The Magazine

An American Abroad

Agnes Smedley and the world of communism.

Jan 31, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 19 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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The Lives of Agnes Smedley

by Ruth Price

Oxford University Press, 498 pp., $35

AGNES SMEDLEY IS NOT MUCH remembered today. During the late 1940s she was the bête noire of the China Lobby for her labors on behalf of Chinese communism, but her name did not pop up in the decrypted Venona cables, so she has not been among those branded as spies in the past decade. Her fictionalized autobiography, Daughter of Earth, published in the mid-1920s, did enjoy a brief vogue in the early days of the Women's Studies movement, but apart from a single biography published in 1987, she has slipped into obscurity.

But now Ruth Price's The Lives of Agnes Smedley--a biography based on astonishingly thorough research in newly available Chinese, Russian, British, and American archives--demonstrates just how wide a swath Smedley cut through the radical movements of several continents and how deeply she was enmeshed in Soviet espionage activities.

Price succeeds in bringing to life an irritable, self-contradictory radical who managed to annoy and infuriate almost everyone with whom she worked. A product of a gritty working-class family, she retained for her entire life a steely contempt for middle-class radicals. A militant feminist, she endured years of abuse from her lover. An unrepentant individualist, she tried unsuccessfully to join several Communist parties. An eager recruit for the Soviet intelligence services, she blithely ignored their orders.

Still, despite her doctrinal differences with Communists, she hated their enemies even more to the end of her life. Born into a poverty-stricken Missouri family in 1892, Agnes Smedley first became involved in radical politics in California prior to World War I, supporting the Indian independence movement by aiding a revolutionary Sikh political party.

After a move to New York, she became an activist in Margaret Sanger's birth-control movement. Later, she was indicted by the federal government for violating the Espionage Act in 1918 because of her anticolonial activities. She lived in Germany in the 1920s, served as a journalist in China in the 1930s while aiding the Sorge spy ring, and lived in Yenan with the Chinese Communists and traveled with their troops. In the late 1940s the United States Army accused her of being a spy. She died in 1950 while under investigation by several branches of the American government.

Price, "a self-identified leftist," began her project convinced that Smedley was an independent rebel but confesses that her research proved "unsettling." Not only did Smedley work as a Soviet agent, she also consciously worked with German agents during World War I while helping Indian revolutionaries. A "master of deception," she used friends and colleagues to "shield her clandestine activities," lying to them with few compunctions. But Price nonetheless sees her as someone who "acted from a truly generous heart," was fiercely committed to the downtrodden, capable of enormous self-sacrifice, independent, and completely irreverent.

Smedley altered elements of her childhood in Daughter of Earth to make herself appear even more "proletarian" than she was. The autobiography, for instance, turned her father into a coal-miner active in the strikes that ravaged the Trinidad, Colorado, mines in the early 1900s, when he actually worked as a vigilante for the coal companies.

Still, Smedley did endure a lot. Her mother beat her, her father was a drunk, and her aunt a prostitute. Converted to socialism by her first husband, Agnes soon left him for full-time involvement with the Hindustan Ghadr party, whose California branch raised funds and recruits for a violent rebellion in India. Smedley worked as a courier, laundering money provided by the German government to buy arms. After moving to New York in 1917, she had a sexual encounter with M.N. Roy, a charismatic Indian revolutionary and early Communist activist.

Smedley moved to Europe after the government eventually dismissed her indictment for espionage and began a decade-long relationship with Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, a fierce rival of Roy's for the leadership of the radical, anti-Gandhi wing of the Indian independence movement. She first visited Moscow with him in 1921 to attend a Comintern congress, befriended Emma Goldman and, instinctively sympathetic to anarchists and syndicalists, kept her distance from the more disciplined Communists. Settling in Berlin, she and Chattopadhyaya established a center for Indian exiles and radicals that competed with Roy's explicitly Communist group. By the mid-1920s, they were secretly receiving money from Willi Muenzenberg, the Comintern's ace propagandist and leading exponent of building ties to non-Communists.