1000 issues of the Socialist: A vital weapon standing in proud traditions

Socialist sellers, photo Mary Finch

Socialist sellers, photo Mary Finch   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

To mark the 1000th issue of the Socialist, which was launched in 1997, we interviewed Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary and former editor of Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist. Below is an edited version of the interview.

A newspaper is something that’s always been important to revolutionary socialist parties isn’t it?

Yes, it’s been a vital political weapon. You really don’t have an effective voice unless you have a newspaper that can convey the views of the party day-in and day-out. The paper carries different types of articles.

One of the founders of Russian Marxism, Plekhanov, spoke about agitation, propaganda and theory. Agitation is taking one idea to a broad mass. Propaganda is taking the case against capitalism, the case for socialism, to a more developed layer of the working class.

And theory, which is what we deal with in our journal Socialism Today and in some of the articles in the Socialist as well, is dealing with the processes developing in society, in the labour movement and so on. The paper has many tasks, in other words.

If you did not have a newspaper you would be invisible as far as the majority of the working class is concerned. That was particularly the case when we first started with Militant. But even today, the paper is vital in making sure the full scope of the views of the Socialist Party are reflected and carried to our members on a weekly basis, but also to a broader layer of young people, of workers, of people that we want to reach.

Our members sell the paper in the organisations of the labour movement, on the streets, on demonstrations and so on. And if you did not have a newspaper, you would not be able to reach those people, you would not be able to change their outlook and to win them to the ideas that you’re putting forward.

So a newspaper is very important. For the ruling class newspapers are crucial in their attempt to mould public opinion. They actually boast that they can determine the mood of the population, which is an exaggeration.

Crucially, in periods of high tension, periods of revolutionary eruptions, they do not have that influence. At those times the mass of the people move beyond the norms of capitalist society. That’s when a newspaper of the labour movement comes into its own.

How did Militant first come about?

From very humble beginnings! It began with an idea. It began with a handful of people. We had a basis in Merseyside – where I come from – in south Wales, we had people in London, and we had comrades in Nottingham.

We were mostly young. Our vista was very broad and for the long term. We were enthusiastic, we would brook no obstacles.

I was in Liverpool at that stage. We had a very strong basis in the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS). There were 20 to 25 branches of the LPYS on Merseyside alone. We developed our position by arguing in the Merseyside LPYS federation. We actually controlled two branches. But over a period of two years we won over a majority.

issue 1000

issue 1000   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Then it was decided that I move to London to be the editor of the paper. The first issue of Militant was published in October 1964 – it kind of coalesced with the Labour government of Harold Wilson. It was very meagre – but we were very proud of it!

Militant started as an eight-page paper and then we had to retreat within six issues to a four-page paper because we didn’t have huge resources. Everything we collected we used on the production of the newspaper and – theoretically – to pay my wages.

And we built up the position over time – I’m talking here of years – into an organisation of 8,000 members in the 1980s with a very powerful paper that had huge influence. At one stage we had a headquarters and over 350 full or part-time workers on the paper, on our industrial work, on our youth work, etc. This was a source of envy to our opponents and we were attacked by right-wing Labour.

We first concentrated on young people in the LPYS and we carried material from our own comrades but also took up the ideas of our opponents. We collaborated with the Labour left, we had a close collaboration with Tony Benn, with people who supported the Tribune newspaper. We criticised them, but not in a sectarian manner. We weren’t hesitant about raising what our ideas were and our differences with them.

We organised debates and discussions in the LPYS branch meetings and at the national conferences of the LPYS.

There were basic tasks to be a supporter of the Militant. You had to write for the paper, even if it was a small report on some incident in the LPYS or in a factory. And you had to sell the paper – at that stage it was mostly sold in the LPYS, in the Labour Party and factories, not like it is today where it’s mostly sold on the streets and in workplaces.

At one stage we produced two newspapers – a national weekly and the Mersey Militant, which was produced weekly and sold in the Liverpool labour movement. The paper was the central thread, the organiser of our activity, the outline of our ideas, the educator of our supporters and also of those who read the paper.

There was a pride in our newspaper because the members who were selling it wrote for the newspaper as they do today, collected money for the newspaper in the pennies, in the pounds, in the shillings – all of that contributed to the building up of our paper.

And we were very proud of it, and our history. We had no big business backers, we got no subventions from the trade union bureaucracy, we got no money from Russia as we were accused – why would Stalinists give to Trotskyists?

What role did Militant play in struggle?

The Militant newspaper (now the Socialist) was crucial in organising resistance to Thatcher's poll tax

The Militant newspaper (now the Socialist) was crucial in organising resistance to Thatcher’s poll tax

It played a crucial role. It was a guide to action for the readers of the paper and for those who played a role in building the labour movement and building our political influence.

You don’t produce a paper for the sake of it but to intervene in the class struggle, which takes many different forms. We were lucky to live through one of the most tumultuous periods in working class history.

