Tony Cliff

The use of Socialist Worker as an organiser

(April 1974)

First published in IS Internal Bulletin, April 1974.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff, Neither Washington nor Moscow, Bookmarks, London 1982, pp.249-52.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

LENIN SPOKE about a socialist paper as an organiser of workers. He saw it in three fields: (1) the workers as writers for the paper, (2) as sellers of the paper, (3) as donors of money. Now, let’s look at Socialist Worker’s role in those three fields. There is no question that Socialist Worker has improved radically over the last few years in terms of involvement of workers in writing for it. There is no question that it is by far the best socialist paper on the left for decades in this country. However, we shouldn’t be complacent. Still to a large extent workers’ writing is limited to a small area of the paper. From time to time excellent pieces written by workers appear in Under the Influence and some other articles written by workers. A new very important contribution by workers is, of course, the Letters Page which has improved radically over the last few months. Still the criticism that Trotsky levelled at the American Socialist Appeal on 27 May 1939 is not completely irrelevant to Socialist Worker although let’s make it clear – Socialist Worker is much better than Socialist Appeal. Let’s quote Trotsky:

As it is, the paper is divided among various writers, each of whom is very good, but collectively they do not permit workers to penetrate to the pages of the Appeal. Each of them speaks for the workers (and speaks very well) but nobody will hear the workers. In spite of its literary brilliance, to a certain degree the paper becomes a victim of journalistic routine. You do not hear at all how the workers live, fight, clash with the police or drink whiskey. It is very dangerous for the paper as a revolutionary instrument of the party. The task is not to make a paper through the joint forces of a skilled editorial board but to encourage the workers to speak for themselves. A radical and courageous change is necessary as a condition of success ...

The fact that nearly half the IS membership are manual workers is not reflecting itself well enough in the paper. It is important that workers should write, not only about strikes in their place of work but about their children and their education, about everything that is relevant to their life. To a large extent the paper must become a workers’ diary. Now of count workers find it difficult to write. When they speak quite often they are incomparably better than when they write because their concreteness, their colourfulness, their individuality comes through – and after all, for Marxism it is always central that the truth is always concrete. When workers write quite often they adapt their style to what they think the style should be and therefore it becomes dull and jargonised. Therefore the use of a tape recorder and then editing the story while keeping the flavour intact is very, very important and should be used. This will mean of course a fantastic burden on our journalists. It is much easier for Paul Foot, for instance, to write a whole page on his own than to edit five or six stories written by workers that will also fill a page. Therefore, the use of more workers’ material will probably mean the need for more journalists. Our organisers in the field will have to do their part. Every factory branch will have to be supplying stories, articles, letters for the paper. Lenin’s Pravda in 1912, when the party was illegal and with a working class much smaller than ours, managed to print in one year 11,000 items written by workers. It is true that the Bolsheviks had much better roots than we have but still it will not be beyond our reach if we aim to, say, have 50 items a week written by workers in the paper. For them we need not only perhaps more effort put in by the editorial board of the paper and the organisers, but above all a clear decision that items written by or told by workers have to find a place in the paper in one way or another. (Of course even to this we must have exceptions.) There is not a capitalist paper in the country that can afford more than 3,000 reporters – we can.

The question of workers’ writing for the paper raises the question of the identification of workers with the paper. In bourgeois journalism the hierarchical concept in which a small bunch of the people from the centre supply the consumption needs of the millions is the prevailing one. For a workers’ paper the question of the involvement of the “consumer” is central. The abolition of the abyss between producer and consumer is central. Therefore a story written by a worker that perhaps will interest directly only a few tens of workers directly next to him at his place of work is of fantastic importance. This is the way the paper becomes rooted deeper in the class.

Now to the question of workers as sellers of the paper. The fact that nearly half of the membership of IS – to repeat – are manual workers does not reflect itself at all in the sale of the paper. Less than 20 per cent of the sales of the paper is from inside places of work and this is a very, very serious defect. To some extent it is a result of the question of the relation between readers and workers as writers. But to some extent it is a question that stands on its own. We were so busy in the last few years in turning an organisation with hardly any workers into an organisation that involves workers in it that we didn’t use effectively enough our periphery around the organisation. In reality we posed to every worker two possibilities – join IS, and then of course you pay subs, come to meetings, etc., or otherwise buy a copy of the paper. Now we have to approach our periphery and ask every one of them to take a few copies of the paper. If we reach let’s say in three months’ time a thousand non-IS members, who will take say two or three copies of the paper each, it will be an important change in our position.

A worker that buys one copy of the paper has a very different attitude to it than the one who sells a couple of copies. If he buys he doesn’t have to read the paper, he doesn’t have to take a position on the different ideas in the paper. If he sells the paper he can’t avoid doing both because always he faces the possibility of one of the buyers arguing with him about the paper. In reality people never grasp ideas clearly unless they have to fight for those ideas and therefore if one paper is sold it doesn’t create a conflict of ideas – if five are sold in the same place, it does. It is not therefore only a quantative change but a radical, qualitative change in the relation of the individual to the ideas and to the organisation that propagates those ideas.

Thirdly, about the workers donating money to the paper. Lenin put it clearly that it is very important that the collection of money is done regularly and systematically. The weekly payment of one kopek that in relative terms to our wages in Britain is something like one new penny a week, was expected from every buyer of Pravda. And these by the way were the party subs. In Britain, for obvious reasons, it is much more difficult to organise such a net of money donators – and we will have to start probably with a much more modest target of let’s say 10p per month, to be collected on the first pay day in the month. This is not only a question of money – it is much more a question of politics. By giving money workers declare that they are really identifying themselves to some extent with the paper. When they give money they look more critically at the paper, at the same time more appreciative of the paper because they know that their money helps make the appearance of the paper possible. Therefore from such small beginnings quite long term results can come. If we got, let’s say, a thousand donors over the coming six months it will be quite an important bridgehead.

All the above changes will bring quite a serious transformation in the whole working of our organisation. Above all it will make it possible for workers to come to the front in the running of our organisation because in every aspect the organisation will appear less and less often the by-lines of the Paul Foots, Laurie Flynns and more as a workers’ organisation. Workers will have to be encouraged to be the main speakers of the organisation on platforms, their names will have to appear in the paper more and more often and less and less often the bye-lines of the Paul Foots, Laurie Flynns and Tony Cliffs. At the same time, their influence in determining the educational role of the paper will increase over time.

All the above changes cannot be done by a campaign. It is not a question of a campaign. When we turned our organisation towards industrial activity it took us years of struggle. This time making Socialist Worker into a workers’ paper in order to make IS into a workers’ party will also take a long time. This doesn’t mean that a few technical and immediate measures are not necessary. The fact that we published a book on productivity deals did not transform our organisation into a workers’ organisation but helped in the process of doing it. The technical decisions we have to take immediately are; that every factory branch should send at least one article, report or story once a month, that every organiser should see to it that from his area we get at least one article or story a week – if need be, we will have to increase the number of journalists on the paper with the emphasis on them being in the field. We will have to organise the transformation of the buyers of the paper into sellers, without putting an individual target that is meaningless for branches or districts, we will have to monitor our successes and failures. Thirdly we will have to organise the collection of let’s say 10p a month from the buyers of the paper.

These are the technical things that have to be organised immediately.


Last updated on 28.11.2004