Democracy, revolutionary organisation, and the internetDecember 8, 2013
This was originally written for the Socialist Workers Party’s (increasingly ill-named) ‘Internal Bulletin’, ahead of conference in early 2010, and shortly after I was suspended as a member, as detailed below. I was, as the piece makes clear, somewhat irked at the time by these spurious disciplinary proceedings, although in light of events over subsequent years it’s really very small beer indeed. Originally written from the viewpoint that the SWP could in some sense be reformed, it’s now painfully clear that this would be a hopeless task. It cannot be reformed, and nor should it be rebuilt. New organisations, not exercises in nostalgia, are now required.
I’m republishing the article here because the more interesting parts of the essay weren’t printed at the time. These are the first and last sections, on how the internet and communications technology changes the possibilities for political organisation. It was a mistake not to submit them for publication back then, but I think the issues raised (and the solutions suggested) are still of immediate relevance – perhaps more so now.
Democracy, revolutionary organisation, and the internet
At last year’s conference we were informed of a new ‘culture of democracy’ in the SWP; of a ‘democratic upsurge’; and of 2009 being the ‘year of democracy’. We end this ‘year of democracy’ with rigged votes for conference delegations and a series of disciplinary measures taken against would-be supporters of a constitutional faction, culminating in the expulsion of activists from the Party. We must ask ourselves: what, exactly, has gone wrong?
Iron and democracy: John Molyneux’s retropolitics
John Molyneux, writing in the most recent International Socialism Journal, inadvertently provides part of the answer. Parading the corpse of fascist sociologist Robert Michels – perhaps in an effort to frighten the comrades – Molyneux has also disinterred the old reactionary bugaboo of the ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’. Michels originally formulated this ‘Iron Law’ as meaning any organisation – of any kind, of any composition, no matter how initially democratic – would, by virtue of being organised, create a leadership that was immensely more powerful than its membership, exercising a virtual dictatorship over the organisation. ‘Who says organisation, says oligarchy,’ as Michels pithily put it.
Leave aside, for the time being, the historically questionable character of the ‘Iron Law’, and let us take Michels’ core argument seriously. Michels’ theoretical innovation was to emphasise the control of information within an organisation as the key to understanding its domination by an elite. The centre of an organisation, with its bureaucratic network, has privileged access to information about the world and the organisation, over and above that available to any individual member. It has the resources to communicate out to any individual member – vertically, from the centre downwards – and can totally isolate any individual, or small group of individuals, by so doing. Individual members find communications horizontally – between each other – costly and difficult beyond a very limited distance, and (in any case) lack the political skills and capacities of the centre.
Molyneux bases his case against Michels – such as it is – on this last point. If the membership of an organisation are sufficiently skilled and confident, they will be able to challenge the leadership when needed, overcoming this information deficit. It is therefore necessary to restrict membership of the would-be Bolshevik party to the most politically dedicated, as a barrier against the leadership’s oligarchic tendencies. He then notes, however, that the SWP has lacked the experience of the sort of mass upheavals that would create such a politically sophisticated cadre, leaving the leadership ‘accustomed to leading unchallenged’.
The set-up of Molyneux’s argument is clear: the downturn in workers’ struggles led to a passive membership, which in turn led to the emergence of an oligarchic leadership. The only pressure operating on the leadership was the capacity of the members to leave the organisation – which, if you think about it, is incredibly weak, since ex-members, now outside of an organisation, clearly have less influence on the leadership of that organisation. You leave once, and that’s it. The threat of exit, Molyneux’s ‘law of democracy’, is feeble relative to the unbending Iron Law.
Now, much as Michels’ original theory rested on shaky empirical grounds, Molyneux’s Iron Law redux does not bear well the weight of historical experience. There have, it is true, been few struggles on the economic terrain in the last twenty years even comparable to those of the 1970s. But the organisation of revolutionaries, as Lenin himself relentlessly argued, does not and should not concern itself solely with the economic struggle. And there have been a series of political upheavals in Britain since the defeat of the Miners Strike, from the Poll Tax, through the emergence in the last decade of anticapitalism, to the anti-war movement. A new generation of political activists have been forged out of them. It is the job of a revolutionary organisation to learn and generalise from the best of their experiences. Molyneux makes no serious reference to this generation.
