Scaffolding struggle: what is a revolutionary media?

Why do we write? And what for? Amy Gilligan thinks through why we use publications, and what a ‘revolutionary’ media could mean.

Where there are people calling themselves revolutionaries, you can be reasonably sure that there’ll be some kind of publication. It might be a newspaper, magazine, journal, pamphlet, or these days a website. And in recent years there have been debates about the form that these should take today, particularly about the role of print media versus social media. I want to step back a little and discuss why we engage as revolutionaries in publications and argue that the role that they play for us, organisationally, is distinct from simply producing a left-wing or even socialist version of the mainstream media.

The nature and the particular focus of a revolutionary publication will, obviously, be affected by many different factors at a period in time: whether revolutionary publications are legal, the state of class struggle and mass movements, the size of an organisation and the resources available to it, where the organisation is based. Therefore I think it is important to address the political questions of what we’re trying to do as revolutionaries in the first instance, and see how the particular forms that publications can take fit in with this.

What are revolutionaries trying to do?

At one quite grand-sounding, and perhaps somewhat crude, level we’re engaged with trying to change the world. We have a collective understanding that capitalism needs to be smashed, and think that the working class represent the force in society that can do that. We also have an idea that a different kind of world to the one we have today is possible. We see the importance of organising collectively to try and do this.

The reality of capitalism means that revolution on the cards, in as much as it doesn’t just contain the “misery of the proletariat” but at the same time contains “a revolutionary element that will bring down the old order”. The “actuality of revolution”, Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács argued, “therefore implies study of each individual daily problem in concrete association with the socio-historic whole as moments in the liberation of the proletariat”.

To me, this suggests two things: the importance of coming up with some kind of analysis that explains how all of the struggles and problems that people face are part of a connected “whole”, but also the importance of participating, and trying to shape, the many struggles that do exist and demonstrating in practice that they are connected.

In revolutionary organisations one thing we’re trying to do is win people to our ideas and at the same time learn from their ideas. At the same time as we’re trying to influence things happening, as much as are able, given various limitations, we have to be constantly learning from the class. Without this, revolutionary organisations become “ossified”.

It would seem obvious, then, that one role of the revolutionary press is to collect together reports of movements and struggle, share them publicly, with as many people are possible, especially of the many things that are ignored by the mainstream media. This allows us to both tell people about things that are happening, and learn from what others are doing so as to better come up with a totalising analysis. However, to share reports in this way, a publication doesn’t have to necessarily be revolutionary – publications like Morning Star, or Indymedia back in the day, do also play this sort of role.


Revolutionary publications can also play a key role as “organisers”, or “scaffolding”, a term used by Lenin in What is to be done?:

“A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser. In this respect it may be compared to the scaffolding erected round a building under construction; it marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, permitting them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour.”

At the time this was written, Lenin was trying to set up the newspaper Iskra. He was involved in debates about why an all-Russia publication was necessary, and the important role that it could play in building a revolutionary organisation, against local publications and simply doing local activity. In part through Iskra, Lenin was able to turn a disparate collection of activist cells dotted around Russia into a more-or-less coherent organisation. By winning the trust of activists through running their reports it was possible to win their trust, and meant that the activists began to see it as their paper.

I don’t think that the organisational role that Lenin envisaged for a revolutionary publication is restricted to ink and paper. He was working with what was relatively new technology at the time, and the means and technology available to him. While the specificities of how exactly you use different types of publications organisationally, I think that today a website, for example, can play just as much the role of an organiser as a newspaper did in 1902.

In my experience, the role of a paper as an organiser has tended to focus on questions around the circulation of the publication. This is clearly important. Lenin talks about:

“a network of agents that would form in the course of establishing and distributing the common newspaper would not have to “sit about and wait” for the call for an uprising, but could carry on the regular activity that would guarantee the highest probability of success in the event of an uprising. Such activity would strengthen our contacts with the broadest strata of the working masses and with all social strata that are discontented with the autocracy, which is of such importance for an uprising.” (What is to be done?)

We’re obviously not in a pre-revolutionary situation, but the activity of meeting to distribute a publication, to take it to contacts, strengthening our relationships with them, can be useful even today. This role is obviously favoured, to some extent, by having a physical publication to distribute. At a point when 30% of adults in the US get their news via Facebook and 10% via YouTube, we do have to begin to tackle the questions about how do we ‘distribute’ web-based publications, in order to use those in this organisational role as well. Far fewer people, even on the Left, read daily print newspapers than they did in the past, favouring print for things they want to keep in the long term.

Revolutionary correspondents

The other side to publications, that I think has been somewhat neglected by the revolutionary left, is the role that getting content for a publication (commissioning and writing) can play in building a revolutionary organisation. This kind of activity can help to extend its size, influence and prominence as much as distributing a publication can. It can play a useful role in continually developing all members of a revolutionary organisation (if done properly), to give them political confidence, and to thrash out ideas and perspectives among people within and beyond the organisation. This role is particularly talked about by Hossam el-Hamalawy in discussing the website as an organiser.

