Saturday, February 9, 2013

Trotskyism & New Media

This is Part 1 of a series. Subsequent posts will look at Socialist Action and Socialist Viewpoint.

Update: Part 2 is here.

Ever since 1900 when Lenin founded the newspaper Iskra, Marxist parties have put great emphasis on the revolutionary press. Indeed, in those days when print media were expensive and rare, the concept of democratic centralism made sense. The Party press should print only the point of view of the entire organization, and not serve as a forum for internal discussion. These principles crystallized in the popular imagination with newspapers such as Pravda and The People’s Daily, often dubbed “Party organs,” or “government mouthpieces.”

The founding Trotskyist group in America, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) published The Militant with the same purpose--to represent the unified voice of the Party. Similarly that was the mission behind Pathfinder Press, even now the leading publisher of Trotskyist literature.

In 1998 Mary-Alice wrote

One thing that impressed them [Cubans] the most was something I did not expect. One person asked, "Do you have your own print shop?" When we answered, "Yes," her response was, "Well, that explains a lot. It would be hard to do this without your own shop." Many publishers in Cuba share the same presses. When acute paper shortages and equipment breakdowns are added to the equation, they have to make many painful decisions on who gets priority press time for which titles.

In the interim, the Party has dismantled the print shop and sold off the building. The Militant is now posted on-line, with digital issues available back to 1995. And no longer are “acute paper shortages and equipment breakdowns” responsible for painful decisions about what gets published, certainly not in the US. Anybody can publish anything, essentially for free.

And that’s the problem. Even the bourgeois press, such as the New York Times (NYT), no longer has a meaningful business model. Publication is now so cheap and so available that talented individuals can outdo the circulation of august institutions such as the NYT--witness Matt Drudge or Arianna Huffington. The money to be made in news publication is dropping to zero. While The Militant is not motivated by money, it confronts the same problem.

The Militant suffers from the Internet in three significant ways. First, it devalues their brand. In print, The Militant has a product far better than anything somebody like me could produce--I am not willing to invest in my own print shop. But on the web, The Militant becomes just another website--in no way distinct from my website. We are both essentially competing for eyeballs, and the fact that The Militant has an 85 year history behind it is just irrelevant. If I can generate content that successfully attracts Militant readers, then I win. That’s how Drudge & Huffington are putting the NYT out of business.

Second, it disaggregates their content. I still read The Militant (even though I haven’t seen a print copy in many years) by starting on their homepage and checking the articles that interest me. I don’t read the NYT that way--instead I come across NYT articles from outside. I click on them from the DrudgeReport or from RealClearPolitics. Because I’m not willing to pay for an NYT subscription, I no longer have access to the wisdom of the NYT editorial board. I read their articles in a disaggregated way. That may be the way you read The Militant. Instead of going to their homepage, you may only read the articles to which I provide links. In other words, I become your editor--The Militant’s editors are out of the loop.

And finally, the web is intrinsically interactive. A recent column by Tom Friedman has 267 comments. The NYT advertises “follow us on Twitter.” A measure of success of any web page is how many comments they get, or how many Twitter followers they have. A successful web page (not yet this one) has an extensive blogroll--a call-out for dialogue with other people. The Militant doesn’t allow comments. Indeed, its web edition is just a copy of the print edition--there is no effort to make it web native.

So how has The Militant responded to this changed set of circumstances? Not well--they display head-in-the-sand obtuseness. If there is one single, catalyzing event causing the decline of the SWP, it is that they have been unable to find a way to deal with new media. To see just how spectacularly the Party has failed in that regard, go back and read Mary-Alice’s article linked above.

I think the new media puts the whole concept of democratic centralism into question. A web site is ultimately a discussion forum, not a place to expostulate from on high. One can’t host a discussion if you insist that everybody has to agree with you in advance. The Militant can’t tolerate any disagreement--none at all--so conversation with them is impossible. Accordingly, almost nobody reads or links to their web site. And The Militant rarely links to anybody else’s website, either--they live in a self-contained universe.

Extrapolate this to social media. What are Comrades supposed to do with something like Twitter? Simply retweet the Party Line? How boring (and counterproductive) can you get. A Comrade who erroneously tweets a falsehood about our position on pre-war Croatia might get away with it. But what about the post that starts “The Party position is...,” which might imply that the tweeter doesn’t totally agree with the Party. Should they be promptly expelled? This is never going to work. Predictably, The Militant has no presence on social media web sites at all.

Instead, the Party concentrates on selling subscriptions to the print edition! To be sure, this is totally safe, but otherwise just nuts. It renders the Party completely irrelevant to anybody under age 40--people who came of age in a twitter/facebook world. It turns the Party into an apolitical organization that exists primarily for the psychological comfort of its own Comrades.

Back in the day, when staffing literature tables, we were frequently asked what was the purpose of the revolutionary party. “We know how to run the mimeograph machines” was often part of the answer. That is, the Party collected expertise necessary to organize and guide a mass movement, both politically and practically. And I’m certain that today’s Comrades--mostly sixty-plus--still know how to run mimeograph machines. The problem is they haven’t learned any new tricks.

This was all brought home to me in 2006. Recall the mass demonstrations (hundreds of thousands of people) by Mexican immigrants for less stringent immigration enforcement. Large numbers of high school students simply left their schools to participate. This was all organized by cell phone--today we would call it a flash mob, though that term had not been invented yet. Nobody ran any mimeograph machines. The Militant knew nothing about this demonstration until after it was over--they were completely out of the loop. What kind of vanguard Party is that? This is what happens when you cut yourself off from dialogue and discussion--nobody pays any attention to you.

Except me.

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