Winning the battle of ideas

For socialists, how workers power can be brought about is the central question.  Most socialist groups have different answers to this question, from the large idealogical chasm of revolution versus reform as a means of changing society to smaller more nuanced issues of tactics in the here and now.  One notion that does seem to straddle the vast majority of existing socialist groups however is the view that the “battle ideas”, the idealogical struggle against capitalism, is of central importance.  This is often cited as the reason for standing in elections, to give socialist ideas a platform, and the justification for endless paper sales and leafleting.

The problem is, we seem to be losing this battle of ideas.  Capitalism is undoubtedly the dominant ideology of the working class (all be it nice fluffy Keynesian capitalism) and over the past decade, even with capitalism facing possible collapse, the socialist left has gained little in terms of support.  If we are serious about winning socialism we need to examine the reasons for these failures and find out in what way we can improve our approach.

Current approaches

Nearly every socialist organisation, from the most authoritarian Stalinists to the most liberal anarchists, has its own publication. Usually this takes the form of a “newspaper” that comes periodically and espouses the position of the group and generally advocates for their chosen ideology. These newspapers are often accompanied by less frequent and more in-depth magazines and a web presence, more or less developed depending on the organisation in question.

Such publications do their best to convince the reader of the merits of a socialist transformation, and in particular of membership of that group, their aim being to create socialists (or to “spread socialist ideas”, which amounts to the same thing). Now there are undoubtedly cases where this approach works, and most experienced paper-sellers will have a couple of anecdotes up their sleeves about this or that comrade that was recruited via the weekly paper-sale.

Such benefits shouldn’t be dismissed, however at present the socialist movement is recruiting in ones or twos, and hasn’t increased markedly the percentage of the population that believe in socialist ideas. Now we can argue that this is because of “objective circumstances”, but, in the midst of a crisis of capitalism it is difficult to imagine circumstances more favourable to socialist ideas, and yet their take up, whilst increased slightly, is still minor amongst the population as a whole.

So why is it that our ideas are failing to spread? To answer this question it is necessary to look at how our political opponents, the capitalist class, promote their own ideas.

Learning from the enemy

Firstly, when we compare our own organisations to the capitalist political parties we immediately notice that these party’s do not have their own organ. Why is this? Would “New Labour Worker” be a successful publication? Probably not as most people are very sceptical of any publication with an explicit agenda, and prefer their media to have at least nominal independence. Of course all of the bourgeoisie press has its own allegiances, and most are not blind to this, but they are none the less considered a more reputable source of information than party-political election materials.

Another characteristic of the capitalist newspaper industry is its noted recent decline. Over the last decade there has been a marked decrease in newspaper sales as technology slowly makes this media irrelevant. The newspaper industry has been slow to adapt to this change and has thus lost out, however the left press has found it even more difficult to cope with change.

Various dogmas surround the notion of the centrality of the party paper, especially on the Leninist left.  Whilst party papers undoubtedly played an important role in the Russian revolution and we should seek to learn from that experience what we can, technology has moved on and such an approach is no longer effective.  The notion of organising around a paper these days makes little sense, and usually translates into yet more dismal paper sales.  Other media, such as Facebook and Twitter, as the present day revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt have found, are far more potent tools than party-political newspapers.

From action to ideas

However, there is a more fundamental problem than the technological out-datedness and obvious partisanship of the far left press.  For most people socialism seems unattainable, utopian, “nice idea but it’ll never happen”.  Whilst we can try to mitigate against this attitude by wheeling out Marxist dogmas on the inevitability of proletarian victory, or by quoting historical examples, “but look, in 1917, in Russia, for a bit…” neither approach is going to be hugely convincing to your average worker.

This perception of attainability is very important when it comes to looking at motivations.  Socialism does not appear to be in the immediate self-interest, because it appears to be unattainable, of working class people.  As it stands its difficult to argue that doing a miserable paper sale once every weekend at the local shopping centre will tangibly benefit the working class, and so surprise surprise few are drawn in by this sort of activity.

