Emile Burns 1940

Twenty Years of Communist Propaganda

Source: International Press Correspondence, Volume 20, no 31, 3 August 1940. Scanned, prepared and annotated for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The history of the Communist Party over its twenty years of existence could well be summed up briefly as the development from what Lenin described as ‘very few feeble propagandist societies for Communism’ towards a revolutionary party capable of leadership of the working class as a whole.

This transformation could not have been achieved without the help of a transformation in the content, forms and methods in all aspects of the propagandist work of the party.

In this article we have to do mainly with the written word, that is, with the growth in volume and progress in quality of the press and publications devoted to the propaganda of Marxism-Leninism, a development that has been a distinguishing feature of the twenty years since the establishment of the Communist Party in this country.

Those who have become active in the working-class movement in recent years, who take the morning delivery of the Daily Worker for granted, and who are accustomed to literature stalls and bookshops stocked with a wide variety of Marxist literature, may well be astounded on becoming acquainted with the position that prevailed in earlier years.

The memoirs of William Gallacher, MP, [1] and of Harry Pollitt [2] are illuminating in this respect. It comes as something of a shock to see the extremely limited range of Marxist literature that was available to the British workers right up to and even for some time after the formation of the Communist Party. Add to this the fact that most of it was not published in Britain but imported from America, often in very poor translations, and one begins to grasp the enormous progress that has been made in this field in the last twenty years.

However, this transformation is seen perhaps best of all in the development of the workers’ press. In this respect, the press of the Marxist groups prior to the formation of the CPGB took the form, in the main, of propaganda sheets, political magazines somewhat remote from the leadership of the masses in their everyday struggles. This characteristic was perpetuated in The Communist, the first weekly organ of the CPGB. The first great step forward was taken in February 1923, when the Workers Weekly, with RP Dutt [3] as its first editor, took the place of The Communist. This paper, which proclaimed itself as ‘The forerunner of the Workers’ Daily’, broke decisively with the traditional type of propagandist magazine. It took the form of a workers’ newspaper, and set out from the start to become what Lenin had demanded of the Communist press, namely, ‘an economic and political tool of the masses in their struggles’.

The response of the workers was instant. Whereas the old Communist had never achieved a circulation of more than 23,000 the new Workers Weekly reached a sale of 35,000 with its very first number, rising to an average sale of over 45,000 per week in its first year of existence. That it was much nearer and dearer to the workers may be judged from the fact that in its first year it received 2500 letters from worker correspondents.

Writing nearly forty years ago, when the Bolshevik Party was still in its earliest formative period, Lenin called for the establishment of an all-Russian newspaper of such a type as would be ‘the starting point of all our activities, the first practical step towards creating the organisation we desire, the thread that will guide us in developing, deepening and expanding that organisation’. [4]

This masterly description of the role of the Communist press has certainly proved true of the British party. First the Workers Weekly, later the Workers Life, and above all the Daily Worker have been the biggest single factors in the development of the party. These newspapers have served not only as weapons of propaganda and agitation, but have been of inestimable value as instruments of organisation of the workers and in the transformation of the party itself, particularly in changing the party from the old type of debating society or club into a party closely linked with the mass of workers.

The Sixth Conference of the party, in 1924, placed the starting of a daily paper as one of the most urgent and important tasks. On the day before the General Strike in May 1926, the party produced one issue of the Workers Daily, and during the strike a daily Workers Bulletin. However, the actual founding of a daily newspaper was delayed for several more years, partly owing to the technical difficulties and expense of producing such a paper in this country, with its monopoly millionaire press, but also because of the reluctance to sharpen the struggle against the Labour Party by producing a rival to the Daily Herald. [5] It was not until the party had cleared up reformist tendencies in its own ranks at the Leeds Congress in 1929 and set itself on the road to win independent leadership of the working class that the Daily Worker was started.

Space does not permit us to describe the development of the Daily Worker. In its main outlines, it will already be familiar to most readers. The millionaire press monopoly had been broken through. For more than ten years, despite prosecutions, boycott and innumerable other difficulties, the Daily Worker has grown in circulation, strength and influence, until today it is the pride not only of the Communist Party but of a far wider circle of readers and supporters.

This is best expressed in the magnificent response to the Fighting Fund. In this connection a comparison suggests itself. In the first year of its existence 345 was donated by readers to the fund of the Workers Weekly, whereas the Fighting Fund of the Daily Worker has reached 2500 in one month. The growth of the Daily Worker Readers’ League, that splendid body of devoted supporters of the paper, is another indication of the close ties that bind the Daily to the workers. Never a ‘party organ’ in the narrow, formal sense of that term, the broad mass character of the Daily Worker is emphasised in the composition of the new Editorial Board.

