Spycops in Context: Why does the state infiltrate political organisations?

Recent revelations show that at least 140 English and Welsh ‘spycops’, long-term undercover agents, infiltrated around 120 dissident political organisations between 1968 and 2011 – the vast majority of the these being organisations on the left. But why does the state infiltrate political organisations? And why does it disproportionately target those on the left, as opposed to the right? In this article Connor Woodman looks at the history of the British secret state and the role it plays in the maintenance of capitalism.


Following the exposure of undercover police officer Mark Kennedy in 2010, we’ve learnt that at least 140 English and Welsh ‘spycops’, long-term undercover agents, infiltrated over 120 dissident political organisations from 1968-2011. Over 1,000 groups and campaigns were caught in the wider surveillance net of just two undercover units, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) and National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). Officers involved regularly formed intimate relationships whilst undercover, stood in court under false names, and engaged in some of the most radical direct actions.

With all the focus on the details – what undercover officers did during their deployments, what the horrific impacts were on those spied upon – less thought has been given to the why. Why has the state spent decades infiltrating every progressive movement in Britain from Anti-Fascist Action to Climate Camp, the National Union of Mineworkers to the Ricky Reel campaign?

The SDS and NPOIU have not been the only sections of the state dedicated to monitoring political groups – a whole swathe of organisations, committees and units in Britain has focused on domestic dissent. If we examine the breadth of political surveillance, and the patterns in the kinds of organisations targeted, a clear political logic underlying the existence of this apparatus can be discerned. What the ‘counter-subversion’ system is for, this wider view makes clear, is the enforcement of hierarchical social relations in the face of deep dissent. The coercive branches of the state infiltrate left-wing organisations in order to protect and even in part constitute a capitalist status quo structured by racism and patriarchy.

The SDS, the NPOIU and the counter-subversion apparatus

It was the fond belief of the English people that the employment of spies in domestic affairs was un-British […] In fact it was an ancient part of British Statecraft as well as of police practice.

E P Thompson, 1963

Since at least the 1880s, dedicated sections of the British state have monitored, contained and undermined political dissent. The SDS and NPOIU cannot be viewed apart from this wider apparatus, at the core of which sit MI5 and the Metropolitan Police Special Branch (from 2006 the Counter-Terrorism Command). Interdepartmental working groups tasked with containing the Communist Party of Great Britain, propaganda units like the Information Research Department, a branch committed to undermining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a specialist section dedicated to monitoring the animal rights movement: the state has developed an anti-Left infrastructure of extensive experience and capability.

Historically, the breadth of this infrastructure is astonishing. In the 1980s, MI5 considered 50,000 British residents classifiable ‘subversives’, and likely recorded personal details of around 1 million individuals. Nearly 1,500 politically deviant civil servants had their career progress blocked and positions carefully managed, and up to a third of BBC posts were subject to rigorous Security Service vetting, sharply restricting the range of political viewpoints reaching the public. Major parliamentary figures on the Labour Left – including Diane Abbott, Peter Hain, Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Benn – were kept under close watch. MI5 even advises new prime ministers on the subversive leanings of prospective cabinet appointees, sometimes blocking the appointment of radical-Left MPs.

Nearly every progressive political force in Britain has been surveilled, infiltrated and in some instances destroyed. From the Irish independence movement, anti-colonial Indians and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign to Trotskyists, unions and Black Power, few have been able to self-organise politically without garnering the secret state’s unwanted attentions.

The far-Right, the far-Left and the secret state

BF [British Fascisti] could hardly be described as a subversive force.

Ray Wilson & Ian Adams, former Special Branch officers, 2015

The police and their apologists justify this activity by reference to a target group’s supposedly violent aims, public order offences or anti-democratic desires. Such noble concerns, however, ought to merit an equal – if not far greater – focus on the far-Right as the Left. Yet, the secret state has traditionally lost little sleep over the radical-Right.

As European countries fell to fascism in the 1930s, ‘MI5 paid “practically no attention” to [British] Nazism – nor did Whitehall expect that it should’. Stunningly, MI5’s only real concern with British fascism was that it ‘encouraged the growth of a much larger anti-fascist movement under the alleged influence and control of Comintern/CPGB’.

