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International Socialism, Winter 1983


Jane Ure-Smith

The establishment of a Bolshevik newspaper in Britain in the 1920s


First published in International Socialism Journal 2 : 18, Winter 1983, pp. 30–59.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Newspapers of the Left today stand within a particular journalistic tradition: that of the ‘radical press’, which can be traced back to the early part of the nineteenth century, to papers like Black Dwarf, The Poor Man’s Guardian and the Northern Star. These were essentially the mouthpiece of working class struggle; they represent a strand of journalism which developed distinct from and in opposition to papers like The Times which by 1850 were well on the way to becoming a fully fledged form of capitalist enterprise.

The radical press has followed the vicissitudes of the class struggle and the political movements it gave birth to. Its character has necessarily changed in order to express the different forms of politics it was called upon to convey. With the decline of Chartism, the ‘pauper press’ of the early nineteenth century virtually disappeared. After 1850 the tradition of anti-establishment journalism was barely kept alive by The People’s Paper launched by Ernest Jones and The Beehive, which became the semi-official mouthpiece of the First International.

Some years later the growth of the socialist movement spawned a proliferation of local and national papers. Between 1893 and 1910, for example, the ILP had 68 papers. The politics of the Second International – with its emphasis away from independent working class struggle and towards parliamentarism and reformism – produced a form of newspaper that was essentially abstract and propagandist, remote from the daily lives of working people.

It was the reformist politics of the Second International that the Comintern – the Third International – set out to combat in its bid to establish mass Communist Parties following the Russian Revolution in 1917. Leninist politics was about reasserting and developing the revolutionary Marxist tradition. The revolutionary paper was seen central to the process of building the revolutionary party. It was via the publication of Iskra – edited and printed abroad when Lenin was in exile – and the establishment of a network of agents and Iskra groups that the Bolshevik party was built clandestinely throughout Russia after the turn of the century. In this way the party paper came to be the solid foundation stone of the Bolshevik tradition.

Pravda, published legally – though constantly under threat of censorship and repression – in the years just prior to the war further established the character of the Leninist paper. It was not a paper for the workers: it was a workers’ paper. A few months after Pravda began publication Lenin spelled out his conception of what the paper should be like:

As they look through the reports on workers’ collections in connection with letters from factory and office workers in all parts of Russia, Pravda readers, most of whom are dispersed from one another by the severe external conditions of Russian life, gain some idea how the proletarians of various localities are fighting, how they are awakening to the defence of working class democracy.

The chronicle of workers’ life is only just beginning to develop into a permanent feature of Pravda. There can be no doubt that subsequently, in addition to letters about abuses in factories, about the awakening of a new section of the proletariat, about collections for one or another field of the workers’ cause, the workers’ newspapers will receive reports about the views and sentiments of the workers, election campaigns, the election of workers’ delegates, what the workers read, the questions of particular interest to them, and so on.

The workers’ newspaper is a workers’ forum. Before the whole of Russia the workers should raise here, one after another, the various questions of workers’ life in general and of working class democracy in particular. [1]

Zinoviev described in retrospect Pravda as it had been both before the war and in the months between February and October 1917 in the following way:

What was the strong point of Pravda at that time? First and foremost, because it devoted more than half of its space to letters from working men and women from the factories, Pravda was a special type of Communist newspaper. It performed functions which no other Russian newspaper performed. It differed even in its exterior from all other bourgeois and social democratic newspapers. Half a newspaper was written by working men and women, soldiers, sailors, cooks, cab-drivers and shop assistants.

... These letters better than anything else in the world expressed the growing and seething protest which afterwards burst out into the great revolution. The newspaper became the great teacher of the labouring masses, and the workers themselves have largely contributed towards it. It became the friend of the home in every labourer’s hut and in evert proletarian tenement, at every factory, lathe, and at every workers’ eating house.’ [2]

The Socialist parties and sects in Britain and elsewhere in Europe who broke with the Second International and affiliated to the Third after 1919 did not automatically become Bolshevik parties overnight. The new Communist parties were very much steeped in the organisational methods of the old Socialist parties they had sprung from. The process of establishing Communist newspapers based on the Russian model – papers which were concrete and agitational, papers which could play the role of organiser for the party – was a slow one. At the Third Congress of the Comintern in June/July 1921 detailed discussion took place with regard to how the Communist Parties should organise themselves. A series of Theses on Organisation were adopted by the Congress, one of which was devoted to the Party Press. ‘The first priority for every Communist Party is to have a good, and wherever possible, daily central paper,’ the Comintern stated.

Essentially the Theses argued that the party paper must be the central pivot around which the organisation turned; it must also be a paper deeply embedded in the day to day struggles of the working class:

The Communist paper must concern itself first and foremost with the interests of the exploited and militant workers. It must be our best propagandist and agitator, the leading advocate of the proletarian revolution.

Our paper must aim to gather the valuable experience of all the members of the Party and disseminate this experience in the form of guidelines so that Communist methods of work can be constantly revised and improved. Experiences must also be shared at meetings, attended by editors from all over the country; this exchange of opinion will also bring about maximum consistency in the tone and direction of the entire Party Press. In this way the Party Press and each individual paper will be effective organisers and each individual paper will be effective organisers of our revolutionary activity.

Unless the Communist papers and in particular the main paper are successful in their efforts to centralise and organise, it will scarcely be possible to achieve democratic centralism or an effective division of labour within the Communst Party and the Party will be unable to fulfil its historic task. [3]

By the middle of 1921 when the Comintern issued these guidelines most of the Communist Parties had done little to change their papers they were still very much in the style of the old Socialist publications. After the Congress Zinoviev wrote on behalf of the ECCI to the central committees of the Communist Parties:

Newspapers play a great part in our agitation ... Our organs, however, up till now have been very unsatisfactory ... Examine closely our most important daily organs: L’Humanité, L’Internationale, Ordine Nuovo, Politiken, Rabotnicheski Vestnik or even Rote Fahne. Do these contain many letters from workers? Are these genuine popular newspapers in the best sense of the word? Does one feel in them the pulse of the present day labour movement? [4]

The British Communist Party was no more successful at quickly establishing a workers paper in the Bolshevik sense than its European counterparts referred to here. This article is an attempt to chart the progress of the CPGB as it moved towards the establishment of a Bolshevik-style newspaper, starting with the publication of The Communist in August 1920 at the time of the party’s foundation and ending with the first six months of the Workers Weekly, the new paper established early in 1923 after the reorganisation of the party. As a measure of their attempts to be concrete and agitational and to immerse themselves fully in working class struggle, the papers are assessed in terms of their ability to relate to the issues confronting the strongest and best organised group of workers, the Miners Federation of Great Britain.

A new paper for a new party: The Communist

‘After exhaustive preparation and almost interminable deliberation ... the long hoped for Communist party is at last a fact.’ With these words Arthur MacManus began the lead article of the first issue of The Communist, which appeared on August 5, 1920, just four days after the unity convention which had finally established the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The Communist took up where The Call, the paper of the British Socialist Party left off, in many ways quite literally. One series of articles [5] begun in the The Call was concluded in The Communist. The look and style of the two papers was almost identical. Only the masthead changed so that the gothic lettering and the quaint, semi-decollete goddess of socialism were dropped in favour of the blunt Pronouncement: The CommunistOrgan of the Third (Communist) International. Fred Willis who had edited The Call since February 1920 went on to edit The Communist without a break. Willis was clearly no student of graphic design. Most pages bore three columns of unrelieved print. No fooling around, the masses were fed their communist meat in chunks and they could either like it or lump it.

