Saturday, October 25, 2014

More recent history

The latest volume in the excellent Yale University Press series Annals of Communism is Secret Cables of the Comintern 1933-1943. Those cables were sent to and from the Moscow Centre of the Communist International (Comintern), its Secretariat (ECCI) and the Communications Service (CS).

The Comintern filled a rather odd position in the history of the period. On the one hand, it was an open organization (whose members and staff had a distressingly high turn-over in the mid and late thirties) that united all the Communist parties of the world and, allegedly, treated them as equals. On the other hand, it conducted secret correspondence with, sent money to and issued instructions that could not be disobeyed to specific members of those Communist Parties who, then, had to pass them on and ensure that all Communists acted according to those instructions that invariably mirrored Soviet policy of the day. Most rank and file members of the various national CPs and even a good many of the officers knew nothing about that activity and where some of the instructions came from or how they were transmitted. Nor did they know much about the large funds transferred to some people for certain purposes.

The secret cables that have become available to Western historians are only a part of those that exist and the possibility of seeing the others seem remote. But even what we have clarifies a great deal of what happened in the twenties and thirties, explains the behaviour of Communist politicians and parties and gives us a better idea of what happened.

A good many things have to be explained at the beginning of the book, not least the fact that many of the codes were extraordinarily silly and crass as well as inappropriate to the countries where they were sent as party members tried to point out to the Moscow centre. Their inappropriateness was likely to excite police attention, which, in turn, would, if made public, make it clear that the parties were nothing but Moscow's puppets.

Another problem was the fact that the national recipients seemed to have no understanding of secrecy or conspiratorial technique, refusing or forgetting to destroy telegrams after reading them, carrying messages openly in their pockets and so on.
The Comintern had good reason to worry about the security of its communications. The most serious compromise of its messages, however, did not stem from sloppy tradecraft or carelessness on the part of its employees. Instead, it was a function of underestimating just how vulnerable its radio contacts with its sections were to interception.

The British Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS, today known as GCHQ) - responsible for collecting and trying to break ciphered communications - started intercepting a rash of messages in 1930 that was quickly determined to be between Comintern headquarters in Moscow and clandestine radio stations abroad. Several months were required to trace the British end of the operation to a house in Wimbledon owned by a British Communist, who was promptly put under surveillance in order to learn of the path through which Comintern money and instructions were passed along to the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

GC&CS had managed to largely break the codes by 1933, enabling it to pass on to MI5, responsible for counter-intelligence, the identities of secret members of the British CP, the identities of couriers coming from and going to Moscow, the names of British and colonial Communists studying at the Lenin School in the USSR, and details about Soviet subsidies to the CPGB. The "obscurely phrased" traffic hindered full understanding of the messages - even the British Communists often did not fully understand what was communicated and had to ask for clarification.

The British decryption project, code-named Mask, collected so many messages that many were not given detailed analysis. By 1937, with messages indicating that the Comintern was seeking to moderate British Communists' revolutionary fervour as part of the Popular Front and facing a severe shortage of staff, MI5 discontinued Mask, thereby missing some obscure clues that, if followed up, would have exposed elements of the Comintern's operations linked to Soviet intelligence.
One such clue would have led them to Melita Norwood. Still, the information collected was of enormous use to Britain and, after the Second World War, to the United States.

The Comintern agents were often secret service agents as well but not always. They faced danger in their work but not always from the obvious source.
But most Comintern operative lived far more prosaic and dull lives than their intelligence counterparts did. This is not to say that they did not face dangers. Comintern operatives could and did face arrest, imprisonment, torture, and even death. Particularly for those tasked to assist local Communist parties involved in armed revolts or uprisings or assigned to countries with few or no legal protections for someone charged with political subversion, a Comintern assignment could be fatal.

Most Comintern emissaries, however, were paymasters and conduits for passing along instructions and requests, enabling Communist parties to carry out their activities in accordance with plans developed with the approval of the Soviet Union. They were the yes and ears of Moscow on the ground in New York, Paris, London, Prague and numerous other locales, a constant reminder to American, French, British, or Czech Communists that not only were their political struggles part of an international campaign, but they were also being watched and judged by people beholden to a bureaucracy in Moscow and totally unaccountable and unknown to the vast majority of the local party's members.

And for many Comintern workers the most dangerous part of their assignment was that they were very likely to run afoul not of capitalist police or executioners, but the NKVD, the sword and shield of the Soviet state. Far more Comintern employees died in the cellars of the Lubyanka Prison than abroad.
History is full of little ironies.

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