some thoughts on our newspaper ‘the commune’

29 11 2009

Ahead of a discussion of publications at our 12th December aggregate meeting, David Broder looks at the role of a printed paper and critiques the issues of The Commune produced thus far.


While the Socialist Workers’ Party has recently suffered two of its pre-conference internal bulletins being ‘leaked’ on the web, we as a network have our internal discussions out in the open for all to see. We have nothing to hide: we do not think some leadership clique should have their discussions in private then reveal the predetermined line to the public. Anyone interested in The Commune should feel able to participate in deciding on its organisational and political development, and this is no less the case when it comes to our publications.

Why produce a newspaper?

The large majority of people interested in our network read its materials on the internet. The print run of The Commune is very low – at 200 a month – compared to the number of page views per month, which averages roughly 15,000 a month* (n.b. this is the figure for clicks on pages, not unique users) and this month was over 21,000.

Online our articles are free to access, and we incur only marginal costs for the website address, whereas even if all money from printed newspaper and pamphlet sales is returned to the network’s bank account, we barely break even.

However, there are several advantages to producing a printed paper

- Having a monthly schedule prompts people to write articles and comment on what we are doing right or wrong in a way they might not if only asked at irregular intervals.

- People who take out subscriptions to the paper read it on a regular basis, and furthermore may be encouraged to sell it to people in their contact circles who may well not come across us otherwise.

- The process of organising each issue allows for discussion of what should be the prominent themes in our publications and for us to present these publicly (both in the printed version and as the articles are published online).

- This gives the reader an easier and more rounded consumption of our ideas and analysis than if s/he happened to look at the website on any given day. Indeed, it means a combination of (and ideally some integration between) immediate/topical issues, whether in mainstream politics or in terms of strikes and demonstrations, and ‘big ideas’ of general theoretical or historical relevance.

- We reach a somewhat different audience: whereas most people nowadays are internet-savvy, those who do not follow the socialist news sites and ‘blogosphere’ would be unlikely to chance upon our site. Having a paper to sell at demonstrations, pickets, conferences etc. means we can reach activists who are engaged in more than just sitting at home surfing blogs (and helps us avoid doing so…), and also gives us a ‘prop’ with which to start conversations with people.

A paper cannot have quite the range of content, nor be as topical, as the website. However it is a more concise and understandable means for the reader to take in a wide range of ideas on diverse topics, combined into a single publication, even without prior knowledge of ourselves or the sectarian left ‘scene’.

Strengths and weaknesses of The Commune; potential pitfalls

We have so far published nine issues of The Commune.

Among the best of its content has been the ‘movement analysis’, for example of the anti-war movement over Gaza, the Lindsey Oil Refinery strikes, and migrant cleaners’ struggles.

We should avoid falling into the trap of becoming an industrial disputes sheet simply listing strikes – or, at a different level, jumping from strike to strike, month to month, with no ongoing themes. Socialist Worker, for example, has a tendency to tout the latest outbreak of class struggle as evidence of a general upturn, and substitutes triumphalism for analysis of the general state of our movement or what our direction needs to be.

To attract people’s interest to our type of perspectives, it is important to try and create some dynamic link between explanation of any given issue and general communist ideas. One way not to do this is to write a topical piece and end it with the words “… this shows that capitalism has no answers. Only communism can save the world.”… Equally to be avoided is to have a few pages of news reports on strikes, followed by a few pages of abstract philosophy with no apparent connection to the former. Preferable is to inform the news pieces with the analysis which underlies the ‘big ideas’ (e.g. look at how the state is bailing out the banks… this is the kind of thing the state is; or perhaps, look at how some left group fucked up this dispute… and here is another piece on the problems of ‘vanguardism’).

We have succeeded in creating a rare level of political diversity and free and open discussion, to the degree that as well as ourselves and “libertarian left”-type contributors we can also feature well-regarded labour movement writers like Sheila Cohen and Gregor Gall. A letters page and more feedback from our readers could add substantially to this. Ideally of course the discussion should largely relate to the activism and political debates in which we as activists are engaged on the ground, not just collate statements by outside groups.

References to other tiny left groups (esoteric to most people) are rare on our pages. Whereas there is a strong tendency for each and every left group to denounce all others as “sectarian” (and sectarianism really does exist), the only way to establish one’s non-sectarian credentials is to prove it in practice. Of course, flatly ignoring the existence of other left groups (as Socialist Appeal do, and to some extent the Socialist Party too) or sniping at other groups without mentioning them by name – so that only a few insiders know what is being talked about (common in Socialist Worker) – is not a way to get around this. Better is to tackle, honestly but head-on, those who really do have some influence in labour movement and activist circles, which largely means the SWP, Socialist Party and the Morning Star/CPB.

