History CP early 50s early 60s


MI5 had an extensive network of agents inside the labour movement, aiming to keep them safe by never overexposing them.  The previously mentioned MI5 agent, Betty Gordon, spent her 10 years inside the Communist Party with the aim of becoming personally close to Harry Pollitt. Tom Driberg, later a Labour MP, was an MI5 informant (not a key agent) inside the CP. In 1954, the Communist Party expelled Driberg for being Agent M8. Driberg was most surprised, as he didn’t even know MI5 had given him a code-name! Whilst the writer and ex-secret service officer John le Carré (real name David Cornwell) some four decades after these events would write an affectionate in memoriam to an old informer of his. It was 1999 and the recently deceased ‘Harry’ had been long-term stalwart of the Communist Party. This deep mole had attended weekly debriefing sessions with MI5 controllers from the late 1950s. He had volunteered for the most difficult jobs in the Party, becoming a trusted and valued comrade, even if the intelligence he provided did not amount to much. [The Guardian November 27th 1999] Cornwell does not indicate whether this `Harry’ was one Harry Newton, who was later exposed as an MI5 spy inside the Party and other progressive movements. John Saville, the Hull University academic who left the Party, has revealed how Newton passed himself off as a family friend for a period. MI5’s interested in Saville was clearly motivated by his opposition in the Communist Party after Khrushchev revelations on Stalin.

It has been alleged that one Peter Thiele was a police informer. He had left Norfolk Labour Party to join the Communist Party in 1956. A regular contributor to Country Standard, the Party’s rural journal, by 1961, he had moved to Kingston, where he was known as a prominent member of the local Communist Party branch, which had significant membership in the defence engineering industry that then existed there. It is impossible now to verify this but the information regarding this comes from a former member of the Kingston Branch of the Communist Party and may be summarised thus. Thiele had strong connections in Czechoslovakia. A member of the Kingston branch, who cleaned Thiele’s house after his wife had died, found compromising material that pointed in the direction of the alleged link – presumably with the Special Branch.  It is believed that Thiele left the Communist Party after the disclosure was made. (Peter Thiele is now dead.)

In all that has been written about the British Party, especially on these years, so much has focused on famous people, the literati, the intellectuals, the pompously important trade union figures that took the opportunity of controversy to dump the Party that had projected them into the limelight. So many, many thousands just got on with it! And their enthusiasm brought them both joy and pain.

In the of Sheerness, long-term Communist Party member, Win Langton was so excited for her daughter, when she learned she was going to the Warsaw Youth Festival, that she collected hundreds of signatures for a letter of friendship for her to take. This ended up being reported in the local Sheerness paper, so taken were the many people with her openness. When the Kent District Committee of the Party learned of this they contacted Win and before long she was herself on the committee! Having taken time out to have a family, Win now found herself propelled back into Party work. As the DC meetings were on Sundays, Win prepared the family meals on Saturdays. In no time at all, she enjoyed a week’s Party women’s school. Easter 1959 saw her on the CND Aldermaston march with her nine-year old younger daughter. Later that year when Win at the end of a month’s anti-apartheid campaign saw a Territorial Army parade in  Sheerness she couldn’t resist the temptation to precede it all on her own and so lead it the length of the High St. carrying her ‘Boycott S. African goods’ banner aloft. Besides selling the ‘Daily Worker’ she regularly brought in a trolley to the annual Bazaar a hundredweight of home made jam, made from fruit picked from local hedgerows.

Others faced victimisation and often hardship as a result of their refusal to ditch their principles. Many, as we have seen, gained mass support. Teachers who were members of the Party were particularly vulnerable. Reg Neal’s appointment in October 1950 to the Headship of Bounds Green School, had led to Conservative-controlled Middlesex County Council refusing to endorse his appointment, and then imposing a blanket ban on the appointment of Communists to Headships, which lasted for years. This also affected fellow teacher and Communist G.C.T. Giles, a President of the NUT. Prominent Communist, David Capper, who had played an important role in policy framing for the 1944 Education Act, taught at Battersea Grammar School from 1945 to 1956. He took a post as Assistant Master at this voluntary aided school and continued to be very active in the London Teachers Association. He was primarily teaching Geography rather than French, his degree subject. This rendered him open to an attack in 1953, when the Head asked him to transfer to another LCC school. Capper got the support of both his union and the school’s Staff Society voted overwhelmingly against a plan to put the transfer proposal to the Governors.  But he would end up searching for employment for some time to come across the LCC.

By the time that MI5 publicly declared that `communist subversion’ was no longer a key target for its activities, in the year 2000, it had accumulated a quarter of a million files on the Communist Party. [See: Peter Hennessy `The Secret State’ Penguin (2003)] This is an extraordinary degree of intelligence, given the level of Party membership at any one time, even if agglomerated over the entire period from 1920. There was permanent surveillance on the part of MI5, including a hidden microphone embedded in the wall of the Party national office in King Street, London.  Routinely, day in and day out, phones were tapped and letters opened.

