Revolutionary socialists need to deepen their understanding of social media and how these technologies relate to problems of organisation, argues Mark Bergfeld.
There are different and competing interpretations of activists’ use of social media. In a fantastic article in the International Journal of Communication our comrades Miriyam Aouragh and Anne Alexander argue that Egyptian activists used social networks such as Twitter and Facebook as “tools of mobilisation” and “spaces of dissidence” during the revolution.
Paolo Gerbaudo argues in the book Tweets and the Streets that Egyptian, Spanish, and American activists employed these technologies in a very similar fashion during the global wave of protests in 2011. He identifies Twitter as a prime “means for internal coordination” between activists and Facebook as a “recruitment platform” where activists could recruit non-political contacts such as friends and family to their cause. Both these accounts have deep organisational consequences for activists trying to increase their influence inside the movement.
The Egyptian blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy goes a step further. He writes about how the Revolutionary Socialists have taken steps toward transforming their website into the “collective organiser” for their operation. He acknowledges that this presents new organisational challenges for their media committee as well as for the membership as a whole.
Hossam concludes that the Revolutionary Socialist newspaper still has a role to play for their organisation. The newspaper might have been replaced as the “collective organiser”, but that does not mean political action takes place solely online. Rather, online and offline political actions complement one another as the organisation seeks to gain influence in social movements in general.
There are debates about the extent to which social media and new communication technologies mediate new forms of organising inside social movements. The internet-enabled hybridity as described by Hossam can open up traditionally organised parties. But it can also create subunits that are entirely sealed off from prime decision-making processes inside the organisation. These debates run parallel with a professed democratisation of activist and protest culture, where everyone can blog, tweet, take a photo, shoot a video.
Activists use social media all the time inside social movements to gain wider influence. And radical left organisations are constantly under the influence of other movement forces, including those they find themselves in contention with. Yet no one has started to theorise the use of social media in a serious and systematic way.
This was not the case in the past. Socialists had had plenty to say about their use of daily and weekly newspapers, or about other media forms for agitation and propaganda. Consider Lenin’s writings on the party newspaper, or Gramsci writing about cinema.
But today the question of how social media relates to organisation remains undertheorised and split between cyber-utopian (and cyber-distopyian narratives that dominates mainstream discussions (see Manuel Castells for an example of the first and Eugene Morozov for an example of the second). Marxists don’t have to reinvent the wheel or get distracted by this – but rather built on Marx’s understanding of technology under capitalism.
Science and technology do not develop apart from capitalist society. Technological innovations are shaped by capitalism’s needs. Analogue and digital communication technologies are the products of existing capitalist social relations. Inasmuch as these present themselves to be egalitarian, they mask the continuation of inequality and capitalist dominance. One thing is certain: the technological advances made under capitalism are dripping in blood. In order to use humanity’s creative potentials to the fullest we would require an unprecedented break which would transform the ways technologies have been used in the course of the last 150 years.
That doesn’t mean we should pine for the golden age of the telegram. As Marx writes in The Eighteenth Brumaire: “The social revolution of the 19th century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the 19th century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.” This applies equally to the revolutioon of the 21st century.
The future of Marxism is unwritten. Only if we don’t shy away from grasping things at the root can we confront certain realities. We need to see both the techno-determinist and the technophobic attitudes as reactions to the way activism and organisations have used and been shaped by technology throughout the last decade.
In fact this is not new. Radical left organisations were shaped by the last round of “horizontalist” and decentralised mobilisations – the alter-globalisation movement – right at the beginning of the 21st century. That doesn’t do away with the necessity for revolutionary organisation, but it does requires further exploration to understand activists’ use of social media and the way this relates to forms of organisations and changes those forms. And this also involves asking whether new forms of leadership can be mediated through the use of digital media.
Note: This piece was published before rs21 was established as an independent organisation in January 2014. rs21 was founded by a group of people who had been in the opposition within the SWP and who left in response to its persistent mishandling of rape and sexual harassment allegations against a leading member.