The Communist sold for twopence and began with a circulation of between eight and nine thousand, maintaining this level of sales until the end of the year. Willis did not last long as editor. At a meeting of the Party Executive on 4 December, it was decided that he should be replaced by Francis Meynell, who had worked on The Daily Herald, and Raymond Postgate was appointed as assistant editor. Meynell was an expert in typography and Postgate is now better known as a gastronomic expert and co-author, along with historian G.D.H. Cole, of The Common People. These two took control of the paper in mid-January 1921 and the layout and style literally changed overnight. Full page cartoons, photographs and satirical pieces became the order of the day.

James Klugmann, in his official history of the Communist Party comments with regard to the changeover:

The layout improved immensely and the journal was enlivened by the biting ‘Espoir’ cartoons, but still it was rather more a weekly magazine of Socialist theory and history than an agitator and organiser, and it was very isolated from the life and struggles of the British working class movement. There were excellent studies on the Paris Commune, the First International, developments in the Soviet Union, but the treatment of all the immediate agitations and class battles, such as the miners’ lock out, in no way reflected their importance or the role of the Communists within them. [6]

This is fair comment. The treatment of the miners’ lockout will be examined in some detail later in this article. Meynell admits in his autobiography that his main interest in the paper lay in the opportunities it afforded for typographical innovation. The Communist was ‘addressed almost wholly to middle class intellectuals,’ he says, even though the party and its periphery was thoroughly proletarian throughout the 1920s. [7] Despite two changes of editor, the paper continued in the same vein for the rest of its short life. In 1923 it was replaced by The Workers Weekly. This was one of a number of changes that took place following the presentation of the Report on Organisation to the Party Congress in October 1922. A Commission was set up early in 1922 to look into all aspects of party organisation; it was extremely critical of The Communist. What was needed was ‘a newspaper of the working class and not a small magazine of miscellaneous articles with a Communist bias’, it stated. In line with the Comintern Theses on the Party Press the CPGB must begin to produce ‘an organ of the workers’ daily struggle’. [8]

One remarkable feature of the literature on the early history of the Communist Party is the almost total absence of comment on and analysis of the party press. This is surprising given the central role the party paper must play in organisation. Klugmann’s few cursory remarks cited above are the most substantial analysis of The Communist so far in publication. What Klugmann says is anything but in-depth analysis and he concerns himself solely with the Meynell/Postgate era. With regard, however, to the process of establishing a Bolshevik newspaper in Britain the first five months of The Communist, when Willis was the editor are worth singling out for separate examination.

During those months although The Communist differed little in style and presentation from The Call, it began to display a political orientation different from its predecessor. Party unification had meant that The Communist was able to involve new writers. In particular the paper gained the two ex-Socialist Labour Party industrial militants Tom Bell and Arthur MacManus, who had become Party Chairman. The SLP – the chief political force of the wartime shop stewards movement – had always attached key importance to industrial activity. It was this tradition which Bell and MacManus brought into the new Communist Party and into its weekly newspaper, The Communist.

The articles written by Bell and MacManus display an understanding of the vital role of industrial coverage. They realised too that a communist newspaper could not afford to stand aloof from the class struggle as the papers of the old socialist groups had done. Two new sections were introduced into The Communist which had not appeared in The Call. The first was a regular industrial column, mostly edited by Tom Bell. When the column first appeared Bell wrote beneath the heading This concerns you, the following:

From last week’s Communist ... a hint may be taken as to the policy the Communist Party intends to pursue on matters involving industrial struggle by the working class. The policy of theoretical criticism of what should or should not have been done “after the event” – a characteristic of the old socialist weeklies – will find no place in these columns.

... We shall seek to anticipate events and direct the immediate policy of The Communist towards such events consistent with our fundamental revolutionary aims. With this object in mind we wish all party members and sympathisers to keep us well informed of happenings in their trade, industry and union.

... You can help us in this direction by sending along to this office your trade union reports. You should also send along information on local disputes no matter how trivial. Never mind your grammar. It is news we want, so that we may keep our fingers on the industrial pulse of the labour movement, and thus consolidate our agitation. [9]

Bell’s comments in introducing this column seem to indicate that those who worked on The Communist in its early days were aware that the paper must become far less propagandistic and far more in touch with working class struggle than its predecessors had been. In short they were taking the first steps towards the Bolshevik conception of a newspaper.

It should be stressed that at this stage in the Party’s history there were no theoretical formulations as to what the paper should be like; it was not even a matter for debate either on the Party Executive or in the organisation as a whole. The Comintern had made no formal pronouncements. These were to come later from the Third Congress which took place in 1921. It is interesting therefore that Bell’s comments in many ways prefigure one of the key sections of the Comintern Thesis:

The Communists must be more than just lively canvassers and agitators for the paper; they must be useful contributors. Everything that happens in the Communist fraction of the factory or in the cell, any event of social or economic importance, whether it be an accident at work or a factory meeting, the ill treatment of apprentices or the factory’s financial report, must be communicated to the paper as quickly as possible. The fractions in the trade unions must collect all the important decisions and measures adopted by the union meetings and union secretariats and any information on the type of activities our enemies are engaging in and send them to the paper. The round of meetings and the life of the street give the party worker the opportunity to observe and critically evaluate various minor details which can be used in the paper to demonstrate clearly even to the workers who are indifferent to politics that we are in touch with their daily needs. [10]

It is not surprising that Bell, MacManus and the rest who wrote for The Communist during the period of Willis’ editorship were not always successful in realising the rather hazy aims they seem to have had for the paper. However good their understanding might have been they could not have produced a brilliant revolutionary paper whilst the organisation as a whole was really still a long way from being a Bolshevik-style party. The quality of a revolutionary newspaper is not determined solely by the small group of people who are directly involved in producing it. If it is to be good then the party as a whole must be closely involved with the paper, not only selling it, but making sure that the day to day happenings of significance to the class struggle are communicated to the editorial staff.

Bell’s aims of being more anticipatory and agitational, of keeping a finger ‘on the industrial pulse of the labour movement’ may have only been realised in a patchy and inconsistent way, but surely the more important and interesting point in terms of the development of the Party and its press was that they realised these aims at all. The main difference between the coverage of the miners strike in the autumn of 1920 and the coverage of the events surrounding Black Friday in April 1921 when Meynell was editor of the paper is that the former gives the miners struggle the prominence one would expect to find accorded it in the newspaper of a revolutionary party.

It has already been mentioned that two new sections which had not been a feature of The Call were introduced in The Communist. The first was the industrial column; the second was a page of branch reports. The second issue of The Communist gave a detailed branch directory, listing names and addresses of all 145 branch secretaries. From then on, under the heading Communists at Work, the entire back page was given over to detailed reports from district and branch organisers about their activities during the previous week. Numbers of papers sold were indicated and forthcoming meetings advertised.

The glowing tone of most of the reports suggests that the comrades sending them in were on the one hand prone to rather too much over-enthusiastic exaggeration, and on the other unwilling to admit failures and mistakes. But given the style of operation common to the socialist groups which had come together to form the CPGB, the membership had many lessons to learn before the party could be transformed into an efficient Bolshevik organisation. One lesson to be learnt was that they were now part of a centralised party; the fairly autonomous branch operation of the loosely federated socialist groups had to change if the CP was to become a disciplined revolutionary party. The system of reporting branch activities developed by The Communist in its first few months was a vital step forward in that it made the membership feel part of a centralised organisation, as well as making the leadership aware of what was happening in the day to day operation of the party on the ground.

