why is it difficult to sell a paper to a random stranger?

Daniel Harvey gives a theoretical insight into the existential problem of relating to others as a revolutionary in a liberal society.

The old slogan of bourgeois entertainment, ‘But you must have seen this’, which just represented a swindle in the market place becomes a matter of deadly seriousness with the abolishment of amusements and the market alike. Formerly the supposed penalty was being unable to participate in what everyone else was talking about. Today, anyone who is unable to talk in the prescribed fashion, that is of effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgments of mass culture as if they were his own is threatened in his very existence, suspected of being an idiot or an intellectual.

Adorno, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’

What's missing?

One of the most misleading delusions we hold about ourselves is that there is some insoluble distinction between our public and our private selves. This illusion gives us the flattering idea that we are only forced to wear social masks, that underneath this persona that capitalist society forces us to adopt, there is some redeemable ‘real me’, who would be able to express themselves if only they were allowed to.  This distinction supposedly makes us unhappy and depressed, alienated even, and we feel it separates us from bonding with the people around us.  ‘Express yourself’ is now probably the most common advertising principle, and it’s a true testament to advertisers professional skill that they have made doing this seemingly very simple task so expensive. Some sad cases in the 60s took this and turned it into an entire new ‘self discovery’ industry.  The wealthy and bored go on long and expensive retreats to monasteries filled with Indian, so called, mystics, and then Louis Theroux made a documentary about it.

Hollywood hasn’t failed to take up this trope.  Two of the best films to do this have been Apocalypse Now and American Beauty, both similar films in many respects.  Taking the latter, the film’s explicit function is to take us on a journey of self discovery through a series of characters in suburban America.  Ricky Fitts tells his girlfriend that he looks into the eyes of a destitute woman and sees God stare back at him. Famously, he films a plastic bag, “it was dancing with me… and that’s the day I realized there was this entire life behind things…sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.” All of the characters go through a process of destruction and redemption. Carolyne Burnham adopts a persona to sell a house, her mantra “to succeed one must project an image of success”. Predictably it falls apart as she closes a door on a couple on a viewing, and she collapses in a hysterical sobbing pile. Lester Burnham loses his job, rediscovers his confidence, and finds happiness by reducing himself to working in a Burger King.

What’s wrong with this picture? The entire emancipatory content of this film is predicated on death, and is framed through the narration of a dead man.  The light headed, flighty sense of freedom it gives is the feeling of a suicidal person when they have made the decision to destroy themselves. This is the honest centre of this film, because the reality is that the destruction of our social masks IS an act of self-annihilation.  In Freudian theory, we are shaped by a wildly unrealistic impression of ourselves, our ego-ideal. This is the part of our minds which is supposed to constantly torment us with out own failings, we are never able to match up to this image of what we should be, but the effort to do so creates our character.  We might characterise this as an internalised utopianism of the self, where the utopia is an ‘impossible fantasy’.  But Trotsky, and actually many libertarians, in fact, said communists should have nothing to do with utopianism for the very reason that it turns them into naïve dreamers.

Within our society it is easier to imagine death than it is to imagine meaningful personal freedom, and the corollary of this is, as Zizek puts it, that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Along with self discovery, Armageddon has to be the overriding obsession of the film industry. But nowadays, this obsession has taken on a new character. It’s no longer simply the threat of comets and aliens, but the crazed mob that acts as the collective nightmare.  Its been written somewhere that there are more zombie films made each year than there are births, and even apocalyptic films without them, have them in some new form, as crazies.  Zombies themselves have been transformed from supernatural creatures to the angry, rabies infected like animals of 28 Days Later. In other words, indistinguishable from the common conception of fundamentalist fanatics – think of the internet meme of “rage boy” after the September 11th attacks. The Road is just a wonderful example of this; in this post-capitalist society, the last liberals, a father and son, with the former trying to inculcate the child with the necessary elitist self-regard, ‘the fire’, are chased by the only communists imaginable, the bands of cannibals that want to eat them.