Within the SWP itself, there have been a series of debates and disagreements, many of which Molyneux himself participated in: from the row over women’s oppression, to the (disputed) turn to the movements, to more recent arguments over the Party’s direction. It may well be argued that there should have been more arguments, or that the outcomes from each should have been different. But it is not true to say (as Molyneux does) that the leadership has gone ‘unchallenged’, except for members using their option to leave the Party. Molyneux’s own continued career in the Party is tribute to that.
This is the most striking feature of Molyneux’s article. It is utterly abstract. It makes no serious reference to either the political dramas of the last thirty years, or to the profound changes and recomposition of the working class. It makes no reference, most staggering of all, to the appearance, on a mass scale, of communications technologies that could put the final nail in Michel’s iron coffin.
At the very least, when leaning heavily on a theory so dependent on flows of information for its explanatory power, you might expect Molyneux to make some point about the new ways members of organisations can communicate amongst themselves – whether mobile phones, email, or Twitter. It is elementary to Marxism that material conditions shape social possibilities. And all of these related technologies could, potentially, overcome the information deficit Michels (and hence Molyneux) relies upon for their argument.
His article inhabits a pre-digital world. The working class, as we shall see, does not. His tentative solutions to the Iron Law are, as a result, more like exercises in nostalgia: educating members through branch meetings, a little questioning of the ban on permanent factions, and the creation of a ‘democratic culture’. None of these things are bad in and of themselves; but they are totally internal, could be offered at any point in the last three decades, and make no reference to the Party’s impact on the working class.
The relationship between party and class (noted by Molyneux as being of some importance) is left totally abstract unless we specify how this particular party, operating in these concrete historical conditions, can relate to this actually existing working class. Molyneux’s reliance on Michel’s idealist theory leaves him unable to even present the problems posed by material conditions. And his silence accidentally reveals much about the SWP’s current difficulties.
On the trail of the ‘new culture of democracy’
The Party leadership is very keen on our ‘new culture of democracy’. Unfortunately, at least in London, where the full-time apparatus has the greatest reach and influence, this a near-mythical creature. A deeply factional atmosphere has been created in those districts where the mere whiff of an opposition was scented by full-timers. This operation by some full-timers has stretched back almost before most members were really aware of disputes inside the SWP: for instance, at a London district organisers’ meeting, held on 27 November 2008 at a café near Euston Station (shortly after the announcement of the slate for elections to the central committee), space was given by the national secretary for district organisers to target and isolate perceived ‘oppositionists’ in their district. The west London organiser described two comrades as ‘spies’ for the British state, whilst the [then-]current east London organiser was moved to remark that he would like to see one comrade in the district ‘fall flat on his face at conference’ and ‘out of the SWP’, on spuriously personal grounds.
Attitudes like this, you will be astonished to hear, have not been entirely conducive to creating a flourishing culture of debate inside the London organisation, and it has become quite obvious over the year that some members of the SWP have been subject to a factional whispering campaign – furtive, apolitical, and inevitably personalised. But perhaps other districts and regions have fared better.
Party democracy in action?
Formal democracy in the Party has been trashed in the approach to conference. Electoral practices have varied widely, with some districts electing delegates on a district-wide basis, and some districts opting to allow individual branches to send delegates. The deciding factor appears to have been a carefully-calibrated decision on how best to minimise the number of Left Platform [faction] supporters attending conference. In East Anglia, the decision was arbitrarily made to restrict the number of delegates attending conference to block one Left Platform supporter; the aggregate was split on the issue after two successive votes, with the chair then using their casting vote to decide on reducing the allocation.