Releases into the public record of the national archives in May 2003 from the security forces included files on a large number of British communists and sympathisers from all periods, wartime and post-war periods until 1953, the present cut-off date for release of Security Service files. Amongst them were prominent national and regional figures in the Communist Party. The main reason they have been released is because they seem to show nothing much of interest. But, as in archaeology, often what is not there tells us something about what might be elsewhere!

The Intelligence forces that had worked against Nazi Germany found no difficulty in quickly reverting to their pre-war obsession with the Soviet Union. This had been formalised with the creation of the Information Research Department (IRD), in 1948, a psychological warfare organisation, set up within the Foreign Office. Labour junior Foreign Minister of the time, Christopher Mayhew, died years later assuming that IRD had been his creation. But he had merely adopted proposals which had already been agreed on by the secret state. IRD grew to have a staff of 300 and became the leading source for Communist conspiracy theorists in academia and the media. The following sentences are based on impeccable historical sources, yet published comments on these lines in the 1948-76 period, perhaps even later, would have been dismissed as crackpot conspiracy theories, or Communist propaganda.

In 1956, IRD began running operations intended to damage the image of the Communist Party, a style of work that would later culminate in a ludicrous attempt in the 1970s to portray the Provisional IRA as being run by Moscow. IRD briefed most mainstream British journalists and hundreds world-wide in the first really organised spin-doctoring of the British media. Most approved journalists, in defiance of the then supposed norms of journalistic practice, habitually and lazily used the texts supplied to them with minimal editing. Classified material, with suitable `interpretation’ was fed to trusted correspondents.

The BBC, far from carrying out its supposed mission to be fearlessly independent, was up to its eyes in collaboration with the SIS. It was established practice for the Chief Assistant to the Director General to liaise with MI5 on behalf of his boss, receiving quarterly security briefings to keep the BBC up to speed with the requirements of the security forces. Shortly before he became BBC Director General in the 1950s, Sir Huge Green unhesitatingly spoke of its propaganda role (a phrase he had no problem in employing) to the NATO College in Paris.

Little wonder that, in the cold war period, the view of the world crafted by the secret service was the standard for public opinion. The bulk of IRD distortions of the motives and actions of Communists and their allies would be laughable if it were not for the tragedy that often resulted. For example, the IRD and MI6 worked with the CIA from as early as 1962 to undermine President Sukharno of Indonesia, after the US and Britain secretly agreed a strategy to “liquidate” him, the consequence of which would be the mass killing of over a million Indonesian Communist Party members.

IRD also fed information and damaging propaganda on Communists and sympathisers within the British labour movement through confidential recipients of its briefings. Vic Feather, later General Secretary of the TUC, was certainly one if its main informants from the 1950s whilst he was a back-room boy in Congress House. Documents were supplied to the media and to the Labour Party National Agent’s Department and the Organisation Subcommittee, the disciplinary machinery of the party. Information on a local basis from police Special Branches also came in from routine surveillance of local Communist Party branches, local unions and organisations such as CND. Data collection by business groups such as the Economic League and the Building Employers Federation was important and the Special Branch particularly collaborated with local employers and their national self-help agencies. MI5’s `C’ division handled security clearance for defence contracts and worked closely with private sector intelligence.

The US State Department, via the London embassy, also supplied a vast amount of intelligence. Despite the opening of archives in the USA, little of this role has yet been elucidated, no doubt because of the sensitivity of the notion of interference in sovereign states. But over a thousand pages of reports made by the New Zealand US embassy to the State Department on the tiny local labour movement have been declassified and show surveillance down to the level of trades councils and union branches. It is more than likely that a similar degree of interest was shown on the far more significant British labour movement.

Home Office papers released in 1995 reveal for certainty that agents were placed right at the heart of the Communist Party’s leadership. In September 1940, Sir John Anderson, in referring to these agents was only in favour of prosecuting the CP leadership because of its attacks on pre-war appeasers and hostility to the war at that stage of its phoney character “if that can be done without uncovering channels of  information which it is essential to keep”. In other words maintaining the inside agents was more important. [Guardian February 8th 1995] Only a couple of low grade agents have so far been revealed, one Olga Gray was infiltrated into the Party in the pre-war years for example. In 1950 M15 burgled the office where the CPGB’s membership list was held and photographed some 55,000 records, some of which can be seen on-line at the Public Records Office website. Then there was the 1950s bug, or radio-microphone, found in King St, the Party’s central office, in 1975.

The eighth batch of secret files released in 2001 (well over a thousand files still remain closed and who knows how many were `lost’?) “fully vindicates those radicals who claim that the 20th century British state erected a substantial system of surveillance mainly aimed at the left”. [Robert Taylor, New Statesman 19.11.01] A vast number of individuals had secret files held on them detailing all manner of matters. Many prominent intellectuals, often harmless individuals who liked to be honest in their thinking, who were never anywhere near like being attached to the subversive activities of social dissidents, such as Communists, had bulky files of subjective comment devoted to their entire lives.