But this problem also blights Freudian-Marxism.  Adam Curtis’s documentary The Century of the Self highlights this. Right at the end of the nineteenth century, psychologists, Freud included, had the idea that people at their root are fundamentally irrational creatures. They are slaves to a libidinal drive, which makes them unable to resist the impulses of sex and violence. Gustave Le Bon set out in The Crowd that no matter how rational people were as individuals, when they formed groups they became hostile, unmanageable and easily led by elites. This was just a classical Rousseaunian formulation, the idea of the untainted solitary man corrupted by society, updated with modern sounding psychological language. But the fear was real, and the fear was explicitly a fear of socialism, and he wrote a book dedicated to how to counter this terrible ideology a few years later. This has been the foundation of modern public relations, propaganda and advertising, with thinkers like Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays establishing ways for states and corporations to manage and control public opinion, by manipulating our libidinal desires – this is what Bernays called the ‘invisible government’ at the heart of democratic societies.

The Critical Theorists, influenced by Freud, despaired that people were unable to escape, because at root they share this view, modern culture tapped into people’s psychological weakness, the love of being led. Erich Fromm described this in his seminal The Fear of Freedom where he suggested that people were all too happy to destroy their own individuality in favour consumerism, because it relieved them of the angst of alienation and being separate.  Theodore Adorno’s The Culture Industry lays out the same problem in much more detail.  Adorno thought that capitalism does not simply manufacture cars and dishwashers, but manufactured human identity itself.  Capitalism manufactures culture and the media, and creates characters and identities with exact looks and styles, which it is the duty of citizens to adopt as closely as possible, ‘as if they were his own’. This is of course true, capitalism does behave in this way, but at the same time the pessimism and melodrama of this must be off putting for us.   The Culture Industry is probably one of the greatest problems that any real revolution is going to have to overcome, but at the same time, the existence of a radical left, and the author himself you would have thought, shows it is possible for people to tune it out.

Existentialism develops this kind of alienation by introducing the new concept of ‘authenticity’ into the equation. Sartre wrote that people internalise identities which are required of them by the powerful institutions in society, that is to say, they adopt identities, national, religious, gendered, sexual, as if they were their own, but that this produces a sense of alienation where the individual feels disconnected from their own lives, or into robotically ‘going through the motions’.  ‘Being for others’ this was called, where the gaze of the outside agency or consciousness, forces us to see ourselves through other people’s eyes, and measure ourselves in relation to their expectations – effectively becoming actors in someone else’s play.  Fundamentally, the realisation of nihilism, that there is no meaning or purpose to existence other than the ones we make for ourselves is the mechanism of freeing the self from this kind of mental prison.  So the thought process and the intentionality behind them is what is important here, whether you sense you’re doing something because you’re going through the motions or because it is something you have genuinely chosen for yourself. Obviously, under capitalism, most people are going through the motions, and the choices are very limited, you either live in-authentically, internalising the values of society, you kill yourself, or you rebel and become a revolutionary (not a practical option for most).  But empirical observation shows that it is generally impossible for people to retain a value system that is in conflict with their daily practice for long, it is too much for the brain to cope with, which reiterates the existentialist position that being precedes essence, or, what we are determines who we are – there is never a permanent internal conflict in this respect.

But in purely Marxist terms, alienation is the process by which our labour is transformed into a diffuse authority which rules over and imprisons us.  We know the name of this diffuse authority, it’s ‘The Economy’ that the politicians remind us about constantly.  Within that structure, liberalism naturally incubates massive amounts of cynicism which has the effect of neutralising internal opposition; on the one hand, elites adopt the view that fundamental change is impossible, that ‘there is no alternative’ to themselves, but on the other hand, liberalism teaches people to be cynical towards the leadership, to blame them for their own failings, and to project onto them all their own insecurities. When the average citizen looks at Ed Miliband doling out his drivel to the crowds in Hyde Park, their natural response is to see him as a nerd acting very unconvincingly, but his perceived weakness is a reflection of their own weakness.  In this sense, alienation is part of the liberal political system and what perpetuates its existence. But because revolutionary movements are always a reflection of their social context, this system is taken and reconstituted in the radical left; we have Trotskyist sects run by committees that don’t change from one decade to the next, and then anarchists whose primary motivation is complaining about them whilst failing to produce a more effective form of organisation.  Structurally, cynicism is built into the revolutionary left as much as in mainstream society.

