If you want the short version, skip to the italics after the second heading.
continued here — the real role of secrecy in insurrection
This was triggered by the leaks of the ISO documents, which appeared on Ross Wolfe’s blog but also probably a million other places. It’s also a response to Mike Ely’s reaction to Ross Wolfe. Finally, at the true epicenter of all of this in my opinion is Jose Perez’s article on North Star, “Lenin was not a Leninist” – which mentions how the Bolsheviks actually operated in a wide-open transparent fashion in direct contradiction to the modern interpretation of “Leninism.” An oldie about the dogmatic, position-on-every-issue nature of Trotskyism is also available here.
I want to see a revival of the Bolshevism of 1917, not that of the 1930s or the 1960s. Leaking the documents was the Leninist thing to do.
First, to anticipate one argument, don’t even bring up the idea of “snitching.” None of the Left are underground organizations. We do not face police repression of our organizations’ existences at this stage. If that changes, I may very well change my opinion on leaking, and I’m sure many others will.
Also don’t write me off as some wrecker. I believe that this method of opening up the conversation improves the Left’s democracy. I’m not trying to create some giant scandal to rip apart the ISO like the British SWP. Unlike some who would just like to see these groups liquidated, I actually think that would be a bad thing. I think the groups should evolve. (Let me list the ways). So don’t write me off as a force of random irresponsible destruction. This is about challenging the Left’s authoritarian culture, not destroying the Left.
As far as “the right to a private conversation,” I think those rights are kind of propertarian and detrimental, or outweighed, by the reasons below.
“KEEP IT INTERNAL” — THE LOGIC OF REACTION
Who am I? If I’m not a member of something, how can I dare comment on it?
Well, that unfortunately is part of right-wing cultural logic. There are two options in life when dealing with things that need to be corrected – voice and exit. Voice is the collaborative option, in which you actually attempt to communicate with people. This corresponds to socialist logic. It sometimes ends up imposing a sense of collective governance on entities that were previously enjoying their independent status. Exit is when you leave and just go do something on your own. It corresponds with capitalist logic.
Erecting artificial separations has often been the domain of reactionaries. Slavers and segregationists uphold states’ rights, and so do modern libertarians. Labor rebellion is blamed on outside agitators and radical immigrants. Businesses believe that they have a right to govern themselves without any kind of interference. A tragically large number of people believe that, if a man beats his wife, that’s private family business and nothing for the law or anyone else to interfere with. “If you don’t like America, you can leave” – the logic of exit, used as a clobber against someone raising their voice.
For a Left group to treat its conversations as “internal” is to take a very capitalist, propertarian, individualist, private approach. It’s not consistent with our goals for society, nor for the collaborative approach we should all be taking with each other.
THE LEFTIST SWARM AND ITS RIGHTS
In Marxism we believe in the concept of “totality.” Everything is interrelated. All forms of oppression are connected to each other, the economy in Brazil is connected to politics in Greece, kids watching The Hunger Games in the US are connected to people in Afghanistan being killed by drones.
It’s not just far-fetched though. It’s directly related to Leftist politics. Revolution or rebellion in one country sets an example for the working majority in other countries. Resistance is contagious. Unfortunately, so is crackdown.
In real life, each part is influenced by each other part. This applies to the Left. Many foreigners joke that they ought to be able to vote for the President of the United States, because in reality it affects them just as much or more as it affects Americans. I feel the same exact way about Left groups of which I am not a formal member.
Let’s be real – the point of having a Left is not to divide it up into little territorial fiefdoms. The point of a Left is that we are human beings who are, collectively as one, being oppressed and held back from our full potential by capitalism. Anyone who raises their voice against this and advocates an alternative system is part of one community whether they like it or not. Yes, the Cliffites have to sit next to the Stalinists – but also have the responsibility to steer them true. We have no choice – the public will associate the two groups with each other, and we must endlessly clarify.
So I have unequivocal rights to comment on things in organizations I don’t “belong to,” because actually we all belong to each other, and have really no choice about it – I am forced to engage other people and groups, because other people and groups matter. If other people screw up, that’s a waste of resources we can’t afford. My liberation – and yours, and other peoples’ – depends on those mistakes being corrected. It is not simply our right, but our responsibility, to raise issues that need to be raised, even if they occur on the other side of the artificial line of “membership” in the Left of which we are all, rather involuntarily, a part.
