Tag: Adam Curtis

Don’t believe everything you think: cognitive dissonance

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“Some things have to be believed to be seen.” – Ralph Hodgson

I’ve often thought that once people identify with a political party, there is often an accompanying tendency to edit the world so that it conforms with their ideology. I suspect that exposure to more information about objective reality and politics quite often doesn’t affect partisan bias because people tend to only assimilate those “facts” that confirm what they already believe. Perhaps this is why many people become defensive, aggressive, incoherent and dogmatic when challenged with evidence that contradicts their fundamental world-view.

President Lyndon Johnson once said: It’s a heck of a lot easier to throw grenades than to catch them.

It’s always a good idea to look at who is lobbing the explosives, too. And to see if they are recycling their bombshells

It’s certainly the same with criticism, especially those which challenge our cherished beliefs. Critical thinking is a difficult and sometimes painful process. It requires facing often challenging and contradictory narratives about the fundamental nature of the world and ourselves, analysing and evaluating them. It also requires work: practice, time and effort. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Critical thinking is the foundation for intelligence, for making sound decisions, and for accommodating dissonant narratives within our own paradigm, and importantly, for understanding them.

“Knowledge” isn’t simply something arising from a closed fact-finding mission to confirm what we already hold as a theory of the world, but rather, it’s about understanding the diverse views of others who are part of our world, after all, and who contribute to its rich, meaningful pluralism.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that each account or theory of the world has equal merit and worth, but without a genuinely critical and open exploration of other views, we cannot know the worth of our own views, let alone anyone elses’. Knowledge isn’t something we have, either, it’s something we have to do. Learning is a process that is ongoing, and knowledge is always subject to challenges, revision and expansion.

Never has there been a greater need for critical thinking, yet it seems there has never been a time when that has been more difficult, because of the constant bombardment from the media of fragmented, discordant, conflicting, non-linear narratives, purposefully misdirecting and whopping lies, dead cat ploys, semantic thrifts, glittering generalities, government PR, Orwellian double-speak and other strategies being deployed to keep us in a state of fearful, confused, manipulable stupification and, to be terribly Marxist about this … in a state of false consciousness. Well, dazed and confused, at the very least.

This Adam Curtis video (below) was originally shown as part of Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe show. It’s about strategies adopted by political leaders, here and abroad, to keep the population confused, uncertain what to believe or what to do – and therefore powerless.

Cognitive dissonance warfare is one weapon of choice. It isn’t just the Tories that use this method. 

We are subjected to an overwhelming barrage of partial accounts, contradictory accounts, screaming headlines, vicious lies, smears and ferocious mudslinging – negative campaigning in the media. It’s like being trapped in a hall of mirrors with Beelzebub, a few of hells’ myrmidons and your best friends, all in fancy dress.

So how do we escape the hall of mirrors?

Well, I’ve already discussed critical thinking. A good approach is to look for integrity, consistency and coherence in narratives, as well as evidence to support and refute the claims being made. And it’s important to examine scope  –  what those narratives accommodate – how comprehensive they are, how much they connect up, how much they make sense. If they involve personal attacks, this is generally a strategy of diversion, and  indicate the group flinging smears has less to offer the public than the person or being viciously attacked. 

It’s also worth understanding a little more about cognitive dissonance.

Leon Festinger: Let’s see what happens when you are stood up by the aliens.

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Leon Festinger is the social psychologist that proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which basically states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational, and often, maladaptive behaviour.

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, an uncomfortable discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it to achieve consonance (agreement).

How we do so seems to be very much our own business, with avoidance, biased perception and denial commonly used as a defence to eliminate our discomforts – but as I pointed out earlier, the only real and lasting solution is critical thinking.

Leon Festinger once infiltrated a flying saucer doomsday cult in the late 1950s. The members of this cult had given up their entire lives – left everything and everyone behind – because they believed that the world was about to end and that their faith would ensure that they would be the sole survivors of a global flood. Up until the fateful day, the cult shunned publicity and didn’t entertain journalists.

Festinger posed as a member of the group and was present when the foretold space ship failed to show up. He was particularly interested in what would happen next. How would the disappointed cult react to the failure of their prophecy?

In science, when a theory is challenged by evidence that contradicts it, adjustments or ad hoc hypotheses are sometimes formulated to preserve the theory, attempting to explain away anomalies. However, ad hoc hypotheses are often a key characteristic of pseudoscience, as they are used to ensure a theory is never falsified, no matter how much evidence accrues to falsify that theory. Ultimately, it’s a get out clause for failed theories.

In science, whilst we accommodate gaps in our knowledge, the use of many ad hoc hypotheses is frowned upon. (Einstein’s proposition of hidden variables is a good example of this method of accommodating anomaly: he used an ad hoc hypothesis to explain quantum mechanics and maintain the integrity of relativity theory: explaining quantum entanglement without action at a distance).

Ad hoc hypotheses are a widely used strategy in managing cognitive dissonance. So, after the failure of their prophecy and the non-materialisation of the rescue space ship, the cult suddenly wanted publicity. They wanted media attention. This was apparently so the world would know how their faith had helped save the entire planet from flood.

The hypothesis was that aliens had spared planet earth for their sake – and now their new role was to spread the word and make us all listen. This fascinated Festinger. He observed that the real motivation behind the apparently inexplicable response was the need to not face an uncomfortable truth and to re-assert emotional comfort and equilibrium – to smooth over the apparently unacceptable and whopping inconsistencies between prophecy and events.

