A voice for the struggle

December 16, 2013

Radical newspapers have been a part of many struggles for change in the past because of their importance in putting forward new ideas and preparing those ready to fight for them. Earlier this year, Aaron Petcoff gave a talk about the importance of the left press--and of socialist newspapers, like Socialist Worker, in particular--at a meeting of the Detroit branch of the International Socialist Organization. This is an edited version of that speech.

IN DECEMBER 1964, Malcolm X gave a speech at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom. In one of his most famous statements, he told his audience:

If you aren't careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing...[The oppressor is] fighting you in the morning, fighting you in the noon, fighting you at night, and fighting you all in between, and you still think it's wrong to fight him back. Why? The press. The newspapers make you look wrong. As long as you take a beating, you're all right. That's the press. That's the image-making press. That thing is dangerous if you don't guard yourself against it.

I open with this quote because I feel like it's the most eloquent and straightforward argument for revolutionaries to control their own press.

I'm going to broadly outline the case for a revolutionary newspaper, and describe its role and its close relationship with the task of building a mass, revolutionary socialist party. In particular, I want to highlight some notable past examples of revolutionary newspapers, and outline the three elements of the revolutionary socialist press: that is, the newspaper as a collective propagandist, agitator and organizer.

A member of the Black Panther Party sells copies of its widely read newspaper
A member of the Black Panther Party sells copies of its widely read newspaper

Revolutionary Newspapers in History

There's a long tradition of revolutionary movements creating their own presses, through which to spread their ideas and organize their movement.

During the French Revolution of 1789-99, Jean-Paul Marat, a famous supporter of the Jacobin Club, founded the paper the L'Ami du Peuple ("The Friend of the People") to argue in favor of continuing the revolutionary struggle. It quickly became the best-selling paper in Paris.

Leading figures of the revolutionary socialist tradition have always had a close relationship with the revolutionary press, beginning with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They and their comrades established the Neue Rheinische Zeitung ("The New Rhenish Newspaper") to defend the German revolutionary movement of 1848. The German revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht founded the paper Die Rote Fahne ("The Red Flag") during the height of the German Revolution in 1918 as the organ of the Spartacus League, which later became the Communist Party of Germany.

Lenin and the revolutionaries of Russia published the newspapers Iskra ("The Spark"), Pravda ("The Truth) and many more to lay the political and organizational foundations for the Russian revolutionary movement. The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci co-founded the paper L'Ordine Nuovo ("The New Order") in 1919 with union support, and became the organ of the 1920 strike wave and factory occupation movement in the auto-factory town of Turin. New Order eventually became the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party, and was later shut down by Mussolini.

The United States also has its own history of revolutionary newspapers. William Lloyd Garrison's paper The Liberator, for instance, explicitly called for the abolition of slavery. The former slave Frederick Douglass was a supporter of The Liberator, and he began publishing his own papers, including The North Star, which not only organized for the rights of Blacks, but also the rights of women. It carried the motto: "Right is of no sex--Truth is of no color--God is the father of us all, and we are all brethren."

In 1967, the Black Panther Party started its newspaper The Black Panther. By 1969, the Panthers had grown to an organization of over 10,000 members. Every member of the organization was expected to read the paper, and sell it at demonstrations, schools, colleges, etc. Every paper included the party program, which called for--among other things--free health care, free housing, free food, free education and the exemption of every Black male from service in the U.S. military. It had a nationwide paper circulation of 250,000 a week.

Following Detroit's Great Rebellion of June 1967, a group of Black militants in Detroit began printing Inner City Voice. The masthead dubbed the paper "The voice of the revolution," and "Detroit's Black community newspaper."

The founders of the paper had an explicit strategy for using the paper to "articulate what was already in the streets" and act as "a vehicle for political organization, education, and change." The paper sought to be a "positive response to the Great Rebellion"--what they referred to as the "general strike of '67"--and to "report what was already in the streets." It focused heavily on the intersections of racism and class struggle. Consider this June 1968 front-page story:

Black workers are tied, day in and day out, 8-12 hours a day, to a massive assembly line, an assembly line that one never sees the end or the beginning of but merely fits into a slot and stays there...[T]he white racist and bigoted foremen...[and] the double-faced, back-stabbing of the UAW have driven Black workers to a near uprising state...In the wildcat strikes, the Black workers on the lines do not even address themselves to the UAW's Grievance Procedure. They realize that their only method of pressing for their demands is to strike and to negotiate at the gates of industry.