Just for a moment, apply the previous sentence not to Britain but to the Soviet Union, or the GDR. It is a salutary lesson to reflect that all states, however relatively stable their social relations, engage in prying, often jumping to ludicrous conclusions in the process. But “British Communist Party members came under the closest surveillance of all”. We now know that, for example in 1935, there were no less than 3,000 “security points” covering Communists. This is something like one-fifth of the membership of the Party at that time. For cost effectiveness, only the key comrades, the most stable of the membership, were selected for phone tapping, mail interception, or even shadowing of their movements.

Such tapping, bugging and mail interference was so widespread and routine that Communists bore the mild inconveniences that arose, usually due to ineptitude, with humour. Most of non-Communists acquaintances, who casually heard of these activities, thought Party members were perhaps a bit paranoid. A former postman in Whitechapel in 1946, where the Party had an MP (Phil Piratin, Mile End) and quite a few councillors, noticed that none of these people got their mail “without it went upstairs to be examined”. The “Indoor Investigation man was never off the sorting office floor … making sure that the usual addresses were taken off the frames for their journey to some secret hide out upstairs”. [Bill Connor of Heywood, Lancashire, Guardian 1.2.1997]

Such intervention routinely continued until, certainly, the most recent years. Annie Machon, a former and now disillusioned agent of the security forces has revealed that her duties enabled her to know that all post to the Communist Party’s headquarters was routinely copied. Even when a schoolboy wrote, asking for information on a topic for a school project, he was assigned a personal file and labelled a sympathiser.  [Annie Machon `Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers’ The Book Guild (2005)]

Most full-time Party workers and important trade union activists who were Communists found their lives intertwined with security force personnel, even if many did not know it. One busy national official, Betty Reid, found a domestic home-help whom she befriended, only to discover many years later that her former employee was an MI5 plant. The story was widely publicized at the time of her discovery since Reid re-estab¬lished relations with her former friend, and they exchanged Christmas cards until her death!

We can take one case in more detail to illustrate the obsessive and quite pointless spying on Communists, that of Clement Palme Dutt. Brother to the rather more well-known Rajani Palme Dutt, Clem as comrades called him was often referred to as CPD (his brother, Clem called normally him Raji, more famously was RPD) in letters and minutes. Clem was known by his probably childhood nickname to all in his family, including his brother, as `Bocca’. The British security forces would at times seemingly boggle at this `secret’ name. The one good thing that emerges from the detailed files kept on Clem from when he was about 30 to when he was about 60 is that posterity, granted access to seventy of the Public Records Office MI5 files held on him at Kew, is able to now make a detailed biographical sketch of an otherwise previously largely invisible personality only known to posterity for the enormous quantity of his translations of classic Marxist texts, to which he was largely solely devoted in the 1950s. It did not stop the spying, though.

Even into old age, every single address he had ever lived at, in Britain or abroad, was carefully recorded in one file, with details of co-habitees and originating sources.  The core suspicions had been initially created almost entirely due to Clem’s role in the 1920s and 1930s in fostering a liberation movement for independence in India, when it had been firmly part of the British Empire. Every single letter and phone call to and from King Street, the Party’s headquarters, and Central Books, where Clem worked in the 1950s, was copied by typists or Photostatted, or typed up, and kept in files relevant to persons mentioned in them. It was a costly and time-consuming business. A Photostat machine was then as large and expensive as an industrial press. It consisted of a large camera that created images directly onto 350 foot rolls of sensitised paper. After a 10-second exposure, the paper was directed to developing and fixing baths and then dried. The result was a negative print, which could be used to make any number of positive prints. It is this source that forms the basis of the gigantic files MI5 kept on Clem Dutt.

Copies of his actual Party registration cards in the 1950s, completed in his own handwriting, are in his file. His continuing shareholding in Central Books was investigated. At times, the files convey an impression that Clem was viewed as being a master criminal but perhaps the state simply saw all Communists this way!  He was even followed on holiday to Cornwall and surveillance kept up. His attempts to obtain paid and secure employment as a translator were stymied. When he was invited to Moscow by the Foreign Languages Publishing House to assist in the translation of Marxist texts, which MI5 did not know about, he was watched carefully to see what the job he was engaged in entailed. The obsessive detail to which the security forces were devoted is revealed by a phone tap record between Clem’s wife, Violet (V) and Harry Pollitt (H):

V. Listen, HARRY-
H. Yes.
V. Do you think it is a very long term job? (“In Moscow” is added in handwriting)
H. I do.
V. I see. Right you are.
H. That’s my opinion VIOLET.
V. Yes?
H. Yes.
V. Well thank you for telling me. That’s something to go on anyway.
H. Okey doke love.
V. Right you are.
H. Good bye.
V. Good bye.

A review of his case in 1953 concluded that: “In the light of his record, I find it impossible to believe that he has not been engaged in espionage. Only by April 1954, it had been decided not to classify him as an espionage risk. But, even so, the spooks continued to watch him. Everywhere Clem went, especially in and out of Britain, he was stopped and searched and a report made by Special Branch of his belongings and statements. Clem and Violet came back to Britain in July 1954, “possibly on holiday”. An enquiry as to whether he had returned in October 1954, established that he was living in Moscow again, “where he is understood to be employed in translating STALIN’S works into English”. (Registry files for Britain secret service always rendered a subject’s name in upper case; somewhere, there will have been a set of cross-referenced files on the Soviet leader but these do not appear to have been yet released.)