For this role to work, I feel we have to pay particular attention to avoid the kind of subsitutionism that results from that having ‘journalists’ who produce most of the content for a revolutionary publication. Instead I feel that the organisational role a publication can play is better served by developing everyone in that organisation (and beyond, if possible) to be able to report, to comment, to analyse. In rs21 publications over the last year we’ve had moderate success in doing this, with just under half of the membership of the group having written something. We’ve also had about a third of our pieces written by people who aren’t part of rs21.

In the period following the Russian revolution, communist parties developed the idea of worker correspondents. The specific role in Russia was a bit different to elsewhere, having a “cultural role” in building a new society, but there was a general idea that many people, on the ground, should be contributing to publications, allowing everyone to learn from the things that were going on. The idea of ‘revolutionary correspondents’ is something I feel we need to return to.

In a speech to worker correspondents in 1923, Trotsky laid out some ideas as to basis for the kind of reporting and coverage that was needed:

“We revolutionists, in the area of writing, as in others, give first priority to the will to act: to change something, to bring something about, to achieve something.”

Revolutionary correspondents aren’t just writing for the sake of it, or to just recount what has happened, but to push forward revolutionary ideas with the aim of changing the world.

In the same speech, Trotsky makes some sensible suggestions about how content can be approached. He talks about the importance of having both “fact” and “point of view”. We need to make sure we report facts accurately. There is little point in claiming a demo was five times the size it actually was – most people who were there will know that is not the case and may doubt the veracity of other things you write. Further it means that political conclusions might be drawn from reading a report will be distorted, and this may have implications for future activity.

However, revolutionaries aren’t there just as passive onlookers, reporting facts. We should be trying to analyse the situation, provide ideas for what needs to be done next – inject a “point of view”. This means that we should focus on writing about things we are actually involved in, and have something to say on. There are several reasons for this: it leads to dull reporting otherwise – without being somehow involved its harder to talk about what is at stake politically, to draw lessons from something. It could also lead to giving a false impression of our degree of implantation in the movements and workplaces.

By being involved, even if this is something as simple as visiting a picket line, it means that you have to develop real relationships with other activists in order to get quotes, good pictures and video interviews. It means you can go back to the people and say here’s your protest, your picket line in this publication. This plays a role in developing a network around a revolutionary organisation, giving us an opportunity to talk about politics with a much wider layer of people and an exchange of ideas.

Producing content for revolutionary publications is something that everyone in a revolutionary organisation should be able to play a role in. It is likely that the majority of people won’t have done this kind of thing before, and many might not feel confident to do so. There need to be varied ways of supporting people to develop the confidence to do so, in particular those from oppressed groups.

Political thought needs to go into who might be asked to report from an event or write on a topic – an experienced writer might be able to produce something that is technically better or do it quicker, but it might be far more valuable for the revolutionary project as a whole, to develop a new writer. Producing content for a publication can help clarify ideas, help people to think about a topic more deeply and give people political confidence to put forward their ideas in campaigns and in the workplace. In this respect, a publication plays a role as an organiser in developing people already in an organisation.

How do we use web-based media?

Web-based media, to some extent, highlights the organisational role that publications can play in terms of ‘production’. With the web there is a greater pressure to get content rapidly – to respond to events as they are happening, and photos and, to a lesser extent, video are crucial. Many more people are needed and can be involved in producing content. Because there aren’t the same physical constraints with a website as with print media we can be more open in terms of style and length, and experiment with other types of content.

Understanding how best to use social media to interact with people viewing our content online is important. It is important not to see social media as separate from the ‘real world’ – it is part of it, and can be used to share links, contact people to ask what they think, particularly if they’ve shared or liked something that we’ve put online. Most commentary on articles takes place via social media rather than on the articles on a website themselves. Another positive thing about web-based media is that we actually have quite detailed statistics about who it is who seeing which posts, reading which articles, clicking through links, which can be useful to get a sense of what kind of impact our publications are actually having – you might sell someone a magazine or give them a leaflet but that’s no guarantee that it’ll be read!

We shouldn’t imagine that websites and social media have some intrinsically revolutionary potential, however as revolutionaries, wanting to communicate with people beyond our ranks, then they have to be used. And this means that we do need to think more about how we can better use them.

A variety of forms

A website will never be enough on its own, nor will a magazine or a leaflet. We need to have a variety of different forms of publication, suitable for different occasions. A one page leaflet might be the most appropriate for a large demonstration while a magazine can help to show the range of ideas that we’re confronting and prioritise particular discussions and debates. A website can host a live blog with photographs from around the country for a national strike, while a pamphlet can mean that a single idea can be developed in depth.

It is not a question, within the limits of the resources available, of either one thing or another. We need to have a flexible approach to the form publications in a particular instance take in order to best organise, develop people as revolutionaries and win others to revolutionary politics and the idea that we can change the world.


