Web of possibility
As this paper attains another milestone, Mark Fischer looks at its prospects and changing relationship with the internet
The 800th edition of the Weekly Worker is a useful staging post to review the progress of our paper, the organisation that sustains it and the general state of the left milieu we operate in.
The CPGB aggregate on January 23 has two important agenda items related to this - a discussion on our political perspectives for 2010 and beyond, plus plans for our new, revamped website and its relationship to our weekly paper. So all comrades in and around our organisation will get a chance to have their tuppenceworth in this vital discussion. In this brief article however, I will concentrate on some of the strengths and weaknesses of our paper - although, of course, I must make references to our opponents on the left to illustrate certain points.
The last time we wrote an overview like this, the author, editor Peter Manson, noted: “… nowadays most readers come by way of the internet - the ratio of electronic to print readers is around 20 to one.” A redesign was in the offing and the role of the site in our work would grow, the comrade continued. But while our print and electronic profiles were not in contradiction, the print version would provide “the primary fuel or raw material” for the web (Weekly Worker December 18 2008).
This changing relationship between our printed weekly publication and the web is the key one for comrades to get their head around. It has prompted one leading comrade to dub the paper version of the Weekly Worker a “calling card”. Clearly, that relationship is evolving. Take, for example, the three traditional purposes of a party’s central organ - to educate, agitate and organise.
The fact that our paper is overwhelmingly read on the internet means its educational role - complemented by the archive of back issues and other websites we may link to or reference - also takes place mostly in cyberspace. Related to this, we note that the young comrades who have come towards us (and other groups on the left in recent years) have tended to be self-taught, if a little eclectically sometimes, in Marxism and on the left itself via the web.
The physical production of the Weekly Worker certainly imposes a collective discipline on the team that works on and supports it, anticipating in skeletal form a Communist Party in that sense. But the vast bulk of our organising work in the wider sense of the term - campaigning, building actions and party events, mobilising solidarity - is undertaken online, not simply on our website, but via social networking sites such as Facebook. Ditto agitation, particularly on the Hands Off the People of Iran website, of course.
The problem of the interrelationship of print and new media is hardly unique to us. Mainstream bourgeois papers are struggling to adapt. The sites of the revolutionary left are almost uniformly dull, amateur and barely worth visiting twice, unless - like myself and some unfortunate MI5 officers out there, I presume - it’s your job. And no wonder. They produce dull newspapers, retailing dull politics, which find expression in their dull online presences.
Of course, our interim Weekly Worker site itself is pretty ropey at the moment. We have been slow to reinstate a full version after the attack that brought down our old one in June of last year. Partially, this has been the usual tale of inefficiencies and clashing work priorities. But we have also tried to take the opportunity to attempt a systematic think through of what we need from our site, how the strengths of this paper can be translated into - and enhanced by - a revamped online facility. Let us revisit the ‘holy trinity’ again with this in mind.
Educate: Our paper takes its readers seriously. Week after week, we could fill our paper with dark tales of greedy bankers, the myriad sins of New Labour and puffs for what a top idea socialism is. More of the same tedious tripe you will find in the bulk of the rest of the left, in other words. The fact that we often give over our pages to longer articles that demand more of our readers is a reflection of our attitude to the working class itself. As a future ruling class, it must master high politics and be adept in questions of theory. The dumbed-down papers of the revolutionary left express their genuine attitude to the chances for working class self-rule - that the nice-but-dim proles just aren’t up to it …
But we educate - that is, seek to impart ideas we believe to be true and fight those we think are wrong and harmful - in other ways as well. This paper wages an open polemical war of extermination against all species of opportunism - economism, Respect-type popular frontism, Campaign for a New Workers’ Party halfway-housism, social imperialism, national socialism, etc.
A 12-page paper format is obviously more limited than the internet, where we can supplement this combative material with hyperlinks to previous WW articles or different websites, videos of related openings from our own schools or other courses, podcasts, etc. This will require us organising the material on our site in a far more systematic fashion, to provide comrades not simply with search facilities to find particular words or phrases, or the presentation of the papers in a chronological order (both of which will continue to be available, obviously). In addition, the site’s architecture will actively recommend important articles and features to readers as they click on particular topics.
We are also looking at the facilities for allowing readers to make comments on and discuss articles and topics featured on the site - with the caveat that we are wary of simply opening ourselves up to the hordes of antagonistic trolls out there with a grudge against the CPGB. However, the letters page of the Weekly Worker is one of its strongest features, we believe, and we must look to replicate it online.
From the time our political tendency began to publish in 1981, we have encouraged our readers to write critically and they have responded enthusiastically. We have no problem in filling a letters page every week - often it is two. We give them prominence on the inside front page, in contrast other leftwing publications that either have no letters (compelling evidence of their nature as dead publications, talking to no-one) or tuck them towards the back. We feature them upfront because we want engagement, the accountability of our writers and press and a grown-up dialogue with our readers. Our new website must look to strengthen and expand that dialogue.
Organise: The web must become a means to build campaigns, events and mobilisations politically, not simply logistically. We will have sufficient flexibility in the new site to present background readings, relevant theoretical material and briefings to clue comrades up on why our organisation is prioritising this campaign or that initiative - that is, why you should get involved, not just the when and where.
Agitate: A weekly newspaper cannot hope to compete with the immediacy of the web when it comes to reportage, or covering breaking events. Sites that have grown up around us over the past few years of work - that of Hopi, Communist Students and numerous comrades’ blogs - have taken this role. With due consideration to editorial overview, we will make more of this sort of material on the party site and, again, link it with material that will explain in more depth the significance of what we are featuring.
Clearly, this is a period of transition for our paper, for our website and the CPGB itself. The left’s window of opportunity in the field of elections has been reduced. The unelectability of the Conservatives until relatively recently and the consequent absence of any fear about ‘splitting the anti-Tory vote’ created the space for a united left - if it had been so inclined - to patiently begin to build support in wider society for the ideas of Marxism. Consistent readers of our paper over the years will be aware that instead the opportunity was frittered away in hopeless attempts to fool workers at the ballot box with warmed-over social democracy or left populism and finally trash-canned by the poisonously opportunist dash for the big time in the form of the pop-frontist Respect.
It has been this paper that has documented this debacle, criticised and fought the backtracking every inch of the way and, now that our class needs clarity and vision to successfully fight the attacks looming on it from whatever stripe of government faces it after the looming general election, has consistently drawn the lessons for the movement. This is the method of this publication and its consequent incalculable worth to the fight for a Marxist party worthy of the name.
We urge you to support it and to get involved in the discussion on its future role.