Saturday, November 14, 2015

‘The Bolsheviks are coming’: the haunting of the Empire from London to Calcutta

Suchetana Chattopadhyay

That sinking feeling

At four o’clock in the afternoon on the last day of 1917, the British war cabinet met in Downing Street to consider the new Bolshevik regime’s peace proposals to Germany. Despite suspicions directed at both the Germans and the Bolsheviks, it was recognised in a climate of war fatigue that the latter sought a ‘Just Peace’. When the war cabinet reassembled the following day the tone had changed. The Bolsheviks, it was felt, had a programme of their own; inimical to British interests, they were probably advocating the cause of the enemy. This preliminary judgment on New Year’s Day 1918 would henceforth penetrate all such discussions, fuelled from the top and taken up by news agencies to manufacture public consent. Informed by prosaic considerations as well as xenophobic stereotyping, official perceptions and policies were supported and reinforced in the public sphere through networks of newspaper reports and informal rumours. The Bolsheviks were initially projected as Germany’s agents, and after the fall of Germany as its successor as public enemy. In fact, Britain’s rulers recognised, as contemporary records show, that the Bolsheviks were not a creation of the Germans, that the Kaiser Reich was interested in crushing them in the near future and that the Bolsheviks had not artificially fomented the mass upheavals in Russia. Rather, they had given a coherent political direction to the chaotic protests against the tsarist autocracy and a feeble provisional government.

From the Whitehall Gardens in London to the Elysium Row headquarters of the Calcutta police, the spectre of Bolshevism haunted the British authorities at the end of the First World War and in its immediate aftermath. From Cairo to Shanghai, and across South Asia, cities falling within the orbit of formal and semi-formal colonialism were seen by Imperial policy-makers and intelligence-gatherers as susceptible to Bolshevik ‘propaganda’. The anti-imperialist and internationalist appeal of Bolshevism was interpreted as a source of deep danger to the empire of capital. In November 1918, the month of the armistice, the British government decided, alongside other Allied powers, to invade Russia. The step was taken in trepidation of internal opposition to continuing the war by another name. A propaganda war against Bolshevism among the ‘inflammable’ British workers was deemed expedient. By the following July, as counter-revolutionary forces met with reverses, the cabinet was sharply divided. Winston Churchill, the war secretary and a champion of direct military intervention, felt that asking the Bolsheviks for an armistice meant disaster; ‘He could not conceive that we could sink so low’. Lloyd George, the premier, urged an exit strategy. His position was probably informed by intelligence reports on counter-revolutionary armies, especially the Polish contingents, as a hopeless, brutish and corrupt bunch of anti-Semites and self-seekers who were alienating the local populace and driving them into the arms of the Bolsheviks. Though the British forces were withdrawn, support continued to be given to Kolchak, Denikin and the Polish forces till they collapsed. It was nevertheless admitted by early 1920 that Britain could not commit troops in Russia since a revolutionary situation had emerged within the empire due to militant strikes and uproar against colonial rule, from Ireland to Egypt to India.

While conservatives debated whether or not to negotiate with their ideological nemesis, there was consensus among all fractions of the ruling class on the pressing need to safeguard the empire from its influence. In-house differences over cautious and militant strategies vis-a-vis Bolshevism thus converged to produce a stable network of long-term intelligence gathering on communism. The voices of moderation took advantage of the extremist voices to legitimise imperialism in rational tones. Anti-Bolshevik surveillance, as the scheme became loosely known in official circles, originated in the existing system of policing political opponents which it combined with new policies adopted in the wake of the revolution. It was a micro-structure within the wider institution of imperial surveillance.  In the propaganda war against Bolshevism, the paradoxes of liberal imperialism unravelled, and there were clashes with, and simultaneous adjustments to, the more xenophobic forms of self-preservation.  

