Sunday, 31 July 2011

Socialist newspapers: old wine in old bottles?

For readers of a delicate disposition - and with a certain political persuasion - what I'm about to write may be the revolutionary left's equivalent of pissing in the altar. Don't say I didn't warn you.

During my last year as a Socialist Workers Party member, i.e. up to November 2009, I had a habit of expressing views which the leadership, and a majority of my comrades, disagreed with. There was, however, one view I didn't express: that the age of the weekly socialist newspaper may be over. Such a suggestion is rarely voiced on the organised revolutionary left. I never expressed this view because, although it was something I occasionally wondered about, it was hardly the most pressing issue at that time.

There is a tendency in organisations to take certain things for granted. Habits form; routines become fixed. For all the commitment to tactical flexibility, a socialist group can easily become inflexible with assumptions that remain unchallenged. The assumption that any socialist organisation must have a newspaper - probably weekly - is embedded in the culture of this country's revolutionary left.

It is sometimes claimed - by advocates and detractors alike - that the practice stems from the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks prior to the 1917 revolution. This is rather fanciful. Iskra and Pravda may be cited as relevant historical references, but the reason is more prosaic: most current socialist newspapers were launched when newspapers were the obvious and most attractive way of communicating ideas.

Socialist Worker, for example, was launched in 1968, when running a newspaper was the natural thing to do if you wanted to convey alternative news and ideas to your target audience. Some grand claims have been made for 'the paper as an organiser', but in truth it's long been possible to build a socialist group without a regular paper.

The one thing a group really can't do without is meetings. The practice of regularly meeting face-to-face is pretty much what defines an organisation - there is simply no substitute for it, even in the age of social media. That's especially true when organising at local level (whether as an independent local group or as part of a larger national organisation).

Some kind of published material has always been vital, of course, but a regular (e.g. weekly) publication is another matter. The need for independent media isn't identical to the supposed 'need' for a weekly paper.

So, in reality, a newspaper has always been desirable for socialist groups primarily as means of political communication. It establishes key political arguments and conveys ideas and information in an accessible way, which helps inform political practice. But its role as an organiser has tended to be rather indirect (and far from indispensable).

The problem today is that there's a mismatch between the chosen means of communication and how people actually communicate. Any socialist organisation's main target audience is the young: the majority of new members will be under 30. Most under-30s today don't read newspapers. Socialists are therefore trying to reach their audience with means of communication that that audience doesn't bother with. This is an obvious paradox.

Consider what has happened in the last 10-20 years. Newspaper circulation has fallen steeply, while internet use has grown and grown. Readers increasingly get their news or politics online. This trend is most pronounced among young people, many of whom have never been regular newspaper buyers in the first place.

Expectations around news have shifted dramatically. News arrives fast. It is common for readers to feel the news in their daily newspaper is already a little stale, especially if they also read online (and if they're a Twitter user it might feel positively ancient). This is an even greater problem for a weekly paper.

We've also seen the rise of the free newspaper. The scrumpled-up Metro newspaper, abandoned by a commuter, is one of the defining features of our contemporary urban landscape. Many young people don't expect to have to pay for their news. They read it online or get it in the Metro for free.

The media landscape has changed massively. We all know this, yet much of the left carries on as if there have been only superficial alterations. Commendable attempts are made to branch out into the internet, but it's assumed the core must remain the paid-for newspaper (despite inevitably making a loss, requiring subsidy from the organisation's members).

The demands of selling the newspaper too often dictate the organisation's cycle of activity, largely irrespective of what is happening in the outside world: the weekly city centre Saturday sale is sacrosanct. Activists are dedicated and hard-working, but this routine - fixed and inflexible - can sadly have a distorting effect on what they do.

The organised left needs to speak the language of those it is engaging with, using the same means of communication. Does this mean there's no place for print? Far from it. It's just unlikely that a weekly, paid-for newspaper is the wisest of investments. Any socialist group today will benefit from a more flexible approach, able to respond dynamically to events in the world outside. The massive commitment of a weekly paper becomes an obstacle.

