Thursday, 24 December 2009

Cyberspace Leninism?

I've previously commented, in some detail, on the topic of socialist organisations' use of the Internet. The re-launch of the Socialist Workers Party's website prompts me to return, in more succinct form, to this subject. On the specific issue of the new SWP site I expect that party members will generally be impressed, as indicated by a number of comments on the Lenin's Tomb thread about this. Its design is an improvement, though hardly very fresh or distinctive, and I assume it will be updated far more frequently than before.

My vision of how a left-wing organisation can potentially use a website goes much further. Crucially, there's a need for socialists to abandon a heavily centre-led model and create real opportunities for interaction and participation. It is political activity that should shape a political organisation's website and so interaction is key.

We finally have the means, technologically, to realise Lenin's notion of a publication (or website) that is a truly collective and democratic endeavour. Activists can post articles or comments, submit images or videos, acting as an army of contributors which enriches the content and enables wider layers of people to really identify with the organisation behind it.

In the 1970s Tony Cliff remarked that Socialist Worker had 3000 reporters, i.e. the members, which no mainstream media outlet could match. Actually, mainstream media (especially online versions) CAN match that now, thanks to utilising the opportunities for interaction, the cheapness and availability of the technology (e.g. a mobile phone can be enough for creating video that's then put online) etc. The organised left needs to catch up, e.g. how about offering practical workshops in which activists are trained in skills like video editing?

I'd love to see a collective left-wing website where content is added daily (or several times daily), going on the site and THEN being put in print publications. This allows the site to become highly topical and dynamic, and also encourages people to return to it frequently to check for updates. It creates an organic relationship between site and printed publications - this constitutes a leap forward from simply placing already-published material online. Following this, everything should be integrated: there's no need to have more than one online home. All the publications' content can be part of the main site.

There's no reason why printed publications should be considered The Real Deal while the online presence is subservient to them. Use of multimedia (embedded videos, audio recordings etc) is crucial, rather than the alternative of relying on text with minimal use of illustration. This is one area where the Net has a major advantage over print. A website has to become much more than an advert for the publications, where people look at the site and then choose to buy the print version. Go back to the SWP site and ask yourself: why does it insist on classifying the articles into the three publications they were originally published in? It would make more sense to mix the publications together and instead categorise according to topic.

The great advantages of the Net are essentially speed of response, mulimedia possibilites and interactivity. Only when a left wing organisation takes on board these three major issues - and radically transforms use of the Net in the light of them - will the potential for radical online activism be fulfilled.


  1. Clare Solomon had trouble posting this, so sent me via Facebook instead:
    'You are being very generous and disciplined, comrade. I look forward to publishing our combined effort on the more serious and deeper observations soon.'

  2. This is excellent, and if you don;t mind me saying a long time comin.

    From the mid 1980s to the mid noughties I worked as a magazine marketng consultant. Started off working for a left publication before realising that if you could sell summat with 'Marxism' in the title, well you could sell anything...

    So went off to work for one of the country's leading publishers of sports magazines. Thankfully kept my politcis intact and moonlighted helping all and sundry leftie mags with their marketing. Then went freelance to do the same.

    Next I happened upon my own entepreneurial instinct and co-founded Philosophy Football which by the early noughties had established itself as a highly successful web business.

    None of this experience means I have all the answers, not a bit of it! But it remains relatively rare on the left, the outside left in particular, to have not only experience of marketing but to have an affibity for it too.

    So....... Alex is dead right. Any start-up left magazine I wold ask, why not a website? Any left mag with a stagnant readership/falling circulation/financial difficulties ( that covers the lot of 'em) same question, why not a website?

    Once you've got over that hurdle theres a rich vista of possibilities. Take Red Pepper, a mag I like. By the time its published it is almost entirely out of date. With Borders closing it is hardly publicly available. It lacks the resources to recruit subscribers. Can't get many ads either. If all the imagination and commitment was instead put into a website it could at least have a realistic possibility of growth.

    Alex has the right starting point. Start with the web, print is secondary. Next up of course is content. Much of this should be visual, thats the beauty of the web, there is no necessity to privilege the written word.

    Much more to think about but this is most certainly the right place to begin.

    Mark P

  3. There's a Dave Widgery article from ISJ in the mid-1980s, in which Widgery comments on how fantastically important it is for the left to shift away from over-reliance on the written word, arguing that graphic design, music, photos, video etc were all becoming more important. He noted that he himself was a 'literary intellectual' by background, so this process was not a happy one for him perosonally but really vital nonetheless.