The widespread anti-establishment feelings within Britain were cited to bring the measures into force. As the British state was preparing to deploy troops to Russia, attention fell on pockets of British workers sympathetic to Bolshevism, and on the hostility among the poor towards the government. The state feared that the internal social situation could become even more volatile and the popular mood turn violently anti-establishment after the formal termination of the war. Though force and legal prosecution were not to be ruled out as viable options for dealing with dissent, policy-makers felt that it was more important to persuade and convince people that ‘Bolshevism rather than the Government’ was the real ‘enemy’. Rather than tight censorship, counter-propaganda was advocated, emphasising the aberrant presence of a malevolent external force.

The case of Lionel Britton (1887-1971), a neglected leftist writer of working-class origin, revealed the anxieties and perceptions guiding the British establishment. Britton had been a ‘conscientious objector’ during First World War and was arrested as an absentee on 21 October 1918. He was believed to have been harboured by the British Socialist Party, and was in possession of a typewriter belonging to the Food Commission and a stolen bicycle. There were also letters to a Harry Humphries of 27 Camac Street, Calcutta which were quoted as ‘an indication of the state of mind of some of the people who are members of the British Socialist Party:

‘Dear Harry … I’m jolly glad to hear of your homecoming … if you call this blasted country home. ... The question now is which of us can last out the longest, Germany, the British Empire, or L.B.  I have had to follow some of their methods or I should have succumbed before this. I have now definitely decided to become a thief. I make sure of at least one meal a day free ... It’s the only blessed earthly way one can live. These filthy stinking thieves, OBEs etc., have overrun the country. Honesty is now a punishable offence. Absolutely the only way to keep out of gaol is to thieve.’

Britton confessed to stealing an Onoto fountain pen at the British Museum to replace the one he had lost. He felt guilty for trespassing on the public ‘flavour’ of the museum space. He claimed the war had completely demoralised him and the ‘dirty filthy swine’, who could afford fountain pens and believed in compulsory enlistment, should have been killed if it was safe to do so. He went on to say he had ‘committed no murders’. Yet he had come to experience, influenced by the climate of war, ‘an extraordinary effect of the cheapness of human life’. If he had been ‘willing to accept the blessing of the Church’, he ‘should now be ankle deep in blood’, a prospect that revolted him. He called for an understanding of the pathology of state by advocating a serious ‘study the application of bacteriology to politics’.  Britton’s letter, bristling with irony and dejection, was also a conscious attempt to present the petty violations of private property as desperate self-help measures in hard times. But these individual views, feelings and acts were seen by officials as ‘dangerous’, containing the seeds of collective upheaval against the existing order in future.

Bolshevism was projected as an unspeakable and insidious aberration flowing in from outside. The fictive and practical interpretations emanating from official readings enabled the British authorities to promote it as the root cause of post-war global afflictions besetting the empire of capital, from economic inflation to labour protests. Popular xenophobic ideologies, deplored in secret cabinet meetings, were given currency in the propaganda war against Bolshevism. This exposed the paradoxes of liberal imperialism which contradicted and simultaneously accommodated more extreme currents. Institutional and socially widespread anti-Semitism was harnessed to depict the Russian Revolution as a Jewish conspiracy. The unsophisticated Asian counterpart of the cosmopolitan, wandering ‘Jewish Bolshevik’, in the official imagination, was the ‘Muslim Bolshevik fanatic’. Though occasional reports stressed on the need to win over the Muslim populations within the British Empire, an official stamp was given to existing racist stereotypes of Islam as a religion of dangerous, seditious agitators. Jews and Muslims, it was emphasised, were the peripatetic carriers of subversive ideologies like Bolshevism since their transterritorial convictions could absorb the principles of communist internationalism.  As one report observed:

‘The danger of this [Bolshevik] propaganda consists in the idea of internationalism. This theory enables the Bolsheviks to find accomplices and allies in the most unexpected places outside Russia – in battleships, wireless stations, military barracks, post offices, consulates, palatial hotels and mansions. The result is that no one holding a responsible position in a non-Bolshevik country can be sure that he has not in his employ an embittered subordinate sometimes with a genuine grievance against society and a genuine belief in communism as a cure for all the ills in the world … ‘

The Bolshevik Menace was perceived by the government as a pathological disorder with a global reach, comparable to the influenza pandemic of 1918. The case of Lionel Britton also showed how opponents of capital and empire could be reading existing authority through the lens of ‘bacteriology’. Since the flu resulted in mass death on a global scale, its familiar imagery triggered horror and insecurity.

