Sunday, 4 February 2007

Selling the Paper

Many people sneer and decry paper selling activity. I believe when the Socialist Labour Party was set up a battle was had because a number of leading figures thought their party didn’t need one. One is left assuming these characters had the ability to command the headlines of the bourgeois media, otherwise how else was the SLP going to communicate its ideas to the wider public? Did they expect King Arthur to transmit SLP policies with the power of his mind? This was a rare instance sanity prevailed in the organisation and soon its Socialist News came rumbling off the presses.

The point is a paper is an indispensable component of any socialist enterprise, and this is no less true for the Socialist Party. With our papers we can be sure the case for socialism is put across without distortion, without censorship. Websites are essential too but should complement a party paper rather than replace it. After all even in Britain the majority of working class people do not have unimpeded internet access, hence the necessity of taking our politics to the streets.

Our party paper, The Socialist was the topic of the second session in yesterday’s regional meeting. A from Stoke had been invited specifically to address this discussion because of the reputation Stoke Central branch has built in the organisation. For the past 2-and-a-half years we have consistently sold on average well over 100 papers a week. Comrades from the branch are often asked how is it done, while comrades in the branch ask the opposite question – how come most other branches don’t?

A stated there’s nothing particularly unique about our branch. It has the same strengths and weaknesses as others. We don’t have stalls out everyday and nor from a paper selling perspective is there anything special about Stoke. In fact, just 3 years ago the average sale was as low as 12 a week. What is it that we do and how can best practice be generalised to other areas?

The key lies in the culture of the branch, what A terms ‘positive routinism’. That is comrades tend not to approach essential regular branch work as a necessary evil but rather an opportunity to engage with others about our politics. From this flows a willingness to set 100 papers as the minimum target and approach the task with a degree of professionalism. This means making sure we have all the relevant materials, have placards to catch the eye of passers by, plenty of pens and petitions, know the best places to pitch, have at most 2 comrades per stall, and finally not spend the duration chatting with each other at the expense of attracting interest. By consistently going about our activity over a period of time thousands of people will have read and thought about the paper’s contents, and though we haven’t been deluged with new recruits chances are there is a layer among these readers who have been influenced by what we have to say.

A number of comrades offered their opinions from the floor. P observed that setting up a paper is among the first tasks any new section of the CWI engages in. We need a platform to get socialist ideas across and this is the way to do it. He then went on to add that The Socialist needs expanding in the immediate period, with more pages, the introduction of colour, and so on. This requires more people write for the paper; after all it can only ever be as good as its contributors.

Picking up on the effect of the paper, R argued regular sales mean regular readers, so there are a layer of people beyond the party’s ranks ingesting ideas that contest the everyday muck pumped out by the bourgeois media. It provides arguments undermining the BNP’s claim to be the party of the white working class, so in this regard the paper is a useful anti-fascist counterweight.

H suggested every comrade should adopt a critical attitude to the paper. She thought there was not enough humour and not enough worker correspondents submitted material. These are matters that can be rectified by getting more comrades and others to send in reports, articles and reviews.

In summing up A turned to the idea some comrades have of not giving out the paper unless its cost is covered. He observed that if papers go unsold they don’t magically disseminate their message from the comfort of the recycling bin – they need to be in the hands of the audience we’re in the business of creating.

Before I joined the SP I was of the opinion most left organisations, including this one, had a smug superior attitude to their paper. As if it were a holy creed bound in finest leather and decorated with gold leaf. Its sacred status meant no criticism was ever to be uttered about layout and content. Thankfully once I had discussed with comrades and joined this myth quickly fell by the wayside. For socialists the point is we should not only look to opportunities to sell the paper and spread our ideas but also how those ideas are transmitted, and this cannot be done unless every single member relates to party publications critically.


Jim Jay said...

OK. I have some critical comments.

Obviously they are meant in a fraternal way, but there are two things that have been bugging me about paper sellers specifically from the Militant tradition. For brevity I'll cut out all caveats about how lovely and beautiful all socialists are.

I've read this over and it looks angry - it isn't but I am frustrated by this as there are a dozen socialists in my town who basically are abstaining from real political work.

i) Both 'The Socialist' and 'Socialist Appeal' are two of the dullest political publications I've ever come across. It's like trying to eat dry porridge and I've never been able to finish an entire bowl. Why is this?

There are lots of serious issues raised, in a serious way - would it not be far better to put them across so that the MTV generation might be able to get through an entire copy?

ii) Paper selling can easily become an end in itself. In Cambridge there are lots of well rooted activists doing all kinds of lefty activities. None of them are habitual paper sellers (although some are SWP or Respect members).

Specifically, and god bless them for existing, the SA and SP branches almost exclusively build their routine around tiny branch meetings and the selling of the paper, *without* being involved in campaigning activity (except on the odd occasions when they remember you can sell papers at demos).

The best activists in this town are not attached to a paper and still manage to get their ideas across to a far wider audience because they are involved with real work and talk *to* people rather than *at* them for the purposes of selling them something.

The paper sellers seem unwilling or unable to have a proper political conversation with people in a human / non-dogmatic way.

The SA has the benefit of being involved with HoV and do some industrial work, but the SP (who do have a well respected trade unionist among their number) seem frightened of going anywhere where left wing people might go, saying they want people new to politics - which they don't get because these people are all at the exciuting and interesting events other organise. (why only want new people anyway? because anyone who knows anything about politics would not want to join? not much of a recommendation is it?)

apologies once again for any stern-ness I'm not trying to do a sectarian attack I'm simply concenred about these issues and can'ty think of an easier way of raising them.

