During the last decade of his life, Bertrand Russell was much interested in the problem of the underground activities of the secret police engaged in combating revolutionary movements. He wanted to know about the infiltration methods of undercover agents and how they trumped up charges. His inquiries into this dark part of history had been inspired by the assassination of President John Kennedy. During one of our meetings in London, he asked me whether I believed that President Kennedy was a victim of a conspiracy organized by conservative circles in America.

I pointed out to Russell the difficulties of finding primary historical sources which could help an objective researcher to do his job honestly. I told him of my own experiences in this respect. In the vast literature on the Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, there were several historians who claimed that Princip and other young assassins were the blind instruments of different groups of secret police. It took me almost fifteen years of hard study in the archives of many countries to evaluate some of the most important primary sources which described the fatal event (for instance, the minutes of the assassins’ interrogations in Sarajevo, the original text of the trial proceedings); only then did I feel free to conclude that Princip and his friends were not secret agents, but had decided for themselves that it was right to kill a tyrant.

I agreed with Russell that there are many dark questions surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Not only historians but all honest men are entitled to the historical truth. But I declined to write anything about the assassination of Kennedy before I had in front of me all or most of the primary historical sources about the event. Without them no serious opinion could be expressed. I could do no more than hope that one day the full story would come into the open, as a result of the inquisitiveness of the Americans, of their urge to probe the great secrets of their contemporary history.

From the subject of the secret of John Kennedy’s murder, Russell and I went on to discuss the vast question of the work of undercover police agents in revolutionary movements. We talked about the problem of finding out whether or not rumors that a man is an undercover agent are true, how the danger of accusing an honest man for the worst of crimes can be avoided, how both treason against fellow revolutionaries and the work of real police agents can be exposed.

For me the worst penetration of revolutionaries by any Establishment was done by the English Secret Service, which succeeded in infiltrating the inner core of the Irish rebels a century ago. On May 25, 1870, The New York Times announced the news that the Irish American Army for the liberation of Ireland had invaded Canada. The invasion was organized and executed by an Irish secret revolutionary society, the Fenians, which was founded in 1858 by Irish immigrants in the United States. During the five years of the Great Famine of 1845-49, more than a million Irish died of starvation and of diseases which accompany malnutrition, and at least 800,000 Irish men and women sailed for the States and Canada. The British government let the Irish die in Ireland without making serious efforts to save them, thus continuing London’s old practice of genocide (which is ignored by most English historians).

The Irish emigrants felt obliged to help their country. On June 1, 1866, 800 Fenians crossed the Canadian border and captured Fort Erie, but the superior British forces pushed them back. In 1867 an open insurrection broke out in south and west Ireland, followed by the attempt of the Irish workers in Manchester, England, to liberate two captured Fenian leaders who were accused of organizing a rebellion in Lancashire. During the skirmish a policeman was accidentally killed, and five young Irishmen were charged with murder, of whom three, William Allen, William Gould (alias Michael O’Brien), and Michael Larkin, were sentenced to death and executed on November 23, 1867.

In 1960 I undertook a comparative study of the organization of secret revolutionary societies in Ireland and those in my native Bosnia and Herzegovina, using the libraries and archives in Manchester.* I came across the minutes of the trial and copied the last words of Michael O’Brien:

Ireland, with her delightful climate and fertile soil, was capable of supporting triple her population; and no man, except a paid official of the British Government, could say there was a shadow of liberty there, or a spark of life among its persecuted inhabitants. It is to be hoped that her imbecile and tyrannical rulers may be forever driven from her soil, amid the excretions of the world. How beautifully the aristocrats of England moralize on the tyranny of the rulers of Naples, Dahomey, etc…. Look at home—look at London—see the thousands of men with the specter of famine implanted on their faces; see the virtuous, beautiful, and industrious women who only a few years ago, ay, and yet, are obliged to look at their children dying for want of food—look at what is called the majesty of the law on the one side, and the long deep misery of a noble people on the other….

The passion aroused by the execution of Michael and his two comrades can be gauged by the fact that the Fenians decided to strike at the English royal family. On March 12, 1868, three months after the execution of the Manchester Martyrs, as they were called by the Irish, or the Manchester Murderers as they were slanderously identified in the House of Commons, an attempt was made against the Duke of Edinburgh, the son of Queen Victoria, at a public picnic at Clontarf, near Port Jackson in Australia. According to the Annual Register, “One O’Farrell shot the duke in the back, the wound was dangerous but not fatal.” O’Farrell was soon tried and hanged.


