Selling the Standard
When the three of us turned up on that Saturday afternoon, our usual spot in the pedestrian precinct was taken by two Rubic cube sellers. They’d been there other Saturdays too. They seemed to do quite well but kept having to dodge the police. We never have that trouble. The police seem to go out of their way to turn a blind eye to us, having perhaps decided that selling the Socialist Standard for twenty pence doesn’t make us street traders. They couldn’t claim we cause an obstruction either. Crowds never gather round us.
Moving a bit further along, we leaned our placards against the wall of the flower bed in the middle of the precinct. “LEFT WING, NO! – RIGHT WING, NO! – SOCIALISM, YES! – READ THE SOCIALIST STANDARD”, one of the placards says. “SOCIALISM: WHAT IT IS AND HOW TO GET IT”, reads another. They’re a bit crude but they do catch people’s eye. Some stop for a closer look. Our calls of “Socialist Standard”, “The Case for World Socialism” and “Find out about Socialism” also attract people’s attention. But, after an instant’s curiosity, most of them quickly look away or suddenly become absorbed in thought in case you’re going to approach them.
We stand for ten minutes without selling a single one or having a word with a soul. Then we each have a buyer or two. An enquirer wants to know what it’s all about. He puts all the usual objections (what about human nature; is there enough to go round; how are you going to convince people?) and, to be quite frank, gets all the usual answers. He looks half convinced, but not enough to part with twenty pence. He agrees to take a back copy for free. A small inoffensive looking man, probably in his late sixties, has also been showing an interest, but then he takes us by surprise. “Commie bastards”, he shouts. “I was with Mosley in the thirties. Hitler had the right idea. When we get to power, there won’t be enough wood for gallows for bastards like you.” A bit chilling, but let him rave.
Another fifteen-minute lull with the odd Standard sold, the odd friendly exchange with passing wits, and then I see a neighbour. We’re not close enough ever to have talked politics. I’m a bit embarrassed, but hope he’ll stop, have a chat and buy one. He doesn’t. He pretends not to see me. Hurries by. He’s more embarrassed than I am. It’s not the first time it’s happened.
Then drama. A heavily made up girl of indeterminate age approaches Bill and looks closely at the front cover of the Standards he’s displaying (“AGAINST ALL WAR”, it says in big letters). She snatches one out of his hand. “Against war. I’ll show you who’s against war”, she yells and crumples it up. Bill recovers from being startled, snatches it back but doesn’t know what to do next. “Peace man”, she says putting up her hand and walks off. “You’ll have to forgive me”, she shouts looking back. “I’m a 35-year-old hippie.” Bill says she smelt strongly of drink. Whatever the case, she’s got problems, even more than most of capitalism’s wage slaves.
The afternoon wears on. Sales aren’t going too badly. We’re told to get back to Russia a few times – as usual. After an hour, we go for our usual cup of tea. Our pitch is right outside the Co-op and they’ve got a cafeteria in the basement. When we get back twenty minutes later, a Christian group has started up further along. They’ve got guitars, placards and a man on a platform, and they’ve gathered quite a crowd. They’re definitely obstructing, but they know they won’t be moved on. Religion is still very much a “respectable” thing to be selling.
We get the Standards out again and right away an enthusiastic young fellow buys one from Jack. “You’re the ones who want to get rid of money, aren’t you?”, he says briskly, “I’ll say one thing for you. You are different.” It’s nice for once not to be confused with so many other so-called “socialists”. I turn round and get handed twenty pence by a young woman. “I’ll have one”, she says, “I’m already converted”. “Converted”, I plead. “Please don’t use that word. It makes us sound religious. Say ‘convinced’ or something”, why doesn’t she join? Still, “converted” workers make a change from hostile or indifferent ones.
Now it’s the turn of the Left. Four lads. They sell their stuff round about the same place on Saturday mornings. I always wonder whether they sell more papers than we do. I stood watching them once and was pleased to see that they didn’t seem to be selling any. Mind you, the ferocious headlines they go in for (“Police Liars”, “Union Traitors”, “Bash the Bosses”,) must be a terrific off-putter. They stop and give us the usual left-wing stuff about “getting in among the workers” and “supporting progressive forces”. You ask them whether they support the abolition of the wage system and they say yes – they’ve got to. But when you ask them why that demand never appears in their newspaper, they call you “sectarian”, refuse a free back copy and walk off.
It’s getting near four o’clock. We decide to pack up. We’ve sold a few more than usual – probably because of the good front cover. It’s the inside that counts of course, but a lot of people will never see what’s inside unless there’s something to persuade them to buy the journal in the first place. The Rubic cube men are still there. They’ve been quite a nuisance because they shout louder than we do. But with a bit of luck we won’t see much more of them. With the cube craze nearly over they’ve already knocked their prices down from £3 to £1. I suppose they’d argue that their need is greater than ours. They actually got arrested a couple of weeks ago and taken to court. Fined £110, the local paper said. They pleaded they were unemployed and had families to support. You’ve certainly got to be pretty desperate to try doing that for a living. And then getting arrested on top of it!
I suppose our selling the Standard must seem undignified to a lot of people. I don’t find it so. Oddly enough, I quite enjoy it. That’s probably because it’s not to earn money. But it’s also because I find helping to spread socialist ideas as a genuinely worthwhile thing to do. And if more people did it, the more socialist ideas would spread.