In official speeches Bolshevism became a virus and an epidemic: a political threat infecting minds and actions of workers and intellectuals from outside. It was also projected as a strain that could combine with other anti-imperialist currents and mutate into a force of fearsome opposition. A Bolshevik or a supporter of Bolshevism was necessarily an alienated outsider, equipped to corrode the body-politic of a healthy empire.  Lenin and the ‘Bolshevik standpoint’ were described in apocalyptic terms in a confidential report from May 1920, when the Anglo-Russian negotiations had formally begun:

‘Lenin has no thought for humanity, no shrinking from the disasters with which his policy may afflict it in the intermediate stage. To him, leaning upon the rim of the world, wars and pestilences, should they come, merely usher in a new age. Compared with the establishment of the regime of Individual Liberty and Capitalism they are not disastrous, but transitory wisps of cloud which will clear. He is not unwilling that they should come, for they are among the former things that must pass away. They are instrumental merely, to be taken up and laid down like an artificer’s tools … One shrinks from the conclusion; but Lenin’s inhuman aloofness may have set the intricacies of the European situation in a true perspective, and his calculation that he will have his way whether the peoples fight or refuse to fight, has an appearance of foresight which is both disquieting and sinister.’

It was registered that the Bolsheviks ruled with a degree of mass support and the Red Army had become a highly trained and organised force in the course of the Civil War. The idea of negotiating with the Bolsheviks gained ascendancy, and in February 1920 Lloyd George insisted in a speech before the Commons that the civil war in Russia could not continue forever. He advocated future commercial relations to ‘bring Russia back to sanity by trade’ and declared: ‘We must use abundance to fight anarchy.’ It was this view that prevailed, and talks began in May 1920 which concluded ten months later with an Anglo-Soviet commercial treaty.  The fear of imminent Bolshevik ‘invasion’ of prize colonies such as India, through the land routes of Central Asia, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier, was henceforth to be superseded by anxieties over ideological ‘infiltration’.

Colonial policing and the comedian who never arrived

No identifiable left formation was visible between 1918 and 1921 in imperial outposts, such as Calcutta. Yet, from the end of 1919, an anti-Bolshevik surveillance scheme was put in place following discussions between the central authorities in Delhi and the local authorities. It was felt that in a cosmopolitan port-city surrounded by an industrial belt and peopled with workers, Bolshevik agents and literature would find a haven unless checked in advance. While local authorities reported that the Bolsheviks had not yet arrived, but would make their presence known once labour became organised, the centre took no chances. The local intelligence was asked to compile watch reports on activities of individuals and organisations suspected of Bolshevik sympathies. These reports were then incorporated into a confidential monthly bulletin of the Home Political Department in Delhi, which was circulated within India and regularly sent to London. The reports mostly concentrated on the nationalist and labour upsurge and individuals who had little to do with Bolshevism. The central authorities created two official positions within the Criminal Intelligence Department to deal with the ‘Bolshevik Menace’. However, the administration in Calcutta was reluctant to appoint a local ‘Anti-Bolshevik Officer’. Instead it proposed the expansion of regular policing and the entrustment of an existing officer with the monitoring of this tendency. There was agreement with the central administrators that Bolshevism could be interpreted in a ‘loose way’ as subversive ideas and radical actions directed against the existing social order and political authority. Where they differed was regarding the presence of Bolshevik activists or organisation. Over-emphasising an invisible threat was not favoured, and the Chief Secretary to the Government of Bengal gently chided the central authorities for their ‘loose’ use of the term:

‘I gather that the Bengal Police, at all events, know nothing of any emissaries charged with spreading the principles of Bolshevism and the establishment of Soviet rule. We have had cases of convicted Bolsheviks landing at Calcutta, but I understand there is no reason whatsoever to believe that they were charged with any mission.’

