The American Revolutionary Press Tradition

  • Scott Cooper and Ezra Brain | 
  • May 20, 2021

Throughout history, publications have been a central tool to build the socialist movement.

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In What Is to Be Done?, written in 1901–2, Vladimir Lenin articulated a compelling analogy for the revolutionary press.

A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser. In this respect it may be compared to the scaffolding erected round a building under construction; it marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, permitting them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour. … As for the building of revolutionary organisations, experience shows that sometimes they may be built without scaffolding, as the seventies showed. But at the present time we cannot even imagine the possibility of erecting the building we require without scaffolding.

With these words, Lenin laid out part of what is arguably the most successful strategy for building a revolutionary party ever attempted. Aware of the immense power of propaganda and agitation, he realized that such a publication was a way that younger and smaller revolutionary groups could wield influence greater than their forces. Lenin himself put this strategy of using a newspaper as a collective organizer to work with Iskra — Russian for “spark.” With the slogan “From a spark a fire will flare up” emblazoned across its front page, it was conceived first as a way to bring the clandestine work of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party — which faced severe repression — above ground, break the isolation of the moment, and organize sympathizers across Russia. This “scaffold” was a vital tool in building what would eventually become the Bolshevik Party — which, of course, would go on to lead the Russian Revolution.

The first issue of Iskra, 1900.

Lenin taught a valuable lesson: that by publishing a newspaper, revolutionaries could reach far beyond what they could accomplish through activism or workplace organizing — clandestine or otherwise.

Revolutionaries have used the press to build the party ever since. In 1915, Chen Duxiu launched New Youth, which began as an anti-establishment publication calling on young people to break with cultural traditions. It morphed into a political publication that rallied a movement among Chinese youth. As Trotskyist militant and Chen scholar Wang Fanxi described,

On May 4, 1919, a student-led mass movement broke out in Beijing ... born under the direct influence of New Youth — the first time the seeds scattered by this radical publication were harvested [and] its first test. It was really put into the mass struggle. … Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao moved to the left and engaged in revolutionary activities, while [many other leaders] retreated, turning step by step to the right under the guise of “retreating to the study.”

Further, Wang wrote that “before 1919, there were no Chinese versions of socialist literature in China, and Chen Duxiu used his magazine to help correct this shortcoming. Chinese translations of The Communist Manifesto became available, and seminars on Marxist thought appeared.” In 1921, Chen helped found the Chinese Communist Party.

New Youth was key to the early and wide distribution of Marxist thought in China and the establishment of a revolutionary party. Just as Lenin laid out, the paper was the scaffold.

This May 1918 issue of New Youth was the first published all in vernacular Chinese, except for retaining the French of the journal name — a practice that persisted for some time.

Later, Chen broke with the party he founded and allied himself with the Trotskyist Left Opposition, leading its Chinese section.

The Iskra and New Youth examples show the immense power and influence that a revolutionary newspaper can have. This is the tradition that we hope to be writing in as Left Voice — as well as the examples of important revolutionary U.S. publications discussed below. We begin with the oldest of our five, Appeal to Reason.

Appeal To Reason

No other printed socialist newspaper in U.S. history has ever achieved the circulation level of Appeal to Reason. It had half a million subscribers at its height. Established in 1895, the paper was a key organizer of much of the early U.S. Left. After the Socialist Party of America was founded in 1901, the party used Appeal to Reason as a major vehicle for putting forward its politics.

Like New Youth, Appeal to Reason was not only a place for political scholars and theorists to lay out their political perspectives and report on the class struggle; it was also a gathering spot for leftist artists. Most famously, the paper commissioned Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which it published in weekly installments. Several other prominent authors also published in Appeal to Reason — including Jack London, Mother Jones, Helen Keller, and Eugene Debs.

In a 1903 edition of Appeal to Reason, the headline asks a question with an obvious answer for the newspaper’s readers. It’s issue number 388, which gives a sense of the newspaper’s longevity.

The paper was founded in the Midwest and operated for a long time out of Girard, Kansas. Its location was key to the example that Appeal to Reason set for newspapers to come: it challenged the idea of “elitist” Marxism and socialism, putting forward a “heartland” vision of socialist propaganda written in an accessible style and aimed at winning a mass readership. This style was notably different from the stereotypical material produced by some urban socialists, whose writings often seemed disconnected from the material reality of much of the American working class, which lived outside the big cities. Appeal to Reason’s writers covered issues that resonated with wide swaths of the working class — such as opposing prohibition.

