In a follow up to the previous post that looked at infiltration by the state in the revolutionary movement during the flowering of protest in the late 1960s and 70s in Britain saw one element of the security apparatus, Special Branch, have its lens focused upon the newly emergent forces of the anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninists. The Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) was a covert unit under Special Branch supervision that existed within the Metropolitan Police Service between 1968 and 2008. So far the cover names of 45 out of a total of at least 144 undercover officers have been disclosed during the ongoing official Undercover Policing Inquiry. The previous post looked at the released reports of the anonymous clandestine police spy, assigned the designation HN13, on the marginal Far Left Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist). Among the other state agents exposed have been those engaged in spying upon the small if energetic , short-lived Revolutionary Marxist Leninist League led by one of the prominent personalities of the movement, Manchanda.
Constable HN45 “Dave Robertson” served as an undercover police officer engaged in secretly surveillance of London Maoists active in the Revolutionary Marxist Leninist League led by A. Manchanda. Activist Diane Langford, reported on by the copspys, remarked:
“The reason given for spying on us was to gather intelligence about forthcoming demonstrations and possible infractions of public order. The futility of this is illustrated by a demonstration consisting of a maximum of a dozen of us, walking with cardboard placards, in support of Huey Newton in 1969. We were astonished to arrive at Grosvenor Square to be met by at least a thousand uniformed police and row upon row of parked up police vans.” [i]
Although the consensus is that the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign had been a target of DC HN45, “Dave Robertson” joined the RMLL study classes held at Manchanda’s home, 58 Lisburne Road, from 1970 onwards, and report on the Revolutionary Marxist Leninist League and its associated organisation principally the Britain-Vietnam Solidarity Front. Testimony at the Undercover Policy Enquiry referred to.
“ a meeting at a pub in King’s Cross. It references, halfway down: “There was no chairman and the only speaker was Al Manchanda, who spoke on the subject of ‘Soviet revisionism and collusion with US Imperialists’.” And then you conclude with referencing: “No mention was made of any future activities.” And the report lists a number of names of people that were present: Al Manchanda, Diane Langford and Sonia Seedo are those that we can see on the page. “ [ii]
Others names were redacted by “privacy” overlays.[iii]
DC HN45 Robertson reported February 1971 on the personal circumstances that Manchanda’s wife worked full-time while he remained at home caring for their small daughter – presented as a practical experiment in the field of women’s Liberation. He informed Special Branch that Manchanda considered the position of Secretary of the RMLL to be a full time responsibility and awarded himself a small weekly payment of around £4 out of organisation funds. The purchasing power of £4 in 1971 equivalent to £50.31 today.
In her written OPENING STATEMENT to THE UNDERCOVER POLICING INQUIRY, Diane Langford observed:
“HN45 displays a vindictive hatred of Manu and a peculiar obsession with our personal relationship and child-care arrangements. He sent detailed reports to the Special Branch about what he apparently saw as transgressive behaviour – a man looking after his own child – and expressing horror that I was ‘sent out to work.’ He informs his superiors of Manu’s ‘insufferable anecdotes’ about our baby. Strangely, nothing in there about us overthrowing the state machine.
HN45, ‘Dick Epps’ et al were part of a manipulative, racist endeavour to justify their pay packet by portraying Manu as being an imminent danger to the state, implying he espoused the idea of going on demonstrations only to foment violence. This is utter rubbish. He never had any illusions about the possibility of ‘smashing the state machine.’ On the contrary, he was pragmatic about the possibility of challenging the power of the State head on. His scepticism about the willingness of sections of the white working class to give up privileges derived from colonialism annoyed many on the left and, apparently, HN45.”[iv]
Evidently good at establishing rapport within the group, Constable HN45 was said to have developed a friendship with Mr Gajawan Bijur, owner of the Banner Bookshop in Camden, that since it was opened in 1968, become one of the principle outlets for the dissemination of official Peking-line literature .
