Sunday, February 17, 2013

New Media: Socialist Action's Second Best Friend

This is Part 2 of a series on Trotskyism and the New Media. Part 1 is here.

I have some up-close and personal experience with Socialist Action's web page. Some years back--don't recall quite when--I noticed they allowed comments on their site. What a wonderful opportunity, I thought. I can communicate with my old colleagues, engage in political conversation, and who knows, maybe even enlighten a comrade or two.

So I started commenting on the site, and worked hard to be a good citizen. It is from this experience that the rules for Trotsky's Children have evolved: be polite and respectful, take my interlocutors seriously, avoid ad hominem attacks, and stay away from meaningless, fighting words such as fascist or racist. I aspired--then and now--to be a friendly critic.

Did I always follow my rules? No--I confess I didn't. There was one post in particular--a comment on a report of their convention--that was so full of sarcastic snark that one couldn't have seen it as friendly. (Really--Marxists can so easily descend into self-parody that it's impossible to resist.) Still, by and large I stuck with the program.

My very first comment--on North Korea--garnered precisely the response I'd hoped for. One comrade simply wrote "F*** North Korea," which are my sentiments precisely. But after that initial success, I never received any feedback. Not that I'm surprised--the Party asked comrades not to honor me with a response, and they complied. The Socialist Workers Party in my day would have done exactly the same thing.

They let me comment more or less freely for the first couple of years, deleting only a few remarks. But then I guess I pushed one hot button too many and more of my posts got deleted. Eventually they instituted comment moderation and most of my remarks were never published. Accordingly, I stopped writing them and started this blog instead.

The latest incarnation of their website--now a few months old--doesn't allow comments at all. This, in my view, is a big mistake.

Indeed, when I first started posting and discovered that my comments weren't immediately deleted, I foolishly assumed that they welcomed my attention. I guess I'd been out of the Movement for too long and have read too much about how controversy drives web traffic. But Socialist Action has not gotten that message. I think this is symptomatic of a fatal flaw in the Leninist concept of a Vanguard Party.

The web devalues Grand Poobahs. In the old days you needed access to a printing press in order to be read. The New York Times editorial board, for example, had great power--they were the gatekeepers to an expensive resource. In the old days, when I was in the Party, we used to say we were unknown because we didn't have the resources of the bourgeois media. There was some truth to that then, but none at all now.

Now the problem a budding Vanguard Party has is, while it is not now a Grand Poobah, it aspires to become one. That is, Socialist Action (along with The Militant) doesn't just want to abolish the New York Times, but rather to replace it. Thus as the Internet corrodes the New York Times, it also destroys the ambitions of a Vanguard Party.

As we showed in Part 1, The Militant has essentially abandoned any such ambition. It has put its head in the sand and is just a weekly newspaper, a copy of which can also be found on the web. The Militant makes no effort to go web-native.

Not so with Socialist Action. They are trying very hard to use the Internet effectively. I can't recall when Socialist Action last had a print subscription drive. Indeed, the print edition looks more like a fund raiser than a way to get the word out. The real action takes place on the web. Here are some of the creditable things they are doing:

  • The web page is regularly updated--at least every couple of days. The fact that the print edition only comes out monthly no longer determines the schedule.
  • The site looks like a political site. It has headers that include "Donate," "Join," and "Contact Us." Perhaps revealingly, it lacks a "Get Involved" tab.
  • The page has icons for Facebook, Twitter, RSS, and Youtube. In other words, they want to be part of the conversation.
  • They advertise events. They really do want their readers involved with what they do.
So why don't they allow comments? Surely, if you want to be a center for political discourse, such as the Daily Kos, or RedState, or the Huffington Post, you have to give comments a big slice of the pie. Those sites are political organizing tools because they get their readers involved and talking to each other. By forbidding comments altogether, Socialist Action undoes everything it is trying to accomplish elsewhere on its site.

Of course, despite my best efforts at a friendly tone, Socialist Action will never regard me as a friend--we're on opposite sides of the political spectrum. I understand that--and deep down, they're not my friend, either. But they still should have been very happy when I started commenting on their website. And there is nothing wrong if comrades answer me back. After all, if they can't deal with me, how do they plan to lead a world revolution?

I am, in fact, their second-best friend. I read what they write, I take it seriously, and I spend time engaging them in conversation. That cannot hurt their cause. It doesn't hurt my cause either--I will be more widely read if comrades argue back. Controversy drives traffic. Traffic is what makes a web page important. Comments distinguish a successful web page from a dead-tree newspaper.

It's a little harder for them now that I have my own blog. I've attracted my own readers from the Right side of the aisle, along with Leftists from outside Socialist Action. Still, when somebody (anybody) reads your paper, takes it seriously, and drives traffic to your site, simply ignoring him is just dumb. They can't let their entire organization be turned into an anti-Dan King blog, but an occasional comment or article from them will do both of us good.

It used to be that a group of people--say in a Vanguard Party--could multiply their effectiveness by banding together and speaking with one voice. That's just not true anymore. Now, one voice is just one voice--regardless of how many people it represents. The web encourages multiple voices, even if they coalesce around certain ideas, such as socialism. By rigidly forbidding comrades from commenting on my site, or from having their own blogs that express their individual opinions (perhaps not always the Party Line), Socialist Action hugely reduces its effectiveness.

A blog roll is one important thing that's missing from the Socialist Action web page (the short list of links notwithstanding). Not only do they not like their second-best friends, they don't even like their first friends. They can't read anybody's opinion besides their own. In true Vanguard Party style, they act just like a Grand Poohbah wannabe.

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