Factory Bulletins, by Stephen Corbishley and Martin Thomas
Edited and reprinted from the International-Communist League's Internal Bulletin no. 22, September 1977.
Factory Bulletins, by Stephen Corbishley and Martin Thomas
For a revolutionary party with substantial roots in the working class, the factory bulletins are the papers produced by its factory branches. They are the means by which those factory branches maintain a dialogue with the mass of the workers in the factory and they are the backbone of the organisation of the factory branch itself.
For us, as a fighting propaganda group which is as yet nowhere near becoming a fully-fledged party, the role of factory bulletins is posed a bit differently.
Factory bulletins enable, and force, the organisation as a collective (not just individual industrial comrades) to relate to the class struggle at factory level week by week or fortnight by fortnight. We are enabled, and forced, to take up debates with workers, and in particular to debate with the Stalinists - rather than just denouncing them abstractly and perhaps accommodating to them in practical trade union work. Factory bulletins can help us to build the organisation through the recruitment of workers. Their value in this respect must not, however be over estimated. Gains made in this way will be slow and small for a long time yet. In addition, all the bulletin can do is the first stage of getting workers interested in working with us and discussing with us. The whole difficult process of contact education is not, and cannot be, covered by the bulletin.
More importantly, however, factory bulletins, and the work of producing factory bulletins, can enable the worker comrades whom we have recruited and will recruit to become real political militants in the factories. The work of producing the factory bulletin organises us, as a collective, to produce answers to the immediate issues facing workers in the factory and to link those answers to our general ideas.
The factory bulletin enables us to do what is necessary if we have any serious presence in a factory - that is, to talk to the mass of the workforce - but to do so politically, as an organisation and not just as individual trade unionists.
In order to carry out these tasks, the work needs to be done regularly and frequently (the bulletin should be at least fortnightly and strictly regular). It also means that there has to be a serious focusing on the factory, and the workers' preoccupations.
The presence of members and/or sympathisers in the factory lays the basis for a factory bulletin; but unless it is used to give systematic answers to the problems faced in the factory, it cannot be successful.
The factory bulletin work therefore cuts across the tendency that exists in any small communist organisation to become, on the one hand, a collection of uncoordinated trade union activists in the factories, and, on the other, a revolutionary discussion club outside the factories. It is, above all, an instrument for developing ourselves as a proletarian cadre organisation.
Factory bulletins have their own specific and particular role within our work. They are not a substitute for our paper, for the magazine, for contact work and educationals, for occasional leaflets, for 'united front' bulletins, shop stewards' bulletins, and 'rank and file' papers; nor are any of these things a substitute for our factory bulletins. All of these different methods attempts to address different audiences, and to organise people in different ways. Each type of work can help and strengthen the others; but it cannot substitute for them.
The factory bulletin is not a local version of, or substitute for, the paper: it addresses itself to a much wider audience, on a lower level of political interest, and therefore deals much less with the complexities of political issues.
The factory bulletin is not a slightly expanded system of occasional leaflets. The essence of the factory bulletin is that one does not just relate to the 'big events' (or what seem to be 'big events' from our point of view) but to the absolutely everyday reality of the class struggle in the factory.
Our factory bulletins are not the same things as the 'united front' bulletins which occasionally exist, put out on the groups of workers that come together on the basis of militant trade union views rather than a shared political outlook. Such bulletins are inevitably limited in what they say, and also probably in how promptly they can react to events. Very often we can a should participate in them, but that should not prevent us from printing our own bulletin too. We do not consider that some sort of watered-down or diluted politics will do for workers, and that our full programme is really only for the politically sophisticated. We are no more in favour of liquidating our politics for the sake of united fronts in the factories than anywhere else.
Most of all, factory bulletins can only be valuable if they are linked to serious contact work and internal educationals. Simply distributing pieces of paper to workers, crammed through they may be with the most interesting stories about the factory or the most eloquent revolutionary appeals, if not very productive, may just become a workerist ritual. "A sword may be used to spread butter if it is not in the hands of a warrior" - and a factory bulletin is useless unless there are comrades willing and trained to argue for the politics of the bulletin; unless there is a constant effort to organise people around the bulletin (get them to give it out, to write for it, to give money for it, to come to the meetings at which they are prepared...) and unless we do proper political contact work with the people attracted to read the bulletin.