He wryly observed if an officer went around looking for Bolsheviks, local Bolsheviks would indeed appear.  Amid boasts by the local police of having personnel trained in latest methods at Scotland Yard and well-equipped to deal with any potential danger, a compromise was reached.  Two inspectors were appointed as ‘Bolshevik Guards’ and watch reports on local protests were regularly sent to the central Anti-Bolshevik officer in charge of collating such news.  This step was combined with enforcement of strict passport control at the Calcutta Port. The banning and censorship of imported and locally produced periodicals and books deemed radical were also seen as effective measures. 

During the enforcement of the special surveillance scheme in 1920, the local intelligence, conforming to the demands of the imperial authorities in London and Delhi, regularly sent reports on suspected Bolsheviks spotted in the docks and different neighbourhoods. Their targets were generally individual visitors who fitted certain stereotypes related to class, race, gender, ethnicity and politics.The volume of reports on Bolshevik agents increased that year since the imperial authorities specifically asked for them. Through guidelines sent in 1919, closely following instructions from London, on a potential ‘ingress’ of Bolshevik ‘agents’ and literature into India, the specific parameters of anti-Bolshevik surveillance were being set.  To keep up with the demand, reports drawing on the experiential and mythic and bordering on the curious and the fantastic were supplied by local intelligence agents. Random impressions were rarefied into facts of interest. Slices of daily life, isolated from other mundane aspects, became staples of political policing. They enveloped police accounts in a haze of hearsay and stereotypes. Versions of events and descriptions of individuals were concocted and embroidered.

The point is perhaps best made through individual examples. In early 1920, a certain Madam Dass was watched for a while. The male gaze of the agents followed her across the city. She was described as a prosperous and ‘beautiful’ middle-aged lady of Indo-European origin, ‘a gift to the nation by a Kashmiri mother and a European father’; but also of ‘questionable character’, having become estranged from her Indian husband, a retired doctor who had served in the Indian Medical Service, a government institution. She had visited militant Khilafatist and nationalist figures in the city and wished to join the revolutionary movement. The leaders she had met did not approve of her smoking habit and her manners and suspected her of being a government spy. But they were still interested in utilising her contacts among émigré Indians. Madam Dass, whose full name was never given, was implied to be a political adventure-seeking femme fatale, painted in the literary shades of Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and Mata Hari. She disappeared from the dossier as suddenly as she had appeared. The discussions on her, like so many other investigations, ceased abruptly and the investigation remained inconclusive.

Other suspected Bolshevik outsiders also faded away. Bishop Fisher, an American Methodist Minister, was watched on the basis of an article published by his rival in a New York journal. When he realised he was being shadowed, the bishop complained and the watch was withdrawn. Artem Arunoff, a ‘Bolshevik Armenian’, was interrogated in the Poona Jail by the ‘Anti-Bolshevik’ officer; he claimed that three Bolshevik agents, William Rainer, Haji Moor and Ivanoff, were in Calcutta. Subsequent enquiry among the city’s small Armenian diaspora yielded little. Ivanoff reportedly came to Calcutta, was watched and left. Harry S. Durkee, holder of US and Russian passports, allegedly a Bolshevik agent with ‘somewhat Jewish features’, arrived and departed through the Calcutta port. Preetz, a German textile merchant who had apparently worked in pre-war Calcutta and acted as a Bolshevik representative in Berlin, also became a subject of investigation. Nothing could be found on his local contacts in Calcutta. A confidential report stated that another man bearing the same name was a doctor attached to the Old Mission Church and in the habit of visiting brothels to blackmail the patrons, and liquor dens where he kept ‘low-class’ company. A report was also prepared on the non-existence of an Esperanto Club in the city since they were tipped as centres of Bolshevik internationalist intrigue in port-cities such as Shanghai.  Tan Pei Yun, a Chinese actor who played the role of a clown and stopped the dramatic performance early to deliver a subversive anarchic-Bolshevik lecture, was expected to land in Calcutta, with its large Chinese community. He was going to sow ‘mischief’, having travelled through British-controlled Kuala Lumpur with his troupe. The comedian’s arrival was never recorded.  Finally, in January 1922, an unnamed ‘source’ from Moscow reported the landing in Calcutta of four Russia-trained British Bolsheviks, Whitehead, Keller, Karolinade and Markov. One of them was supposedly missing two fingers on his hand. No-one matching such a description arrived. 

