The Zinoviev Letter, purportedly sent to the British Communist Party by Grigorii Zinoviev, President of the Comintern, was published by the Daily Mail on October 25, 1924, four days before a general election. Many have credited it with being one of the factors that led to the landslide defeat of the Labour Party. It is occasionally thrown up by left-wing politicians to show how evil the right-wing press is, especially when some incriminating document or other has been published about them.
A little background
Following the general election of May 1924, the Conservative Party leader Stanley Baldwin refused to form a government. As the official opposition, the Labour Party was asked by King George V to form a minority government. As a result, the Labour party got its first British government, running with the support of the Liberal Party.
As well as introducing housing reform, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald noticed that the Conservative's diplomatic non-recognition of the Soviet Union was stopping Britain from recovering substatial debts owed to it by Russia since the Tsarist regime. Since the country was in a precarious economic position and there was little hope of Britain's position doing anything to change the politics of the USSR, MacDonald saw no problems with trying to get some of this money back.
On the 8th of August, MacDonald signed the General and Commercial Treaty with the Soviet Union. It agreed to repay the debts as long as Britain granted them a further loan. The mainstream press, led by the Daily Mail, were incensed and became increasingly hostile to the Labour Government. The establishment rallied and rumours of a left-wing conspiracy within the Labour Party spread. Eventually, the Liberals gave in to the pressure and stopped supporting Labour. Ramsay MacDonald lost a vote of no confidence on the 8th of October and an election was set for the 29th.
Democratic Socialism, eh?
On the 9th of October, the Foreign Office
received a letter apparently from Grigorii Zinoviev
, President of the Presidium
of the Executive Committee of the Comintern
, addressed to the Central Committee
of the British Communist Party1
. The letter urged the Communists to encourage class divisions and form a "British Red Army
" which could establish a dictatorship of the proletariat
. Perhaps more important was the praise of the settlement of relations between the Soviet Union and Britain
, which would "assist in the revolutionising of the international and British proletariat", an apparently necessary step for a successful "armed insurrection
". Vernon Kell
, head of the Secret Intelligence Service
s, showed it to Ramsay MacDonald
, who told him to keep it a secret. Both Kell and Sir Basil Thompson
, head of Special Branch
were convinced of the letter's authenticity.
On October 25th, four days before the election, the Daily Mail published the letter with the headline "Civil War Plot by Socialists' Masters: Moscow Order To Our Reds". This was a bit of a disaster as far as Labour's reputation went.
Because the letter was printed on a Saturday, it was difficult for the MacDonald government to make an organised rebuttal. This was made more difficult by the acceptance among many officials that the letter, which had been widely circulated to cause maximum damage to the government, was genuine because the Foreign Office had received it from the SIS. Labour lost by a landslide.
The Conservatives continued to believe in the letter's authenticity and refused to submit the treaty with the USSR to the House of Commons for ratification and abandoned all relations with them. On the 15th of December, Austin Chamberlain, the foreign secretary, said that the SIS had confirmed the source of the document as being Zinoviev, despite denials by the Russians. In 1928, Chamberlain wrote in The Times: "It is quite evident that our sources of information are thoroughly trustworthy, but would not be available if they were made public".
So was it real?
The letter remained notorious, especially among Labour activists, with some believing it was all part of some evil right-wing conspiracy within the Secret Services. It was suggested that two SIS agents, Sidney Reilly and Arthur Maundy Gregory forged the letter, Joseph Ball, another agent, leaked it to Conservative Central Office, which then leaked it to the Daily Mail.
In 1999, the Foreign Office, as part of New Labour's era of openness, published a report into the Zinoviev Letter mystery by chief historian Gill Bennett entitled "A most extraordinary and mysterious business"2. In compliling the report, Bennett had been granted access to MI5 and MI6 archives and had collaborated with Russian authorities. According to the report, the Zinoviev letter was a forgery but this was not done by MI6 who had obtained it from an agent in Riga. Who actually made the letter is still in question but the suggested culprits are a group of White Russians who had close links to agents in Latvia, controlled a forgery ring in Berlin and wished to damage the Labour government. The only conspiratorial element was among those who leaked the letter to the Conservatives in order to ridicule the government which included the afore-mentioned Joseph Ball3.
1You can read the Zinoviev letter at http://files.fco.gov.uk/history/zinoviev/annexa.pdf or http://google.com/search?q=cache:JIZ6_Dka144J:files.fco.gov.uk/history/zinoviev/annexa.pdf
2Robin Cook - Foreign Secretary at the time (ah, those halcyon days) - wrote an article for the Guardian at the time, which can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,310229,00.html
3It might interest you to know that Joseph Ball subsequently went on to become one of the first ever spin doctors for the Conservative party.