In 1870, as popular discontent in Ireland was increasing, the Fenians again decided that they should try to invade Canada. On March 31 the House of Lords in London passed the Irish Law and Order bill. The chief object of the Fenians was to obtain possession of Canada, not as the permanent seat of an Irish republic, but as the base for maritime operations against England. The Fenians then hoped to be recognized by the United States as a belligerent state which could quickly organize a blockade of England and help to liberate the mother country.

According to the dispatch of The New York Times, 500 armed Fenians crossed the border near Milton, Vermont, and a reserve of between 10,000 and 20,000 revolutionaries, “all poor laboring men, scattered all over the north,” from Boston, New York, and Buffalo were ready to join the first contingent. All of them were armed. The Fenians had spent several years collecting money for their arsenal and most of the financing was done “by the servant-girls of New York.”

Yet the Canadian troops waited in ambush and the invaders were scattered. The Canadian authorities knew well in advance about the preparation for the invasion. The New York Times reported on April 15, 1870, from Ottawa,

…the Habeas Corpus act has been suspended. The measure passed both Houses, and was assented to by the Governor-General in the name of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. In asking Parliament for a suspension of the act, the Government had received information on which they relied, that the peace of the country was again in danger from the invasion of lawless men from the United States, belonging to the Fenian organization.

The organization of the raid was in the hands of the top leadership of the Fenians: the President of the Fenian Brotherhood, John O’Neill, Fenian Secretary of War, General T.W. Sweeny, and the Adjutant-General of the Fenian Army, General Henri Le Caron.

The secret of the Fenian defeat in 1870 was publicly disclosed only in 1889. The Fenian General Henri Le Caron, by his own admission, was in fact one Thomas Beach, an Englishman from Colchester, and “a paid spy of the British Intelligence Service.” He justified his undercover activities by claiming “my British instincts made me a willing worker from a sense of right.” In his memoirs Twenty Five Years in the Secret Servicethe Recollections of a Spy, Beach described the Fenians’ defeat in 1870—how, on the eve of the invasion, his trusty messengers departed for Canada, carrying full details of the time, exact points of crossing, numbers, place of operations, and other details.

Sir Robert Anderson, the head of the British Secret Service, publicly confirmed Thomas Beach’s exploits. He was Beach’s main contact for almost a quarter of a century, ever since Beach worked his way into the Fenian organization in America. Beach had the audacity to organize the Fenian branches (circles or camps as they were called) in Lockport, Illinois, and some other towns in the Midwest. He quickly gained the confidence of the Fenian leaders, fomented dissent between the Fenian factions, and pushed them to undertake “instant terroristic actions,” which were poorly prepared. Even after the May, 1870, fiasco at Pigeon Hill in Canada, Beach succeeded in remaining in the Fenian leadership, sending every important document to Sir John overseas in England for almost two decades.

To Russell the greatest spy in the history of the world revolutionary movement was Evno Fišelević Azef, one of the top leaders of the Russian Social Revolutionary Party, who as primary historical sources prove, was also a paid agent of the Ochrana, the secret police of the Russian tsars. This fact was ascertained in 1908 by three judges of the inner tribunal of the Russian Social Revolutionary Party, Peter Kropotkin, Vera Figner, and Germain Lopatin, and by Azef’s own admission, and is confirmed by documents in the archives of the Ochrana, which after the 1917 revolution fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks.


Azef’s motives for acting as an informer were less complex than those of Beach. The latter was a restless man and spy exploits are thrilling. Figuring in Beach’s actions was an element of English patriotism, although he was also well paid. Azef, however, was a pure mercenary. He smelled where the money was and did everything he could to get it. As a student of engineering in Karlsruhe, Germany, where he had met several young Russian rebels, he wrote, on April 4, 1893, a letter to the police department of his native Rostov, offering his services for a modest fee of 50 rubles a month. But his salary increased when, in 1894, he joined the Union of Russian Social Revolutionaries Abroad then in Bern. At that time the Union was a small circle, but Azef’s membership in it helped him later to become one of the founders of the Social Revolutionary Party, the biggest radical organization in Russia for many years.

