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ILA Podcast #32: Jess Spear: RISE November 29, 2021

Posted by leftarchivist in Uncategorized.
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Our guest in this episode is Jess Spear. Jess is an eco-socialist and socialist feminist activist based in Dublin. She is National Organiser of RISE, a revolutionary Marxist network of People Before Profit (PBP). She is the editor of the eco-socialist quarterly magazine, Rupture, and co-authored the pamphlet What is eco-socialism?. She was a research scientist at the US Geological Survey and Burke Museum of Natural History before moving to Dublin in 2017.

We discuss how Jess came to political activism in the US, and particularly, as a climate scientist, to environmental activism; her experience campaigning with Socialist Alternative (then part of the Committee for a Workers’ International) in Seattle, and as an electoral candidate there in 2014; moving to Ireland, the foundation of RISE, and decision to join PBP; and the development and aims of Rupture as a broad eco-socialist magazine and means to explore contemporary Marxist and socialist ideas and strategies.

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1. yourcousin - December 1, 2021

Just want to say it was an enjoyable interview.

Came away, not necessarily agreeing with RISE more, but appreciating their open mindedness and willingness to listen. Never bad traits to have.

Interesting to hear someone who is essentially a contemporary of mine speak of the radical scene in the US. I was active in the late 90s and oughts, while it seems her activism seems to have really picked up in the teens and continues on today.

Appreciate folks being willing to come on and talk about their experiences, and as always appreciate the hosts of the podcast for making it happen.

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2. alanmyler - December 2, 2021

Good interview alright. Well perhaps not so much interview actually, talk perhaps, as it was very one directional with only a few brief questions to guide the talk. I’ve still to lay my hands on a copy of Rupture, must get around to doing that! One critique though, and it’s as much about this interview as the magazine, some of the articles from which I have read on-line, but the critique is one which I’ve made before about the SP as they were and their spokespeople and writers, and I guess it carries on into RISE and Militant Left too, which is the tendency just to go on a bit. I’ve never read a short article written by anyone from the CWI tradition. I appreciate the thought that’s gone into Rupture in terms of presentation, and clearly it aims beyond the narrow cohort of the faithful, in much the same way that LookLeft did at the time it was around, but I really wonder how many people have the patience to read through lengthy pieces. I know I struggled, and I’ve a healthy interest in these things from the off. Anyway, maybe that’s just me, looking for short succinct articles that don’t place too much strain on my attention span, but I suspect I’m not alone.

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yourcousin - December 3, 2021

Not that I would know anything about guests that talk too much (cough, cough), but I think the best episodes on here are the ones where it’s more conversational with just a few light touches here or there to keep it meandering in the (mostly) right direction. This will serve as a shameless defense of going on tangents later.

One of the enjoyable things about this podcast are the wide variety of experiences of the guests. I mean I’m intimately familiar with the US political stuff, so I found that section interesting to get a different perspective.

Having purchased a copy of the magazine I would urge you to refrain from judgement until you get a copy in your hand. Something about the tactile sensations go a long way for me. It would kind of like critiquing an album off the songs you hear on the radio, maybe you’re not wrong, but you’re not getting the full experience as the artist intended.

I think there’s a place for short and succinct as well as long form. It’s up to each formation to figure out what works best for their messaging. I’m not going to say that every article in the magazine tickles my fancy (far from it), but full respect to RISE for getting out there arguing their corner.

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pettyburgess - December 3, 2021

Succinct writing is not one of our strengths, fair enough. But if you buy a 120 page magazine, you are probably prepared in advance for it to have some long form articles in it!

Rupture articles vary in length from 500 to 4000 words, with most in the 1000 to 3000 range. I suspect that the articles you – as an experienced left wing activist – find interesting enough to click on online skew quite heavily towards the longer end of the spectrum. I think it’s to some extent unavoidable if we are going to outline a novel (or at least new to us) analysis of the national question in Ireland or the history of left wing factionalism etc that it takes some space to do it properly.