A report to Special Banch stated: “Bijur has recently opened a second bookshop in Brixton to which he wishes to devote more of his time and is currently looking for a suitable ‘comrade’ to run the one at 90 Camden High Street.” It noted that in the course of his penetration of Maoist groups, DC [HN45] is becoming a confidante of Bijur.
“By coincidence, he has asked DC [HN45] of the Special Operations Squad to take it on, or to recommend a reliable substitute. ….Bijur would like the position filled by 14th February, 1972.
What those advantages would be: “(i) It would entrench our officer in Bijur’s esteem and probably make him acceptable in most Maoist circles.(ii) He would become privy to the inner workings and policy of ‘Banner Books’. (iii) He would probably have access to records and mailing lists of persons of interest to Special Branch. (iv) He would be able to provide a plan of the bookshop and would have access to the keys of the premises.”
From his released reports by the UNDERCOVER POLICING INQUIRY we learn of the busy schedule of a newly recruited “political activist “ as HN45 reported on:
Meeting of the Revolutionary Marxist Leninist League held at the Union Tavern, King. Cross Road, C1 on Sunday, 15 November 1970 from 7.30 pm to 10.30 pm that was tended by 12 persons. The chairman and only speaker was Abhimanyu MANCHANDA who delivered a long lecture on ‘How the Soviet Revisionists carry out all-round restoration of capitalism in the USSR”.
27th November Camden Studios, NW1, a leaving party for representatives of the Democratic republic of Vietnam organised by RMLL drew 40 people, only about eight were not from RMLL and associated groups. Disapprovingly as several hundred invitation had gone out to the London Left. Manchanda spoke and Diane Langford, representatives from Friends of Korea, Pan African Congress and South West Africa National Union made short remarks. Following this, Gajawan BIJUR spoke and present bouquet of flowers.
On Sunday, 29 November 1970, at Camden Studios, just off Camden Street, about five minutes’ walk from Mornington Crescent Tube station, a public meeting was organised by the Revolutionary Marxist Leninist League and Friends of China’ to celebrate the 26th Anniversary of Socialist Albania. The meeting which commenced at 7pm and finished at 10 pm. Manchanda was the chairman and only speaker to the audience of 16, one of whom was seemingly from the revisionist CPGB, engaged in a heated argument with Manchanda in the Q & A session.
Planning RMLL activities for the year 1971
January 20th 1971 Wednesday evening meeting to plan RMLL activities (including the Women’s Liberation Front (WLF) and its newspaper “Women’s Liberation”, Friends of China and the Britain-Vietnam Solidarity Front (BVSF) was attended by 14.
A potential move into industrial work saw applications targeted at Fords at Dagenham and the Metal Box co. in North London (principally women and Asian workers). The formation of a WLF branch in the Palmers Green area was to support campaigning at the latter site. Diane Langford was to initiate a more general orientation to women members of the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT) in the printing industry through her workplace. (SOGAT now part of Unite)
“The question of regular weekly public meetings, film shows and Other activities were discussed but no firm plans were made. Manchanda was to drew up a calendar. of dates and venues for such meetings and this would be submitted in due course.”
The RMLL were to produce its own journal, scheduled for March to coincide with commemoration of the Paris Commune, with Manchanda as editor who “hoped to get some assistance from the Chinese News Agency. Manchanda was less keen on the suggestion of opening a bookshop favouring RMLL run pop-up bookstalls. Whether there was any consideration by Manchanda of the political relationship and support already sustained by the proprietor of Banner Books to the activities of the group would be speculation.
Political classes for beginners were to continue weekly at Lisburne Road, Belsize Park, North West London, NW3. A monthly weekend school, in addition to weekly meetings, for members was planned to discuss political activities and plan future strategy.
Overlap with other undercovers
The entry of the Undercover Research Portal at Powerbase – investigating corporate and police spying on activists – noted that DC HN45 was not alone in surveillance, infiltration and reporting upon the Maoist milieu in London.
