The Infiltrator and the Movement

Infiltration into left-wing groups is just the sharp edge of an entire armory of political policing.

Mi6 headquarters in London, England. Getty Images

In 2010, Lisa Jones was on holiday in Italy with her boyfriend of six years, Mark Stone. The couple were popular environmentalists from the UK: Mark had played a key role in the 2005 anti-G8 protests in Scotland, assisted political movements in over a dozen countries, and was involved in an activist logistics company, the Activist Tat Collective. The pair had traveled together, gone to festivals together, and mourned the death of Lisa’s father together.

During that holiday, Lisa unsuspectingly pulled Mark’s passport out of the glovebox. The passport showed that Mark Stone was actually Mark Kennedy, father of two, and would help Lisa discover that Kennedy had been in the police force for two decades, deployed by the state to penetrate political threats to the status quo.

Eight years later, we know that around 150 undercover police officers infiltrated over one thousand British political groups across four decades, forming long-term relationships with women, fathering children, and engaging in some of the most radical direct action.

Police officers appeared in court under false names, stole the identities of dead children, and spied on the grieving families of black people killed in police custody. These sensational revelations have captured extensive media attention, but much of the scandal’s coverage has decontextualized the operations, neglecting their political aims and impacts. Undercover policing, in fact, is just the sharp edge of an entire armory of political policing. Managing, keeping tabs on, and even crushing political threats to the status quo is a steadfast feature of most modern capitalist states. It’s crucial for the Left to understand how political infiltration has functioned historically in the UK, and draw out the strategic lessons this history might contain.

Forming Britain’s Political Police

Modern political policing began in Britain in the 1880s, with the establishment of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch, the cocoon from which sprung the undercover policing operations decades later. The Branch originally aimed to combat Irish Fenians — armed fighters seeking independence from Britain — but soon expanded to keep tabs on foreign anarchists, suffragettes, and anticolonial Indians.

At the end of the 1800s, an undercover Branch officer infiltrated the Legitimation League — which campaigned to de-stigmatize bastard children — and orchestrated the League’s collapse. This operation set the tone for what was to come: intense, deeply personal infiltration of any political group that challenged the status quo.

From the start, British police blurred the line between investigation and provocation. Possibly the earliest police infiltrator, who penetrated the National Political Union in 1832, was found by a parliamentary committee to have acted as an agent provocateur. Special Branch continued this murky role: in 1887, for example, a Branch agent was a key instigator of a ‘foiled’ plot to blow up Queen Victoria during her Golden Jubilee.

During World War I, Special Branch bloomed into an organization of several hundred full-time detectives, and the Intelligence Section of the Ministry of Munitions (known as PSM2) was established to monitor and combat labor unrest. The ministry wanted, in their words, to be “in a position to control [labor strikes] by finding out the ring-leaders and dealing effectively with them.”

By the time the Great War was over, many of the key components of Britain’s contemporary security apparatus were in place: Mi5 — in collaboration with the expanded Special Branch — had responsibility for domestic (and, at the time, imperial) affairs, and Mi6 functioned as the overseas intelligence agency for non-British domains.

Destroying the Communist Party

In the early 1930s, Special Branch lost ultimate authority over “internal subversion” to an expanding Mi5. The Branch became the “eyes and ears” of Mi5, carrying out the grunt work and making arrests at the behest of the master agency. During this time, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) became one of the most heavily monitored nonviolent organizations in the UK’s history.

As Mi5’s power expanded, it sent a young woman, Olga Gray, into the CPGB. Her long-term infiltration was so successful it resulted in a party founder being sentenced to six years in prison with hard labor. Maxwell Knight, the Mi5 officer responsible for running agents in “subversive” groups, lauded Gray’s infiltration of the party for attaining “the very enviable position where an agent becomes a piece of furniture […] when persons visiting an office do not consciously notice whether the agent is there or not.” Gray’s successful infiltration tactics would be repeated one hundred times over by Special Branch later in the century.