Mark P said...

1) Jim, if you want a shouty paper full of politically unserious articles written in a hysterical tone there are plenty of other places you can get it. Much the same can be said if you want a bizarre paper full of left wing squabbles and the obsessions of an oddball guru.

If you want issues discussed seriously, there is, unfortunately, only the Socialist. The Socialist is far from perfect but one way I can think of to make it far far worse is to adopt the idea that our intended audience (the "MTV generation" as you call them) have the attention span of gnats and won't read anything serious.

2) I have no idea what your local Socialist Party branch is like so I have little to say about it. No doubt there is the occasional branch which is very "routinist" in its work, but I've been in five of them at this stage and none of them have been anything like your description.

As far as not bothering with "the rest of the left" is concerned, in most places that's a perfectly reasonable approach based on experience. It is much harder to convince someone of socialist methods and to get them used to democratic organisational methods if they have spent years being miseducated by sectarians. In addition, the existing left milieus tend to be largely composed of tired people, worn down by the defeats the workers movement has suffered over the last couple of decades who have often lowered their political sights for good.

That's not a "party line" by the way - that's my own experience in quite a few places. Nor am I necessarily attacking people's activist records or sincerity. It's often people with excellent past records who are the most worn down and most willing to settle for a bit of warmed over reformism.

Red Cynic said...

The Socialist can be a good read, centre pages are usually impresive. Problem is the design, especially the front page, that is what attrracts the public on street sales.
The British working class are among the most design concious so its an important point. Im afraid Socialist Worker beats The Socialist in design terms.
One of the best designed and interesting left papers in my opinion is Justice, the CWIs American paper. They have even less resources, so you guys can do better.

Red Cynic said...

Scott said...

I agree with red cynic's view on the design of the paper, it is important and something 'The Socialist' lacks.

I disagree with Mark P's point of talking to the left. Yes if thats all you do then it's pointless, you never get anywhere however in Leicester the SP has a reputation of being very friendly to other groups, partly because we're willing to debate issues, but not at the expense of getting the job done, it's a good balance, it promotes unity between different partys, they know were not going to screw them, so if we raise a campaing then they feel happy about getting on borde, and promoting it.

Mark P said...

Scott, you are misunderstanding my point.

I'm not advocating being rude to other left groups or to the flotsam and jetsam of disappointed ex-left group activists. Far from it. Nor am I advocating refusing to talk to them, or refusing to debate with them or even refusing to work with them.

What I am saying is that it is pointless and counterproductive to orient on the left ghetto. It is a waste of time spending a lot of energy trying to win over sectarians. It is a terrible sign if your first move in getting a new cammpaign or initiative going is to do the rounds of the sectarians and ex-sectarians signing them up. The sectarian fringe by their very nature are unlikely to do anything much of merit, while most of the unity mongers are so worn down they'll settle for any old reformist shite.

There's nothing wrong with having good relationships with those in the left ghetto, but that ghetto should never be our focus.

Red Cynic said...

I totally agree with you mark, thats why it is important to have a well designey readable paper to sell to the public both at street sales and newsagents/bookshops. As i said before the british working class are among the most design concious in the world, and design is important, the left has a proud history of good design, unfortunately the socilaist isnt one of them at the moment it stands as the poor relation of socialist worker.
It seems more of a paper for sp members rather than the wider public. Lefties would read it even if it was printed on bogroll, but the public expect and deserve better.

Jim Jay said...

Well, I think it needs to be well written as well as well designed, and edited with an eye to a working class readership, many of whom have a sense of humour.

The left is far broader than members of groups and ex-members (although large numbers of socialists are ex-labour party) and how do you organise an anti-war group in your area without working with experienced lefties, like CND types and direct actionists, on as regular basis?

and mark my point was not to say you should read other left papers, sw and weekly worker, i think you're refering to here - i think they both have real problems too, although different ones as you suggest. but there are good and informative left wing publications, like znet, that are well written and serious without being tedious. It comes to something when GMB press releases are more interesting than a revolutionary newspaper.

In order to adapt to the MTV generation you need to raise your game not lower it in my view. Design is one thing, but also the language the left uses is often hilariously out of date (I've never heard a young person describe themselves as "youth" outside of left circles for instance)

and it isn't that the local group doesn't bother with the rest of the left - it positively avoids campaigns (over the NHS, the war, the threats to council housing) because it holds no hope of recruitment for them. Which is why the launch of cnwp here had four people at it.

Also I think your point about tiredness is completely misplaced. The SP members I've met from over the region have *almost* without exception been the most tired and worn down activists I've ever met. It doesn't help that in Cambridge they avoid excitement like its death itself.

But as i say i've worked well with sp and sa members over the years and i was not hoping to make a wholesale attack on the group, the point i was raising was frustration at how the paper does not properly convey the wealth of experience or genuine angers, thrills and concerns of left wing people in this country (of which there are probably millions) experience.

ejh said...

As far as not bothering with "the rest of the left" is concerned, in most places that's a perfectly reasonable approach based on experience.

Another view would be that this is what constitues the sectarian impulse: write off the rest of the left and try to pretend they're not there. Curiously enough nobody who does this ever considers themselves a sectarian.

As far as papers are concerned - I really don't beloeve that in the age of mass internet access you need a weekly print paper or that you need members clutching it their chests everywhere they go. I'm not saying much more than that and I'm aware that the internet doesn't render print redundant (believe me, I'm a qualified librarian and well aware of the reasons why prints will persist) but I think the weekly paper, the newspaper, is not really useful any more.