“It is notable that a number of the venues frequented by the RMLL, such as the Laurel Tree and The Enterprise Pubs, as well as the Camden Studios, were also frequented in 1969 by another SDS undercover officer John Graham when he was infiltrating another Maoist influenced group, the Camden Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. According to the Undercover Policing Inquiry Graham also reported back on the Revolutionary Socialist Students’ Federation.
A third SDS undercover, using the name ‘Alex Sloan‘, targeted one of the groups that split from the RMLL: the Communist Workers League of Britain, which was behind the Irish National Liberation Solidarity Front and also active in and around Camden. Like Robertson, ‘Alex Sloan’ was deployed 1971 to 1973.
A fourth undercover infiltrated the Women’s Liberation Front, set up by Diane Langford, when in the early 1970s the RMLL developed a focus on feminist issues and the growing women’s liberation movement. The address for the new group was house on Lisburne Road which Diane shared with Manchanda and served as an effective headquarters for the RMLL and its associated groups. In 1972-1973 the Women’s Liberation Front was targeted by female SDS undercover, known only as ‘Sandra’ (HN348).
The activism and internationalism that characterised the RMLL was overshadowed by events in October 1971 at the Second National Women’s Liberation Conference in Skegness.
The RMLL’s Women’s Liberation Front, and other maoist-aligned activists were active in the movement but, as Langford recalled,
“The reputation of the Maoists within the Women’s Liberation Movement was rock bottom. Women were trying to develop a new, autonomous movement and we were seen as male-dominated and spouting tired old anti-imperialist rhetoric. In particular, women long remembered the incident at the national WLM conference in Skegness in 1971 when Harpal Brar leapt onto the stage and wrestled the microphone out of a woman’s hand. After that, conferences were solely for women but that didn’t stop some men from trying to gate crash and even assault women attending.”
The report to Special Branch from its agent HN348 “Sandra”, noted Meysel Brar was chair for part of the proceedings and that fellow WLF member Chris Mackinnon ”made her usual maoist pronunciations” that provoked a suspected pre-planned walk out of about 150 associated with the Gay Liberation Front. Meysel was said to have continued the meeting “as if nothing had occurred”. The next session proved as contentious when the patriarchal, self-entitled and violent actions of the RMLL member abused and assaulted other attendees:
“A number of persons spoke, amongst them was XXXX. As he left his seat he was surrounded by about twenty screaming women who poured abuse on him. He promptly punched two of them and dragged another along by her hair. He meanwhile poured his scorn on them, describing them as “a queer lot of bitches unfit to be called women let alone members of the Women’s Liberation Movement”, many women left the hall weeping and wailing. On attaining the platform XXXX pointed out he was a member of an affiliated group and had contributed towards the conferences expenses. It would be undemocratic for him or any other man to be asked to leave.” [v]
Unfortunately, within the wider Women’s Liberation Movement this was falsely seen as characteristic of the Maoist approach to the issue. While there was a common position that women’s liberation was a class question, in the constellation of activist groups there was differences that were not always appreciated. So, regretting the dissolution of the broad-based WNCC, the Women’s Liberation Front drafted a letter in November 1971 to go to all groups within the WNCC that stated:
“the usurping of that democracy during the recent conference had been highly irregular” and argued for a reinstatement of the WNCC structure. [vi]
At Skegness, the first four demands of the WLM were passed
1. Equal Pay
2. Equal Educational and Job Opportunities
3. Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand
4. Free 24 hour Nurseries.
But also the Women’s National Coordinating Committee was voted out of existence, in favour of local and regional conferences and organisation.
The Women’s National Coordinating Committee (WNCC) had been created in 1970 as a coordinating body for the broad Women’s Liberation Movement and the groups that were affiliated with it. An appeal for resurrection from the WLF failed to garner support. In the aftermath of the negative reputation that spread, a polemical reply was produced by the actual culprits of the ACW’s Union of Women for Liberation. The Hemel Hempstead based group originated in 1969 as a split from Manchanda’s Revolutionary Marxist-Leninist League and led by Harpal and Mysel Brar . Prolific propagandists, the UWL published its version in Lessons of Skegness: a brief account of the proceedings of the Women’s Nation al Co-ordinating Committee Conference at Skegness (October 15-17, 1971) and an exposure of the dirty role of the Trotskyites, revisionists and feminists. Hemel Hempstead 1972] [vii]
For the WLF Turkish women comrades made a massive banner depicting a woman raising her fist with broken shackles. The Women’s Liberation Front passes through Trafalgar Square on March 6th, 1971.