Azef was so skillful at hiding his links with the police that in 1903 he became the head of the Battle Organization of the SR: he directed all the terroristic activities against the tsarist regime. Here Azef’s mercenary tendencies came to dominate his actions. As Boris Nikolajevski has pointed out, until 1903 the police had been Azef’s principal source of income. The revolutionary organization paid him nothing or very little. He was a “revolutionary” only in so far as this was required of him by the police. He sold the secrets of the revolutionaries with a clear conscience.

But his position had very much changed in 1903. The head of the Battle Organization now had absolute control of funds amounting to many tens of thousands of rubles. If he wished to strengthen his position in revolutionary circles or, to put it simply, to obtain unrestricted control of the revolutionary funds, it was necessary that the Battle Organization should be successful in its undertakings. Continued failure would inevitably lead to his being superseded in leadership.

Such were Azef’s motives for not informing the police about the preparations his men were making against the life of the Russian Minister of Interior, V.K. Plehve, who was hunting down the revolutionary movement with the utmost zeal. On July 18, 1904, a young revolutionary by the name of Igor Sazonof approached Plehve’s slow-moving droshky and threw a twelve-pound bomb through the window of the carriage, ending the life of the tsar’s leading policeman.

Azef’s authority among the revolutionaries was then at its height and he had much trouble explaining to the new chief of the police why he had not given advance warning about the conspiracy. The Central Committee of the SR in the meantime decided to wipe out the most reactionary group at the tsar’s palace, headed by his trusted advisers, the Grand Dukes Sergei and Vladimir, who happened to be the tsar’s uncles. The funds of the Battle Organization were again increasing, and Azef did not do anything to stop the assassins. The Grand Duke Sergei was murdered in Moscow on February 17, 1905.

In the ranks of the tsarist police there were people who suspected that Azef knew in advance about the conspiracy, and he was put on surveillance for a time. After February, 1905, Azef did everything to win back the confidence of the police: in the summer of 1905 all seventeen members of the Battle Organization were arrested. He also handed to his superiors the detailed plan of the insurrection in Petrograd. In 1906 he revealed details of a conspiracy against the life of Minister of Interior Durnova, and much more. He performed his Judas’s work until he was exposed in 1908 by the Central Committee of the Social Revolutionary Party.

Both Thomas Beach and Evno Azef were more than skilled informers. The British and the Russian secret police came to the conclusion that the mass revolutionary movement could not be controlled simply by repressive measures, but the leadership of the secret societies had to be infiltrated in order to influence them politically. In both cases, they tried to organize “manufactured heresies,” separate organizations with revolutionary slogans which were in fact run by the police.

These methods were not new. Such historians of the Inquisition as Henry Charles Lea and George Coulton have pointed out the existence of manufactured heresies in the thirteenth century. The Neo-Manichaean heresies were too strong to be wiped out only by the stake, and the Popes started to organize their own “heretical” groups. As Lea states, one of the first leaders of these authorized sects was Duran de Huesca from Catalonia. He was completely obedient to the higher ecclesiastical authorities and at the same time he wrote tracts against the heretics. He conceived the idea of founding an order which would serve as a model of poverty and self-abnegation, devoted to preaching and missionary work, thus fighting the heretics with the very weapons which they had themselves found efficacious in obtaining converts from the rich and worldly church.

C. B. Zubatov, the head of the Ochrana in Moscow, came to the conclusion in 1901 that he should organize the legal economic societies of the workers under the control of the police. These societies had the right to fight for higher wages; their main goal was to deepen the breach between the workers and intellectuals by claiming that the intellectuals did not care enough about the needs of an ordinary worker. Zubatov’s manufactured heresies were particularly successful in the case of the “workers’ organizations” of the priest Georgi Apolonovic Gapon. On January 9, 1905, under the instruction of the police, Gapon led a workers’ demonstration in Petrograd into an ambush of kozaks; about a thousand workers were killed and two thousand injured.