The Inner City Voice had a difficult time finding a willing printer in Detroit, and had to have the paper printed and shipped from Chicago. But in 1968, supporters of the paper took over Wayne State University's student newspaper, The South End.

Supported by public subsidies to the university, The South End was transformed from a normal student paper--reporting the latest details of college sports and Greek life--into an explicitly revolutionary organ. Two black panthers were placed on the masthead, and the official motto of the paper became, "One Class-Conscious Worker Is Worth 100 Students." They did this with a taxpayer subsidized printing budget of over half a million dollars (in today's dollars), and an annual salary for the editor-in-chief of over $16,000.

Far from being a relic of the past, made obsolete by the Internet, the tradition of radical, activist journalism continues today. When the Occupy movement broke out, it gave rise to popular print papers such as the Occupied Wall Street Journal, Occupied Chicago Tribune, Boston Occupier, Occupied Oakland Tribune and others.

Why Do We Need a Revolutionary Press?

In the German Ideology, Karl Marx argued that the prevailing ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class. Today, this might seem really obvious. All around us, we see apologism for poverty and unemployment, alongside rampant racism, sexism, homophobia and jingoism--all advanced by the ruling class' media, press, schools, churches, etc. But does this that hope for the revolution is doomed?

Consciousness is not a static, frozen thing. People have a mixed consciousness, shaped on the one hand by tools of the ruling class, but by people's concrete experiences on the other. For the mass of exploited and oppressed people, it is these experiences that give them the potential to develop a revolutionary class consciousness that can prepare them to struggle for their own emancipation and rebuild and lead a new society.

But this doesn't at all guarantee that revolution is inevitable--the spontaneous, rebellious energy of exploited and oppressed people does not automatically lead to revolution. If that were true, then we would already be living under socialism. Occupy would have grown into a massive revolutionary movement, and many other previous movements besides Occupy.

Because consciousness isn't fixed and static, the ruling class is constantly in a battle for the hearts and minds of the working class and oppressed. If revolutionaries aren't organized to fight for their ideas, then other ideas will win out and contain the struggle. Whose ideas? The Democrats, the conservative trade union officialdom, non-profits married to the Democratic Party, etc.

Spontaneous energy creates the potential for revolutionary consciousness, therefore, but those revolutionary elements have to be organized into a cohesive force that successfully compete with other forces, and bring all the more timid elements forward. Those revolutionary forces have to organize wider and broader sections of society in order to match and overcome the power of the ruling class.

This isn't just a task for future generations of revolutionary activists, but the task immediately facing us today, with real stakes in today's struggles.

Consider, for instance, if we in Detroit had an organization of 50 or 100 socialists, rooted in struggle, active during the protests against the right-to-work legislation put forward by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Recall the anger on display at the protests in December 2012 as union members confronted police and right-wing counter protestors.

There was real potential for a far more militant confrontation than what the conservative union bureaucrats were willing to commit themselves to. With a stronger, more organized network of revolutionaries, things could have been very different, but without that kind of organization, influence over the protest was maintained by the union leadership, and the protests and anger were contained into voting for Democrats again in 2014.

We can think of plenty of other instances, too. Consider if we had 50 or 100 militants organized during the beginning of the local Occupy movement, or during the protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin.

So it's clear that the work we do has a real impact in the here and now, and the task of building revolutionary organization is immediately on the agenda.

In order to build such organization, revolutionaries have to connect their ideas with the experience of that militant layer of the oppressed and exploited people--what we can call a vanguard element. The experiences of the past several years--the economic crisis, austerity, the resurgence of protests and strikes, disappointment with the Democrats, etc.--have created a whole new layer of people looking for a new direction. There are lots of different places to meet these folks: on the street or at a demonstration, to name just a couple.

A newspaper like Socialist Worker is a tool for connecting our ideas with these militants' experiences. Marxism is the theory of working class self emancipation. It is a scientific theory rooted in the experience of the working class and oppressed. Because of that, it is much more capable of explaining working class people's experience than the liberal and bourgeois presses. Therefore, the revolutionary press must be rooted in Marxist theory.

How we connect our ideas to people's experiences will be different at different times--depending on a number of factors: the balance of class forces, the level of organization, whether working-class and oppressed people are on the defensive or on the offensive.

It is not enough for the paper to simply explain the world. It must also be a guide to action. The paper should intervene in the debates facing the movements of the day, and this is why the paper has to be more than simply observations from the sideline. Contributors to the paper should be activists in the struggle, commenting on the movement's developments, and arguing for the way forward.