A recurring problem, which has drawn a number of comments even from keen and regular readers, is that the articles in The Commune are too long and the paper is too geared towards highbrow pieces heavy on jargon. For sure it is important to explore interesting, new (and often complex) ideas, and it would be worse still to patronise our readers, but there is no reason why we cannot get out of the habit of writing so many page-long articles. If you understand an idea properly yourself, you should be able to explain it in language anyone new to the subject could understand.

Deciding its content

As editor, a steady trickle of pieces comes to me and also to the group email account all the time, but among others I also write to people, inside and outside our network, asking for contributions to the website and paper.

Typically, a couple of weeks after the paper comes out, I write to the email list suggesting a deadline for articles for the next issue (based on finances and upcoming events we ought to either cover or sell The Commune at). Normally there will be a few articles on the site already which I will suggest for inclusion, and will ask what else people want to write or what they think ought to be included.

We have never faced the problem of there being simply too few articles. But here also tends not to be very much discussion of the content of the paper, and we should explore whether this is the product of a general consensus, or merely a lack of culture of collective decision-making.

There is a certain need for someone (far from necessarily me) to take initiative over such questions as the front page headline, configuration of the articles and the topic and tone of the editorial. Whereas it is not too difficult to discuss this on the email list or start off from a consensus-type position and ask if others object, it is not democratic if most people only passively consent to, or ‘rubber-stamp’ proposals made on these questions.

If someone would offer to edit/lay-out a couple of pages of each issue, for example taking over the industrial or international news pages, that would help ‘democratise’ the tasks somewhat, or else if they joined me with a laptop and we did the lay-out together. The lay-out does need to be somewhat ‘centralised’, i.e. because the actual mechanics of putting the articles and pages together in order and in a somewhat coherent fashion needs to be overseen ‘all at once’ not piece-by-piece.

Adversarial arguments and objections to others’ pieces being printed are best avoided, and it can only be a good thing if we respect the right of others to have their views printed even if people happen to disagree with them. In general we should seek a balance representing the spectrum of views in the group, but “heretical” standpoints’ right to be represented should not be conditional on the majority view writing a larger amount of copy for the paper.

Overall we have more political diversity and less confrontational discussions than other left groups, and disagreements do not have to break out into faction-fighting arguments between fixed positions, but we should also make sure to have a culture where people with less commonly-held positions or ideas are confident to assert their right to space in our paper.

*Web stats so far (click on image to enlarge)

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3 responses

30 11 2009
M

David,

Overall a good piece. I am still, however, unconvinced about the need for a print paper – many of the reasons you list regarding procedure and so forth, could be equally replicated by just running an online magazine using some software. It seems to me that selling papers still has some use (such as your example of protests and picket activists), but the tendency is away from this on the whole and imo it is more just a tradition within the left.

In regard to editing, my experience working in various journals is that ultimately even if you have a well established editorial committee the truth is that the job of editor often falls to one person alone, and it is very difficult, and perhaps not even very efficient, to try and change that dynamic. However, a dynamic website with sub-sections could be joint edited by various contributors much more easily.

So, what I think the Commune needs (and I would be happy to help to the best of my abilities) is simply a more dynamic website – more subsections and a more -conventional? – spread of news coverage, comment, etc.

7 12 2009
leo

I agree with the comment. I find the commune to be the best among the left groups at the moment. At the same time, if we all agree that the class struggle terrain is more complicated than the left presents it, the paper should give much more space to dialogue with workers and oppressed people, to inquiries and resulting analysing, step by step increasing the presence in the paper of workers/oppressed as workers/ oppressed. Thats what nobody is doing now. If this vital orientation is being rejected on the practical grounds such as the shortness of a monthly period, than why to stick to it, why not produce an irregular paper but pushing more to quality than quantity?
Another thing, the paper should spend even less space on engagements with the left. If the paper will clearly set out to become a facilitator of class struggle, it will imidiately stand out so much from others that it will attract all good and honest militants on the left (and the rest will never join class struggle anyway or just on its “tail” :-)) From my outsider’s point of view it’s no good to be too pedagogical about the left… it harms the left itself… they need much more a punch than a stroke…

14 12 2009
bill j

Personally I don’t see the point of this fetish of publishing internal documents, all it means in reality is that anything controversial or sensitive will not be included in them. The key thing I think is that there are is no limitation of debate, that people are allowed to defer from the “party line” inasmuch as there is one, and that organisational manoeuvres are not used to resolve political disputes. I also think that full timers should be rotated (if they’re necessary at all – generally they’re not) and elected by the entire organisation or the body that holds them to account, i.e. if they’re local they should be elected locally without any veto from the “leadership”.




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