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Best known as the Editor of the Daily Worker and an International Brigade Commissar, William (Bill) Rust was born of working-class parents in Camberwell, son of Frederick George and Elizabeth, on April 24th, 1903. He left school at fourteen and was a clerk in a newspaper office, for the Hulton Press, in his youth. While in this employment he exposed a well-known trade union leader, J T Brownlie, (Amalgamated Society of Engineers), who was combining the function of President of this important union with that of a labour correspondent to the Hulton Press.
Rust joined the Communist Party “a couple of months after its formation in 1920", taking over the secretaryship of his local Camberwell Party branch. He was a member of Trades & Labour Council, the Workers Union and the General Committee of North Camberwell Labour Party. In 1922, he was the organiser of Camberwell’s NUWM (NUWCM) and LDC.
Later he became an organiser of the Young Workers League and from 1924 edited its paper the “Young Worker”. The Young Workers League was the forerunner of the Young Communist League and Rust went to be secretary of the YCL and employed as a full time YCL organiser along with Dave Springhall (see entry for Springhall). In July 1924 he attended the fourth world Congress of the Young Communist International in Moscow and, the following year, the fifth world congress of the Communist International when he was elected to its executive committee.
He became active in the unemployed struggles of the 1920s and was sent to prison for leading a demonstration against the eviction of an old woman. In 1925 he was the youngest of the twelve Communist Party leaders arrested by the Conservative Baldwin Government for seditious conspiracy under the Incitement to Mutiny Act of 1797. When the Communist leaders were found guilty, those with previous convictions got twelve months' imprisonment and those without six. Bill, because of the eviction struggle, was amongst those who served twelve months in Wandsworth jail and was released in April 1926 and he and seven others released were greeted by an enthusiastic rally in Hyde Park.
Rust became prominent within the Communist International and as such pursued its international political line within the newly established Communist Party from his position as YCL representative (along with Walter Tapsell) on the Party Central Committee. The YCL had become strongly associated with the process of transforming the vestiges of the federal character of the BSP that still pervaded sections of the Party and some saw the criticisms of youth as too sharp.
In consequence Rust was dropped from the recommended list for the new Central Committee to be elected at the 1927 Party Congress. Infuriated, Rust attended and sought election to the Central Committee from the floor, only narrowing losing (Robin Page Arnot had also been dropped from the list but was successfully re-elected). However, Rust was re-elected to the Central Committee in 1929.
Bill Rust fathered a daughter (born 26th April 1925), whom he and his wife named Rosa after the murdered leader of the Polish and German Communist movements, Rosa Luxemburg. (See separate entry for Rosa (Rust) Thornton.) In 1928, Bill Rust went to Moscow, to work for the Comintern, taking his wife and child with him. Once there, Rosa, then three years, contracted scarlet fever. Though she recovered, when she came out of hospital she had forgotten how to speak English. By 1930, Rust’s marriage was over and he had met and, in 1931, married Tamara Kravets (Rust). They lived at 45 Fitzroy Road, NW1, and Bill, asked by `Who’s Who’ what his recreation were cited chess and swimming. After Rust’s death, Tamara was to marry Wogan Phillips (see separate entry).
On his return, Rust became the Editor of the Daily Worker and presided over its formative early years - 1930-1932, 1939-1949. In this capacity, he presided over the foundation not only of the paper and its successor, the Morning Star, but was also largely responsible for the very house style and role that was to sustain the what is the only daily England language socialist journal published anywhere in the world. When the decision was taken by the British Communist Party to establish a daily newspaper, the Party had already been the dominant force behind a successful Sunday paper, the `Sunday Worker’, which started in 1925. But the decision to launch a daily paper was not universally popular within the Party, even Harry Pollitt hesitated at supporting the initiative, a position he later regretted.
The Daily Worker’s head office was initially at 41 Tabernacle Street, London and the editor chosen was Rust, then only 26. It was a seminal moment in the development not only of British Communism but also British journalism. Rust later admitted that “it must be said that my experience of daily journalism was practically nil”. Despite this, and the hand to mouth existence that ensued, Rust’s on-off editorship during the 1930s always seemed critical to each new phase of its miraculous development. Yet, there were real journalists with the paper, even if much of its collective expertise was acquired through on the job experience. The Daily Worker’s first reporters included Walter Holmes, who had been employed on the Daily Herald and then edited the Sunday Worker, Tom Wintringham (see entry), Frank Brennan Ward, a former Durham miner, Bill Shepherd, a woodworker who became sub-editor and Kay Beauchamp (see entry); three months later the team was joined by G Allen Hutt (see entry), who had also worked on Daily Herald.
