SWP and the internet: Let a thousand blogs bloom
Bureaucrats fear the dark side of the internet in the same way they previously feared the printing press and the photocopier, writes Eddie Ford
Fundamental to Marxism is the notion that there can be no socialism without democracy. One needs the other. They are inseparable. Socialism which is not democratic is not socialism, but something inimical to universal human emancipation. Therefore Marxists stand for the open clash of contending ideas. Their free flow and unfettered debate. Without this uninhibited exchange we are left in a state of relative ignorance, unable to develop our political understanding and consciousness - effectively leaving power in the hands of privileged bureaucrats and autocrats, big and small.
Which brings us to comrade Alex Callinicos (‘Stalinicos’) and his now legendary, or infamous, article for Socialist Review, ‘Is Leninism finished?’1 Quite deservedly, the eminent professor and member of the Socialist Workers Party central committee has been mercilessly mocked by imaginative leftwing critics armed with Photoshop - portraying him as Darth Vader, etc. Our regular readers will know the words which attracted such ribaldry: “One thing the entire business [recent open opposition within the SWP] has reminded us of is the dark side of the internet. Enormously liberating though the net is, it has long been known that it allows salacious gossip to be spread and perpetuated - unless the victim has the money and the lawyers to stop it. Unlike celebrities, small revolutionary organisations don’t have these resources, and their principles stop them from trying to settle political arguments in the bourgeois courts.”
Comrade Callinicos’s ‘egalitarianism’ is totally spurious, of course. His prurient concern about “salacious gossip” is motivated by an instinctive bureaucratic reflex to hit out against a subversive technology - a near instant form of global communication - which he and the monstrously bloated SWP apparatus have no way of managing. In other words, they are control-freaks on a level that far surpasses anything ever attempted by the Blairites or even the old ‘official’ leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain. A sort of perverse achievement, you could argue.
Another revealing insight into the SWP’s weird control-freakery can be found in Pat Stack’s contribution to the latest circular by the emerging In Defence of Our Party faction. Comrade Stack is the chair of the organisation’s thoroughly discredited disputes committee and the only person on it to dissent against the decision to ‘clear’ ‘comrade Delta’. Though rather ironically prefacing his interesting comments with the stricture that “Under no circumstances should this text be posted on the internet”, since it is intended “for members of the SWP only” - some chance - he wisely advises the SWP leadership to “take a chill pill over social media”. Yes, he admits that this new-fangled social networking is “alien” to him, but acknowledges that it is “perfectly normal” for his nieces and nephews to “share almost everything” on Facebook “bar the darkest secrets” - maybe them as well.
Tellingly, comrade Stack recounts how at conference an “older comrade” slid over to him and said that “we’ve got to stop all this Facebook stuff” - expressing the typical bureaucratic mentality we have come to expect from the SWP old guard. Uncontrolled free speech is a threat to ‘the party’ - or, rather, the entrenched central committee. He goes on to venture: “I feel this attitude was typified by the majority of the CC’s response to the internet debate last year. I remarked to somebody that the leadership sounded like ageing CPers in the late 50s and early 60s denouncing rock and roll as an evil expression of American capitalism … If we want young comrades to take us seriously, we need to seriously listen to them about this stuff, instead of panicking about what a seriously run website might do to the review, the journal or even the paper; we have to instead ask, is it serious not to have a well-run website that is absolutely central to our political/organisational priorities?”
What comrade Stack says is quite correct. If the SWP is to survive at all as any sort of viable organisation, the leadership - if you excuse the term - needs to ruthlessly ditch its ingrained hostility to members freely discussing and debating their views using whatever technology comes to hand. Like, first and foremost, the internet - which, barring some catastrophic development, will not be going away fast. Sorry, CC comrades.
However, the omens are not good. The SWP CC has form. Back in 1995, if not before, the CC - especially Tony Cliff, it seems - got worried by the new ‘middle class’ phenomenon that was the worldwide web. Specifically, they became concerned by the unsupervised discussions breaking out on the then International Socialist List, which they disapprovingly noted was the result of a “private initiative” by comrades belonging to the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency in various countries. Dismayingly, for the CC, “as far as we can tell, the leaderships of their organisations were not consulted” and - even worse - “certainly no reference was made to the SWP central committee”. Horror of horrors.
Deploying the sort of language and arguments that strikes an unfortunately contemporary note, the CC aristocratically pontificated about how “very little hard information” was sent out through the IS List anyway and what you did find was “usually banal or irrelevant” - according to them, the arbiters of truth and wisdom. Indeed, tutting like an old schoolteacher, they told the SWP membership two decades ago that “much of the content of the messages consists in trivialities and gossip about the internal affairs of various groups” - as if the way a group aiming to lead the working class conducts its elections or holds its leaders to account is of no concern to comrades in other countries or to the working class as a whole.
Then when you consider that some users of the IS List seemed to “subscribe to the fantasy that communication via the internet is fundamentally more secure than that on the telephone”, the CC could only wearily conclude that overall the IS List was of a “highly dubious nature”. Open to abuse. After sternly lecturing SWP members to reject the “media-promoted mania for the internet” and how any “sensible socialist should not fall for the immense hyping of the internet by papers like The Guardian”, etc - peddling “technological novelties” that will never catch on - SWP members were given an anecdote (not “gossip”, of course) about a debate that had just taken place at Marxism concerning the merits or otherwise of the internet, where someone accused the SWP leadership of “technophobia” and a “desire to suppress debate” - what a scurrilous suggestion!