Reports of branch activities were highlighted by The Communist only so long as Willis was the editor. (Among other things they provide much useful information as to how the party operated during the miners’ dispute in the autumn.) As soon as Meynell became editor the reports were reduced substantially and squeezed into odd corners of the newspaper where there was space to fill. But let us now look in more detail at some of the paper’s coverage during it.

The miners’ dispute of 1920

In July 1920 the Miners’ Federation put forward a dual wage demand. They wanted an increase of 2s per shift and a reduction in the price of household coal by 14s 2d per ton. A ballot of the membership was taken which came out heavily in favour of strike action. Notices were duly tendered; they were to expire on September 25. The miners appealed to the Triple Alliance for solidarity action. On 26 August The Communist ran a front page article under a bold heading: Back up the Miners!

Written by Tom Bell, the article was accessible and informative. After a dramatic opening: ‘Never in the history of the Labour movement has the prospect of a strike been met with such a torrent of abuse, misrepresentation and lies as is the present threat of the Miners’ Federation to down tools in September’, Bell went on to give a useful analysis of what the coming dispute was all about. The recommendations of the Sankey Commission of 1919 (centering on nationalisation of the mines) which the government had first accepted and then refused to implement, were concisely explained as background to the miners’ current grievances. The miners’ demands were clearly set down. The article continued: ‘What the government and their capitalist backers are really preparing and determined to resist is the proposal of the Miners’ Federation that the mines should be treated as industry essential to the life of the community and not handed back to the private interests that controlled them in 1914. In other words back to the hellish conditions of pre-war times.’ Despite the repetition of the slogan ‘Back up the miners!’ several times, the article was informative and analytical rather than agitational. Nevertheless it anticipated events rather than theorising afterwards in the style of the old socialist papers. It was a useful opener to the campaign and could have been usefully sold amongst the miners where the membership was geared to such an operation.

Two weeks later [11] The Communist ran another front page on the miners. The article argued that the success of the Councils of Action – set up to prevent the British government materially assisting the attacks on the Soviet Union – showed the way forward for the miners. The coming strike was discussed as a question of workers’ power: ‘Things are reaching a stage in which the workers must definitely assume control of their lives and conditions by controlling the factories and workshops, running transport for themselves, the working class.’ When the strike was postponed pending further negotiations The Communist again took up the issue on the front page. [12] Fred Willis weighed up the situation:

In one respect a clear advance has been made in this dispute, however it ends for the moment. What marks it off from all previous disputes is that for the first time a demand has been made by organised workers for power ... [it] is a portent as significant as the seizure of the factories by Italian workers.

Suddenly the miners’ dual demand for a 2s wage increase and a reduction in the price of household coal was dropped. The Federations negotiators agreed to put the mineowners ‘datum line’ proposals – essentially a productivity deal – to a ballot of the membership. The Communist immediately published an Open Letter to the Miners. [13] The letter insisted that the miners must realise that the dropping of their demands amounted to a defeat. They must re-group their forces quickly, throwing out their reformist leaders. These men must be replaced by others who ‘understanding that a strike may lead to revolution, will not on that account shrink back’. There was little understanding, incidentally, of how to argue the importance of rank and file leadership based in the workplace.

But as the run up to the strike continued, each article published by The Communist was better than the last. The articles were becoming less abstract and less propagandist; they were becoming much more in touch with the concrete problems the miners were facing in the course of their dispute. Perhaps the best article – in the sense that it was the most directly agitational – was written by Arthur MacManus for the 14 October issue. It was entitled: Miners! Down Tools! and was directed specifically at the Miners’ Federation delegates who would be voting on the datum line proposals.

MacManus took up where the Open Letter left off. The vacillation which led to the dropping of the dual demand had temporarily destroyed solidarity both within the miners’ own ranks and amongst other workers as well, he argued. But after this initial set back and the ensuing confusion, the significance ‘of all that has been involved has been borne in upon the miners’, and once again there seemed a possibility of a fightback, beginning with a rejection of the mine owners offer at the forthcoming delegate conference. What is good about the article is that MacManus is not simply content to argue for a ‘No’ vote; in many ways he takes that as read: ‘There is every indication that the vote will declare overwhelmingly for (the offer’s) rejection despite the cajolery, intimidation and lying trickery of both Press and Politicians.’ More importantly the article argued as to how the miners should proceed. They must not simply reject the offer, but they must now go for all out strike action. The delegates were shouldering a ‘big responsibility’, MacManus argued:

There is yet one more chance to undo the damage already done, and [the delegates] alone are capable of this task. To accomplish it they must return completely and without equivocation to the absolute letter of their original demands.

The miners must turn to the rank and file of the Triple Alliance for support, the article argued, ‘despite the probability of [its leaders] efforts being directed towards preventing the possibility of a sympathetic strike’. The whole fate of the Triple Alliance – ‘built as an instrument for waging the class struggle’, yet so far used only ‘to crush workers into submission’ – would in fact be determined by the miners’ strike, MacManus went on. ‘Should it fail to move, those workers who are organised within it will have no option but to set out and smash it.’

When the miners’ delegates met they voted overwhelmingly to throw out the datum line proposals. On 16 October the coal industry ground to a halt as more than a million men came out on strike prepared now to fight for a 2s increase with no productivity strings attached. That week’s Communist ran a front page article headed Stand by the Miners! In the article MacManus argued a strong case for rank and file solidarity as the only means of countering the solidarity of the class enemy:

Capitalism no longer fights in sections, and every struggle sooner or later becomes a struggle against the government. It was the government whom the railwaymen had to fight, and it was the government whom the transport workers had to fight. Again it is the government against whom the miners have to struggle. The quarrel of the discharged ex-servicemen for justice is a quarrel against the government, just as the grievance of the unemployed is a grievance against the government. Capitalism is so strongly centralised that all disaffection finds its centre of gravity in the government of the day, and the fight of the very near future must be against the right of capitalism to govern at all.

With the strongest section of Britain’s workers out on strike for three weeks one might have hoped that The Communist would seize the opportunity to immerse itself more fully in the struggle. Here was a chance to fill the paper with the ‘reports’ – either in the form of letters or of articles – which Bell had so strenuously encouraged in his industrial column a month or so before. Yet not only did they not print one worker’s letter, but in fact after the first week of the strike, there was virtually no coverage of the dispute in the paper at all.

During the second week of the dispute the paper carried just one brief mention of the miners in the parliamentary column, From the gasworks. After that there was no further mention of the miners’ strike until it was all over. The 11 November issue of The Communist ran a front page with a post mortem on the strike which had won the miners their pay increase but only postponed a decision on productivity. The article concluded with a Plea for Communism, which had all the flavour of the old Socialist Sunday morning, open-air harangue. It simply failed to connect with reality:

To the workers of all industries the call of the Communist party is clear ... Widen your demands. Insist no longer on mere advances of wages or shortening of hours. In a revolutionary epoch such demands are puerile. Make this demand in no uncertain voice: Henceforth the land of England with all its mines and factories and wealth producing instruments shall be owned by the workers of England, and no idler or parasite shall have part or lot therein. Work for the Communist Commonwealth and abolish needless poverty once and forever ...

This amazing piece must have meant little to the miners who had by no means won an easy or clearcut victory. It was as if The Communist had fallen into a time warp, suddenly they were back to the remote propagandist posturing of the pre-Communist days.