Slates have appeared for delegations in many districts, like central London, cooked up by district organisers to exclude Left Platform supporters. This, to my knowledge, is unprecedented for conference delegate elections in the SWP: it is one thing to propose a slate for the leadership, but quite different to attempt to impose a uniformity of opinion on delegates to conference, without the slightest pretence at reflecting a balance of debate.
Worse yet, full-timers, who are appointed by the national secretary [Martin Smith], have been allowed to stand as conference delegates in a number of districts, including East London and Waltham Forest. South London set some sort of record by managing to stand four full-time Party workers for its conference delegation. This is an extraordinary reversal of democratic norms: it would be astonishing to find another membership organisation in the country that allowed its full-time staff to stand as delegates to conference, with full voting rights. It is impossible to consider someone as having a free vote when their job so obviously depends on its outcome. And, in a wearily familiar pattern, all the full-timers standing did so to block often single Left Platform supporters from attending conference.
Finally, in the last few weeks a series of disciplinary hearings have been launched, culminating in the expulsion of comrades and (in my case) full membership being revoked. These have, without fail, been aimed at Left Platform supporters, with the three main cases relating to the charge of ‘factionalism’.
We might briefly wonder how (given that a constitutional faction exists) it is possible for a comrade to be expelled, or threatened with expulsion, on those grounds. We might further ponder the odd disparity in treatment accorded to those comrades circulating a factional petition over the summer, calling for the removal of the editor of Socialist Worker, and this new alleged ‘factionalism’. It no doubt helps that the chair of the disputes committee himself signed the factional petition, although for the leadership to then actually reward one of the petition’s instigators, Jo Choonara, with elevation to the central committee might be considered a little excessively accommodating.
The critical evidence produced for the recent disputes committee hearings – indeed the only meaningful evidence produced – are a series of four alleged emails, three of which were claimed by the central committee as arising from named comrades. It is the case of Clare Solomon, a talented and popular student activist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, that is the most shocking.
Mutiny, piracy, and leaks
Clare had, with other SWP members and non-members, set up a series of events in east London called ‘Mutiny’, aiming to pull in activists from the resurgent anti-capitalist movement – as identified, back in April, by Party Notes. The first event, putting ‘money on trial’, was a resounding success, attracting around 100 overwhelmingly young students and workers to debate anti-capitalist politics until well into the night. SWP members argued the case for the centrality of the working class to radical politics, and the biggest cheer of the night was for the Tower Hamlets College strike, victorious earlier that day. I was proud to have played some part in organising it, and it was absolutely the sort of event that the SWP should help organise and shape, creating a new audience for our politics.
It was utterly unrelated to any factional dispute inside the SWP. No criticisms of the SWP or its leadership were made by any participant at any time during the evening, and yet the disputes committee have ruled that it was ‘factional’ – although not, it would seem, quite factional enough to expel all those involved.
They base their evidence against Clare on a single email, a short note relating that she was ‘worried’ about meeting Chris Harman and Hannah Dee about Mutiny, that she sent to a small group of her friends, including me. It is entirely innocuous: as can be imagined, being called in to meet two members of the central committee about an event you are organising is something that any relatively new member of the Party would be concerned about. It’s not unreasonable to voice that concern with your friends. It beggars belief that this ‘evidence’ merits expulsion from the SWP.
The situation, however, gets worse. The central committee has been less than clear about how these emails were obtained in the first place, initially claiming they were accidentally ‘leaked’, then that they were deliberately sent to the central committee by a concerned comrade. Latterly, central committee members have expressed an indifference to how they received the emails, content with noting merely that the emails exist and that they do, indeed, have copies. Different comrades have been offered different explanations at different times.
It is my, and others’, firm conviction that this piece of ‘evidence’ was obtained by hacking into Clare’s email account. Clare had previously given her account password to three full-timers, two of them former central London organisers, and one of whom is currently a central committee member. She provided her login details in good faith, in the expectation that the comrades concerned might, when working around central London colleges, wish to reliably access the internet. She trusted that this privilege would not be abused, and – obviously – the fact that she trusted other comrades like this is strong evidence against any ‘factional’ intentions on her part: someone genuinely plotting against the Party would not bandy their password about.
