“The first and essential requirement of a movement is to have an organ to record its proceedings, to communicate through, to appeal through, to exhort through, to defend through and to reach through. It is the fundamental bond of union, the ensign of progress and the means of argument. It is that which enables it to hold up its head amid the whirl of parties and to keep its various elements together.”
– Ernest Jones, a leader in the world’s first workers’ mass movement, the British Chartists, early 1850s.
The names of revolutionaries who wanted to turn the world upside down have always been closely linked with the papers they produced and sold. Marat is famous for his L’Ami du Peuple (Friend of the People) in the French Revolution; Marx for his writings in Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhenish Gazette).
Lenin is associated with Iskra (Spark) and the Bolsheviks with Pravda (Truth); Trotsky with Nasha Slovo (Our Word), the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci with Ordine Nuovo (New Order), the Polish-German Rosa Luxemburg with Rote Fahne (Red Flag) and the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst with the Workers’ Dreadnought. In Ireland James Connolly’s name is irrevocably linked with the Workers’ Republic and in Australia, the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World with Direct Action.
This is not accidental. They were all revolutionaries with a commitment to mass action. A regular publication is the bridge between the ideas of revolutionaries, who are in a minority most of the time, and masses of people.
The revolutionary publication aims to convince readers of a coherent view of society and argues for strategies and tactics to change it. This contrasts with the undifferentiated range of trivia and important events presented in the capitalist press, all based on “common sense” assumptions: it is right for the rich and powerful to rule over the poor and disempowered, “we” Australians are united against all foreigners, strikes are bad and competition is “natural” and good.
The way in which a socialist publication combats this view of the world will differ significantly depending on political circumstances, the number of revolutionaries and how wide their influence.
When there are mass, ongoing strikes or demonstrations, the argument that the mass of people can lead a fight for socialism does not seem utopian – it can connect directly with people’s experience. During a period of mass strikes, Lenin wrote numerous short articles in Pravda, making arguments about what needed to be done to keep the struggles going. Short reports helped generalise confidence and inspiration from one struggle to another.
But when the level of struggle is low or intermittent, the argument that workers can change the world is not substantiated by everyday experience. Many articles are longer and more theoretical, often drawing on historical events or explaining complex theoretical issues.
In this and previous issues of Red Flag, for example, we have run longer articles on imperialism, women’s oppression, reform vs. revolution, the key ideas of Karl Marx, the nature of the working class and more. We’ve also focused on arguments about how the climate crisis could be solved and the strategies we think should be followed to build a movement capable of winning fundamental change.
At demonstrations, protest meetings and pickets, there is sometimes hostility to socialists selling their publications. This is merely a form of censorship, even if that isn’t the conscious motivation of those who object. In some instances, it reflects the debasement of left wing politics and the disintegration of our traditions. When I first started going to protests in 1977, it was taken for granted that political organisations with competing views sold publications among the crowd.
If, like me, you were wanting to think about who you might get most involved with, apart from observing their proposals and actions, their paper was often clarifying. People with quite serious disagreements about big questions, such as how socialism might be won, can agree on day to day tactics such as when to have a protest, its slogans and planned degree of militancy. But reading the different publications sometimes clarified why, for example, the International Socialists (who I later joined) had so many disagreements with the Communist Party about tactics and strategies.
When I visited South Africa in the early 1990s, the Trotskyist ideas of the socialists we were with were marginal, swamped by the Stalinist politics of the Communist Party and by the African National Congress. But at huge rallies we attended, young people and workers were eager to read this alternative point of view.
The decline of these traditions has also opened a space for some activists to try to silence other voices in a campaign in order to preserve their own dominance.
We have ideas we want to share and arguments we want to make. We want to convince as many people as possible to make a long term commitment to change the world, not just to protest over one issue. Sometimes we might want to participate in a debate about the way forward for a campaign. Any attempts to prevent these kinds of debates and the airing of ideas (except racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-working class ideas and the like) should be unacceptable to anyone who wants to see movements achieve the most we can win.
Sometimes the arguments in Red Flag will address only a minority within the movement, but we do not change our position to win popularity. Only a convincing alternative argument can persuade us to change ours. On a wider scale, our arguments are not aimed at convincing right wingers. They are aimed at what today is a minority – those who already reject at least some of the ruling ideas and, crucially, those looking for an alternative viewpoint and wanting to do something.
However, the role of a socialist press is not just to propagate good ideas. It also plays a role in drawing a wider layer of activists around the organisation, reading, discussing and drawing conclusions that stand them in good stead when the struggle picks up. We also want it to be a bridge for readers to come along to our Marxism and Socialism conferences in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, where they can meet activists and writers from around the country and the world sharing important lessons and making arguments about how to understand particular events.
That is why we do not produce Red Flag primarily to sit on newsagents’ shelves competing with the mass media. We use it to develop an organisation capable of using Marxist theory to respond to any and every event – a layer of socialists who can write about the struggles and answer the questions those closest to us are asking. It provides experience in relating to circles of people beyond our daily personal interactions and in convincing them through discussion, argument and, hopefully, joint activity.
And it is why we sell it – not because we are running a budding capitalist enterprise (Red Flag, unlike the mainstream press, is not for profit). The act of selling a publication involves interaction and discussion on a more significant level than if we simply produced free leaflets for mass distribution. When someone buys it, we know they are genuinely interested to read what we have to say, unlike thrusting a free leaflet into their hand.
Amid appalling poverty in South Africa, where left wing, working class movement traditions were strong, no one ever suggested we should not sell the paper. Workers would collect money together to come and buy the paper to share. They understood it meant that we could maintain our independence – rather than seeking out advertising money to keep the publication going.
At times, such publications and the circles developed around them have been critical for keeping alive the ideas of socialism against terrible odds. When virtually all the socialist organisations around Europe supported their own ruling classes’ butchery in World War One, and Russia was swept by a wave of patriotism while the revolutionaries disappeared into the tsarist jails, Lenin and his Bolshevik organisers smuggled 1,500 copies of an illegal anti-war paper into Russia within weeks.
Demand for such papers outstripped the means of the illegal presses and organisation. But groups of workers passed them around, paying for each reading to help fund it. This kept alive a core of workers steeped in revolutionary determination who were able to respond when the tide turned to revolution against the war.
People often ask, Why not just have the website? After all, Lenin lived in an age without text messaging and the internet, so he had little choice but to produce a newspaper. Today, everyone is online and can get news and opinions instantly from anywhere in the world. Having our own socialist print publication means that we can get all our arguments regularly in one place for those looking for a genuine socialist alternative. And it means that those buying it are going to engage with a range of our ideas and arguments, rather than happening upon one and moving onto the next internet blog they come across.
Ideas play an important role in the struggle for socialism, but the actions of masses of people will be central. Only an organisation of revolutionaries who can make the connections between their theory and the practice of those masses, who can organise and convince wide layers outside their own ranks, will be capable of playing a revolutionary role when the struggle develops.
The revolutionary publication plays an important part in the preparation and training needed to build such an organisation.