The branch reports which appeared in The Communist in the run up to and during the miners’ strike suggest that the membership was not geared to intervention in the dispute as a priority. Most continued with their customary Sunday meetings at which the miners may or may not have got an incidental mention. At one meeting in central London it was noted that ‘a frenzied lady in a loose-fitting blouse’ raised the question of the miners from the floor. Unfortunately she does not seem to have been particularly sympathetic to the miners’ cause, ‘railing heartily’, as the report put it, against the ‘lazy miners who propose to enforce a reduction in the price of coal’. [14] Wigan branch did report however that during the first week of the strike ‘there was a huge crowd on the Market Square on Sunday last, when Cde Albert Ward gave an address on Communism and the Coal Muddle.’ [15] And Yorkshire district reported during the strike that they had ‘decided to hold meetings among the colliers in our area’. [16]

Clearly The Communist in its early months fell a long way short of the Comintern’s conception of a workers’ newspaper. But in certain respects it can be argued it was moving in the right direction. The amount of front page coverage given to the miners’ dispute shows that those who produced the paper understood the importance of the struggle both for revolutionaries and for the working class movement as a whole. In the run up to the strike The Communist certainly anticipated events and printed articles which argued a communist approach to the dispute as Tom Bell had claimed the paper would try to do. At this stage – though it was not directly agitational – the paper could have been used to win new readers amongst the miners and so draw more workers into the party’s orbit. But judging from the branch reports, it seems that the organisation as a whole was not geared to selling the paper in this kind of systematic way. When the strike actually began, the paper fell down badly, abandoning almost entirely any coverage of the miners’ struggle. At the very point where The Communist could have opened up to let the miners state their own case, it chose to ignore the dispute altogether.

The Communist after Willis and the miners’ lockout of 1921

Let us now move on to look at the changes that occurred in The Communist when Willis left off editing it. When Meynell took over in January 1921 the publication was transformed essentially from a newspaper into a magazine. Under Willis the paper had in no way been crammed with up to the minute news – to the limited extent that that is possible for a weekly publication – but it had produced a topical front page with a big headline which could be used to attract new buyers. Meynell abandoned the practice of drawing attention to the week’s major event on the front page. The one solid article was replaced by a series of Notes of the Week, comprising eight or nine items briefly touched upon in separate paragraphs. The important issues were not distinguished from the more trivial; there was no more emphasis on one item than another. In the first issue of the new Communist, for example, because it was accompanied by an illustration, it seems that more weight could be accorded to an item noting that Anatole France had ‘declared allegiance’ to the French CP, than to news on unemployment or news of Communist Party member Cecil Malone, jailed for sedition following his famous Albert Hall speech, where he had advocated stringing up Curzon and Churchill from lamp-posts if in the future they obstructed the course of revolution.

It was clearly Meynell’s intention to produce a lively and imaginative magazine/paper in terms the criteria laid down by bourgeois journalistic – and literary – practice. Stuart Macintyre comments that Meynell and Postgate ‘managed the paper as a highbrow socialist magazine’. [17] The paper became more remote from the daily struggle of the working class. As the Report on Organisation later put it, The Communist was full of ‘miscellaneous articles with a Communist bias’. Articles which discussed international capital, unemployment and the employers’ offensive contained nothing to anchor them to the political events of any particular week. There was an overall air of literariness about the paper: short stories, poems, satire and historical pieces appeared on page after page. Nothing about the pieces suggests that they were chosen for their ‘agitational value’, the criterion which the Organisation Commission later proposed as a useful basis for selection. The famous cartoons by Westral and Espoir (Will Hope) which mercilessly ridiculed both the political and trade union leaders lacked the force they might have had because they were not sufficiently backed up by articles making the same political points at greater length.

These problems became more apparent with The Communist’s coverage around the time of the miners’ lockout in April 1921; the significance of any articles which concentrated on the dispute being lost in the overall context of the paper. Two articles directed specifically at the miners appeared early in March; the first was entitled It’s your wages they’ll get ... and the second Disaster or Defiance – the Miners Choice. If anything these articles were better written than anything which had been published in the Willis era. The second one, sub-titled An Open Letter to the Delegates of the Rank and File Miners was well in touch with the arguments going on in the Federation at the time:

When you meet today there will be those among you who will be seeking a way out of the difficulties. They will tell you the time is not favourable for drastic action; they will urge upon your notice the appalling unemployment amongst your comrades; they will plead that your funds are depleted and that a strike will end in disaster. They will urge you not to fight but to negotiate on the basis of a compromise. They will urge upon you the imperative need for giving up that part of your scheme against which the mine owners have directed their real hostility.

“Let us go back to local negotiations,” they will say, “let each district fight for itself during this time of crisis, of slump, and unemployment. Then when the good years come, let us work once more for a national wage basis.”

For our part we appeal to you not to give heed to this pleading.

But good as these articles might have been, their impact was lost because the paper as a whole in no way emphasised the importance of workers’ struggle. The following week, 19 March, when it must have been apparent to all and sundry that a dispute of major proportions was looming in the coal industry, a dispute which would vitally affect the future of the Miners’ Federation, the Triple Alliance and the state of the class struggle for some time to come, The Communist chose to ignore the subject altogether. Instead it filled ten pages of a fourteen page paper with an article on the Paris Commune by Raymond Postgate.

For the next two weeks The Communist contented itself with a degree of commentary as it were from the sidelines – a paragraph here and half a column there in either the Notes of the Week or the industrial column. By then the dispute had begun in earnest, the blackout having taken effect from April 1. Success for the miners depended largely on solidarity action, but the Triple Alliance leadership was desperate to avoid pulling its members out on strike. They vacillated and delayed, seeking any and every opportunity to enter into negotiations with the government and the coal owners. It was this aspect of the dispute that The Communist seized upon.

In the April 9 issue the paper introduced the slogan Watch your leaders and from then on it began a campaign to expose at every turn the class collaborationist policies pursued by the officials of the Triple Alliance, in particular J.H. Thomas of the NUR. In the Notes of the Week the paper declared:

The whole attack of capital on labour must be repulsed. Weak-kneed and treacherous leaders will if permitted withdraw and run away. They will destroy the class unity of labour and leave each industry to separate defeat. But the rank and file can force them, if it chooses, to toe the line.

They will make fine speeches these ‘leaders’, but watch what Thomas does, not what he says. Watch his hands don’t watch his mouth.

After that the paper ran a number of double page spreads on the ‘Watch your leaders’ theme. The Secret History of the Attempted Betrayal revealed in detail each step taken by Thomas and the others along the road to compromise and sell-out in the days before Black Friday. [18] The attack on the trade union leadership was augmented by powerful Espoir cartoons. In the 16 April issue a full-page cartoon appeared which depicted Thomas stepping over the body of a dead miner. The caption ran: ‘I claim the right to lay the first wreath – I killed him.’

In the issue following Black Friday The Communist returned temporarily to the banner headline format: Black Treachery was the message. Thomas and the other leaders must be driven out, the article argued. The workers must do two things. Firstly they must support the miners with financial donations. Secondly they must ‘punish the traitors’. Delegate meetings must be called in every district, ‘not to examine the traitors, but to receive their resignations’. The article concluded: ‘This has been a terrible moment in the history of our movement. It may be a golden moment if the workers know how to use it.’

