Friday, 21 December 2012

A box, an archive, a scaffold (or, buying, reading, selling)

Nothing dates more quickly than yesterday’s news, right?

Governor Romney wound up his recent 19-day tour of the slums in our major cities with the warning that time is getting short before they break out in open rebellion.

“As I have rubbed elbows with those who live in the ghettos,” said this wealthy capitalist who is hopefully seeking the Republican nomination for President. “I am more convinced than ever before that unless we reverse our course and build a new America, the old America will be destroyed.”

Indeed, as Romney asserts, the old decadent America needs to be destroyed and a new America built in its stead. But the questions remain: Who can be relied upon to abolish the America of segregation, poverty and war and create a country of equality, security and peace? And how is it going to be done?

That last line gives it away. This isn’t yesterday’s news at all, but a report on Romney père from October 16, 1967, with socialist Evelyn Reed analysing how ‘Romney goes slumming’ for her column in The Militant.

A student recently gifted me a box of old socialist newspapers and pamphlets they’d been given from a 1968er cleaning out his garage; flicking through their pages just after this year’s presidential election I skimmed over Reed’s article and received one of those little shocks of the uncanny and historical recognition.

A box of yellowing old papers in a family garage. The image is at once commonplace and banal, and a symbol of so much that’s at stake in the shift from print to electronic reading technologies. Giovanni’s meditations, over a few years now, on what the relations between memory and technology mean for our historical sense (and for our institutional memory and record, in my own university especially) have set me thinking more seriously about the role of print in politics and political life. This unexpected gift of an old box set those associations working again.

Here’s how Giovanni describes the importance of the physical space of the library:

Think of the act walking in an aisle of twentieth century political writing. Somebody has selected the books that surround you. For better or worse, it’s a canon, bearing traces of accumulated institutional practice. But together the books also constitute a series of arguments. Their adjacency means something. And by physically being there – as opposed to scrolling through keywords in a database – you can survey the topic, acquire a sense of its breadth. Notice what’s missing. Make discoveries. In other words, browsing the shelves of a university library is – or should be – an education ­in itself.

Personal collections and physical archives offer insights into political formations. This inherited box, form the garage of a former member of the Socialist Action League – one of New Zealand’s earliest Trotskyist groups, and a real force on the 1970s far left – gives some sense of what texts were circulating, what international voices were heard, which debates had local currency. There are plenty of copies of The Militant from the United States, stacks of Socialist Outlook from Britain, cyclostyled internal bulletins from Australia, all much underlined and annotated. A small portrait of influence and intersections emerges.

Other physical traces matter in less quantifiable ways. These newspapers were obviously handed around for discussion and re-reading; CB, their one-time owner, has marked his name and address (in Devon Street, just a few doors down from where I once lived) on the top of each page. Second-hand books offer these kinds of occult lines too; I never met Judith Bird, but often wondered who she was due to the number of her books I’ve bought through the years. I found out recently, and after her death, that she’d been a stalwart of the Wellington union movement. Most of the Trotsky books I own were once RT’s, an activist at some stage in one of the factions of early New Labour. These are details that can’t be erased, or can’t easily be erased, and they remind us of the book as history, of history in books and papers and in the reminders and remainders political traditions leave as their traces around us.

But who’d be without the internet? I almost can’t imagine what political life was like before we could go online. All those groans – usually, it must be said, by people themselves inactive – about the naughtiness of ‘clicktivism’ miss the point entirely. We are able to follow events world-wide now, to share analyses and calls to action, to get responses to and critiques of right-wing media reporting produced and disseminated in a matter of hours. In a country as isolated geographically as New Zealand, this is about money as much as time. I read far more socialist newspapers and analyses now than I’d ever have been able to afford to subscribe to in the days before the internet; the excitement of following the Egyptian revolution day-by-day, and the gathering sense of the urgency of solidarity and action, give the old slogans of internationalism a quite new energy. It’s possible now to access many of the classics of the Marxist tradition for free – of vital importance for activists and scholars in poorer countries, and helpful for the rest of us – and many protests and actions have been coordinated internationally on a scale and in ways inconceivable even a decade or two ago.

For oppressed groups, these contacts have been even more precious. Online connections break down the ways geographical isolation compound alienation. There are now, I hope, fewer gay teens imagining they are alone in their feelings and fantasies. For people for whom a meeting in the evening – to say nothing of a meeting scheduled up a flight of stairs – is a difficulty or an impossibility, other forms of communication exist and flourish. That’s all a huge boon.

What does it mean for the socialist newspaper? Egyptian revolutionary Hossam al-Hamalawy has written a very detailed and thoughtful piece on the ‘website as revolutionary organiser.’ It reflects on the experience of the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt in using social media and websites in their work. The level of detail and analysis in this article stands in marked contrast to most of the blether around the ‘Facebook revolutions,’ and repays reflection.