Anyway, the established groups will probably carry on doing their thing and ignore the observations above. They will continue mixing up the surface elements of Leninist practice and its inner essence, deceiving themselves that methods appropriate to one era are timeless truths. If Lenin did it then it must be correct - despite Lenin's own numerous tactical twists and turns, despite Lenin's repeated warnings not to claim specific methods are universal laws, despite the fact there's been rather a lot of technological change in the last century and perhaps we should let that inform our thinking.

We all agree that we badly need our own media. A left-wing organisation, able to pool resources, is well-placed to contribute to the creation of new, independent and radical media. Socialist ideas remain indispensable, but how they are communicated has to evolve.

Our media need to reflect the world as it is today, not an age which is drawing to a close, and speak to the generations who will shape the future of the Left.


  1. Newspapers are the point of contact for many of the uncommitted. You need to have some commitment to look for socialist ideas on the internet. If you are on strike, on a local anti cuts or anti fascist demonstration you will not be searching the internet for support but you may be influenced by the headline or article in a socialist newspaper. After the newspaper you will probably prefer the internet for information,news and debate but for many the newspaper is still the first contact with socialist ideas. Or maybe I am from the wrong generation and social background - over 50 manual worker.

  2. There will no doubt be people who first encounter socialist arguments via socialist newspapers. It's difficult to be sure - this is hardly a well-researched area - but I suspect they are a dwindling minority.

    Take, for example, the David Harvey 'Crises of Capitalism' video on YouTube: It's had over 1 million views. Many people who have never read a socialist paper will have watched it. For some it will have been their first contact with such radical anti-capitalist ideas. Many people will have investigated further, probably online.

    One of the advantages for the socialist press 20 or 30 years ago was that you couldn't get that stuff anywhere else. When I first subscribed to Socialist Worker in 1992, it was a weekly dose of socialist news, analysis and theory which I otherwise had no access to. The situation now is hugely different.

  3. Without wishing to be indelicate, to suggest the resources needed to publish a weekly socialist newspaper would be better spent elsewhere is only 'pissing on the altar' if that was where you worshipped in the first place.

    It is not so much the resources needed to produce a paper could be better spent. New technology has vastly reduced this. More to the point it is the far greater hman resources required to distribute and sell. Thos is not only an enormous drain but incredibly off putting. Nobody in their right mind would go into politics to become a paper seller, the fact that some do sadly speaks volumes, in one fell swoop the huge drop our rate from such organisations is explained.

    Alex, groups such as Counterfireneed to acquire a sense of humility. A quality still rare on the Left. You are playing catch up. A generation has already got to where you want to be comminications-wise and are leaving you standing. A really revolutionary move would be to engage in dialogue, a learning process, changing past practice as required. Simply shifting a cleaned up version of Socialist Worker on to a website is simply not enough.

    In e-comradeship

    Mark P

  4. It says something about the conservatism of the far left that the position in the post should even be controversial.

    I'm over 50 too, and this is just commonsense. Use the resources freed up to print broadsheets to make contacts in disputes/demos etc.

    BTW, I am a professional journalist on a daily newspaper and in the 1990s I worked for a Trot paper. But I suspect the print edition will not be around all that much longer.

  5. I would argue that the age of the socialist newspaper is far from dead, based on several factors. Firstly I disagree very strongly over Saturday town centre sales. They are not inflexible, but they are yes, routine, and a routine that is not easily changed, I grant you, and it would be wrong to put them on a pedestal. According to the objective state of struggle workplace sales for example can become more important. We recently cancelled the regular city centre Saturday sale here in order to have an effective presence at a strike rally that took place simultaneously in another part of the city. I would argue that without the disciplined routine of Saturday sales it would have been hard if not impossible to have built that successful presence and have the discussions with people we did.