Unfortunately we have a situation where, rather than having a united socialist party, we have a bunch of fragments and particles. This causes the same exact type of confusion and impossibility in planning which a capitalist economy suffers. Instead of discussing things as a movement, we have a situation where one group often acts somewhat unilaterally, and everyone else is forced to get on board in order to catch up. This is similar to cycles of production, where firms react to each other in an unhealthy, destabilizing race based on short-term private gains instead of the health of the economy.
Then there are the disgusting, petty nuances of the power games and nuances between the groups. They are competing for recruits. So if some new cause comes along – 15now, for example, which Socialist Alternative seems to be alternating between treating as its own property or as an open community effort – the order and timing in which groups choose to launch, get on board, or boycott such efforts winds up being part of their political game of trying to come to the forefront of the race for growth between the Leftist groups.
These power games undermine the collectivity, collaborative spirit, and openness of the movement. They thus damage the movement and reduce its size, which means the choice of these organizations affect me, which means I have a right to comment on them, regardless of what I may or may not be a “member” of. I am a member of the Left, the movement, and the society that is affected by these things. Some may argue that the real sectarians are the outsiders and non-joiners who aren’t part of any group. No; we independent socialists frequently do stuff and build things. Just because I don’t want to join some group and have to tolerate its ridiculous rules and requirements, and suffer its heinous restrictions on the free flow of my own mind, doesn’t mean I’m the sectarian. Because the Left is a real, materially existing collective phenomenon of which we are all part regardless of what membership walls anyone erects.
In corporate jargon, something called the “silo effect” happens. It’s where one department has no idea what the other departments do and are completely self-absorbed in their own internal life.
This has been a problem on the Left, and fortunately it has been changing. However I can’t honestly say the Left has risen to the challenge or anything. Rather, it has been forced to evolve, by the shifting of material conditions – in this case, the explosive expansion in the means of communication.
THE RISE OF THE INTERNET AS A DEMOCRATIZING FORCE
Can you really control your organization when you don’t honestly know what is going on concretely at its local levels, in all of its localities?
Marxists often explain the rise of class society as a result of the division of labor, with some necessary division of labor being created for the management of society’s surplus. The managers become a ruling class because effectively, we’ve all got our noses to the grindstone and the decisions are left to them.
Unfortunately this is also a good description of many Leftist groups with paid staff.
Members have no clue what is going on in the organization, really. Their noses are to the grindstone, building movements, holding events, selling papers, trying to recruit contacts. I appreciate a get-it-done attitude to an extent, but unfortunately it can function as an anti-democratic sentiment as well. If people are consumed in activity, and don’t have time to really stop and reflect on what is going on, then the culture of the organization works counter to democracy. This goes hand-in-hand with the unthinking culture of accepting perspectives formed by expert specialists at the top instead of originating perspectives on your own, by actually using your mind. If we leave perspective-formation to the specialists, then we essentially leave decision-making to the specialists, and we are back to square one with capitalism instead of democracy.
However this has all changed with the rise of social media. Now members actually hear about things going on within their own organization. They don’t have to rely on the bureaucracy as a gatekeeper or go-between which censors out “counterproductive local noise.” Branch to branch, word gets around.
It’s not just members who hear about it, but non-members. Now even if you believe in a members-only sort of thing, the fact is, more members will hear about something if non-members are talking about it. By limiting conversation to members-only, you are actually reducing the amount of communication within your own organization! Suspicion of the Internet, or of openness, then only serves here to empower the bureaucracy and limit democracy. Don’t bother with all those rumors flying around in other branches. Just get your nose back to the grindstone, never you mind.
Part of the lack of democracy in Leftist groups is also due to the lack of room to breathe ideologically. They insist that the organizations contain disagreements, but these disagreements are often highly theoretical disagreements which exist far away from the range of debate of ordinary people and sometimes lack connection to practice anyway. (Sometimes I suspect that the ISO embroiled itself in the “intersectionality debate” to avoid having to talk about organizational democracy and real changes to structure in the aftermath of the SWP meltdown…if that was the goal, it worked really fucking well.) Noam Chomsky once said “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” That’s pretty much what is going on in socialist groups.
