Why socialists sell stuff

10 June 2024
Eddie Stephenson

Socialists want to overthrow capitalism, a system characterised by the buying and selling of commodities to generate profit. As such, some people find it confusing that your average socialist information stall sells a variety of things—radical newspapers, socialist literature, conference tickets, left-wing badges and the like.

Much like your right-wing uncle pointing out that capitalism made your iPhone, or online trolls telling you to leave Australia if you’re not happy with it, critics of socialist organisations selling stuff wonder how it’s possible to be against capitalist commerce, when we clearly seem to participate in it.

It’s a shallow and hackneyed enough “gotcha” that it’s even become a meme. But the question of how different political organisations fund their activities, and the effect it has on their political practice, is an important one. It deserves more serious unpacking.

Until we succeed in overthrowing it through a workers’ revolution, every individual and every political organisation has to operate within capitalism. This means navigating the reality that the capitalist class owns the means of production and all the commodities and services that are produced by them, including those needed for political activity.

The source of the capitalists’ power is precisely that there is no “outside” of, or alternative to, this set-up. What we need, they control. So we can either give up on political activity altogether, or find the most principled way to operate within the system that we seek to overthrow.

Just as individuals are forced to purchase clothing, food, housing—even, notoriously, smartphones—on the capitalist market, every political group needs to figure out a way to pay for the things it needs. Take a leaflet for a Palestine protest. It’s a simple tool that any activist will tell you is needed to get the word out about the next rally. And there’s no way of producing one under our own steam—the capitalist class own the trees and pulping machines that make the paper, the pigment and medium that goes into the ink, the mines that dig the metal that makes the scissors to cut the printed sheets.

The same applies to producing posters for different activist events, printing publications, creating spaces for political discussion or organising a rally. Essentially, all political activity more substantial than a social media post or a conversation between friends involves financial costs. Where and how activists or political organisations get the money to pay those costs reflects their politics. Revolutionaries, in order to operate in a way consistent with our politics, want to maintain our financial as well as political independence from capitalist institutions and individuals.

This sets us apart from most other political parties and progressive organisations. For NGOs, which rely on government funding, UN grants and/or wealthy donors for the bulk of their funding, the need to keep these financial channels open is frequently, and deliberately, a moderating influence.

Dependence on the capitalist state for essential funds, or on the generosity of a Bill Gates-style billionaire benefactor, creates a built-in limitation on how much truth you’re prepared to speak to power. Rock the boat too much, or make too trenchant a criticism of the status quo, and you could lose your funding. This is part of the reason, for instance, that Oxfam can observe that “corporate and monopoly power...is an unrelenting inequality-generating machine” in its 2024 report on global inequality, but offer only tepid reforms that don’t seriously challenge wealth inequality. Its financial ties to numerous capitalist states and institutions require and reinforce an acceptance of the basic reality of capitalism and the inequality that is intrinsic to it.

Or take the Labor Party. The large corporate donations Labor receives every year to finance its election campaigns don’t on their own explain the party’s pro-business, anti-worker politics, but they’re certainly one of the more brazen manifestations. The party receives millions from the gambling industry, the banks, consultancy companies and the fossil fuel industry. Indeed, in the 2021-22 financial year, Labor received more of the fossil fuel industry’s combined $241 million of political donations than the Liberals and Nationals combined. Labor’s financial integration with all the giants of Australian capitalism reflects the party’s adaptation to the system. The fact that this means the party can give away posters, leaflets and other political paraphernalia for free doesn’t make it more principled or anti-capitalist. Quite the opposite.

Even the Greens, which are largely dependent on state funding to carry out their political work, are compromised by this. It means the prospect of losing parliamentary representation is also a threat to the party’s continued activity, profile and, ultimately, existence. This means pragmatic considerations and electoral expediency become important considerations, not just political principle.

Genuine socialists reject dependence on these corrupting and distorting means of financing political activity. Instead, we rely on our members and supporters to fund the bulk of the work that we do, which means we can take principled stances and challenge the wealthy and powerful without financial pressures getting in the way.

When you break it down like this, it’s clear that money is no different to any other way people engage in politics. It’s an expression of sympathy and some level of commitment to a set of ideas, and it’s a necessary part of putting those ideas into practice.

Buying something can also be an indicator of a higher level of political engagement. You’re less likely to throw away a radical newspaper like this one without reading it if you’ve been convinced it’s worth spending a few dollars on.

Where different groups source funding from tells you a lot about their politics. Revolutionary socialists’ political independence and commitment to activism doesn’t appeal to everyone. For some people, it can make them uncomfortably conscious of the compromises they’ve made, or the people and institutions they’re beholden to. For others, like your passive aggressive uncle, it’s merely a convenient way to couch their underlying hostility to the politics of working-class revolution.

But for those who don’t fall into either of those categories, I’d encourage you to think differently about being asked to pay for things at a socialist stall—actually it’s evidence of a commitment to grassroots working-class struggle and independence from the powers that be, not a capitulation to capitalist commerce.

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