1980s >> 1987 >> no-992-april-1987

Designer politics

There are many ways to try to persuade people to buy a magazine: from putting a picture of a glamorous celebrity on the cover to promising a “shock, horror” story inside. Other magazines and journals try to attract readers by advertising special offers and free gifts. For organisations whose main concern is profit this comes as no surprise. The competition for readers is intense not least because a large circulation will attract profitable advertising. It is little wonder that the packaging and the gimmicks become as important as the content.

So, bearing that in mind try to guess which monthly journal in a recent issue contained within its stylish covers a special offer for unisex boxer shorts (“They’re stylish! They’re fashionable!”); another offer for “extra strength” condoms (“Teatless for the aesthetic among us”); and a feature on what to buy and where to go on Valentine’s Day? A number of possible candidates come to mind. City Limits or Time Out perhaps whose main purpose is to inform young Londoners where to go or what to see? Or one of those glossy magazines like Cosmopolitan directed at the “liberated” woman-about-town? Or a spoof article in Private Eye maybe?

No! It was the magazine that still refers to itself as the “Theoretical and discussion journal of the Communist Party” – Marxism Today. To be fair there was an attempt to try to give the boxer shorts some political significance. The reader was offered a choice of two styles – one with the word “Proletariat” in cyrillic lettering printed all over them; the other featuring the Aeroflot logo! (No, this really wasn’t a Private Eye spoof). It was perhaps slightly surprising that Marxism Today was selling boxer shorts with an apparently pro-Soviet appeal since it is the journal of the Euro-communist lot in the CP. Or maybe it was a closet gesture of support for Gorbachev, who, if the western media are to be believed, is as trendy and style-conscious as Marxism Today. It was harder to try to discern any kind of political message behind the ad for the condoms, although they are, we are told, “brought to you exclusively by Red Stripe”.

The Valentine’s Day feature began with an overt attempt at making a political connection by suggesting that “the obvious gift for an activist” is a telephone answering machine. “Late for meetings?” it continued, “buy them Stephen Rotholz Icon watches”. Or perhaps a £650 hand-made bicycle is more up your street as a present for your “Valentine”? Or a piece of Lalique glassware costing, we are helpfully informed, from £50 to £15,000. And for that special Valentine’s night out? How about dinner for two at a Burmese restaurant which will cost you £30? Marxism Today even comes up with a suggestion to fill the pregnant pauses should the after-dinner conversation begin to flag. Shares and share fluctuations, of course! And for anyone with a conscience then Marxism Today helps us off the hook by announcing that “popular capitalism may be subverted with information from Stewardship Unit Trust, who will invest your money in ventures which don’t have connections with alcohol, tobacco or defence industries”. Well that’s okay then. Ideologically sound shares!

Marxism Today claims to be a serious political journal. It’s true that in between all the trivia quoted above there were some serious political articles aimed mostly at the trendy broad left rainbow coalition of good causes. Class politics are out. Life-style politics are most definitely in. Forget about trying to change society in any meaningful way and concentrate instead on changing your image and Marxism Today will tell you how. Design, presentation and packaging are being used to disguise the emptiness of their politics in much the same way as Conservative, Labour and Alliance parties which give as much attention to the colours, logos and wrappings of their policies as they do to the content in their attempt to sell them to the punters. The idea that you can win people over to your side by the packaging rather than the content of policies is nothing new. Elections, in particular, have always been long on fine-sounding rhetoric and short on incisive political analysis. Offering their readers designer Marxism Today condoms and boxer shorts is just the 1980s’ version of politicians “buying” workers’ support with free beer.

Marxism Today must be totally out of touch with the lives of the majority of workers in this country for whom whether to buy Lalique glassware or an answering machine as a Valentine’s Day present is not a decision that they are likely to be losing much sleep over. Most people do not lead the lives of trendy lefties giving support to a handful of “good causes” because they’ve received the ideologically sound seal of approval from the political “style” gurus. Trying to win support and readers with gimmicks like boxer shorts and condoms shows contempt for workers and is no substitute for sound analysis of capitalism and convincing arguments for socialism. The Communist Party has always been short of both so perhaps, after all, it’s not surprising that they’ve given up trying to sell politics and have turned to selling “lifestyles” instead.

Janie Percy-Smith