    A second point about a newspaper is that the 'organisational scaffolding' model may be arguably outmoded, but that aspect is but one of the functions of a socialist newspaper. Far more important in my view is that selling a newspaper in public gives us a point of direct one-on-one contact. Not only can we communicate our ideas, we also have a chance to listen directly to what people are saying, and I believe it impossible to underestimate the value of that. I also don't agree that the rise of the Internet and free-sheets means everyone expects their news for free either. Such freebies are invariably right-wing in tone anyway and quite frankly the last place where a striking worker is going to look for any meaningful news or journalism.

    Should it be weekly? I think if you have the resources and sufficient demand (notwithstanding my previous comments) then yes. Our paper here in NL is monthly, and has somewhat more content as a result. Nevertheless, by the end of the month it is definitely more difficult to sell as the headlines become out-of-date. An alternative however, such as a monthly magazine, would be even more difficult to sell I think (think Living Marxism). Yes, these things require subsidy, but so do news-sites, especially those that are advertising free. A paywall is clearly no answer either, although micro-payment options such as Flattr may have some mileage. The money problem will be perennial whatever the medium I'm afraid.

    I agree we should always think of looking at new and innovative ways of using modern media. In the UK and The Netherlands (where I'm based) we have one of the highest levels of IT provision and uptake in the World. This is certainly not true of wider Europe, let alone North Africa, where socialist papers still have a vital role to play. A revolutionary site is of no use whatsoever to the 30% of Egyptian workers who have no computer, let alone Internet access.

    This brings me to my final point. During the Arab Spring, much was made of the role played by social media, not least by the huge global corporations who own that very media. In as much as it was useful, it all disappeared when Mubarak shut down the entire Egyptian Internet. Therein lies the fatal flaw in relying on the Web. It is easily monitored, traced, distorted and blocked. Visitors to sites can be traced, and service denied. Modern media played a vital role in the Egyptian uprising, but that was more in terms of communication to the outside World, e.g. through the efforts of Al Jazeera.

    In conclusion, sites such as Counterfire and indeed SWOnline are hugely important, indeed necessary. I am a (fairly) active blogger myself and also contribute to the Dutch IS site, but I don't believe that it is a case of either/or. We use both the paper to promote the site and the site to promote the paper, and I really think it either can replace the other. Their functions are complementary, not opposed


    Twitter: @OldTrot

  6. What do you suggest should replace the weekly paper sale? It seems to me to perform a function which cannot be achieved by technological means.

  7. Mark P

    Are you sure that production costs have been vastly reduced? I'm not aware of this being the case. Your point about selling papers requiring a great investment of effort is, of course, undeniable.

    I don't think anyone goes into socialist politics to become a paper seller - it's hardly what appeals to people. It simply goes with the territory. I also don't think it can explain the high drop-out rate. It is, though, true that there's a tendency in socialist groups to not notice that some people really don't want to sell papers and aren't suited to it, but that shouldn't mean they can't be politically active.

    On the issue of playing catch up, I have a rather different view. There's a widespread idea that many movement activists and groups have been doing stuff for ages that the organised far left is only now latching on to. But much of what they've done has, frankly, been pretty poor. It certainly doesn't serve as any kind of model.

    But we also need to distinguish between 2 separate things. There's getting the hang of newer developments. Then there's arguing that the old ways should be ditched (rather than mixing the two). This point is likely to be reached somewhat later. In other words: arguing that the time has come to ditch the regular newspaper is NOT the same as saying the internet needs to be utilised properly. In fact, in the culture of the left, it is a hell of a leap further!

    In the context of the SWP or SP, saying 'Ditch the paper' is like saying 'Change everything you do'. That's precisely why in all the years I was a SWP member I never once heard anyone say it in a meeting, conference, article or internal document.

