What kind of paper?

From Iskra to Pravda

Comrade Reece Bowman (Letters) has a point. Comrades new to left politics picking up the Weekly Worker for the first time may quite possibly be "instantly intimidated" and a minority even "disenchanted".

After all, we know plenty of comrades who have been in left politics for quite some time who feel the same way. While the Weekly Worker has carved out a space for itself as required reading amongst the leaderships of various groups, the further down you go in an organisation like the Socialist Workers Party, for example, the greater the degree of hostility and incomprehension you will encounter.

There is a general recognition that our paper has many faults. The criticisms that have been advanced - particularly by newer comrades - internally and in letters to this paper are not without validity. Lawrie Combs is correct when he writes that for most of the 'ordinary' people we may encounter while canvassing in the forthcoming general election, our paper is unlikely to become a must-read weekly - "They may buy once, but not again," he suggests (Weekly Worker March 8). Much of the contents of our paper would "baffle the 'rank and file' teenage wage slave", James Bull writes. Based on the comrade's experiences of trying to sell the paper in his college, he believes that "the paper champions real politics, but it lacks accessibility, and the two are not, cannot be, mutually exclusive" (Weekly Worker March 15).

It is certainly true that the Weekly Worker has a narrow and one-sided feel to it. I would argue that this is in most part a reflection of the task that our organisation regards as key at the moment, but certainly it is needlessly exacerbated by other failings. The paper tends to reflect on events in the world far too passively: it lacks a real campaigning edge in its reports or an interventionist style of journalism. Take this issue. While it may have a number of reports of Socialist Alliance actions around the country, much of the publication has a degree of purely polemical style about it. Indeed, from this paper onwards, the editorial team are attempting to shift into "general election mode" - to step up the campaigning aspect of the paper, to reflect in a more imaginative and bold way the work of the Socialist Alliance and our role within it.

A lot of our problems have to be explained by the extreme pressure on the small team that put the paper together every week. In terms of time and personnel, these problems have actually got worse over the recent period, allowing the comrades even less time to reflect on the paper as a package, to more consciously direct its angles of intervention, its style and tone. The comrades regularly perform small miracles in producing the Weekly Worker and deserve the thanks of the whole Party.

At the same time, we must be critical. We are not an organisation that has ever been characterised by smugness or self-satisfaction. What we write in our newspaper is correct: it contains good politics. But we must also judge it as a newspaper, as a means of communicating our ideas and of winning new partisans.

Ideally, a good paper should have different tempos and modes of comment. The points of entry into our politics should be multi-levelled. Our paper would be enlivened by more interviews, reviews and smaller, more precisely targeted items. For instance, our one-time paper, The Leninist - not generally regarded as a 'dumbed down' publication on the left - regularly featured a column called '&' which poked fun at other sections of the left and bourgeois politicians, told jokes and recounted amusing anecdotes highlighting particular aspects of our more general political critique. At its best, this column could make such cutting observations that organisations felt compelled to answer its short digs with lengthy counter-polemics.

Of course, just as it is our collective responsibility to say what is wrong with our press, it is also our collective responsibility to critically engage with it, not simply be passive consumers. As I wrote last week, cell secretaries have the responsibility to ensure that the paper is regular discussed and contributed to by members.

Okay, so we all understand that there are subjective and objective limits to what we can achieve with the Weekly Worker at present. As an organisation, we must fight to contribute more to it, to overcome those faults we see in its pages.

However, can we - should we try to - write something that approximates to a mass, popular working class newspaper today? We are not capable of this. In fact, no group is, whatever the pretensions of such truly boring publications as Socialist Worker or The Socialist. Quite simply this is because the 'mass' audience - judged as a political category, not one of inert numbers - is not there.

So we have limits imposed on us by the resources we have available to us as writers, by the general political circumstances we find ourselves in, by our errors and failings as individual human beings. But fundamentally, we have to ask what our paper is for at this stage of its development: what is our main task? Is it to win the masses for revolution? No, not yet. Our paper is in its Iskra phase rather than its Pravda.

