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80 years ago today the Daily Worker was banned. Are there lessons for us today?

EIGHTY years ago today, the Morning Star’s forerunner the Daily Worker was banned by ministerial fiat.

The 18-month prohibition was the longest ban imposed on any newspaper by government order in British history.

Home Secretary Herbert Morrison – grandfather of New Labour grandee Peter Mandelson – justified the ban on the grounds that the Daily Worker was undermining the war effort. 

When challenged in Parliament over this, he was unable to point to any specific evidence – instead defending the ban as a preventive measure based on the likelihood of it doing so.

Left-wing MPs including Nye Bevan protested at the use of wartime emergency powers to ban our paper, while in the trade union movement, even leaders opposed to the paper’s editorial stance – that the second world war at that stage was an inter-imperialist conflict – were alarmed at the dictatorial nature of the move. Railway union leader J Marchbank pointed out that the government could have taken the Daily Worker to court if it believed it had broken the law in its reportage on the war: the arbitrary suppression “smacks of the Gestapo,” he warned.

The executive of the National Council for Civil Liberties expressed a “deep sense of disturbance” over the ban and writers including HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw protested.

Looking back eight decades to the ban, there are a number of lessons for the socialist and communist left today.

The first is the need to challenge distortions of history that present communists as sympathisers with or accomplices of fascism.

The Daily Worker was the foremost anti-fascist newspaper of the 1930s, helping to organise working-class communities to take on the Blackshirts at Cable Street, exposing the pro-appeasement policies of the Neville Chamberlain government and supporting the calls for a united front against Hitler from the Soviet Union, which offered to go to war to defend Czechoslovakia if France and Britain would do so too. Instead, of course, they betrayed Czechoslovakia at Munich.

What followed is one of the most controversial episodes in all Soviet history, the non-aggression pact with Hitler.

The about-turn in Moscow’s policy was far from universally supported by British communists at the time, though most recognised that Stalin had concluded after Munich that the Western powers intended to unleash Hitler on the Soviet Union, and was trying to buy time.

The day after Britain declared war, the Communist Party published a statement calling for “all measures necessary” in a war to defeat fascism, and general secretary Harry Pollitt wrote a mass-distribution pamphlet, How to Win the War. But the Communist International took the view that it was an imperialist war between rival imperialist states, as the first world war had been, and Pollitt’s view was defeated at the central committee, resulting in his stepping down as general secretary (he would return to the post in 1941) and the withdrawal of his pamphlet.

These events have been used to blame the Soviet Union as well as Nazi Germany for starting the second world war, especially by anti-communist politicians in eastern Europe keen to rehabilitate fascists and Nazi collaborators like Stepan Bandera, the head of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army which fought alongside the Nazis against the Red Army in Ukraine and played a major role in the Holocaust, murdering hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles. This distortion of history is dangerous precisely because it legitimises racist and fascist organisations active today.

It also ironically weakens understanding of the second world war as an anti-fascist war. Because the war was not necessarily an anti-fascist war at its outset, nor did Britain’s ruling class want it to become one. 

After years of appeasement, public opinion was so outraged by concessions to Hitler’s relentless aggression that Britain and France declared war following the invasion of Poland: but the “phoney war” that followed showed that their governments were not serious about confronting Hitler. 

Britain devoted more resources to aiding Finland, a Nazi ally that went on to take part in the murderous siege of Leningrad, in its “winter war” with the Soviet Union than it did to fighting Germany before the fall of France. Suspicion that Chamberlain would agree a separate peace to allow the Nazis to attack Russia was well founded, and pro-fascist sympathies ran high among the British aristocracy. Such a peace might well have been struck had Chamberlain not fallen and Winston Churchill, a consistent opponent of the Nazis if not an anti-fascist, invited the more reliably pro-war Labour Party into a national government.

In Churchill’s eyes, of course, the war was primarily an inter-imperialist war – the defeat of Nazi Germany was about defending the British empire. For the communists from 1941, it was almost the opposite – a war about crushing fascism and ending the oppression of nation by nation by extending the conflict into an anti-colonial struggle. 

William Rust, the Daily Worker’s editor again from 1942, identified Indian independence as one of the paper’s top priorities at the height of World War II. And once legalised, the Daily Worker also fought to ensure that the end of the war would mean the transformation of Britain – hence its string of interviews with William Beveridge firming up the principles and demands that the labour movement needed to unite around to build the welfare state from 1945.

The idea that the Daily Worker was banned because it opposed the war before Russia was attacked, then legalised once Operation Barbarossa put the Soviet Union on the same side as Britain, doesn’t accurately reflect the timeline of events. 

The Daily Worker was banned on January 21 1941; the causes it had promoted from the start of the war 16 months earlier, especially the need for deep shelters to protect people from the Blitz and the Communist Party’s fight to allow people to take shelter in Tube stations, were highly embarrassing for the government as they exposed its neglect of public safety, and this above all was the reason for the ban.

Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, following which communist support for the war effort was unquestioned. Communist shop stewards facing trial for organising strikes were released by a judge with the words: “It is your war now.” 

Yet the Daily Worker ban wasn’t lifted until August 26 1942, after Britain and the Soviet Union had been allies for 14 months. It wasn’t lifted because government policy had changed, but because of a sustained campaign to force the government to do so: the creation of hundreds of Daily Worker Defence Leagues across the country resulted in a growing clamour for an end to the ban across the whole labour movement.

In the end, Morrison lifted the ban because he feared a humiliating defeat on the question at the 1942 TUC, and the paper then went on to do exactly what the government feared: fight to turn the war into a people’s war of liberation from fascism and for the socialist transformation of Europe. Following 1945’s Labour landslide, this did not seem so very unrealistic even in Britain. 

And because of its view of the war as a democratic struggle, the Daily Worker saw no contradiction after victory in exposing the brutality of British imperialism as troops were deployed to smash social revolution in Greece and later Malaya.

Without popular pressure as a result of struggles championed by the Daily Worker in the 1930s, Britain might well have come to a separate peace with Germany and an accommodation with fascism, as the French ruling class did in 1940.

Relying on our rulers to oppose fascism would have been disastrous and identifying the anti-fascist fight as one which required loyalty to the British ruling class is incorrect: it was riddled with fascist sympathisers.

The mass character of the anti-fascist struggle is one important lesson for the left today. This is not a fight in which the elite are on our side.

The role of the revolutionary socialist left and the communists as the most consistent opponents of fascism is another. Not only did the Red Army play the biggest part in the Nazis’ defeat but communists dominated the resistance in Yugoslavia, Greece, France and even the Channel Islands.

And the eagerness with which the capitalist state used emergency powers to suppress a socialist publication is a third, as Labour amplifies calls for state censorship and the suppression of “alternative” media like RT.

The Daily Worker and Morning Star have often been accused of being apologists for one foreign government or another. But accusations of treachery are not motivated by our attitude to foreign governments, but to our own: that capitalism, and the British ruling class, must be overthrown.

Our right to fight for its overthrow and for the socialist transformation of this country is as precious now as it was 80 years ago.

Last year, the Communist Party published A Centenary for Socialism, a book exploring different aspects of its history, including chapters on the war and the history of the Daily Worker. It can be ordered here


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