Monday, January 08, 2007
Over on Stroppyblog there was a recent discussion about the practice of selling socialist papers on the street.
This is an interesting question, as the nature of an organisation’s publication, and how it is distributed tells us a lot about its strategy and ambitions.
I first joined the SWP in January 1978 in Bath, where was had a serious little branch of about 13 comrades, including several manual worker shop stewards, and the convenor of a local rubber mouldings factory. Most of our papers were sold by these militants to their colleagues, or at factory gate sales to well organised factories. We did a one hour paper sale on Saturday morning in the town centre, where two of us would sell it, and other comrades would simply come along to the pub and watch us out the window. This was not dilettantism, the comrades were genuinely sceptical about the point of selling papers on the street.
I rejoined the SWP in 1986, after a few years in the Labour Party. And the culture was completely different. I was for quite a while Bristol District Socialist Worker Organiser, in charge of all sales, so I know exactly what we were doing. After the Miner’s strike we had about 50 people coming regularly to a weekly meeting for the whole city, and were selling perhaps 150 papers per week. This was very routinised, with Friday evening and Saturday sales, the main point of which was to get names and addresses, then on Tuesday and Wednesday evening we organised “contacting”, the main point of which was to get people to branch meetings. If after three visits one of the contacts had failed to come to a branch meeting we crossed them off the list for good. To be fair, towards 1990 we did try to get every comrade to deliver three papers each to people we regarded as long term periphery, but this failed as it was in addition to the already highly committed routine.
So what had happened in the meantime?
When I joined it n 1978, the newly launched SWP was still an organisation in transition. The launch of the SWP out of the International Socialists was based on a mistaken and wildly optimistic perspective. According to Cliff: “There is no doubt that in a few years’ time, perhaps six, perhaps eight, perhaps ten, Britain will face a level of unemployment of three or four millions. [Thre will be two choices]… One is the revolutionary socialist alternative – the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialist planning. The other is the fascist solution: If there are three million unemployed get rid of black workers, the Irish and the Jews’. … If, ... there is a mass revolutionary party of sorts, it can grow quickly in the months of the crisis so it is able to lead the working class to power. … The conclusions for us are clear. If, when the revolutionary crisis comes to Britain, we have 40,000 members, there is no question that we can grow to 400,000 or perhaps half a million.”
So the SWP was expecting very rapid growth, and a revolutionary situation during the eraly 1980s. But more significant in Cliff's article was the shift in the emphasis away from established industrial militants. To use examples of the old approach: during the 1960s Geoff Carlsson has built a significant IS branch at the ENV factory in North London, largely by recruiting militants, often with a CP background. In the early 1970s the IS had built a serious presence in the AUEW in Birmingham, particularly in the Lucas plant. When Roger Protz was editor of Socialist Worker, the paper was aimed foursquare at politically and industrially experienced workers.
In launching the SWP, Cliff's article specifically mocked this previoulsy established practice of the IS: "Some revolutionaries do suffer from elitist notions. They think of the barricades as follows: In the front row there is an Imperial Father of the Chapel representing craft workers in all their glory. He is wearing his gold chain of office to pay homage. Or is it perhaps to say you have nothing to lose but your chains. And then there are some representatives of section one of the Engineering Union. Only then if there is enough room in the street they would in their generosity allow some blacks, a few women and some youth – if they know their place, that is."
The IS strategy had been that the shop stewards movement, which had a tradition of self reliance, militancy and solidarity, would be required by the logic of defending its own organisation to transcend the limitations of capitalist economics – if they put the interests of their members before that of profitability The Rank and File movement could therefore be a transitional form of organisation, if a large enough minority of the shop stewards could be won to revolutionary politics. The IS was therefore not a party, but a group of militants arguing for a party to be built, and with a strategy for how that could be acheived, based upon actually existing conditio0ns in the movement of the time.
Any party that grew out of the shop stewards movement would have a wealth of experience. As Chris Harman fortuitously described the concept: “The revolutionary party exists so as to make it possible for the most conscious and militant workers and intellectuals to engage in scientific discussion as a prelude to concerted and cohesive action..” We don’t need to agree with the IS concept of revolution to see this is a far cry from the SWP today, which organises very few militant workers, and does not involve discussion, but rather expects members to accept the decisions of the leading committees.
Given that it probably takes at least ten years for an industrial militant to become established, that class solidarity is always informed by some ideology, and that the full Heinz 57 varieties of left groups were active in the unions, as well as the CP and Labour Party, it inevitably meant a battle of ideas, and a debate to win these militants over. Protz’s paper played that role. Unfortunately by 1978 when I joined the Paul Foot edited Socialist worker was really bad (known as the punk paper). Chris Harman as editor did later much improve the paper, but only by making it an almost entirely propaganda paper, aimed at the existing party faithful, and the random encounters of the streets sales.
What is more, established industrial militants often know more, and trust their own judgement better than the political committees, however august, and however clever the dialectical pyrotechnics. Just a few years after IS engineers in Birmingham played a key role in the 1972 victory of Saltley Gate, Cliff had expelled the lot of them for breaking party discipline by not supporting a decision imposed on them from London to back an IS candidate in the AUEW elections, as opposed to a Broad left candidate, with whom they had built a long term relationship.
It is no coincidence that the expulsion of the IS’s main industrial cadre happened only months after Gerry Healy expelled the WRP’s main industrial base at the Cowley plant, including the most experienced Marxist militant in the country, Alan Thornett. In similar fashion, the Socialist Labour League had declared itself a revolutionary party, and the All Trades Union Alliance, within which the SLL’s militants had built a significant periphery especially in Oxford, and the car industry generally, was subordinated to the WRP.
In both the WRP, and the increasingly "Leninist" IS, ,the trade unin militants were told what to do by full time political apparatchiks, and when they disagreed, were booted out.
By 1986 the SWP strategy was to act as a propaganda group, consciously steering left while the rest of the class was retreating to the right. There was a quite entertaining internal life, with strong group cohesion, enjoyable debate, and a relaxed attitude to drugs, drinking and casual sex. In so far as there was strategic continuity, it was based upon the assumption that once there was an upturn in the class struggle, then the old ways of working would be dusted off and used again.
But the nature of the beast had changed, and the reasonably large infrastructure of full timers (before the print shop shut, I understand the SWP employed over 100 people), meant that there were targets to meet, and a payroll to feed. Thus institutional inertia, combined with group loyalty, and a distaste for debate with the rest of the left, means that the SWP today is still largely a propaganda group, as it is very hard to change direction.
But what is the strategy. Respect is an admission by the party that it does not believe that a mass socialist party can be built by recruiting direct to the SWP. But the way of working they have adopted means they find it very hard to build anything pluralistic, as they believe they are the leadership and we are the led.
It is in this context that we should see the street sales. They are not an opportunity for the group to develop a dialogue with the most advanced militants, but rather trawling for new recruits – the greener the better.