MI5 carried out an investigation into Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1933. By 1936, as Hitler and Mussolini consolidated their rule in the heart of Europe, MI5 ended the investigation, satisfied that the BUF ‘did not pose a significant threat’. The Nazi-supporting BUF, with its upper-class members, racism and pro-capitalist orientation, was not considered a ‘threat’ to the ‘British constitution’. Yet contemporaneously, the Hunger Marchers, the unemployed working-class struggling for state support during the Great Depression, were considered such a theat. They were intensively infiltrated and monitored by the secret state.

This pattern continued beyond the high era of European fascism. In the 1970s, during the peak of the neo-fascist National Front, MI5 had ‘one person covering all of right-wing subversion’, but ‘many dozens’ covering Communism, according to an MI5 whistle-blower. The Special Demonstration Squad’s ‘Tradecraft Manual’ for undercover officers had, at the turn of the millennium, ten sub-sections dealing with various forms of progressive dissent, but only one dealing with ‘the right wing’. As the Guardian and Undercover Research Group have recorded, only three of the confirmed 124 political groups infiltrated by the SDS and NPOIU over a 40 year period were from the hard-Right. All the others – anti-racist, environmentalist, socialist – were on the progressive end of the spectrum. In fact, 2018 marks the first year MI5 has shown any significant interest in the far-Right.

In short, something other than the enforcement of democratic values and public order legislation is motivating the secret state’s machinations. When it comes to interpersonal violence and the destruction of democracy, the far-Right stands in a league of its own. The state, however, has usually been more concerned with groups on the Left which, in its own words, do ‘not have a recorded propensity for violence’. This seeming contradiction between rhetoric and reality begins to reveal the underlying political logic of the counter-subversion system.

Undercover policing, hierarchical social relations and deep dissent

By providing intelligence you rob these groups of the element of surprise […] Once the SDS get into an organisation, it is effectively finished.

Peter Francis, former SDS officer, 2010

What, then, is the common denominator underlying the patterns of state surveillance and infiltration? What characteristics do the groups subject to state monitoring share?

Crucially, the overwhelming majority of groups targeted by the state represent ‘deep dissent’ against the status quo: ‘dissent that seriously or fundamentally challenges the existing apportionment of wealth and power in society’.

More specifically, the target groups aim to identify, denaturalise and dissolve certain hierarchical social relations – imperial, racial, gendered, classed – ordering the British polity. Historically, the capitalist social formation has been cut through by intertwined and constantly evolving social cleavages. Those cleavages – for example, the devaluing and feminising of care and domestic work, or the normative structuring of sexuality around a heterosexual ideal – are not timeless or naturally-given. These hierarchical social relations are actively produced and maintained, in part, by the state. Resistance by the oppressed correspondingly emerges, whether striking workers pushing against class exploitation, or colonised subjects challenging imperial domination. Coercive and ideological devices are needed to bolster these social relations against the corrosive forces of resistance; here, the secret state plays a role.

The intelligence agencies and the police are, then, coercive tools of the state and ruling class in the social struggle endemic to class society. These tools enforce hierarchical social relations in two senses. Firstly, the secret state protects these social relations by monitoring and undermining any movements of resistance that arise against them. Secondly, the practice of the secret state is itself partly constitutive of these social relations.

Take the undercover policing of Black justice campaigns. On one level, those deployments – like those into the campaigns for justice for Joy Gardner and Cherry Groce – are simply attempts to protect the institutional interests of the police against anti-racist critique. Peter Francis, SDS-officer-turned-whistleblower, revealed that operations were explicitly designed to gather ‘dirt’ on anti-racist campaigners. He personally trawled through hundreds of hours of protest footage looking for grounds to prosecute Duwayne Brooks, there in 1994 when Stephen Lawrence was killed by a racist gang, in order to discredit the murder case’s key witness.

At a deeper lever however, such operations are one facet of the police’s much broader role in defending racist social relations. Since its role in legitimating British imperial domination of half the planet, race(ism) has structured British domestic life. Any collective which chafes up against racist social relations will become a target for the secret state. At the end of the 1960s Special Branch had an entire Black Power Desk dedicated to, in the words of the scholar who discovered its existence, ‘surveilling, infiltrating, and decapitating the movement’. Centres of Black social and political life like the Rio Café and Mangrove restaurant in London were subject to inordinate police harassment and politically-motivated prosecutions designed to permanently shut them down. By attacking resistance to the racial hierarchy the secret state has defendedthat hierarchy.