The same issue also carried another full-page Espoir cartoon in which the Triple Alliance became ‘The Cripple Alliance’. It showed caricatures of Thomas with one leg, Bevin without any, and Hodges with both his legs contorted, displaying themselves on a stage. The caption read: ‘Messrs Thomas, Bevin and Hodges play nightly to enthusiastic audiences of coal owners.’ Thomas sued The Communist for libel and was awarded £2,000 damages. Meynell resigned from the editorship of the paper when he heard of the legal action; later gave his reasons as ‘plain cowardice’. [19]

L.J. Macfarlane, in his analysis of the early years of the Communist Party describes the handling of the miners lockout by The Communist as ‘journalistically effective, but politically inept’. [20] This comment begs the important question of what kind of journalism the paper pursued at the time. Macfarlane apparently sees journalism a pursuit which is value free. It is clear, however, that in Meynell’s Communist was characterised by a stylish brand of radical bourgeois journalism which had little to do with the kind of journalistic values and priorities of a revolutionary paper of the working class.

But Macfarlane is correct to describe the coverage as ‘politically inept’. Beyond the oft repeated slogan ‘Watch your leaders’ and the in-depth coverage of back-room discussions entered into by the Triple Alliance officials – which might incidentally just as well have been informed by theories of conspiracy as by any kind of revolutionary politics – there was no real analysis of the role of the trade union bureaucracy, nor of how to build rank and file strength. The paper neither reflected the response of the rank and file to each stage of the proceedings, nor gave any political direction to its own membership and periphery involved in the dispute. The paper’s approach to the dispute was severely criticised at the Third Congress of the Comintern, held in June of the same year. Radek complained that there were no reports of what the party was doing in the mining districts. Many Communists were in fact involved in the dispute, over sixty of them were arrested, most of them in the Rhondda Valley. [21] But any activities or meetings they did organise were done without the guidance or assistance of the party centre. And these activities were given no space in the paper.

By contrast The Daily Herald was much better in touch with the rank and file. Because the Herald had pursued a policy of keeping its ear to the ground, within hours of the Triple Alliance’s decision to call off its solidarity action resolutions were received by the paper from many branches of the NUR protesting against the decision. The paper printed reports of these the next day. Two days later a page was given over to protests which had been received, under the heading What the rank and file think of Friday’s debacle. This is not of course to argue that The Daily Herald was a crypto-Bolshevik newspaper, but in respect of its coverage of the miners’ dispute on the ground The Communist might well have learnt a number of lessons from it. The ‘finger on the industrial pulse of the labour movement’ which Bell had insisted The Communist would strive to maintain had long since ceased to be even an aspiration in the Meynell/Postgate era.

Sales of The Communist

This article has argued that in its very early days The Communist showed more promise of developing into a workers’ paper in the Bolshevik sense than it did in the later period under Meynell editorship and after. One cannot overlook however, the fact that the sales of the paper rose dramatically after Meynell took over. According to the paper’s own estimates, 9,500 of the first issue (21 January 1921) were printed and the paper sold out. The following week 13,000 were printed initially then a further 500 were run off. All sold. By 5 February sales had risen to 25,000 and a week later the print run had to be increased to 40,000. At the end of April the paper noted: ‘The print of this issue of The Communist, based on actual orders received, amounts to 60,000 copies ... The average sale for the past five weeks has been 49,000 per week.’

The rise in circulation can be attributed to a number of factor. Firstly, early in February the CP found itself faced with a wholesalers’ boycott; the papers were no longer finding their way to the local newsagents through which a large proportion had been sold. Press historian Stanley Harrison comments: ‘For the first time since Chartist days the rebel press was systematically denied the normal channels and had to rely directly on sympathisers and supporters for its distribution.’ [22]

But as Harrison and others have shown, this kind of repression of the ‘rebel press’ was often a help rather than a hindrance to sales. As Thomas Hetherington in his battle against the Stamp Tax in 18191 proved, provided one had a well organised network of ‘sympathisers and supporters’, distribution if anything became more secure and reliable and the free publicity boosted sales.

In a similar way, the wholesalers’ boycott committed members on the Communist Party to selling their paper in a way they had never had to sell it before. Teams of cyclists were organised to make surd that copies of The Communist reached newsagents who had been cut off by the wholesalers. The fact that Communist Party members; were directly responsible for the sales and hence survival of their paper, plus the interest generated by the attempt to stifle the paper must have accounted for many of the increased sales.

A second reason for the increase in circulation enjoyed by The Communist during this period must have been the level of class struggle itself. One million miners alone were involved in a strike. But beyond that, it must have been seen by the most militant workers that the extent to which the miners could withstand the attacks on their living standards and collective organisation would determine their own fate as well. It was thus a highly politicised period with workers desperate to be kept informed of the state of play. Hence increased sales for The Communist.

Thirdly, by this stage in 1921, The Communist must have been more clearly perceived by working people as a new and separate entity. To begin with many must have seen it simply as a continuation of The Call by another name, just as they might well have seen the Communist Party itself as revamping of the BSP.

Finally it is also to be assumed that the circulation of The Communist rose because ordinary working people liked it. To argue that the paper fell short of Bolshevism is not to argue that it was unpopular. Certainly the cartoons were well-liked. They were also put to good agitational use by the miners in Fife during the strike as Tom Bell describes in a letter to Lenin:

Demonstrations were held as near the mines as possible and within the hearing of the soldiers. By means of gummed labels with ‘Don’t Shoot’ appeals stuck all over the place, cartoons taken from The Communist pasted up on the walls and a free distribution of leaflets among the soldiers, good work was done to undermine the morale of men who were not too keen on their job. [23]

As Zinoviev later put it in his letter on the Party Press [24] ‘One caricature which hits the nail on the head is of better use than scores of so-called "marxist" boring articles.’

The above arguments go some way to explaining the marked increase that occurred in the circulation of The Communist in the first half of 1921. Sales went no higher than 60,000. Instead they began to decline as did party membership in the difficult and demoralised period after Black Friday and the miners’ strike. In Macfarlane’s words: ‘Victimisation, chaos, unemployment and disillusion had taken their toll – all but the most loyal party members had left the party.’ [25] Willie Gallacher, commenting on the latter half of 1921 says: The membership was rapidly fading away and the organisation had almost completely broken down.’ [26]

Reorganising the party

Meanwhile Bell and MacManus returned from the Third Congress of the Comintern at which much time had been devoted to the discussion of how the Communist Parties should organise themselves. Bell argued that it was now time to reorganise the party. In Pioneering Days he recalls:

My report to the Central Committee on the International Congresses and their resolutions, especially the resolution on organisation, pointed to the necessity of breaking away from the old geographical socialist type of branch organisation, and for the institution of group and collective direction; furthermore the necessity of transforming our party organ from the old socialist type of propagandist journal to a new type of paper that would become a party organiser, agitator and newspaper. I wrote a series of articles for The Communist popularising these views, which I had discussed at length with Comrade Kuusinen during his preparation of the Thesis on Organisation, adopted at the Third Congress. But it was not until the next year at the St Pancras Conference, March 19, 1922, that the decision was taken to make a decisive change. [27]

Bell’s article on the party press appeared in the issue of The Communist dated 8 October. It was as he suggests very much a translation of the Comintern Thesis on the Press:

The Communist Press must be our best agitator and leading propagator of the proletarian revolution, always giving first place to the interests of the oppressed and fighting workers. That our paper may be so, the valuable experience and activity of our members should be collected and published as a guide for the continued revision and improvement in our communist working methods.

Bell argued along with the Comintern that the paper should be produced by a ‘working community of revolutionary workers’. Every member of the party must be brought into a closer relationship with the paper and be prepared to ‘make sacrifices for it, both material and financial’. Party members must not only become efficient sellers of the paper, working intensively around strikes and their aftermath to assure new permanent readers for the paper, selling at every meeting and demonstration, but also they must become active reporters for the paper. In turn The Communist must learn to use the examples of everyday struggle sent in by the membership as means of conveying its revolutionary message.

