Socialist Worker

‘Suddenly we had an audience’ - Chris Harman on Socialist Worker

Chris Harman was interviewed in October 1993 on the 25th anniversary of the first issue of Socialist Worker. We reprint an edited version of the interview, which appeared in the Socialist Review magazine.

Issue No. 2177

Can you explain the founding of the weekly paper and the audience it was aimed at?

A transformation in political life took place right across the world in 1968. The images of the 1960s have been of swinging London, mini-skirts, alternative culture, David Frost and the Beatles. In reality 1968 represented something quite different.

There was the coming together of the Tet Offensive – the first big defeat for the Americans in Vietnam; the Prague Spring – the revival of mass discontent in the Stalinist system in Eastern Europe – and May in France, which was the biggest general strike in history.

This created a sudden feeling of hope among very large numbers of mainly young people, particularly students but also young workers, that society could be changed. It meant that small groups of people with revolutionary socialist ideas, opposed to both the Western and the Stalinist systems, for the first time had a much wider audience.

The International Socialists had three or four hundred members at the beginning of 1968.

We already had a small circulation monthly paper. We decided to use and extend it to try to take the anger and the feeling of hope from the student anti-Vietnam War movement and direct it towards building socialist organisation among workers. That’s why we launched the weekly paper.

The first issue was in September 1968. It was four pages, crammed with reports of workers’ struggles, of rent strikes – but also with features about Eastern Europe, Vietnam, France and racism. Our aim was to try to create an audience among workers, particularly young workers, who could carry the feeling of 68 into the workplaces.

How successful was Socialist Worker in relating to this audience?

We were lucky because in 1969-70 there was a revival of working class struggle.

Socialist Worker succeeded in building an audience among these people who were involved often for the first time in trade union activity, as well as among young car workers, young workers in the steel industry, groups of miners and so on. Through to 1974 there was a general rise in working class struggle. At each point the level of struggle rose the paper found a new audience.

Does the selling of the paper and the testing of ideas enable socialists to have a real feel of what can be done and what is possible?

A socialist paper can’t be produced by a group of people sitting in isolation from everyone else. It depends all the time on the feedback from people who sell the paper.

That’s the only way you can gauge whether you are doing the right thing.

The paper is the connection between socialists and that section of workers who want to fight back. That section can sometimes be very small, but the paper still has to connect with them.

There are other situations when the number of workers who want to fight will be very large and then you are trying to connect them to a more general fight.

What’s important is finding people who want to kick back against the system, but taking that anger beyond a particular issue to the wider struggle.

This was vital in a period like the 1980s, when it was harder to generalise and the danger was that when particular struggles – -against cruise missiles or the people’s march for jobs – -didn’t break through, demoralisation set in.

The need for socialist organisation to hold people together was essential.

If I look back at the successes of Socialist Worker between the introduction of the social contract in 1974-5 and the fold of the Thatcher government, the key thing was holding together continually a pool of people prepared to fight over issue after issue and drawing new people into the struggle.

How would the role of a socialist paper change in a mass upsurge or revolutionary struggle?

A revolutionary situation is characterised by very sharp ups and downs in the struggle which fluctuates in one direction and then another.

So far, in my experience, we’ve only had hints of it.

In that situation you need a daily paper which is concerned with dealing with the immediate arguments arising from the situation, still containing general socialist politics, but also directing, almost by the hour, the ways in which people argue with other people and so on.

We are a long way from that.

But when the mood of large numbers of people begins to change, people who’ve never looked at Socialist Worker before in their life suddenly want one because they want to know what needs to be done and how to take the struggle forward.

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