Newspapers and the newspaper industry are, as you all know, in crisis; fewer and fewer young people read newspapers regularly, more and more of our information sources come from online. So, in one sense, the socialist newspaper goes the way of all the others. Just as one never sees paper boys selling bourgeois newspapers or evening editions anymore, so it is, one could argue, that left-wing publications change their form.

This gets me thinking about political shifts and the traces of tradition again. When I first moved to Wellington a decade ago there would be, on any given Saturday, at least three or four groups of paper sellers gathered around different parts of Cuba Street. The year I was born there would have been, on a Friday night, anything upwards of six or seven, all the way from HART News to the People’s Voice to the Evening Post. Nowadays, when we sell Socialist Review, we’re often the only grouping active in the Mall. So the visibility of different kinds of politics changes and, with it, the culture of a city. Whatever the links and openness of the Kindle or smart phone, their uniformity carries out a kind of erasure in the physical space of the city.

Technologies change, and political organisation makes use of this. The Bolsheviks were quick to grasp the significance of cinema; Raymond Williams and others wrote thoughtfully about television. Most of my own work now goes into online and open-access publications, political, literary, and academic.

But the old claims about what’s involved in selling a paper or magazine –the organisation, the routine, the work of argument and advocacy – still feel relevant and are, for me, lived experience. A magazine, unlike a series of discrete links and articles, promotes, in its very form, an analysis and a set of connected claims that, at their best, work together.

Selling something makes you work to convince others, which is why the hostility of some on the left to the presence of socialists selling newspapers has always mystified me. It’s simple to hand out thousands of copies of a leaflet or newsletter without getting any sense of its cogency or appeal. The (often marginal and, in our case, unprofitable) cost involved in buying a magazine involves some minimal commitment – if your claims or slogans are too far from your desired audience this minimal commitment doesn’t happen. That’s an education in itself.

The act of selling a magazine or newspaper – of being physically associated with a certain political line and slogan, of interacting with strangers, of embodying a political tradition – involves you and your political claims in very clear relationship with others. Sometimes this can be unpleasant, in encounters with racists and bigots; often times it is inspiring and rewarding, as you learn from the stories and experiences of people you wouldn’t otherwise know. I find the chance to listen and interact with others one of the great joys of political activity, and one of the ongoing values of a street presence.

None of this, to be sure, ends up in the archive, whether that archive’s a university library or a box in a garage. The ‘feel’ of a paper is in the tension and connection between its intended audience – and the imagined stance its writers hope that audience are ready to take – and their actual relation.

Issue after issue of the Socialist Organiser collected in this box stress the need to ‘Join the Labour Party and fight for socialist politics.’ They are all from 1982 and 1983, and argue angrily against those on the left who see a downturn in class struggle, who imagine the Labour Party isn’t shift to the left, who can’t see the possibilities opening up around them. Each of those arguments turns out to be wrong, of course, as others on the left argued at the time, but it’s an education to encounter this history in physical objects, to try and reconstruct these arguments as they connect to one another, to imagine ‘forecasts of the past’ from a year before the Miner’s Strike, Kinnock’s purges of the left, Blairism, all that’s to come. It doesn’t change my view of the analysis presented, but it does give me a sense of the past, and of tradition, that feels valuable.

Archives have their own forms of invisibility. In the new year I will have an article on Dispute , the great New Zealand journal of the New Left, published in Ka Mate Ka Ora. My research would have been impossible had my library not held copies of this journal – it was in their fragments and details, the advertisements, the brief articles, the shifting bylines, that its significance became clear. It was, in other words, all the ephemeral details together that made Dispute’s place in left and intellectual history cohere. But, preserved as it was, Dispute had fallen out of active tradition; most of my friends and comrades had never heard of it, letalone grasped its significance.

Selling in the streets, then, for me, feels like a form of active memory and tradition, a way of linking back to campaigners past, to the presence of older newspapers, older struggles, older battles to gain public spaces. Whatever technological changes mean for political speech, that isn’t a tradition, or a way of speaking and interacting, we should abandon without care, reflection, and thought.

And, Sam, thanks for the box. It’s getting put to good use.


The image of Dispute is reproduced with the permission of Vanya Lowry, the journal’s wonderful designer and illustrator.

Thanks to Sam Oldham for gifting me all the newspapers.

Chris Harman’s pamphlet on the revolutionary paper has been a constant source for me over a dozen years now. Thanks to Andrew Tait for introducing me to it.

It will, during this summer break, have been three years since I started this blog, a country away and in a cold and impermanent room in Meguro-ku Tokyo. Thanks to all of you for reading and for your support. I really appreciate your support.