The police infiltrator, Sandra HN348, reflecting years later on spying on the WLF, told the official judge-led Undercover Policing Inquiry, that she did not believe her undercover work was worthwhile. The inquiry is scrutinising how police used at least 139 undercover officers to spy on more than 1,000 political groups over more than 40 years. “Sandra” said she did not see any of the members she spied on acting violently or committing crimes. “I do not think my work really yielded any good intelligence, but I eliminated the WLF from public-order concerns,” she said in her written evidence. Why the police sent an undercover police officer to infiltrate a very small women’s rights group that lawfully campaigned for equal pay, free contraception and better nursery provision, “the officer claimed the group was of interest to Special Branch because of its links with “more extreme groups” such as the Angry Brigade and “Irish extremists.” Morning Star The Women’s Liberation Front had come to attention of the Special Branch unit “through its links with the Revolutionary Marxist-Leninist League”.
“Women’s liberation was viewed as a worrying trend at the time,” said HN348 Sandra.
“She attended weekly meetings held in campaigners’ private homes that were attended by about 10 people. As she was trusted, she became the treasurer of the group’s main committee, whose meetings were also held in private homes and attended by around five people.
During this time, she regularly submitted reports to her supervisors about the group, documenting details of a possible affair between two activists, plans to bake cakes to raise money, film showings and a campaigner’s holiday to Albania. She also compiled a detailed report on a protest march organised by hundreds of children in 1972 to improve their schools.” [viii]
One of the meetings HN348 Sandra spied on that concerned the possibility of setting up a national movement of socialist women was only attended by two activists. She reported that attendees of one such meeting in Guildford, Surrey, in June 1972 were “a group of fairly moderate women with no particular political motivation who have recently been campaigning for nurseries in the Guildford area”. Appearing before the inquiry the now-retired police officer said: “I could have been doing much more worthwhile things with my time.” Sandra told the inquiry she did not think her work had “really yielded any good intelligence” although her deployment helped her superiors conclude that the Women’s Liberation Front did not pose any threat to public order.
Later in life, there was agreement from Diane Langford,
“I found it difficult to comprehend why our puny efforts caused so much concern to the authorities when everything we did was within the law and totally transparent.”
Posters protesting about undercover policing outside the Royal Courts of Justice in 2019. Photograph: David Rowe/Alamy Stock Photo
Suspicions specifically about HN45 Robertson were recalled in Diane Langford’s 2015 political memoir. The account, while amusing is hazy as to when the reported concerns were aired or acted upon by the RMLL.
“From time to time the police infiltrated our group. A moustachioed Scottish man, Dave Robertson, aroused suspicion because he was always driving a different car. When challenged he claimed to be working for a car rental firm. On another occasion he’d told me he worked at a club called the Tatty Bogle. One of the comrades went down to check it out and found this to be untrue. At Manu’s suggestion, we didn’t confront Dave, but assigned him the most onerous tasks: collecting heavy banners and placards in his car and carrying them on marches. He was always called upon to buy everyone drinks and asked to memorise long passages from James Maxton, an obscure Scottish Marxist.” [ix]
There was a ring-side seat for Special Branch in the fateful split in the RMLL as HN45 “Dave Robertson” attended a meeting was designed for some form of attack and almost to depose the leader, at the Saturday “Extraordinary meeting” March 13th 1971 at Lisburne Road. It was a long meeting, attended by 17 people that lasted from 1.30 in the afternoon to 10.30 at night.
As a bit of light relief, somebody played the guitar and set Chairman Mao’s speech “Take not a needle and a thread from the masses”, and that was sang to the group.
