bureau was concerned to guard 'against creating legalistic illusions'. Advice from Jollie-Smith and Evatt was firmly that the case could be won on legal grounds without the need for a leader of the CPA to enter the witness box. The Political Bureau rejected this and insisted that the president, Lance Sharkey, appear as a witness to 'put the party position -- that they attack the Party as the spearhead of the working class movement, to vindicate the party and show it as the champion of the workers' struggles.' In the event, Evatt's advice prevailed over Sharkey and no revolutionary statement from the dock was forthcoming. This was later condemned by the Political Bureau, but excused as 'due to inexperience'.
The High Court case before six judges revealed grave weaknesses in the case against Devanny. On December 8, 1932 the court uphheld Devanny's appeal, quashed the conviction and a majority of five judges criticised the Crown's case. It was a stinging slap in the face to the federal government.
Yet the significance of this legal and political victory in the High Court was hardly understood by the CPA which took great pains to minimise it. The reasons for this are bound up in the CPA's view of democracy in capitalist society as as a sham. To hail the decision would be to give credit to a conservative institution of capitalist society. It would also mean acknowledging that power in capitalist society was dispersed in a number of institutions which sometimes clashed on major issues. Thus the Workers Weekly headlined the article on the Devanny judgement with the words 'Prelude to new attacks' and 'We must have no legalist illusions'. The article warned that 'the High Court is not in any way a defender of the right of workers to organise and collect funds for their struggle against capitalism; it has only decided that Latham must try again.'
The taste of outlawry in 1932 impelled the communists to redouble their efforts in constructing an underground for the rest of the decade. Shortly after the High Court decision the Central Committee emphasised that the threat of illegality was still present and that the party still had to prepare a strong underground organisation. In part this was due to their sheer disbelief that the handling of the Federal Government case could have simply been incompetent. Party secretary J. B. Miles confessed to a Central Committee meeting that he was 'suspicious about the stupidity in the Devanny case. It was so awfully stupid that it looks as though it was real.'
The Central Committee man charged with reporting on illegality, Sam Aarons, emphasised that further attacks were expected. He signalled two key themes which were to be central to the handling of illegality by the CPA over the next two decades. The first concerned the paradox of defending the legality of the party under capitalism. On the one hand communists were deeply cynical about the law and viewed liberal democracy as a sham as their response to the High Court judgement demonstrated. On the other, Aarons argued that 'We have to contest every position, fight to the last ditch on every small point, where the democratic rights and freedoms of the workers are concerned.' He contrasted this determination to defend democratic rights with 'a tendency to get underground at the first approach of the threat of illegality.'
Aarons' second point also appeared contradictory or paradoxical. He argued against those who separated mass work from the question of illegality.
The question of whether the party shall have a continued legal existence will only be determined in so far as we have penetrated the ranks and taken up the immediate questions of the working class....The factories are our basis, in the question of the fight against illegality. If we have strong nuclei in the important factories no action can drive the party out of existence
The Central Committee meeting of December 1932 had before it a clear directive from the Communist International regarding preparations for illegality. This letter was prefaced by a statement that 'increased persecution of communists requires the strict fulfilment of the directives of the ECCI'. It described elaborate conspiratorial methods to be used in factories but linked mass work to underground work:
The names of the members of the nucleus must be kept secret, the meetings of the nucleus must be held in private houses, only the members of the nucleus must know the place and time of the meetings and the place of the meeting should be changed as often as possible. In the cases when the members of the Party in the factories, e.g. among the miners , are already known to the management.... the names of the newly accepted members must be kept secret. The illegal work of the nucleus must in no case lead to a restriction of the mass work of the nucleus, to its separation from the workers [emphasis added]
This last point as we have seen was a key strategic concept derived from Lenin's re-working of the Russian conspiratorial tradition. It was crucial to political survival and contains the rationale for going underground in the first place. It was both the method and the goal.