Yet there is a further gap. It is not enough simply to blame failure on cynicism in some diffuse sense. It is not simply that we feel that it would be better to retreat within ourselves to escape from the inevitable failure of our attempts to change the world around us. Selling a paper has this terrible personal quality to it doesn’t it? It’s really just symptomatic of something about our own profound timidity.  What I think I’ve found after not long in the revolutionary movement, such as it is, is a timidity in our relations with one another, as if relationships between those even engaged within the same struggle find they cannot allow themselves to interact in a way that reveals their own insecurities.  The revolutionary counterpart to ‘being for others’ is the result of a drive towards that fantasy ideal of what our relations and revolution will be.  We are pulled toward it, and are unable to resist being pulled through the reactions with those around us. We are forced to, by necessity, relate to others, even though we find it impossible to ever truly achieve that aim. In this sense being pulled into this is like something being pulled into a black hole, if you know your physics, things always look as though they are falling in, but they never actually, finally, do.

This article is obviously meant to be about far more than selling papers, as has already been said, if it was it would be a pretty massive over-intellectualisation of the problem. But anyway, why? The answer to this has to go beyond the simple explanation that, you know, it’s kind of embarrassing to bother people we don’t know. This just reformulates the opening question again. In Freudian language, when our ego (sense of self) becomes connected and submerged into a wider collective ego, it becomes impossible to separate attitudes toward it, and toward ourselves. In a society predicated on cynicism, this is a problem. When I push a paper in front of someone I don’t know, it is impossible for me to practice cynical detachment whilst the recipient still can, and most likely will. In effect, my personal sense of self-worth is determined by that person’s attitude to my political affiliation, at its mercy. Who I am in this situation is what I am, and in this society that makes me an idiotic Trot student who should grow up. This anxiety about what ‘the other’ is thinking of us is in fact the result of an internalised feeling of inferiority. It is not just that we are frightened of being seen as inferior, but that we actually feel ourselves, ‘know’ ourselves, to be inferior. This is how alienation still works on us, even when our labour is ostensibly being directed toward what we think of as an emancipatory task.  But, nonetheless, we are pulled through these awkward interactions by something greater, an idea about emancipation that transcends our own human pettiness. Let’s just cling to that for dear life.

11 thoughts on “why is it difficult to sell a paper to a random stranger?

  1. Daniel Harvey is to be congratulated for raising existential problems at all in public left wing discourse. It is rare that anyone grapples with our relationship to the ‘here and now’ in this way, but he truly opens up new thoughts about where we go from this point. Remarks he make indicate he is a student, therefore a lot younger than I am, having passed retirement age. I have grappled with these problems on and off throughout the years that divide us. The effects have been debilitating at times, but are better consciously acknowledged than unconsciously suffered to the point of giving up.

    First, I would like to pick up on one or two points he makes. He is very right to highlight the issue of personal identity and the way it has been exploited in modern society and how it relates uncomfortably to the social identity that is forced upon us. He is right to demonstrate that there is no pristine personal identity, there is only the social identity with which we have a life-long struggle and which is dominated by capitalist values. Developing from this, my understanding of existentialist thought seems different from Daniel Harvey’s. I have understood it as meaning that there is no ‘being’ that precedes the process of ‘becoming’, and that the process of ‘becoming’ is precisely the struggle the individual has to find freedom in conflict with socially imposed identity choices. Having always believed freedom, even at an existential level, to be a fundamental part of the socialist project, I have more frequently been drawn towards libertarian forms of left communism.