A report in October 1954, clearly arising from a mix up between Bocca (CPD) and Raji (RPD), trying to clear the matter up, pondered “unless, grim thought, there is a third DUTT brother”! The response, “Heaven forbid!” suggests the fear that the talent of the brothers inspired in the British state. But it was alright: “It must be C.P.D. CUBIST now confirms.” Clearly, Cubist, a deep entrist spy for the British security forces had wrongly identified Clem, even though, in 1955 Clem and Violet had a flat directly opposite the Kremlin and it was in Moscow that Clem devoted his remaining years to translation work of a high calibre. Not surely worth the expenditure that the British state thought it deserved. All they had to do was to wait for the FLPH editions to come out and pop along to Central Books to buy a copy of `Economics of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR’, `Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR’, `Political Economy, A Textbook’, `The poverty of philosophy’, `Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism: Manual’ or various notebooks, letters and the like of Marx and Lenin!

All this observation of so many people who were never guilty of a single crime through up scant evidence of any real link between the British Communist Party and the secret services of the socialist countries, even if the secret services of Britain were all too close to the British Party! Even if, all this time, the real Soviet agents were mostly people bred in the establishment and mostly completely unsuspected. What is clear is that it was to the advantage of the British state to know what was going on inside the Communist Party because it gave it a greater insight into what was going on inside the trade union movement and, by implication, an ability to assess the potential damage that the then social democratically inclined Labour Party might do to the interests of capitalism. Or, recalling the so-called Zinoviev letter, may even have provided possible dirt with which to smear the Labour Party. To close this edifying, if slightly ridiculous, account of the paranoia of the secret state’s hostility to the Party, permit a slight detour into a few years earlier than the period covered by this volume to make a final point.

In case it is thought for one moment that the cold war gave some kind of excuse for security force attention on Communists of the intrusive and irrelevant kind revealed here, MI5 thought nothing of it even during the Second World War when the USSR was a sworn ally of Britain. Consider the case of Communist and former International Brigader John Larmour, a man who home with a wife, a small child and a baby was turned over on a whim in 1945 simply because MI5 wanted to know what was in the last will and testament of a wealthy woman. Larmour worked for Eva Reckitt, the main owner of Collett’s, a left-wing and peace movement bookshop; she was also an heir to the fortune of a part of the famous name of Reckitt and Colman. After being bombed out of housing in many places in London, Reckitt offered her employee, John Larmour, and his wife Ella, a fellow Party member, space to temporarily live with their baby son at her cottage on the South Downs, where a daughter was also born in 1945. Sometime towards the end of the war, this cottage, ‘The Hollow’ at Houghton between Storrington and Arundel, near Worthing was raided by police but for what possible reason was always unclear until MI5 records were deposited in the National Archive.

Eva Reckitt was never actually a member of the Communist Party but she had first come to MI5’s attention in 1923 when mentioned in intercepted communications between leading Party members. One of her close friends, the journalist W N Ewer, had seemingly utilised Reckitt to assist in siphoning funds abroad but inside the British Empire (whether hers or the Comintern’s is unclear) to people who were probably activists campaigning for Indian independence, such a campaign being an illegal act at this time. This supposedly justified the Home Office keeping a permanent warrant legally justifying surveillance on her for the next 30 years. MI5 also kept on file all this time a hand-drawn map showing the location of Reckitt’s cottage, which purported to show how its relative isolation made it unsuited for keeping up surveillance on, making it suspected for being a `safe house’.

Years after Reckitt had been listed for permanent observations she had a row over politics with a neighbour to her cottage. This person reported her to the police for subversive activities and, on this thin pretext, West Sussex police made an absolutely thorough search of ‘The Hollow’. No doubt, the baby’s cot was searched! The police report includes a summary of the contents of Reckitt’s will, which was found amongst her papers. The raid on the cottage appears to have simply been a trawling exercise using the neighbour’s complaint to justify entry to the cottage. Special Branch will have obtained details of the beneficiaries in her will simply because MI5 wanted to know. The secret state simply wanted to assess to what extent the Communist Party might gain financially from the death of Eva Reckitt! In fact, when she did die, many years later, the bulk of Reckitt’s estate went to set up a perfectly respectable charitable foundation. Oddly, Collett’s premises themselves were never seemingly subject to surveillance but it is believed that the consequence of secret state attention never quite faded for John Larmour and that he was watched at his next home all during the 1950s
Despite all this, it is perhaps difficult at this distance in time to appreciate just how widely supported were Communist candidates in many working class areas, and how normal their campaigning was viewed. In the 1951 General Election, Dave Bowman stood as a Communist Party candidate for Dundee, a role he reprised several times. An article by Peter Kerrigan in Communist Review, December 1951, reported on the campaign:

“Naturally, where Communist candidates were standing, there arose difficulties in respect to official declarations from trade union organisations.   In Dundee, where Dave Bowman stood, many leading workers signed a recommendation addressed in their individual capacity to fellow workers in the particular industry, urging them to vote for Bowman.  In this way 64 transport workers, 91 railway workers (Bowman is a railwayman), 50 building workers, and 107 shipyard workers signed.”