Theory and reality.

Explanations of events such as the one offered by the doomsday cult are clearly not founded on a rational process: it’s largely an emotional defence mechanism that is rationalised post hoc. Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the uncomfortable tension we feel when we experience conflicting thoughts or beliefs (cognitions), or engage in behavior that is apparently opposed to our stated beliefs.

What is particularly interesting is the lengths to which people will go to reduce the inner tension without accepting that they might, in fact, be wrong. They will accept almost any form of relief, other than admitting being at fault, or mistaken. If a person believes, for example, that they are not racist, but then they discriminate against someone on the basis of race, they are then faced with the discomfort of acknowledging that they are racist after all. In an attempt to escape this discomfort, they may seek to rationalise (explain away) their behaviour on some other grounds, which may be spurious, but which allows them to hold on to their otherwise discredited belief.

Many UKIP supporters, for example, often say something like: “I’m not racist though, my brother-in-law/ friend/ uncle’s wife is actually Indian/Chinese/African” and so forth.

Another example is the “allthesame” myth. When you present people with evidence that refutes what was originally a Tory propaganda soundbite, rather than acknowledging verifiable evidence, some people choose to start a hate campaign aimed at trying to attribute all kinds of bizarre “motives” to the person simply telling a truth. Truth and populist perspectives are often poles apart.

And such tactics serve only to fragment opposition to the Right even further. Dividing people by using blame and prejudice further weakens our opposition to oppression. The oppressed can be very oppressive, it has to be said.

Festinger quickly realised that our intolerance for cognitive dissonance could explain many mysteries and irrationalities of human behavior.

Politicians have utilised this intolerance to their advantage – most particularly the Right, who deploy rhetoric heavily steeped in propaganda and behavioural manipulation techniques. (See Cameron’s behaviourist Nudge Unit,  I’ve previously discussed the implications of such manipulation on an unconsenting public and the ramifications for democracy.)

Marshall McLuhan once said: There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.

Objective truth does not change according to our inclination to want something else. Facing that may be difficult at times, but the alternative is simply the idle creation of pseudo-enclaves of fleeting comfort – illusions that distract and disempower us. And make us apathetic.

It’s worth noting that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes arise in societies where populations are politically disengaged and apathetic. If we want to change unpalatable truths – part of the way things are –  the only way to do so is to have the courage, first, to face those truths head-on.

We can’t lie those truths away. There are no short-cuts or real, tenable escapes from that. We have to work our way through the confusion, avoiding the appeal and brief comfort of avoidance strategies, defence mechanisms and flat denial – short-cuts down what is invariably a cul-de-sac – difficult though that often is.

Look at where we are: we have Tory small minds attempting to justify the Tory notion of a small state. But small states and competitive individualism foster adversarial relationships, and reduce us all. Small states and individualism disconnect us from others, sever any sense of social responsibility, mutuality, cooperation and obligation we have towards others.

It divides, isolates and fragments us. Neoliberal small states make us all smaller individuals, less coherent, less connected. Less comprehending. We lose touch with social reality when we disengage with others. We become less rational agents. More dissonant. How can we hold rational, reasoned and democratic debates to oppose what is little more than Tory superstition and prejudice?  

But we must.

Iain Duncan Smith’s “magical elitism” thinking – he’s just knows he’s right – is another indication that we don’t have a democratic government that is willing to engage in dialogue: we have an authoritarian one that is interested only in imposing its own incoherent neoliberal monologue on the masses.

The Queen’s Honours list shows us just what we have become as a society this past 4 years, and how little worth we place on intelligence, honour, basic coherence, decency and genuine achievement. The Maurice Mills MBE is a farce – he blamed Hurricane Katrina on gay people – it’s like open, raucous, insane, cackling laughter from a decrepit, senile, evil elite that has lived far too long. One that is completely detached from our society and its needs. That’s the reality.

Cognitive dissonance theory is an example of the political misuse of psychology which is being used as a means of thought micro-management to ensure that we don’t move and progress. Personal and social development – growth – by their very nature demand that we have the courage to seek to extend ourselves beyond what we know and where we are. It’s very uncomfortable to acknowledge that we are limited, especially when some of that is our own doing, but it’s also essential we do acknowledge it in order to at least try and transcend those limits, extend their context step by step and make progress.

There are no alien space ships to save us from ourselves or from our government. It’s down to us to seek and evaluate the truth, and there really are no shortcuts to positive change and progress. But we can take responsibilty to ensure that what we hold to be true and the decisions we make are fully and bravely informed.

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Inverted totalitarianism and neoliberalism

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One particularly successful way of neutralising opposition to an ideology is to ensure that only those ideas that are consistent with that ideology saturate the media and are presented as orthodoxy. The Conservative election campaign was a thoroughly dispiriting and ruthless masterclass in media control.

Communication in the media is geared towards establishing a dominant paradigm and maintaining an illusion of a consensus. This ultimately serves to reduce democratic choices. Such tactics are nothing less than a political micro-management of your beliefs and are ultimately aimed at nudging your voting decisions and maintaining a profoundly unbalanced, pathological status quo.

Presenting an alternative narrative is difficult because the Tories have not only framed all of the issues to be given public priority – they set and stage-manage the media agenda – they have also dominated the narrative; they constructed and manage the political lexicon and now treat words associated with the Left, such as welfare, like semantic landmines, generating explosions of right-wing scorn, derision and ridicule. Words like cooperation, inclusion, mutual aid, reciprocity, equality, nationalisation, redistribution – collective values – are simply dismissed as mere anachronisms that need to be stricken from public conversation and exiled from our collective consciousness, whilst all the time enforcing their own bland language of an anti-democratic political doxa. The political manufacturing of a culture of anti-intellectualism extends this aim, too.