    The second point relates to utopianism. It is true that there has been an issue with ‘utopianism’ throughout the evolution of Marxist thought, since he tried to make socialism ‘scientific’. Whether Marx intended it so or not, the effect, in the hands of proponents of Marxism-Leninism and Trotskyism, has been a denial of the imagination. Attempts to conceive of a socialist future have been few and far between, the most obvious English language example being William Morris’ News from Nowhere. However, unless we confront ideas about how society might be better organised and try to practice new social relationships in the here and now, I do not see how we can move forward. Although I am personally a historian and value that form of social study, I feel there is something fundamentally not quite right about a movement that spends too much of its time chewing over the minutiae of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. It is a bit like the armchair generals continuously re-fighting the Somme and Passchendaele and Arnhem, while the dead stay dead and are largely forgotten. Use the past, but mainly to understand mistakes and to move forward to better things. We do not spend enough time imagining a better future, beyond the immediate struggle for existence.

    Which brings me to my main point, where Daniel Harvey discusses the constitution of the so-called revolutionary movement. He is quite right to highlight ‘timidity in our relations with one another’ and an inability to reveal our own insecurities. This, fundamentally, is what lies behind the gross sectarianism that infects the revolutionary milieu, that blights the movement as a whole and makes interaction with the wider public milieu so problematic. There is a tendency to cling to specific imagined ‘certainties’, which by definition exclude all other ‘certainties’. Big names in the past have been like this – Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and their various acolytes – and in many ways the anarchist and ‘left communist’ movement have defined themselves in contrast, but with similar rigidity. Definitely lacking are vulnerability, insecurity, doubt and an openness to multiple other possibilities. These are not safe options to adopt, but I would argue that they represent the best socio-psychological basis for a genuinely social, collective, revolution and the only way through the present sectarian impasse.

    For example, my local anti-cuts group operates very effectively at a practical level, but is hampered by an inability to confront deeper issues. It is actually a coalition of inward-orientated cliques from different organisations who collaborate at the level of the lowest common denominator in practical activities. It is incapable of moving beyond a negative, reformist agenda. These are good people, dedicated and well-intentioned, working hard in their own way, but operating well below their true capabilities, afflicted by the social sclerosis that Daniel Harvey illustrates. In the end, they offer nothing more than a variant on every individual and family’s centuries old struggle to ‘make shift’ and survive.

    Socialist revolution has to offer much more than this or escapism, in its many consumerist disguises, will always prove the preferable option.
    We seek to be revolutionaries not because we are right, because we have the right analysis and no other is possible, but because the way the social world exists now is unsustainable and we have to find a way to get beyond it. All previous answers have failed. We need openness and imagination now more than ever. If the 20th century was the century of wars and revolutions that exposed the question ‘Socialism or Barbarism?’, then the 21st century will be the last chance to provide an answer to that question.

    I am encouraged by the recent publication of Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Future of Capitalism by Paul Mattick (Reaktion Books, 2011) which explains fundamental economic and social realities in plain English and also spells out the bankruptcy of the movements of the Left. He concludes that: ‘People will therefore have to develop new forms of organised activity, if they are to respond to the ongoing collapse of capitalism by constructing a new social system’ [p 109]. I am only sorry that my generation, young in the 60s and 70s, looked backwards to the past for its ideas more than it sought to make things new (though there were a few honourable exceptions). I hope this generation does not fall into the same trap, though it is the ‘easy option’.


  2. Thanks for your kind words and sharing your own experiences Martin. I think your understanding of existentialism is right, and I thought the same about ‘becoming’. Here there is an awkward mix of ideas which have been taken from Freudians, Lacanians, and also Satre I suppose, and I have only hung it together in a way that makes sense of my own experience. It may not be exactly rigorous though.

    I should say for people who read this, that this article was the first of two I wrote broadly on the topic of alienation. The second one caused a minor controversy in the commune, but when I’ve made changes I will put that one up on the website as well. The second one deals more with the concept of ‘authenticity’ and some of the really uncomfortable things which flow out of it.


  3. Martin says,

    “However, unless we confront ideas about how society might be better organised and try to practice new social relationships in the here and now, I do not see how we can move forward.”

    The reason that Marx and Engels refrained from saying much about how a future society might be organised was because they were Materialists. They opposed all those who drew up schemas of a socialist future, because invariably those schemas became sectarian dogmas, of how change wasw to be brought about, which meant setting yourself in opposition to anything and anyone that did not conform with that schema. In fact, the “Leninists” – in whose ranks I do not include Lenin himself in this regard, winess his late recognition of the mistakes involved in concentrating on State ownership, and conversion to the idea of developing Co-ops in the USSR – fall into precisely that camp. They have decided that 1917 is THE model for socialist transformation, and so reject any attempt to prefigure Socialism within Capitalist society, as Utopian, because only after the revolution can such changes be attempted, they argue.