HN45’s note of the purpose of the meeting was: “… ‘to cut down to size’ the organisation’s leading personality A Manchanda … whose offensive manner, dogmatic attitude, bullying techniques and general inefficiency have become too much for even his admirers to swallow.”
His testimony at the Undercover Policy Enquiry was that “There was a lot of in-fighting amongst themselves that I took no part in”.
He claimed that “I didn’t really get deeply personal with any of those people, I just picked up what I — I found from people at the thing, and just dealt with it and reported it, and tried to put it into some semblance of order”
“Initially, Mr Manchanda [was to take] … the chair but because of the nature of the business to be discussed it was decided that he should vacate the chair, and [so somebody else was] … elected [for] chairman … [of] the meeting.” It appears that what then took place is that people gave speeches or discussions and delivered positions from documents that they had prepared in advance, and that they read from documents for some time. Do you recall being asked to prepare something in advance of the meeting?
You write there: “Manchanda, in his defence, launched into a characteristic diatribe ….
“… against certain members of the RMLL, particularly [Privacy and Privacy] and spoke for two hours, mainly spent in reading from a prepared statement …”
“The nub of his defence [he says] was that he had nothing to answer; everything had been done in the interests of the organisation and the working class.
You note however that he felt he had to plead IL health in dealing with the accusations during this meeting, that he produced his diabetics card, that he referred to the recent birth of his daughter,
“They are not really convinced either that his claim of sending his wife to work while he stays at home is a ‘practical example of Women’s Liberation’, is entirely virtuous.”
“There then followed a general discussion with [Privacy] speaking in Manchanda’s defence. [Privacy] read a copy of a letter she had previously sent to Manchanda making a very personal attack on the private morals of [Privacy] arising from an incident that had taken place sometime previously. This reduced [Privacy] to tears.”
whether or not Manchanda is expelled the damage to the RMLL is irreparable. Apart from Manchanda there is no one with sufficient personality to hold the organisation together and if his critics lose the [Privacy] day they have said too much for him to suffer their continued presence.” 1 A. Yes, I — that’s my — that must have been my view at the time, and I have no — no problem with that.
Ultimately that there was a vote to ask Mr Manchanda and indeed Diane Langford to withdraw from this group. [x]
The March 15th meeting was followed up with 18 people attending another Sunday meeting on the 28th March to resolve the crisis within the RMLL. [xi] Manchanda again chaired the meeting and read from a five page foolscap prepared speech, “he excused his own short comings by blaming the state of his health and he attacked certain other members…for laziness in their work in the organisation” reported the state infiltrator HN45. The conciliatory offer “to work in co-operation with others” did not withstand the accusations levelled at Manchanda of being a fraud and attacks upon Diane Langford. The differences between he two factions were unreconciled. Evidently there were five supporting Manchanda against an uneasy alliance of remaining dissident RMLL members and supporters.
Agreement to hold a further meeting on April 4th 1971 in an attempt to resolve the political deadlock was agreed. However the several attempts to reconcile the differences failed.
In the immediate aftermath of the split in the RMLL, a Special Branch report (dated May 20th 1971) noted that the dissident group of members continued to operate as RMLL claiming to have suspended Manu and Diane, ending the small weekly wages and assistance with rent and telephone bills. It stated the old RMLL never exceed ten full members attributing this directly to Manchanda’s “closed shop “ practices as the new RMLL refocused on a growth strategy based in West London beginning with Monday night political instruction classes.
The smaller supporters group of Manchanda, including Sonia Seedo, were working under the auspices of WLF hoping to overcome the dissident leadership and regain leadership of RMLL. And refusing to acknowledge their suspension from the RMLL.
We know more than just the police account of the split in the organisation as the internal maneuverings and intrigues of the short life of the RMLL was made public by the polemist Harpal Brar in the ACW attack publication, How Liberalism Split the REVOLUTIONARY MARXIST-LENINIST LEAGUE published in June 1972. [xii]
The ACW emerged, based on the Hemel Hampstead branch, after a split in August 1969 saw half the RMLL membership Leave the organization. With the new split in March 1971, the RMML ceased to function. The disintegration of the RMML was followed by a fallow period in Manchanda’s political activity: it coincided with a period of ill-health.