So a central project for us as socialists must be to make socialism, the empowerment of the working class, as attainable as possible.  To do this, we must look to empower working people, creating powerful demonstrations in their own lives that the working class can and should run society.  Such power does not have to come all at once, more naturally it can be built.  Every time an industrial union successfully stops a management attack on the workers, it is demonstrating its power over the workplace.  Every time the workers win a demand, even a small one, they have taken a little control over their workplace away from their boss.

Of course, winning a new coffee machine or stopping a pay cut is still a long way from attaining true socialism, but such victories can help us build the confidence of those involved in winning them and enable us to demonstrate to yet more workers the effectiveness of our popular organisations.  The more organised the working class is, though trade unions, community associations or any other mass organisation, the better able to assert itself it will be, and the more power it will wield.

Eventually, when unions become strong, the question ceases to be “who runs this workplace” and begins to be “who runs this country”.  Worker’s power has been made attainable and it is then that we will find the working classes responsive to our idealogical propaganda and can push for total control over society.  The terrain will be such that the battle of ideas can be decisively won.

But in the mean time, our focus should not be on trying to preach our socialist gospel to a largely uninterested working class, but rather we should focus our efforts on preparing the battlefield, building and democratising the popular organisations of our class.  With our limited resources this may mean tough choices, moving finance away from propaganda activities and towards the work we do within mass organisations, but ultimately this strategic realignment will render us better able to win the battle of ideas in the long term.

 Also posted at Snowballs and Syndicalism


 A few points on this 1. You

 A few points on this

1. You arguing against a 'worst case' lefty paper and distribution method.  I think this makes the argument rather unconvincing for anyone who sees a value in publications as it makes it too easy to dismiss is as nothing to do with their method.

2. Mainstream political parties do have news sheet style publications (at least in Ireland) but they are just distributed in the year before an election and generally door to door.  Outside of such periods they have little use because most mainstream parties these days are careful to avoid being ideological, they build support not by winning people to ideas but by pretending to already stand for whatever a particular set of people want.

3. That said I'd generally agree that the left in general is very slow to move away from the traditional concept of the party paper.  Paper sales of a centrally generated party organ that appears once a week or less is a method of communication at least a decade out of date at this point.  Online publication as soon as written / edited as the major focus makes sense with printed forms being reserved for much more targetted purposes in the areas where online publication is weak  (eg there really isn't an online equivalent of a news sheet that targets a particular area and is distributed through every door).

4. The major problem with the conclusion is the failure to recognise that defeats are much more common that victories and many victories are presented in a way that in itself is not empowering (they appear to be the result of leaders negotiating).  An ideologically driven publication process has the function of building or at least holding together in periods of defeat and explaining the actual causes of victories.  That said the left press is often not very good at doing this.

  The article was aimed at


The article was aimed at the socialist left in general, a lot of which is preoccupied with paper sales.  That said I think the point about making socialism attainable is far more important than criticising the outdatedness of some propaganda.

Mainstream political parties do indeed occasionally produce newsletter style prop, but this is generally infrequent and I would say few people put much stock in it.  That the mainstream is trying to be non-idealogical I think is telling, for whatever reason people are less interested in ideology these days and so we need to think carefully about how we ladder people towards our own.

On online publication, yes that's important, but I think the left needs to make much better use of audio and visual media.  Most of the time when this stuff is produced by the left its a by-product, a recording of a meeting, a video of a demo, rather than being seen as a major focus of propaganda.  To be fair my own group is just as guilty as any other of this...

An ideologically driven publication process has the function of building or at least holding together in periods of defeat and explaining the actual causes of victories.”

Hmmm, perhaps I'm misunderstanding you here, but I cant really see how ideological propaganda helps build unions or residents groups in periods of defeat? Surely getting stuck in to the day-to-day activism of these is going to be more effective? Arguing for a more effective strategy?  I would say ideological publications are a pretty rubbish way of building non-idealogical mass organisations...

On the victories and defeats thing, yea defeats are more common, and rather than trying to accommodate for this our primary task is surely to change this?  We will not persuade people that the working class can and should take power if all they see is the organised working class losing, I would say propagandising for workers power (the socialist ideology) in this conditions is going to be fairly fruitless.



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