    But, the dialectical approach of Marx and Engels was completely different. Their focus as set out in many documents, but probably most clearly in Marx’s “Programme” for the First International – his Instructions for Delegates to the General Council – was precisely one of pre-figuring the Socialist soceity within Capitalism, and doing so as the method of class struggle bgy the workers. That is the basis of what Marx talks about in relation to “Self-Government” in the section on Tax, where he opposes most clearly the expansion of State Expenditure as working to undermine the independence and self-government of the workers. It is the basis of his arguments in relation to the Friendly Societies which he sees as being the means by which workers would provide for their own Welfare requirements for Retirement, Unemployment, and Healthcare, and why he called on the State to keep its hands off these funds. It runs through his opposition to Education provision by the State. And most clearly it is the basis for his arguments for workers to establish Co-ops as THE form of THEIR property in opposition to that of Capital. But, it can be seen in his approach to reforms too. For example, the only real reason for arguing for the reduction in the working day, was to facilitate the workers organising, and educating themselves, the better to be self-governing.

    They would not prejudge what developments came out of such forms – which Marx and Engels formalised only on the basis of seeing that these were the solutions that workers themselves had alredy developed as their means of furthering their own class interests – because only future developments could do that. But, it is clear that history makes that clear long before some apocalyptic Political Revolution in the mode of the Leninists. Indeed, Marx would not even set down prescriptions for how the workers should establish and develop their Co-ops other than advising that Worker owned Co-ops were preferable to Consumer Co-ops, and that only if they were joined together in a National Co-op Federation could they perform the class struggle function required. Again this was not an idea sucked out of their thumb, but one analysed from the actuality of the workers Co-ops themselves.

    So we cannot simply draw up schemas of what socialist forms would be, and artificially create them here and now. That would have no material base, which is why many such ventures have failed. Like marx we have to base oursleves on those soluitons that workers have already developed, and assit in their development. From that praxis will lead the way forward to what the next developments should be. That is the dialectical method, and the materialist conception in action.

    A look around the world shows that the number of Co-ops continues to grow as it has done for more than a century. Globally, they now employ more people than do the multinationals. Yet, the majority of Marxists continue to have a sectarian attitude towards them because they do not fit their schema of Leninist Political Revolution.

    See: The Politics And Programme Of The First International


  4. Marx said that what seperates the worst architect from the best bee (or was it beever?) is that man is able to imagine in his mind his construction before it is built. This useful adaptation of mankind should not be entirley discarded and indeed cannot be. So we have to live with it.

    I think the main reason Marx didn’t draw up specific schemas is because he recognised it as a collaborative process on an epic historical scale, and that it was often generational. Engels spoke much about the generation gap.

    I see the lack of drawing up workable schemas as a fundamental weakness of our movement. Co-ops are great but where is the overall strategy? How do we deal with todays society where the state have supplanted worker self government?


  5. I completely agree with Boffy’s analysis (with Steve’s caveat about a collaborative process), and thanks for filling in gaps in my knowledge of Marx’ writings, which I will follow up. My mistake was a sloppy use of the term ‘we’, which might have implied that I was talking about some small groupuscule. I meant ‘we’ in the wider sense of the working-class, particularly those engaged in resistance and seeking to go beyond the limitations of resistance [I only identify with the class, no particular movement or organisation, even The Commune].

    That does not stop small groups of people discussing and sharing such ideas, so long as they do not become an exclusive political programme – as has happened to a degree with movements as diverse as council communism, syndicalism, and even the Labour-Co-operative Party. It should not be beyond our wits, both as a class and as a section of the wider movement, to imagine the future without trying to turn these ideas into a dogmatic programme.

    A new society will emerge from the real movement of the working class, not some pre-ordained political programme. I stick to my view that it is better to imagine the future than to fixate on aspects of temporary success in the past – temporary success might indicate some positive features, but by definition is also failure.