“Photostatic copies of the signatures appended to the appeal were reproduced first in separate leaflets according to the industry and distributed at the enterprises concerned, and then all together in a four-page folder issued on the eve of the poll   The effect was very good.”

“My own experience in the last ten days before polling day in Gorbals is interesting … Apart from factory gate meetings outside such important enterprises as Queen’s Park Loco Works (at two different gates), Weir’s, and Dixon’s Iron Works, I was able to speak inside a number of enterprises either in the canteens or in the workshops.  In the United Co-operative Baking Society canteen, where at least 200 men and women workers, including staff employees, heard our case.  In Larkfield Bus Garage, in the Uniformed Staff Canteen, with eighty to ninety present.  In two different workshops, where 200 and 150 engineering workers attended.  In the Corporation Print Works canteen fifty were present (more than three times the number who listened to the Tory candidate in the same place); and in Coplawhill Car Works canteen I spoke to over 300 workers.”

“In addition I spoke to a group of doctors, nurses and domestic workers on the staff in the lecture room of the Samaritan Hospital.  All the other candidates were given similar facilities. The meetings varied in length from half an hour to fifty minutes maximum.  My usual practice was fifteen minutes statement, then questions… There were, in my case, at a number of the meetings, small groups of Catholic workers with prepared sets of hostile questions.”

“The attitude of the mass of the workers on the whole at these meetings was one of serious concern, and while it could not be described as  generally supporting, was with one exception friendly.  The exception was the Uniformed Staff Canteen meeting, where groups of Catholics deliberately tried to break up the meeting, not only by putting hostile questions and ones that were based on untruths, but interrupting the replies with comments that were just the repetition of falsehoods or slanders. Even here, however, the majority of the workers obviously resented the tactics employed.”

So, it is clear that where Communists were able to engage with ordinary working class people on straightforward terms, they were able to break through the heavy barrier now beginning to emerge as a result of the Cold War. Feasibly, one factor that may have been put forward as a genuine fear about the Communist Party as a `security’ weakness was the high commitment to policies of peace and détente that featured large in the interests of many members. That is assuming that one accepts that a warlike policy towards the many nations of the world that rejected NATO and its aggressive impulses. It is likely, however, that having once created a state management system of overseeing the work of British Communists that in the later decades when trade unions faced themselves increasingly at odds with the state that this security force ability was more and more focused in that arena.

Oddly, at this point, MI5 was seemingly less aware of the increasing strength in the trade union movement of the British Party. This would change and dramatically so during the 1960s and beyond. But for now, it was the focus on friendship with the Soviet Union and her close allies that obsessed the British security forces. Nowhere was this more evident that in the fears the state’s apparatus had over the World Youth Festivals, although their paranoia began with the even more innocuously British Cultural Committee for Peace (later the British Peace Committee). Formed in 1948, this had backed the call of the Stockholm Conference in 1950 and launched a peace petition which became a particular focus for activity for Communists. A total of 1.3 million signatures in the extraordinary atmosphere of the time was a remarkable achievement. Even the fact that the votes at various trade union and Co-op conferences for a Five Power Peace Pact had seen four million members express themselves in favour of this demand was nothing short of miraculous given the widespread existence on bans on Communists holding office in the labour movement.

The BPC was an affiliate of the World Peace Council (WPC), set up in 1949 but immediately derided by NATO as a `Soviet front organisation’, to work for “peace, disarmament and global security; for national independence, economic and social justice and development, for protection of the environment, human rights and cultural heritage; solidarity with and support of those peoples and liberation movements fighting for the independence, sovereignty and integrity of their countries, and against imperialism”. [http://www.wpc-in.org/informationletter] It continues to exist as a NGO member of the United Nations, co-operating with UNESCO, UNCTAD, UNIDO, ILO and other UN specialised agencies.

The WPC’s Stockholm Appeal launched in March 1950 aimed for the banning of atomic weapons. 473 million signatures were collected internationally. Communists in Britain were virtually alone in organising the collection of 50,000 signatures for the Stockholm Peace Appeal and were central to the attempted convening of the Second World Peace Congress in Sheffield in November 1950. The Executive Bureau of the World Peace Council had planned a World Congress in Genoa but hostility from the right wing government there forced a reschedule for 13th-19th November in London. On 9th September it was announced that the Congress would switch from London to Sheffield. The booking of the city’s main hall was strongly opposed by Tories on the City Council but some 2,500 delegates were expected.

