The first weekly Socialist Worker appeared in September 1968. We wanted a new paper, one that a militant would read and say, “That reflects what I feel, reports what I’m doing and tells me about other people in struggle.”
Workers’ rebellions round the world made 1968 a glorious year. In Britain the shop stewards’ movement was strong and was actively fighting against a government onslaught. Linking all the struggles was the campaign against the Vietnam War.
The International Socialists (IS), the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, had 400 members at the beginning of 1968, mostly students.
We changed the name of our monthly paper to Socialist Worker in March, but this was part of a build-up to launching a new kind of weekly in September.
The last issue under the old title, Labour Worker, had a paid sale of just 600. It had become a paper of the past. You didn’t have to be a genius to see that if revolutionaries were going to relate to the new struggles they had to connect with the real world.
We needed a paper that workers would engage with. It couldn’t afford to be filled with worthy tracts that militants never read. And it had to be sold by workers, not just IS members. We needed shop stewards and other militants to see it as their paper.
The selling price was really important. The weekly was launched with a cover price of two old pence, where before we had charged sixpence.
The weekly Socialist Worker started with a print run of 8,000, which consistently increased until it peaked along with the British workers’ movement in a run of 46,000 for the 1974 general election.
As well as reflecting militancy it developed important political arguments, based around the slogans “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism” and “For Workers’ Control”.
Understanding the pull of Stalinism and Maoism was important. In fact, while we were preparing the launch, Russian troops invaded Czechoslovakia. We produced a two page special condemning the invasion.
We bought our own press and had four full timers to produce the paper. Roger Protz was editor, Ross Pritchard was our printer, Diane Nair was typesetter and I was business and circulation manager. The whole thing was put together in a small space under the Spurs football ground.
It was distributed through IS branches, but it was light enough that multiple copies could also be sent out by post. Our aim was to build up a network of militants who would sell the paper even if they were not members of the organisation.
We began putting weekly or fortnightly leaflets – Socialist Worker bulletins – into large workplaces such as the London docks. We argued with students who had got involved round issues like Vietnam that if they agreed with socialism they had to talk to workers. So they sold outside workplaces and we picked up names of people who wanted to be sent copies to sell.
Such militants were encouraged to phone the new paper and report stories they wanted included. Also, local IS members acted as reporters and made sure the views of local workers were included in strike reports.
The BBC made a documentary about the paper in 1971. The director doubted we really had networks of people selling in workplaces. We were able to take him and the cameras to the printers of the BBC’s own Radio Times magazine and let them film one of the workers going round doing his sale.
We not only had the sale, but the worker didn’t mind being filmed doing it – that says something about the confidence that existed in that period.
At the beginning of the 1970s as the IS turned to building in the workplaces many such militants joined the IS.
Socialist Worker helped them to argue and organise round issues such as the British intervention in Northern Ireland. After the IRA’s Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, I remember travelling up to an emergency meeting in a pub called by a network of leading militants in the city who were Socialist Worker readers.
They were able to influence the angry march across the city to be a silent memorial for the dead, rather than the anti-Irish rampage the right had hoped for.
There’s no way that would have been possible if the paper hadn’t become deeply rooted.
The vibrancy of the paper depended on the state of the movement. It was so exciting to be involved at a time when people were prepared to listen.
In 1971, when Paul Foot joined the paper, I remember him going to a meeting of five people in Coventry on how to write reports. He was happy to do it. Then, as now, getting the people who are involved in the movement writing is that important.