There were day-to-day struggles taking place in the factories. There were the events of 1968. In France 10 million workers occupied the factories, the greatest general strike in history, and reached out for the power. This had a huge effect internationally. For the first time workers were saying to us ‘it looks as though the working class are going to take the power’.

We also intervened that year in the events in Czechoslovakia. We marched down Park Lane in London leading an LPYS demonstration selling the paper, giving our analysis of what was happening in Czechoslovakia. We did the same thing in relation to the Portuguese revolution of 1974, when the Times newspaper said capitalism was dead, because 70% of industry was taken over. But this revolution was not completed and capitalism made a comeback.

But the key issues for the development of our paper in Britain were the questions of what happened in Liverpool between 1983 and 1987 and of the movement against the Poll Tax.

Supporters of Militant were the backbone of the struggle in Liverpool. At each stage our newspaper charted that struggle and our role.

On the council we put forward a needs budget. We convinced the Liverpool labour movement of this. Only eleven councillors supported Militant but our ideas were adopted and taken up by the labour movement as a whole and by the district Labour Party.

The council set a needs budget. Thatcher was forced to retreat because she was fighting on two fronts at that time: against the miners and Liverpool. She was forced to give concessions to Liverpool. But once the miners’ strike was defeated because of the role of the TUC, she came after Liverpool.

Thatcher demanded that Kinnock, then Labour leader, carry through expulsions of Militant, and he obliged. They thought that by cutting off the head, which was the Militant editorial board, the body would die. That didn’t happen.

We went onto victories in the Poll Tax struggle. We had some illusions to begin with in winning the trade unions and the Labour Party to our position. But in Scotland we saw the way that the trade unions and Labour Party leadership abandoned the field of struggle. But we organised a million people in Scotland not the pay the Poll Tax.

I was once selling the paper at Walthamstow tube station in east London: “Buy the Militant, it gives an analysis of the Poll Tax, we’re going to defeat the Poll Tax.” But a worker said: “Listen mate, how can you defeat the Poll Tax and defeat Thatcher? She defeated Galtieri in Argentina and the miners. What are you going to do against that?” I said: “Do you know a million people are not paying the Poll Tax in Scotland?” He didn’t.

That was the propaganda of the deed. It meant that when the Poll Tax was implemented a year later throughout Britain, all hell broke loose. We had unprecedented mass meetings. We defeated the Poll Tax and Thatcher – the Iron Lady was reduced to iron filings, she was forced to retire and the rest is history.

We were able to lead that mass movement and Militant established itself as the most successful Trotskyist organisation in finding an echo among the working class.

Then of course we had the collapse of Stalinism, which created a new situation. There was a capitalist counterrevolution in Russia and eastern Europe. That was used for an enormous international campaign against the ideology of socialism and in favour of capitalism. This has been a cloud hanging over the labour movement to one extent or another since.

But we kept our nerve, we analysed the situation, we were still engaged in struggle, and we armed the working class for the future battles to come.

In 1997, Militant became the Socialist – why did we change our name at that point?

Issue 1 of the Socialist campaigned against the privatisation of the NHS

Issue 1 of the Socialist campaigned against the privatisation of the NHS   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

There was a big debate in our ranks. Not everybody agreed with the decision. We’re a democratic party, we had a full discussion. It went to our national congress and we took a vote in favour of changing the name.

The basic reason was because the word ‘militant’, when we first named our newspaper, was identified with the more advanced layer of the working class and industrial struggle. It’s still used in that sense today as well, but it’s now muddled up and confused by the press with ‘militant right-wing Islamic fundamentalists’.

People often judge you, from a distance at least, by your banner, and we thought that if we changed our name to Socialist Party and the Socialist newspaper, that would be more in tune with what we were trying to say at that stage.

We were trying to rehabilitate the ideas of socialism that had suffered a heavy blow by the collapse of Stalinism. The propaganda of the bourgeois did have some effect on sections of the working class. It had a bigger effect on the tops of the labour movement. Blair led a capitalist counterrevolution against the socialist aspirations of the Labour Party. And that was taken up internationally.

Social democracy in its classical form is finished; it cannot exist as a viable stable form today. The world economic crisis of 2007-08 undermined it. In the enormous growth of inequality that exists in capitalist society at the present time, you couldn’t find a greater confirmation of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky. Socialism is now back on the agenda of young people, workers and the labour movement.

Is that why, despite it being difficult around the time we launched the Socialist, we put such efforts into maintaining a newspaper?

Yes. I was interviewed in that period on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman. He saw us as a kind of historical curiosity more than anything else.

He said, “Why do you do it Mr Taaffe? Why do you carry on?” I said, “Because capitalism will not solve the problems of working people and socialism will return. We’re confident in that.”

