In defence of paper sales

Black and white image of three men standing in a road. One is offering a range of newspapers to the other two.

In the aftermath of anti-Trans bigotry and violence in Melbourne and Sydney some progressive activists have focused their wrath on socialists rather than the bigots, police or the state. Attacks on the right of socialists to openly organise and proclaim their politics only strengthens the powers that be and undermines solidarity. Revolutionaries of every tendency should support one another in the face of liberal reaction.

On the 18th of March anti-Trans bigot Posie Parker’s “Let Women Speak” tour stopped in Melbourne. Neo-Nazis from the National Socialist Network turned up in support of her event and used the publicity to broadcast their own hateful message. During Parker’s event the police not only facilitated the neo-Nazi demonstration and the TERF event, they also attacked and injured counter protestors from the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism and other collectives. 

A week later, the Community Action for Rainbow Rights (CARR) in Sydney held a small counter-demonstration against Mark Latham and One Nation hosting a similar event attacking the trans community. This time the minority counter-protestors were overwhelmed and violently assaulted by roughly one hundred thugs from the right wing Maronite ‘Christian Lives Matter’.

These kinds of confrontational events, where the Left is seriously challenged not only by the state but also right wing forces tends to create fractures amongst progressives. The above events were no exception. Thankfully the next leg of Parker’s tour to New Zealand was overwhelmed by pro-trans rights rallies and her subsequent events cancelled. On the 31st of March, Melbourne’s International Transgender Day of Visibility rally was peaceful and well attended. Rallies across the rest of the country were also successful.

It is disturbing that the Right mobilised a violent mob in Sydney to attack leftists, and that fascists in Melbourne broadcast their slogans across Australia and the rest of the world. In the wake of these events a disappointing number of people on the Left have turned against some of the last people they should consider their enemy, Socialist Alternative.

Some of the complaints circulated need to be addressed. They are repeated every few years but never hold any weight. The arguments can generally be summarised as follows. Socialist Alternative ‘co-opt’ movements for their own ‘agenda’. Their agenda however is revolutionary socialism, a goal that many of us share. There is nothing pernicious about such intentions, unless you do not believe in equality and freedom.

That they are ‘dishonest’ about their intentions. Those being the building of a revolutionary party, militant social movements, and revolution. While one might disagree with their analysis of the role of the revolutionary party, or even parties in general, Socialist Alternative are not dishonest about this intention. If at times they operate through broader campaign groups, this is because politics requires working together! Knowing when and how to build principled alliances is foundational to mature and realistic politics. If someone disagrees with the prospects of militant social movements or revolution, then they are a reformist and a liberal and it is almost to be expected they would want to silence socialists. 

There is an argument that socialists should follow the lead of people from a particular marginalised community. Firstly, this discounts those members of socialist organisations of particular identities. In the current round of accusations, some have even gone so far as to allege Trans members of Socialist Alternative are ‘fake trans.’ This is particularly disgusting, but the general attitude is extremely patronising and seeks to limit the topics anyone can ever speak on. It would be easy to dismiss such ridiculous comments online if they did not have real world consequences, encouraging sectarianism in organising spaces.

The silliest critique however is that socialists are ‘profiting’ from paper sales. This is completely ignorant of reality. Radical newspapers are printed at a loss, they are paid for by the substantial dues that members of revolutionary organisations fund and facilitate the spreading of anti-capitalist ideas. Much of this dues money pays for social movements. 

So let’s call these arguments by their name: Red Baiting. These are right wing arguments wrapped in left-wing rhetoric, that in effect silence radical critiques of capitalism and marginalise anti-capitalist organising. If socialists are to be prevented from arguing for their politics, what politics will dominate? We live in a capitalist society where struggle against the status quo is uncommon. Ideas that perpetuate the status quo are dominant. When someone argues that socialist ideas should not be expressed they are in effect, if not intentionally, endorsing the powers-that-be. The capitalist state and its parties, Liberal, Labor or Green, continue to dominate space with reformist politics backed by money and messaging. 

It is a simple fact that radical politics require organisation and communication. Papers, leaflets, journals, podcasts, speakouts and demonstrations are all fundamental components of developing an anticapitalist movement. Using a paper or a leaflet is a tool to engage people in political discussion. It should not just be defended, it should be encouraged, especially on the far-Left. If Labor members aren’t attempting to win people over at protests with stalls and papers it is because they don’t need to, our oppressive society already favours the particular interests the Labor party represents.

At rallies revolutionary groups have the opportunity to speak to people that can be won over to radical ideas. Quite often socialist groups are the ones doing the groundwork for social movements. While the virtues of Socialist Alternatives ‘movementist’ approach to politics can be debated as strategy (that is, sometimes jumping from campaign to campaign in the moment it is popular, and abandoning it if their own organisation cannot grow), their efforts over the years to contribute to social movements and push them in a militant direction are commendable.

It is not a question of ‘winning’ or ‘earning’ the right to speak at an event. The right to present a critique of the powers that be should be defended. In this the socialist paper or leaflet has a particular role, it helps trace the intricate connections of oppression in a capitalist society, drawing them back to their fundamental cause. Whatever the limits of the particular way Socialist Alternative or its individual members conduct this work, it is far better than no one in this space publicly arguing for socialist politics at all. An attack on the right of one socialist organisation to publicly declare their politics is an attack on the rest of the Left.

Furthermore, the argument that only those of a particular identity have the right to political opinions in particular spaces ignores the complexity of reality. Bourgeois or socialist politics can co-exist within a social movement or a spectrum of identity. Revolutionary politics aim to overcome the divisions of identity by destroying the barriers of class, while liberals hide behind the complexities of identity and oppression to perpetuate class. 

Though liberals and bureaucrats would disparage the role of radicals in history, the fact remains socialists have always played key roles in building and supporting movements of oppressed minorities throughout history. Socialist Alternative are no exception. This is not to say that they cannot be critiqued from the Left. It could be argued that the CARR rally in Sydney was adventurist. Socialist Alternative did not put in the time and effort to build alliances and mobilise a broader community and preferred to posture as the ‘radical’ fringe of a movement. An unintended consequence of their actions was the rally being violently overwhelmed by right wing thugs. This has negative repercussions for the rest of the movement but it does not outweigh the solidarity deserved by those who suffered violence. 

Right now it is not realistic to think that every liberal can be won over to revolutionary politics. It is inevitable that people will feel challenged when confronted by politics that question the very foundations of the society we live in. Capitalism leaves us so atomised and alienated that anything approaching a committed, militant political organisation appears confrontational. In the face of all the pressures of this society, revolutionaries should stand by the oppressed, and also defend their right to proclaim socialist politics.

Image caption: An anarchist paper seller with copies of Les Temps Nouveaux next to L’Action Directe and L’Anarchie, as well as Freedom and other international publications. Screenshot from ‘Ni Dieu ni maître, une histoire de l’anarchisme’ by Tancrède Ramonet

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