By Don Franks
Glancing up across the road from the Workers Now stall today, I wondered yet again what prompted the artist to make that strange image. The art deco design on the building, a burning tobacco pipe beside a weeping apple. It struck me that for nearly fifty years, on and off, I’d been glancing up at the sign while peddling various literature on Cuba street.
First off, in the mid ‘70s , selling HART News, the anti-apartheid movement’s paper. Believe it or not, this single issue fortnightly was quite a big seller, especially in some of the hotel bars. One Friday evening the late Penny Bright and myself had a competition and managed to sell a hundred copies each. Then there was The Paper, a left-leaning radical periodical put out by HART supporters and independent activists. After The Paper, I sold the Workers Communist League’s UNITY until the League folded. A bit later down the track I resumed street selling with the Worker’s Voice. That publication morphed into Socialist Worker, which I finally left over some political differences. The last paper I sold in the streets was The Spark, during the time I was in the Workers Party.
It used to be an article of faith with socialist groups that a paper was central to building your organisation. Lenin’s advice that the paper was a scaffolding around which you produced a party was followed to the best of our ability. I still think the advice was good, although today , it doesn’t hold. Passersby seldom have coins or any cash at all and newspapers themselves have been outclassed by the immediacy of online communication.
So, why bother venture into the street with leaflets?
If for no other reason, street agitation sharpens an activist up a bit. You can get awfully complacent hunkering comfortably down behind the computer. Better to get out once in a while and put yourself in a position where you may be called on to defend your position, where your ideas can be challenged by the public. In practice, few hostile people stay to argue. Hostile people usually just toss a negative remark at you and keep on walking. Most of those who stop for a discussion tend to be sympathetic or curious.There is always the potential for some of these few to become a part of your movement, or to give you a donation or some tips or information or criticism that can improve your work.
There is really no replacement for direct human contact. The best exchange I had today was when a woman saw my stall and rushed across from the other side of the street. She grabbed a leaflet off me, shook my hand and said “I really want to thank you for what you’re doing!” After suffering poor conditions for years in a government department, this worker had finally lost their job, after an unsatisfactory mediation session. She was heartened to see someone standing up for worker’s rights.