But yes, there’s a certain predisposition to longwinded writing and speechifying in socialist culture in general. I’m not sure that I’d single out the SP/CWI in that regard: they’ve been churning out newspaper articles of a few hundred words for decades after all, in among the sometimes interminable perspectives documents and occasional polemics.

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alanmyler - December 3, 2021

Fair comments PB.

About those polemics, genuinely back in the day when I was looking to get involved in a political party (around 2010 or so) I have to say that the on-line polemics by the SP against the SWP at the time really soured me against the party. Not the only reason I didn’t approach the SP, but definitely a contributing factor.

About the short newspaper articles, as comrade Spear says herself, they’re all written to the same formula, why capitalism must be overthrown and why the reader should join the SP to achieve that. I did actually buy a copy of The Socialist as an early CAHWT meeting and tried to read it. It was awful. Happily I won’t say that Rupture is awful, it’s not at all, it’s a credit to RISE that you can produce something far better than what has been historiclly typical of the tradition from which you originated.

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yourcousin - December 4, 2021

Alan,
I don’t think the SP has a monopoly on being long winded, or even writing things that are somewhat cringeworthy. Again, I would encourage you to go actually get a copy and go from there.

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pettyburgess - December 5, 2021

There are certain tonal problems with a lot of SP written material (dogmatic certainty etc) which don’t help, but to be fair it is an extremely difficult task to produce a readable monthly newspaper, year after year.

It’s a format designed for news content, but you can’t really cover news properly with that lack of frequency. I know that you are a fan of shorter articles, but it’s extremely hard to say anything more substantial in a few hundred words. So they end up with an endless succession of brief bits of propaganda, usually aimed at an imaginary person just beginning to get interested in socialism.

And then they produce it with no professional writers. The writers they or any other small socialist organisation do have are of wildly varying levels of experience, which means that there’s a choice between working very labour intensively with inexperienced writers or else effectively rewriting everything into a house style. The former is very hard to sustain, the latter makes it hard to avoid being boring.

So is the SP paper good? Well, no and if I end up with a copy, I will just scan it to see if there is anything interesting in it. But I’m very much not the target audience. They aren’t producing it thinking that some bunch of long time left activists who aren’t in the SP will read it frequently. And I’m also aware that if I was put in charge of a similar project with similar constraints and similar aims, I’d probably end up producing something similar.

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WorldbyStorm - December 5, 2021

+1

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Mat - December 5, 2021

All very true, and begs the question – is a regular propaganda newspaper a relevant project for leftwing orgs in 2021?

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alanmyler - December 6, 2021

Yes, one might imagine that if Lenin was around a century later that he might have chosen the more contemporary media forms for propaganda work, podcasts, TikTok videos, something like that, and longer Blog posts for the more weighty theoretical stuff. Does anyone read a print newspaper these days at all? A couple of my 50+ year old in-laws would buy a weekend newspaper to read and do the crossword, but does anyone in a younger demographic buy a paper? My three young adults have never read a newspaper, nor ever watch TV as such. Printing a propaganda newspaper in this era seems like something cargo cultish.

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pettyburgess - December 6, 2021

In principle I agree. A print newspaper is an extremely bad way to get a socialist message across in 2021. It’s a medium in terminal decline.

But to be fair to the SP, while they still justify the production by reference to Lenin’s obviously now long outdated arguments about one being the “scaffolding” of a revolutionary party, they are shrewd enough not to actually behave as if they are producing a traditional newspaper.

They know that nobody reads it for news. They know that there is no regular readership outside of party members (and few party members read it cover to cover). It’s a prop to use to get talking to people on demonstrations and stalls. And then it’s essentially a large leaflet, covering their views on a range of more or less contemporary issues which they hope the interested person they were talking to will read. The purchasers aren’t supposed to become regular readers or subscribers, the hope is that a few of them will become recruits. I don’t think that producing a monthly newspaper is a good use of resources, but it isn’t the case that they just haven’t noticed a century passing.