But the Internet changes that. You keep bumping into, and inevitably having contact with, socialists who have perspectives very different from your own. However, when the range of debate in an organization is so narrowed, it is sometimes important for dissidents within a group to receive external flows of support. If democratic centralism is unity of action and NOT unity of thought, then it makes sense that dissidents within a group might have thoughts more similar to someone outside their organization than they would to the thoughts of the leadership (and therefore the current, but not rightfully, dominant opinion across the organization generally). This should be okay. People need to find courage and resolve in minority situations, so they deserve to receive the encouragement and moral support from people who are on the same page as them, even if they are on the wrong side of the wall.
Let’s face it, the first thing every cult does is discourage exchanging ideas with outsiders. Limiting the flow of thought between people limits the flow of thought within people. While we’re on the topic of the C-word – do I think modern socialist groups are cults? I believe the only correct answer to that is yes-and-no. Rather I would say they are complex, contradictory organizations having both healthy and cultish elements. This is why I am not a liquidationist, but also not silent.
But it’s not just that the Internet opens you up to other perspectives – the Internet also even gives you a perspective of your own!
The Internet gives you a platform to share your thoughts. In fact it practically begs you to, and the content you voluntarily generate (with lots of encouragement) probably makes someone a lot of money (wages for facebook).
This leads, on the one hand, to the obnoxious constant declaring of various political positions by Facebook status or Tweet. It’s reminiscent of children’s toys that repeat a randomized, pre-programmed phrase every time you poke them.
On the other hand, something magical happens. People who have thoughts which have never emerged in any other setting begin sharing them – and they are sometimes quite out of touch with the party line! This creates an amusing micro-crisis, as party elders are forced to perform damage control over “differences” they didn’t even know a member had – until, of course, the member raised them in the most absolutely public of broadcasts.
Then there is the fact that this constant poking by social media to tell us what you think prompts people to actually ask themselves – well, what do I think? It adds a spin of creativity and independence to people’s thoughts which is discouraged in party line groups whose definition of peace and organizational stability is unity in thought (as opposed to democratic centralism which is only supposed to require temporary unity in action).
So – what do you think? No, not the perspective you’re waiting for the leadership to hand down to you, which you have trained yourself to use for replacing any self-originated cognition while pretending you didn’t. What do you think?
THE RISE OF THE INTERNET AS A MIND-LIBERATING FORCE
Lukacs taught that it’s not membership numbers, but the collective development of revolutionary ideas in the minds of the proletariat, which is the real mark of progress. Articulated, embodied consciousness is superior here, as opposed to the dispersed anonymity of the proletariat’s collective private thoughts. By giving every human being their own printing press, social media has embodied consciousness in written form across all distances and saturates the population like never before.
As opposed to the pristine, cathedral-like mental order and homogeneity of the modern “Leninist” group, where there is a prim, proper, and precise answer for everything, the Internet is chaos. The worst of the Internet is noisy stupidity. It is the depths of the American subconscious plumbed and put on display. (“Don’t read the comments.”) However even this is a form of education for those participating. Many receive their first exposure to ideas far outside their parochial localities, and many learn how to use their voice for the first time. A “craggy melody” indeed, but a start, and a start is everything.
But then there is the best of the Internet – not a cacophony of Mass Opinion’s shortcomings, but a continual merciless comparison of the very best of theory and strategy, a constant overthrow at all theoretical levels in favor of endlessly-higher heights. It shatters the mental grooves of people who have gotten used to having an opinion, and not really being forced to hear any contradicting thoughts or data. Of course, it probably only does this for those who actually make the choice to engage and open their minds to it, but it’s always there, always waiting for when the cracks in your mental order begin to appear.
Alas, if you stick to the Internal Documents, you won’t see it, and if no one else can see the Internal Documents, you won’t bother to listen to what they’re saying, because it’s outside your canonical conversation.
We are still suffering, all of us, from being descendants of Trotsky’s sectarianism, which he probably himself contracted from his exposure to increasingly Stalinized conditions. It’s okay not have a position on something. It’s okay to not know. It’s okay to be confused – confusion is radical. Confusion is when, instead of relying on the safety of your schemas, you plunge your consideration deep into the depths of your gut, and allow your brain’s massively-multiprocessor parallel computation to engage in its cascading recombinant chaos. Instead of beginning with clever and prepared words by circumventing intuition, true thinking – ie confusion – begins with intuition (honesty) and chokes. Truth matters more here than being quick on your feet with a response. The truth is always undeveloped, because it is always new; it never has established forces and their resources on its side. We must always listen, even when the truth seems weak and has no one on its side.