A staple component of British cabinet papers in the early 1920s was the regular reports that cabinet members received on ‘revolutionary organisations in the United Kingdom’. Appearing more or less weekly, these briefings were authored by the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, which had responsibility, along with MI5 and MI1c (what we now call MI6), for understanding and combatting revolutionary threats to national security.
These are fascinating documents. To my mind, in some ways they recall the episodic novels of Victorian Britain more than the dry documents of government stereotype. Each week the same familiar and larger-than-life characters would crop up in them. And each week their personal stories would be advanced a little further by narrators who, it must be said, were almost as privy to the movements and letters and intimate thoughts of their subjects as their omniscient counterparts in Dickens and Trollope. And just as in those men’s works, there was plenty of scope in the revolutionary reviews for sudden, exciting shocks and unexpected reversals of fortune.
There are many hundreds of reviews, all of which have now been declassified by the National Archives. In addition, surveys of foreign-based revolutionary threats were composed occasionally too, along with annual, compendium reviews of the highlights, or indeed lowlights, of the year just gone by.
The excerpt I have reproduced here comes from a review for the week ending 22 March 1923. Though reviews’ contents were highly variable, this excerpt contains many traits that might legitimately be thought of as typical: namely, a keen sense of drama, right down to the inclusion of a cliffhanger-style ending; a thorough disrespect for its subjects, whom it seeks to depict as ridiculous even while maintaining that they are also threatening; and a complete absence of rigorous analysis.
The excerpt concerns the Young Communist League, which had been operating in Britain since 1921, the same year that the Communist Party of Great Britain got going. The League was very small – fewer than a thousand members in total in 1923, according to research by Trevor Barnes in 1979. But Special Branch had placed it on its watchlist of suspect bodies for two important reasons: first, because it took its orders from Moscow and, secondly, at least in theory, because it posed a risk to impressionable groups of British people, in this case teenagers and young adults.
The excerpt centres on a piece of correspondence which a League member had written – apparently just a short time previously – to the Berlin bureau of the Comintern. The Comintern was the Soviet Union’s international arm, responsible for day-to-day liaison with pro-Soviet organisations abroad, and the correspondent (anonymous in the Special Branch review, but identified by Trevor Barnes as Comrade Young) was writing to it with the intention of denouncing his leader, the League secretary, Charles Redfern.
According to the appropriately named Young, Redfern was not up to his job. He lacked seriousness and had an alcohol problem. When drunk, which was frequently, he would pick fights (in the parlance of the day this made him a ‘booze-fighter’) and neglect his Young Communist League responsibilities. In short, with all his playing up and messing about, his behaviour was more like that of an immature lad than a prospective proletarian leader, and he, along with his associates, was thus bringing the League into disrepute. In the parts of the letter that were put before the cabinet, Young did not say what he thought the Comintern should do about Redfern, at least not explicitly. Reading between the lines, however, it is clear that he wanted the youth out. (And, shortly afterwards, records show that he was to get his wish.)
What interests me here is not so much Redfern’s behaviour (diverting though that undoubtedly is) but the fact that details of it were brought to the attention of the UK cabinet. Redfern was a nobody and his organisation a nothing. While it may have been appropriate for Special Branch to keep tabs on the League (in case it later developed into something actually dangerous), it is hard on the face of it to explain in any logical way why the police would have brought word of its petty backroom disputes to the attention of the most powerful men in the British Empire – unless, of course, those same men were as obsessed by all things Communist and Soviet, even by the minutiae, as the officers of Special Branch themselves.
And indeed everything I am finding in my research does seem to indicate that that was the case at this time. Obsessed with the Communists and Soviets, and frightened by them, and endlessly, exhaustively curious about them: these are all accurate descriptions of how many cabinet ministers felt in the 1920s and 30s, especially when it came to Soviet and pro-Soviet activities in Britain.
In which case, it didn’t matter how seemingly insignificant a pro-Communist organisation might be, they still wanted to know about it, and wanted to have it followed, and were often prepared to read about its ins and outs in painstaking detail. On days like 22 March 1923, it appears they were also prepared to join the police in having a good old puerile laugh at such organisations’ misfortunes – just the kind of sentiment, albeit in other circumstances, that the jejune Comrade Redfern himself might have endorsed!
Enjoy this vignette then of the youthful high jinks of a Communist rebel without a cause, and without much interest in politics either it would seem. And as you do, imagine the likes of Andrew Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin and Earl Curzon of Kedleston enjoying it too.
New Scotland Yard
Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, March 22nd, 1923
The Young Communist League
Charles Redfern, the national secretary of the Young Communist League, has left this country by the underground route and is believed to be at present in Berlin: it is doubtful whether his reception by the Berlin Bureau will be all that he could desire as one of the other League officials has sent a far from flattering report ahead of him in the course of which he says:
“He, (i.e. Redfern,) has wasted a whole day arguing with me that its quite in order for a Y[oung] C[ommunist] to get drunk as often as he likes; he is trying to justify the fact that he has been blind drunk for the last six nights out of ten. He actually told me when I told him what I would do with him if I had the opportunity (shoot him) that the Russ[ian] Revolution was ‘built on vodka’ and that I was ‘narrow-minded’ and talked like a ‘capitalist politician’ whatever that’s got to do with it. I said that’s the kind of rewards I expect from a boozefighter.
“How did all this come about[?] First of all, about two weeks ago or maybe more we noticed C[harles] R[edfern] and J. M[oylan] disappearing together nightly.
“Shortly after this C[harles] R[edfern] presents himself at the Office with his face kicked out of shape and we afterwards discover that the night or rather early morning before, he was engaged in a drunken brawl in a notorious West End Club and that Moylan was sick four times in a tram on the same occasion, this is with important League documents in his possession…
“About this time he turns up to the office at about 1-2 o’clock and plays on a tin-whistle that he’s constantly playing with and goes home about 5-6 – doing nothing – just nothing, that is excepting meeting nights, on the last three of which he has regularly asked why I have not completed the programme, when he makes the office impossible to work in by childish and ridiculous horse-play and playing his tin-whistle…
“The next morning I arrived rather late, to find in the inner office, R[edfern] and another booze-fighter from Tooting, they were indulging in the sky-larking about, one expects from the type.
“After a while, the noise increased and one or two other comrades came along or were encouraged into this merry band. When about five of them were present, after indulging in amateur boxing and wrestling matches and breaking office furniture, they got whistles, combs and paper and the Roneo cover [ed.: Roneo machines were precursors of the photocopier] and decided to run a Jazz Band, which was undoubtedly a great success, it was the jazziest band I have ever listened to, after about five minutes I gave up work as hopeless, one could not hear oneself speak, and as I could not throw them out single-handed and did not care to fetch in the police (though I seriously considered it) I took a walk for two hours or so, only to come back and find it still in progress, and it was kept going till about 4 in the afternoon…”
Addendum: Edward Crawford writes to draw my attention to an important fact. When the first Labour government came to office in 1924, it stopped the production of Cabinet-wide reports on revolutionary activities almost immediately. No doubt this raised suspicions in the intelligence community. But, probably, Labour felt that, since there was no immediate risk of revolution, there was no point being so obsessed about it.