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Britain: `Morning Star' celebrates 80th year of publication

By Mick Hall

January 6, 2010 -- Organized Rage -- Despite all its shortcomings and some might say murky history, the Morning Star is about to celebrate its 80th year of publication. Which in today's economic climate would be an achievement for any newspaper, but this is especially so for a radical left of centre daily and must surely be something to celebrate.

That  survived the collapse of one of its main benefactors the Soviet Union was a major feat in itself and has had unforeseen, yet beneficial consequences. Having had the dead weight of Stalinism lifted from its editorial policy has proved liberating for the paper; and during the recent period it has moved beyond being a mouthpiece for what had become a form of sclerotic international communism, with football results thrown in, and is gradually becoming the voice the UK left has so desperately needed.

As the wider left slowly begins to gain confidence in the paper, it has begun to publish writers from across a wide spectrum of the left, including activists from the non aliened left, Green Party, Labour left, the Socialist Workers Party, plus others. All of whom in days gone by would have poked the Morning Star with a very long stick. Having said all this there is still room for improvement, not lest because the paper is still run on a financial shoestring, which thanks to the Star's dedicated workforce, makes every edition of the paper a minor miracle in itself.

However there is only one way for the Star to improve further, and that is to widen its readership base which in turn will hopefully bring in additional advertising revenue. Perhaps it is time all trade unionists, environmentalists and leftists to give some thought to supporting the Morning Star in the most simplistic of ways, by buying a copy at their newsagent each day. In the meantime Keith Flett, a writer who a decade or so ago would not have given house room to the Morning Star, in today's issue puts into perspective the 80 years of the paper and its forerunner the Daily Worker.

* * *

There are histories of the Daily Worker and Morning Star, both positive accounts and those that focus on the more difficult periods the paper has had in the last eight decades.

No doubt there are still criticisms that can be made, but a look back at history shows how unique it is that an English-language paper of the left has lasted 80 years.

Left-wing and socialist papers in general have had very limited longevity since they first appeared in the 1830s with titles such as the Poor Man's Guardian.

The world's first great working-class paper,  the Leeds- and then London-based Northern Star ran from 1838 to 1851. In its heyday it outsold the London Times -- some achievement given that many of its readers could not actually read but had the paper read to them.

The Northern Star was succeeded by The People's Paper edited by Ernest Jones (1852-8). Another great Chartist paper, it failed through lack of funds and readers.

The Beehive from 1860 was a trade union paper that reported on the affairs of the First International but -- and here the pattern differs -- while it lasted, its ownership and character changed. Another paper from the same era, The National Reformer, was the organ of British free thought and had strands of Owenite socialism and Chartism in it.

With the publication of Justice and the Commonweal in the 1880s the first avowedly Marxist journals in Britain had appeared, but they were not in any sense newspapers even if they were determinedly propagandist in nature.

The growth of independent labour politics and the left from the 1880s also saw a huge rise in the range of left-wing publications, not all of which were widely circulated or read.

By the period before World War I there certainly were influential left papers such as Blatchford's Clarion and the Daily Herald.

The communist press came in part from this tradition of working-class journalism and partly from an understanding, taken directly from Lenin, about the need for revolutionary socialists to organise politically around a paper.

The first edition of the Daily Worker on January 1, 1930, came after a decade of weekly communist papers the Communist, the Workers' Weekly and the Sunday Worker. It was launched, in the tradition of left-wing papers, in less than auspicious circumstances. There was little money and few trained journalists.Looking at the various histories of the paper -- two by the first editor William Rust and one produced on the 50th anniversary in 1980 -- the well-known details of the distributors' boycott, the attempts at repression around the Invergordon Mutiny, the ban after 1939 and the campaign to get limited government advertising in the 1970s are all covered.

The boycott followed a tactic used by the news trade since the days of the Chartists when it was known as "burking" a paper. This meant making sure a publication was hard to get or unavailable and trying to kill it while not overtly censoring or banning it.

It is the incidental details that strike the historian. The early workers on the paper, based on photos, appeared to consist very largely of middle-aged men in collar and tie, their visual respectability rather belying their revolutionary intent.

Indeed Rust noted that the Daily Worker offices were often under state surveillance and that "sometimes the spying was done by roughly dressed coppers of unshaven appearance". Fortunately beards are no longer seen as a sign of counter-revolution at the Morning Star.

But the big point is that through the efforts of staff and supporters the Morning Star has lasted for 80 years.
That makes it unique in the history of the British labour movement so far, although of course the debate will go on about its position on this or that issue. So it should when it comes to something that has a history but is also of the moment rather than just a monument.

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