Over the decades, pretty much every socialist effort of any substance has been organised round, and defined to the broader public by, a newspaper or magazine.
The movement’s chrysalis stage, in the 19th century, of secret societies and of attempts to establish utopian model communities in remote areas, was different, but the rule holds since then.
It is an oddity of today that there are socialist groups which have no regular publication, the SWP splinter groups Counterfire and RS21 for example. But they are small and not-very-active groups.
Today, too, as of old, the “apparatchik” layer in the labour movement, those whose influence depends more on “positions” than on open debate, and tired and jaded older activists, sneer at “paper-sellers” and say they have “no time” for such things.
The publication, distribution, and public sale of a newspaper or magazine does three irreplaceable things.
It signals, and makes accessible, the collective identity of a group. It enables outreach to the quarter-interested or tentatively-interested. And it provides staple material for the careful study necessary to move from being interested to being an effective activist.
Even to start being socialist activists, we have to make ourselves known in our workplaces or campuses. If we have a bureaucratic conception of socialism, that may be enough. We win some trade-union post, get funding for an NGO post, or such, and bathe in the influence which comes with that position.
If our idea is a socialism of self-emancipation, it is not enough to win prestige or influence for ourselves personally. Our primary job is to open channels for others to become active. We must make the collective activity accessible to them.
We do that primarily by selling the paper or magazine, which identifies us as part of a collective effort and makes the information about that collective effort available to all who want to know.
Paper sales on busy streets, on campuses, door-to-door, or on big demonstrations, are the best form of outreach beyond those whom we can reach one-to-one in our workplaces, in our classes, etc. They enable people who have a tentative interest in, or even just a curiosity about, socialist ideas, to find out about them, in a package that makes available to them both written information and a person (the paper-seller) who can talk about the ideas. If the person tentatively interested wants to know more, they can come back next week.
Outside the most exceptional times of high struggle, there will be few weeks when an activist will have as many intensive conversations, covering the broad range of our ideas, or draw as many people to a public meeting or debate, as the number to whom they can make accessible an overview of what we’re about by selling them papers.
Socialist papers have a “narrow” as well as a “broad” function. They can be read casually by the curious passer-by wanting to get a first idea of what we’re about; and they can be read carefully, intensively, by ourselves and those who have gone beyond tentative interest and really want to know about socialist politics.
They, and we, have to study books too. But politics is always about complicated and changing current affairs: we cannot orient just by reading off answers from even the best books.
There are new channels for socialist advocacy — websites, social media, video clips, even t-shirts with slogans printed on them.
But the coming of mass literacy and the newspaper did not displace the old forms of socialist advocacy, the individual conversation and the public meeting or debate. And again today, the new channels complement rather than displace the old ones.
The publication, distribution, sale, and study of the paper runs as an axis through our work in a way no other strand does — from the elementary stage of making us accessible as a collective, through the stage of initially and tentatively checking out our ideas, and to the stage of intensive study and debate.