  6. Surely the point is you cannot suck such a strategy out of your thumb. As Engels said you cannot force down people’s throats things they are not yet ready to accept, but which as things progress they will come to understand. The whole point about strategy as outlined by Marx and the First International was that it flowed from that concept of building “self-government”. It means in every instance starting from the bottom up. In the workplace, building ranbk and file groups means exactly that. Building organisations within each workplace, in which the ordinary worker, who perhaps does not even see the need to go to a union meeting – indeed today may not even belong to a union -is able to discuss their situation, begin to feel empowered, and supported by their fellow workers, and begins to recognise the possibility of exercising some power without the resort to union officials etc. It would mean being prepared to take unofficial action, instantaneoulsy where possible. Building Rank and File groups is not about simply or even primarily trying to get people elected to positions.

    It means building similar type organisations within working-class communities. But, as Marx pointed out in his debates with Weston, as Marxists in engaging in such activities we also have to be clear that we explain the limitations of such actions. Even the most powerful Trades Union organisation can only at best defend workers for a time from the incursions of Capital, can only hope to prevent wages falling below the Value of Labour Power. That is why Co-operatives here and now to bring the means of production into the ownership and control of workers is vital. But, again, as Marx points out that can only be viable if they are part of a national/international federation, and itself requires us to demonstrate to workers the need for political organisation to defend them against the inevitable attacks both economic and political that Capital will launch against it. The strategy in fact flows logically from each element of this, if you think about it.

    And, in terms of the fact that the Welfare State has undermined the idea of Workes Self-Government, the current round of Cuts, make it, in fact easier to present a “self-government” alternative. We have seen Occupations in Universities, Libraries etc. We should seek to extend such tactics as a means of opposing the Cuts, and having Occupied we should use the tactics of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, or the Work-ins of May 68 in France, to bring these means of production udner Workers Control, demanding their legal transfer out of the hands of the State, and into the hands of workers, and communities.

    Some big things, such as creating immediately a Worker Owned and controlled Co-operative Health Service are not practical, but steps can be made. We already have extensive Co-op Pharmacies, for instance, and Pharmacies are increasingly taking on wider Health functions. We have some Co-operative GP practices, and there is no reason this could not be developed via organisations such as the Socialist Health Association. We do even have some worker owned hospitals within the NHS. Trades Unions have always held and administered Funds, for providing Benefits to members for use of Convalescent Homes etc., and there is no reason why such schemes could not be developed, and extended, to ultimately create a National Co-operative Workers Insurance Scheme. We have various Financial bodies such as the Co-op Bank, Unity Trust, Credit Unions, and so on, which could also be mobilised to facilitate such developments.

    The main role of Marxists in such developments would need to be to encourage each not to stand alone, and to point to the political conclusions. I wrote a review some months ago on the history of the Co-op in Britain, and for instance at the start of the last century, what led the Co-op to establish the Co-op Party, and to join in with the LP, was precisely the fact that they recognised that they faced political attacks from Capital. They had to pursue their interests by political means too.


  7. This is a very interesting conversation, but I don’t think you should take from what I’ve written here, that we are pulled through the difficult alienating social interactions being a revoutionary confronts us with by some sort of ‘vision’ of the communist utopia. The whole point is that the fantasy of communism is something we can’t really grasp or describe, we are just pulled toward it because the emancipation it represents is a hole in our lives, right? I don’t know precisely what a new world will look like, and I don’t exactly see that many pre-cursors of it in this one, but nonetheless I know that something is ‘missing’ in the present order of things, hence the caption. In any case I think Martin’s original post was correct in citing the need to handle the problem of vulnerability, the human internal struggle that I’m trying to deal with here. I feel like you may be missing the point with this discussion about different programs and the like.


  8. Hi Dan

    Good article. It isn’t really about selling papers, but I have two questions one of which is paper-related:

    1. I’d accept in general that people project their own failings onto others and the general trend of media etc. is to treat everything cynically – e.g. the sequence of thought that goes no a) politicians can be trusted; b) all politics is a waste of time; c) nothing ever changes.