Potential Bolshevik penetration, following central directives, was seen in the movements of people, money, treasures and literature. The central authorities banned new rouble notes and the local authorities kept an eye on their possible circulation even if none was detected.  Lenin was personally accused of planning to flood Bengal with forged paper currency and the Bolsheviks were seen as successors of the Kaiser government in attempting to increase inflation by ruining Britain and the empire with fraudulent money.  Jewish jeweller shops in the fashionable business districts of Dalhousie Square and Chowringhee were keenly watched. Intelligence reports had arrived from London projecting Jews as potential carriers of Russian crown jewels, confiscated and put on the market by cash-strapped Bolsheviks. The Perry brothers, Joseph and Nathan, were investigated. Joseph was found to have been insolvent for a while, but it was ultimately decided that neither was a Bolshevik. Ele Levy Menashe, arriving by a passenger ship from Rangoon, was also suspected, but instructions on him came too late and his luggage had not been searched when he left again for Bombay.  In 1920, left literature originating from the Third International was scarcely noticed. Publications of the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain were banned before they could be circulated.  Pro-Bolshevik views, expressed in the British labour organ,Daily Herald, were suppressed when the Government of India prohibited its import during the high-tide of Non Cooperation and Khilafat Movements.  The entry of proscribed left literature increased in volume in Calcutta from 1922 with the emergence of a local left network to receive and distribute it.

In the gardens of deep reaction, myths could take on lives of their own. The focus on the myth of the Bolshevik outsider to explain the post-war sympathy among different class segments, conceived and cultivated in the metropolitan surroundings of the Whitehall Gardens and transplanted to imperial outposts such as Elysium Row in Calcutta, operated in the dual realms of illusions and practical strategy. The illusion of imperial policy-makers and the consequent recourse to xenophobic stereotypes stemmed from a fixed belief in the perfection of an order that could not weaken or crumble from within. Illusions regarding liberal cosmopolitanism and multiple identities made the British state project Bolsheviks as both narrow-minded and flexible, as parochial peasants and travelling subversives. This also prompted the establishment to variously celebrate and downplay, in unsystematic and contradictory ways, its own claims to sophisticated cosmopolitanism and racist anti-cosmopolitanism.  The illusion was also aimed at winning over the subjects of this order when many tried to resist capitalism at home and imperialism and colonial capital abroad.The policy of the imperial authorities in London to reduce administrative expenditure and the consequent slash in secret service grants during 1919-20, was followed by similar moves in India. At the end of 1921, with the conclusion of the Anglo-Russian Trade Agreement and the reduction of the surveillance budget in India, the special anti-Bolshevik scheme was abandoned.  This meant that the official posts created at the central and local levels were abolished. Through the special scheme, the colonial authorities and intelligence services were made alert to the possibilities of a left formation in the future. When a tiny communist nucleus emerged in the city in the course of 1922, the state was already awaiting such a development.


British Cabinet Office Papers (CAB) 1917-21.
Home (Political) Reports, Government of Bengal.
Reports of the Intelligence Branch of Bengal Police.

Suchetana Chattopadhyay teaches history at Jadavpur University.

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