Pressing for Reform

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Review of 'Voices of Revolution', Rodger Streitmatter, Columbia University Press £13.50

As the radical journalist Upton Sinclair once noted, the establishment newspapers generally do not challenge the status quo, but rather construct a 'concrete wall between the public and alternative thinking'. Hence the need for the dissident press whose primary purpose is to effect social change.

This book covers some 30 dissident papers in the US, and sketches the social needs that led to their publication. Among them are the early labour presses, journals against lynching, those for sexual reform and papers which sought to organise the struggles for civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the 1960s (one publication, 'Ramparts', had a circulation of a quarter of a million). The book also contains fascinating portraits of familiar figures such as Emma Goldman, Ida B Wells and the Black Panthers, as well as lesser known figures who all shared the same aim of changing society in a fundamental way.

The labour presses wanted to transform individual workers into a united political force. Journalism was a way of organising and propagandising. There were some 50 labour weeklies in the 1820s and 1830s. Dissident journalism provided a forum for open discussion and encouraged readers to share their experiences.

The lowly status of women was illustrated by an article in a Philadelphia newspaper which stated, 'A woman is nobody. A wife is everything.' Against this background two middle aged women set up the Revolution in 1868, with circulation peaking at 3,000. They wanted facts and experiences 'as hard as cannonballs' from their readers. They were inundated with stories of marital abuse. The brutal facts they published fired their campaign for divorce laws.

Sending printed information about sex education through the post (considered obscene) carried a fine of $5,000 and a year in jail. To help working class women find out how to prevent unwanted pregnancy Margaret Sanger, whose mother's 18 pregnancies brought early death, published 'Woman Rebel' and 'Birth Control Review' (circulation of which topped 30,000 in the early 1930s). These newspapers went beyond just reporting. They encouraged political activism by organising and advertising demonstrations and protests. The Free Press helped give birth to the Working Men's Party, which in 1828 elected 21 candidates to local office.

At the start of the 20th century the socialist press numbered over 300 papers with a combined circulation of 2 million. The socialist paper 'Appeal to Reason' had a paid subscription base of 760,000. This paper supported the socialist Eugene V Debs, who went on to poll almost 1 million votes when he stood for president in 1912.

Throughout history, mainstream newspapers have treated all dissident presses virtually the same. First they completely ignore them. Then if they start to gather influence and galvanise protest, the authorities and establishment press unite to vilify the ideas and individuals involved. Whatever your knowledge of radical history, this book is an interesting and highly readable account of the history of dissident press in the US.