The justification for producing a paper and it’s basic format have remained the same for nearly fifty years, but its audience and practical purposes have changed at least twice. Militant Irish Monthly had the “prop” role, but it also had a bit of a regular readership in the Labour Party and the unions. People Militant sellers came into contact with regularly in an era when newspapers were widely read.

Then there was the late 1990s/early 2000s incarnation as the Voice. That was I think the last time that they tried to have a publication function as an actual newspaper. In this case as a kind of radical community newspaper in the Western and Northern Dublin suburbs. Again, this wasn’t a stupid idea and it wasn’t just following a Leninist catechism. The internet existed but not yet in a way that marginalised newsprint. The SP had a large network of semi organised supporters in some of those suburbs coming out of the original water tax struggle. Their strategy at the time was based around finding a succession of community campaigns.

The community paper never really worked out, partly I suspect for capacity reasons and partly because there was a tension between the paper’s role as a community focused paper and its role as a party organ for sale on demonstrations etc. And I think it came to be seen at least by a section of the leadership as part of a general watering down of the party’s politics in the search for a breakthrough.

And then there’s the current demonstration prop / recruitment leaflet model.

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pettyburgess - December 6, 2021

It’s a pity that there’s no copy of the Voice in the archive. It would be interesting to see how different it actually was (or was not) to Militant or the Socialist.

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WorldbyStorm - December 6, 2021

Well, funny you should ask, we’ve a couple of editions cued up to go.

Just on party papers, I sold the Irish People door to door and more regularly in pubs of a Sunday morning in the mid and late 1980s. Despite its contents being not awful I don’t think most people who bought it really read it cover to cover – and I think it too had almost exactly the same function as that you outline PB for the various SP publications – it was functionally a large leaflet which was sold in order to underscore the sense of the WP as an active and engaged party. I think outside of papers in very different societies (though perhaps the Irish Press fulfilled this function in its earlier decades and An Phoblacht to a certain degree perhaps) Irish political papers have tended to that publicity function across the 20c and after.

A community paper is an interesting idea.

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pettyburgess - December 6, 2021

It will be interesting to see from the perspective of 20 years later how “community focused” it actually was.

I think the main thing that prevented most political papers from working as newspapers was a practical inability to sell each new issue to the same people. Even if it’s worth reading, few people will start regularly doing so if they have to make an effort to do so or only have the occasional opportunity to buy it. Stalls, demonstration sales etc are one offs. Estate sales could conceivably work, but you’d have to be hitting the same streets with each issue perpetually.

A lost world really.

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WorldbyStorm - December 6, 2021

And without large numbers of members then it just becomes a time sink pulling people away from other aspects of political activity just to keep the title going.

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Aonrud ⚘ - December 4, 2021

“Good interview alright. Well perhaps not so much interview actually, talk perhaps, as it was very one directional with only a few brief questions to guide the talk.”

Just to add, to my mind anyway, this is intentional, and not any more or less the case in this episode than others. I’ve said before that a good episode is one without us in it! Not literally, sure, but it should be about the guest presenting their subjective experience of participating in left politics (except where we deliberately have more discursive episodes about left history).

We try to make sure we cover the relevant topics and prevent general drift, but we’re not going asking people to justify their organisations and that sort of thing. Hopefully, listeners can see themselves what’s focussed on and what’s glossed over in someone’s own account.

Liked by 1 person

yourcousin - December 4, 2021

“We try to make sure we cover the relevant topics and prevent general drift”

I’ll just take exception to this right now, just to get ahead of the curve, and set a precedence.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - December 4, 2021

Yeah, the function of the podcast, and I think Aonghus has been clear from the off is to allow other people, activists, historians and so on, to have their say with as little framing. Actually on relistening was struck by how much compared to some back and forth there was – at least in terms of picking apart concepts and so on.

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Aonrud ⚘ - December 4, 2021

…except where we deliberately have more discursive episodes about left history.

Got you covered 😉

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yourcousin - December 4, 2021

🤣

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