The CPGB operation was inextricable from the desire of Britain’s industrial bosses to police worker activity. When, in the mid-1920s, Knight sent six British fascists into the Communist Party, it was on behalf of the private Industrial Intelligence Bureau, an anti-trade union outfit funded by the Federation of British Industries and the Coal Owners’ and Shipowners’ Associations. The murky interconnections between private business, anti-union propaganda organizations, intelligence services, and the police continues today.

As the CPGB grew to over forty thousand in the 1940s, Mi5 became concerned that the party was stretching to the “professional classes.” As a result, famed academics associated with the party — including historians Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson — would find themselves under intensive surveillance. From the 1950s to 1970s, Mi5’s Operation STILL LIFE marshalled sixty desk and support officers, identified 90 percent of party members, and gathered around five hundred thousand files on suspected sympathizers. As one director-general of Mi5 said to a home secretary in 1959, “we [have] the British Communist Party pretty well buttoned up.”

In 1951, the Foreign Office’s shadowy Information Research Department — usually concerned with issuing propaganda against undesirable governments overseas — set up a Home Desk, and launched what one historian describes as a “domestic propaganda campaign targeting a legal political organization [the CPGB].” The Desk fed information to friendly British trade unions and non-governmental organizations, hoping to shape public opinion on Britain’s rearmament program and turn the working classes against the Soviet Union.

It was during this period that the “purge procedure” began, a process for keeping suspected Communists and subversives out of the civil service. The process at the BBC continued until 1984, with up to 24 percent of positions vetted by Mi5 for three grades of “subversive” activity or association.

By the 1980s, as Stephan Bonino notes, “[w]ith only about a thousand members […] and having been penetrated for thirty years by officer M148, the Communist Party was rendered largely ineffective.”

What Happened in ’68

The late 1960s emergence of social movements, mass demonstrations, and diffuse anti-authoritarian groups posed a new challenge for the protectors of the status quo.

The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) became the focal point of establishment panic. The VSC held two mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War in London in 1968, amid press accusations of planned revolutionary violence — accusations which, we found out decades later, were probably planted by Special Branch itself.

Conrad Dixon, a senior Special Branch officer, wrote a secret memo on September 10, 1968, in the aftermath of the first VSC demonstration:

The climate of opinion amongst extreme left-wing elements […] has undergone a radical change over the last few years […] from orderly, peaceful, cooperative meetings and precessions to passive resistance and “sit downs” and now to active confrontation with the authorities to attempt to force social changes and alterations of government policy.

Dixon feared that “the more vociferous of the Left” were intent on engineering “a breakdown in our current system of government and achieving a revolutionary change in the society in which we live.”

Give him “twenty men, half a million pounds, and a free hand,” he proposed, and this “revolutionary” threat could be dealt with. The outcome was the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which would operate as part of the Special Branch until its disbandment in 2008. The SDS was to become the master of long-term infiltration, penetrating nearly every significant group on the British Left.

The unit rapidly set to work, sending at least six officers into the VSC in the late 1960s. The squad managed to get one of their men appointed deputy of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and was soon infiltrating the Independent Labour Party, Troops Out Movement, and even the Young Liberals. The British state, deeply concerned about the influence of Militant within the Labour Party, also targeted Trotskyist groups around this time. A high number of officers were sent into the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), with the SDS Tradecraft Manual of the 2000s still dedicating a whole section to the party.

Police and the Private Sector

Nothing is better evidence of the modern state’s role in supporting and maintaining capitalism than its secret intelligence operations in the industrial sphere.

In the 1970s, Special Branch and Mi5 struck a deal with Ford: the motor company would build a manufacturing plant near Liverpool, creating twelve thousand jobs, in return for secret political vetting of its entire workforce. One branch officer justified it thus: “In any sort of war there are always going to be casualties.” British spooks have a clear understanding of class war.

The Metropolitan Police had an entire Industrial Intelligence Section dedicated to combatting radical influence in key workplaces. According to two top scholars of British intelligence, “The majority of large companies worked either with Special Branch or with private security companies” to run blacklists of politically unreliable workers. Even two former Special Branch officers admit in their recent history of the branch that, “There was a common interest shared by [private propaganda agencies], […] right-wing newspapers and official intelligence organizations (including Special Branch) and there is little doubt that information was exchanged between them.”