The build-up to the conference began with farcical attempts at repression, on the afternoon of Sunday 12th November, when a young marathon runner, Stan Horsham, was pursued by London police attempting to stop his role as part of a relay team that had started in Bulgaria and was to end in Sheffield, where the Second Congress was due to open the next day. The relay had begun on 10th October in Bulgaria, passing through Rumania, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland and France. Another relay went through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Holland and Belgium. Stan Horsham was carrying a baton bearing the peace dove symbol designed Pablo Picasso. He was arrested and later faced a charge of insulting behaviour and participating in an unauthorised political march!  But he had passed the baton to a motor cyclist who was then hunted by police cars through the back streets of London. Having been released by police, Horsham reappeared at Hyde Park, to the delight of cheering crowds; he was to run out of London, now once again carrying the peace baton.  [Challenge, vol. 11, No.42, 20th October 1950, p. 1]

But the conference proper was also marred when the Attlee Labour government barred delegates from entering Britain. Such eminent persons as Professor Frederic Joliot-Curie, French atom scientist, Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg and composer Dimitri Shostakovich wee prevented from entering the country. One delegate to get through was Pablo Picasso. “C’est terrible” cried Picasso, describing the thorough security screening of congress delegates arriving on cross-channel steamers. One of the British conference’s organising committee received a Nobel Prize awards. Professor Cecil Powell got his award for developing a simple method of probing the secrets of the atom nucleus with photographic plates, and his discoveries regarding particles believed to hold the nucleus together. [Time magazine, Monday, November 20th 1950]

Two days before the congress was due to open, it was clear that only a few hundred of the expected 2,500 delegates were going to arrive. All but a single session was cancelled – the conference had been planned to last for a week. Questions were raised in parliament about the Home Secretary’s exclusions; in particular, regarding a number of American citizens who had arrived on the night of 11th-12th November. The Home Secretary said that he was acting on certain general principles in a statement to the House on 14th November, 1950. Quoting from a speech made by the Prime Minister he said: “… we are not willing to throw wide our doors to those who seek to come here to subvert our institutions, to seduce our fellow citizens from their natural allegiance and their daily duties and to make propaganda for those who call us cannibals and warmongers.'” [Official report, 14th November, 1950; Vol. 480, c. 1562–3.]

The 33 Americans refused entry included the Rev. Willard Uphaus, of the National Religion and Labor Foundation. MPs who knew him vouched for his and dhis companions “complete democratic bona fides; absolutely certain that they are not agents, stooges, dupes or anything else of the Cominform or anything like it”. Detained for some five hours, they were not allowed to go to the phone to try to get in touch with anyone. As the reverend put it “we were severely grilled … the long finger of America was in the pie.” Although all Americans were equipped with passports accredited by the State Department of the United States, their delegation was ordered to leave for Paris immediately and not to return, with no reason given for this.

One MP told the house “I do not believe that Mr. Dudley H. Burr, Pastor at Hartford Congregational Church, Conn., came here to subvert our institutions. I do not believe  that Mrs. Helen Johnson, Chairman of the Massachusetts Minute Women for Peace, Boston, came here to seduce our fellow citizens from their natural allegiance and duty. I do not believe that Mrs. Theresa Robinson, a member of the International Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, had come here to make propaganda …”

Another MP raised the case of the Rev. John Paul Jones, of Brooklyn, a well-known and respected figure in the religious life of America. Having other business in Britain, he could have got past immigration officers without saying that he was also an observer at this conference but conveyed this only to be told: “We shall have to see about this.” Quite respectable French delegates were also hounded; one was an MP and a member of the French aristocracy, a count. Many who were refused permission to land are people were “no nearer the Communist Party in France than is the Home Secretary”. One refused entry was Madame Dupont Delestraint, the daughter of the general who was the first chief of the secret Army of Resistance under General de Gaulle and whose father was shot by the Germans. Another who was not admitted was M. D’Astier, the first Minister of Interior under General de Gaulle. Another was Minister of Supplies in 1946. Even M. Pierre Cot, ex-Minister for Air, a Republican MP was refused admission. Anyone who might be classed, roughly, as progressive intelligentsia in a very large number of countries of Europe was banned from entry.

An MP worried: “There is grave danger that in this country, as a result of the cold war, we are creating a new vested interest—a new secret police vested interest—perhaps unconsciously, but certainly the apparatus is there.” [Questions to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department ( Geoffrey de Freitas HC Deb 17 November 1950 vol 480 cc2074-90

In 1951 the following year, the WPC was expelled by the French Government and six years later the Austrian Government banned the World Peace Council from coming to their nation. The WPC and the BPC backed the world youth festival movements, which very much focused on peace issues. The Third World Festival of Youth and Students (WFYS) was held in 1951, in East Berlin. The motto of the festival was: `For Peace and Friendship – Against Nuclear Weapons’. Not only was there the rising tension between the Soviet Union and the west, the festival also took place against the background of the Korean War. Delegates from the west of Europe faced huge obstacles from NATO forces, mostly American, in simply attempting to enter the GDR, via Austria and Czechoslovakia. The festival focused on the call in February of that year of the World Peace Council appeal for the conclusion of a Peace Pact between the 5 Great Powers (USA, UK, USSR, France, and China).

The British Peace Committee then campaigned for the collection of signatures supporting the Appeal. It offered a free trip to the 3rd World Youth Festival in Berlin to the youth who obtained the most signatures and this prize was won by Michael Brennan of Harrow and Sorelle Lewis of Leeds, who collected almost 5,000 signatures between them.