More than this, the practice of the secret state has partially constituted racist social relations. Racism (and race) is not an ahistorical phenomenon, but a constantly-shifting system of power, composed of material practices as well as mental conceptions. How racism works and who it targets, how humanity is classified according to different ‘races’, changes in accordance with what the state, capital, and the general population do and believe. Part of what it means to be racialised, to experiencebeing Black in Britain, is to have weaker education outcomes and lower earning prospects, to be subject to higher rates of incarceration, to suffer a higher risk of being stopped, searched and even killed by the police. The police and intelligence agencies, by subjecting racialised populations to brutal methods of law enforcement and stereotyping propaganda, partly constitute the oppression of Black people in Britain. That’s why we can assert that the state not only defends racism, but is a racist state.

To take another example, the Legitimation League, which at the end of the 19th century campaigned for the rights of ‘bastard’ children, was infiltrated by a Special Branch officer. This officer set out to, as he put it, ‘kill a growing evil in the shape of a vigorous campaign of free love and Anarchism’. By 1898, the Branch had destroyed the entire organisation in a plume of prosecutions and mistrust.

Why would the secret state seek to eviscerate a non-violent advocacy organisation defending children born out of wedlock? Because the state is the active enforcer of the moral and material order of gender and sexuality, at the time a Victorian order based around the strict nuclear family and division of labour. Groups like the Legitimation League threatened to undermine the patriarchal social structure of the nuclear family. Since that social structure was, to an extent, state-enforced, challenges to this structure were in fact challenges to the patriarchal state itself.

The SDS, for instance, has been branded ‘institutionally sexist’. Women activists were treated as disposable sources of information and reputation-boosters for infiltrating officers, deceived, taken advantage of and abandoned: a paradigmatic example of misogyny perpetrated by state agents. Indeed, one woman who was deceived into an intimate relationship with an undercover officer felt like she had been ‘raped by the state’.

More broadly, the secret state has actively defended the subjugation of women by undermining feminism and women’s organisation at every turn. By 1912, every single telegram sent to and from the Women’s Social and Political Union (the suffragettes) was being intercepted by Special Branch. Other feminist organisations have been infiltrated, from Big Flame to Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.

This explains a seeming contradiction at the heart of the secret state. According to the official definition, the police and intelligence agencies are concerned with ‘subversive’ activities ‘which threaten the safety or well-being of the State’. Despite this, a large portion of the progressive groups targeted have not posed a direct revolutionary threat – much of their activity seems, on the face of it, to be unconnected with the state.

However, if the state defends and (partially) constitutes racism and patriarchy, then to challenge racism and patriarchy is to challenge the state. The official definition of ‘subversion’ is not purely a mystifying device in contradiction with reality (although it is that, to an extent). Those groups which threaten patriarchy, racism and the class structure are in fact threatening the ‘well-being of the State’, since the well-being of the bourgeois state is intertwined with the well-being of patriarchy and racial stratification.

Thus, the reason why the secret state systematically targets the Left over the far-Right is because the former poses a qualitatively different kind of threat to state-enforced social relations. Traditionally, fascism does not seek to undermine hierarchical social relations, but to intensify them. Racial cleansing, imperial expansion, strict gender division and sexual conformity – the far-Right represents capitalism’s social hierarchies in extremis. The Left, on the other hand, seeks to weaken and even destroy these social relations, social relations which form the basis of the ruling class’s power.

This explains why the state and ruling class have often had an ambiguous relation to fascist movements, at times holding them at arm’s length, at others in a warm embrace. There are all sorts of reasons why the ruling class might reject the far-Right’s extreme manifestation of current social relations – but at times these manifestations can serve as useful tools to divide the oppressed. The Left, however, cannot play such a role. The only relation between the ruling class and the militant Left can be one of monitoring, containment and destruction; in short, one of struggle.

State coercion and the maintenance of capitalism

Repression can only really live off fear. But is fear enough to remove necessity, thirst for justice, intelligence, reason, idealism, all the revolutionary forces?