All those who received the original emails have repeatedly denied leaking them, signing a letter to the central committee to this effect, and – given the wide separation in the four emails’ dates – it is not credible to claim they were accidentally leaked on separate occasions. In reality, another Party member has, at some point in the last two months or so, used Clare’s login details to break into her email account, performed a quick search for the terms ‘mutiny’ and ‘counterfire’, and passed on the only emails they found to the central committee.
This is, if we are charitable, all a little squalid: a rather feeble Boy’s Own spy adventure on the part of the comrades involved, who no doubt now fondly imagine that a terrible Anti-Party Plot has been uncovered, and its Evil Perpetrators foiled.
Unfortunately, leaving aside the febrile James Bond imaginations of some in the Party apparatus, this incident is far more serious. It is deeply troubling that an abuse of trust on this scale could occur; it should be unacceptable in any decent organisation for its leadership to accede to the hacking of members’ private email accounts. That the ‘evidence’ so gathered is risible tittle-tattle merely adds insult to injury. That leading figures in the Party are now attempting to justify the hacking, on the grounds that the SWP stands ‘above bourgeois law’ is particularly repulsive: that may be the case, but we should uphold a socialist morality that is superior to the bourgeois, not grubbing about beneath it somewhere. At the very least, those we work with in other campaigns need some reassurance that we can be trusted with (for example) their contact details. But who could trust an organisation that considers it acceptable to act like this against its own members?
This whole sorry business is the sort of incident that can poison an organisation, and either the central committee must now clarify how the emails were obtained, or Clare should be issued with a full and convincing apology, and readmitted to the Party. We are disgracing ourselves and the tradition we claim to stand in to do anything less.
But there are wider issues at stake here. The disciplinary measures indicate a deeper malaise than the current leadership’s pragmatic need to smash up opposition in the party. Lurking beneath all of them is Molyneux’s great silence: the SWP’s totally dysfunctional attitude to the internet.
‘Ridiculously easy faction formation’
The rules on factions inside the SWP were first devised, some three decades ago, for a world in which communication to anything more than a small group of people was, of necessity, centralised. Newspapers, documents, and leaflets had to be printed and distributed centrally. The technology to do otherwise was simply not available. That centralisation dictated the need for at least a semi-permanent organisation, able to fund and maintain the printing presses and the photocopiers, and organise the distribution of material.
Under these technological conditions, quite apart from the ban on permanent factions inside the SWP, establishing a faction was a hard process: it required much prior organisation and concerted effort even to get the thing off the ground. The Party centre could exercise an effective monopoly over communication with the members at anything much above a branch or district level, relaxing that monopoly and allowing factional access to communications in the three-month period before each conference.
That situation no longer holds. Perhaps the biggest single transformation that the internet has brought about is also the simplest. The little ‘carbon-copy’ (‘cc’) line on your email, where extra recipients of the mail can be added, destroys much conventional wisdom about how communications operate. It allows for something unprecedented: the instant, accurate and virtually cost-free reproduction of documents to as many others as you wish, anywhere in the world. It is possible, just by adding a few email addresses to the ‘cc’ list, to create an instant group of people, who can then also respond, if they wish, to subsequent group emails.
Social networking sites, like Facebook or Twitter, just add extra bells and whistles to this fundamental capacity for what academic Clay Shirkey has labelled ‘ridiculously easy group formation’. It’s a little like being able to convene an instant caucus, or branch meeting; it’s not quite the same, since the elements of spontaneity and immediacy that face-to-face contact provides are lacking – but it’s along the same lines. Group emails and social networking allow a rudimentary organisation to be instantly assembled.
But it confronts our existing rules about factions with a fundamental problem. Accurately reproducing and distributing factional material once required prior factional organisation. Now, however, the mere fact of distributing material creates a rudimentary organisation.