Appeal to Reason was a major radicalizing force on workers and farmers throughout the United States — including a young James P. Cannon, the founder of the American Trotskyist movement — who wrote for three of our other examples below and was also instrumental in founding them. His father was a subscriber, and Cannon read the issues of the paper lying around the house. The newspaper often sponsored public events that the young Cannon would attend with his father. Appeal to Reason helped bring Cannon to socialism as a teenager.

In 1922, Appeal to Reason ceased publishing under that name and became mostly a promotional paper for the radical publishing house that had acquired ownership. When there were efforts to resuscitate Appeal to Reason in 1931, it was Cannon who wrote perhaps the most succinct criticism of its limitations: yes, it had radicalized many, and helped create revolutionaries, but its political line had never gone far enough.

So you will give up the slogan, “Go to the masses” — say the advocates of agitation for its own sake. No. But in order to make its meaning clearer — to arm the movement against Appeal to Reasonism, open and disguised — the Opposition adds an amendment to make the slogan read: Go to the masses with a revolutionary policy!

As Lenin showed, a publication can be a vital tactic in building mass influence, and Appeal to Reason was a widely read, accessible socialist paper for the masses. The revolutionary press should appeal to the masses, of course, but it also must put forward a clear political line. Our next example, The Black Panther, effectively fused mass appeal, news, and a definite political perspective.

The Black Panther

The legacy of the Black Panther Party looms large today, especially amid the resurging movement against police killings of Black people. After all, the party — originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense — emerged as an armed “cop-watching” group that challenged the brutality of the Oakland, California, police department. But the Panthers were much more, and one underappreciated aspect of their work is their newspaper. The Black Panther newspaper was a vital cornerstone of the party’s organizing, being used not only to disseminate political ideas but also to organize the work.

The Black Panther was launched in 1967 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton as part of their efforts to build the Black Panther Party. It began as a simple four-page publication, mostly reprinting party statements such as the famous Ten Point Program, which appeared in issue number 2. The paper also reported on what was going on in various parts of the country and world, which helped keep party members and supporters informed of their comrades’ work.

The party also used The Black Panther to issue its calls for action and promote its many community programs. Calling people to attend rallies would appear in the same issues with appeals to participate in the party’s community programs, such as breakfast for children. The Black Panther was a place where the Panthers could use text and pictures to marry their political theory with their activist work, and to show how the latter emerged from the former. This helped politicize what might otherwise have been seen as mere activist “mutual aid,” more akin to charity. Seale called them “revolutionary community programs.”

An issue of The Black Panther from September 1972 trumpets the Black Panther Party’s solidarity with the United Farm Workers Union, which was waging a bitter struggle to unionize migrant lettuce pickers in the fields of California not far from the party’s Oakland base.

The Black Panther also helped ground the party in the political tradition from which it found its inspiration. Its pages were full of quotes from (and even cartoons of) past revolutionary political leaders from the United States and worldwide. This also helped in the political education of the party’s members and supporters and further clarified the party’s political perspectives.

Of course, The Black Panther reflected the limitations of the Panthers as a political party. Most notable was the focus on building an armed struggle by a small minority, to the exclusion of building a mass movement to overturn capitalism. Nevertheless, there’s a lot we can learn from The Black Panther — especially about giving activist work a clear political and theoretical content. By using their newspaper to unite all their political work in one place, the Panthers created — in the words of Lenin — a true collective organizer of the party, its supporters, and their communities through the paper. Without The Black Panther, the Panthers would have been severely limited in the scope and reach of their political activity.

While plenty of socialist newspapers have political limitations like those of The Black Panther, others can adopt a political line that runs counter to the interests of the working class — but still provide lessons worthy of consideration about what the revolutionary press ought to cover. Such is the case with The Daily Worker.

The Daily Worker

In January 1924, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) began publication of a daily newspaper, The Daily Worker. It reflected the party’s growth and its emergence from an underground period, as well as an upgrade from The Worker, the six-page weekly that the party had begun publishing in December 1921, when the Workers Party of America — the CPUSA’s “aboveground” group — had been founded.

It wasn’t a very engaging newspaper at first. But that changed during the Depression, and the newspaper began to orient to a general audience rather than the party’s own members. Flush with cash from Moscow as Stalin took control of the Russian leadership and the Communist International, the party made a shift with its press and used The Daily Worker to appeal to everyday readers. That included bringing on experienced journalists who had joined the party and opening the pages to many of the CP’s “fellow travelers.”