Words like competition, market place, small state, efficiency, responsibility and so on, now crowd out any opportunity of even a fleeting glance of another way of socio-economic organisation.

Anything presented that contradicts the consensus – a convincing, coherent, viable alternative perspective – is treated to a heavily staged editing via meta-coverage by the media. Anyone would think that the media regards the UK as a one-party state.

And here, people tend to take the Daily Mail with totalitarianism and tea …

“There’s something happening here
  But what it is ain’t exactly clear …”

Such tactics deployed in manufacturing consensus are widely used, and combined, they serve to reduce public expectation of opposition and in doing so establish diktats: it’s a way of mandating acceptance of ideology, policies or laws by presenting them as if they are the only viable alternative.

Adam Curtis explores themes of “power and how it works in society” in depth, and his works draw on areas of sociology, psychology, philosophy and political history.

Curtis points out, in his Oh-Dearism documentary, that there is an emerging “strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused, a ceaseless shapeshifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.” 

Adam Curtis’s Oh-Dearism on Charlie Brooker’s 2014 ScreenWipe show.

I have been reading about totalitarianism recently. You know when you have an itching recognition of something and need clarification of what it is precisely? I’ve felt for a long time that our own Tory government has totalitarian tendencies.

Totalitarianism is the name given to a political system that aims to mobilise entire populations in support of an official state ideology, and to exercise a repressive, absolute control over society, seeking to micro-manage all aspects of public and private life.

However, Sheldon Wolin has outlined an alternative form – inverted totalitarianism  – as not only signaling the political demobilization of the citizenry, but goes on to say that because it isn’t clearly evident in neoliberal ideology or policy, and it isn’t named, this makes recognition, reflection and challenging it very difficult. It is inverted because it does not require the use of overt coercion, police power and a messianic ideology as in the classical Nazi, Fascist and Stalinist versions of totalitarianism.

It’s true that dominant ideologies tend to become naturalised epistemology – acquiring an illusory consensus – and so become embedded and disguised as “common sense.” This makes it very difficult to identify and articulate the doxa, and even more difficult to present coherent challenges to it. See: Manufacturing consensus: the end of history and the partisan man.

Wolin writes:

“Our thesis is this: it is possible for a form of totalitarianism, different from the classical one, to evolve from a putatively “strong democracy” instead of a “failed” one.

Democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs. It depends on the existence of a demos – a politically engaged and empowered citizenry, one that voted, deliberated, and occupied all branches of public office.”

Wolin proposes that the United States on occasion came close to genuine democracy, but it was because citizens struggled against and momentarily defeated the elitism that was written into the Constitution.

He sees the New Deal as perhaps the only period of American history in which rule by a true demos prevailed. That is comparable with the rise of welfare states elsewhere in European democracies. Here in the UK, the welfare state arose in part because of the enfranchisement of the working class. The welfare state may be considered a fundamental part of the foundations for democracy. 

Other features of inverted totalitarianism are the same as the ones that formal definitions of classical totalitarianism identify: the mass media is the first mechanism of control that tyrants generally seek, which is used to erect fact-proof screens from reality. 

The regime attempts to control virtually all aspects of social life, including the economy, education, art, science, private life, psychology, morals and the perceptions of citizens. And decision-making. 

I had already linked the government Behavioural Insights Team (the Nudge Unit) with behaviourism and totalitarian thinking last year

To influence the decision-making of the public without their knowledge and consent, using techniques of persuasion – usually associated with advertising – is profoundly anti-democratic. As is the underpinning assumption that the public are generally irrational and fallible, but the government are somehow infallible, formulating a theory of human nature as if from some impossible, mind-independent, species-independent, “objective,” external vantage point. 

It’s like saying: “That’s your human nature, but not ours. We are somehow miraculously exempted from it.” 

This is a government that is encroaching at an existential level and surreptitiously imposing instructions about how we must be. And how we must be is ultimately confined to accommodating neoliberalism.

Edward Bernays, amongst others, has contributed significantly to the rise and perpetuation of inverted totalitarianism through the imported methods and practice of techniques of persuasion drawn from knowledge of social psychology and sociology, from advertising, and the rule of “market forces” to many other contexts than markets, including politics and the media. The ultimate purpose for the use of such techniques is to subvert and obscure the truth. 

Of course history showed that Bernays’ identification of the “manipulation of the masses” as a “natural and necessary feature of a democratic society” was a flawed theory when the rise to power of the totalitarian Nazis demonstrated that propaganda could be used to subvert democracy and generate social conflicts. In his autobiography – Biography of an Idea – Bernays recalls a dinner at his home in 1933 where: 

“Karl von Weigand, foreign correspondent of the Hearst newspapers, an old hand at interpreting Europe and just returned from Germany, was telling us about Goebbels and his propaganda plans to consolidate Nazi power. Goebbels had shown Weigand his propaganda library, the best Weigand had ever seen. Goebbels, said Weigand, was using my book ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion’ as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me. … Obviously the attack on the Jews of Germany was no emotional outburst of the Nazis, but a deliberate, planned campaign.” 

