Forged Communist Letter Brings Down British Government Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The London Daily Mail published a letter allegedly from Soviet Communist Party leader Grigory Yevseyevich Zinovyev that called on the British Communist Party to engage in a political campaign on behalf of the Labour government. The letter, which brought down the Labour government, proved to be a forgery.

Summary of Event

Both Great Britain and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) faced critical changes in 1924. In Britain the Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald gained power for the first time. Although the MacDonald government was in coalition with members of the Liberal Party, it carried out policies, including a treaty with the Soviet Union not yet recognized by London, which alarmed the Conservatives and some Liberals and independents. The treaty established the Anglo-Soviet Trade Company to engage in economic transactions between London and Moscow. The Soviets established an office in England, and the MacDonald government also authorized Moscow a loan. The treaty, however, needed to be ratified by the British parliament. [kw]Forged Communist Letter Brings Down British Government (Oct. 25, 1924) [kw]Communist Letter Brings Down British Government, Forged (Oct. 25, 1924) Communist Party Reilly, Sidney Morton, Desmond MacDonald, Ramsay Soviet Union Communist Party Reilly, Sidney Morton, Desmond MacDonald, Ramsay Soviet Union [g]Europe;Oct. 25, 1924: Forged Communist Letter Brings Down British Government[00350] [g]England;Oct. 25, 1924: Forged Communist Letter Brings Down British Government[00350] [c]Forgery;Oct. 25, 1924: Forged Communist Letter Brings Down British Government[00350] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Oct. 25, 1924: Forged Communist Letter Brings Down British Government[00350] [c]Publishing and journalism;Oct. 25, 1924: Forged Communist Letter Brings Down British Government[00350] [c]Government;Oct. 25, 1924: Forged Communist Letter Brings Down British Government[00350] [c]Politics;Oct. 25, 1924: Forged Communist Letter Brings Down British Government[00350] [c]International relations;Oct. 25, 1924: Forged Communist Letter Brings Down British Government[00350]

The Soviet Union also faced much political uncertainty. The country was recovering from the disasters of World War I, the Russian Revolution Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil Russian Civil War War (1918-1922), which had led to famine and political unrest. Communist Party leaders, however, had adopted a popular economic policy, bringing some stability and recovery. Meanwhile, communist leader Lenin, Vladimir Illich Vladimir Ilich Lenin died at the beginning of the year, and Trotsky, Leon Leon Trotsky waged a struggle to take his place with a triumvirate of Stalin, Joseph Joseph Stalin, Kamenev, Leo Leo Kamenev, and Zinovyev, Grigory Yevseyevich Grigory Yevseyevich Zinovyev. Zinovyev also was general secretary, or leader, of the Communist International Communist International (Comintern), an association of communist parties around the world. Its objective was to help these parties achieve revolutions in their own countries. However, because of the political circumstances during the mid-1920’s, Comintern’s ability to carry out this objective was weakened.

In England, MacDonald’s policies brought about an anticommunist backlash, and he lost a vote of confidence in Parliament, which required new elections (scheduled for the end of October). The new parliament would then deal with the trade treaty. On October 25, 1924, four days before the election, the conservative Daily Mail published a letter allegedly written by Zinovyev and addressed to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

The paper claimed the letter was dated September 15, 1924, and was marked “very secret.” Recovered by the secret service on October 8, the letter stated that the British bourgeoisie and reactionary circles were waging a fierce election campaign to break the trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union and to prevent recognition of the U.S.S.R. by London. The British proletariat, it said, must force MacDonald to maintain the treaty. It called on the CPGB to stir up British workers, especially the unemployed, who, the letter insisted, would benefit from the proposed loan. The letter also emphasized that the CPGB put pressure on members of the Labour Party to rally behind the treaty and its supporting candidates.

The letter went on to warn the CPGB about the duplicity of MacDonald and other Labour Party leaders, claiming that they were part of the bourgeoisie. It further stated that the communists should expose the weaknesses of the Labour government, especially in foreign policy. The Comintern reportedly had documents that revealed the activities of the British in Asia, who were carrying out their imperialistic policies. The main point of the letter, however, was to continue to fight for improving the relations between London and Moscow, maintaining that these relations were as important as revolution. Such relations could lead to greater contact among the workers of the two countries and to further propaganda for Leninist ideas in England and the colonies.