    But surely then the answer is to locate where between a) and c) the line between active opposition to politicians, and outright passivity, lies.

    Surely, after all, when people look at Ed Miliband, they really *are* seeing a nerd acting unconvincingly?

    Where I definitely think your point applies is the way that left groups talk about each other, and the movement more generally, e.g. slamming the inaction of trade union bureaucrats, or bemoaning the antics of Trots, saying we need to build from below instead… but only saying this, because we have no capacity of our own to actually build that alternative, so instead deploring leaders’ failure to do it for us. i.e. the anger at their failure is partly merely a reflection of our own.

    2. ” In Freudian language, when our ego (sense of self) becomes connected and submerged into a wider collective ego, it becomes impossible to separate attitudes toward it, and toward ourselves. In a society predicated on cynicism, this is a problem. When I push a paper in front of someone I don’t know, it is impossible for me to practice cynical detachment whilst the recipient still can, and most likely will. In effect, my personal sense of self-worth is determined by that person’s attitude to my political affiliation, at its mercy.”

    I’m not quite sure if here cynicism is the problem. If someone says to me ‘you’ll never change anything’/’go back to Russia’ and walks off, my immediate thought is ‘poor them’. I wouldn’t say it detracts from my self-worth, because it is they, not me, who has given up.

    After all, we don’t want to be able to muster cynical detachment, but rather bold, direct affiliation with what the paper says! It’s something of a reality that people in The Commune don’t do that, or don’t feel comfortable self-promoting ‘us’ in that SWP-ish kind of way. Partly I think that is borne out of an apt critique of how left groups promote themselves, but I think it reflects other problems too, particularly a lack of collectively-built identity.

    For example, in the past we have not discussed what is going in the paper, or debated the content of past issues, in a very collective manner. So people may not feel a strong connection with that content or the issues it raises, and so feel a bit like they’ve been ‘given’ papers to sell, as a chore, like one of those guys dishing out the Metro.

    As I don’t need to tell you (!) building more of that collective identity and sense of common ownership of the paper is a way of overcoming such doubts/embarrassment in the face of general cynicism. (OK so that attitude might lead to blind revolutionary ardour ignoring the passivity around us, although I don’t think we suffer from that problem.)


  9. David,

    You say,

    “Where I definitely think your point applies is the way that left groups talk about each other, and the movement more generally, e.g. slamming the inaction of trade union bureaucrats, or bemoaning the antics of Trots, saying we need to build from below instead… but only saying this, because we have no capacity of our own to actually build that alternative, so instead deploring leaders’ failure to do it for us. i.e. the anger at their failure is partly merely a reflection of our own.”

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this. I agree about the slamming of the inaction of TU leaders. In my experience most union bureaucrats are to the left of the vast majority of union members, let alone workers in general. It is only the fantasy politics of the sects, which has a romanticised view that workers are straining at the leash to engage in revolutionary activity, which leads to the view that they are not. That is not to say that the nature of Trade Union/reformist politics, and the function within that of a TU bureaucracy does not lead at specific occasions to TU bureacrats acting as a restraining factor.

    But, what do you mean when you say that we do not have the capacity ourselves to actually build the alternative? Surely, there are lots of examples of where we have done that succesfully. As a young shop steward, even working on my own in a workplace, I was able to build up a group of workers over a period of a couple of years that did what I was talking about above. And even in a not very militant working environment that had tremendous success in building the confidence of those and other workers, and winning concessions from management. It also meant that on one occasion when a sudden dispute arose, a meeting organised at lunch time brought in union and non-union members, all of whom threatened to walk out unless management backed down, which they promptly did. The 1960’s, and 70’s had thousands of such instances of spontaneous action by workers within the workplace.

    I’ve been involved in several such grass roots campaigns outside the workplace too, and although I would not in any way claim that those involved agreed with my overall political position, it did mean that I was palced in a position to discuss that with them rationally without them saying “nothing can be done”, “go back to Russia” etc. because they had seen by their own actions that something COULD be done, and seen that the other things I had to say, therefore, might have at least some merit in discussing.

