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Banned but unbowed – how the Daily Worker was suppressed 80 years ago

PHIL KATZ relates how the Morning Star’s forerunner was banned and the massive struggle to restore press freedom to unban the people’s paper

WITH media bans very much in the public eye at the moment, few can be better qualified to express a view than the Morning Star, whose forerunner, the Daily Worker, experienced a decade-long struggle with censors, libel suits, grizzly judges — one was described in the paper as a “bewigged puppet” — and eventually, an outright ban.

Today, January 21, is the anniversary of one such anti-democratic measure, and certainly the most serious. 

The owners and editorial staff of the paper had seen it coming and made meticulous plans, which included legal and illegal printing, the establishment of powerful support leagues made up of factory workers and readers and even a High Court challenge. The challenge was successful, but the ban stayed in place.

By the late 1930s, the Daily Worker had made quite a name for itself. It had championed the people of Abyssinia and the legitimate government of Spain, both facing fascist incursions. 

In 1937, it denounced the Japanese militarist murder of hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens in Nanjing. 

The paper editorialised against the annexation of Austria and the break-up and sell-off of Czechoslovakia, six months later. 

On August 23 1939, the Daily Worker led with a bold headline, “Soviet’s dramatic peace move to halt aggressors.” 

It stood against a repeat of the slaughter of World War I and the encirclement of the first socialist state, the USSR, which later led to a war in Finland. 

The Worker didn’t just attract the attention of its loyal readership. The secret services, civil servants and Tory MPs all read it. 

Its greatest enemy, the result of many tussles, was Herbert Morrison, who became Labour home secretary in the war cabinet in October 1940.

All of these opponents could just about stomach a paper which was their sternest critic, but only as long as the Communist Party did not pose a threat. However, communist opposition to war was increasingly popular, even in Labour circles. 

The government had failed to construct deep shelters to protect the people. There was a sense that the British ruling class was lukewarm in opposing Hitler anyway. There was talk of conscription for the home and war fronts. 

The party was growing. In some areas such as Manchester and Leeds, senior Labour figures crossed over to the Communist Party and a significant growth in its influence in the trade unions challenged Labour’s relaxed acceptance that the unions would pay their affiliation fees and do what they were told. 

So the Daily Worker was not banned for anything in particular that it said. It could have been temporarily suspended or prosecuted for what it had written. 

Instead, it was banned outright in order to disrupt the left in the labour movement.

Insiders alerted the party that the ban was being discussed in Cabinet, and by July 1940, the Communist Party was preparing for a position of revolutionary defence as France fell and invasion threatened. 

Uppermost in communist minds was that, in France, the Daily Worker’s sister publication Humanite had been banned the day after the signing of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact. 

The mighty French Communist Party was banned a short while later and France succumbed to Hitler, her democracy already hollowed out. 

Similar plans existed in British government circles, including large-scale internment and exile for various leaders. 

Willie Gallacher and Manny Shinwell had been the last people in Britain sent into internal exile, towards the end of World War I, so the threat was evidenced and real. 

If the ban had just been about the war, then the paper would have reappeared very soon after the Soviet Union was invaded and the Communist Party came all out in favour of the war effort. 

But it did not reappear for 86 weeks and for 20 weeks after the dastardly Nazi attack on the USSR. 

By then, the ban was widely viewed as undermining the war effort and making constant appearances in Mass Observation. 

The Communist Party produced dozens of other journals but only the Daily Worker and its partner The Week, edited by Claud Cockburn, were banned outright. 

Labour Monthly faced an export ban. But Richard Kisch’s book on the communists in the armed forces shows that the Daily Worker was being regularly and efficiently shipped to regiments as far away as Burma, Egypt and India, in a well-oiled distribution network run through the Royal Air Force.

The run-up to the ban began when the TUC met in Southport in 1940 and its vindictive general secretary Walter Citrine denied the Worker press credentials. 

He had sued the Daily Worker successfully in April that year but never been paid the damages that were awarded him. 

Actions such as this ban encouraged the government to act against the only voice in the press that was critical of its role. 

Sir John Anderson, when minister responsible, had sent numerous stiffly worded warnings to the editorial board seeking to intimidate it into changing the paper’s editorial position. 

Anderson was constantly trying to provoke the communists.  In the summer of that year, information minister Duff Cooper floated the idea that during the war, all newspapers should be closed down and press publication left to a single government gazette. 

The fate of the entire press, not just the workers’ press, hung in the balance.

Correspondence between Rajani Palme Dutt and Bill Rust shows that the party played this cat-and-mouse game, finding new ways of saying the same thing, to enable it to stay a step ahead of the authorities. 

Cabinet minutes show that the security services proposed the outlawing of the Communist Party itself, with limited internment for the party leadership, and the party had already taken a series of measures to protect itself in such a circumstance. 

Communist Frances Moore recalls spending “a whole evening with Bill Rust burning documents.” 

Elsewhere, many party organisations stopped minuting their meetings or holding membership lists. 

But the communist leadership was very clear about the lines it would not cross and encouraged a revolutionary perspective on the question of legality. 

It was to be enjoyed and used for as long as it lasted. Early on, the communists spotted the significance of the removal of Anderson and his replacement by Herbert Morrison. 

They knew the reactionary Morrison from countless skirmishes throughout the ’30s, when he had been witch-finder general against the communists and its left allies. 

What is more, the Daily Worker had been very critical of Morrison’s “maladministration” of air raid precautions. 

And so, on January 21 1941, just nine days after the People’s Convention, the Daily Worker was suppressed, using defence regulation 2D, which made it illegal “systematically to publish matter calculated to foment opposition to the prosecution of the war.” 

Even then, the party challenged the ban in the High Court. 