    I feel the same as he did - words are my medium personally, but in the online age what he wrote is even more true, more important. It would be great if more activists used photos and video to submit reports of what they've been up to - protests, public meetings etc - and if this could be easily accessible online.

    One of the things I feel most strongly about is that the website comes first. Whether an organisation has any publications at all is something that should be up for discussion - heresy, I know - but if it does then the publications strategy has to absolutely bound up with the web strategy. Anything else is ignoring the realities of contemporary media.

  4. Hi,
    i think this website is a good example for far left organizations.

    Esquerda (means "Left" in Portuguese)is the Portal of the Portuguese Left Bloc. Basically is a news portal, with a permanent journalist staff, producing news, videos, podcasts, and electronic reviews (like "Virus")but also allows comments, and has many texts of oppinon of militants and activists. The news portal is the center of activity, and it has also associated to it other webpages with more institutional content, the one related to the party´s daily activities ("Bloco"), with ecology ("Ecoblogue"), Youth ("Blocomotiva"), National ("BEParlamento") and European Parliament ("BEInternacional").

    I´m sorry, but it is only in portuguese!

    Hugo Dias

  5. David Widgery was one of those brilliant mavericks who no organisation could entirely constrain.

    I know Leninists have traditionally been wary of prefiguative politics, But this issues shows their efficacy. That 'how we do our politics is why we do our politics.' Of course this can lead to self-indulgency at the expense of social change, thats why the prefigurative must always be located in the absolute necessity of mass politics.

    The fact that the outside left has proved woefully inept in creaing a dynamic web presence has prevented it from transforming how it communicates. Cadre parties of a Leninist type want organisers who can speak effectively in public, they seek to flog newspapers, they deride the idea of centreing communication on a camera, a hamdy cam instead and patronise those with these skills while wilfully exploiting them.

    To make this works requires neither a united nor a popular front. It is about coaltions and partnerships of those who for the past decade or more have felt the parties once represented their ideals either deserted them, or found themselves in parties who in their fierce opposition to the conservative modernisation of new Labour forgot the pre-existing left wasn't perfect in the first place. There are thousands of people like us.

    A website of course is only just the beginning . But get it right and it helps prove what is possible. The fact that to date the outside left has failed in even this modest of tasks has proved the converse, that the will, imagination and resources are not there to make change happen.

    Matk P

  6. I like the design and functions of the Portuguese site a lot - it's got a number of distinct advantages over some others I can think of. One important aspect of a left-wing site should be enabling supporters to share the content easily, via Facebook, Twitter etc, and this is something that might still be improved about the SWP site.

  7. Neil Scott has sent me the following thoughts, but had trouble psoting directly to the blog:

    I agree with a lot of what is being said both in the original post and the comments.

    However, I think the left is only *reacting* to conditions, which in itself is fine, but the problem can be that we are reacting far too late AND can be caught up in the dissing of these new media and those who use them.

    Social networking and various publishing / virtual meeting places/conferencing media are developing exponentially. Rather than focus on one or two of them... and rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water when a new one comes along, we need to become skilled at linking these new and old media up.

    Old media (newspapers.newsletters/ pamphlets) should carry links to where people can read further or have live updates or "face to face" meetings online with people who can offer gudance/comradeship or listen etc. Newspapers/pamphlets etc can become a lot thinner, and be reference tools for those who want to learn more on a topic. A newspaper could cover more, global, topics in shorter forms, pointing readers to online sources for further reading/interaction with appropriate activists etc.

    New media should be linked across networks and those of us using it need to be skilled in the art of dissemination of useful info etc. And skilled in the art of the new language of the new media (though in my opinion a lot of this is unneccessary and excluding much in the way wobspeak is for new members of the IWW :) I understand why these new languages, such as hashtags new grammar and Text spk develop, but sometimes comrades need to weigh up who they are directing texts/tweets etc at and will they clearly get the message?)

    New media does not and will not completely usurp the old media. Newpapers will survive (maybe not the current titles in the current form, but new hybrids).

    I have written about use of new media (tho the article quoted focusses initially on second life, and was written pre-twitter, it makes the point of joined up educational social networking and dissemination of news- and of "de-geekifying") -