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The importance of the revolutionary newspaper today
Why we sell Socialist Worker

November 7, 2003 | Page 8

NICOLE COLSON explains why the revolutionary newspaper is a central tool in the fight for a better world.

WHEN HORACE Greeley decided to launch a newspaper in 1841 that would report on the fight against slavery and for women's rights, socialism and reform movements, he didn't pull any punches explaining why. "I founded the New York Tribune as a journal removed alike from servile partisanship on the one hand and from gagged and mincing neutrality on the other," he said.

From the "servile" Fox news to the "mincing neutrality" of the New York Times, a quick glance at the media today shows that things haven't changed much since Greeley's day. Extreme right-wing journalists like Fox's right-wing blowhard Bill O'Reilly or ABC's vile John Stossel--who are loathe to question any motive of the Bush administration--are the extreme end of the spectrum.

More often, the media aren't as nakedly on the side of the rich and powerful. Instead, they try to present themselves as a provider of "unbiased" and "balanced" news. But as Karl Marx commented, the ruling ideas of society are those of the ruling class.

The truth, as a journalist once remarked, is that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." In other words, to individual billionaires and huge corporations.

Even the liberal mainstream media often don't see it as their duty to inform the public or challenge the status quo. While the liberal press might express disagreement with certain aspects of the right-wing's agenda, at the same time, it shares many of the same assumptions, such as the "right" of the U.S. military and the free market to dominate people's lives around the world.

In other words, the "debate" is generally between people who agree on the fundamentals--like going to war on Iraq--but who occasionally disagree on how best to sell it.

Take Katherine Graham, the former owner and publisher of the liberal Washington Post. In 1988, Graham remarked--to a meeting of CIA recruits--that we "live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows." In other words: the public's right to know extends only so far as the government, and those who run the press, decides it should.

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SOMETIMES INDIVIDUAL journalists manage to get stories printed that lay bare the corruption and injustice at the top of society. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's exposé of the Watergate scandal in the Washington Post during the Nixon administration is one example. The recent Toledo Blade report on decades-old atrocities carried out by U.S. forces in Vietnam is another. But scandals inevitably fade, and the press moves on.

Socialist Worker is different in that we proudly take a side all the time--the side of the working class--and offer an analysis of the news that actually makes sense. Every week, SW reports the facts that the mainstream media would rather gloss over and challenges the steady stream of lies that come from the minority of people at the top.

In that sense, Socialist Worker is actually more objective than publications like the New York Times or the Washington Post. But SW takes pride in being a newspaper that avoids "gagged and mincing neutrality." We don't pretend--as mainstream news outlet do--that the society we live in is an equal playing field or that we're impartial.

A recent letter to SW, for example, praised the paper as "a valuable alternate view" but questioned the "negative tone" of its articles. A lot of our articles are angry--because we think that the logic of a system that watches millions starve in a world of plenty, or sacrifices Iraqi lives for the sake of U.S. oil and empire, is sick. Socialist Worker stands in solidarity with the oppressed and the exploited around the world. That's something you can't pretend to be neutral about.

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MOREOVER, SOCIALIST Worker doesn't simply report the news. It aims to show the connections between the events that affect working people's lives, and fit them into a picture of the world that can explain why they happen. Socialist Worker is also a place to take up the debates and questions that inevitably arise in the struggles of the day.

Over the past months, SW has devoted space to some of the key debates facing activists today--from who progressives should support in the 2004 elections to whether the United Nations is a solution in Iraq. Debates like these are key for our side to be able to plot a course forward.

But SW isn't just out to deliver the news or spark debate; it's a tool for organizing. From the antiwar movement, to striking workers at Tyson foods in Jefferson, Wis., to the fight for immigrant rights in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Socialist Worker doesn't just report on these struggles--it aims to win an audience among the militants who are active in them.

We want people who are involved in everyday struggles to see SW as a place where they can share the lessons of the defeats as well as the victories and, most importantly, get involved in building the kind of political organization that can ultimately challenge the system.

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"WHY WOULD anyone want to stand on a street corner and sell a paper?" is a question sometimes asked of people who sell Socialist Worker. A paper like SW doesn't circulate in the same way capitalist papers do. We don't depend on funding from advertisers and distributors. We don't drop it into a news box or sell it at newsstands.

SW isn't just another newspaper to be consumed--it's a tool to begin building political relationships with people who are starting to question the system. That's why we mainly sell Socialist Worker face to face, on the street and at our campuses and workplaces.

There's nothing new about that. People fighting to change society have always turned to the press to put forward their views and organize their fight. Every revolutionary upheaval in society has seen a flurry of radical newspapers--from L'Ami du Peuple, a radical paper of the French Revolution, to North Star, the paper of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, to Pravda, the paper of the Russian Bolsheviks.

In each case, the papers were a way of providing political clarity and organization. As the Russian revolutionary Lenin put it, "A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organizer. In this last respect, it may be likened to the scaffolding around a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organized labor."

In the years 1912 to 1914, the Bolshevik Party had 3,000 members in Petrograd. Their paper, Pravda, had a circulation in the city of 30,000. In 1917, party membership in Petrograd reached 32,000. That's because those who had read the paper in 1912 became Bolsheviks themselves a few years later.

Today, when members of the International Socialist Organization go out and sell Socialist Worker, our aim is the same. We want to convince people we meet of the need for socialism--and the need to build an organization capable of fighting for a different world.

In 1920, Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci commented on the socialist paper he helped found: "The workers loved L'Ordine Nuovo because in it they found something of themselves, the best part of themselves, because in it they sensed their own inner striving: how best can we be free? How can we become ourselves?"

Socialist Worker aims to be a part of helping people to answer those questions today. As the old slogan goes, in the battle for ideas, words are weapons. Socialist Worker is our weapon--make it yours, too.

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