Initially, Daily Worker sales were expected to be 25,000, but settled at 11,000 daily papers sold – readership of the Worker was always much higher than usual for newspapers in this period than numbers sold, due to interest in it amongst groups of workers. But the circulation figures were not helped by the sudden massive unemployment that surged amongst the working class and the boycott of the new paper by the commercial newspaper distribution networks. The refusal of the Provincial Wholesale Federation to handle or carry the Daily Worker was a severe blow. However, it forced the party set up its own distribution machinery, a system of that lasted for a further ten years
For the next decade, distribution relied upon individual Communists – often long-term unemployed – getting up before dawn and collecting bundles of papers at railway stations to cart on the handlebars of bicycles across villages and towns all over Britain. Party members tried selling multiple copies during the week but Saturday pitches were more common and this made for a need to ensure the Saturday paper was a special one and nudged at the market for the Sunday Worker, which was eventually closed so as to focus on the daily.
By 1932 the readership of the Daily Worker was up to 30,000 a day, with 46,000 on Saturdays; Rust had placed the paper on a direct course for success and stood down as Editor in 1933. The fruits of his labour were enjoyed by his successor; by 1939, daily readership had climbed to between 40-50,000, with an astonishing 75,000 to 80,000 copies sold on Saturdays. By the mid point of the Second World War, the paper could not print enough copies to sell, due to paper rationing. It was selling 125,000 a day. Four or five times that number were reading it and, if there had been no paper restrictions, the Daily Worker would have certainly sold well in excess of a quarter of a million newspapers a day. It was even beginning to attract commercial advertising.
During the Spanish Civil War, although severely injured in a motor accident some time previously, Rust officially acted as correspondent of the Daily Worker. However his primary role in Spain was as political commissar from November 1937 to June 1938. He took his role very seriously and visited the front line daily for his reports. He subsequently wrote his `Britons in Spain’, the first history of the British Battalion of the International Brigade.
Bill Rust checks the layout before the Daily Worker prints in 1945
Against the remarkable legacy of what would become today’s Morning Star, some historians and biographers have treated Rust somewhat unfavourably for two things, mainly his stance over the Party’s attitude to the outbreak of war in September 1939 and also what happened to his daughter, Rosa.
As far as the 1939 affair is concerned, Rust was a member of the three-man secretariat (Dutt and Springhall were the others) to whom Harry Pollitt had voluntarily relinquished his responsibilities as General Secretary. The secretariat found itself at odds with the rest of the Political Bureau (Pollitt, Gallacher, JR Campbell, Emile Burns and Ted Bramley), which was largely supportive of Pollitt. Thus, in 1939, Rust returned to editing the Daily Worker after Campbell’s resignation during the upheaval in the composition of the Party’s leadership, arising from political attitudes to the war. Whatever one’s views about Rust’s position on these matters, few could doubt that he now rose to the occasion in by launching into battle with the war-time Coalition Government. Herbert Morrison, now Home Secretary, who as leader of the London Labour Party during the popular front period had battled vainly to prevent Labour and Communist unity, now, in January 1941, positively relished the opportunity to use the threat of national security to ban the Daily Worker from printing, under Defence Regulation D2. The Party responded by publishing various local and national publications (such as Peoples Press), so as to get around the ban and mobilised a massive campaign involving the wider Left to get the ban finally lifted in August 1942.
As far as the affair of Rosa Rust goes, hindsight criticism has been made easy by the superficiality of assigning to this highly motivated revolutionary the supposed irresponsibility of being a lapsed parent in the context of the highly dramatic circumstances of the historic events that occurred in the Soviet Union in the anti-fascist period. Critics have often contented themselves with implying that Rosa was a victim of Stalinist purges and Rust kept quiet about it. But confusion rather than conspiracy seems to have been the abiding factor. Just as Pollitt seemed not to have harboured a grudge over the unyielding stance Rust adopted in 1939, conceding great praise for the man in his role of Daily Worker editor, so too did Rosa not appear to have held her traumatic experience against her father, unlike academic commentators on his life.
The following appears to be the facts. In 1937, Rust’s first wife visited Britain, leaving their daughter Rosa behind but fully intending to return to the Soviet Union to live with her. In the event, both parents decided that their daughter would be better cared for in the USSR. She was placed in a boarding school for the children of foreign Communist leaders; her fellow pupils included the offspring of Tito and Mao Tse Tung.
However, in the confused circumstances following the Nazi invasion, the sixteen year old Rosa ended up being placed with a set of German exiles who were sent to the Soviet Union’s German speaking republic on the Volga. By 1942, this had become the front line and, out of fear that ome might be tempted to side with the advancing Nazi forces, the community was subject to enforced migration to Kazakhstan, far away from the possible temptation of collaboration. Rosa was by now working in a canning factory and lodged with a German Jewish woman with whom she migrated to the central Asian republic.