    As for suggesting a site like Counterfire is simply 'putting SW online', that misses at least 2 crucial factors. One is that we don't post things on a weekly cycle - if someone can respond quickly to events then it goes up. This is more flexible and dynamic than a paper - and it's what people have come to expect. There's also the multi-media dimension, especially video - something which the Net always has an advantage over print.

  8. Dave O

    I agree - it illustrates the conservatism of the far left peraps more than any other issue. When I became politically active in the 90s, the Daily Mirror comparison was still used - revolutionary content in a form (Mirror-style tabloid) familiar to millions of working class readers. It still made sense then, but it doesn't now. Millions of working class people - especially but far from exclusively young - have moved on.

    Also, your point about making contacts on demos is important. It simply isn't true - as many on the organised left insist - that a regular paper is somehow necessary to relate to people on a demo, picket line etc. This is a basic point often overlooked.

  9. Mike

    The issue of Saturday sales is a complex one. The problem is that socialists should really be involved in broad-based activity with others on a regular basis. If it's possible to do that - including weekend stalls and protests as part of coalitions - AND maintain a weekly sale then maybe it works. But my experience is that routine Saturday sales tend to pull people away from that sort of sustained united front activity. They were completely appropriate in the 90s, but in recent years it's been more complicated.

    I do agree that sales can be great for one-to-one contact, including listening and understanding where people are at. The reality is often different - papers up as a shield, very little listening - but the point still stands. The thing is that such public activity doesn't require you sell a paper. There are other ways of opening up a dialogue with people. The same logic applies to any stall - it doesn't have to be a paper sale.

    I agree money is always issue, but it's undeniable that a paper (even monthly) requires a level of investment that's unlikely to be required for websites. It's a matter of degree.

    I'm not convinced Egypt is a good example to choose - for saying we shouldn't rely on the net - considering events of the last 7 months. They have done rather well at using the Net politically of late. That's not to agree with cyber-utopian arguments that social media have been the driving force of the Arab Spring, but still an observation worth making. And of course there are - as you note - limits.

  10. Alex

    A useful and constructive debate, thanks.

    On production costs, I guess ir depends how far you want to go back. I am old enough to remember the era before desktop publishing, that was the comparison I was making.

    On town centre paper selling, I guess its a subjective choice. But personally I cannot think of an activity more likely to put the left on the margins and a less time-effective way to engage. Why anybody would choose thos as a way to spend a chunk of their Saturday mornings in the belief this was a worthwhile use of their time and/or worthwhile way to project their political beliefs is entirely beyond me. If that means telling the SWP/SP to 'change everything they do' then it tells us a lot more bout these political organisations than they would perhaps care to admit.

    As for Countrerfire online, and your observations of other movement initiatives online. Counterfore isn't a bad start but there is little yet to mark it out as distinctive from other left news-based websites. And there are plenrty of social movement on line initiatives which are more interesting precisely bevause they don;t try to mimic a newspaper format online. Certainly the use of social media by activists in the recent past has left ventures of this sort for dust. Thats where the degree of humility, dialogue and learning in place of lecturing wouldn't go amiss.

    Mark P

  11. As an aside, very few if any socialist websites are easy to use in diverse formats - none of them work well on a mobile and those that have RSS are not that great via it (e.g. Counterfires RSS feed is next to useless).

    The use of QR codes on placards posters petitions and flyers to link directly to Mobile friendly content on the web (not uncommon for young people on smart phones) Would be something to use as an experiment - it's something you can measure the effectiveness of very easily.

    I do buy and read the papers, but I'd rather visit a website which had longer articles and more pictures, video and interaction.

  12. Counterfire's just started using QR codes, by the by. Don't quite see how Mark P doesn't see CF website as streets ahead of the rest of the UK Trot left online (a low bar admittedly). He's quite right about town centre paper sales. Its a weird fetish for the left that they cling to the method despite all evidence telling them it just is not effective. Useless as a way to engage and a surefire way to mark yourself out as doing something odd and unapproachable.