Now known as the World Festival of Youth and Students, this international event is organised by the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY), to which the British YCL has always been affiliated. The first was held in 1947, the 17th Festival in 2009 but there were three festivals during the period covered by this text – in the 4th in Bucharest (1953), 5th in Warsaw (1955), 6th in Moscow 1957, 7th in Vienna (1959) and 8th in Helsinki (1962).

The First World Festival of Youth and Students (WFY&S) was held in 1947, in Prague, the capital of the then Czechoslovak Republic. The World Federation of Democratic Youth had decided to celebrate its first festival there in remembrance of the events of October and November of 1939, when thousands of young Czechs rose in demonstrations against the occupation of the country by Nazi Germany. This caused a wave of repression that included the closing of all the superior schools, the arrest of more than 1,850 students, and the internment of 1,200 of them in the Nazi concentration camps. This was the longest Festival in its history, lasting almost four weeks and the motto it followed was “Youth Unite, Forward for Lasting Peace!”. The WFY&S also paid tribute to the Czech villages of Lidice and Ležáky, which were completely eradicated, along with their populations, as a reprisal for the assassination of the vicious German governor Reinhard Heydrich, who had been widely nicknamed `The Butcher of Prague’ by Czechoslovaks. Heydrich’s death was greeting with jubilation, despite the intense repression and the post-war Czechoslovakian socialist-communist government immediately set about reconstructing the demolished villages.

The Second World Festival of Youth and Students (WFYS) was held in 1949, in Budapest, a city still recuperating from World War II. The 2nd WFYS was one of three major youth events held in Hungary in August 1949, along with the World University Summer Games and the World Youth Congress. The motto of the festival was: “Youth Unite! Forward for Lasting Peace, Democracy, National Independence and a better future for the people!”. 20,000 young people from 82 countries gathered in the Ujpest Stadium, inaugurating the festival. For two weeks, the participants took part in cultural, sport, and political activities. The festival expressed its solidarity for the “anti-colonialist struggle” of the peoples of Indonesia, Malaysia and French Indochina and also for the “anti-fascist struggle” of the Spanish and Greek peoples. It was the first time that a delegation from what would become the German Democratic Republic took part.

The British delegation to the 3rd Festival in 1951 was of over 1,600 young people from “every shade of political opinion, Tories, Labour, Liberal, Communist, trade union, Co-operative and colonial youth, workers and students of every trade and profession. It was the biggest and broadest delegation ever to go from these shores.” [See: Bernard Barry “See You in Berlin! The 1951 World Youth Festival” Our History New Series No 6: July 2007]

This despite the virulent hostility of the Labour Party; its National Executive said those going to the Festival committed an act incompatible with membership. Some 300 British young people sailed from Newhaven, where passports were checked against a list given to the French gendarmes on orders from London. 12 delegates were turned back, then spent all night guarded by armed security police like common criminals. On the return ferry the French captain confirmed the gendarmes’ statement. 14 British were prevented from boarding the ‘plane at Brussels for a flight to Prague.  2 Venezuelan girls were sent back to Kingston, Jamaica and had to pay £154 for their fare!

To get to Berlin, delegates had to travel to Austria and cross the common border with East Germany. To prevent this, “the West German police and the armed forces of the US, UK, and France in Austria were mobilised in thousands to try and prevent any young person reaching Berlin”. Sealed on a train, near the border between the French and US sectors in Austria, some 300 were taken off the main track by US troops to be shunted into a siding. After a long wait, it was falsely claimed that papers were out of order so they could not proceed any further towards Berlin. Contact with the nearest UK consul, in Vienna in the Russian sector, was refused. Finally it was agreed the party could go 4 hours back to Innsbruck in the French sector to see the UK consul there. The French delegates were taken to stay in school halls. The British were left stranded on the station platform and squatted there in protest for a week. Local people came daily to help with their supplies, trade union delegations from all over Austria brought collections.

US troops were apparently checking every train going that weekend to Vienna and throwing off anyone and everyone who looked young enough to be going to a youth festival. 12 Leicester schoolboys, wearing young Conservative badges, and their two teachers, were mistakenly manhandled off the train by troops. One British group left the train at Berg-Griesen. A local gasthaus accommodated them in a barn. At 3.30 am US troops surrounded it, bundled the group into lorries then put them under armed guard into a barbed wire compound in Saalfelden barracks with 120 French. To show their spirits despite the US action they danced the hokey-cokey before leaving the compound to be taken to Saalfelden station.

In another group, detrained at Leogang, Colin Sweet was hit with the butt of an automatic rifle, necessitating 8 stitches near the eye. He was treated by a US doctor, kept 6 hours without food or water. Eileen Field was seized and manhandled by 5 or 6 US troops and suffered arm and leg bruising. The main party, led by Charles Ringrose, was literally thrown off the train at Saalfelden. Baggage was ripped open. When Jane Watson of Bristol was hit by a passing train, Dr. Hughes, a London Peace Council delegate, was forcibly prevented from attending her. He was even punished for trying to! She needed 6 weeks more rest before she could resume work.

