Pamphlets, polemics and a left press
Dave Osler posted a while ago on the subject of a crashingly dull left press, and subsequently about what made political pamphlets great. These are important questions to ask, and they’ve been in my thoughts of late. What follows, then, aims to describe in short what I think ‘the Left’ needs in regard to its press, and what could make it interesting.
I don’t think the age of political pamphleteering has gone. Our problem is to properly conceive what pamphleteering involved.
Broadly speaking, pamphlets divide into two categories. The first is the scurrilous, satirical pamphlet, often of bawdy content. Daniel Defoe and others like him wrote in this style; a wealthy man of means Defoe could dedicate time and resource to his political aims. This tradition was taken over by Punch magazine and Private Eye.
Good writers of simple style and shrewd eye, like Gerald Winstanley or Thomas Paine, and their more earnest tracts, only came to the fore during revolutionary times. Paine, Winstanley, Marx and others had few other means than what they could carry with them. Paine and Marx travelled Europe during the course of their writing career.
For these men, pamphleteering was not an individual activity; it occurred within a specific milieu of support. That’s one of the things we lack today. Men like Paul Foot and Leon Trotsky survived through their journalism, which was of high standard. Trotsky’s war dispatches from the Balkans are even today an important repository.
Avenues such as that have been largely closed to us too, as anyone who has been reading Nick Davies’ oeuvre will recognise. However it is important to recognize that doors like this one may gradually re-open as interest resumes in struggle around the world, thrown into sharper relief by heightened tensions and struggles at home.
Our real difference is technological. If we look back at 20th century literary fashion, modernism, existentialism, structuralism, postcolonialism and postmodernism to name a few, we realise that the largest part of these passed mass movements by. Intersection ‘twixt people and intelligentsia occurred only rarely, often only in the pages of the press.
Pamphleteers such as Orwell famously wrote for the Daily Mail and went the route of populism. At the opposite pole, specialisation grew up where the authors in question required a specialised vocabulary to explain academic concepts and categories and their relevance to a wider audience. This was the generation of the New Left Review, for example.
The line between pamphlet and ‘news’ blurred. The subject of the pamphlets we remember were rooted in the events du jour, but added an abstract element. More quickly forgotten were the pamphlets that were entirely based upon events and which sought only to provoke amusement. Hence why I keep my London Review copies and bin Private Eye.
We need a combination of both. I don’t think that to say this is controversial. Making fun of television, witty book reviews and cartoons all from a left-wing slant – even the most populist – slot neatly between articles of substance. Here lies the combination of both types of pamphleteer – the Olly’s Onions and a writing style like I make a pretence at.
All of this needs to be tempered, however, with genuine news. One of the most successful columns, to my mind, in Private Eye, is their Rotten Boroughs. It’s only by reading this that I’ve even come close to understanding just how power is being leeched out of democratic institutions by full-time staff, ‘consultants’ and red tape.
Blogs by local councillors help with this to some extent, though I’ve yet to see one so prodigious and insightful as Paul Cotterill’s. By stressing something like this, I’m presupposing that the hypothetical publication is prepared to be ‘ideological’ and that some common ground exists amongst a wide potential audience – and I don’t think that’s unreasonable.
If we counterpose something like this to an institutional magazine, like the Young Fabians’ Anticipations, we can automatically see the difference. Seven articles in the latest Young Fabians’ magazine deal with the Millenium Development Goals – zero articles deal with practical, activist-driven politics on our own doorstep.
I don’t mean this as a criticism; navigating CLPs are hard at the best of times. Trying to puzzle out a) what local government are doing and b) whether it is legal, fair or the right thing to do when no one is prepared to actually sit down and explain the basics is damn near impossible. Nor do I mean to say that local should forever override international issues.
As Dave Osler says, however; maybe our publications would be more interesting and more relevant if instead of writing pieces about Chavez and Venezuela, or having ghost-written copy under the names of union leaders, we actually focussed on what activists were doing. Add a touch of verve and satire to this and I genuinely think we’d be off to the races.
One of the mistakes I think that Derek Draper’s Labour List has made is involving literally ANY government minister. Ministers should be relegated to the comments boxes and the articles themselves commissioned by specialist editors and written by activists who are free to make whatever criticisms they wish.
A section for local government, a section for the latest Tory policy proposals, a section for public services, a section for issues of union and Party democracy…all of these could have been built into Labour List. Draper and his editors could then have trawled the entire Laboursphere and asked those likely to be ‘in the know’ to write specially commissioned articles.
I think the opportunity for this sort of structured – and therefore more open – engagement has been lost to the anarchic whirlwind that reduces Labour List to a more erudite, more famous version of MembersNet. A hard copy publication of whatever interval can’t follow such a pattern of anarchy and therein would lie its strength, in my humble opinion.
Concretely, however, a big problem is finding the resources for such an endeavour. Whether Labour Briefing, the New Statesman or the Socialist Campaign Group News, those involved in these efforts are also invested, in that they want the efforts to succeed and would consider it a failure if their way of doing things had to change.
The internet can potentially revolutionise news gathering, meaning that a small, dedicated staff of professional journalists could be notified quickly by an activist base of stories that required following up. Added to this flexible, responsive reporting could be perhaps one or two articles per publication from theoretical heavyweights.
Academics on the socialist Left still exist, whether it’s Professor Callinicos or the collected members of LEAP, and there are plenty in the blogosphere who have a claim on some theoretical expertise. Regardless of party affiliation, they should be invited to contribute, and there should be energetic and amusing debate in the letters’ section.
Problem number one, of course, remains: where will the funding come from?