  13. Well he might say that compared to Socialist Unity, Dave O's blog or Lenin's Tomb, not many people look at it.[Not based on any actual research of bloghits]
    Up until a decade ago, building the party round the paper did make a lot of sense. But now it would seem top create more value for the reader to print off some pages of the party's website. The question of how much value is provided to the paper's purchaser seems to be one that eludes many defenders of it.
    I've seen arguments that "but we do other things like getting people to sign petitions"(doesn't make the paper a better idea, and I never liked petitions mainly conceived as an excuse for a contact list)that it can reach people at work who can't look at socialist websites(but don't mind their boss seeing them with Socialist Worker), that it is a way of keeping in contact with militants (could try talking to them rather than offering them something of little value in the hope that one day they will go out and sell the paper to others).
    Sales of SW have been rising apparently, which is one argument for its continued existence. But perhaps its supporters might wonder how many of those who have moved through the SWP over the years have become disillusioned by what seems to them an increasingly pointless activity.

  14. I have no idea about QR and RSS, so I have to leave those issues to others.

    Picking up on Tom's question... there's a basic thing which needs to be clarified here (which I thought was clear from the post, but I suspect isn't). Nobody is suggesting that online methods can be relied on for organising/activity. This issue has nothing to do with the debates about the role of social media in political organising.

    The issue is what combination of communication tools best suits the world we live in. I've argued that a weekly newspaper no longer fits the bill.

    The question of how we organise is to some extent linked, but needs to be thought through independently. Public stalls are in my view crucial - it's just there's no reason at all why they require paper selling. What's wrong with a campaign stall with petitions, leaflets, badges, contact sheets, publications to sell, and most importantly conversation with people who stop by? The paper is not necessary and too often becomes a distraction and a fetish.

    My impression is that SWP members have trapped themselves in a corner. They are preoccupied with refuting cyber-utopian ideas about social media, and lapse instinctively into counterposing the weekly paper to ideas about the centrality of social media. But this is a false juxtaposition. We can reject fanciful ideas about the power of social media without saying we MUST have a newspaper.

  15. "Nobody is suggesting that online methods can be relied on for organising/activity. This issue has nothing to do with the debates about the role of social media in political organising."

    The socialist paper is, or at least is supposed to be, an organiser. There is no other reason to have it. It's not just a question of disseminating information, separate from organisation. You can get information from many, many sources.

    Any reasonably large party, with at least tens of thousands of members, that is genuinely part of public life will have a newspaper as an ideological focal point; and that is not going to change in the near future. Anyone who still thinks newspapers don't matter anymore must have been daydreaming during the NotW hacking scandal. It's a different matter for small groups, with memberships of a few hundred, maybe even a few dozen.

    What's also true of such groups also is that they define themselves in opposition to similar organisations. Why not define yourself as the Internet Party, down wit' the kids on the youbook and twitterface? No one's cornered that market yet.

  16. Just a couple of thoughts on this.

    I think the way people use the internet for reading mitigates against longer, more thoughtful pieces. 500 words is the cut-off point for reading something on a computer. In addition one tends to skim read and hop from link to link. The printed page is still the easiest way to digest a heavier article.

    When I same the same gallant band of comrades outside Tesco on a Saturday morning week after relentless week with their phony petitions trying to sell papers I tend to feel a bit sorry for them. You don't build a mass party that way, you build a relatively small propaganda group which is as much as the British far left has ever managed.

    For me the value of a printed publication is that it adds to the cohesion of an organisation's politics and obliges members to go away and think seriously about things. For example it is the requirement to say something in depth about ecology and socialism which has obliged supporters of Socialist Resistance to become much better informed on the debates and allowed a sharing of untapped knowledge and networks.

    Our experience is that sales of the printed journal have substantially increased over the past year or so. This suggests to me that an organisation's way of getting its message out has to be a bit of a multi-faceted operation.