One of the main values of factory bulletins is that the work round them enables, and forces, us to organise ourselves as a proletarian cadre organisation: conversely, factory bulletins have revolutionary value as a weapon in the hands of such a proletarian cadre organisation.
A factory bulletin takes us the everyday questions in the factory. The cell producing the bulletin must gain the maximum of information about the factory, its workings, its structure, and its internal political and trade union life, and make that information collective property. This method of working is integral to the idea that the bulletin talks to all workers, regardless of development, trade union membership etc.
Most of the items in the bulletin should be short (10 to 20 lines, or 60 to 160 words). Simply written, Making one point, but that clearly. Rather than moaning or whining about the evil-doing of the bosses, the foremen, or the trade union officials, the bulletin should lampoon them, expose them and debunk them. Rather than encouraging workers to feel mournful, self-pitying and hard done by, the bulletin should encourage them to be active, self-assertive, and self-confident. (This is not the same as filling the bulletin with specific "calls to action", which should in general be avoided. If "calls to action" are to be made, they are best made in person by our comrades in the factory)
Such an approach requires both a lot of training and a lot of care, in writing - as Trotsky remarked, it is more difficult to write for the masses than for the vanguard - and also a thorough and up-to-date knowledge of the factory and its workings. The cell that produces the bulletin must be organised to ensure the first, and get the second.
To get that knowledge, the cell must organise itself to ask the right questions. Most weeks, in most factories, there are no great "political events". But there is a constant stream of small events and disputes - over safety, over heating and ventilation, over timekeeping, over discipline, over work speeds, over discrimination against blacks, women or gays, over shifts systems, over holidays - and we must learn about them. We must learn to think, when preparing the bulletin, about what interests the mass of the workers in the factory, not what interests us. It remains necessary, of course, that the politics in the bulletin are ours and not those of the mass of workers in the factory.
The bulletin must be strictly regular. An irregular bulletin is really nothing more than a collection of leaflets. It loses all its value as a serious political organising instrument in the factory.
Finally, the bulletin is not just about the factory, any more than our politics are just about factory problems. The bulletin cannot deal with the complexities of issues as fully as the paper - but it should have the same politics, presented in a different way. We are absolutely against the patronising and snobbish idea that we should have some sort of watered-down politics for workers in the factories.
Lutte Ouvriere's technique for making sure that the factory bulletins are not just factory-centred is to give over one side of every bulletin to a standard "political editorial". We have followed this technique.
Reformists have never consistently produced factory bulletins. For them the class struggle has two main components - political (meaning parliamentary) and trade union or industrial. There is no need to build roots in the factories which have anything more than a character of backing up the 'political' fight conducted in the electoral and parliamentary arena.
For centrists such as the SWP, who have revolutionary desires and pretensions without having a revolutionary programme or political principles, the bulletins become just "calls for action", just a way of 'leading' by calling for greater militancy.
In IS's economistic outlook, revolutionary consciousness is created, if not just by spontaneous economic struggle, at least by spontaneous economic struggle plus a paper, a campaign, or some other technical device. Their conception of factory bulletins is like their view of the party: a technical conception. Thus the IS factory bulletins of the late '60s and early 1970s disappeared and were replaced by multicolour printed "rank and file papers" and today, as the SWP's real factory activity declines, the "rank and file papers" nevertheless multiply, in line with... the capacities of the Corbridge Works press.
The IS factory bulletins at their best were semi-political, dominated by the idea that the necessary task was to produce popular news-sheets for the workers, to service the economic struggle, and thus to impress the workers sufficiently with IS's sincerity and militancy. The necessary educational and political contact work was not done.
The experience of the early Communist Parties gives a wider view of the possible mistakes and problems with factory bulletins.
The Communist Party of France in the period of 'bolshevisation' is one instructive example.
Under the title of 'bolshevisation', the Communist International undertook a campaign, starting in 1924, to turn the CPs away from their old social democratic methods of operation towards regular intervention in the factories. Coinciding with the Zinoviev/Stalin campaign against "Trotskyism", this 'bolshevisation' in fact replaced social democratic methodology not by bolshevism but by bureaucratic centralism. At best it was an administrative imposition of abstractly correct organisational policy (see the Theses of the 3rd Congress of the CI, 1921, on the Organisation of the CPs); at worst, a brutal suppression of critical elements in the CP leaderships, of internal political life in the CPs, and of the right of faction and tendency. The experience of the French CP in starting factory bulletins shows the influence both of the old social democratic tradition and of the bureaucratic imposition of organisational forms.
