The Most Dangerous Book in the World
By Oliver Bullough | Illustration by Dale Edwin Murray
For decades, the only thing staving off a worldwide Socialist revolution was a grouchy librarian.
There is no clearer sign of Communism’s decline, Russians joke, than its loss of hair. From Karl Marx’s bushy mane to Mikhail Gorbachev’s shiny pate, the movement went bald and bankrupt at the same time. Perhaps this isn’t a theory to take too seriously. But you have to wonder: If Soviet officials had been aware of Charles Goss’s glorious whiskers, would they have picked a fight with him?
The locks on this English librarian were nothing special, but his mustache, oh, his mustache. The elaborate lip mitten slanted downward a full four inches on each side, far beyond his cheeks, obscuring all but a glimpse of his lower lip. It was a marvel of facial topiary that made Stalin’s well-groomed bristles look like unkempt shrubbery.
The mustache, of course, was also an indicator of his quirks. Goss was precise and eccentric—traits that helped him as an administrator at London’s Bishopsgate Institute, an independent cultural center. But it was his decades-long fight with the agents of the Red Revolution, in a battle that would suck in government ministers, journalists, and ambassadors, that truly demonstrated his grit. The source of that fight: a single book Goss took in as an afterthought—a foolscap notebook from the early 1860s full of semi-legible handwriting.
That notebook was “The Minute Book of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association” (IWMA), a foundational document of the global proletarian movement. Its sacred pages detailed discussions between Marx and Socialists throughout Europe. It revealed the first steps the world’s workers took as they stoked the revolution. As years passed, lore of the book’s power grew. Politicians and intellectuals desperately tried to liberate it from the clutches of this whiskered dinosaur. But Charles Goss was no ordinary guardian.
The Bishopsgate Institute was established in London’s East End in 1895 to improve the neighborhood. Less than a decade before, the bleak streets were Jack the Ripper’s stalking ground. Now, a local rector hoped to curb the squalor by providing books and lectures to the poor. Education, he hoped, would civilize them. Unfortunately, he chose the wrong man to do it.
Goss had worked in libraries across England before joining the institute. He loved reading, but he loved books more. He was so attached to books that he kept his collections locked up. Instead of allowing the public to browse the institute’s shelves, he bought a Cotgreave Indicator, a cumbersome system that specified through code which books were available and which were not.
Goss was a terrible lender, but he had a keen sense for acquisitions. His collections were deep and varied, and he bought books from all over. In 1905, Goss began acquiring the library of George Howell, a trade unionist and politician who spent his life immersed in Victorian politics. When Goss installed the collection on the shelves of Bishopsgate, he was confident he was providing readers with works they could find nowhere else, even if they couldn’t actually see them. Among them was “The Minute Book,” acquired in 1910, an original with no copies.
The Birth of a Movement
The IWMA had been born, as Goss had, in London in 1864. Under the stewardship of Karl Marx, the organization sought to link workers across Europe and America, allowing them to support one another and coordinate activities. Nothing like this had ever existed before. The communist parties that once ruled from Sarajevo to Siberia are the IWMA’s descendants. So are the socialist parties of Europe and the leftist movements of South America.
But despite its revolutionary nature, the IWMA was no underground organization. This was liberal London, and the delegates—Polish, Italian, and Hungarian exiles; American spiritualists; Russian anarchists; British and Swiss trade unionists; and French and German revolutionaries—met openly, in a gaslit hall near Trafalgar Square.
Still, there were reasons to be vigilant. Prussian and French spies dogged the door, noting the radicals’ movements and reporting back to their masters. By the early 1870s, the IWMA was suffering from internal paranoia and external repression. With allegations of ideological deviation and spying on every side, George Howell picked up the council’s “Minute Book,” claiming it was for research purposes.
Although the IWMA—now known as the First International—had collapsed by the time Goss got his hands on the book, its ideas had spread globally. A German Marxist party counted hundreds of thousands of members. British trade unionists were in Parliament. Russian revolutionaries had killed a czar and two interior ministers. In France, Socialists controlled dozens of town councils. They all cherished memories of the First International, marveling at the revolutionary prophets it brought together. Howell’s notebook was their equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they wanted to get their hands on it.
Goss never publicized his acquisition of “The Minute Book,” which was, true to his rules, not on display. Nevertheless, the news leaked. Raymond Postgate, a journalist who helped found Britain’s Communist Party, asked to read it. What happened next confirmed Goss’s prejudice against people who wanted access to his precious literary possessions.
Postgate wrote a book mocking the stuffy institute and giving instructions on how to penetrate its secrets. “If you know exactly what you want you can get it,” he wrote. “For all I know there may be the crown of King John in it, but there is certainly a little treasure... numbered 331 88. Here is the original ‘Minute Book’ of the General Council, signatures and all, from 1866 to 1869, the most important years for England.” Postgate left readers in little doubt of the book’s significance. “This was the most important event of the century,” he claimed. “Under the powerful and enlightened leadership of Marx it united and drilled the workers. It taught them to march together.”
In the early 1920s, it seemed as if the Red Menace would sweep aside civilization. The Bolsheviks had won Russia’s civil war, defeating the czarist White Army, along with American, French, and British interventionists. Communists were threatening to seize control of Germany. Could this terrible tome provide the spark to set the rest of the world ablaze?
“In the context of the time, it was very tricky,” says Stefan Dickers, the current archivist at the Bishopsgate Institute. “It was ‘Reds under the bed’ time. Everyone was terrified.” Under the circumstances, Goss saw only one viable option: put “The Minute Book” in a cupboard and hope everyone would forget about it.
In 1922, the Soviet delegation in London asked for the book. The institute’s minutes show that its trustees declined the request, worrying about what crimes the Reds might commit in response. Goss promised he “was taking special care for the safe custody of this and kindred books.”