    That I think is the point I would make about the selling of papers. I’ve always thought the selling of papers to people you don’t know is a bit pointless, an act of ritualism. Selling to people I met and discussed with regularly at LP meetings, Trades Council or TU meetings, was different. Also different was the list of about 20 people, who when I was very active, I used to visit on a weekly basis to sell a paper to, and discuss with. But, if I’m honest, I’d have to say that the nature of most “revolutionary” papers is so removed from the lvies and experience of most of even thse people, that it too is more an act of ritual than something worthwhile. It is in large part abstracted from experience.

    I have come to the conclusion that although there is a role for an online newspaper, or website providing the basis of discussion amongst people who generally consider themselves to be Marxists, revolutionaries or whatever, their is very little function for a revoluitonary paper. A mass circulation Labour Movement paper, owned and controlled by workers yes, but that is different. I think that time and effort is much better spent producing clearly written and accessible leaflets, specific to the environment they are to be distributed in. And, to be honest I wouldn’t even bother too much in that respect with things like demonstrations, because there is no on going dialogue, and shared experience you are going to have with the person you give the leaflet to.

    Its appropriate to the kind of incremental party building that the sects have wasted their time with for the last 60 years or so, but not to building anything useful. Workplace bulletins, that over a period develop an idea, or build a campaign are different. So are leaflets produced to hand out within a TRA, or some other community organisation or campaign that is likely to be more than ephemeral. In that way they act as an adjunct of action, and dialogue.


  10. To clarify, I meant blaming leaders for not delivering things for us *where* we are unable to do it ourselves, I didn’t at all mean to downplay our ability to organise from below in general.


  11. Thanks David. I’m a little surprised that these were the two points you raised in the end, I was expecting some really serious problems! But anyway…

    1. “Surely, after all, when people look at Ed Miliband, they really *are* seeing a nerd acting unconvincingly?”

    My answer to this is of course, absolutely. The point is, why now? Why is Miliband seen to be a nerd today? Whether he actually is one or not is a bit of a redundant question. In the end all leaders are nerds who act as though they aren’t, and whether they are able to elicit the cooperation of the crowd in the fantasy is what determines whether the charade is convincing or not. Why is Ed Miliband particularly nerdy looking? Well I think it is that the cooperation has rather withdrawn, and it is the same as the withdrawal from all politicians in general.

    There has been a transition away from the fantasy of the strong leader to the cynical managerial model I describe I think. However, where that does not apply is in the generalised fantasy about previous leaders. The vision of Margaret Thatcher, the “iron lady”, is used to damn the present generation of ‘stuffed men’, talking heads and empty suits. But the nostalgia here is not for the individuals – Thatcher had to have her voice made less squeaky just like Miliband has had to have an operation to make his less nasally. The nerdyness in the beginning was the same, but there is nostalgia for the belief, the old compact between the leaders and the people which seems to be evaporating.

    2. “I’m not quite sure if here cynicism is the problem. If someone says to me ‘you’ll never change anything’/’go back to Russia’ and walks off, my immediate thought is ‘poor them’. I wouldn’t say it detracts from my self-worth, because it is they, not me, who has given up.”

    It be great if we all had such a bullet-proof ego. The point of what I’m saying is to try and describe things as they are, rather than as they should be, or as a prescription. The solution to this that you suggest, strong direct affiliation to an idea and collective identity, was exactly the content of the second alienation article people didn’t like. Creating and mobilising a militant ‘authenticity’, in which these self-assured individuals have ego’s like yours, was seen as suggesting we become like the dreaded man from the WRP or the people in Maoist/North Korean posters.

    Yes I’m obviously a bit of a collectivist and fan of shared identity and common ownership, as opposed to seperation and atomisation. But the forces driving conformity in our society, the means of production in the form of marketing, PR, school, the corporate media, and management at work, which are directed towards manufacturing people’s identities are powerful. It’s certainly not impossible to override this from the position of a small group. But I don’t think there really is a willingness to accept the cost of this, because it will make us look kind of un-cool, and I expect people would bolt at the first use of the word ‘sect’. But you make your choice in this respect, do we look ridiculous, or does this society?


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