"Taking up the question of these publications, the leading committee had affirmed the necessity of appearing regularly, so as to reach the masses of workers who did not read the communist press, and had recommended that they should be written by comrades working at the factory, who could link the local problems to those of general importance...
"A number of factory broadsheets thus began to appear. In April 1925 Cahiers du Bolshevisme no. 16 furnished the following statistics:
But judging by other statistics on bulletins produced in Paris in 1926, one cannot give these figures an absolute value.... Of the total of bulletins published in the first six months of the year, 95 got no further than no. 1, 57 no further than no. 2, and only 21 lasted more than 4 issues.
"These considerable fluctuations underline the two main difficulties encountered: repression by the bosses, and the inexperience of the Party cells... a resolution on factory papers critcised the following points ....
"In France, added Piatnitsky, the factory papers were still too poor. 'The regional committees write them, and that is terrible. The main thing is to speak the language of the workers and not to write long articles; it is to deal with the live issues in the factory and the subjects which the Party cannot deal with in its paper'. (The broadsheets, in fact, often limited themselves to reproducing or commenting on a few articles from communist publications)."
Jederman, La 'bolchevisation' du PCF, Maspero 1971
LJ Macfarlane's book on the history of the British Communist Party describes its turn to factory work. Before the Dutt- Pollitt reports of May-September 1922, "The typical branch held weekly evening indoor meetings and Sunday morning propaganda meetings - where the general principles of Communism versus capitalism were argued out 'before a typical knot of Sunday morning listeners"'. The reports insisted on reorganising the party and its press so that they would give a lead "not simply in general terms, but in relation to daily happenings as they came, meetings, strikes, union votes."
The major success of the Dutt-Pollitt reorganisation was with the CP's paper, transformed from a vague propaganda sheet ("The Communist") into a paper ("The Workers' Weekly") with a genuine living connection to working class struggle. Its circulation rose sharply, and in the first year nearly 2,500 local reports and letters from worker-correspondents were received. By March 1925, 32 factory groups had been formed in London, putting out 22 factory papers with a circulation of 5,000 copies a fortnight. In April 1926, the party had 1,000 members organised in factory groups, and put out 70 regular factory papers with a total circulation of 50,000.
The problem with reorganisation was that "Bolshevik" organisational forms were imposed without adequate back-up in terms of political education - thus the situation that "many comrades at trade union branches moved resolutions which they themselves did not understand, and... hundreds of members... were too busy selling "Workers' Weekly" ever to read it." This imbalance could, however, surely have been remedied if it were not for the onset of Stalinist degeneration. By 1926 the CP's turn to systematic factory work had massively expanded its influence, creating possibilities which were so criminally squandered by the Stalinist policy of the AngloRussian Committee.
The LCR (French sister-organisation of the IMG) have published a number of factory bulletins over the last few years. But they orientate the bulletins specifically to the 'vanguard' in the factories. The bulletins, therefore, are usually irregular broadsheets dealing at some length with the "big political issues" that may come up in the factory.
This tends to lock the comrades' intervention into the framework of a debate with the dominant political forces in the factory (the reformists or the Stalinists), and thus carries with it the risk of adapting to them and losing awareness of the fact that the mass of 'unpolitical' workers may have a far more healthy class reaction to some questions (eg 'participation') than the 'vanguard'. It also means that on day-to-day questions the organisation, collectively, does not define a line, and unless the comrade(s) in the factory are particularly capable people, they are likely to respond to those problems simply as militant trade unionists. And it means that for many serious class conscious workers the LCR comrades appear as people who speak many fine words about the great political questions, but who opt out when it comes to the difficult, grubby day-to-day problems.
Another variant of the factory bulletin idea was practised by the French Trotskyists towards the end of, and just after, the Second World War. They produced local papers for a number of factories in a particular town, or district of a larger town. During the war this approach was necessary because of the problem of clandestinity. After the war it merely became a wasteful diversion of resources from the Trotskyists' central paper, and a factor making for lack of political centralisation and homogeneity in the organisation. It was also, it seems, not very effective: the local papers were well received, but were too local and parochial to act as real educators, and too general and unspecific to act as real organisers in particular factories.