34 British, 55 French, Turkish and Algerians broke through the US cordon at Saalfelden and got to Prague. About 6.30 am all the young people on the track were forced, at bayonet point, on to a train. Over 40 British were injured in the US attacks. The ‘Daily Worker’ of 15 August 1951 gave a full page of detailed reports, World Press and news agency pictures and photos of hostile US guards with bayonets fixed. Due to the news coverage, greetings telegrams from all over the world were sent to those at Innsbruck. Massive protests, far too many to detail all, were sent to the United Nations HQ in Vienna. To the Peace Council protest Morrison replied “The delegates are themselves responsible for the difficulties met in Austria.” An official FO reply was “Use of rifle butts, and bayonets appears to have been necessary”.

Eventually the main British party left Innsbruck in successive groups of 50/60 at different times, going into the British sector. When the rest of the British caught up, all 200 or so were assembled and taken on small vehicles for miles along mountain tracks. Any doubts they had were dispelled by assurances they would get through – “We fought with the Partisans. We know every blade of grass round here”. Then on foot they went through a forest in silence as British soldiers were searching for them. When at last they saw a Soviet border post they had to restrain their impulse to shout with joy. Soon a Red Army vehicle transported them to a nearby village where they could wash, feed and rest.  The delegates were then bussed to Vienna, to stay overnight in a youth hostel. Finally a great long train took them through Czechoslovakia across to the GDR and at last they were in Berlin.

They had braved American bayonets, been resolute in face of political and diplomatic chicanery and now two weeks late, they joined the Festival. All along the route were bands and crowds of people, especially the Free German Youth (FDJ), on the station platforms waving and holding up messages of greeting. At the station in Berlin the party was led on to a platform for all to see them, to be greeted with cheers. Loudspeakers broadcast music of the peace movement and the Festival.

It was a tremendous victory for peace, for that young generation from East and West to meet together, celebrate and live in friendship with youth of all nations. The British and French experience was by no means unique. A vast number of delegates from all over Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas had similar harassment, but each of them pledged not to rest until they reached Berlin.

900 sailed in a specially chartered Channel steamer, the ‘Maid of Orleans’ to Boulogne, and then went by train to Dunkirk to board the Polish liner ‘Batory’.  38 delegates had their passports taken.  In a vain attempt to shake their morale they were taken to the dockside to see the ‘Batory’ leave. As it did, all the delegates crowded the rails to wave to the 38, cheered and sang the Festival Youth song and shouted to them “See you in Berlin!” They did. The 38 were put on a ferry back to England.

On Sunday, August 5th 1951 a trumpet reveille announced the opening of the 3rd World Youth Festival. The GDR government said it “greets with joy the peace loving youth of the whole world”. Wilhelm Pieck said “All eyes of mankind are on Berlin where youth will demonstrate its will for Peace”. In the Walter Ulbricht stadium delegates of 103 nations marched through in alphabetical order, Afghanistan,

Afterwards, the London Peace Council and the Youth Festival committee held a joint meeting and, after hearing of the experiences of delegates, demanded a public inquiry, a US apology, court-martial of offending soldiers and compensation for damages, none of which ensued. Plans were also made for a national drive for signatures for the 5 Power Peace Pact Appeal. In December a film premiere of the Festival was shown to a 1,400 strong meeting in St. Pancras. A campaign for a Youth Festival then followed. 4,000 British youth attended the Festival June 1/3 1952. They demonstrated in Sheffield calling for the 5 Power Peace Pact, for the strengthening of the UN.

The programme at the camp in Wortley Hall, near Sheffield, included concerts, indoor and outdoor games, singing and dancing, discussion forums etc. True to form, Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary, refused all facilities to all foreign delegates. In 2001, the ‘Morning Star’ covered the release under the 50-year rule relating to classified government documents.  “Foreign Office plots to provoke trouble at Youth Festivals in the 1950s …. disclosed government plans to send in ‘shock squads’ of British young people to infiltrate and disrupt the festivals. One civil servant wrote in a top-secret memo, `We should not try to compete with the communists in these monster youth jamborees. Youth per se is a concept which, to my mind, is repugnant to the Western way of life’. [Morning Star 26th July 2001]

British delegates who wished to attend the reconvened Congress in Warsaw in November 1952 also faced problems.  Yorkshire Communist, Percy Riley, applied for permission to be released from his employers, unpaid, for the period needed. This was at first refused and a campaign to force them ensued by means of a petition. The Secretary of the Dearne Labour Party, a moderate and Catholic councillor, found himself censured for being a “Communist stooge” by the Labour hierarchy and local press when he expressed his support and belief in the rights of individuals to hold controversial opinions.

The experience of the Festival saw countless numbers of young people firmly fix their lifetime of allegiance to progressive causes. Whilst the Communist Party was suffering under the onslaught of cold war hysteria, many young people who had seen for their own eyes the brutality and ruthlessness of the state powers of NATO members committed themselves to the struggle for peace.

The YCL had faced a difficult time as the Cold War bit with national service still compulsory. It’s natural instinct was to look towards revitalising its education programme, so as to stiffen up understanding about Marxism. As the following article reveals, even someone who would later become a serious reviser of Marxism and a critic of `old-fashioned’ and dogmatic outlooks urged efforts to tighten up the YCL’s political output.

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