Zubatov also was responsible for setting off a wave of assassinations of Russian dignitaries at the beginning of this century, although he was not fully aware that such consequences would result. At that time there was a strong opinion among the SR that they should resort once more to individual terror, as their fathers had done in the 1880s. As Nikolajevski writes in his brilliant biography of Azef, Zubatov favored and indeed fostered the growth of an extreme revolutionary temper among the intelligentsia. “We shall provoke you to acts of terror and then crush you,” Zubatov would boast. He liked to play with fire, but very soon burned his fingers.

The practice by which police themselves organize terroristic acts in order to impress public opinion was not Zubatov’s invention. The French police commissioners used this weapon during the 1880s. And today, whenever I read in the papers about a bombing, I think of the hard labor ahead for future historians who will have to comb through the police archives to establish the historical truth: was the bombing really done by the revolutionaries or was it a frame-up by the police?

How should a revolutionary movement defend itself from the infiltration of police agents? What effective steps should it take, particularly in modern times when the technique of surveillance has advanced so much with computers and electronic devices which can, for example, pick up sound at 200 yards?

Obviously each radical movement should adapt itself to prevailing conditions, studying not only current methods of infiltration by agencies of repression, but also the history of such methods.

Some time ago I had occasion to reread Stepniak’s Underground Russia. It was the textbook on the art of the conspiracy for our radical grandfathers. (Stepniak’s full name was Sergei Mihailovic-Kravcinski. He was a Russian populist and he fought in the uprising of the peasants of my native Herzegovina in 1875 much as Che Guevara fought in Cuba. His book was published in English in New York in 1883 by Scribner’s.) So far as the revolutionary technique is concerned, Stepniak’s book is obviously outdated, but its value lies in its vivid commentary on the social psychology of revolutionaries and their adversaries. In this there has been little change, notwithstanding a century of revolution and unrest.

Possessed by the idea that they should sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the masses, revolutionaries are inclined to believe that they are bringing a new era, that a new world really is beginning with their movement. Recruited for the most part among youth, the radicals show an extreme idealism. Stepniak did not fail to underline that “youth is always generous and ready to sacrifice.”

And now as before they encounter on the other side of the barricades petrified institutions and the continuing injustice that comes from them. Just because those in power defend the existing social order, they inherit from the previous generations of possessing classes not only the physical capacity to coerce but also an ideology which defends private property, privilege, and injustice. They also inherit ways of subjugating rebels, either by co-optation, by sheer force, or by the kiss of death if the first two methods do not give quick results.

Stepniak convincingly shows not only the psychological roots of the innocence—one might say naïveté—of revolutionaries but also the cunning and experience that characterize the mouse-catching mentality of the governments that seek to destroy them.

I cannot help thinking of today’s New Left when I read Stepniak’s descriptions of the inclinations of the Russian revolutionaries a century ago toward “the love of openness,” “the habit of doing everything in common,” and how these qualities “render [the movement] little adapted to conform to the vital principle of conspiracy; to tell what is to be told only to those to whom it is essential to tell it, and not to those to whom it may merely be told without danger.” In his revolutionary profiles, Stepniak spoke of Valerian Ossinsky’s “love of danger, for he was at home in it, as in his natural element.” And only one uncontrolled step toward danger, a relaxation of conspiratorial discipline, brought “disaster,” a “deluge” of bloodletting by the government.

The revolutionaries in Stepniak’s time, as today, detested cowards, particularly among the ukrivateli, which Stepniak described as “a very large class, composed of people in every position…who, sharing revolutionary ideas, take no active part in the struggle, for various reasons, but making use of their social position, lend powerful support to the combatants, by concealing whenever necessary, both objects and men.” He described how a counselor was nicknamed Bucephalus because, like the horse of Alexander of Macedonia, he was afraid of his own shadow. Yet the police agents often incited such pride in bravery of the revolutionaries in order to exploit it—and they still do.

Among the revolutionaries of yesterday and today there exists very little suspicion of one another, especially in the first phase of their work. In the process of struggle, a bond of friendship of a rare purity is created among them. The police agents play on this. For instance, the English master spy Thomas Beach was detected at the beginning of his undercover work by a sharp-eyed Irishman, John Roche, for “imputing carelessness, dangerous conduct and suspicious acts.” At the Annual Convention of the Fenians in Philadelphia in 1868 Roche’s allegations were investigated by a committee which ruled by a “unanimous verdict that the charges were scandalous and without the slightest foundation.” Roche was warned not to insult honest revolutionaries.