For many years the party published the Communist Review as a monthly theoretical organ, and later the Party Organiser. These mainly served the party membership, but the whole labour movement in Britain and throughout the English-speaking world has been fortunate in having at its disposal the Labour Monthly, edited by RP Dutt. Since its foundation in 1921, the Labour Monthly has contributed enormously to the understanding of Marxism-Leninism in both basic theory and in the application of that theory to current problems. Since the outbreak of the war its circulation has risen to over 15,000 per month, far outdistancing any other theoretical organ.

In the publication of pamphlets the progress made is also notable. In the early days the average sale of a pamphlet was some three to five thousand, hardly reaching beyond the party membership. Since 1936-37, when the Penny Pamphlet became one of the main methods of developing agitation around burning issues of the day, pamphlet sales have developed enormously. Between July 1936 and May 1937, over 320,000 pamphlets on Spain alone were sold by the party. In the space of 12 months the party forces sold over 1,000,000 pamphlets published by the party, and 400,000 pamphlets produced by other organisations. Since last September 400,000 copies of the War Library pamphlets have been sold, and the new series, Letters to Bill, by Harry Pollitt, are also proving very popular. Another indication of progress is secured by comparing the sale of 1000 copies of the report of the Ninth Party Congress (1927) with the sale of 20,000 copies of the report – For Peace and Plenty – of the last Party Congress.

These figures, however, deal with only one aspect of the progress made in this field. For such figures to be achieved, immense progress had to be made in the range of subjects, timely reaction to mass issues, in quality of printing, in simplicity and directness of appeal, etc.

Another big development has taken place in the use of leaflets for political enlightenment and agitation among the masses in moments of crisis. By the rapid printing of half a million, or even a million leaflets, which are sold to the branches for distribution, the party is able to reach very large sections of the population. During the year preceding its Congress in 1938, the party produced just under 6,000,000 leaflets. The effectiveness of this form of agitation and propaganda may be gauged by the ‘gloom and despondency’ caused in certain circles by the reception of the workers to the recent leaflet ‘The People Must Act’. [6]

Thanks to the initiative and resource of the party, the reproach that Britain was one of the most backward of European countries with regard to the publication and distribution of Marxist-Leninist literature has been removed. Year by year, new treasures of theoretical literature of Marxism have been made available to the British workers and spread throughout the countries of the British Empire.

The Little Lenin Library (21 volumes), the Marxist-Leninist Library (16 volumes), and the Selected Works of Lenin (12 volumes) are in themselves a measure of the progress made in this direction. The popular demand for this type of literature is a tribute to the work of the party in popularising Marxism-Leninism, and moreover, a sign that the charge of ‘contempt for theory’ among the British workers is slowly but surely being broken down by the efforts of the party. It is interesting to note that just under 30,000 copies of the above-mentioned works alone were sold in the first three months after the outbreak of war – probably a greater sale of Marxist literature than was achieved in the first ten years of the party’s existence.

At this point, however, it is well to note an even more significant development, namely, the growth of a native British Marxist literature. The works of RP Dutt (Socialism and the Living Wage, World Politics, 1918-1936, Fascism and Social Revolution, Modern India, India Today, etc), [7] Dona Torr (Editor of the Marx – Engels Correspondence, Marxism, Nationality and War), [8] Allen Hutt (This Final Crisis, Postwar History of the British Working Class, Condition of the Working Class in Britain), [9] RP Arnot (The General Strike, William Morris, History of the Russian Revolution), [10] Emile Burns (Capitalism, Communism and the Transition, The Only Way Out, Handbook of Marxism), [11] John Gollan (Youth in British Industry), [12] to name but a few, form the nucleus of a British Marxist literature that has developed only since the formation of our party.

Around this fund of Marxist-Leninist literature the party has undertaken educational work on an increasing scale. In the earlier days of the party, its educational work inclined to be formal and divorced from current problems, and was confined mainly to the members of the party. In more recent years the quality of Marxist educational work has improved and broadened in its scope. The popular mass lectures on Marxism-Leninism that became a feature in recent years will be fresh in the minds of many. Marxist educational work among the masses of workers has been greatly facilitated by the establishment of Marx House [13] seven years ago, the Communist Party being affiliated and active in aiding its work.

An important feature in educational work, perhaps the first example of really successful mass education, was the work conducted in connection with the publication, distribution and study of the History of the CPSU (B). [14]

Reference must also be made to the development of many new forms of agitation and propaganda by the party in the years before the war, for example, in the use of films, plays, music, pageantry, community singing, etc.

All these represent achievements of which the party has a right to be proud. However, it gives no ground for easy self-complacence. The urgency of the present situation demands far greater effort. Never was there a time when it was so necessary to deepen Marxist understanding. On the other hand, the desire for Marxist knowledge among the workers was never greater, and we cannot be satisfied that our present efforts meet this demand, which is affecting ever-wider sections.

The commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain should be the means of still further popularising every form of Communist literature throughout the labour movement.


All notes have been provided by the MIA.

1. William Gallacher (1881-1965) was a member of the Social Democratic Federation and President of the Clyde Workers Committee during the First World War, and was sentenced to six months’ jail for publishing an anti-war article in the CWC’s journal. He joined the CPGB in 1921, was an MP during 1935-50, and was President of the party during 1956-63. His autobiography was Revolt on the Clyde (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1940).

2. Harry Pollitt (1890-1960) was a boilermaker and a founder member of the CPGB. He replaced Albert Inkpin as the CPGB’s General Secretary in 1929, and, excluding a short hiatus during 1939-41 on account of his opposition to Moscow’s anti-war orientation during the period of the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact, he remained in that post until 1956, when he became the party Chairman. His autobiography was Serving My Time (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1941).

3. Rajani Palme Dutt (1896-1974) joined the CPGB in 1920 from the Independent Labour Party, and was a member of its Executive Committee from 1923 to 1965. He was the CPGB’s main theoretician, and maintained a constant commentary on world events in his ‘Notes of the Month’ in Labour Monthly, a nominally non-CPGB journal. He defended Stalin after Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ on 1956, and was gradually marginalised after then within the party’s leadership. He was a prolific writer, especially on imperial affairs, and his India Today (Gollancz/Left Book Club, London, 1940) was influential both in Britain and India.

4. VI Lenin, ‘Where To Begin?’, Collected Works, Volume 5 (Moscow, 1961).

5. The Daily Herald was a socialist newspaper that appeared in various guises from 1912 to 1964; at this point it reflected the opinion of the leadership of the Labour Party, that is, a right-wing social-democratic standpoint.

6. The front page of ‘The People Must Act’ is reproduced in Noreen Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927-1941 (London, 1985), p 289. Issued at the time of the fall of France in June 1940, it called for the workers of Britain to ‘take the destiny of their class and of Britain into their own strong hands’ in order to stave off ‘the danger of fascist invasion’. This led to considerable disquiet on the part of the authorities.

7. Rajani Palme Dutt, Modern India (CPGB, London, 1927); Socialism and the Living Wage (CPGB, London, 1927); Fascism and Social Revolution (Lawrence, London, 1934); World Politics, 1918-1936 (Gollancz and Left Book Club, London, 1936); India Today (Gollancz and Left Book Club, London, 1940).

8. Dona Torr (ed), Correspondence of Marx and Engels (Lawrence, London, 1934); Marxism, Nationality and War: A Text-Book in Two Parts (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1940). Dona Torr (1883-1957) was a foundation member of the CPGB and largely worked in the party’s publishing concerns, and was instrumental in the establishment of the party’s Historians’ Group in 1946.

9. Allen Hutt, Condition of the Working Class in Britain (Lawrence, London, 1933); This Final Crisis (Gollancz, London, 1935); Postwar History of the British Working Class (Gollancz and Left Book Club, London, 1936). George Allen Hutt (1901-1973) was a journalist and noted journal and newspaper designer. He joined the CPGB during the mid-1920s and worked on the party’s Daily Worker from its inception in 1930.

10. Emile Burns, The Only Way Out (Lawrence, London, 1932); Capitalism, Communism and the Transition (Gollancz, London, 1933); Handbook of Marxism (Gollancz, London, 1935). Emile Vivian Burns (1889-?) joined the CPGB in the early 1920s and was a member of its Executive Committee from the mid-1930s.

11. Robin Page Arnot, The General Strike, May 1926: Its Origin and History (Labour Research Department, London, 1926); William Morris: A Vindication (Lawrence, London, 1934), A Short History of the Russian Revolution from 1905 to the Present Day; (two volumes, Gollancz and Left Book Club, London, 1937). Robert ‘Robin’ Page Arnot (1890-1986) was a member of the Independent Labour Party and headed the Labour Research Department during 1914-26. A foundation member of the CPGB, he was a member of the party’s Executive Committee during 1927-38. He wrote a large number of historical works, including a multi-volume history of the miners’ union in Britain.

12. John Gollan, Youth in British Industry (Gollancz and Left Book Club, London, 1936). John Gollan (1911-1977) joined the CPGB in 1927 and became General Secretary of the Young Communist League in 1935, CPGB National Organiser in 1954, and replaced Harry Pollitt as the party’s General Secretary, serving in that post during 1956-76.

13. Marx House is the premises of the Marx Memorial Library, in Clerkenwell Square, London.

14. History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) – Short Course (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1939).