  1. Pretty much any media apart from handwritten notes is controlled by big business. To produce a newspaper, you need to use a printer, and most revolutionary organisations do not own their own printing presses (not even the SWP any more). The alternative could be to use computer printers in activists’ homes or the organization’s office, but that is expensive, not suitable for mass distribution, and doesn’t get the professional results that a commercial printing firm can provide. Yes, there are plenty of relatively small printing firms who would be happy to take our money, but if we’re talking about a revolutionary situation, there are sooner or later going to be limitations to that, unless the workers start taking over the presses. It’s most important to understand that it’s not either or, we must use whatever means are available to us, and we must learn how to use them effectively, and be flexible in case one or other medium becomes unavailable. All methods have their advantages and limitations – we must be aware of them, and be able to exercise full spectrum organising.

  2. I think the response from the rev left to social media is not one of cyber-dystopianism based on arguments like Chomsky’s but one of countering the reductive cyber-utopian propaganda that locates agency in the internet medium rather than in the subject or the collective agency of workers who can actually get rid of capitalism. It’s the idealism of those who champion social media that’s in the ascendance currently and that needs challenging. The reason this is important is because, like other communication mediums such as the telephone, the internet and especially social media is controlled by big business. As a tool to organise it has its uses but let’s not confuse its practical use with idealist theories about how networks are inherently liberating. Theories about the progressive nature of particular mediums of communication and methods of organisation have been challenged repeatedly in the past whether it’s Jo Freeman challenging the hierarchical nature of so-called “non-hierarchical” groups or marxists challenging the cyber-utopianism of postmodernists like Lyotard and Baudrillard. These arguments are not new and the claim about the novelty of the internet needs challenging because its misleading.

  3. Yes, there’s a dialectical interaction between production and distribution (as Cliff said, “the abolition of the abyss between producer and consumer is central), and between online and print media. Hossam has done the most to theorize this, which we in Canada are trying to learn from:

  4. It’s clear that online media can’t play the *same* role as a 1902 newspaper in organising. But then again, neither can a newspaper. Print media have changed almost beyond recognition too in the last 113 years.

    And clearly all types of media can play *a* role in organising, whether through the production of content, its “distribution”, having discussions about it on or offline or whatever. To use online media effectively to organise means certain choices about how they are used. For example, a web site written by a few professional journalists, that doesn’t allow comments and doesn’t encourage people to sign up to receive digests or calls to action by email won’t act as much of an organiser and won’t establish ongoing relationships. It’s just a one-to-many communication channel. But that’s not the only way of using online media, just a particularly pointless one.

    I’m not sure how productive it is to get into an argument about whether print publications or online media today play “more” or “just as much” of a role as an organiser. Anyone serious about organising has to use a variety of media to reach different people and to reach the same people in different ways. As media are changing, we have to learn how to use them all effectively, rather than creating parodies of early 20th century publications largely written by people in exile.

    I think Janet is near the mark though in talking about the importance of face-to-face contact as well. It would be crazy to imagine organising purely online could be effective. Online communication has many advantages (e.g. speed, cost, reach) but creates “weak ties” between people. People tend to be more confident to take action with people they have stronger ties with, usually based on having met them more than once and built trust. So we need to combine different online and offline tools to organise effectively.

  5. While I agree that as socialists we need to use every available channel to cultivate debate and discussion it’s also important to recognise the limitations of certain mediums of communication. Rather than a conduit to free debate, the internet is now less democratic as a medium of communication than the traditional media. For example, over 90% of news traffic goes to a small selection of multinational news corporations. Traffic to independent sources is decreasing by the year because of a variety of reasons including the cost of maintaining a news site and difficulty in keeping news unbiased and up-to-date.

    Then there is the phenomenon of counter-culture voices being drowned out on the internet through state and commercial intervention. No doubt the first casualty during a revolutionary situation will be the internet as the capitalist state tries to control communication. The issue of privacy is also very important because social networking sites actively collect as much information as possible about their users and this may have repercussions for activists. For example, personal information about disability such as mental health issues can be used against activists by employers. There are many more important differences between engaging with someone through selling a newspaper in a workplace and sharing information on the internet so I don’t agree that virtual space is equivalent to public space or the workplace.

    While I don’t agree with all of Morozov’s conclusions, ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’, highlights many of the problems with using the internet as a medium for democratic debate. A review here:

  6. I think there are two slightly different was of thinking about how we use web-based media as on organiser. I think i’d argue that the interactions that we have with people online, particularly through social media like Facebook, instant/direct messaging, Skype etc are as real interactions that can happen face-to-face, and can potentially help maintain and foster and even spark ongoing relationships that might not be possible otherwise. People might meet and interact first by following someone on twitter and only meet them in person at a later point. Obviously these kind of interactions aren’t going to be the type that everyone has, but they do happen and I think that we need to realise the potential of them.

    The second, and probably more important, way that web-based media can act as an organiser is through producing content, and I talk about in the article – you need to have lots of it and in quite a timely manner, and have photos and video etc. Therefore more people need to be involved in producing it. This means more people are having to think critically, analyse the world around them, theories – there is potential for greater active involvement of a larger number of people, and so organisation.

  7. “I think that today a website, for example, can play just as much the role of an organiser as a newspaper did in 1902”

    I am all for internet and other means of communication but the above statement is problematic in that the paper as envisaged by Lenin and others does generally involve networks with face to face contact and an ongoing relationship etc not sure the internet can give us that but for sure it has its uses etc


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