Once, the existence of multiple copies of a document, written by a Party member about internal Party affairs, would, of necessity, demonstrate the existence of a prior factional organisation. No such necessity now exists, and documents like this are exchanged amongst Party members pretty much all the time – without any factional intent, and without those exchanging them even thinking of it as a ‘document’. They’re just emails, circulated amongst a social group. They form part of an ordinary dialogue amongst members of the Party, an extension of discussion in branch meetings and elsewhere, in much the way any group of people chat amongst themselves.
Yet the disputes committee has now ruled that such email documents are ‘factional’. Clare’s short email did not in any way criticise the central committee or the Party; nonetheless, it formed the grounds for her expulsion. The disputes committee, and the central committee, apparently believe in ‘ridiculously easy faction formation’ – so easy, in fact, that those doing it don’t even realise they’re doing anything wrong.
This ruling will, in practice, be unenforceable. It was only policed in this instance, as we have seen, through the most dubious means; to enforce it elsewhere would require either a Stasi-like level of surveillance of Party members, or a total ban on the use of the ‘cc’ line. Our existing rules on factions are not supportable in a world of instant group communication.
Learning from the class
Particularly absurd, amongst the debates within the Party over the internet, has been the claim made by at least one central committee member that the internet is somehow ‘anti-working class’ – certainly relative to newspapers. This is unsupportable, and potentially damaging for the Party. We should be learning from how the actually existing working class is creatively using these new communications technologies. A few examples can give a flavour of this:
- the FBU strikes of winter 2002-03 saw the emergence of a rank-and-file, unofficial strikers’ website that at its peak recorded nearly 10,000 site visits a day, and had over 5,000 registered users in its discussion forums. (For comparison, the official FBU site recorded, in the same period, some 1,500 site visits daily.) The unofficial site provided space for a continuing critique of the official leadership, culminating in widespread organisation against the eventual deal. (Zivkovic and Hogan, 2006, ‘Fire-fighting in cyber space: An exploration of internet use for mobilisation and democratic accountability’)
- the anti-war protests that brought down Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Aznar, in 2004 were built through text messages. Initiated by anti-war activists, those with mobile phones were able to immediately pass on the details of the evening’s protest to their own social networks. (Suarez, 2006, ‘Mobile democracy: text messages, voter turnout, and the 2004 Spanish general election’)
- construction of a potentially hazardous petrochemical plant in Xiamen, China, was halted in May 2007 after thousands of protestors besieged the site, breaking through police lines and forcing authorities to back down. Their campaign had been organised over a series of blogs, out of sight of the censors, culminating in the ‘spontaneous’ organisation of the protest through text messages. (Asia Sentinel, 1 June 2007, ‘SMS Texts Energize a Chinese Protest’)
- the unofficial walkouts by construction workers, at the start of this year, in defence of the sacked Lindsey Refinery workers were co-ordinated through the online forums and blogs, and the effective use of text messages, giving details of sites to be picketed and spreading the dispute. (Socialist Worker, The Guardian, The Telegraph, passim.)
(Many more can be found.) The first and last, in particular, show the exciting possibilities presented by fusing our existing approach to rank-and-file organisation in the unions with the new, mass, communications technology. The working class, here and elsewhere, has already started to achieve some of them. We are lagging behind.
Technology alone does not solve organisational problems. There’s no need for us to resort to internet evangelism a decade after the dot.com bubble. But technology can help overcome organisational difficulties – and, of course, poses some new issues of its own. We should be used to this. Grappling with the possibilities (and the problems) posed by new communications technology is, in fact, at the very heart of our tradition.
The revolutionary newspaper as an organisational tool
Lenin wasn’t Rupert Murdoch. He didn’t set out to sell papers. Lenin set out to build a revolutionary party – an element of which involved selling papers. He sold papers for an utterly pragmatic reason: they were best available technology to communicate a clear message to large numbers of people, and, in so doing, help build an organisation. He was remarkably indifferent about the paper itself, describing it (in ‘Where to Begin?’, 1901) as merely ‘scaffolding’, a temporary structure that was unimportant relative to the organisation it helped construct. And, interestingly, he was using a technology not available to everyone: adult literacy in St Petersburg in 1912 was around 60 per cent, and very substantially lower for Russia as a whole.