The striking feature of Bell’s article on the press – and indeed the other three articles which deal with the need for organisational change – is that they simply make abstract pronouncements. Like Moses, Bell had been to the mountain and returned with the holy tablets, which he proceeded to dish out with no explanation of their meaning. In Pioneering Days, he says, with reference to the events surrounding Black Friday: ‘It was the party’s baptism as a revolutionary organisation. From its experiences it became necessary to make drastic changes in its methods of working and organisation.’ [28]

But why? Bell makes no attempt to analyse the party’s experiences as a basis for arguing the need for change. He offers no analysis of the political climate of the time, and the effects that climate might have on the growth of the revolutionary party. He offers no analysis of the role played by The Communist during the miners’ strike. His articles simply state that changes must be made. The only apparent reason is that the Comintern had said so.

Although Bell had clearly grasped in some abstract sense right the earliest days of the CP that the Communist press had to be afferent, the fact that he now regurgitated the Comintern’s pronouncements in such an undigested form suggests that Lenin was correct when he said later at the Fourth Congress (1922) that sound as the Organisational Theses might have been, none of the delegates really understood them:

At the Third Congress in 1921, we adopted a resolution on the organisational structures of the Communist Parties and on the method and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say everything in it is based on Russian conditions ... I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely that we blocked our own road to success ... the resolution is excellently drafted; I am prepared to stand by every one of its fifty or more points. But we have not learnt how to present our Russian experience to foreigners. [29]

But whether or not the Theses of the Third Congress were fully understood, it did not stop the CPGB seizing on the need for drastic organisational change as a cure for its ills in the early months of 1922. At the St Pancras Conference in March a three person Commission, comprising Harry Pollitt, R.P. Dutt and Harry Inkpin, was set up to investigate all aspects of party organisation and work. The Commission presented its final Report at the Battersea Conference the following October. Klugmann, on the basis of information received in discussion with Pollitt and Dutt, claims: ‘The gathering of information on Party membership, Party Press and party activity was extremely thorough, and all rosy and unproven figures or claims were fairly ruthlessly brushed aside.’ [30] The Report revealed that real membership of the party had fallen from 3,000 at its foundation to 2,000, and that the circulation of The Communist had slipped back to 8,000. The section of the Report dealing with party press began:

The present situation of the party press and publications has been the subject of very considerable complaint, and the demand for alteration is general. This applies particularly to the main party organ.

The commission is convinced that no partial steps will improve the present situation. The various attempts to patch up the present paper by experiment or another have only made matters worse. A radical transformation is needed of the whole editorial policy, direction methods of production. [31]

It is frustrating that the Report does not reveal exactly what the complaints about The Communist were. Reading backwards from the Report, however, one can deduce that there must have been considerable confusion amongst the membership both as to what the paper was actually trying to do and as to what it should be trying to do. The Report argued:

The main Party organ is ... an organ of the workers’ daily struggle. It ought therefore to be a daily paper. Since our resources do not admit of this at present, it has to be a weekly. But it is not an ordinary weekly – a journal of comment and articles. It is a daily paper of the working class having to appear weekly.

... The question is sometimes asked whether The Communist should be intended mainly for the party members or for the masses. This question betrays a confusion which is at the root of half the existing difficulties. It assumes a separation of the Party from the masses. It assumes a choice between ‘serious’, but ‘heavy’ matter of importance to party members – articles on high politics etc. – and light material attractive to the masses. Both alternatives are equally irrelevant. There should be no separation on party issues from mass issues. The problems and struggle of the party am simply the problems and struggle of the working class. The party organ is an organ of the party because it is an organ of the working class. Its subject matter is everything that concerns ‘the working class.’ [32]

The paper should aim ‘not only to agitate, but to organise and train’, the Commission insisted. To do this effectively it needed to build up a wide range of worker correspondents in the big industrial centres, leading factories and trade unions. The Report gave a useful explanation of what it meant for the paper to be ‘an organiser’, a term used repeatedly in the Comintern Theses, but presumably one which had little meaning for many of the British comrades still steeped in the methods of work common to the old socialist sects:

In that sense does the party paper organise? The paper organises by giving a lead. In every item that it prints it is seeking to give guidance and direction. In this way the circle of the paper’s readers, who read it and look to it for guidance, who follow its lead in action, e.g. in voting on a strike ballot or taking part in a mass protest are already half way to being organised for the party. The paper is organising both the party members and the masses outside. The party members need to learn to look to the paper for their day to day lead on every issue and question ..., not simply in general terms, but in relation to daily happenings as they come, meetings, strikes union votes etc., they will learn from these not only the statement of policy to follow, but also the reasons for it and the correct exposition of it. But in addition to this, the paper reaches the wider circles of the masses who are outside the net of the party’s regular organisation; it rallies them around the demands of the party and in this way it organises them for the party. [33]

The Commission was quite specific about the changes it wanted to see made in The Communist. Its small size and its make up were not suited to the task it had to fulfil, it argued. News should take up the main body of the paper. It should be news direct from the ‘workers’ battlefront’ – from the factory and from the economic struggle, from trades councils, unemployed and other local movements. This news should be presented ‘according to its relative importance in the class struggle’; artificial divisions between Industrial notes, Political notes and so on should be avoided. As well as news, the paper should contain statements of party policy – which should be ‘short’ and ‘definite’ – and special features on a wide range of topics: the commission suggested a political diary might be introduced and articles on art, literature and sport. Announcements from the Comintern Executive and the party Executive should be published. Finally, cartoons, photographs, stories, satire and verse should be included, the Report stated, but it added that these should be chosen for ‘their direct agitational value’.

With regard to selling the paper, the Commission argued that the party should break with its dependence on newsagents. This, it said, was a ‘source of weakness. It separates the paper from the party and the working class movement.’ Henceforth the paper should be distributed through the party machinery to branches and districts where every member must take responsibility for selling it: the members ‘should be continually engaged in the work of personal propaganda and recruitment by their endeavours to sell the paper. ‘ [34] The Report of the Organisation Commission was received enthusiastically by the Battersea Congress and adopted ‘without dissent or opposition’. [35] The Workers Weekly was launched four months later in February 1923.

Towards a Bolshevik paper: The Workers Weekly

The Workers Weekly sold for one penny and was edited by Palme Dutt, who had drafted the Report of the Organisational Commission. It was thus not surprising that the new paper carried out almost the letter the recommendations of the Commission. Its four large pages were filled with tightly written items of workers’ news, both from around Britain and abroad.

From the start the paper set out to explain to its readers what it; was trying to achieve. The bottom corner of the front page in the early issues was given over to drawing attention to what the paper was trying to do and to encouraging contributions and sales:

We want a paper made by the workers for the workers. Our news is working class news supplied by the workers on the spot. It may not be very wonderful news yet, but you can improve that for us by seeing that we get the news that you won’t get in other papers. It is the news of the workers. [36]

The second issue of the paper proclaimed enthusiastically that the first issue had sold out in twenty four hours. It announced that it was aiming at a circulation of 100,000. There was an immediacy about The Workers Weekly which had never been evident in The Communist:

Do you feel that the workers need a paper of their own? Do you want to know what the workers are saying and doing everywhere? Do you mean to help in ending slavery in the workshops and starvation in the Labour Exchange queues?

