The year from March 2020 to March 2021 was the first big break in the activity of Marxists selling socialist newspapers on the streets, in protests, door-to-door, and in meetings, since the Social Democratic Federation launched its weekly, Justice, in 1884.
Even before that, the Chartist movement, and the “Owenite” socialist movement, centred much of their life round the production and selling of newspapers. But for the last year we have had no in-person meetings; most of the time, relatively few street protests; and street stalls and door-to-door sales have been more difficult.
As they start again, and as even in-person meetings may well soon return (at least until a possible virus “third wave”), we have to re-learn some habits and skills, and make some new adjustments.
Although street footfall is still low and demonstrations have not been huge, this writer’s experience since March is of one of the best times for selling socialist newspapers in my 50-odd years’ experience, outside high points around big strikes in the 1970s and 80s.
My guess is that many people have an interest in left-wing ideas but find the left inaccessible “in real life”, so are ready to check out a socialist newspaper which might give a window into that apparently inaccessible left. In any case, the statistics are there: even over the last year, street stalls and sales at protests have yielded as big a flow of new people giving contact details to keep in touch with Workers’ Liberty as our Zoom meetings, and a bigger flow than any other activity.
And paper-selling is an activity in which newer, younger activists can (all other things equal) do better than the older and more experienced.
Our teens and early 20s are generally a sociable and energetic phase of our lives. A new activist of that age will generally be more approachable, friendlier, more enthusiastic, more welcoming, and a better listener. As we get older, we get sourer and grumpier. Revolutionary commitment can limit our loss of mental elasticity, but scarcely prevent it altogether.
Long years of study and experience make better public speakers and debaters, more fluent writers, more astute union reps. They improve our political judgement on complex issues. But the new recruit can do better in the day-to-day staple of making our socialist ideas and activity accessible than the old hand.
Passing a street stall, or meeting us on a protest, some people refuse to buySolidarity for “deliberate” reasons. As many, probably, don’t buy because we do too little to make it easy for them and to make ourselves accessible.
Some don’t notice us: the stall and the paper-seller are on the margins of their perception, just another item of a busy streetscape. I was walking on her university campus with my older daughter. We passed the stall which another socialist group did regularly at a well-chosen site. I asked my daughter what she thought of them. She had never noticed the stall! And that’s someone left-minded and observant.
It’s down to us to make it easier for people to notice us, and to approach them to sell rather than signalling that it’s down to them to take the initiative, or even that an approach to buy will be unwelcome or expose them to hectoring or browbeating.
Socialists standing in front of a stall, blocking access to it for others; clutching papers tight as if to signal that anyone wanting to buy must make a effort to wrest them away; chatting to each other so that those interested in getting the paper perceive that they can’t do so without breaking into a private conversation: all those habits make us inaccessible.
We have to relearn how to make ourselves accessible. Arrive early and leave late at demonstrations and meetings. Make the paper available when people are otherwise waiting around and can most easily spare attention. Circulate, rather than standing on the spot. Approach people individually. Offer them the paper directly. Ask them if they want to have a look. If they are interested, but think it’s a freesheet, tell them that it’s a weekly and we need their 50p or £1 to produce the next week’s issue. Be polite, take no for an answer, but make it as easy as possible for shy or unconfident people to check out the paper. Keep street-stall spells short (45 minutes), and take breaks on long protests, so that you keep communicating energy and enthusiasm.
Staring glumly at passers-by can communicate that you don’t really expect or want anyone to buy. The more approachable, friendly, open, confident, and energetic we are, the more we avoid those negative signals, and the more accessible we are. Newer, younger people do that best.
Some of us, like this writer, grow up as shy and socially-awkward teenagers. At first it’s an effort to think of the paper-sale activity in terms of the hesitancies of the prospective buyer rather than in terms of our own anxieties. The “social skills” we need for that effort are the same as those we need to “get on with” others at work or in class, to make friends, and so on. Also, the same as we need to be good socialists in our workplace or on our campus or in our circle of friends, to do the basic work of one-to-one conversation about socialist ideas.
They are a first step to the more difficult skills we develop later as we grow as socialists: public speaking, studying, writing, debating, standing up for ourselves and others against bosses or bureaucrats, judging complex situations, organising.
Some technology has changed even since 2020. The pandemic has increased the number of people who don’t carry cash. To make it easy for them to buy papers, we all need to have card readers linked to smartphones, to take card payments.
To date we have used Zettle card readers. The newer Square card readers are cheaper and more compact, and a Square account and app on your phone also enable the fallback of taking payments directly on the phone (though by the buyer keying in card details, which is slower than offering them a contactless card reader).
Slatted metal tables for street stalls are more durable than the traditional paste tables, and more portable (they fold down to fit in a bag which can be carried over the shoulder or on the back of a bike).
Sign-up sheets with the proper General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) wording make it easy for a buyer to express interest in being kept in touch further. Have some words ready in your head to start conversation with the buyer while they’re fumbling for their card or their change, ask some non-intrusive questions, tell them a few things about what we’re doing, make it easy for them to talk further.
“A newspaper”, wrote Lenin, “is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser”. Websites and social media supplement papers, but cannot replace them. Each paper sold hand-to-hand “comes with” a person you can talk with, and each active socialist “comes with” papers which identify them politically as part of a collective and tells the diffident or tentatively interested who they can talk with if they want to find out about socialist activity.
Two other sentences from Lenin can be our motto as we re-learn after lockdown. “Revolutionary experience and organisational skills are things that come with time — if there is the desire to develop the necessary qualities in oneself. In a revolutionary cause, an awareness of our failings is more than halfway to fixing them!”