By August, the dissident faction announced the old RMLL dissolved and some of the former members – Mike & Sharon Earle and Chris & Dave Mackinnon – reconstituted themselves as the Marxist-Leninist Workers’ Association to carry on the political work of the old organisation. It was said to be modelled on the North London Alliance in defence of Workers Rights and received expressions of support from the Black Unity & Freedom Party, Schools Action Union, Marxist Leninist Education Association and Communist Federation of Great Britain (sic). By February 1972, Special Branch received reports that: “ Of the organisations which originally pledged support…only the Schools Action Union have actually done so.” The informant noted that the organisation had not been very active in the political field, not held any public meetings or commemoration since its inception. There had been poorly attended political classes and private meetings. Membership was estimated at no more than 15. Much of the political work has been channelled through the London Alliance of which there was dual membership. [xiii]
Still the wheels of police bureaucracy turned and in May 5th 1972 a report to Special Branch made the assessment that the British Vietnam Solidarity Front was “virtually inactive since the disintegration of the old Revolutionary Marxist Leninist League in the spring of 1970 which resulted from personal differences between Manchanda and others.”
Since then Manchanda has lost most of his credibility as a political Leader. Attempts to revive the BVSF met with no success when he “did not receive a single reply” when he sent a circular to various people and organisations to support a new campaign against the Vietnam war. Twenty turn up to a public meeting In Camden Studios he arranged; “all were personal contacts”.
Manchanda resiliently persist in campaigning and a further report dated January 18 1973 [xiv] provided details of a private meeting of the BVSF Committee attended by six people to organise for the demonstration against the inauguration of President Nixon with a march to Grovenor Square. It was like old times; every Maoist group in London, including the Internationalists, but not the CPB (ML) would be sending contingents to the Indo-China Solidarity Campaign organised march. Influenced by the Trotskyist International Marxist Group, Manchanda “is desperately trying to unite a maoist front in order to defeat the superior numbers of the IMG” noted the police spy, as they both vie to assert their waning influence.
[i] UCPI Witness Statement 13 April 2021
Information on the state agent HN45 “Dave Robertson” and his activities can be found at https://powerbase.info/index.php/Dave_Robertson_(alias). HN45 was deployed undercover with the SDS between October 1970 until there was an incident that compromised his cover in December 1973 witnessed by Diane Langford at a meeting at the London School of Economics – when recognised by Ethel who looked straight at him, saying “Scotland Yard coming to arrest us” Notes from transcript of Tuesday, 27 April 2021
Subsequent unsourced quotations come from the various released file of the on-going Undercover Policing Inquiry.
[ii] Notes from HN45 transcript of Tuesday, 27 April 2021
[iii] Active in the group was (N.M. (Sonia) Seedo, holocaust survivor and writer; In the Beginning Was Fear by N. M. Seedo published by London : Narod Press, 1964 & They Sacrifice to Moloch (1967).
Inconstantly, intimate and up-close, Head of Seedo (1965) depicts the Romanian refugee and political writer Sonia Husid, one of Leon Kossoffs’ most regular sitters. Kossoff one of Britain’s most prolific figurative artists of the last century)
[iv] Diane Langford OPENING STATEMENT to THE UNDERCOVER POLICING INQUIRY
[v] Released File UCPI 00000027017 (Name XXXX redacted in released copy)
[vi] File reference UCPI0000027027-CLF
[vii] Part of the archive of material accessible at the London School of Economics. LSE Archives FHQ/F77
[viii] Researcher Rob Evans noted in his article in The Guardian November 18th 2020.
[x] Notes from transcript of Tuesday, 27 April 2021
[xi] File reference UCPI0000011742
[xii] see The Rise & Fall of Maoism: the English Experience by Sam Richards. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/uk.secondwave/uk-maoism.pdf
[xiii] File reference UCPI0000014360
[xiv] File reference UCPI0000010247