Of course, The Daily Worker reflected the political line of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow, following the leadership’s every zig and zag. For example, it went from deep criticism of Franklin Roosevelt when he was first elected president to almost fawning support as his administration initiated the New Deal. But the paper was widely read; as one historian explained, “communism” in the late 1920s and into the 1930s “was regarded by many Americans as just a global fight for social justice and therefore [they] in some ways were sympathetic with its goals. The people read The Daily Worker and even subscribed to it.” It wasn’t uncommon for it to be delivered to the homes of many people who were not members of the CP.

The CP’s politics aside, The Daily Worker is included here because of the high quality of its reportage, which transcended Stalinism. It was the work of committed revolutionary journalists, despite their adhesion to the CP. And it was during the Depression that the work really shone. The newspaper’s coverage of the unemployment marches was epic. Its reporters were on the scene for strikes by textile workers in Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1929; California lettuce workers in 1931; coal miners in “Bloody Harlan” County, Kentucky, in 1934; and elsewhere. Investigative journalists uncovered the truth behind slumlords in the inner cities. Its sports pages, and primarily self-taught journalist and CP member Lester Rodney, championed the integration of Major League Baseball for years before Jackie Robinson broke in with the Dodgers. Woody Guthrie wrote an occasional music column. Richard Wright reported from Harlem. And the “Little Lefty” comic strip — a direct counter to “Little Orphan Annie” — featured a contributor named Harvey Kurtzman, who later helped create Mad Magazine in the 1950s.

Photojournalism was one of The Daily Worker’s strong suits. Its photographers — some of whom ended up also working for the federal Farm Security Agency during the New Deal — captured some of the enduring Depression-era images of the more remote areas of the United States, such as the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.

A 1930 front page of The Daily Worker shows the scope of its coverage — a U.S. labor struggle and news from the other side of the world.

It’s difficult for Trotskyists not to imagine what we could have done with the financial resources The Daily Worker enjoyed and our anti-Stalin political line! When American Trotskyists launched their first newspaper, it was an epic political and economic struggle.

The Militant

In the fall of 1928, “three generals without an army” — Martin Abern, Max Shachtman, and James P. Cannon — were expelled from the Communist Party of the United States of America. Their crime? They had read Leon Trotsky’s critique of how Joseph Stalin was destroying the Russian Revolution, they agreed with his analysis, and they said so to other party members. They realized that there would need to be a thoroughgoing fight to win the Stalinized CP back to Bolshevism, and that they had to battle for the continuity of what Lenin and Trotsky had led in Russia. And what did they do first?

First in order, of course, was the launching of our paper, The Militant. The Militant was not a surreptitiously distributed mimeographed bulletin, such as satisfies many little cliques, but a full-sized printed paper.

So wrote James P. Cannon in The History of American Trotskyism. He and his comrades knew instinctively that the revolutionary press had to be part of their arsenal in the coming fight. They were well versed in what Lenin had written about Iskra. Cannon had been a founder of the CP, and had written for years for The Daily Worker and its precursors. All of them were so convinced of the importance of a newspaper that as they awaited their inevitable trial and expulsion — as the Stalinist leadership in Russia had done with Trotsky the year before — they got ready.

We had anticipated the expulsion. We were ready for it and struck back. About a week later, to their great consternation, we hit them with the first issue of The Militant. The copy had been prepared and a deal made with the printer while we were dragging on the trial. We were expelled on October 27, 1928. The Militant came out the next week as a November issue, celebrating the anniversary of the Russian revolution, giving our program, and so forth. Thus began the open fight for American Trotskyism.

The Militant became the voice of the Left Opposition in the United States, and when the Trotskyists realized that there was no hope of winning the CP back to Bolshevism, it became the voice of the project to create a new revolutionary party in the United States. That began with the Communist League of America and continued with the fusion of the Trotskyists with the American Workers Party, which then published The New Militant. That paper ceased publication when the Workers Party comrades entered the Socialist Party to help win its left wing to revolutionary politics, replaced by an “internal” Socialist Appeal, and picked up again when the Trotskyists broke away the forces they had won and launched the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) on New Year’s Day 1938.

Leon Trotsky himself was an avid reader and wrote many articles for The Militant during his final years in Mexico, before his assassination at the hands of a Stalinist agent in 1940.

Leon Trotsky in his study in Coyoacán, Mexico, reading The Militant.

