A voice for socialism for 40 years

On the 40th anniversary of Socialist Worker, Elizabeth Schulte looks back at its history--and how socialists have used a revolutionary press to build the struggle for a better world.

Socialist Worker covers through 40 years of publication

WHEREVER THERE has been a socialist or radical movement, there has been a newspaper to help spreads its ideas and build the cause.

When the likes of Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Big Bill Haywood sought to build an audience for socialism and workers' organization at the beginning of the 20th century, they found their audience through the Socialist Party's Appeal to Reason, the IWW's Industrial Worker or another of the dozens of radical, multi-language publications of the day.

When Minneapolis truck drivers went out on strike for a union in 1934, they had their own newspaper to counter the bosses' lies about the strike and to knit together solidarity for their side. The Organizer became the first daily strike newspaper produced in the U.S.

When soldiers protested the war in Vietnam, they built up their resistance with GI newspapers. Some 300 underground newspapers, such as Fed Up and G.I. Voice, were produced and circulated during the course of the war to spread a message of dissent, even though it could mean severe disciplinary actions against active-duty soldiers.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense put its weekly newspaper at the center of its organizing, using it to provide a voice for the Black Power struggle and to organize members around a set of revolutionary politics. At its high point, the Black Panther had a weekly circulation of a quarter of a million copies.

Even in the Internet age, activists in the Occupy movement in 2011 turned to newspapers to send their message against the greed of the 1 Percent. With names like the Occupied Wall Street Journal and Occupied Chicago Tribune, these papers reflected the ideas and debates in the movement.

The importance of a media for our side is clear. The New York Times or the Washington Post may claim that they provide the facts without bias, but it's clear that they actually do take sides--and it's not the side of the workers.

This doesn't mean there's nothing of interest in the mainstream press. They sometimes reflect the changing opinions in the world around them.

For instance, in 2001, when the death penalty was being discredited by a growing list of death row prisoners who were found innocent, the Republican Chicago Tribune ran articles supporting a moratorium and even abolition. Protest and public outcry over the scandalous facts about the death penalty changed many opinions, even those of the conservative Tribune.

But by and large, mainstream newspapers don't venture far from their main job of defending the status quo--the police in instances of police brutality, management in times of strike, and the U.S. government when it declares war.

That's why we need to have a voice for our side. Former Black Panther David Hilliard explained what that meant:

We knew from the beginning how critical it was to have our own publication, to set forth our own agenda for freedom, to raise political consciousness among our people as to their oppressed state, to rebut government lies, to tell the truth, to urge change, to use the pen alongside the sword.

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FOR SOCIALISTS and their organizations, the revolutionary newspaper plays a key role not just in circulating reports and commentary to further struggles for justice that can't be found in the mainstream media, but also in contributing to building organizations that can challenge the system as a whole.

Throughout the history of the socialist movement, revolutionaries have produced and written for newspapers with the aim of finding an audience of people who can be won to socialist ideas and who see themselves part of building socialist organization.

Neue Rheinische Zeitung was the paper of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and the German revolutionary movement of 1848. Die Rote Fahne was the paper of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and the German Revolution of 1918. Iskra and other papers provided Lenin and the Russian revolutionaries with a platform in the years before the 1917 revolution. These are just a few of the examples.

Writing about the role of the revolutionary newspaper, Italian socialist and editor of L'Ordine Nuovo Antonio Gramsci explained how the act of a worker choosing a socialist paper is a step toward recognizing the real role of the bourgeois press:

[E]very day, this same worker is able to personally see that the bourgeois newspapers tell even the simplest of facts in a way that favors the bourgeois class and damns the working class and its politics.

Has a strike broken out? The workers are always wrong as far as the bourgeois newspapers are concerned. Is there a demonstration? The demonstrators are always wrong, solely because they are workers they are always hotheads, rioters, hoodlums. The government passes a law? It's always good, useful and just, even if it's...not. And if there's an electoral, political or administrative struggle? The best programs and candidates are always those of the bourgeois parties.

The act of reporting on the struggles of workers and the oppressed and drawing socialist conclusions is just as "political" as an editorial. In fact, for a socialist paper, there's a premium on drawing out the lessons of a struggle and sharing it with a wider audience of fellow activists.

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IN SOCIALIST Worker's 40 years of publishing, it has told many of these stories of workers' fights. From the start, the pages of SW were filled with reporting from picket lines, like coal miners' strike against the Taft-Harley Act in 1977-78. This was the last era before the employers' offensive really revved up.

But even when the class struggle receded, SW continued to report on labor issues, with an attention to the rank-and-file activists behind them. For example, our coverage of the bitter "War Zone" struggles in Decatur, Illinois, in the mid-1990s gave a voice to the workers who were leading that fight, telling the story of the obstacles they faced and the strategies they used, their conflict with their International union, and how they organized co-workers inside the plant.

When SW reported on the Wisconsin uprising against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's assault on public-sector workers in 2011, it told the story of the spirited and creative organizing inside the Capitol occupation that kept it going for weeks--but also the betrayal of the Democrats that ended it.

In this way, Socialist Worker reported the facts about struggles that couldn't be found elsewhere, but it also drew out the lessons of each fight to share with others fighting for changes.

Writing about the revolutionary paper, the Russian revolutionary Lenin talked about the importance of "exposures"--articles exposing the crimes of capitalism. In the hands of bourgeois newspapers, these stories often mean very little beyond the stated facts, but when reported on in the socialist press, they can become powerful condemnations of the system we live under.

When it was revealed that dozens of Black children were being murdered in the city of Atlanta in the early 1980s, SW carried a special feature that gave expression to the horror and fear felt by Black families in that city, but also revealed the negligence of city officials and the systematic racism that underpinned it all.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, our writers reported on the storm's impact, but also told the untold stories of survivors who came to each others' aid and exposed the roots of the manmade disaster that followed the storm.

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INSTEAD OF standing removed from the struggles, the revolutionary press's job is to help make those struggles stronger and ultimately to help others reach socialist conclusions. Writing on the importance of the paper taking up theoretical questions, Lenin explained:

It is necessary to combine all the concrete facts and manifestations of the working-class movement with the indicated questions; the light of theory must be cast upon every separate fact; propaganda on questions of politics and party organization must be carried on among the broad masses of the working class; and these questions must be dealt with in the work of agitation.

So when there are debates about the way forward in a struggle, SW want to be part of the discussion.

When pro-Palestinian activists come under attack, SW proposes ways and strategies to defend them. When the right wing tries to spread its racist ideas on college campuses, SW analyzes the best way to confront and defeat them. When both the right and the left are calling for protectionist trade measures, SW offers an argument to make the international working-class movement stronger.

Those debates, of course, extend beyond the confines of activist struggle to how socialists look at the world. So an article in SW about those on the left who support voting for a Democrat may take up the problems with individual candidates, but it also further--to talk about the role of the Democratic Party itself in weakening struggles for justice.

With the collapse of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989, demoralization hit some on the left when regimes they had long considered "socialist" were overthrown. Likewise, for the right, this was a sign that "socialism was dead."

But for Socialist Worker and the ISO, this wave of revolt was a sign that the rebuilding of the socialist tradition--socialist from below, not Stalinism--was possible. Our headline was: "The old order crumbles."

In September 2001, activists were preparing for what looked to be the biggest protests of the anti-globalization movement yet coming at the end of the month. The terrorist attacks on September 11 changed all that, as much of burgeoning movement went into disarray. The ISO's response was to stand by our anti-imperialist principles and challenge the chorus of people in favor of the "war on terror."

Amid the hysteria, racism and saber-rattling, we made an argument against the war with the hope of reaching a wider audience: "Don't turn tragedy into war." This uncompromising but sober slogan helped set the tone for the argument that socialists would have to make as we faced a tide of nationalism and Islamophobia.

This shows how socialist organizations and their newspapers are constantly looking at their audience, the world around us and the prospects for taking movement a step in the direction of solidarity and self-activity.

Using the revolutionary newspaper, socialists can challenge the rotten ideas that weaken the working-class struggle, like racism, sexism, Islamophobia and anti-LGBTQ, or support for wars and laws that only benefit our rulers. We need to make the patient arguments to people who may not have heard them before.

But when the struggle is on the rise, our media can provide the information and ideas that can help growing movements forge ahead.

Ultimately, we want convince people why a completely different society--socialism--is not only a better idea, but one worth organizing for. The paper plays a role in training a new layer of socialists in our politics and traditions--and in how to take those politics to the rest on the world.