By comparison, over 80 per cent of households in Britain have internet access. That figure is rising rapidly. The communications technology we now have, in addition, do something that Lenin always demanded of his own papers – provide a flavour of workers’ own experiences. Tony Cliff, standing on Lenin’s shoulders, put it like this, back in 1974:
‘The question of workers’ writing for the paper raises the question of the identification of workers with the paper. In bourgeois journalism the hierarchical concept in which a small bunch of the people from the centre supply the consumption needs of the millions is the prevailing one. For a workers’ paper the question of the involvement of the “consumer” is central. The abolition of the abyss between producer and consumer is central. Therefore a story written by a worker that perhaps will interest directly only a few tens of workers directly next to him at his place of work is of fantastic importance. This is the way the paper becomes rooted deeper in the class.’ (Cliff, 1974, ‘Socialist Worker as an organiser’)
The use of discussion forums, moderated as needed, or the ability to rapidly upload and distribute film footage and audio footage now available to us can move directly towards Cliff’s vision. We can leap across a barrier between ourselves and the wider class with such means – in much the same way, as seen above, that the class is already making use of new technology, spreading news of pickets and protests. And the possibility of immediate communications, across different groups, should be embraced: our Party websites should carry fresh news, updated more than daily, and in so doing build up a regular and devoted readership.
This does not remove the need for professionalism. Web content will need to be edited and arranged, the better to bring out the message.
A newspaper, and printed literature generally, of course are still important: it is nigh-on impossible to hand out websites at workplaces, and the printed word still carries and authority and an integrity that the digital lacks. But it cannot, now, be the only means with which we think about organising the party. It should be one part of a full-spectrum communications strategy.
This poses stark challenges for the SWP. We need to begin to rethink how we operate as an organisation.
The internet is not a ‘tool for activists’. A photocopier is a ‘tool for activists’, and learning how to use one can make someone a more effective activist. But you can’t have an argument using a photocopier. The internet is different; it is creating a form of civil society, a means by which dialogue can take place, and – we should note – ideology can be reproduced. We should, where we can, learn how to use the tools that constitute the internet, whether they are email, Twitter, or whatever. But to think of the internet as ‘tool’ to be applied elsewhere is to miss the point. Mass access to instant communications itself helps shape political identities and arguments.
Contrary to the libertarian inclinations of some, the fact that access to communications technology is now so widespread does not suddenly remove the need for organisation. At the start of the decade, a great hullabaloo was raised about protestors using the internet to call protests, like J18 in the City of London, July 1999. Sites like Indymedia were presented – by both the Daily Mail, and by some anarchists – as offering a new mode of anti-hierarchical organisation, free from the constraints of ‘centralism’. News about a forthcoming protest could be posted on Indymedia, say, or Urban75, and this knowledge could turn immediately into activity. The internet, in other words, meant the end of political strategy.
It never quite worked like that. In practice, this passive use of the internet – of the internet as a sort of giant office noticeboard, with little messages pinned up – has been superseded. We now have the active use of the internet, as a space for dialogue across messageboards, blogs, and now social networking sites – more like an argument around the coffee machine.
News of protests can be spread using electronic communications, but they will only turn into action when the protest integrates with wider political concerns, and when the news arrives from a trusted source. Exactly, in other words, like the conventional routines of political organisation, but faster.
And the technology has itself created new hierarchies. The most popular site in the world, Google, is an obvious example of this, with its search algorithms setting and controlling how most users view the internet. At the other end of the scale, a great mass of internet sites are not visited even weekly. A few popular news and discussion sites themselves help frame how many thousands of people think about the world.