The first issue of Iskra in December 1900, edited by Lenin and five others who were to become Mensheviks in the future, set itself the central aim of an open ideological struggle to purge the Russian revolutionary movement of political strands alien to Marxism. To this end "it mocked and flayed [the economists] cruelly for their desire at all costs to lay the workers upon the Procrustean bed of peaceful economic demands ... the newspaper waged a campaign against the Socialist Revolutionaries ... Iskra's campaign against the SRs, however, produced deep disquiet among ... a certain section of workers who said: why fight amongst ourselves?" (G Zinoviev History of the Bolshevik Party p74).

Martov, a future Menshevik leader - neatly captured the blunt, no-nonsense, expositional Iskra style when he commented that the editors of this paper "strove to make sure that 'all that is ridiculous' appears in 'a ridiculous form'" and to "expose 'the very embryo of a reactionary idea hidden behind a revolutionary phrase'" (cited in M Liebman Leninism under Lenin London 1985, p29).

Many of the pages of Iskra were filled with seemingly esoteric arguments, far beyond the understanding of the mass of the class, or even of many advanced workers who sincerely believed in revolution and socialism. Again as Lenin's deputy, Zinoviev, notes, "The psychology of workers living under the yoke of tsarism was such that they said: let all revolutionaries irrespective of party and their differences unite closely together and teach us how to fight against the autocracy" (Zinoviev, p74). Many were "disenchanted" with the paper, in other words, and "on all sides, Iskra's opponents condemned the polemical methods of this journal, which was accused, to quote Trotsky's testimony at the time, of 'fighting not so much against the autocracy as against the other factions in the revolutionary movement'" (Liebman, p29).

We get a contemporary version of the same philistine sentiment from Timothy Lessells, a Socialist Party comrade (Weekly Worker Letters, March 8). He criticises much of what he reads in our paper every week as the antics of "stupid petty bourgeois academics playing a game in their own world, where everyone knows about and cares about the most academic, petty, pathetic, insignificant left event ever ... Start with what people understand, then develop them politically, raise their consciousness."

And we ask - "develop" them as what, comrade? Raise their consciousness to what? The programmatic failure of the left - the entire left - in the 20th century underlines that it is not capable of giving a revolutionary lead to the working class. Just as the revolutionary left in Russia was in no position to 'teach' the workers how to fight tsarism effectively, our left as presently constituted is incapable of providing revolutionary Marxist leadership to our class - it does not even know what such leadership looks like.

The Russian left that Iskra "mocked and flayed cruelly" (Zinoviev) was mired in economism, had no understanding of the nature of a genuine revolutionary workers' party or its programme. Sound familiar?

The vital theoretical and ideological preparatory work undertaken by Iskra - work that made it read like a "trade journal" of the Russian revolutionary left, to echo the words of comrade Lawrie Coombs - laid the basis for publications like the mass-circulation revolution daily, Pravda, launched in 1912 with a circulation of 60,000, rising to 130,000 by the time of its second anniversary. Pravda "gradually wrested one factory after another from the Mensheviks. Workers would send tens and hundreds of dispatches into the newspaper, which had become a sort of general staff of the movement and an organising centre ... The Mensheviks, who were suffering defeats everywhere, in their newspaper explained them by the 'Pravda epidemic' which was raging through the working class of St Petersburg and the main cities ... Pravda became the best friend of any working class family ..." (Zinoviev, pp180-81).

The ability of Pravda to become the paper of the Russian working class as it reached out for democracy and revolution, to merge itself with its movement and in a sense to become its own voice, was not in contradiction to the harsh and painstaking work of theoretical clarification and struggle undertaken by Iskra - it was a brilliant confirmation of it.

When we criticise our paper today, we should bear this profound truth in mind.

Mark Fischer