Then read The Workers’ Weekly and sell it to your friends. [37]

The paper introduced a column of workers letters, something the Comintern had always stressed was of vital importance. As Zinoviev put it: ‘...we must introduce something that is peculiarly our own, and what bourgeois and social democratic newspapers cannot give. This is precisely the letters from working men and women from factories and works, letters from soldiers etc.’ [38]

Through the letters column of The Workers Weekly, the voices of ordinary working people were heard for the first time in any Communist publication in Britain. In the first issue there were two letters. The first was from a miner who thought he could persuade his trades council to affiliate to the Red International of Labour Unions, but he asked for help and advice as to how to argue for this move at the next meeting. After seven hours down a pit, ‘with a rapid bounding pulse and perspiration, artificial light, foul air and heat etc.’, he said, ‘you do not feel much like studying all the phases of the RILU.’ The second letter described how two boys had been killed and two others injured on ‘Ousebury Tip’ outside Newcastle, an abandoned building site which had become a rubbish tip where the unemployed ‘seek for any old scraps, rags, bottles or anything which might have the least market value ... to enable them to eke out their doles.’ The ground had collapsed under the boys weight.

In the first year 2,500 letters and reports were received by the paper of which nearly half were used. These letters signified an enormous breakthrough for the paper. They signified a new kind of journalism for the Communist press in Britain, journalism which was not looking over its shoulder for approval in radical bourgeois circles.

Beyond this The Workers Weekly carried cartoons by Espoir and others as The Communist had done, but here they were inserted selectively to highlight political points made by the paper as a whole rather than to cover whole pages at a time, in a manner which suggested that they were there not so much to make a political point as to be admired as fine pieces of art. As well as this a workers’ sport column was introduced into the paper and a ‘workers serial’, clearly written for its agitational value as the Commission had suggested it should be.

Above all in its early months The Workers Weekly read as if it was a paper well integrated into a party that was becoming aware of its revolutionary tasks and how to carry them out. The United Front tactic, adopted by the Comintern at the end of 1921 was given much prominence by the early issues of the paper, in a manner which must have done much to convince Labour Party and ILP members, as well as the trade union movement to join forces with the Communist Party in an attempt to halt the capitalist offensive. In its second issue The Workers Weekly addressed an Open Letter to the forces of the Left:

New attacks are threatening from every side. Wages are already down to starvation levels, and now comes the attack on hours. The homes of the workers are threatened by the campaign to raise rents, and evictions are frequent. The unemployed are treated with open indifference and subjected to a new gap which leaves men stranded for months. The burdens of high taxation and the payment of debt falls unendurably upon the workers in the form of high prices for the elementary necessities of life and sinking wages and unemployment.

The government is seeking to fix the subjection of the workers by special legislation and drag the workers into the horror of a new war.

Against all these attacks the workers are unprepared. Their attempts at resistance have been disorganised and ineffective. The heroic struggles of the miners and the engineers have been wasted by the lack of a common stand.

The letter then proposed a series of straight forward and concrete demands with regard to wages, hours, housing, the cost of living, workshop control and unemployment, around which the forces of the left could unite. It added:

These demands are immediate every day demands which the widest masses the workers can most easily understand and unite upon. The Communist Party fully supports and is prepared to fight for these demands, while at the same time carrying on its agitation for the dictatorship of the proletariat the only solution to the present situation. [39]

A classic example of the United Front tactic in operation. On the second page the paper carried a short but useful article on the theory of the United Front. At this stage The Workers Weekly suggested a Communist Party leadership confident of its politics and aware of the best way to train its membership.

The miners’ struggles in 1923

The coverage given to struggle on the industrial front by The Communist was weak and inconsistent to say the least. Some of the people writing for the paper in its early days showed that the understood the importance of industrial coverage, but the paper as a whole demonstrated no such understanding. By contrast The Workers Weekly showed that the Communist Party was now very much orientated towards industry; the activities of the various unions were reported in great detail. Not only that, but the paper related to what was happening in an agitational way. Let us continue to use the example of the miners to demonstrate the point.

Though still the strongest group of workers, the Miners Federation had received an enormous set back from the events of 1921. They were not involved in a major conflict again with the government until the middle of 1925. But during 1923 – like other groups of workers – they were in the process of regrouping their forces and regaining their strength. The Workers Weekly covered every twist and turn of this process, taking every opportunity to urge on the rank and file.

In the issue dated 24 February The Workers Weekly carried a short report on the activities of the French miners. 200,000 miners went out on strike for a wage increase; they had come out despite opposition from their reformist leaders. The strike had begun in Alsace-Lorraine and the Moselle area and had spread throughout the mining districts of France. The report ended by arguing it was ‘action which calls for a response in the whole working class, not only in France, but in Belgium and England as well. Already the miners in Belgium are beginning to strike. What is to be our response?’ The following week [40] the paper carried a report of the French miners’ victory ending ‘it is a triumphant vindication of the Communist miners by whom the strike was called.’ These reports were not simply in the paper as examples of workers’ news from abroad; the victory of the French miners was frequently referred to in subsequent articles concerning the miners here at home. There was mention of the miners almost every week during the six months of The Workers Weekly. On 3 March the paper reported that the Miners’ Federation Executive had gone to Downing Street yet again to discuss ‘the deplorable conditions of the miners’. The same issue of the paper ran an article about the death of a miner due to cutbacks in safety precautions. In the 10 March issue the paper weighed in against the attempts by employers and bourgeois press to divide dockers from miners over the question of hours. It was also reported that 10,000 Durham miners were out on strike.

On 17 March one column of the front page was given over to an article headed: Will Miners Wait Longer? This was the first of a large number of articles which agitated for the miners to throw off the wage agreement they had been saddled with since 1921. A national conference was scheduled for 27 March. Just prior to the conference the paper spelled out the issues in its lead article on the front page: Living Wage for Miners/Demand to end Agreement:

The miners Special Delegate Conference on 27 March meets at a time when the conditions of the miners are the most terrible within living memory. Wages are one third below the 1914 level. The last available figures show 250,000 miners over 21 earning less than £2 5s a week. Twelve out of the 13 districts of the MFGB have been down to the minimum level and the coalfields have been described by Hodges himself as the “famine areas of England&rdquot;. This is the working out of the infamous National Agreement of 1921, which Hodges introduced as “the greatest wage producing principle” on record. The misery of the miners is the direct result of the open treachery to the working class by the trade union bureaucracy of the Triple Alliance on Black Friday, when they sold the pass to the capitalist offensive and left the miners to fight alone; of the refusal of international solidarity by the miners leaders and the Labour Party when they let the criminal terms of the Versailles Treaty and the Spa Agreement be imposed on Germany and the German miners; and finally the betrayal of the miners by their own leaders when they fastened on them – in defiance of the men’s own ballots – the National Agreement of 1921, which bound them as slaves to the guaranteed standard profits of the owners ... The first thing the miners need to do is to end the Agreement. The next is to reform the broken united front of the working class. [41]

Over two columns the article expanded these arguments and ended up with a concrete set of demands for the miners to press:

This was a vast improvement on the way The Communist had addressed itself to the miners’ struggles. Inside the same issue there were two more short articles about miners. One reported strikes in South Wales against the use of non-union labour, the other tabled the mine owners profits in two Welsh collieries.

The miners made the front page of The Workers Weekly for the next two weeks. On 31 March there was a major article over three columns: Builders, Miners, Seamen, Farmworkers/Capital’s Single Offensive/United Stand Needed. The state of play in each union was reported on in an attempt to link one struggle with another. With the miners involved in district conferences, The Workers Weekly kept hammering away on the wages question. It attacked the sectionalism of some districts who had argued that while the: boom continued they were doing nicely under the present agreement. Small reports kept the readership informed of the struggles against scab labour in the Welsh pits. A rank and file ‘workmen’s combine’ had been formed in Ebbw Vale which was ‘copying the tactics of the unemployed movement’ and organising mass demonstrations. The Workers Weekly tried constantly to tie each local example into the more generalised arguments.