Rosa was put to work in copper mines, an ordeal that began to break her health. She wrote to a friend in Moscow explaining her plight and asked for her letter to be forwarded to someone in authority. It found its way to Georgi Dimitrov, general secretary of the Comintern. By early 1943, he had sent Rosa a personally signed pass that enabled her to return to Moscow.
After arranging for the rescue of some of her closest German deportees from the plight they had shared with her, Rosa set sail for Britain. She was 19 years old before she had mastered the English language, which she studied at Regent’s Street Polytechnic. Thereafter, she worked for the Soviet newsagency, TASS, as a translator and married George Thornton. The event was marked by the great privilege, certainly engineered by Bill Rust, of the guest of honour being Paul Robeson. Rosa eventually died in April 2nd 2000, keeping radical left-wing views to the end. Far from blaming her father for deserting her, Rosa’s subsequent trajectory seemed more in homage to his memory than anything else.
In the General Election of 1945, Bill Rust got an element of revenge for the war time ban on the Daily Worker by standing in Herbert Morrison's own constituency of Hackney South. Then, in the November 1945 municipal elections, Bill Rust missed being elected a councillor by a mere 36 votes in Hackney.
Left: 1948 - Jubilant supporters of the revamped Daily Worker, now a a readers co-op PPPS hoist Bill Rust on their shoulders. A copy of the first editon under the new ownership structure is in Bill's hands.
But even sweeter than running against Morrison was the vision that he was by now fully preoccupied with, that of turning the now thriving Daily Worker into a unique phenomena. One that harked back to the success that had been the Sunday Worker; the aim was novel, yet it became a historic reality that has endured even beyond a name change and many other challenges, right through to today’s `Morning Star’. Bill Rust’s role has been immortalised by the paper today by the naming of its premises after him; such an act is often puzzling to modern readers of the paper, especially when they read academic analyses of British Communism that extraordinarily translate Rust’s personal, undoubted, single-mindedness into some variant of unpleasantry bordering on mental instability. These imaginings miss the genius that was in Bill Rust, which can still be marvelled at six days a week.
Rust’s vision for the paper explains the high regard with which he is viewed in retrospect; his aim was no less than to shift ownership of the paper from that of being the leading organ of the Communist Party to a readers’ co-operative, the better to enable it to succeed as a mass voice for the whole labour movement, albeit always recognising the editorial voice of the Party. The year 1948 saw these post-war plans coming to fruition. In February, a special issue reprinted the 1848 Communist Manifesto to celebrate its centenary, and this sold 230,000 copies. The May Day special sold 251,000. Turning the paper into a mass circulation one seemed an unstoppable prospect.
31st October 1948 was acclaimed by the Party's General Secretary, Harry Pollitt, as the 'greatest and proudest day' in the paper's history; for a revamped Daily Worker came off the new Goss press in the new building in Farringdon Road. A torchlight procession of 20,000 demonstrators stopped all traffic as crowds surged round Bill Rust and carried him shoulder-high to Clerkenwell Green, where he auctioned the first two copies for the staggering sum of £45 each (perhaps £1,500 to £2,000 today!). Next day, he received a telegram from George Loveless, a descendant of the 1834 Tolpuddle Martyrs: 'Today is a proud day for us all. This is what our ancestors fought for. Long live the people's paper.'
This all harked back to the success that had been the Sunday Worker; the aim was novel, yet it became a historic reality that has endured even beyond a name change and many other challenges, right through to today’s `Morning Star’.
But sweetness can turn sour; three months after this triumph, on Thursday February 3rd 1949, Bill Rust suddenly collapsed and died. It is likely that the Herculean personal effort that he had forced himself to make, in the course of realising his own vision for the paper contributed to his heart attack. The shock that the paper’s staff and the whole Party felt at this sad turn of events is impossible in retrospect to convey. His successor, Johnny Campbell, rightly and simply called him 'the greatest editor in British working class history'.
Whilst the course of the next period would be rocky in the extreme, for the Cold War would marginalize Communists in a way that seemed unlikely in 1948, the foundations that had been laid by Rust for his beloved newspaper were solid; even today, the heir to the traditions, the Morning Star, is the only English language daily socialist newspaper in the entire world! What an epitaph.
A list of some of Bill Rust’s pamphlets follows:
Michael Walker and Graham Stevenson
Main sources: `William Rust - a fighter for the people’, Peoples Press pamphlet (1949); Noreen Branson, `History of the Communist Party of Great Britain: 1927-1941 (1985); Daily Worker November 3rd 1945