Ironically, the High Court lifted the suppression of the movement of its machinery, but the decision came five days after the presses had been destroyed in a bombing inferno. 

Only the Daily Mirror opposed the ban. The Guardian editorially welcomed it, claiming that “the Daily Worker did not believe either in the war or in democracy; its only aim was to confuse and weaken. We can well spare it.”

At a stroke, Morrison had removed all press opposition to the government. 

Shortages of paper were used to block the request to start a new, different paper, allied to the People’s Convention. 

Only 15 MPs voted against the suppression, led by Aneurin Bevan. At the Napiers defence factory, workers clocked in an hour late in protest at suppression of their paper. 

In its place, up to 160 Daily Worker leagues appeared, many of them in factories. 

A small journal of the leagues, constantly testing the boundaries of the ban, carried essential news and views. 

A regular Industrial and General Information Bulletin was published by the Industrial and General Information News Agency, staffed by former employees of the Daily Worker. 

The aim was to campaign for the ban to be lifted and for a daily bulletin to inform shop stewards. 

Very soon after the ban, the Daily Worker suffered a real loss as a result of Nazi bombing. 

The paper had been printed at the offices of the Marston Printing Company in Cayton Street. 

The building, originally a tea warehouse, had timber floorboards and only a sketchy steel frame. 

An incendiary device struck and despite local citizens supporting firefighters, they were unable to halt the blaze. 

All the plant and both rotary presses and all the linotype compositing machines with their own type foundry were lost and the government would only pay compensation after the war's end. 

The Daily Worker, up to the ban, often could not always print its full run, but it never missed an issue.

Fortunately, the party had decided early in 1939 to reinforce its contract to print the Scottish edition at Kirkwood’s. 

Its sheet-fed general presses were moved out of the building to a “safe area,” contracts for emergency printing were agreed with provincial printers and steps were taken “to remove one of the rotaries to a safe area.”

To meet the ban, the Labour Monthly, under the editorship of Palme Dutt, stepped in, calling a widely representative conference and continuing to publish articles such as War Aims — Lessons Of 1914-18 and The Crisis Of The British People.

Circulation of the monthly rose to 30,000, even though its distribution abroad was banned. 

In March 1941, it produced a special edition to challenge the attacks on press freedom, with contributions from George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, SO Davies, Lord Ponsonby and the Dean of Canterbury. 

In general, the organised labour movement, even where it disagreed with the stance of the paper, opposed the ban. 

By the time of Daily Worker’s unbanning, 800 trade union bodies had submitted a motion calling for its reinstatement, including important annual conferences of some of the bigger unions. 

There were a number of parliamentary lobbies, giant rallies and “Lift the ban” conferences.

The unbanning of the workers’ newspaper came at the most critical moment of the war. 

The act and timing of the of ban had been political. So too was the unbanning. It was a victory for campaigning and democracy and by the time the ban was lifted, few could be found to defend the original action. 

The paper’s reappearance was a sharp set back for the Munichites, who would now be on the receiving end of some searching questions. 

The Labour conference in May had demanded the lifting of the ban. 

Morrison feared the TUC would follow suit, along with a vote of censure. 

A paper count of those for and against found that the communists would have secured a majority of over a million for the unbanning. The co-operative movement added its voice. 

The Communist Party never gave in, continuing the monthly Fighting Fund appeal during the ban to accumulate money for any restart. 

This monthly sum never fell below £1,000. That continued for 19 months. 

A small staff had been kept on to continue to write broadsheets, leaflets and brochures. 

Hidden presses around Britain ran off illegal editions with the Daily Worker masthead replaced with such titles as Stalin, Robert Burns Special, Allied Offensive, 1942 Production Special, Women in War Special and even just the “Daily.” 

The authorities never uncovered the illegal presses and were in fact led a merry dance. 

The first illegal copy of the Daily Worker was printed on January 24, just 72 hours after the ban struck. 

Amazingly, in one audacious move, a “specimen copy” was printed and distributed to MPs (while still very much outlawed) as an example of what the paper might look like if the ban were lifted.

The date for the reopening was September 7, coinciding with the start of the TUC Congress in Blackpool. 

How the wheel of fortune had turned since the reporter ban of 1940. The headline read: “Blackout is over.”

The first edition was welcomed by anti-aircraft batteries in heroic Malta sending a telegram to greet the first edition.

The party was unable to secure a print contract with a rotary printer or one of the big print houses. 

Instead, it had funds to buy a press of its own. As important as the lifting of the ban on publication was the end of the wholesalers’ stifling ban on distribution. 

Restriction on the availability of newsprint limited the Daily Worker to four pages and a run of 100,000, “when we could sell a million.” 

The political position of the party allowed it to demand more paper for a bigger edition and a longer print run, in the interests of the war effort. 

So it demanded restoration of the unused paper resulting from the 19-month ban. 

It immediately faced the difficulty of restoring its editorial team, with one in the RAF, two in the navy and another a paratrooper. 

It did secure the addition of its talented Moscow correspondent, John Gibbons. 

It fell to him to find the words to describe the effect of the siege of Leningrad and the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar, near Kiev, in Ukraine. The paper’s editor was to be William Rust.

Monday September 7 saw the return of the Daily Worker. Its front page relayed the grave situation at Stalingrad, carried greetings from the gunners of Malta, called for 10 readers for every copy to get over the shortage of newsprint and focused minds on “How to win the war.” 

This included training for women, raising wages, servicemen’s pay and old-age pensions, abolishing the means test, promoting more troops from the ranks, rationing food and fuel so that all could afford it and turn the war into a people’s war.  

But the best advice of all was directed to home secretary Morrison, in an advert placed in the bottom right-hand corner, to buy Rennie’s tablets so that his indigestion would be “gone in a flash.”

Phil Katz is head of communications of the Communist Party.

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