In his first year of work for the Russian secret police, Azef was publicly accused by a fellow student, Korobotkin, of being a spy. But in the atmosphere of brotherhood among the revolutionaries, general sympathy went to the “unjustly accused” Azef; and Korobotkin, who could not substantiate his accusations, was expelled from the group as a slanderer.

For six long years, Vladimir Burtzef, a Russian historian and revolutionary, gathered material against Azef, but found his own life in danger for disseminating “idle chatter” and “unfounded accusations against a great revolutionary.” He was even subjected to a trial by the three oldest members of the Central Committee of the SR and for days his fate hung in the balance. They refused to believe his accusations, and the old revolutionary Vera Figner told him bluntly: “Do you know what you will have to do if your accusations are proved groundless? You will have nothing left but to shoot yourself for all the harm that you have done to the Revolution.” Only when he succeeded in convincing A. Lopuhin, a former chief of the police, to testify that Azef was an agent did the revolutionary tribunal change its mind.

All the movements I have been discussing learned some lessons from the early days of their innocence. Conor Cruise O’Brien, in his remarkable work Parnell and his Party, tells how the actual achievements of the Fenian movement in organizing the armed revolution were not much greater than those of their predecessors. But those revolutionaries who were able to endure in the harsh penal servitude of the time without having their spirit broken were later able to avoid crucial errors.

The Russian experience was different. As Stepniak reports, some of the radical Russians of the 1880s came to the decision that one of the best ways of defending themselves from the infiltration of undercover agents was to infiltrate the police force itself. The most expert in mastering such methods were the Bolsheviks, but were they successful? They did their best to penetrate the secret police and to obtain lists of their undercover agents. They even infiltrated Zubatov’s workers’ societies and got the workers to adopt their own economic demands. Yet, despite all these precautions, the Bolsheviks suffered humiliating defeats.

By the time of the March Revolution, the archives of the central Ochrana in Petrograd contained the names of between 30,000 and 40,000 agents-provocateurs who had been active for twenty years before the revolution. But fire destroyed most of these documents. The arson was organized by former police spies among the revolutionaries. Everything was not destroyed, however. In November, 1917, the Bolsheviks got hold of some of these archives. As Victor Serge recorded, it was found that in 1912 there were fifty-five police agents in the revolutionary organizations of Moscow: seventeen Social revolutionaries, twenty Menshevik or Bolshevik Social Democrats, three anarchists, eleven students, and several liberals. In the Petrograd archives documents were found which revealed that R.V. Malinovski, Lenin’s good friend and the leader of the Bolshevik faction in the Duma, was a police informer.

The Russian methods of infiltrating the infiltrators thus proved to be an ineffectual method of struggle against the class enemy. Could I advise young radicals of today of some better tools of defense? No doubt there are some techniques of self-protection that might be improved, but the main thing would be to stick to the principle of applied ethics in which one’s actions conform as closely as possible to professed ideals. In the long run this could prove to be the best remedy against enemy undercover agents. The goal of revolution should not be to build a new state structure, not to imitate the tactics of the police, but to liberate man from all oppressive social, ethical, and aesthetic conventions.

It should never be forgotten that the task of revolution is to augment human freedoms by raising social conscience to a higher level. It is thus important to avoid all the discrepancies between principles and deeds by conducting organizational action with the same openness and frankness that should characterize the workings of revolutionary society itself. If the permanent struggle is waged in this way, agents of the enemy will be much more easily smoked out. History has proved that the class enemy penetrates fixed, hierarchical organizations without inner freedoms far more easily than it does movements which are broad and democratically organized.

Veselin Masleša, a Yugoslav revolutionary who was killed by the Germans in 1943, said once that the fear of undercover agents often is more dangerous for a radical movement than the undercover agents themselves. Delusions of persecution have been a common disease of heretical groups for centuries. A clever government or Establishment knows how to fan it, how to sow distrust among revolutionaries by circulating stories about spies. The annual reports by the chiefs of secret police mentioning successful infiltration of radical groups are not merely boasting on the part of egotistical police bosses; such practices serve their purpose by creating an atmosphere of distrust among radicals that destroys the bonds of friendship and causes them to eye one another suspiciously.

