In Defence of 'Green Left Weekly': Why Socialist Alliance needs a 'scaffolding'

In Defence of 'Green Left Weekly': Why Socialist Alliance needs a 'scaffolding'

In summary, it is my strong opinion that the perspectives outlined by the "21st Century Socialism Tendency" in its various documents published so far, if implemented, would lead to the complete destruction of the Socialist Alliance (SA) as an organised, national, activist, socialist party.

The result would be a collection of separate city-based bodies, essentially discussion groups, with no properly organised, nationally co-ordinated financial base, no effective national democratic decision-making structure and no co-ordinated, national political perspectives and campaign priorities. It would overturn the entire project of decades of work towards building a genuine, broad-based socialist party in Australia.

Much more will no doubt be said on these issues in the course of the discussion, but I want to concentrate for now on one critical question raised by the tendency under the heading of "Political Alternatives for Socialist Alliance: Media:"

"The supposedly Leninist idea that 'the paper is the scaffolding of the party' has for too long been elevated from a historically specific tactic to the level of a principle in many small left parties.... Trying to function as a hard-copy left-wing news source is well beyond our current capacity."

As a consequence, the tendency proposes that we "discontinue GLW and Links [SA's on-line theoretical journal]."

I believe this is a fundamentally wrong proposal, which would, just as much as any of the others suggested by the tendency, lead to the collapse of the Socialist Alliance as an organised socialist party. To see this in context, we need to look more closely at the famous argument by Vladimir Lenin in the early 1900s that the Russian revolutionary party needed an "all-Russian newspaper" in order to build and co-ordinate itself.

"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 around 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," Lenin wrote in Where to Begin.

Despite the challenges facing all forms of print media in contemporary society, I believe that the role of Green Left Weekly in helping to build and maintain the Socialist Alliance is just as important in the age of digital media as the "All-Russian newspaper" was in Lenin's day.

And this particularly refers to the print edition of the paper, while remembering that GLW is now increasingly being distributed and read on-line as well. The two versions of the paper are complementary, not in conflict with one another.

In comparing the revolutionary newspaper to a "scaffolding erected around a building," Lenin was not just talking about the role of the paper in spreading news and information to a politically aware public, but to its crucial role in helping to organise the members and supporters of the party, inform them, educate them, and develop the political line of the party on important issues of the day, as well as explaining the key perspectives of the party on vital issues.

Despite the advent of various forms of digital media, which of course have an essential role to play as well in the work of any party today, Green Left Weekly, and specifically the print edition, is the whole package: news of popular struggles, views on key issues, promotion of Socialist Alliance spokespeople and events (eg, the current federal election campaign), brought together in one interrelated whole, as an essential party-building instrument.

The work that Socialist Alliance members do to support GLW (writing for it, distributing it and fundraising for it) helps unite us and trains up our members. Additionally, Green Left Weekly is an important platform for Socialist Alliance and our political perspectives. If GLW were to disappear from the streets, campuses, markets, public forums and social movement rallies, SA would be lost in the plethora of committees and groups which abound in the progressive milieu today.

Selling GLW plays a vital role in developing party members as activists, increasing political skills and self-confidence, and attracting new members and supporters to Socialist Alliance. The challenge of taking a socialist paper out into the community, and standing to some extent against the mainstream of capitalist society, helps to steel comrades for the struggles ahead, and helps to give them greater identification with our entire socialist project.

The role of Green Left in unifying and welding the party into a campaigning force, not just a coalition of discussion clubs, is critical today — more than ever when social media, along with its positive role in aiding the dissemination of information, discussion and publicity for movement events, can also be a passive medium, and can be a substitute for real collective action.

For Socialist Alliance, the development of the tools of social media should be in addition to Green Left Weekly, in both its print and on-line versions, not an alternative to it.

US socialist leader James P. Cannon developed the idea of the weekly party newspaper as a "combination tool." The paper needed to simultaneously meet the needs of the three broad categories of readership: the politically-educated party members, longer-term non-party readers who are developing politically, and readers coming to the paper for the first time.

That is precisely the role that GLW plays for Socialist Alliance today. And that role can be enhanced, but not replaced, by on-line communications of various kinds.

Green Left Weekly is famous and respected around the world, as one of the leading progressive, eco-socialist newspapers anywhere. It is a major source of information for many people in the movements, as well as a course material in journalism studies.

This standing has been built up over 25 years, and cannot easily be replicated by any new publication, whether on-line or in print. It is a unique achievement, which could only be made possible by the work of a party, made up of dedicated activists, committed to achieving a new, socialist society.