In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, inverted totalitarianism is described as a system where corporations have corrupted and subverted democracy and where economics trumps politics. Inverted totalitarianism is a system where every natural resource and every living being is commodified and exploited to collapse as the citizenry is lulled and manipulated into surrendering their liberties and their participation in government.

Although this is a critique aimed at the US, we have the same social conservatism and neoliberal ideology here in the UK, and to me, it’s as plain as day. One of the main objectives of managed democracy is to increase the profits of large corporations and dismantle the institutions of social democracy – our social security, trade unions, public health services, social housing, access to legal aid, human rights and so forth, and roll back the social and political ideals of the post-war settlement here in the UK, and the New deal in the US. The primary tool is privatisation. 

Managed democracy aims at the abdication of governmental responsibility for the well-being of most citizens, under the cover of improving “efficiency,” reducing small state “intrusion” and cost-cutting. Over recent years, austerity has been used as a front to accelerate this process, increasing economic inequality, redistributing public funds to increasingly wealthy individual’s private bank accounts. 

Another feature of managed democracy is the need to keep citizens preoccupied with the peripheral and the private conditions of human life so that they fail to focus on the widespread corruption and betrayal of public trust. The political function of this is to divide the public whilst obscuring class differences and diverting the voters’ attention from the social and economic concerns (and interests) of the general population.

Neoliberalism is a system of economic arrangements that greatly benefits a few powerful and wealthy people and impoverishes the majority of the public incrementally. As each social group reaches a crisis – struggling to survive – scapegoating narratives are constructed and disseminated via the media that blame them for their insolvency, creating socially divisive and politically managed categories of “others,” which serve to de-empathise the rest of the population and divert them from the fundamental fact that it isn’t the poor that create poverty: it is the neoliberal decision-makers and those who are steadily removing and privatising our public funds and ebulliently shrinking state responsibility towards citizens, leaving many at the mercy of “market forces” without a state safety net – it’s economic Darwinism. 

The Nazis openly mocked democracy, the UK and United States maintain the conceit that they serve as the model of democracy for the whole world. Instead, we have become a showcase for how to reduce democracy to just a brand, displaying how it can be managed without appearing to be suppressed. Democracy has been reduced to a flimsy façade, obscuring its antithesis. 

Totalitarianism isn’t simply a feature of a dystopian novel by George Orwell: it’s become entrenched and naturalised. Alternatives to social conservatism and neoliberalism are either edited out in advance of reaching public attention, or meta-edited, distorted and presented as “all the same” or straw man fallacies to buttress the status quo. 

I’ve been saying since 2012 that democracy is being subverted. The welfare “reforms” were hammered through parliament despite widespread and strong opposition, when Cameron used “financial privilege” as a justification to sidestep democratic process. Then came the widely opposed Health and Social Care Bill, and the Conservative’s refusal to release the details of the risk register to the public. It has remained unreleased.

But mostly, the recognition starts as an uneasy feeling, an indefinable something being not quite right, like a fleeting glimpse from the corner of your eye that triggers an adrenaline trickle of unease. Then comes the discovery that laws are being edited quietly, protective policies are eroded and some have been secretly repealed. Our human rights are being disregarded, and there’s a clearly expressed intention to heavily edit the existing legislation. Human rights are the bedrock of democracy, and observation of them separates democrats from despots. 

It’s so essential that we don’t disengage from politics, but rather, we need to organise, we need to construct a cogent narrative of resistance and transformation, formulating an alternative vocabulary that helps to raise awareness; to motivate; to inspire; to change public perceptions and directly challenge the tyrants. We need to fight to reclaim our democracy; to collectively insist on the re-population of increasingly dehumanising public and economic policies; to re-assert human needs and rights over and above the absurd, anti-humanist and socially fatal demands of desolating, pathological and ever-escalating neoliberalism.

 


 

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From Spycatcher and GBH to the Zinoviev letter – an emergent pattern and the real enemy within

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A scene from Alan Bleasdale’s perceptive GBH, a much misunderstood, darkly comedic series from 1991. Some felt that Bleasdale was attempting to discredit the militant left, but what he portrayed is an infiltation of the Labour Party by MI5, ordered by the Conservative government at the time. Their aim was to recruit, manipulate and indoctrinate local “young bulls” with quasi left-wing ideology to have them assist, unknowingly, in destablising and discrediting the Labour Party in its entirety.

The far-right, racism and social conflict always bloom and flourish under Conservative governments.

Fueling social tensions, MI5 agents provocateurs were prepared to use the ethnic communities to foster social division, in the hope of causing riots and ultimately, the hardened right-wing thugs (MI5 were eventually revealed as the real thugs here) dismissed the minority groups as collateral damage, a callous, calculated move that was deemed necessary to destroy the Labour Party.

MI5 staged a series of violent racist assaults on the city’s ethnic minorities, using hired local hardcases posing as police officers. They “made things happen.” Ultimately to preserve the status quo. In the drama, it’s eventually revealed that the plot to destablise the Left involves Britain’s entire intelligence community.

Many felt that Bleasdale was portraying the end of socialism, but if he was, it was ultimately at the hand of the Tories – the real enemy within – not the militant left.

I watched the mini series again recently, and it made me think of the Zinoviev letter – one of the greatest but almost forgotten British political scandals of last century – it was forged by a MI6 agent’s source and almost certainly leaked by MI6 or MI5 officers to the Conservative Party, according to an official report published in 1999.

Britain’s most senior security and intelligence officials discussed the smearing of the Labour party just as it was emerging as a major political force according to previously secret documents.