Victor Serge, 1926

Dominant accounts of liberal democracy tend to emphasise the consensual aspects at its base. We participate, according to this view, in a collective social contract, with bounded rights to complain about and dissent from aspects of the social order. Certain social democratic and Gramscian positions replicate this analysis suggesting that, in the modern West at least, consent prevails over coercion in the reproduction of capitalism.

Placing the long history of state surveillance, infiltration and counter-operations in full view however reveals the continuing role of coercion and force underpinning the West’s social order. A quotidian cacophony of repression, from the deceptions of undercover police to the dungeons of mass incarceration, keeps the Western working classes in line. As Perry Anderson has noted, direct repression in the West may even be more effective than elsewhere, both because of its superior technological basis, and because it can legitimate itself with reference to parliamentary democracy and liberal values.

Emphasising the role of force and coercion in the maintenance of capitalism allows us to see more clearly the wide-spread social damage resulting from the counter-subversion system. State surveillance of dissent does not just violate individual rights to privacy and free expression, as some liberal advocacy organisations seem to think – it poses a substantial barrier to collective liberation. How much social progress has been lost as a result of the state’s disruption of hundreds of campaigns, organisations and movements?

We must, however, avoid fatalistic doomsaying, a fear that the secret state is all-pervasive and all-powerful. Phone taps, electronic monitoring, undercover infiltration – these are weapons in the social struggle, the outcome of which is not pre-determined. The fact that the state feels it necessary to maintain such an extensive apparatus aimed at political dissenters shows the latent power of proletarian self-organisation.

This is why it is essential to avoid paranoia about spooks and secret agents. Loose accusations and fear-mongering can do the state’s job for it. We must be clear-eyed about the nature of the social order, and the role of the secret state in maintaining it. But the ruling class and its apparatuses are not invincible or omnipotent. Like the Ford of Bruinen sweeping away the Ringwraiths, the tidal strength of millions can overwhelm Britain’s rulers and drown its coercive apparatus.


See also Connor Woodman’s two papers: ‘Spycops in context: a brief history of political policing in Britain’ and ‘Spycops in context: counter-subversion, deep dissent and the logic of political policing’ here. This article was first published by Verso here. Republished with thanks.

Comments (3)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Jim Bennett says:

    Excellent but sobering article. Thank you Connor and Bella.

  2. Willie says:

    This article brings into sharp focus just how extensive establishment monitoring is within the UK.

    And with modern the modern technologies of communication, data retention data interception, and computer analysis, the forces of the state know more than the people they make it their business to know about.

    Currently the UK is linking bank accounts to passports to driving licences to medical files to national insurance numbers to tax to biometric databases to car registrations to vehicle monitoring camera networks to facial recognition.

    And in Ireland the province and beyond is already crawling with undercover military.

    It is all truly Orwellian and folks have had no say, or input into what is being done to turn the country into an open prison.

    The victims selected for the ” Windrush ” hostile environment were but an initial example of the use of these technologies.

    Denied medical care for cancer in one particular case, they had bank accounts frozen and were denied work.

    And with the proposal to remove legal rights of challenge who next for the striped pyjamas treatment.

    Certainly wouldn’t be comfortable as a dirty foreign German, French, Spanish or Irish citizen now being forced to register to remain in the EU.

    But then again, how many Jews and others failed to leave 1930s Germany before it was too late.

    People need to be reminded of this because putting women and children in gas ovens is a facet of how hostile state sponsored hostile environments can become.

    The time to get out of this hell is now.

  3. John B Dick says:

    I think I remember that in the 1950’s there was said to be a very small nationalist group in Scotland which was believed to be dreaming of IRA-style violence. It disappeared, perhaps because of changes in the interests or capabilities of one or two key members leading to the group ceasing to be active, for reasons not necessarily connected with their political ambitions. They were so small that the loss of active participation of a one or two key members made the organisation unviable.

    That can happen to other small organisations such as a sports team, religious group or amateur music or drama, youth organisation etc.

    At the time one explanation (or was it a joke?) was that one leading member, who was an undercover agent discovered that another prominent member was an undercover agent from anothe state agency, and between them they were keeping the group going.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.