In 2009, it was revealed that the Consulting Association had for decades run a blacklist of three thousand construction industry workers. Active trade unionists and political activists found themselves unable to work, sometimes for decades. Last month, the Metropolitan Police finally admitted what was suspected for years: Special Branch had routinely passed information on activists to the Consulting Association.

Animal Rights and Anarchists

With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the central public justification for these political operations — that they protected Britain against foreign-controlled subversion — collapsed.

The fact that these operations did not cease — and possibly expanded — reveals much about their purpose, which never had much to do with foreign meddling.

Instead, radical animal rights activists and various neo-anarchist formations found themselves heavily targeted. Special Branch’s staff numbers were boosted, and an entirely new, nationwide undercover political policing squad, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), was set up in 1999 with Home Office funding. The NPOIU would be Mark Kennedy’s unit.

A key target for the state in the 2000s was the animal-rights campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences, a research institute which tested products on tens of thousands of live animals every year. Undercover-officer-turned-whistleblower Neil Woods relates how he was approached and asked to infiltrate Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty and the Animal Liberation Front on behalf of the NPOIU. “My nation needed me, I was told. If the group of businesses that relied on animal testing left the UK, then we could lose 5 percent of GDP overnight.”

Woods’s comments reveal how closely the political police’s objectives align with those of private economic interests. Recent public guidelines for the use of undercover officers, for instance, argue that deployment is justified “in the interests of the economic well-being of the UK.” What’s more, Mi5 is allegedly still mandated to protect “the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism” from subversion.

The NPOIU would spread its tentacles throughout Britain’s activist scene, targeting anarchists in Cardiff, Earth First!, and even the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA).

Pointing out the infiltration of tiny groups like CIRCA is not to ridicule these undercover operations as absurd over-reactions to trivial radicals, as some have done. Rather, it is to point out that the state takes domestic dissent so seriously that it considers no radical group too insignificant for infiltration. The security services understand better than most that small groups of committed militants can shift the political landscape — and that a marginal group of communists today can be the nucleus of a mass movement tomorrow.

“Subversion” and “Extremism”

The political function of infiltration operations has been lost in the midst of the (understandable) focus on their devastating personal impact. But while the sordid details of individual agents’ dealings might be fascinating, they must be put into context of the political objective they served. These overwhelmingly left-wing groups were infiltrated for a clear reason: to delimit the scope of threats to the status quo.

The targeted groups were concerned with justice for murdered black people, halting the mass slaughter of animals, preventing the collapse of our natural world, helping to bring down apartheid, combatting fascism, and so on. How much social progress has the UK lost thanks to these operations? How many campaigns failed, how many reforms and power shifts didn’t occur because key activists were secretly state agents? As another former undercover officer, Peter Francis, put it: “Once the SDS gets into an organization, it is effectively finished […] If the SDS had been in existence at the time of the suffragettes, their campaigns would never have got off the ground.”

These operations are generally justified as a necessary bulwark against criminal activity or foreign interference in the UK. But it’s clear that they’re actually concerned with policing the boundaries of acceptable dissent. The far right has historically posed a much greater violent and criminal threat than the Left, but — as two scholars put it — Special Branch has had a “particular interest in the surveillance and infiltration of those on the left.”

From British Fascisti to the English Defence League, the UK’s security services have routinely refused to consider far-right groups subversive. Indeed, there is evidence, both here, in Europe, and across the Atlantic, of longstanding collaboration between elements of the security services and the far right.

The official discourses used to legitimate these operations themselves betray infiltration’s true purpose. What was in the early years called “revolutionary activity” became “subversion” by the mid-twentieth century, the formal definition of which was actions which “threaten the safety or wellbeing of the state, and are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial, or violent means.” The concept of subversion was designed primarily to apply to the mass movements for liberation which emerged from the 1950s to 1970s, whether radical domestic movements in the Western states or anticolonial rebellions in the imperial spheres.

