Mask: MI5s Penetration of the Communist Party of GB by Nigel West

LeftCentral Book Review 

Copyright Drift texts photostream

This book examines MI5`s 1930s infiltration of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) codenamed operation MASK, which involved the interception of radio communications between members of the CPGB and the Comintern in Moscow then headed by Georgi Dmitrov. Nigel West describes the role played by a range of personalities including Olga Gray codenamed M-12. Gray was recruited by British intelligence in 1931 and she had strong CPGB ties given that she was employed as a secretary to John Strachey. She was later identified as Miss X during the trial of Percy Glading, the CPGB national organiser who MI5 directed Gray to “cultivate”. As Nigel West informs us Glading and Douglas Springhall were imprisoned later as spies. Although Sringhall`s professionalism is doubted by West because he “had not been indoctrinated into the principles of Konspiratsia.” West provides individual chapter`s dealing with Springhall and Bob Stewart – BOB is described as the “Party`s spymaster”.

The book is dominated by two sets of primary sources, the MASK communication traffic pages 41 to 199, and the appendix pages 245 – 313. The appendix concerns an in-depth interview with General Krivitsky (aka Samuel Ginsberg) who visited Britain in 1940 the most compelling part of an absorbing book. West argues that the MASK material proves that the Comintern was an extension of Soviet foreign policy, promoting espionage while encouraging members of the CPGB to “take direction from a potential adversary and conspire to undermine Parliamentary democracy.” West informs us that several Labour MPs were “implicated” and are named.

The MASK traffic provides incontrovertible proof that the Comintern was financing and directing CPGB strategy – the transcripts are dominated by financial details and reference to current policy lines. This primary source is available at the National Archive in Kew and was utilised by Laybourn and Murphy `Under The Red Flag` published 1999. For those unable to access the whole archive West`s book provides a valuable resource, allowing the non specialist reader a unique portal into the past. It should be pointed out that the issue of Comintern control of the CPGB is contested among historians. With this observation in mind, it came as a shock to be informed by West that a KGB dossier exists claiming to have recruited “James Klugmann, codenamed MER, who acted as talent-spotter, recommending other suitable candidates from his acquaintances, such as John Cairncross.” James Klugmann was a well known member of the CPGB, a fact that did not inhabit his recruitment and service with the Special Operation Executive during the Second World War– he was also a highly respected historian.

Ironically, the book somewhat failed to place issues within an understandable historical context as exemplified by chapter one, `The Red Menace`. Among other things this chapter deals with the threat of Russian Bolshevism from 1921. But the author should have contextualised this development by describing British foreign policy toward Russia in the preceding years i.e. during the Russian Civil War, when British troops landed in Russia under the pretence of fighting Germany but in fact were in the service of White Russians. Early Soviet interest in Britain may have been ideologically driven but there was also an understandable fear of capitalist encirclement. Indeed, the `Hands Off Russia` campaign became a rallying point for a host of Marxist groups to align under one banner leading to the formation of the CPGB. The origins of the party perhaps explain the CPGB adherence to the Moscow line.

There can be little doubt that the CPGB was dominated by an agenda set in Moscow. It is for this reason that the Labour Party blocked the CPGB`s continual efforts to become an affiliated member. However, the CPGB in the 1930s did provide a voice to working class people struggling against severe expenditure cuts and the means test and from evictions. As Beatrix Campbell points out this was in the face of hostility from the TUC and the Labour Party, so opposition to CPGB affiliation may have been connected to this.

The CPGB policy trajectory from the Class Against Class phase to the United and Popular Front, illustrate a distinct correlation between the Moscow line and that taken up by the CPGB. A point amplified when the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 came into existence. General Krivitsky appears surprised that the CPGB did not completely collapse after this agreement a logical conclusion given that the CPGB was now forced to accept the Moscow line that the conflict was an imperialist war.  Even though the CPGB had earlier attacked Chamberlain, for his passive approach to Nazi Germany. Many of the intellectual dissidents that joined the CPGB in the 1930s did so in order to fight fascism and this left the CPGB leadership of Harry Pollitt and Willie Gallagher in an invidious position. As Laybourn and Murphy point out it was David Springhall on his return from Russia who forwarded the new line from Moscow, a fact that substantiates Nigel West`s thesis. The CPGB and the Daily Worker who had valiantly campaigned against fascism (both on the streets of London and in Spain) now fell into line, a position only altered once the Nazis attacked the Soviets and when Russian`s entered the war. However, it should be pointed out that Pollitt resigned as General Secretary and others left the party, most notably, John Strachey after the Soviet invasion of Finland. The fear of fascism and a Nazi take-over trumped any loyalty to the CPGB or Moscow.

Paradoxically, the CPGB connection with Moscow diminished the revolutionary credentials of the British party a factor to keep in mind when reading MASK. This is a point convincingly made by Laybourn and Murphy, given that the Soviet Union adopted a policy of peaceful coexistence with the Western powers from the mid 1930s. The Soviet strategy is outlined in the General Krivitsky document which as we have seen is available in full in MASK. By the 1950s the CPGB adopted a constitutional route abandoning revolutionary politics through the adoption of the manifesto, `The British Road To Socialism`. The CPGB was to the right of the Labour Party in the 1980s as Laybourn and Murphy demonstrate and those who suggest the CPGB undermined the Parliamentary system need to keep this point in mind. The CPGB retreat from revolutionary politics did not however stop British Intelligence interest in the party, a worrying feature made public in a 1985 Channel 4 broadcast. MASK, is not a history of the CPGB but will provide those interested with food for thought and is highly recommended.

MASK: MI5s Penetration of the Communist Part of Great Britain by Nigel West – Published 2nd November 2012 by Routledge – 336 pages

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: