Where there are people calling themselves revolutionaries, you can be reasonably sure that there’ll be some kind of publication. It might be a newspaper, magazine, journal, pamphlet, or these days a website. And in recent years there have been debates about the form that these should take today, particularly about the role of print media versus social media. I want to step back a little and discuss why we engage as revolutionaries in publications and argue that the role that they play for us, organisationally, is distinct from simply producing a left-wing or even socialist version of the mainstream media.
The nature and the particular focus of a revolutionary publication will, obviously, be affected by many different factors at a period in time: whether revolutionary publications are legal, the state of class struggle and mass movements, the size of an organisation and the resources available to it, where the organisation is based. Therefore I think it is important to address the political questions of what we’re trying to do as revolutionaries in the first instance, and see how the particular forms that publications can take fit in with this.
What are revolutionaries trying to do?
At one quite grand-sounding, and perhaps somewhat crude, level we’re engaged with trying to change the world. We have a collective understanding that capitalism needs to be smashed, and think that the working class represent the force in society that can do that. We also have an idea that a different kind of world to the one we have today is possible. We see the importance of organising collectively to try and do this.
The reality of capitalism means that revolution on the cards, in as much as it doesn’t just contain the “misery of the proletariat” but at the same time contains “a revolutionary element that will bring down the old order”. The “actuality of revolution”, Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács argued, “therefore implies study of each individual daily problem in concrete association with the socio-historic whole as moments in the liberation of the proletariat”.
To me, this suggests two things: the importance of coming up with some kind of analysis that explains how all of the struggles and problems that people face are part of a connected “whole”, but also the importance of participating, and trying to shape, the many struggles that do exist and demonstrating in practice that they are connected.
In revolutionary organisations one thing we’re trying to do is win people to our ideas and at the same time learn from their ideas. At the same time as we’re trying to influence things happening, as much as are able, given various limitations, we have to be constantly learning from the class. Without this, revolutionary organisations become “ossified”.
It would seem obvious, then, that one role of the revolutionary press is to collect together reports of movements and struggle, share them publicly, with as many people are possible, especially of the many things that are ignored by the mainstream media. This allows us to both tell people about things that are happening, and learn from what others are doing so as to better come up with a totalising analysis. However, to share reports in this way, a publication doesn’t have to necessarily be revolutionary – publications like Morning Star, or Indymedia back in the day, do also play this sort of role.
Revolutionary publications can also play a key role as “organisers”, or “scaffolding”, a term used by Lenin in What is to be done?:
“A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser. In this respect it may be compared to the scaffolding erected round a building under construction; it marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, permitting them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour.”
At the time this was written, Lenin was trying to set up the newspaper Iskra. He was involved in debates about why an all-Russia publication was necessary, and the important role that it could play in building a revolutionary organisation, against local publications and simply doing local activity. In part through Iskra, Lenin was able to turn a disparate collection of activist cells dotted around Russia into a more-or-less coherent organisation. By winning the trust of activists through running their reports it was possible to win their trust, and meant that the activists began to see it as their paper.
I don’t think that the organisational role that Lenin envisaged for a revolutionary publication is restricted to ink and paper. He was working with what was relatively new technology at the time, and the means and technology available to him. While the specificities of how exactly you use different types of publications organisationally, I think that today a website, for example, can play just as much the role of an organiser as a newspaper did in 1902.
In my experience, the role of a paper as an organiser has tended to focus on questions around the circulation of the publication. This is clearly important. Lenin talks about:
“a network of agents that would form in the course of establishing and distributing the common newspaper would not have to “sit about and wait” for the call for an uprising, but could carry on the regular activity that would guarantee the highest probability of success in the event of an uprising. Such activity would strengthen our contacts with the broadest strata of the working masses and with all social strata that are discontented with the autocracy, which is of such importance for an uprising.” (What is to be done?)
We’re obviously not in a pre-revolutionary situation, but the activity of meeting to distribute a publication, to take it to contacts, strengthening our relationships with them, can be useful even today. This role is obviously favoured, to some extent, by having a physical publication to distribute. At a point when 30% of adults in the US get their news via Facebook and 10% via YouTube, we do have to begin to tackle the questions about how do we ‘distribute’ web-based publications, in order to use those in this organisational role as well. Far fewer people, even on the Left, read daily print newspapers than they did in the past, favouring print for things they want to keep in the long term.
The other side to publications, that I think has been somewhat neglected by the revolutionary left, is the role that getting content for a publication (commissioning and writing) can play in building a revolutionary organisation. This kind of activity can help to extend its size, influence and prominence as much as distributing a publication can. It can play a useful role in continually developing all members of a revolutionary organisation (if done properly), to give them political confidence, and to thrash out ideas and perspectives among people within and beyond the organisation. This role is particularly talked about by Hossam el-Hamalawy in discussing the website as an organiser.
For this role to work, I feel we have to pay particular attention to avoid the kind of subsitutionism that results from that having ‘journalists’ who produce most of the content for a revolutionary publication. Instead I feel that the organisational role a publication can play is better served by developing everyone in that organisation (and beyond, if possible) to be able to report, to comment, to analyse. In rs21 publications over the last year we’ve had moderate success in doing this, with just under half of the membership of the group having written something. We’ve also had about a third of our pieces written by people who aren’t part of rs21.
In the period following the Russian revolution, communist parties developed the idea of worker correspondents. The specific role in Russia was a bit different to elsewhere, having a “cultural role” in building a new society, but there was a general idea that many people, on the ground, should be contributing to publications, allowing everyone to learn from the things that were going on. The idea of ‘revolutionary correspondents’ is something I feel we need to return to.
In a speech to worker correspondents in 1923, Trotsky laid out some ideas as to basis for the kind of reporting and coverage that was needed:
“We revolutionists, in the area of writing, as in others, give first priority to the will to act: to change something, to bring something about, to achieve something.”
Revolutionary correspondents aren’t just writing for the sake of it, or to just recount what has happened, but to push forward revolutionary ideas with the aim of changing the world.
In the same speech, Trotsky makes some sensible suggestions about how content can be approached. He talks about the importance of having both “fact” and “point of view”. We need to make sure we report facts accurately. There is little point in claiming a demo was five times the size it actually was – most people who were there will know that is not the case and may doubt the veracity of other things you write. Further it means that political conclusions might be drawn from reading a report will be distorted, and this may have implications for future activity.
However, revolutionaries aren’t there just as passive onlookers, reporting facts. We should be trying to analyse the situation, provide ideas for what needs to be done next – inject a “point of view”. This means that we should focus on writing about things we are actually involved in, and have something to say on. There are several reasons for this: it leads to dull reporting otherwise – without being somehow involved its harder to talk about what is at stake politically, to draw lessons from something. It could also lead to giving a false impression of our degree of implantation in the movements and workplaces.
By being involved, even if this is something as simple as visiting a picket line, it means that you have to develop real relationships with other activists in order to get quotes, good pictures and video interviews. It means you can go back to the people and say here’s your protest, your picket line in this publication. This plays a role in developing a network around a revolutionary organisation, giving us an opportunity to talk about politics with a much wider layer of people and an exchange of ideas.
Producing content for revolutionary publications is something that everyone in a revolutionary organisation should be able to play a role in. It is likely that the majority of people won’t have done this kind of thing before, and many might not feel confident to do so. There need to be varied ways of supporting people to develop the confidence to do so, in particular those from oppressed groups.
Political thought needs to go into who might be asked to report from an event or write on a topic – an experienced writer might be able to produce something that is technically better or do it quicker, but it might be far more valuable for the revolutionary project as a whole, to develop a new writer. Producing content for a publication can help clarify ideas, help people to think about a topic more deeply and give people political confidence to put forward their ideas in campaigns and in the workplace. In this respect, a publication plays a role as an organiser in developing people already in an organisation.
How do we use web-based media?
Web-based media, to some extent, highlights the organisational role that publications can play in terms of ‘production’. With the web there is a greater pressure to get content rapidly – to respond to events as they are happening, and photos and, to a lesser extent, video are crucial. Many more people are needed and can be involved in producing content. Because there aren’t the same physical constraints with a website as with print media we can be more open in terms of style and length, and experiment with other types of content.
Understanding how best to use social media to interact with people viewing our content online is important. It is important not to see social media as separate from the ‘real world’ – it is part of it, and can be used to share links, contact people to ask what they think, particularly if they’ve shared or liked something that we’ve put online. Most commentary on articles takes place via social media rather than on the articles on a website themselves. Another positive thing about web-based media is that we actually have quite detailed statistics about who it is who seeing which posts, reading which articles, clicking through links, which can be useful to get a sense of what kind of impact our publications are actually having – you might sell someone a magazine or give them a leaflet but that’s no guarantee that it’ll be read!
We shouldn’t imagine that websites and social media have some intrinsically revolutionary potential, however as revolutionaries, wanting to communicate with people beyond our ranks, then they have to be used. And this means that we do need to think more about how we can better use them.
A variety of forms
A website will never be enough on its own, nor will a magazine or a leaflet. We need to have a variety of different forms of publication, suitable for different occasions. A one page leaflet might be the most appropriate for a large demonstration while a magazine can help to show the range of ideas that we’re confronting and prioritise particular discussions and debates. A website can host a live blog with photographs from around the country for a national strike, while a pamphlet can mean that a single idea can be developed in depth.
It is not a question, within the limits of the resources available, of either one thing or another. We need to have a flexible approach to the form publications in a particular instance take in order to best organise, develop people as revolutionaries and win others to revolutionary politics and the idea that we can change the world.