Sunday 20 January 2013

“Comrades need to stop complaining on the internet and bring their concerns to branch meetings...”

I paraphrase, but variations on this canard are repeated quite often, sometimes with an addendum along the lines of, “we need to engage with the real world”.

We do need to engage with the real world but moral injunctions about branch meetings are just the opposite of such engagement. Revolutionary socialists advocate direct discussion and open voting against closed meetings and secret ballots, but this fine, hard won principle is not being applied intelligently.

Any medium is by definition is exclusive. You’re either online or not. You can either attend a meeting or you can’t. There are plenty of reasons why someone might not be able to make regular meetings on a Wednesday or Thursday night, too many to list. It certainly doesn’t make you lazy or devious or your opinions invalid. It can equally be said that electronic communication provides an invaluable resource for people not able to meet face to face. In fact it allows a far greater pooling of experience and information than a geographical branch.

But there’s more to it than this. There is an unacknowledged bias that has been hardened by the misapplication of the idea of direct democracy. Why does a branch meeting count as the real world (when quite often it’s a group of ardent left-wingers agreeing with each other then arranging a paper sale) when online discussion does not?

It is, in part, a residual prejudice of 20th Century thought. Using terms of Marshall McLuhan, under print media the written word is dissociated and cool, whereas the spoken word is involved and hot. The written word had elevated status because it was recorded, for all time. The printed word was a clearly defined commodity from the beginning, very bourgeois, whereas the spoken word was not even remotely enclosed until the advent of sound recording.

Thanks to electronic media the written word can unfold as fast as spoken conversation. There is no going back to the old ways of thinking. The internet not only has an idiom of its own (idiom being a sure sign of intense involvement not cool dissociation) but is affecting language and communication in general. The sectarian anxiety about the internet (that discussion will get 'out of control') is not so dissimilar from the bourgeois fear that the journalism will be subsumed by citizenship, that a large part of the ideological apparatus will simply fall apart.

The party must come to understand electronic media and incorporate them as part of a democratic mix, including print media and public meetings, or it will become irrelevant, and all for the sake of principles transformed into shibboleths. To put it another way, if you don’t like what people are saying online don’t hide away in your branch meetings, get out into the real world, where two-thirds of UK citizens are regularly online.

By Roobin.


  1. I am being deliberately carved out by my branch. I'm disabled and comrades make a lot of effort to come to me. But since I voiced my opposition to the CC, I was told that I should get off the internet and come to have face to face discussions - except, they are now saying they won't be able to arrange a group to discuss things at my house, and won't be able to arrange transport for me to the branch.

    Politics aside, for some of us the internet has allowed us to be revolutionary socialists, where without it we might end up isolated.

  2. (sorry for the anon - my google account is genuine, my name is now)

  3. Same thing happened to me too. In addition, some members were privy to information that was withheld from others. There was clearly a two tier system operating and I stopped attending in September as my branch made me feel very unwelcome.

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    1. "Permanent factions" is really a misnomer: it is the right to form a faction at any time, not an obligation! The SWP's method is undemocratic, as factions are dissolved before the CC is elected. Therefore, as there is no opposition at the time of the election, there can be no representation of that opposition on the CC! Simple!

      I have been in the IMG and its successors for 39 years. There were long-term factions and they had lively discussions and debates, which were highly educative. They did not prevent the IMG from taking important initiatives and in making important ideological gains - perhaps especially on women's liberation in the 1970's.

      It wasn't all sweetness and light, though. The various factions overestimated the importance of their particular, nuanced perspectives, and were intolerant of each others' views. This made the debate rancorous and ultimately led to the split in 1985. I think we have learnt from that experience. The group I'm in (SR) has lots of internal discussion, differences of views, split votes on issues, but hasn't had a major factional dispute for many years. We don't see every difference of opinion as a life-or-death issue (and I don't think we would see a factional dispute as such either) and we know that mistakes can be corrected at a later date.

      The old approach is still common to many left groups, whether they have factions or not - including the SWP: hence the splits. The SWP's leadership's politics are informed by the idea that "WE are THE revolutionary party", an attitude that leads them to think that every decision is crucially important, that they can conduct bourgeois-court-style investigations of rape allegations and one that is pretty dismissive of other sections of the left and of different opinions in their own organisation. The comrades challenging the CC are perhaps now seeing where such attitudes lead.

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    3. I would say that "where it comes from" is a process of political decomposition of the rank and file with respect to the leadership. To put it another way, here's the process.

      Because of bad developments in the outside world, the party rank-and-file become demoralised, losing faith in the politics or the ability to apply them to the real world. To hold the organisation together, the leadership decides it needs to take drastic steps, to act as a force exterior to the rank-and-file rather than as its expression - kicking backside, taking names, explusions if necessary, that kind of thing. This ends up in a situation where the party as an organisation is preserved, at the expense of its democracy. Once you've got to that point, there's no going back short of a revolutionary uprising of the members, because the leadership will begin to enjoy the experience of acting as a "permanent faction" within the organisation and thinking that it knows better than anyone else.

      Hang on, I think I just applied the theory of state capitalism to the organisational question! :-) But seriously, I've seen it happen again and again.

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