’Agitate, educate, organise!’ – The role of the workers’ press
During 500 issues The Socialist weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales) has carried news and analysis, reviews, letters, historical material, cartoons and reports of campaigns and struggles across England and Wales and the world. It has put forward strategies for opposing privatisation of public services such as the health, fire and postal services and the wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, among other issues.
Since the 1997 general election The Socialist has shown that the New Labour government is one of big business, of careerists and of attacks on working-class people. It has explained that Labour, Tories and the Lib Dems are effectively "three wings of the same capitalist party" and has made the case for a new mass working-class party. To mark the 500th issue Sarah Sachs-Eldridge writes on the role of the workers’ press.
’The Socialist’ celebrates 500 issues
Seven people own more wealth than the 48 poorest countries. We live in a world riven by poverty, war and environmental destruction. This is unacceptable to the majority of people and many express their anger on demonstrations, such as the 250,000 who marched to ’make poverty history’ in Edinburgh in 2005 and the two million who marched in Britain against the war in Iraq in 2003. Increasingly we’re seeing workers fighting to defend pay and conditions.
Tony Blair went along with Bush in claiming to be bringing freedom and democracy to the people of Iraq. Such hypocrisy! And where is British democracy? Most of the British press proposes no alternative to privatisation when poll after poll shows the British working class opposes privatisation.
Ninety years ago, in September 1917, Lenin wrote that "the capitalists call ’freedom of the press’ a situation in which censorship has been abolished and all parties freely publish all kinds of papers. In reality it is not freedom of the press, but freedom for the rich, for the bourgeoisie [capitalist class], to deceive the oppressed and exploited mass of the people… ’Freedom of the press’ in bourgeois society means freedom for the rich systematically, unremittingly, daily, in millions of copies, to deceive, corrupt and fool the exploited and oppressed mass of the people, the poor." Lenin, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, which saw workers take society and production into their own hands to end exploitation and oppression, was a major advocate of the workers’ press.
Not much has changed on this issue in the nine decades since these words were written. George Monbiot has written in the Guardian that of the policies of privatisation which result in enormous poverty and indebtedness "the most powerful promoter of this programme was the media. Most of it is owned by multimillionaires who use it to project the ideas that support their interests. Those ideas which threaten their interests are either ignored or ridiculed."
However, there have been many situations where the lines between the owners of wealth and the producers of wealth have been drawn in society and the working class has seen clearly the role played by the media in the hands of multimillionaires such as Rupert Murdoch. Flames rose high in braziers across the country on 14 November 2002 as copies of the Sun were burnt by striking firefighters. In the run up to the US-UK invasion of Iraq a front page headline had dubbed firefighters "Saddam’s stooges" in the midst of their strike over pay, conditions and fundamentally the future of the fire service. Horrifically the recent fire in Cornwall showed the extent to which the so-called ’modernisation’ programme they were fighting has damaged the fire service.
Media owners and their loyal editors don’t always get it their own way. In June 1984, in the midst of the miners’ strike, The Sun printed a blank front page. Printers, in solidarity with the miners, refused to print a picture of Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader, with the caption "Mien fuehrer". In October 2006, members of the journalists’ union at the reactionary Daily Star downed tools and refused to print a racist "Daily Fatwah" page.
During the revolutionary events of 1905, workers in legal printworks in Russia threatened to lock their managers in the closet if they interfered with the (illegal) printing of Izvestia, the bulletin of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies! Word was sent from the printshop, where the printers and those who had come to produce Izvestia worked alongside one another, that the striking electricity workers should provide power for the duration of the production.
But this unfortunately is not the norm. Instead we get a constant diet of anti-trade union, anti-socialist and anti-working class propaganda, tales of misfortune and misinformation. News of the problems besetting Barclays bank when it recently borrowed £314 million from the Bank of England’s emergency facility were pretty much limited to the Financial Times, a paper mainly read by the bosses and those who have large amounts to invest. Most other papers buried it in the bottom of their financial pages rather than making the headlines it warranted.
Ownership and control of the media is a key tool in the hands of the capitalists when it comes to stunting workers’ struggle. The workers’ press must tell the truth about the outlook for capitalism but also shout from the rooftops when workers win a victory. Issue 499 of the socialist ran the headline "Glasgow council workers’ victory: United strike action wins". The report of the twenty-day strike of social care workers, by a union activist, showed that through democratic organisation, determination and united action concessions were forced from the employers. In fact a lot of workers won a £2,500 wage increase! In contrast the headline on the BBC website read "Care workers agree to end strike" and the article drew none of the lessons of the action for trade unionists.
Internationally we hear about corrupt politicians and the horror of famine and war but very little about working-class struggles like the general strikes in Nigeria and South Africa this year. A general strike in Belgium and it only gets mentioned in passing because some politician couldn’t fly to Brussels! Revolutionary events in Venezuela and Bolivia get notes in brief at best and searing critiques from reactionary columnists the rest of the time.