GLW is produced by a team of dedicated writers, layout artists and editors. Without the ongoing support of Socialist Alliance in distributing and raising funds, this team would not, and could not, undertake this amazing task of producing a high-quality, weekly publication, in print and on-line.

Now, I would like to take up some of the specific comments in the tendency's statement on media; "... we are now thoroughly in the 21st century, and print media is no longer the primary vehicle for consumption of news and ideology. For young people in particular the primary source for this content is online."

While it is true that young people especially seek much of their "news and ideology" on-line, this does not mean that they no longer read newspapers and magazines. My own experience with selling GLW a great deal in the streets, on campus and at rallies and meetings convinces me that youth are quite willing to read a progressive paper which challenges the mainstream media agenda, in its various forms.

And, in the blizzard of on-line media which exists already, Green Left stands out as a unique source of news and views on the social movements, crucial topics of the day, and international struggles. There is nowhere else in the Australian media, on-line or print, which brings together the news of social movement campaigns and a comprehensive coverage of national and world-wide events from a left-wing perspective, as GLW.

The tendency statement continues: "Trying to function as a hard-copy left-wing news source is well beyond our current capacity. By the time articles are submitted, subbed, published and finally sold in the street, the content is about a week out of date. Our sales and subscriptions are at a very low level despite year-in year-out 'sales and subs drives.' The publishing and distribution of the paper is a huge drain on time and financial resources for our small party, and these resources could be better spent today. Additionally, the paper is not the only — or even the most effective — way of engaging face-to-face with people at demonstrations or key public spaces (markets, events, etc). Such face-to-face engagement can be done through party stalls, focussing on key upcoming party and movement events, selling pamphlets and merchandise, online subs, giving out free propaganda, and conducting surveys and petitions."

Green Left has been publishing in hard copy and on-line successfully for 25 years and is still the best-quality progressive paper in Australia. GLW's online publication has now become more responsive to events, with key articles published on-line and on social media quickly, and prior the 'official' publication date.

In any case, most of the content of GLW does not really date, and in fact much of it cannot be found anywhere else in this country's media at all.

GLW sales and subscriptions are not "at a very low level" at all. Both sales and subs have increased overall over the past three years, and the sales and subscription drives have played an important role in this.

Of course, we always seek to increase GLW's sales and subs base. And this remains a major challenge, but we are continuing to work hard on this task.

Moreover, these sales and subs drives are not only about the paper directly, but about involving more SA members and supporters in identifying with and helping to distribute Green Left. They play an important part in helping to create a more activist, cohesive party, which is a key aim adopted by Socialist Alliance national council meetings and conferences over the last several years.

Yes, production of GLW costs considerable money, but it is not a "drain" on resources, but an investment in building the profile and membership of SA, and the broader mass movement toward socialism in the longer run.

Moreover, it is precisely the paper version of Green Left which raises considerable funds from sales, which contributes to allaying those costs. On-line subs contribute some, but still limited, funds.

Unless GLW moves to eliminate free access on-line, this is likely to continue for some time. In my view, politically, it would be very unwise to go down that path, as the free on-line Green Left receives a large number of hits from Australia and around the world, which would mostly be lost if it moved to on-line subscription only, as some of the mainstream media are doing.

Paper sales of Green Left can actually be profitable, as compared to online distribution.

As to the role of GLW selling in assisting face-to-face contact with people at events and in the streets, this has been critical to our success in building the profile of SA over the years. In no way is this counterposed to other activities at stalls, and the distribution of party and movement material.

But it is support for Green Left that is unique to SA. Other forms of media, while essential, are overall an addition to our propaganda armoury — and are not in conflict with distributing the paper, but all part of our vital, and extensive, political project.

Under the heading, "Concrete alternative," the tendency include the following key proposal:

To "Discontinue GLW and Links," and in their place, to "Create a new online popular analytical media project using examples such as Jacobin and Novara Media as inspiration."

To lose GLW would be a disaster for the Socialist Alliance, whatever the merits or otherwise of Jacobin and Novara Media. Links online journal actually provides a useful forum for theoretical debate and exchange amongst the left. Socialist Alliance should actually make more use of this journal, not support its closure.

If GLW ceased to publish, Socialist Alliance would lose a potent and publicly recognisable platform for our political voice. Our support for Green Left Weekly is distinctive on the left.

If Green Left ceased to publish (and if the other proposals to fundamentally change our key organisational and political perspectives are adopted), this would result in the effective dissolution of the Socialist Alliance.

The organisation and its members should reject the proposals advanced by the tendency absolutely, and reaffirm the overall project that Socialist Alliance has embarked upon over many years.