Armed revolution, the letter argued, would be difficult in England because the workers leaned toward compromise and evolutionary Marxism (something that had been promoted by playwright George Bernard Shaw, members of the British Fabian Society, and even Karl Marx) and must be gradually prepared for armed struggle. In Ireland Ireland and the British colonies, the letter suggested, armed revolution would be possible because of the “national” question. However, England could quickly develop more revolutionary ideas if circumstances such as strikes and government repression were to hasten the development of a militant ideology. In the meantime the CPGB would have to rely on propaganda.

The letter concluded with a suggestion that CPGB recruitment and work among the military was weak and must be more forcefully attended to, especially among units in the larger cities. The CPGB, it said, must pay especial attention to building cells among munitions factories and arms depots. If war came, Communist Party cells in those areas and among transport workers would hamper the bourgeoisie war effort and lead to a class war. The CPGB must train military specialists as the future leaders of a British “Red Army.” The letter suggested slogans for the CPGB, including “Danger of War” and “The Bourgeoisie Seeks War; Capital[seeks] Fresh Markets.” Such language, which indicated, at minimum, interference in British internal affairs by Moscow and, in the extreme, an attempt to overthrow the British government by violent revolution, was exceedingly inflammatory. The public release of the letter served the interests of the Conservative Party in its election campaign against Labour.

The letter, however, was found to be a forgery, written by British intelligence agents, most likely Sidney Reilly, a Russian immigrant and notorious British spy in Soviet Russia. The letter’s origins, though, have yet to be proven. Desmond Morton, a British intelligence officer familiar with Soviet affairs, had received the letter and handed it over to the British foreign office. He initially thought the letter genuine but later expressed doubts about its authenticity.

Impact

The purpose of the forgery was to embarrass the Labour government. Historians agree that it played a critical part in bringing down the government in the ensuing election. In the end, however, the Liberal Party suffered the most from the scandal. The Conservatives gained more than 150 seats, part of a total of more than 400 (twice as much as all other parties combined). Labour lost 40 seats but still remained the leader of the opposition. The once-powerful Liberal Party lost more than 100 seats and never really recovered. Labour, along with Macdonald, returned in 1929, and MacDonald remained prime minister for six years; also, Great Britain would come to recognize the Soviet Union as a nation.

After the triumvirs defeated Trotsky, Zinovyev lost out in the power struggle with Stalin, who removed him from the Comintern and ordered his execution in 1936. The Comintern, which under Stalin became a complete instrument of Soviet foreign policy, was ended by him in 1943, when the Soviet Union and Britain became allies against Germany in World War II. Soviet Union Communist Party Reilly, Sidney Morton, Desmond MacDonald, Ramsay

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bennett, Gill. Churchill’s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence. New York: Routledge, 2007. A biography of the British spy who reportedly first received the Zinovyev letter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chester, Lewis, Stephen Fay, and Hugo Young. The Zinoviev Letter. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1968. An unconvincing attempt to unravel the mystery of the Zinovyev letter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hallas, Duncan. The Comintern. London: Bookmarks, 1985. A Marxist history of the Comintern. Includes a helpful chronology. Hallas, unfortunately, does not discuss the Zinovyev letter because it was a fraud.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laybourn, Keith, and John Shepherd. Britain’s First Labor Government. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. A description and analysis of Labour’s 1924 government by two eminent British historians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyman, Richard W. The First Labor Government, 1924. London: Chapman & Hall, 1957. Classic account of the first MacDonald government. An appendix focuses on the Zinovyev letter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDermott, Kevin, and Jeremy Agnew. The Comintern: A History of International Communism from Lenin to Stalin. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. An excellent historical account of the Comintern, encompassing both Western and Soviet sources. Includes major primary-source documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mowat, Charles Loch. Britain Between the Wars, 1918-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. A scholarly treatment of the interwar era. Chapter 3 deals with the Macdonald government and the Zinovyev letter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thorpe, Andrew A. History of the British Labor Party. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. History of the Labour Party from its origins to 2000, by a distinguished British historian. The third chapter discusses the Zinovyev letter. Includes appendixes and a bibliography.

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