The Inquisition was the first to apply this dangerous weapon. It proclaimed, as its first step in the hunt against heretics, the so-called Period of Grace, in effect a call for mass spying. Charles Lea describes how the Inquisitor, a few days before his visit to a city, would send a notice to the ecclesiastical authorities requiring them to summon the people at a specified time. An announcement was made that indulgence would be given to all who attended. He then asked the people who came to reveal to him whatever information they may have heard about any citizen indicating that he might be a heretic, or that he had spoken against any article of faith, or that he differed in life and morals from the practices of the faithful.

Not only were all Christians thus made to feel that it was their highest duty to aid in the extermination of heretics, but they were taught that they must denounce them to the authorities regardless of all considerations, human or divine. Family ties were no excuse for concealing heresy. The son must denounce the father, and the husband was guilty if he did not deliver his wife to a frightful death. Every human bond was severed by the guilt of heresy; children were taught to desert their parents. Even the sacrament of matrimony could not unite an orthodox wife with a misbelieving husband. No pledge was to remain unbroken.

In our time, we have seen similar methods applied with all the modern techniques of surveillance and computers, particularly in days of social tension, in all states, whatever their constitution or ideology.

No doubt governments are now desperately trying to infiltrate revolutionary groups; imperialist states are doing everything possible to spy on each other and to place their agents in countries that have liberated themselves from foreign rule. Fears of infiltration are obviously justified. Yet such fears were cannily used by Stalin to crush without mercy the old Bolsheviks. The main charge in all the purge trials in the 1930s was that the old revolutionaries had been serving the class enemy. As history has shown, there was not a grain of truth in these trumped-up charges. The Soviet secret police applied similar methods in the purges in Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and some other East European countries in the 1950s, when thousands of honest men and women were sent to death under the false accusations of being spies.

This is an additional reason why one should be extremely careful in assessing rumors about the infiltration of undercover agents. In my talks with Russell one of the points we agreed on was that all or most of the primary sources must be available before a judgment is passed that a man is an undercover agent. All the arguments pro and con have to be weighed with the greatest care before an opinion is given on any man’s activities. This is especially the case in countries which have liberated themselves from the Stalinist habits but where there are still people who practice the old methods.

In the heat of my argument with Russell, I unintentionally said to him: “Do you know that you were recently accused in my native Yugoslavia of being a spy of the British Intelligence Service?”

He looked at me with surprise. I explained that when Russell called for a Tribunal for the investigation of the American war crimes in Vietnam, the students gathered around the paper Tribuna in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, welcomed the move of the old philosopher, and formed a committee of support. The Yugoslav press, on the whole, and particularly in Slovenia, welcomed his Tribunal on Vietnam. The progressives among the leadership of the League of Communists in Slovenia (Edvard Kardelj Mitja Ribicic, Marko Bulc, and others) were in favor of it. But some of the old guard refused to support it. There were a few attacks in the Ljubljana press against Russell (cruel jokes about “the old English lord”) and several students were even called to the Socialist Alliance and investigated. To frighten the students, the investigators warned them that “behind the Russell Tribunal are hidden the agents of the British Intelligence Service.” (The full statements of the interrogation of these students, as well as a few similar cases, are deposited in the Archives of the Bertrand Russell Tribunal.)

A year later, after the investigations in Ljubljana, the Russell Tribunal, a revolutionary tribunal, ended its session in Stockholm and proclaimed the United States guilty of war crimes in Vietnam. When the verdict was read young Swedes jumped to their feet. Colonel Ha Van Lau from Vietnam rushed to the bench, embracing the president, Jean-Paul Sartre, the other judges, and me, and began to weep for joy. I held Colonel Ha in my arms and I cried too, but for other reasons. I was thinking of the diehards in Ljubljana, my former comrades from the great days of the Partisans’ saga. I felt sorry for the accusers, who in their blindness, prejudice, and stupidity accused Russell and, through him, Jean-Paul Sartre, Dave Dellinger, Simone de Beauvoir, Peter Weiss, and the rest of the judges of the worst crimes being committed in the world today—of being imperialist spies.

I wiped my eyes and a thought flashed through my mind. This incident, too, taught me that we are still living in the prehistory of human beings. The dawn of new days is far away, but it will come.

This Issue

March 25, 1971