After the Cold War, a new language had to be developed to replace the anachronistic discourse of subversion: domestic extremism. A domestic extremist is anyone who wants to “prevent something from happening or to change legislation of public policy … outside of the normal democratic process.” Even an official HMIC review recognized that this definition “could incorporate a very wide range of protest activity.”

The development of “domestic extremism” policy has been linked to intensive policing of Muslim communities through the “war on terror,” and to so-called Intelligence-Led Policing. The latter consists of gathering as much information on suspect individuals and communities as possible, supposedly to pre-empt criminal acts. “Just because you have no criminal record,” asserted Anton Setchell, the senior officer in charge of Domestic Extremism, “does not mean that you are not of interest to the police. Everyone who has got a criminal record did not have one once.”

A subversive or domestic extremist is not defined primarily by their level of criminality, but by their political aims. Legitimate political activity is, within this framework, limited to the formal institutions of parliamentary democracy; the masses are expected to vent their anger twice a decade at the ballot box, and to eschew their self-organization in their workplace, home, or community.

How to Fight Back

How should the Left respond to this history? The worst possible reaction would be for organizations to clam-up like limpets detecting an incoming boot. As Mark Kennedy pointed out after he was exposed:

In some respects, you know, the police have had a result by me being exposed, because everybody’s looking over their shoulder, and doesn’t know who to talk to — the paranoia levels I would imagine within the activist community have probably gone through the roof.

One study, examining the impact of the undercover policing scandal on the UK climate movement, found that the revelations “isolate[d] activists from the wider public. Inner circles tightened, as activists began to enquire into the backgrounds of those they took action with.”

This response can only pave the way for the collapse of the Left. While sensible precautions against infiltration should be taken — although the Undercover Research Group’s guide warns how immensely difficult and damaging trying to root out infiltrators can be — an intensely paranoid culture will create an unpleasant atmosphere for long-term activists, and an unwelcoming community for potential recruits.

Kennedy’s comments should also lead us to reflect on the pitfalls of the small, close-knit affinity groups which have been the preferred organizational model of much of the Left over the past few decades. True, the SDS’s Tradecraft Manual states that public events, day schools, and large demonstrations are an officer’s “best means of entry.” But while small groups of close friends may be initially harder to infiltrate, once a police officer is in, they are able to disrupt and scupper the group’s organization much more easily, precisely because these organizations’ modus operandi relies on the maintenance of secrecy and trust.

The main tool of leverage for these tightly bound groups is targeted direct actions: if an undercover officer is privy to these actions, it is easy for the police to pre-empt them and eliminate their disruptive quality. This is exactly what happened in April 2009, when an attempt to shut down Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station ended in 114 pre-emptive arrests. Mark Kennedy, after infiltrating the tiny group planning the action, had tipped off his police handlers.

Instead of attempting to halt infiltration at a group level, our strategy should be two-fold: a) campaign for infiltration and surveillance to outlawed at a national level, and b) organize on as open, deep, and broad a basis as possible.

We need to render infiltration redundant. Rather than small, isolated affinity groups, we need a mass movement, embedded in our workplaces and local communities and joined into a coherent force for change. A group of thirty activists can have the best counter-surveillance measures in the world and be unlikely to halt police infiltration. A mass movement of tens of thousands, while more easily infiltrated, will be able to generate enough momentum to shift the political landscape despite infiltration.

Ultimately, the lengths to which the state will go to penetrate any potential threat to the status quo — whether socialist parties, black justice campaigns, or trade unions — shows the pitfalls of the liberal conception of Western democratic states. Attempting to plan the “regulation” or theorize the “justification” of political policing apart from the power struggle it forms a part of, or reducing the problem to one of human rights abuse, misses the fundamental issue. The state is the armed regulator of capitalist, patriarchal, and racial systems of exploitation and domination, and undercover infiltration is one tool in its effort to repress challenges to these systems. We ought to be unified and resolute in rejecting the legitimacy of these tactics — but no response is more powerful than organizing a deep and broad movement to overthrow the status quo.