The Comintern directive laid down strict guidelines for the reconstruction of the CPA in the event of the Federal Government successfully banning it:
There must be such a reconstruction of the party committees that will allow of the greatest flexibility in their work, the closest contact with the lower organisations and the ability to display great initiative and self reliance. In particular, it is advisable in the future to set up Party committees with a small membership (7-11 members), changing the existing practice in which the District Committees have 25 or more members.
The issue of going underground was openly discussed in the CPA newspaper which reprinted an article by Comintern leader Osip Piatnitsky:
A great number of examples from the history of the Parties of the Comintern show that when Parties and revolutionary trade unions without any organisations in the factories are driven underground, they immediately lose contact not only with the masses but in many cases even with their own members. There is absolutely no guarantee that the Communist Parties in the most important capitalist countries will not be driven underground.
Piatnitsky's latter prediction soon came true. In January 1933 Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and later that year the German Communist Party was outlawed.
The brush with illegality in the second half of 1932 combined with the advent of Hitler meant that the CPA began to employ more seriously conspiratorial methods which emerged from the experience of European and Russian socialists. The result was a plan drawn up in 1934 for an illegal apparatus.
The 1934 plan is posited on the possibility of an attack on the CPA with little warning, including a rounding up of members of the Political Bureau by police. It therefore proposed that two members of the eight-person Political Bureau 'go into illegality' immediately and work from private homes rather than party offices. The other six would follow them into 'complete illegality' at signs of 'approaching critical events or anticipation of attack'. The plan recognised that this raised the problem that the Political Bureau would effectively be isolated from the membership and from the district leadership of the party. The answer was to create an alternative leadership, described as a 'working leadership'. These leaders would be a small group of 3-5 whose main qualification, apart from some organisational and political ability, was that they were not known to the police or public as CPA members. This construction of a second, illegal 'working leadership' was to be followed at the lower levels of the party and in the CPA's street units (local branches).
The key determinant in the success of the plan was the successful functioning of a communication system. In the city of Sydney, where the national leadership worked, the preferred method was personal contact and the use of couriers between Political Bureau members and the District leadership. Another method was material 'deposited in a certain place (house, office etc) to be collected by comrades receiving the instructions, or by specially appointed comrades'. This was clearly the method which later became known in espionage training as 'the dead letter drop', a method which did not use the official postal system and which created a 'cut-out' between the sender and the receiver of the message.
In other major cities the use of the normal postal system was necessary. In order to do this successfully two things were needed: first, a system of what is usually known as cover addresses or accommodation addresses, second, 'a cipher system for all important Party directives'.
The plan also took account of the need for reserves and sympathisers. These were to be drawn from 'fraternals' -- closely allied bodies such as the Friends of the Soviet Union, the Militant Minority Movement, the League Against Imperialism and the International Labor Defence.
The 1934 plan concluded:
Only the P. B. [Political Bureau] and the Secretariats of the various D.Cs [District Committees] would know of the existence of the illegal apparatus and only the P. B. in Sydney and the Secretaries of the DCs would know the actual composition of the central groups. Outside of these comrades and the members of the illegal apparatus, not one party member would know of the existence or personnel of such an organisation...
The attack on the CPA did not come in the form which its plan expected. However, some elements of the plan did have an immediate application in the CPA's drive to build party groups in factories. In many factories such groups had to operate as underground cells and in this way party members received elementary training in secrecy. An article in the Communist Review talked about the process following the recruitment of a small number of workers in a factory:
The first procedure is for the comrade who did the recruiting to visit each member personally [original emphasis] and make arrangements for a meeting. Each comrade should be given a pseudonym and should be known by it within the party. It is well to remember that in all capitalist countries the factory unit is illegal. Bearing this in mind every meeting should be organised on a conspirative basis.