Since the seventeenth century there have been publications, beginning with leaflets and pamphlets and developing into a press, which have threatened and challenged the ruling class. In 1640 when Britain was on the verge of civil war, for the first time printed material began to appear which challenged the existing order of society. Since then the question of freedom of the press has been a battleground, with socialists setting up their own presses.
A workers’ paper must be relevant to its readership. It must be linked with the working class – not lecturing to it or commenting on it – but, through the actual experience of the working class, putting forward analysis of the situation and a programme for struggle. Recent issues of the socialist have carried articles on the Royal Mail dispute, all of which have either been written by striking postal workers or on the basis of discussion with pickets and members of the postal workers’ union.
The Guardian, Independent, Mirror etc can carry valuable reports on the effects of debt, low pay, poverty etc. They have the resources to commission research and surveys. While some of these more liberal capitalist papers will occasionally attack some of the worst effects of capitalism, and print the views of commentators like George Monbiot or John Pilger, this does not alter their fundamental role.
But the socialist carries articles written by workers themselves, expressing not just the difficulties they face but the anger they feel towards the bosses and the government and importantly the action that they are taking to defend their conditions and, in some cases, to fight for improvements.
Printing alternative ideas
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and their political offspring, Blair, Bush and co promoted the idea that there is only one way to run the world, primarily in the interest of the big multinational corporations. They promote the idea that the free market is supreme. They promise a trickle down of wealth from the lofty heights of the billionaires’ club and that in the rising tide of prosperity all boats will rise. So how come Giles Thorley, the boss of the Punch Taverns pubs group earned £11 million, equal to 1,147 times the earnings of his employees? The lie is being exposed in workers’ experience of growing debt, cuts in services and the ever-expanding wealth gap. Mainly on the basis of readers’ growing anger many of the papers cannot ignore this. The enormity of the bonuses and the slightness of the taxes paid by the richest have made their way into the capitalist press.
However the collapse of the undemocratic Stalinist states also led the capitalist class and their spokespeople to propagate the belief that socialism was a failed system, that planned economies were unworkable, and that their capitalist system, with neo-liberal policies of privatisation, cuts in services and tax cuts for the rich was the only way to run society. Under these conditions there has been a period of ideological retreat with many socialist publications and groups struggling. The socialist, and before it the Militant, has held the line and made the case for independent organisation of the working class, for socialist planning and for a transformation of society.
A socialist party needs to be a repository of the ideas, theories, experience and lessons of previous struggles and socialist thinkers. This has to be communicated in the workers’ press to working and young people who, through their own day-to-day experiences or through their horror of the inequalities that exist across the world, draw the conclusion that they need to fight back. To do so effectively they will need to be armed with ideas. There are very few other places where they can learn about how struggles can develop, why parties are necessary and general ideas of socialism.
Entering struggle raises questions. The workers’ press must seek to answer and to educate and to be a forum for discussion on new situations. This year the socialist is carrying articles marking the ninetieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution which draw out the lessons of that incredible event and look at the situation today; Will British workers be capable of such acts of heroism? Will a workers’ state lead to Stalinism? The workers’ press must draw on all of the writings and experiences of socialists and trade unionists internationally to answer these questions and arm the working class and youth of the twenty-first century with the ideas, confidence and programme for the transformation of society along socialist lines.
Leon Trotsky described another crucial role of the workers’ press in October 1917 when he wrote that the "party [the Bolsheviks] directed the insurrection from day to day; in its articles, proclamations, and reports". The workers’ press has always been used to help organise action and mobilise the working class. The strike of the teamsters (truck drivers) in the US in the 1930s saw the union paper, The Organizer, convert to a daily paper for the duration of the strike. This was necessary, both to cut through the anti-union propaganda of the capitalist press and to help in the organisation of the strike itself.
In Britain in the early 1990s, the hated Margaret Thatcher was brought down through the enormous battle against the poll tax. By refusing to pay the tax, eighteen million people made it unworkable. The Militant newspaper led the call for non-payment and put forward a strategy for dealing with bailiffs and courts.
In 2003 the socialist faced the biggest movement of its ten year history in the anti-war movement which developed against the invasion of Iraq. The paper played a crucial role in putting across an analysis that it was a war for oil, prestige and power. It supported the call by International Socialist Resistance (ISR) for school student strikes on 5 March 2003 and Day X, the day the war started. Readers and sellers of the socialist and members of ISR and the Socialist Party went to schools with papers and leaflets calling on students to act on their anger and walk out, and thousands responded.
Over recent years an enormous attack on the NHS has been launched. The socialist has played a key role in covering the experiences of campaigns to save the NHS and in putting forward the demand to bring all of the anger in the areas together in a national demonstration. Through this demand being taken up in the trade unions we can now carry advertisements for a national demonstration on 3 November called by UNISON. So as well as providing analysis of a situation, the workers’ press must also draw conclusions on the question of what is to be done.
Today people get information and communicate in many different ways. But even in the world of facebook, podcasts and the internet, an independent workers’ paper is crucial for building a mass struggle of the working class to change society.