Thursday, January 31, 2013

What Are Some Things That Could Be Done? (Leninism in the Age of Social Media, Part 3)

Even though the crisis in the British SWP is what goaded me to begin writing this much overdue series, I am trying to stay focused and not get distracted by that growing imbroglio. I will link to the U.S. ISO's statement on the controversy as something that deserves comment by people who have experience both inside that organization and with attempting to work with them from the outside--and I have both--but I will not be the one to make that commentary. Not just yet, at least.

To get constructive, we need to discuss the changes in human social relationships that have been induced by the technological changes in question. Any political praxis that does not come to grips with those changes would not, in fact, be political at all, but anachronistic hobbyism comparable to Renaissance Faires. Making no claim to exhaustiveness, here are a few changes that come readily to my mind as requiring changes in left practice:

  • Secrecy is over. Privacy was nice while we had it, but it's gone. Even before Facebook began monetizing personal data and propagating the self-interested ideology of "real names only," it was possible for anyone with sufficient computing power and motivation would be able, through IP address lookups and the like, be able to identify the putatively anonymous on the web. It is safe to assume that any sufficiently large and wealthy state has sufficient computing power, and if you as an activist are doing anything worthwhile, that will give them motivation enough to identify you. Effective online identity cloaking is a must for certain activists: e.g., those who live under states that make a routine practice of torture, or in the U.S., those trying to unionize their workplaces. But because it now deviates from the norm, when taken as an option it carries risks, reducing an activist's ability to create and shape his or her own reputation on a global stage and impinging upon perceptions of their integrity and normalcy. Almost, the most commonly used forms of online security are ineffective for the purposes they are meant to serve, while carrying all the disadvantages of secrecy. "Security culture" becomes security theater, and most often the type of play is farce.
  • Speed matters more than accuracy. Corrections can be made in seconds, but you can never regain an opportunity you missed by remaining silent.
  • Everyone you know is a potential spokesperson. For better or for worse. If someone who is perceived as being close to a particular grouping has a significant online presence, then the statements he or she makes in the heat of the moment matter far more than official statements published in due course on the official website with the imprimatur of the Central Committee, regardless of whether he or she is an official "member" or "sympathizer" or "supporter" or what have you. I have seen groups that don't get this handle it in exactly the wrong way, placing de facto gag orders on those who are closest to the organization and most likely to understand its approach--and thus leaving their views to be, in effect, represented to the public by amateurish fans.
  • The "correct line" is most likely to emerge through dialogue. Actually, this was always true, and the statements to this effect by Trotsky especially are some of the most overlooked nuggets of brilliance in the history of political literature. The difference is that when Trotsky wrote in the 1930s about political groupings being "engaged in dialogue with the working class," he was mostly speaking metaphorically. It is not the organization per se that would engage in dialogue with the class as such, but individual organizers, propagandists and agitators engaged in dialogue with co-workers, relatives, friends, neighbors and the occasional letter-writer. Those same dialogues can continue to take place through different media, but now can be sped up, aggregated and continually refined. The dialogue is no longer a series of metaphorical solos, but a real, interlaced polyphony.
  • The hardest thing is not to gain attention, but to hold it. We no longer face a scarcity of the means of communication; what has become scarce instead is human attention. This can be particularly challenging for radicals, since we face the challenge of demystifying the whole assemblage of social relations which our audience has been trained to take for granted; "tl;dr" is the last thing you want to see. The challenge has led some radical theorists to urge radicals to turn away from the "communicative capitalism" of social media. Historically, though, the Marxist attitude toward capitalism's baleful effects has been to try and move forward and through them. The scarcity of attention means a partial inversion of the relationship between propaganda and agitation presented in What Is to Be Done? In that, propaganda had to precede agitation in Russia in order to cohere a core of conscious Marxists, who would then go out and carry out agitation at the factory gates. Now propaganda and agitation must reinforce one another in a continuous stream, such that someone whose attention is seized by an agitational appeal may be drawn in to considering the more complicated questions of what kind of future they would like to see.
  • Propaganda and agitation can no longer be distinguished from one another by audience size, but only by the complexity of ideas to be presented. Even if only 0.01% of Twitter users might eventually click-through to read an essay about communism, that's still tens or hundreds of thousands of people.
  • Figuring out what your audience is ready to hear can easily be tested: By saying what you mean. Like the point about dialogue, this is something I've always believed to be true, even though it cuts against the grain of established traditions of duplicity in certain corners of the left. Again, though, it is magnified when technical boundaries to response and dialogue are reduced or removed.

There is a further point that I need to make, though, about the basis on which these shifts can take place. At the time that Lenin wrote What Is To Be Done?, the RSDLP which was taking shape was part of an international composed of mass parties. Several of those parties had in their ranks theorists who were working to advance a Marxist understanding of human social development on the basis of newly emergent phenomena and new data. Thus he could write as if theory was a tertiary concern of the party, somewhere behind organization, propaganda and agitation, because he believed the Germans (especially Kautsky) were taking care of it for him. That was a view that shifted, clearly.

Compared to the literary output of the Second International at its pre-World War I peak, or of the Communist International in the brief period before the imposition of Stalinist ideological uniformity, very little of what is published today as Marxist theory (political, social, economic) or historical investigations measures up, either qualitatively or quantitatively. Extant generations of radicals need to be retrained so as to be able to contribute, to whatever extent they can, great or small, to a scientific discourse on human social development--as Marx and Engels once did in criticizing bourgeois political economy, and as Luxemburg did to Kautsky in her political and economic writings. Not with vituperation (though it's sometimes fun to read, and write), appeals to authority and emotional references to the imagined programmatic consequences of theoretical findings, but with facts, figures and logical analysis. Theoretical questions can and should be addressed iteratively, by seeing how well competing hypotheses fit facts, not by selecting facts to fit one's pet ideology. Theoretical questions can not be settled by majority vote (though they can and at times should be tabled by majority vote), nor by the number advanced degrees held by those adhering to a particular stance.

So here's my modest proposal: Instead of the innumerable sects-of-few and burnt-out sects-of-one that comprise the left in most countries, a single party dedicated to the proposition of "the self-emancipation of the working class through political means." Each of the words in that phrase is potentially subject to debate over its meaning: That's fine, I look forward to that debate. Through such a debate we could regain the theoretical clarity and vigor our movement has lacked for a century. Such a party would of necessity be international; its scientific name would be the "Communist Party," but unfortunately in the U.S. that name is being squatted on by a particularly slavish appendage of the Democratic Party, and it is associated with a wide variety of historical betrayals in every country of the world--so different names and should be found.

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