To meet this centralisation and hierarchy of knowledge, we still need our own centralisation. We must be, as far as possible, symmetric to our enemies. We must retain, more than ever, Lenin’s core insight on the need for revolutionary strategy. But the way in which we are centralised will have to shift. We will expect of our members to intervene across a range of different arguments and struggles – some online, some not – and we need to have the ability to trust our membership to carry those arguments.
At the apex of the organisation, our own centrally-administered websites and forums can act as means of both intervening in the class, and organising ourselves as a party. It should be more than just the newspaper on-line: it should be a forum in which debates can take place, activities planned, and strategies implemented. It should be open to members and non-members, and integrated into the wider internet through links to other websites.
We will need to allow greater space for individual initiatives, but retain the means of implementing a clear strategy. Our branches should act as the means by which strategy can be discussed and developed across a range of different struggles, and spaces within civil society. To give a (slightly pat) example, why not discuss the direction of a comrade’s blog alongside our intervention in a local united front? Well, why not? We need to think creatively about how to integrate new means of organising into our existing practices. Our party should be flexible enough to do this.
The party as a network
What we need is a network: in Lenin’s phrase, a ‘network of agents’. A network is not a directionless, amorphous mass: it is a collection people bound by a common tie, with a shared purpose. Our common tie is the inheritance of the classical Marxist tradition, and the belief that socialism is both possible, and necessary.
Building those ties and intervening across the class will require clarity of argument; we need to seriously consider setting up, nationally, smaller reading groups, and miniature educational courses as a means of preparing comrades to deal with the arguments they encounter. And, needless to say, the volume of theoretical and historical material now available on-line can be treated as an instant library for comrades. Districts should consider exploiting this by providing reading lists, and encouraging newer members to read on-line.
Branch meetings, at present, fall between two stools: the introduction-activity format means that serious ideological and theoretical discussion is too constricted the first half, whilst effective planning and implementation of a local strategy is too often squeezed into a ‘shopping list’ of activities in the second. The best means of learning our politics is through practice, by allowing comrades to make the odd mistake (and then learning from them). If someone says something daft on an internet forum – well, so much the better there than in a public meeting.
If we are to function as a militant ‘network of agents’, we must expect of every comrade that they act as a leader within their own political environment. We must anticipate comrades are able to take new initiatives, reporting success or failures rapidly across the organisation, and allowing rapid changes in local and district strategy as needed. Mass communications technology can facilitate this process, alongside (and integrated into) the conventional structure of branches.
There is an obvious military analogy: as Clausewitz pointed out, a peasant army had to be kept on tight reigns when fighting, since – if they were allowed too much freedom – they would simply abscond. Strategy had to remain the inviolable province of the army leadership. The development of nationalist ideology allowed looser, more flexible military organisation; soldiers could be trusted to act more under their own initiative, and be ideologically motivated to stay fighting. Technology further increased the possibilities of strategic decentralisation.
The SWP is not an army of serfs, ruled by the knout. Comrades should be expected to take initiatives. New communications technology allows those initiatives to be discussed and disseminated across the organisation. Doing this will improve our intervention.
Democracy, or perish
To do all this effectively will require the maximum possible democracy within the organisation, alongside a clear strategy. It is simply not possible to utilise the new communications technology without allowing greater scope to individual comrades’ initiatives, and allowing greater space for communication both amongst party members, and with the wider world.
Instead of the current paranoia and suspicion concerning the use of emails, blogs, and even Facebook, we should allow – indeed, encourage – the maximum participation by SWP members in such forums. We have, so far, met the challenges with a disorganised, ill-considered, and panicked retreat from the internet that has already cost us one excellent activist, and may yet do further damage.
Some of the concerns raised here were initially offered by Richard Seymour and China Mieville in last year’s Pre-Conference Bulletin 2. A year on, it is clear that no real lessons have been learned by the Party leadership. The situation, if anything, has worsened.
The Luddites fought heroically against a new technology. They lost, because in the end – and as the socialist movement learned well – it was not the technology that was the problem, but capitalism’s use of the technology. We should not be laying the ground for another heroic defeat.