Socialist sounds

Podcasts are to radio what BitTorrent and iPlayer are to television.  Allowing the user to select only the content that interests them, to listen to at a time of their choosing makes them infinitely more convenient than tuning in and hoping there’s something good on. Nowadays smartphones (such as my own warranty-voided custom-firmwared HTC) are capable of automatically downloading the latest podcasts without any user interaction, queuing them up ready to listen whenever they are wanted.

Whilst its this level of convenience that makes podcasts radio-killers, for socialists there is a far more interesting aspect of this new media to examine.  As with much internet-based content, the barrier to produce a podcast is far lower than producing a radio show.  There’s no licence, no studio hire,  all you need are some ideas and a half-decent microphone.  This renders podcasts a far more democratic medium than radio, allowing alternative viewpoints to come to the fore, free from domination by state or company owned media machines.

Thanks to this democracy my 30 minute bus ride to work, normally dead time, has been transformed into a productive learning experience.  I’ve listed below some of the podcasts that typically make up this experience, with mini-reviews for each in case you fancy trying one.


Out of all the podcasts I listen to, Radio Labour seems the most similar to a traditional radio format.  Uploaded 5 days a week each 10 minute episode relays some of the major trade union news stories from around the world with a traditional radio-news style delivery.  Typically the host does not venture beyond news items and into analysis or truly probing interviews, but this is understandable given the various trade union sponsorships the show has, it cant be seen as taking sides within the union movement. 

Summary: Think of it as LabourStart in podcast form.

This podcast sets as its goal the bringing together of the Free software and labour movements.  As a Linux-using shop steward its  a project I can fully get behind, unions are amongst the worst culprits when it comes to spending money on software when there are free and often superior alternatives.  Episodes of Cyberunions have so far covered a wide range of topics including open source social networking and the need to organise technology workers.  The hosts are typically very honest about their own experiences with Free software, positive and negative and coming from different sides of the world from each other means they frequently provide insights into the ways unions operate differently in different countries (the downside to this internationalism is American cohost’s pronunciation of “Diaspora” which makes me wince, the small-minded xenophobe that I am).

Summary: Accessibly presented information on Free software aimed at trade unionists

A more infrequent podcast, CLB’s offering none the less provides some hugely interesting insights into the world of trade unionism and labour struggles within China.  The hosts have a seemingly huge depth of knowledge and a very relaxed yet professional podcasting style which makes this one of the most listenable podcasts I subscribe to.  Each episode tends to tackle a different topic though the major Chinese labour news stories of the day are always covered.

Summary: Professional and informative, an excellent source of information on labour struggles in China.

And the rest

The above podcasts are entirely labour movement orientated because I generally find most political podcasts too unfocussed and moralistic for my tastes, the only ones I occasionally listen to are those put out by the WSM, specifically I would recommend this recoding of a talk on the history of Syndicalism in Ireland.  I also occasionally  find time to listen to some podcasts completely unrelated to my politics, the highlights of which have to be the professional and funny GameSpot UK podcast and the fascinating and well-researched History of Rome podacst.

Podcasts are a fantastic resource for learning or catching up on news, and the left already has some good offerings.  We can do a lot better though, and hopefully as the left slowly catches up with the technology we will see more and more quality left wing/labour movement podcasts.


General strike?

Much of the far left, most prominently the Socialist Worker’s Party, are campaigning for a general strike.  This demand often takes various form, but the principle is the same, we need a big strike, the more militant the better.  Such demands are beginning to gain traction amongst young radicalised workers and trade unionists,  and so it is worth examining whether this call for a general strike is one all socialists should be taking up.

Clearly were the unions to bring out all their membership, millions of workers, in an indefinite general strike the country could be paralysed and the austerity agenda halted in its tracks, however the reality on the ground in many trade unions makes this scenario exceedingly unlikely.

The difficulty here is tacitly acknowledged by the leaderships of the unions.  Whilst they may not be the bold and daring leadership we might like they are none the less genuinely hostile to the Tories (sometimes for ideological reasons, sometimes because their future career as an MP depends on Labour being in power).  Yet they are unwilling to take up the calls of the far left for a general strike.  This is not simply cowardice, the union leaders know that behind the often inflated membership statistics lies a sorry picture of union organisation.

Besides the already well documented ageing and decline of trade union density most trade unionists will not have been on strike in years.  A decade of “partnership” with the bosses has done its damage and even those more militant unions who occasionally strike frequently find it is a battle enough to try to get their own union membership out, let alone the workforce as a whole.  A general strike then, a decisive confrontation with the government, risks a major defeat for the trade unions, as it was in 1926.  Indeed we need look no further than Greece, where several one day general strikes, of the kind advocated by much of the far left, combined with massive civil unrest have thus far failed to stop the austerity agenda.

This attitude of trying to mimic those tactics which are seen as most militant, which appeal aesthetically to idealistic young activists, rather than a focus on the hard work needing put in in the here and now is sadly a trend much of the left is guilty of.  This focus on militancy is not simply a distraction, it can often prove quite dangerous.  If the far left wins its argument for a piece of seemingly militant action to take place, and that action fails to be effective, militancy will be discredited in the eyes of all those who participated.  Workers are not going to hurry to try another workplace occupation if the last one got half of them fired.  Yes, we should be arguing for bold tactics such as sit-ins, wildcat strikes etcetera, but only where these tactics will bring us victories.  The principle of fighting to win must take precedence at all times over a preference for aesthetically militant action.

Of course a hugely important factor when fighting to win is ensuring that whichever tactic we ultimately adopt has the support of the vast majority of those involved in the fight.  Again here the far left’s attitude of militancy for militancy’s sake can prove dangerous.  A workplace occupation will be destined for failure if we only manage to win a small proportion of the workforce to this tactic.  Consequently, when propagandising to the whole of the labour movement we need to be concious of where that movement largely is, and what sort of actions are likely to win mass support as opposed to isolating the far left in its own militant bubble.

This of course does not mean that we need be bound by lowest-common-denominator passivity. We need to move the labour movement in a generally more militant direction, but any attempt at this must begin with where the working class is currently at, and must build the foundations, the membership density, the buy-in, that make successful militant action such as a general strike possible.

A large section of this post was originally part of a larger “how can we beat the cuts” article written in conjunction with others for Liberty & Solidarity which can be read here.