With Lutte Ouvriere the problem is not so much its failures with factory bulletins but its failure to do other things (i.e. to generate a real political and theoretical life). That means that factory bulletins are seen as the "serious" or the "morally right" things to do. This is reflected in a tendency for the bulletins to be rather wooden and bland politically, LO's bulletins also tend to accommodate politically to the consciousness of the "average worker". One example of this was an item in a bulletin which explained that the bosses were "robbing" the workers of a certain sum of money, and commented "Well, robbers are normally arrested". Another condemned police checks on identity cards, directed specially against immigrant workers, and said the police should spend the time going after real criminals.
Where LO's work with bulletins is clearly superior, however, and where we must put major efforts into learning from them, is in their unequalled tenacity and regularity with the work.
LO have evolved detailed and rigorous methods for organising the production of factory bulletins, which we should borrow.
Items for the bulletin should (preferably) be drafted before the bulletin meeting, or maybe written during the meeting itself. But in any case every item for the bulletin is collectively discussed at the meeting, and the writing of the bulletin is finished by the end of the meeting.
The principle of a formal meeting (even if, to start off with, it is only our comrades, and even that this means two people) is important. It helps to ensure that all those involved in the bulletin are collectively responsible for it, and it makes it easier to draw new contacts into the work of the bulletin.
The alternative method, which often seems easier, of one "exterior" comrade gathering articles from various comrades and then putting the bulletin together him/herself is bad. It means there is not proper collective discussion of the bulletin's contents; our sympathisers, and even members, in the factory, do not feel so much responsibility for the bulletin; the bulletin can become a thing which a well-meaning "exterior" comrade does for the workers in the factory. This method also encourages informal and slapdash arrangements, and increases the danger of irregularity.
The informal method means that information about the factory, or particular areas of it, remains the individual property of the comrades who write the "articles" about those areas - rather than becoming the collective property of the cell. And it means that our relationship to sympathisers who help with the bulletin is much less close and less political.
Therefore, there must be a regular bulletin meeting. If a contact with whom we are considering putting out a bulletin refuses to commit him/herself to such regular meetings, then that is a pretty definite sign that the contact is not committed enough to make the bulletin worthwhile.
The meetings in the non-bulletin weeks are given over to discussing reactions to the previous bulletin and to advance planning for the next bulletin. (There is another possible arrangement when there are a number of non-I-CL comrades involved in the bulletin, which is to give over the meeting in the alternate week to political education.)
The agenda of a bulletin meeting thus looks something like this:
We should always be trying to draw new worker sympathisers into the bulletin meetings (although comrades should be warned that progress on this can often be very slow). To help this, and also for the convenience of our own worker comrades, the bulletin meetings should be held straight after work and near the factory. At least one comrade from outside the factory should, however, be present at the meeting.
There will, of course, often be workers who are willing to give out the bulletin or contribute items to it, but not come to a meeting. With them, and with the workers who come to the meeting, intensive political work must always accompany the work with the bulletin.
Once all the writing for the bulletin is completed, it is handed over to a comrade for the technical production.
With the collections, as with other things, don't be over-optimistic: working with L0 Martin Thomas has stood at a factory gate and watched hundreds of workers come out while only one or two give anything to the collection.
Noone is a communist revolutionary unless he, or she, is also a dedicated militant of our class. And a communist organisation is not worthy of the name unless it is an organisation dedicated to working class militancy. Factory bulletins are an instrument which we use to face up to those duties. Not just factory bulletins, but factory bulletins done regularly, as a collective enterprise, with scrupulous checking of the information in them.
As a revolutionary organisation, however, the I-CL has an even more fundamental responsibility: to fight in the working class, and in our own ranks, for the greatest possible clarity of ideas. That means political education, methodical study of Marxist theory, and a consistent effort to analyse and understand the political events around us.
The fight for Marxist theoretical awareness is also the fight against all sorts of demagogy, and phrase mongering, An organisation - like L0 - which believes that it is a crushing condemnation of something to say that "the workers won't understand it" or that it corresponds to no immediate practical issue of militant activity, does not, in the last analysis, serve the working class well. What the working class needs from its revolutionary party is not only proof of elementary devotion to the class's interests, but also rigorous clarity of programme, strategy, and policy - clarity which cannot be achieved without an ideological struggle which is often very "abstract".
Thus, factory bulletins are not a cure-all. They can be a valuable instrument of revolutionary activity only to the extent that we do our other propaganda, educational, polemical and theoretical work adequately. They can be valuable only to the extent that they are a weapon in the hands of dedicated, well educated, and critical minded communist militants.