The potential repercussions of attempts by the intelligence agencies to damage the Labour party were debated at length by the little-known Secret Service Committee, later research – now released at the National Archives – shows.

Of course it was not the only time Britain’s intelligence agencies were implicated in attempts to destabilise a Labour government. A group of right-wing intelligence officers attempted to destabilise Harold Wilson’s administrations in the 1960s and 70s.

One newly released document at the National Archives is a minute of the Secret Service Committee, dated 11 March 1927. It quotes Sir William Tyrrell, top official at the Foreign Office, referring to a conversation he had with the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, about politically inspired leaks by the police special branch as well as the security and intelligence agencies.

Baldwin’s main concern, said Tyrrell, was the fear that the political work done at Scotland Yard might at any moment give rise to a scandal, owing to the Labour party obtaining some “plausible pretext to complain that a government department was being employed for party politics.”

On October 8, 1924, Britain’s first Labour government lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. The next day the Foreign Office was evidently sent a copy of a letter, purportedly originally sent from Grigori Zinoviev, the president of Comintern, addressed to the central committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The letter urged the party to stir up the British proletariat and the military in preparation for class war.

On October 25 the letter appeared in the heavily Conservative-biased Daily Mail just four days before the election. The political and diplomatic repercussions were immense.

The Daily Mail published a series of sensationalist headlines:

  • Civil War Plot by Socialists’ Masters
  • Moscow Order to Our Reds
  • Great Plot Disclosed Yesterday
  • Paralyse the Army and Navy
  • Mr. MacDonald Would Lend Russia Our Money

Here is the entire Zinoviev letter:

Very secret

Executive Committee, Third Communist International.

To the Central Committee, British Communist Party.

Presidium, September 15, 1924. Moscow.

Dear Comrades,

The time is approaching for the Parliament of England to consider the Treaty concluded between the Governments of Great Britain and the S.S.S.R. for the purpose of ratification. The fierce campaign raised by the British bourgeoisie around the question shows that the majority of the same, together with reactionary circles, are against the Treaty for the purpose of breaking off an agreement consolidating the ties between the proletariats of the two countries leading to the restoration of normal relations between England and the S.S.S.R.

The proletariat of Great Britain, which pronounced its weighty word when danger threatened of a break-off of the past negotiations, and compelled the Government of MacDonald to conclude the treaty, must show the greatest possible energy in the further struggle for ratification and against the endeavours of British capitalists to compel Parliament to annul it.

It is indispensable to stir up the masses of the British proletariat to bring into movement the army of unemployed proletarians whose position can be improved only after a loan has been granted to the S.S.S.R. for the restoration of her economics and when business collaboration between the British and Russian proletariats has been put in order. It is imperative that the group in the Labour Party sympathising with the Treaty should bring increased pressure to bear upon the Government and Parliamentary circles in favour of the ratification of the Treaty.

Keep close observation over the leaders of the Labour Party, because these may easily be found in the leading strings of the bourgeoisie. The foreign policy of the Labour Party as it is, already represents an inferior copy of the policy of the Curzon Government. Organize a campaign of disclosure of the foreign policy of MacDonald.

The I.K.K.I. (Executive Committee, Third [Communist] International) will willingly place at your disposal the wide material in its possession regarding the activities of British Imperialism in the Middle and Far East. In the meanwhile, however, strain every nerve in the struggle for the ratification of the Treaty, in favour of a continuation of negotiations regarding the regulation of relations between the S.S.S.R. and England. A settlement of relations between the two countries will assist in the revolutionising of the international and British proletariat not less than a successful rising in any of the working districts of England, as the establishment of close contact between the British and Russian proletariat, the exchange of delegations and workers, etc., will make it possible for us to extend and develop the propaganda of ideas of Leninism in England and the Colonies. Armed warfare must be preceded by a struggle against the inclinations to compromise which are embedded among the majority of British workmen, against the ideas of evolution and peaceful extermination of capitalism. Only then will it be possible to count upon complete success of an armed insurrection. In Ireland and the Colonies the case is different; there is a national question, and this represents too great a factor for success for us to waste time on a prolonged preparation of the working class.

But even in England, as other countries, where the workers are politically developed, events themselves may more rapidly revolutionise the working masses than propaganda. For instance, a strike movement, repressions by the Government etc.

From your last report it is evident that agitation-propaganda work in the army is weak, in the navy a very little better. Your explanation that the quality of the members attracted justifies the quantity is right in principle, nevertheless it would be desirable to have cells in all the units of the troops, particularly among those quartered in the large centres of the country, and also among factories working on munitions and at military store depots. We request that the most particular attention be paid to these latter.

In the event of danger of war, with the aid of the latter and in contact with the transport workers, it is possible to paralyse all the military preparations of the bourgeoisie, and make a start in turning an imperialist war into a class war. Now more than ever we should be on our guard. Attempts at intervention in China show that world imperialism is still full of vigour and is once more making endeavours to restore its shaken position and cause a new war, which as its final objective is to bring about the break-up of the Russian Proletariat and the suppression of the budding world revolution, and further would lead to the enslavement of the colonial peoples. ‘Danger of War’, ‘The Bourgeoisie seek War’, ‘Capital fresh Markets’ – these are the slogans which you must familiarise the masses with, with which you must go to work into the mass of the proletariat. These slogans will open to you the doors of comprehension of the masses, will help you to capture them and march under the banner of Communism.