So on August 2 1995 the CC issued an edict that SWP members should not use the IS List.2 In justification, it trotted out the same bogus egalitarianisms that Alex Callinicos employed to warn us about the “dark side of the internet” - it disadvantages the poor old proles. Hence it was claimed: “Access to the internet, as to any technology, is determined by capitalist relations of production. It is therefore highly unequal, and conditioned by the bosses’ domination of the economy and the state.” Furthermore, “only a small minority of our members have access to the internet” and this - apparently - “reflects the fact that internet users are, in general, concentrated in universities and in upper-echelon white-collar jobs”. Consequently, it was argued, discussions take place on the IS List “from which most comrades are excluded”. You would almost believe that the SWP bureaucrats are friends of the downtrodden.
Not only that, they continued, but we “lack the means to make the list accountable” to the organisations making up the IS Tendency - for “accountable” read ‘controllable’. Instead political debate must “take place through the party branches and at national meetings and conferences, where all comrades can participate directly or through their elected delegates” - under the watchful eye of the full-timers and the subservient middle-ranking cadre. Almost comically, the CC statement denounced “irresponsible gossip” by a “self-selected and relatively privileged clique” - not referring to themselves, naturally. None so blind. Getting more desperate, but inadvertently more truthful, the CC testily explained that this global means of potentially anonymous debate might lead to the extremely undesirable situation where others could “take part in discussions that do not concern them” - perhaps over the character of the ex-USSR, the nature of the epoch or even the accountability of the SWP leadership - such ‘internal’ matters should only be the preserve of the priesthood; not the sheep who happen to be the membership or the wider working class. Just do as you are told and sell more copies of Socialist Worker. In fact, the CC intoned, the internet as a whole is a “diversion” from the “face-to-face discussion” involved in flogging the paper, recruiting new members, agitating for the next demonstration - and nowadays, chasing the tail of the English Defence League, etc.
We also heard the same kind of censorial, routinist crap from the SWP tops during the days of the Socialist Alliance - criminally sabotaged by both the SWP and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, who put their own narrow, sectarian interests before the project of building left unity. Fairly predictably, the SWP was unenthusiastic - to put it mildly - about the idea of an SA discussion list, but were in the end outvoted by the other groups. A moment of sanity. But the pervading SWP attitude was that the discussion lists were essentially a waste of time, as members would be bogged down in never-ending and fruitless debates with - yes, you guessed it - “the sectarians” (not that they openly said the same about discussion and debate within the actual SA branches). Instead, SA members should be getting out into the ‘real world’ and ‘making a difference’ - ie, joining and building the SWP. The party. Presumably, the ‘real world’ starts and ends with the SWP - here be dragons beyond.3
Of course, the arguments presented by Alex Callinicos and the CC are just as absurd today as they were in 1995. After all, is it not true that there was “highly unequal” access to the telephone (now the most beloved technology device of the SWP CC) when it was first invented? Then again, you could say exactly the same about letters - given that only a tiny minority were literate for most of recorded history.
So would the SWP apparatchiks, if they had been around at the time - a truly terrifying thought - have argued that use of the letter or phone should be carefully controlled on the basis they are “conditioned by the bosses’ domination of the economy and the state”? God only knows what the SWP tops would have made of the photocopier, a highly dubious invention purposely designed to do little more than spread “salacious gossip” and worse. Yet it appears for the SWP bureaucracy that some technological developments are more “highly unequal” than others.
Plain fact of the matter, at least for Marxists, is that no means of communication - or technology - in and of itself can be backward or reactionary. An utterly irrational notion that leads to madness. Remember the Unabomber? How any technology is used, or abused - whether it liberates or oppresses - is determined by the level of class struggle in a given, historically concrete, society. Gas ovens can be used to cook nice food or burn the bodies of those you have murdered. The internet can be used to Tweet inane slanders about your drinking partner last night or to expose the dirty secrets of the ruling class or the government.
One thing communists cannot deny though is that the SWP leadership is absolutely right to be deeply nervous about the ‘threat’ the internet poses to its police regime. Spot on, comrades. Without resorting to cyber-utopianism or libertarianism, as some do, here is a medium/technology which undermines the CC’s hold on power - a universal acid dissolving its grip over the membership, no longer cowed. It is the bureaucrat’s worst nightmare come true. As blogger ‘Soviet Goon Boy’ puts it, “ideally” the CC would like to retain a “monopoly of information in the party”; however, this is just not “humanly possible” any more - “Charlie Kimber may not recognise the internet, but the internet recognises him”.4 You can purge and expel, SWP CC, but you can’t hide.
Another thing communists can safely say is that Marx would have taken to the internet like a duck to water. Openness activates and enhances the “public mind”, as Marx said, and the free press - or internet - is “the omnipresent open eye of the popular spirit” - the “merciless confessional that a people makes to itself, and it is well known that confession has the power to redeem”. The only alternative to an open and “merciless confessional” communist press is, as Marx also argued, to keep the movement like a “person swaddled in a cradle all his life, for as soon as he learns to walk he also learns to fall, and it is only through falling that he learns to walk. But if we all remain children in swaddling-clothes, who is to swaddle us? If we all lie in a cradle, who is to cradle us? If we are all in jail, who is to be the jail warden?” Words that Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber, etc - who claim to be revolutionary Marxists - would do well to dwell upon.
For us in the CPGB, we shall continue to do what we can to support and encourage the rebellion we now see underway against the SWP jail wardens. To borrow from Maoist phraseology, what the SWP urgently needs - like the British left as a whole - is a cultural revolution: let a thousand flowers bloom, not to mention a thousand more oppositional blogs and Facebook pages.
1. Socialist Review January 2013: www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12210.