Over the decades, The Militant was the voice of the continuity of revolutionary Marxism in the United States. It covered the labor battles of the 1930s, with participants as its correspondents. It helped organize the fight against fascism in this country in the run-up to World War II. It stayed firm to revolutionary politics through the McCarthy era of the 1950s. It was Malcolm X’s favorite newspaper on the Left; he welcomed The Militant’s coverage of his speeches and gave its writers many exclusive interviews. The fight against the war in Vietnam, which the SWP played a central role in building in the United States, was featured on its front pages until the country’s national liberation forces decisively defeated U.S. imperialism.

The front page of The Militant on February 12, 1968, focuses on the war in Vietnam, with articles that link the antiwar movement in the United States, the struggle of Black soldiers refusing to fight, and anti-imperialist solidarity with the Vietnamese people.

The SWP still publishes The Militant today, but by the mid-1980s — as the culmination of what turns out to have been a long, slow process of degeneration — a petty-bourgeois leadership broke with Trotskyism altogether and maneuvered to expel all the party members who continued to defend its basic tenets. But those renegades from Bolshevism cannot bury the history of the longest-published revolutionary Marxist newspaper in human history. Nor can they bury the role of the Trotskyists in our final example, The Organizer, which was not the publication of a socialist group but nevertheless has a place of honor in the pantheon of the American revolutionary press.

The Organizer

On June 25, 1934, the first issue of The Organizer hit the streets of Minneapolis. Published by Local 574 of the Teamsters union, it would become a key organizing tool for one of the most militant strikes in American labor history — and one that introduced important tactics to the labor movement in this country. The headline of that first issue reported on an upcoming “strike conference” decided at a packed meeting of the union membership, where there was a unanimous vote to “call the Employers bluff” and prepare for action.

The newspaper came out weekly until July 16, when a strike was set. From then on, it was a daily — until early September, when the union announced it had won handily in the vote by drivers for recognition and went back to a weekly. Along the way, there were multiple efforts by the bosses and the state to shut the paper down, through intimidation of printers and also with the threat to prosecute the publishers for “criminal syndicalism” — which back then could bring a five-year prison sentence in Minnesota.

Nothing stopped Local 574 — including murderous violence unleashed against strikers and a declaration of martial law by the governor. The Organizer exposed the bosses’ offensive, rallied other workers to the cause, built citywide solidarity actions, kept unionists and their families apprised of every development in the struggle, and set an example for how to build unions in the 1930s and for every striking union to this day.

The Organizer reports that Local 574 won its strike — and includes a great cartoon showing the power of a united working class against the bosses.

Readers may ask why a union newspaper is included among the “revolutionary press.” The answer is that the Minneapolis Teamsters strike in 1934 was led by revolutionaries — Trotskyists organized in the Communist League of America, the precursor to the Socialist Workers Party that was the longtime U.S. section of the Fourth International founded in 1938. Nearly all the strike leaders were CLA members. One of them, Harry DeBoer, later stated straightforwardly, “We couldn’t have done it without a disciplined revolutionary party.”

Farrell Dobbs, one of the strike leaders who was recruited to Trotskyism through the struggle, wrote later that The Organizer was “the first strike daily ever published by a union in the United States.” Its daily circulation exceeded 10,000 copies. Its pages were not limited to strike “news” but included analysis that fighters in Minneapolis for everything that would be involved in their battle. These analyses were built on Marxist theory and what the Trotskyists already knew from history about how to wage a struggle for the working class. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism and one of the original founders of the Communist Party, contributed a column regularly. As he wrote later, “Without The Organizer, the strike would not have been won.”

The Objective of the Revolutionary Press Today

The Organizer is an ideal example of how the revolutionary press can showcase, support, and help grow a working-class struggle, and become an important factor in victory. And it reflects what we aim to accomplish with Left Voice, especially with our relaunching today of a newly designed website. We take advantage of 21st-century technology, unavailable to our forebears, that allows us to disseminate our press quickly and widely, advantages amplified by being part of the international Trotskyist La Izquierda Diario Network — publishing in more than a dozen countries. Our objective is to be a 21st-century Iskra and a modern-day version of The Organizer, providing news, analysis, and a means by which not only to promote our politics, but also to organize people to take action — in the interest of replacing this rotten system of profit and exploitation with a socialist society. We will continue to cover what is happening around the world, but never simply to report the news, but to engage with struggles and win people to a revolutionary perspective.

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