If Goss thought locking the cupboard door would solve the problem, he was wrong. In July 1930, the Communists were back. The minutes read: “the Librarian reported that he had received a request from the Agents of the Soviet government for permission to photograph the pages of the ‘Minute Book.’ ” Naturally, Goss refused. But a more permanent solution would have to be found. After some consideration, the trustees rented a deposit box in Midland Bank and placed the treasure there.
It wasn’t just the Communists who wanted the book. In February 1931, the British Labour Party asked to see it. The Party’s Ramsay MacDonald was Britain’s prime minister at the time, but even that wasn’t enough to persuade Goss of his good intentions. It was clear that the book needed additional security.
Besieged, the institute tried to offload the tome onto the British Museum. But in October 1934, the trustees learned that their counterparts “would not reserve the manuscript from public use, and it would be available to students in the usual way.” That wasn’t the solution they wanted.
The institute’s leadership tightened security on its bank vault—even Goss would now need the trustees’ permission before he could access its contents. But the measure only heightened public interest. Some historians tried to sway the institute by providing letters of recommendation. Professor Nicolaas Posthumus of the University of Amsterdam even arranged for a bishop to forward his request in the hope it would persuade Goss he was reliable.
By the 1940s, the Bishopsgate Institute was hopelessly out of date, a Victorian time capsule. Students came to study its Cotgreave Indicator rather than its books. Undaunted, Goss maintained his ways. Then came the Blitz, Hitler’s bombing of London. Although the institute was barely scathed by the explosives that shattered the city, it ceased to function normally. The trustees used the opportunity to stage a coup against their dictator. They wanted a new librarian.
Goss was forced out. Heartbroken after 44 years of service, he never set foot in the institute again, but he took comfort in one thing. Everyone would be too busy fighting the Nazis to ask for “The Minute Book.”
In 1941, when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, everything changed. The Soviets were Britain’s allies now. And when they came bearing new requests for the book, the institute no longer had Goss to fight its battles. Soviet officials submitted a request via a journalist, which the trustees stonewalled. But when the Soviet embassy asked—through the ambassador’s wife—it wasn’t to be denied. Finally, Ambassador Ivan Maisky pressed the issue, and Winston Churchill’s Tories were there to back them up.
“His Majesty’s Government would be quite pleased for Madame Maisky to inspect and even to transcribe the whole of the contents of the Minute Book,” the institute’s secretary recorded. The Goss-less trustees were caught in a diplomatic pincer movement. Their defeat was near.
By January 1942, Madame Maisky proposed to visit the book in situ, and the beleaguered trustees were forced to acquiesce. Soviet officials passed through the Bishopsgate Institute’s honey-gold facade, grand even behind air-raid sandbags, and into its sanctum sanctorum. How the mighty had fallen. They hadn’t lost all self-respect, however. A journalist named Louise Morgan tried to come too, only to be informed that “the manuscript was not available for inspection by the public.”
The book’s heft gave it the appearance of a sacred document. It could have been a bible held aloft by a gilded eagle in an Anglican church. When Maisky and his wife lifted it in their hands, they must have laughed with triumph that it was they who, after decades of effort, had rescued this relic from the reactionaries.
But the joke was on them.
A Look Inside the Book
These days, inspecting the manuscript is less of an event. You enter the institute, which is light and airy with double-height reading rooms lined with bookshelves, and you fill out a slip of paper. Those who make the pilgrimage can receive the book or any other item from the institute’s world-class collection on radical history in minutes. Stefan Dickers, the institute’s archivist, brought me “The Minute Book” himself, laying it carefully on a special pillow.
It is worrying to handle something of such historical significance. Staring at its marbled covers, I was nervously aware of all the other tables it had lain upon. This book had witnessed every meeting of the IWMA, when furiously smoking artisans thrashed out the theoretical basis of Communism. It had lain underground in a bank vault as bombs pounded London and the future of humanity teetered on the brink. It had been coveted and feared for generations. And now here it was, waiting to be read.
Its spine crackled slightly when I opened it. The paper was thick, and the ink faded. My urge was to flip through the book, to look and appreciate it without reading. On the early pages, the words are scrawled huge. They look fast and urgent, reflecting the passions the debates aroused. Further on, another writer crammed words together tightly, so driven to communicate his thoughts that he couldn’t bear to omit a thing.
When I began to read those words, however, I was baffled. I could only conclude that Goss and the trustees, who were so terrified of this book, never actually read it. “The Minute Book” was no blueprint for revolution. It was page after page of wrangling over expenses, of descriptions of small strikes by micro-unions such as the English Amalgamation of Cordwainers or the Hairdressers’ Early Closing Association, of negotiations over the price of postage. It is of historical interest for people writing the life of Marx (this was the period during which he was writing his seminal Das Kapital) or researching early trade unionism but no threat to the Western way of life.
In the book, members accuse one another of being “Bonapartists,” of being “intriguers,” of having fiddled their expenses and gained an extra pound. The minutes end before the International’s final collapse into mutual recrimination between communists and anarchists who went on to form rival “internationals.” For committed proponents of Marxist revolution, the book must have been a depressing read. Mostly, it felt empty. It was as if you had pried open the Ark of the Covenant and found not tablets of stone inscribed with eternal verities, but Moses’ tax return, a couple of supermarket receipts, and a note for the milkman.
The Soviet government had its secretaries painstakingly transcribe the whole thing, detailing every cross-out and spelling mistake, and it published the work in 1950, four years after Goss’s death. Goss’s last communication on the subject was a letter in which he relinquished any claim he had to custodianship of the book, adding, “I am sorry there is an intention to publish it.” In his last photograph, taken well into his seventies, Goss’s mustache is diminished, though it still stands firm on his upper lip.