By Robin McGregor
For almost exactly 60 years, from July 1921 until March 1981, publication of the Labour Monthly was regular feature of the British left.
Despite its carefully chosen name it was a staunchly Communist periodical, albeit aimed at a wider broad-left audience. For much of its life the magazine had only one Editor, Rajani Palme Dutt (RPD), whose 53 year editorship was only ended by his death in 1974 at the age of 78. For a while he was also editor of the party’s Weekly Worker and was author of a number books.
Born in Cambridge in 1896 of a Bengali father and a Swedish mother, Dutt obtained a first class Classics degree from Balliol despite being expelled due to his work in opposing the First World War. His grim experiences in jail almost broke his physical health but hardened him politically. He worked for the Labour Research Department as its International Secretary and was a member of the left-wing faction of the Independent Labour Party, which was to leave for the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1920. His role in forging the disparate founding groups into a disciplined party cannot be underestimated.
His background was unusual in a heavily proletarian party, he had little competition for the role of the Party’s leading theoretician. His linguistic skills made him particularly suitable for important posts in the Communist International and in anti-colonial work, particularly with regard to India. His Oxford background was also helpful for extracting money from rich sympathisers such as the founders of Collet’s bookshop. He served on the CPGB Executive between 1923–1965 and was briefly General Secretary of the CPGB when Harry Pollitt stood down over the British party’s line on the war effort after the German-Soviet pact in 1939.
His style was not universally admired. ‘R Pontifical Dutt’ was one of his politer nicknames. His single sentences often resembled paragraphs and for decades he was a bit too ready to assume revolution was just around the corner.
His loyalty to the CPGB was not unconditional. He rejected Khrushchev’s 1956 attack on Stalin by famously noting: “That there should be spots on the sun would only startle an inveterate Mithras worshipper,” a quote still guaranteed to infuriate Trotskyites and revisionists. In 1968 he defended Soviet intervention in defence of socialism in Czechoslovakia against the revisionist leadership.
The name Labour Monthly was carefully chosen. At the time the main CPGB voice was a weekly: The Communist. The Communist International was interested in a publication that would reach out to the wider labour movement. It never bore a party imprint but its orientation was clearly that of the Communist International, of which the CPGB was described as its British Section. Later efforts to bring it under direct party control were rebuffed by Dutt whose argument that it was Lenin himself who decreed its status always won the day.
The first issue came out in July 1921. It was of very elegant appearance, being printed in a French Rococo type designed by Stanley Morison, a former cell-mate of Dutt’s when both were jailed as conscientious objectors in the First World War. Morison’s Marxism was mixed with an earlier submission to the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church that clearly made him unsuitable for membership of a Bolshevik party, but they remained friends. Morison was a noted typographer who went on to invent the now universal Times New Roman font before going to redesign The Times, write anonymously three monumental volumes about the history of that newspaper and many indispensable works on the history of typography.
The CPGB optimistically assumed that a technically ‘non-party’ publication would give them a voice in the event of the party itself being declared illegal. Whilst it was frequently honoured with a ban in those parts of the British Empire whenever it proved influential, it was never formally banned in Britain as was the Daily Worker for a period.
The main advantage of this status however, was that contributors from the Labour Party and elsewhere could appear without endorsing the CPGB. Debates could take place in its pages with the party guiding the agenda. These debates covered trades unionism in 1924, the united and popular front campaigns in the 1930s, discussions on arts in 1967–68, and on the Common Market in 1971. In its final decade it tended to ignore, rather than confront, the ultra-left such as Militant and the revisionists that revolved around the glossy Marxism Today.
At the end of each year readers were invited to post their copies back for them to be bound. That many did so can be testified by the large number of dark-blue bound volumes to be found in actual and virtual secondhand book shops.
From the beginning it was never a news magazine, that was the preserve of other party publications such as the Workers Weekly, Sunday Worker (1925–29) and from 1930 the Daily Worker; it was strongest on analysis. The June 1922 issue contained an account by future Labour Leader George Lansbury defending his local east London council’s opposition to the brutal poor law, a biting commentary on the failed international conference at Genoa and an article on the nature of ‘dictatorship’ by German communist Max Beer. Articles on the Rise and Fall of the German Labour Movement and Capitalist Concentration in Germany demonstrated that it lived up to its subtitle: A Magazine of International Labour. All this was prefaced by Notes of the Month. This was the defining feature of the magazine that came from the pen of ‘RPD’ himself, appearing regularly until the month after his death.
George Bernard Shaw was a pre-war contributor and mostly likely a financial supporter, whilst a Russian chap with the name of L Trotzky made a few early contributions before he dropped out of favour. Nehru who wrote about India, Togliatti on Italy and Kenyatta on Kenya were only three of the international contributors. An important occasional feature until the 1950s was the first English publication of some hitherto untranslated short writings by Marx and Engels.
During the early war years it suffered from a boycott by wholesalers including W H Smith, who also stopped selling it in their shops. This did not inhibit a major increase circulation however, as when the CPGB had earlier faced similar problems with the Daily Worker its early days they simply sold more copies themselves. Later in the war it had a considerable readership amongst the British bourgeois interested in getting the views from our Soviet allies.
During the Second World War paper shortages faced publishers with two choices: they could either maintain their format with curtailed circulation or reduce quality. Labour Monthly choose the latter course and published pocket-sized magazines with tiny type in double columns and narrow margins on thin blue paper to allow for an increase in circulation.
With the ending of paper rationing its appearance improved, but it was always a worthy rather than an attractive publication. It had few illustrations, which were rarely well produced, a few colourful covers for significant anniversaries were the limit of its concession to popular taste.
As with most left-wing publications, it had little advertising, apart for left-wing books and latterly some trade union solidarity messages. No doubt it had some ‘Moscow Gold’ but its long-term future depended on sales and the Guarantee Fund in which every single donation, however small, was faithfully recorded. In a manner similar to the Left Book Club, a network of Monthly Discussion Groups was developed and greatly expanded during the war years.
A periodical so closely defined by the personality of a long-serving editor rarely survives his departure. Following Dutt’s death in 1974 its decline hastened. ‘Succession planning’ had never been in Dutt’s vocabulary. He was succeeded by Pat Sloan of the British-Soviet Friendship Society, who himself died in 1978. Another party worthy, Harry Smith, briefly took over, but the final volumes were edited by Andrew Rothstein and Robin Page Arnot. The last were two founder members of the CPGB who had been involved in planning the journal in 1921, and were aged 83 and 90 respectively when the final number appeared in March 1981. Before closure, the monthly had on occasions been forced to become bimonthly. A shortage of renewals in late 1980 and early 1981 resulted in a decision being taken to close it down in an orderly manner to allow debts to be settled before it passed into history. True to its roots, the final issue caused outrage: the maverick Labour MP Ron Brown provided an article Afghanistan: Eyewitness Report, championing the advances made in the country after the Soviet intervention.
Runs can be found in major public and university libraries, and many issues from 1923–1976 have been digitized and are now available for free on the rather dubious UNZ website at http://www.unz.com/print/LabourMonthly. The standard biography of Dutt is that by John Callaghan: Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study in British Stalinism (Lawrence & Wishart, 1993), but it cannot be recommended.