Secret Societies: Activities of Key Communist Operatives in the Early 1900s

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: SECRET SOCIETIES

By: Professor Richard Spence, University of Idaho

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Soviet Union wanted to create a world with communism at its crux and to achieve this goal, several clandestine missions were carried out. One of the best examples was the American Communist Party that advocated world communism and was backed by the Communist International in Moscow. There were several key communist operatives who operated tirelessly to serve the cause of communism.

Image showing communists in Union Square on 01 May, 1931
Members of the American Communist Party in Union Square on May Day 1931. (Image: Everett Collection / Shutterstock)

Karl Radek as a Key Communist Operative

Karl Radek, a Jewish-Ukrainian Bolshevik, was one of the key communist operatives in Germany. During World War I, Radek was close to Alexander Helphand-Parvus, who was a shadowy revolutionary financier and German agent. In 1915, Radek joined Vladimir Lenin. It was believed that he did so on Parvus’ orders. However, once he returned to Russia in 1917, Radek attached himself to Parvus’s former protégé, Leon Trotsky, and served as Trotsky’s deputy in peace negotiations with the Germans. After the German Kaiser’s fall in 1918, Radek helped to organize the German Communist Party.

Unfortunately, he was arrested by the German Weimar government and Radek remained in jail in Berlin in the year 1919. This, however, did not stop him from receiving visitors in the jail. There was a constant stream of visitors that included military officers, industrialists, and spies.

Photo of the famous Russian revolutionary, Karl Radek
Karl Radek was a famous Russian revolutionary, writer, journalist, publicist, politician, and theorist (Image: Unknown Author / Public domain)

After returning to Russia, Radek became the secretary of the Communist Internation or the Comintern. He suggested cooperating with the right-wing elements in Germany, even proto-Nazi, to form a common National Bolshevik Front. He viewed the German rightists as “useful idiots.” Radek secretly backed an abortive right-wing coup against the Weimar Republic in 1920, the so-called Kapp Putsch. It remains unclear whether this coup was approved by Kremlin. Radek urged the German rightists to fight Jewish capitalists and hang them on lamp posts, despite his Jewish lineage.

Secret Organization of the German Communists

When German communists failed to seize power after several attempts, they outwardly disavowed the violent revolution and decided to seek power legally. However, they were simply following the Comintern’s instructions and created a secret organization to continue their revolutionary struggle. This organization’s speciality was infiltrating the German police and military. Its other activities included preparing combating units for armed revolt and creating cells to handle sabotage, arson, and assassinations.

However, the activities of the secret organization did not stop the rise of the Nazis. One of the reasons was that the German communists’ masters in Moscow decided that it was tactically expedient to let Hitler’s followers finish off the Weimar Republic. Radek, who was Trotsky’s ally, went against Joseph Stalin and was expelled from the party in 1927. But in 1929, Radek renounced Trotsky and betrayed some of Trotsky’s agents, although that did little to save him.

In 1937, Radek was arrested and tried again in Moscow, where he dodged the firing squad by betraying his former comrades. He was sentenced to work in the gulag — forced labor camp — for 10 years, where he was presumably murdered on Stalin’s orders.

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Recruitment of the Apostles

Soviet journalist Semyon Rostovsky was an operative of the Red Octopus, backed by German communists. He came to London in 1933 under a new name, Ersnt Henry, and soon focused on Cambridge and Oxford, prominent universities that produced Britain’s future politicians, diplomats, military officers, and spies.

Image of Cambridge University UK, that gave rise to the ultra-elite intellectual society known as the Apostles
Cambridge University was home to the ultra-elite intellectual society known as ‘the Apostles’. (Image: PoohFotoz / Shutterstock)

Cambridge already had an active communist movement that included members of an ultra-elite intellectual society known as ‘the Apostles’. Henry recruited at least three Apostles as future Soviet spies — Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross. With the help of the Apostles, Henry recruited Kim Philby, who was arguably Britain’s premier traitor.  

The Hammers as Key Communist Operatives

Russian-born Julius Hammer was a prominent New York physician who owned a chain of drugstores and a successful pharmaceutical business. He also earned money as an abortionist to the rich people of the city. His business and activities were a cover for his actual passion. Both Julius Hammer and his son, Armand Hammer, were members of the American Communist Party and secretly worked to achieve the communists’ goal. Julius Hammer was a devout socialist and one of the founders of the Communist Party of America.

Photo of the Soviet revolutionary, Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky lived in the United States for a while in 1917. (Image: Unknown Author / Public domain)

In 1917, Hammer helped Leon Trotsky, who was visiting the US at that time, to find housing in the Bronx. He even lent his chauffeured car to ferry Mrs. Trotsky and the kids around town. By 1919, Julius’ radical activism put on the US government’s radar and he was arrested that year. He was sentenced to Sing-Sing Prison for causing the death of a woman through a botched abortion. Julius, however, claimed political persecution behind his arrest.

In 1921, Armand Hammer went to Moscow in his father’s stead, carrying a letter of introduction to Lenin. Armand spent most of the 1920s living the high life as a capitalist prince in the workers ‘paradise.’ All of this was possible under Lenin’s New Economic Policy or NEP, which permitted some free enterprise and encouraged foreigners to set up businesses in partnership with the communist regime. The Hammers dabbled in everything from medicines to pencils and even an asbestos mine. They even managed to become exclusive agents for Ford Motor Co. in the USSR.

This is a transcript from the video series Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The “World’s Greatest Heist”

However, when Stalin shut down the NEP, most of their ventures failed. Armand was not the one to give up easily. He participated in what historian Sean McMeekin calls the “world’s greatest heist.” When the Bolsheviks had exhausted the Russian gold reserve, they needed to sell valuables, especially gems and artworks, to raise the money they needed to fund Comintern operations abroad.

They mercilessly robbed palaces, churches, museums, and private homes, confiscating anything of value, and Armand became their fence. Armand sold these pieces to America’s wealthy customers. This enabled him to make friends in high places that offered several opportunities. He eventually became chairman of the Occidental Petroleum Corporation.

Armand’s biographer Edward J. Epstein has labeled him a “virtual spy”. Although a more suitable term would be ‘agent of influence’— an intelligence operative whose primary job is not to spy but to influence policy by shaping opinions and perceptions. Whether or not Armand shared his fathers’ ideological convictions, he willingly served the Red Octopus as a loyal member of a secret society.

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Commonly Asked Questions About Secret Communist Operatives

Q: When did Karl Radek organize the German Communist Party?

Karl Radek helped to organize the German Communist Party after the German Kaiser’s fall in 1918.

Q: What did the German communists do after they failed to seize power?

When German communists failed to seize power after several attempts, they outwardly disavowed the violent revolution and decided to seek power legally. However, they were simply following the Comintern’s instructions and created a secret organization to continue their revolutionary struggle.

Q: Who was Julius Hammer?

Julius Hammer was a Russian-born prominent New York physician who owned a chain of drugstores, and a successful pharmaceutical business who was actually a devout socialist and one of the founders of the Communist Party of America.

Q: What, according to historian Sean McMeekin, was the “world’s greatest heist?”

When the Bolsheviks had exhausted the Russian gold reserve, they needed to sell valuables, especially gems and artworks, to raise the money they needed to fund Comintern operations abroad. They robbed palaces, churches, museums, and private homes, confiscating anything of value . This was called the “world’s greatest heist” by the historian Sean McMeekin.

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