These points were not lost on the nemesis of the CPA, the Commonwealth Investigation Branch which watched the CPA closely and was aware of its underground activities both in political life and in military circles. It also grasped the connection between these techniques and the Russian underground tradition, arguing that
There is a distinct failure to appreciate the secrecy with which the Communist Party works. The local party is trained by men, in turned trained in technique in Russia, by people who were hounded for years by the police of Europe and perforce had to learn every trick of secrecy and evasion of authority.
Yet as events would show, the defence of the party's legality depended once more on courts rather than than conspiracy.
While the CPA felt more comfortable in agitational political activity than in the conservative world of the courts, it was to win another legal victory in the latter half of the 1930s. The High Court's rejection of Devanny's conviction allowed the CPA and its fraternal organisations to continue to function legally but with a major disadvantage: they could not openly use the postal system to distribute copies of their publications. The postal ban was part of the Crimes Act they had not challenged.
These bans were quite effective in disrupting the political work of the CPA and its fraternals. The circulation within Australia of newspapers like the Militant Minority Movement's Red Leader dropped and in order to send copies of it to the RILU in Moscow, seamen were enroled as couriers when they travelled to Vladivostock, Hamburg and San Francisco. Between 1932 and 1937 the CPA found it very difficult to receive copies of Comintern publications like Inprecorr.
In 1933 the CPA began publicly protesting against the postal bans. Workers Weekly revealed to its readers that '[w]ithout any publicity scores of working class publications are being seized and condemned. And the veil of silence with which the authorities cover their work makes it more effective'. The Weekly noted that '[w]hen Norman Lindsay's pornographic novel 'Red Heap' was banned then the liberal Press protested loudly against this unnecessary interference with the 'liberty of the subject''.' With some reluctance the CPA appealed to liberal intellectuals to join it in campaigning to overturn the ban while insisting that in any case, the ban was an inevitable consequence of capitalism.
In May 1935 the Friends of the Soviet Union (FOSU) demanded to know the reasons for the ban on their magazine Soviets Today and threatened the government with legal action to overturn it. When the issue came before federal cabinet it appeared that the ban would be overturned. Acting Attorney General Thomas Brennan advised that the ban on the Soviets Today 'had not proved effective to prevent the distribution of that publication' and that the ban should be lifted 'rather than become involved in litigation in which the Commonwealth may not be in a position to produce evidence satisfactory to a Court'. The change in policy, he suggested, could be explained by the improved relations between Britain and Russia and on Russia's admission to the League of Nations.
But Brennan's advice was rejected at a cabinet meeting in May 1935 and in June the CPA demonstrated its newfound acceptance of the weapons offered by bourgeois legality. A member of the CPA and FOSU, W. Thomas, sought an injunction to restrain the Commonwealth from destroying copies of publications and from preventing their transmission by post. He also boldly claimed $5,000 damages because of the ban. This time, the CPA clearly overcame its fears of 'legalist superstitions'. The Commonwealth responded by raising the stakes and commencing legal action to have the High Court declare both the FOSU and the CPA as illegal associations. This galvanised the CPA and in an article in the Comintern's Inprecorr, Sharkey vowed that the CPA and the workers 'will fight this latest attack of the ruling class to the last ditch.'
In November, the CPA and FOSU began a strategy of using its legal standing in the case to demand detailed information from the Commonwealth on which it based its case. This would effectively place the onus of proof on the Commonwealth, thus reversing the roles of the parties and giving the CPA and FOSU an advantage. At one court hearing the Commonwealth noted that the legal action by CPA might force the revelation of information held by the 'Intelligence section' of the Commonwealth Government. The second attempt to ban the CPA dragged on until 1937. The case was settled by an out of court agreement which saw the government lift the postal bans in exchange for the dropping of the case.
The CPA's successful defeat of the second attempt to ban it showed a positive acceptance of legal means and illustrated just how far the CPA had come since its reluctance to use 'bourgeois legality' three years earlier. In this way the CPA had arrived at the classic Leninist formula of combining legal as well as illegal methods of struggle.