The Military Section of the British Communist Party, so far as we are aware, further suffers from a lack of specialists, the future directors of the British Red Army.

It is time you thought of forming such a group, which together with the leaders, might be in the event of an outbreak of active strife, the brain of the military organisation of the party.

Go attentively through the lists of the military ‘cells’ detailing from them the more energetic and capable men, turn attention to the more talented military specialists who have for one reason or another, left the Service and hold Socialist views. Attract them into the ranks of the Communist Party if they desire honestly to serve the proletariat and desire in the future to direct not the blind mechanical forces in the service of the bourgeoisie, but a national army.

Form a directing operative head of the Military Section.

Do not put this off to a future moment, which may be pregnant with events and catch you unprepared.

Desiring you all success, both in organisation and in your struggle.

With Communist Greetings,

President of the Presidium of the I.K.K.I.

ZINOVIEV

Member of the Presidium: McMANUS

Secretary: KUUSINEN

Some historians say that the letter aided the Conservative party in hastening the collapse of the Liberal party which led to a decisive Conservative victory. Curiously, a now familiar tactic.

Others say the letter was an example of Conservative deceit, which in 1924, enabled Britain’s Conservative party to cheat their way to a general election victory. Personally, I’m inclined to believe the latter. It’s not as if the Conservatives have a history of democratic engagement, transparency, accountability and honesty, after all.

The letter came at a sensitive time in relations between Britain and the Soviet Union, due to the Conservative opposition to the parliamentary ratification of the Anglo-Soviet trade agreement of 8 August 1924.

The publication of the letter was severely embarrassing to Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald and his Labour party. The chance of a victory was dashed as the spectre of internal revolution and a government oblivious to the red peril dominated the public consciousness, via the media.

MacDonald’s attempts to establish doubt regarding the authenticity of the letter were catastrophically in vain, hampered by the document’s widespread acceptance amongst Tory government officials. MacDonald told his Cabinet he “felt like a man sewn in a sack and thrown into the sea.”

New light on the scandal which triggered the fall of the first Labour government in 1924 is shed in a study by Gill Bennett, chief historian at the Foreign Office, commissioned by Robin Cook in 1998.

Bennett’s investigation implicates Desmond Morton, an MI6 officer and close friend of Churchill who appointed him personal assistant during the second world war, and also points to Major Joseph Ball, an MI5 officer who joined Conservative Central Office in 1926. Ball later went on to be one of the earliest spin doctors – for the Tories.

The exact route of the forged letter to the Daily Mail will probably never be known. There were other possible conduits, including Stewart Menzies, a future head of MI6 who, according to MI6 files, admitted sending a copy to the Mail.

In summary, the letter was purported to be from Grigori Zinoviev, president of the Comintern, the internal communist organisation, called on British communists to mobilise “sympathetic forces” in the Labour Party to support an Anglo-Soviet treaty (including a loan to the Bolshevik government) and to encourage “agitation-propaganda” in the armed forces.

As stated, on October 25, 1924, just four days before the election, the Mail splashed headlines across its front page claiming: Civil War Plot by Socialists’ Masters: Moscow Orders To Our Reds; Great Plot Disclosed. Labour lost the election by a landslide.

Ms Bennett said the letter “probably was leaked from SIS [the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6] by somebody to the Conservative Party Central Office.” She named Major Ball and Mr Morton, who was responsible for assessing agents’ reports.

“I have my doubts as to whether he thought it was genuine but [Morton] treated it as if it was,” she said.

She described MI6 as being at the centre of the scandal, although it was impossible to say whether the head of MI6, Admiral Hugh Sinclair, was involved.

Ms Bennett also said there was “no evidence of a conspiracy” in what she called “the institutional sense.”

But there was no evidence that refuted such a conspiracy either. The security and intelligence community at the time consisted of a “very, very incestuous circle, an elite network” who went to school together. Their allegiances, she says in her report, “lay firmly in the Conservative camp.”

Ms Bennett had full access to secret files held by MI6 (though some have been destroyed) and MI5. She also saw Soviet archives in Moscow before writing her 128-page study. The files show the forged Zinoviev letter was widely circulated, including to senior army officers, to inflict maximum damage on the Labour government.

She found no evidence to identify the name of the forger. The report says there is no hard evidence that MI6 agents in Riga were directly responsible – though it is known they had close contacts with White Russians – or that the letter was commissioned in response to British intelligence services’ “uneasiness about its prospects under a re-elected Labour government.”

The report does not tie up loose ends. But by putting a huge amount of material into the public domain, it at least allows people to make up their own minds. Important questions remain, and may always go unanswered – such as who actually forged the letter.

However, if Ms Bennett is right in her suggestion that MI6 chiefs did not set up the forgery, her report claims that MI6 deceived the Foreign Office by asserting it did know who the source was – a deception it used to insist, wrongly, that the Zinoviev letter was genuine.

Ms Bennett claims that we cannot conclude the scandal brought down Ramsay Macdonald’s government, which had already lost a confidence vote and Liberal support on which it depended was disappearing.

“In electoral terms,” she says, “the impact of the Zinoviev letter on Labour was more psychological than measurable.”

I don’t agree.

The media has always exercised enormously heavy influence on voters, I find it a little odd that such a connection was deemed insignificant. Especially given the wide use of black propaganda, very evident at the time.

Besides, this isn’t an isolated event, and there does appear to be an established relationship between Conservative governments and the Secret Service staging persistent attempts at “destabilising,” discrediting and smearing the left. And the media.