He asked: “Aren’t you dissuaded by what’s happened in the Soviet Union and the swing towards the right in the Labour Party?” I replied: “No because we believe that’s a temporary phase. Ten or 20 years in the life of a man or a woman is a long time, but ten years in the life of a society is a minute. ” We said it will break.

And that break did occur. We’ve had many twists and turns in the situation, but the major indicator is towards the inevitable radicalisation in society, particularly reflected in the new generation.

When we founded Militant in 1964 it was objectively a paradise compared to the situation that faces young people today, with foodbanks, terrible poverty and people sleeping on the streets, and moreover no prospect of alleviating that situation on the basis of capitalism.

So people will be looking for answers. We have to be there to give them answers politically. We have to then provide a route to begin to change the situation.

A renaissance of the trade unions is taking place today. It might be on a very basic level to begin with – we want a living wage, we want a job, we want the prospect of tomorrow being better than today, we want to have a future for young people.

Above all, the people who’ve got the greatest stake in change and socialism is the new generation. They might not be completely aware of that, but they’re kicking against the system. Loaded down with as much debt as Chinese peasants had in the past, and they’ll never pay off these loans, and extortionate rents.

At every twist and turn they come up against capitalism in one form or another. That’s the first stage. The next stage will be fighting in their school or workplace. And then realising that there has to be a general solution to the problems of society.

That’s where we come in. What is the instrument for creating this new society? It has to be a party – a democratic and socialist party, with internal democracy and discussion in order to politically re-arm this new generation for the struggles to come.

That’s what the Socialist newspaper and our party is all about. It’s a weekly at the moment. However, it will become a more frequent paper, maybe twice weekly – the perspective that we had in 1964. It will have more pages. And eventually we’ll have to have a daily, which will cater for the multitude of struggles that will break out.

That has to complement other forms of mass media that are an important feature of the struggle today too.

How is the Socialist different?

In the July/August edition of Socialism Today, Sarah Wrack, editor of the Socialist, looks at the Socialist at issue 1000. She asks if it’s correct that the main publication of the Socialist Party remains our weekly printed newspaper. How is the Socialist changing in response to new technology? What is the role of a revolutionary socialist paper in the era of Corbynism? Below is an extract.

The printed press is in crisis. Local and regional papers were hit hardest first. Some closed. Many more have carried out extreme cost-cutting, leaving their one or two remaining journalists producing, as former editor of the Daily Mirror Roy Greenslade put it, “something that looks like a paper, but the content lacks any real value”.

The Independent pitched itself as forward thinking and modern for moving to an online-only format. The New Day,

a venture by Trinity Mirror supposedly designed to attract social media-savvy non-newspaper readers to buy a printed publication, lasted only two months.

But at the same time as the New Day was going under, the Socialist was six months into a very successful sales campaign. Because we are not the same as the capitalist printed press.

We are not a faceless company trying to convince people to pick up a newspaper from the shop shelf. Our sales are active. We are on the street campaigning, talking to people about socialist ideas for the anti-austerity movement and why they need to read and support the Socialist.

Most of our ‘customers’ are people we intervene alongside in the trade unions, on university campuses and in community campaigns. They see our sellers in action as some of the best fighters in those movements and identify the Socialist as a tool that guides them in that role.

We’re different to the establishment papers because our content is different. Our articles are written by workers and young people themselves – reporting from the coal face to answer the lies of the capitalist class.

The establishment newspapers instead promote those lies. Why? Because their CEOs and shareholders are the capitalists. Five billionaire men own 80% of printed newspapers in the UK, as well as a host of other media. The very role of those papers is to defend the interests of the capitalist system. Alongside the fake news scandals, outrageous episodes of front-page racism and attacks on workers and their unions, no wonder swathes of ordinary people have turned their backs.

But the main direct cause of the crisis for the capitalist papers is not actually a fall in sales but in advertising.

The group that owns the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and the Metro reported a 13% decline in print ad revenue in six months of 2016. In the US, following a ‘steady decline’ of 5-8% a year from 2010 to 2015, one study showed a massive 31.5% fall in national print advertising in 2016 alone. While online ad revenue is increasing, it still makes up a much smaller proportion of the publishers’ incomes.

The Guardian, which suffered an £11 million fall in advertising revenue in 2016, has turned to asking readers to become ‘members’ and pay a regular donation to compensate for this loss. Its editor-in-chief wrote that this was necessary because “the business model for journalism is failing”.

In other words, it is a recognition that support for the message of the paper is a stronger basis to go forward on. This, of course, has always been the Socialist’s approach.

The only advertising the Socialist accepts is from groups of working class people who value what we do and want to support us. For example, in this year’s May Day greetings campaign we raised £7,530 from trade union branches, campaigns and local Socialist Party groups.

Beyond that we are funded entirely by sales and donations from people who want to read what we’re saying and support the idea of working class people and socialists having our own independent media.