A Special Delegate Conference was set to take place in Blackpool on 30 May. The issue of 12 May carried an article by Ness Edwards of the South Wales Miners’ Federation; it argued that termination of the agreement was still the central question. Once again a set of demands was clearly presented in the paper, and they were printed in every issue in the run up to the conference.

The delegates at Blackpool, following the advice of their leaders, voted to delay any action over the agreement until after a Minimum Wages Bill had been given a second reading in parliament. The Workers Weekly reported on what it called ‘Blackpool Treachery’:

The Blackpool Conference was another betrayal of the miners ... The fight is only postponed. This Bill will alter nothing. Its rejection will remove the last possible reason for delaying the termination of the agreement. The whole labour movement must come to the assistance of the miners in their fight for a living wage and for nationalisation ... The delay with all its dangers, may be made good use of to consolidate the opposition to the agreement and to bring other workers closer to the miners. [42]

Yet another miners conference was to take place – this time the Annual Conference. The Workers Weekly was unrelenting in its agitational pressure:

The Folkestone Conference on 10 July must be made to take a decision on the miners agreement.

... The Labour Party is trying to use Adamson’s Bill once more to try and dodge the issue.

Meanwhile working miners continue to get less than men on relief. Eight districts are still on the minimum ... On average each mineworker has lost £3 per week since July 1921. The case for smashing the “best wage producing agreement” grows stronger every day. [43]

Just before this conference, besides pushing the wages agreement demands, the paper ran through some of the other resolutions up for debate. It argued that a resolution proposing a rule change to facilitate the Secretary of the Federation’s passage to becoming an MP should be opposed. It supported resolutions on shorter hours and a May Day Holiday. In the week of the Conference The Workers Weekly ran a front page article: What Will Miners Do? which argued that the miners were faced with certain test questions, the main one being of course whether they would press for action to end the wages agreement. The answers to these questions ‘will reveal how far the miners have recovered in organisational strength, how far the whole Federation is prepared to allow itself to be divided against itself. In short it will show their POWER,’ the article concluded.

After the conference The Workers Weekly had to report a compromise decision on the wages question. The conference had ‘empowered the Executive Committee to submit to the National Coal Board proposals for improving the agreement in certain of its clauses and to report to a later conference.’ [44] The paper once again went through the arguments as to why delays were dangerous, then ended with a more optimistic report of the other decisions that had been reached. The proposal to facilitate the Secretary’s entry into parliament had been defeated. ‘Hard lines for Mr Hodges,’ the paper chuckled.

Thus the coverage of the events in the Miners Federation in the first six months of The Workers Weekly was extremely detailed, concrete and agitational. It waged a relentless campaign to put an end to the Agreement foisted upon the miners after the defeat of 1921. Usually the paper tried to use its reports from the mining districts as part of a larger argument about what the miners should do. At last the Communist press could be said to have its ‘finger on the pulse of the labour movement.’

During these months the circulation of The Workers Weekly rose to more than 50,000; the figure given at the end of March was 51,600. Party membership slowly picked up over the year. Encouragement was constantly given by the paper to those involving in selling it on the ground. The rise in circulation was said to be due to:

the slogging work of house to house canvassing and of selling the paper in the streets, at the factories, outside picture palaces, in the union branches.

Therefore, Comrade, when you have been out canvassing for the paper, when perhaps you have struck a bad patch, and it hasn’t been a good night, don’t get down about it! You may have only sold two copies of the paper, but you may have made two new friends for the party, who will presently join up as members.

Since its foundation the Communist Party had changed a great deal. In the process of that change it had learnt to produce a Bolshevik newspaper worthy of the name.


The process of establishing a Bolshevik newspaper in Britain in the 1920s was by no means a swift one. The hang-overs of Second International politics and press style lingered on. In its earliest days The Communist showed promise – those who worked on the paper had some understanding at least that the old-style, propagandist newspapers were no longer appropriate to the new tasks of the Communist Party. But during 1921 the paper turned decisively away from the move towards a Bolshevik journal. From the stand-point of radical bourgeois journalism it was a stylish enough paper – and its sales rose quite dramatically – but it had none of the characteristics of a genuine workers’ paper.

It was only when the party underwent a fullscale process of reorganisation along Bolshevik lines that it was possible to produce a Bolshevik paper. This is not surprising since a workers’ paper of this kind cannot function independently from party organisation; it depends completely on the commitment and involvement of the membership. As we have seen, The Workers Weekly in its early months was beginning to find its feet as an agitator; more importantly, it was beginning to act as an organiser for the party. The 2,500 letters and reports from working men and women did not simply come tumbling on to Palme Dutt’s desk because he was a brilliant editor. The letters are evidence that the paper was beginning to be seen as central to the work of the party: it was the pivot about which the organisation turned. The membership were becoming actively involved with their paper by contributing to it as well as ensuring that it was bought and read. With The Workers Weekly the relatively small group of party members who had withstood the worst scourges of the industrial downturn could now establish their organisation on a more solid and hopeful basis.


1. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 18, p. 300.

2. G. Zinoviev, The Character of our Newspapers, in Bulletin of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, 1921.

3. Theses, Resolutions & Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, London 1980, pp. 251–2.

4. G. Zinoviev, op. cit.

5. This was a serialisation of the Theses of the ECCI on parliamentary work.

6. J. Klugmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Vol. 1, London 1968, p. 213.

7. F. Meynell, My Lives, London 1971, pp. 127–8.

8. Report on Organisation, (Communist Party, London 1922), p. 30.

9. The Communist, 19 August 1920.

10. Theses, Resolutions & Manifestos, op. cit.

11. The Communist, 9 September 1920.

12. The Communist, 30 September 1920.

13. The Communist, 7 October 1920.

14. The Communist, 2 September 1920.

15. The Communist, 21 October 1920.

16. The Communist, 28 October 1920.

17. S. MacIntyre, A Proletarian Science, London 1980, p. 100.

18. The Communist, 16 April 1921.

19. Meynell, op. cit., p. 129.

20. F.J. Macfarlane, The British Communist Party, London 1966, p. 122.

21. Ibid., p. 119.

22. S. Harrison, Poor Men’s Guardians, London 1974, p. 190.

23. T. Bell, Pioneering Days, London 1941, p. 223.

24. Zinoviev, op. cit.

25. Macfarlane, op. cit., p. 75.

26. Ibid., p. 75.

27. Bell, op. cit., pp. 245–6.

28. Ibid., p. 245.

29. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 33, p. 430.

30. Klugmann, op. cit., p. 203.

31. Report on Organisation, op. cit., p. 29.

32. Ibid., pp. 29–30.

33. Ibid., p. 31.

34. Ibid., p. 34.

35. The Communist, 14 October 1922.

36. Workers Weekly, 17 February 1923.

37. Workers Weekly, 24 February 1923

38. Zinoviev, op. cit.

39. Workers Weekly, 17 Feburary 1923.

40. Workers Weekly, 3 March 1923.

41. Workers Weekly, 9 June 1923.

42. Workers Weekly, 16 June 1923.

43. Workers Weekly, 16 June 1923.

44. Workers Weekly, 21 July 1923.

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Last updated on 2 September 2014