Fast-forward to more recent events, and low and behold, the mainstream media are still feeding us the fear-mongering and pseudo-warnings of an “evil Communist threat” in the form of Ralph Miliband, and his “influence” on his son, “Red Ed,” claiming that the Labour leader’s policies are founded on a “legacy of evil” and a “poisonous creed.” That’s once again according to the very pro-establishment, corrupt Daily Mail, of course. (See also: Tory Fascist Lie Machine The Daily Mail Has Met Its Match.) Same old tactics.

The Comintern and Soviet government vehemently and consistently denied the authenticity of the document. Grigori Zinoviev issued a denial on 27 October 1924 (two days before the election), which was finally published in the December 1924 issue of The Communist Review, considerably well after the MacDonald government had fallen.

Zinoviev declared:

“The letter of 15th September, 1924, which has been attributed to me, is from the first to the last word, a forgery. Let us take the heading. The organisation of which I am the president never describes itself officially as the “Executive Committee of the Third Communist International”; the official name is “Executive Committee of the Communist International.” Equally incorrect is the signature, “The Chairman of the Presidium.” The forger has shown himself to be very stupid in his choice of the date. On the 15th of September, 1924, I was taking a holiday in Kislovodsk, and, therefore, could not have signed any official letter. […]

It is not difficult to understand why some of the leaders of the Liberal-Conservative bloc had recourse to such methods as the forging of documents. Apparently they seriously thought they would be able, at the last minute before the elections, to create confusion in the ranks of those electors who sincerely sympathise with the Treaty between England and the Soviet Union. It is much more difficult to understand why the English Foreign Office, which is still under the control of the Prime Minister, MacDonald, did not refrain from making use of such a white-guardist forgery.”

 

Bugger, secret service spies are “weirdos who have created a completely mad version of the world that they then impose on the rest of us.” Adam Curtis

Sounds like a very Conservative mindset to me. I think that it’s a fairly safe and balanced conclusion that the Intelligence Services lack diversity, with a strong tendency to recruit staunch establishmentarians.

Again, the Zinoviev letter is by no means the only attempt by the security and intelligence services to destabilised a Labour government.

Peter Wright, a former MI5 officer, showed in Spycatcher, a candid autobiography, how elements in his agency worked against the Wilson government in the 1970s.

Despite the Thatcher government’s attempts to prevent publication, the book gained worldwide attention. MI5’s own archives have shown there was a “permanent file” on the Labour leader throughout his time in office. He is the only serving prime minister to have a permanent Secret Service file.

MI5 opened the dossier in 1945 when Mr Wilson became an MP after communist civil servants suggested he had similar “political sympathies.”

His file was so secret that he was given the pseudonym Norman John Worthington.

Sir Michael Hanley, MI5 director general from 1972, went to even greater lengths to conceal its existence by removing it from the central index, meaning any search would result in a “no trace.”

Personal permission from Sir Michael was required to access it.

This is backed up by corroborating interviews with senior figures at the time.

These events unfolded at a time when the establishment, from the intelligence services down to parts of Fleet Street, were paranoid about the “threat of communism.” So paranoid it seems, they were prepared to believe a prime minister of Britain was an active Soviet spy.

At a time of continuing Cold War tensions, industrial unrest was rife, the country had suffered power cuts and a three-day working week and in 1975 the government was being warned privately that the consequences would be severe if it could not curb inflation.

Whilst some on the hard left believed revolution was imminent, former military figures, angry at the extent of union control, were building private armies, in preparation for the coming conflict, according to the then BBC investigative journalist Barrie Penrose. (Penrose co-authored The Pencourt File with another journalist, Roger Courtiour.)

Meetings with Wilson were secretly recorded in 1976 by both the journalists (Penrose and Courtiour) weeks after his shock departure from Number 10.

“Wilson spoke darkly of two military coups which he said had been planned to overthrow his government in the late 1960s and in the mid 1970s,” Penrose writes.

Wilson told the journalists they “should investigate the forces that are threatening democratic countries like Britain.”

In his book, Peter Wright also tells of a plot to force Wilson’s resignation by MI5 agents who were convinced he was a Communist spy. Wright’s account is often dismissed as an exaggeration, but fresh evidence of plots surfaced in 2006.

Penrose says that witnesses confirm such plotting “wasn’t in the fevered imagination of an embittered ex-PM.”

Writing about the drama documentary The Plot Against Harold Wilson, shown on BBC Two at 21:00 on Thursday 16 March, 2006, Penrose concludes:

“You may ask, at the end of the programme, how much of it can be believed. My view now, as it was then, is that Wilson was right in his fears…. in answer to the question ‘how close did we come to a military government’ I can only say – closer than we’d ever be content to think.”


Harold Wilson, Aneurin Bevan, Ian Mikardo, Tom Driberg and Barbara Castle of the Keep Left Group (1951)


A very British Coup

Chris Mullins, a former Foreign Office minister and author, writes:

“By the time A Very British Coup was published, in 1982, the political climate was even more propitious. Prompted by the imminent arrival of cruise missiles, CND demonstrations were attracting crowds in excess of 200,000. The establishment was getting so twitchy that, as we later learned, Michael Heseltine had set up a special unit in the Ministry of Defence to counter the impact of CND.

The US was getting twitchy too. When A Very British Coup was published I was editor of the political weekly Tribune, and we were selling the book by mail order through the paper. A few days after the first advert appeared we were intrigued to receive an order from the US embassy. We duly dispatched a copy and waited to see what would happen next. We did not have to wait long.

