York AWL has recently recruited two new members. One they met on their regular street paper sale. Another, a local AWLer first came across when he started a conversation with her on seeing her on a train reading Socialist Worker. Today, as I write, York AWLers are about to have a meeting with someone else who met them on a paper sale and said he was interested in getting active.
With political radicalisation among young people diffuse and scattered — not gathered-together in movements like CND or Labour’s youth, as it was in some previous eras — making ourselves visible on the streets is more important than ever.
There is something of a “conventional wisdom” on the left these days that street or door-to-door paper sales are old hat, made obsolete by the Internet. But it’s not true.
Until recent years, I found it common, on street paper sales, to be asked about Solidarity, “Is that Socialist Worker?”, because Socialist Worker was the left paper most widely sold on the streets. Socialist Worker has become so much less visible that you almost never get that question these days, and the rest of the left press has not yet made up the gap. The most common question these days, induced by experience of free-sheets, is: “Is it free?”
Free-sheets, leaflets, the Big Issue, charity collections — people outside the revolutionary left can see that there are more, not fewer, young people on the streets these days, and that it’s worth while getting out there, making yourself visible, getting the chance to talk to them. The Internet is useful. But it is not a substitute.
You won’t get mass sales. But you never did, even in 1968; and in general, if there were an instant way to get people interested in revolutionary politics, then capitalism would have expired long ago. People who use the “stand there clutching your papers and looking glum and nervous” technique of paper-selling don’t shift many copies. But that technique never did — probably wouldn’t have done in St Petersburg in 1917.
Comparing like for like, in 38 years of street paper sales, I’ve known no time when I could sell more papers on the streets than now except the high points of the 1972 and 1984-5 miners’ strikes.