Finally, we want to do more than just win people over to the ideas of socialism or the need for more militant activism. The revolutionary press needs to be a tool for organizing the readership into a political force that can have an impact on today's struggles, take them forward and build a revolutionary movement. This is why Lenin called the revolutionary press not just a "collective propagandist and a collective agitator," but also a "collective organizer." As Lenin put it:

In this last respect, [the revolutionary paper] 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 other words, the paper not only brings developing militants into the organized socialist movement, but also develops those who are already part of it by giving them a whole view of the organization and the movements on the ground, so they can assess the work, develop their own ideas and project arguments for how to take the movement forward.

The revolutionary press provides a consistent flow of communication between militants separated geographically, helps them to generalize the different experiences of those militants, and also provides a consistent outlet for militants to go out and engage their audience outside--to find out what people are thinking and saying: Are they open to socialist ideas? Are they hostile to them? What kind of questions do they have? Are they for "bread-and-butter issues," but hesitant to fight against racism or sexism? And so on.

This is why regular public sales of the paper are critical for socialists. The paper is not simply a propaganda tool, where we have the answers that the masses need to hear. We want (and need!) to have a dialogue with people--both those who agree with our ideas and those who disagree.

So we see that there's a synthesis of three different aspects of the paper, all in a close interrelation between each other, and with the revolutionary socialist organization: it is a collective propagandist--that is, it puts forward revolutionary ideas; it is a collective agitator--it puts forward concrete action to take those ideas into practice; and it is a collective organizer--it is a tool of organizing and coordinating that action into a coherent force.

It's the synthesis of all these different elements that makes a paper like Socialist Worker distinct from other good and even Marxist publications such as Jacobin, for instance. This is why, even in the worst of times, the paper is crucial for maintaining an active network of revolutionary cadre and carrying them through.

The Revolutionary Newspaper in the Information Age

One frequent criticism of the revolutionary newspaper goes something like this: "Maybe that was good for Lenin's time, but today news travels around the world in a flash, and print is dead." There are a couple of responses to this.

I think the Internet has caused a real crisis for the capitalist media. But I think for us, it's a bit different, because we see the paper as a tool for organizing and movement-building. Blogs, social media and the like are excellent tools for communicating our ideas, and aren't in competition with our print publications. We should use every weapon at our disposal in the battle of ideas with the ruling class.

But I don't think it's true that people don't want print media. I think this depends a lot on the political moment and climate. We already mentioned how local Occupy movements began producing their own print media to communicate their ideas with those outside the movement. But even still, it wasn't just the Occupied Wall Street Journal that was circulating around the encampment in Zuccotti Park. Other print papers, including Socialist Worker, were incredibly popular during the peak of the Occupy movement.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. The paper is not just a collection of isolated articles, but actually puts forward a whole worldview, from our analysis of different current events and questions facing the movement, to harder political analysis, arguments for revolutionary organization, etc. The socialist worldview is communicated much more clearly in a print newspaper than in a web browser or in individually isolated articles printed up and handed out to people.

Additionally, I think there is something important about the concrete connection made between people in a conversation over the paper. Lenin once remarked somewhere that the newspaper wouldn't overthrow the Tsar, and the same is true today for the battle we face. The paper is a tool for building a real organization, a movement--which has to get outside of the realm of the website, comment threads and Facebook debates.

We've seen that ruling class won't guarantee access to the Internet or to cell phones. In the midst of the Arab Spring, for instance, the Egyptian dictatorship shut down the Internet. The Chinese government is notorious for censoring the Internet. Here in the U.S., we're not at the stage of needing to worry about Socialist Worker being shut down--but the state is clearly willing to censor the Internet, and it wouldn't be the first time that they used their power to try to shut down revolutionaries from communicating their message.

To summarize: Revolution is not guaranteed. Different forces compete for influence over the ideas of the working class. In order to build a successful revolutionary movement, revolutionaries need to be organized in order to put their ideas out there and organize people into a coherent political force. The paper is a tool for both projecting those ideas, spurring action and organizing that action into a force.

The way the paper looks, how it's written, how the ideas are read, what kind of reception it receives--all of this will be different over time. There is not one way to produce a paper for all moments. The paper itself will look and be read differently depending on the political moment we're in.

Nevertheless, the paper in general terms is a critical tool for the building a mass, revolutionary political organization--a formation that is crucially needed to put an end to everything from the destruction of the planet, to the march to war, to grueling exploitation and to oppression. Building the foundations of such an organization starts today.

The speech that this article was based on first appeared at A Better World Is Probable.

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