An invitation arrived to lunch with the minister, the most important man at the embassy after the ambassador. He even sent his bullet-proof Cadillac to Tribune’s modest headquarters in Gray’s Inn Road to convey me to his mansion in Kensington.

At first I assumed that I was one of a number of guests, but no: there was just the minister, two of his colleagues, an Asian butler and myself.

“Why are you interested in a minnow like me?” I inquired.

“I reckon,” he drawled, “that you are among the top 1,000 opinion formers in the country.”

“Well, I must be about number 999.”

“The other 999 have been here too.”

A year or two later I received from an anonymous source an envelope posted in Brussels. It contained an internal US state department memorandum addressed to US diplomats in London listing a number of questions they were to put to “authorised contacts” in London regarding the balance of power within the Labour party and opinion regarding the US bases in general and the impending arrival of cruise missiles in particular. Although, in retrospect, we can see they had no cause for concern, there is no doubt that alarm bells were ringing in Washington.

A Very British Coup attracted attention elsewhere too. It was helpfully denounced in the correspondence columns of the Times, and as a result sales in Hatchards of Piccadilly almost matched those at the leftwing bookshop Collets. (When it comes to selling books, a high-profile denunciation is worth half a dozen friendly reviews and I have always done my best to organise one).

Thereafter interest might have faded, but for events conspiring to make it topical. In August 1985 the Observer revealed that an MI5 officer, Brigadier Ronnie Stoneham, was to be found in room 105 at Broadcasting House. His job? Stamping upturned Christmas trees on the personnel files of BBC employees he deemed to be unsuitable for promotion. Students of A Very British Coup will know that my head of MI5, Sir Peregrine Craddock, was also vetting BBC employees. What’s more, he also had a spy on the general council of CND – and in due course the MI5 defector Cathy Massiter revealed that there had indeed been such a spy. His name was Harry Newton.

Finally, in 1987 Peter Wright, a retired MI5 officer, caused a sensation with his claim that he and a group of MI5 colleagues had plotted to undermine the Wilson government. Suddenly the possibility that the British establishment might conspire with its friends across the Atlantic to destabilise the elected government could no longer be dismissed as leftwing paranoia.”

The Enemy Within.

Margaret Thatcher branded Arthur Scargill and the other leaders of the 1984-5 miners’ strike the enemy within. With the publication of Seumas Milne’s bestselling book a decade later, the full irony of that accusation became clear. There was an enemy within. But it was not the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) that was out to subvert liberty. It was the secret services of the British state – operating inside the NUM itself.

Seumas Milne reveals the astonishing lengths to which the government and its intelligence machine were prepared to go to destroy the power of Britain’s miners’ union. Using phoney bank deposits, staged cash drops, forged documents, agents provocateurs and unrelenting surveillance, MI5 and police Special Branch set out to discredit Scargill and other miners’ leaders.

Now we know that the Tory prime minister intended to extend the charge of seditious insurrection, not only to leftwing Labour councils in Liverpool and London resisting cuts in services, but against the Labour party as a whole.

Planted tales of corruption were seized on by the media and both Tory and Labour politicians in what became an unprecedentedly savage smear campaign. This is one of the UK’s most important postwar class confrontations.

Seumas Milne has highlighted the continuing threat posed by the security services to democracy today.

Milne describes the Conservative government’s systematic resort to anti-democratic measures to break the resistance of Britain’s most powerful union: from the use of the police and security services to infiltrate and undermine the miners’ union to the manipulation of the courts and media to discredit and tie the hands of its leaders.

He says:

“A decade after the strike, I called the book I wrote about that secret war against the miners The Enemy Within, because the phrase turned out to have multiple layers of meaning. As the evidence has piled up with each new edition, the charge that Thatcher laid at the door of the National Union of Mineworkers can in fact be seen to fit her own government’s use of the secret state far better.

It wasn’t just the militarised police occupation of the coalfields; the 11,000 arrests, deaths, police assaults, mass jailings and sackings; the roadblocks, fitups and false prosecutions – most infamously at the Orgreave coking plant where an orgy of police violence in June 1984 was followed by a failed attempt to prosecute 95 miners for riot on the basis of false evidence.

It’s that under the prime minister’s guidance, MI5, police Special Branch, GCHQ and the NSA were mobilised not only to spy on the NUM on an industrial scale, but to employ agents provocateurs at the highest level of the union, dirty tricks, slush funds, false allegations, forgeries, phoney cash deposits and multiple secretly sponsored legal actions to break the defence of the mining communities.

In the years since, Thatcher and her former ministers and intelligence mandarins have defended such covert action by insisting the NUM leaders were “subversive” because they wanted to bring down the government. Which of course they did – but “legitimately,” as Scargill remarked recently, by bringing about a general election – as took place in the wake of the successful coal strike of 1974.

In reality, as 50 MPs declared when some of these revelations first surfaced, Thatcher’s government and its security apparatus were themselves guilty of the mass “subversion of democratic liberties”. And, as the large-scale malpractices of police undercover units have driven home in the past couple of years, their successors are still at it today.”

See also:

Wilson, MI5 and the rise of Thatcher – Lobster

Bugger – Adam Curtis

How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations – Glenn Greenwald

Controversial GCHQ Unit Engaged in Domestic Law Enforcement, Online Propaganda, Psychology Research – Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman

inconImage courtesy of Robert Livingstone

 


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