Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 17, 2010

Revolutionary politics and social networking

Filed under: media,press,revolutionary organizing,socialism,technology — louisproyect @ 11:19 pm

In a recent issue of the New Yorker Magazine, Malcolm Gladwell found fault with activism based on Twitter and Facebook. Titled Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, it draws a contrast between the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s and more recent protests that rely heavily on social networking.

Ironically, one of the iconic images of this period was a Woolworth’s sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi on May 28, 1963 with a young Native American professor named John Salter sitting next to Black civil rights activists being assaulted by racists:

Salter describes the incident thusly:

This was the most violently attacked sit-in during the 1960s and is the most publicized. A huge mob gathered, with open police support while the three of us sat there for three hours. I was attacked with fists, brass knuckles and the broken portions of glass sugar containers, and was burned with cigarettes. I’m covered with blood and we were all covered by salt, sugar, mustard, and various other things.

John Salter goes by the name Hunter Gray nowadays. Now I don’t know if Hunter uses Twitter or Facebook, but I do know him as an enthusiastic user of Internet resources from his authoritative website http://www.hunterbear.org/ to his participation on Marxmail, a listserv I launched in 1998. Hunter also moderates at least two listservs himself, not worrying about whether this passes muster with Malcolm Gladwell.

It does seem a bit out of character for the New Yorker Magazine to be dispensing advice about how to build any kind of mass radical movement. In the 1950s the magazine published Rachel Carson’s articles on DDT. In 1969, it published an article by Daniel Lang that documented American atrocities in Vietnam. But after Si Newhouse took it over, the magazine became less liberal and began catering more to the yuppie tastes of a targeted market of hedge fund managers and real estate brokers. The best analysis of the magazine’s decline (although it has prospered commercially) came from Daniel Lazare in the Nation Magazine, where he wrote:

How does a magazine bring itself to such a pass? The process probably began when Tina Brown took over in 1992. Politically, Brown wasn’t left wing or right wing so much as no wing. She fawned over Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Vanity Fair and then, a dozen years later, fawned over Bill Clinton in The New Yorker (“his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes…”). While publishing the occasional exposé, such as Mark Danner’s memorable “Massacre at El Mozote,” she was more concerned with putting the magazine in the swim.

Gladwell is fairly typical of the new New Yorker. Wiki reports:

Gladwell began his career at The American Spectator, a conservative monthly.[10] He subsequently wrote for Insight on the News, a conservative magazine owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, before joining The Washington Post as a business writer in 1987.[11]

His most recent book, titled Outliers, tries to account for peoples’ success. We learn that Bill Gates became fabulously wealthy because he was fortunate enough to be sent to a high school that had computers. The fact that his father was a wealthy corporate lawyer matters less to Gladwell, who sees capitalist society as a kind of crapshoot. Of course, apologists for that society will always try to explain why some are losers and some are winners. Needless to say, the apologists themselves never have to worry much about where their next meal is coming from.

Before turning to Gladwell’s arguments about Twitter and Facebook, I want to offer my own reflections on the Internet as a way of uniting and strengthening the left. My own doubts about social networking software has more to do with their corporate nature. Anybody who has seen “The Social Network” or reads the left media online knows that Facebook’s founder is a complete scumbag who is not above censoring Facebook pages that he objects to. Look for Karl Friedrich’s comments under my review of David Fincher’s movie for more information on this.

About a year after I began working at Columbia University in 1990, I noticed an email announcement two or three times a week courtesy of the IBM Listserv system that the university’s mainframe supported. You could join a “mailing list” that would be devoted to southern quilts or model railroads, for example. Eventually I asked the email administrator who worked in a nearby cubicle what this was all about. Ah, he told me, that’s the Internet.

After he showed me how to get a listing of all the mailing lists that were based on IBM’s email software, I reviewed them carefully to see if any would be up my alley. It turned out that the Progressive Economists Network (PEN-L) would be my first mailing list. As someone who has been subbed to PEN-L from 1992, it must be emphasized that I have had a relationship to it for 18 years now—7 years longer than my stint in the Trotskyist movement. Of course, the relationship to the SWP was far more intense but also far more destructive. Gladwell would describe my relationship to PEN-L as a “weak tie”:

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this [the civil rights movement] at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

About a year after I subbed to PEN-L, I found myself in an intense debate about market socialism and Mondragon. A Columbia University sociology professor named John Hartman sent me some reading recommendations on Mondragon offlist that led to a friendship in real as opposed to virtual space. He made an observation once that has stuck with me over the years. He said that PEN-L was made to order for some 60s radical who went to graduate school and got a job as an economics professor in someplace like East Jesus, Nebraska. Without a soul to exchange ideas with at work, PEN-L becomes a crucial way to stay in touch with likeminded souls.

It was obviously the way that Hunter Gray saw the Internet. As a retired professor and longtime activist, it seemed to make perfect sense to launch a website and look for kindred spirits in mailing lists.

In 1994 or so, I learned of a new mailing list that was even more relevant to my background than PEN-L. Something called the Spoons Collective had started up a Marxist list that would complement their postmodernist/cultural mailing lists. They reasoned that since so many people like Bataille and Foucault referred to Marx, it would make sense to add a list on Marx. That was not quite the way I saw his importance, but was happy to subscribe to a list that would at least allow me to define things the way I saw fit.

That list turned out to be deeply problematic since the Spoons Collective was opposed to moderation on principle. It became permanent trench warfare between insanely sectarian Maoists and Trotskyists until I decided enough was enough and launched Marxmail. After seeing the wasted bandwidth on the original list, I stated that the new list would dispense with the Stalin/Trotsky debate. It began with 60 subscribers in 1998, largely defectors from the old Marxism list, and now has nearly 1300 subscribers from every quarter of the world.

I have never seen the list in terms of social networking and even resisted efforts to see it as a kind of nucleus of a revolutionary party. My good friend the late Mark Jones, who tended to the manic on occasion, was always writing about the need to “start something”, which in his eyes meant calling together a conference of Marxmail subscribers somewhere to declare a new international or something.

I had a different take on things than Mark. I saw Marxmail as performing something of the same role as Iskra in the early 1900s. Lenin thought a newspaper was necessary to tie Russian socialists together so as to facilitate debate. Of course, that debate was integrated with the need to build a party—something that does not make sense in terms of the “weak ties” Gladwell refers to. On the other hand, given the debacle of the Soviet Union and the collapse of organized Marxism nearly everywhere, Marxmail had a big job on its hands trying to figure out what “went wrong” and what was needed in the future.

Gladwell, never at a loss for an opinion, tries to draw a contrast between organizing based on social networking software and traditional organizing in terms of networks versus hierarchies:

This is the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.

I found this distinction intriguing. Back in 1982 when Peter Camejo launched the North Star Network, I found the idea of a network compelling. Not only was it a departure from the hierarchical structure of the SWP, it was also the model for the kind of database I had just begun to work on. I had started out working on IMS databases, a proprietary IBM product, a few years earlier but switched to IDMS, a competing product based on the CODASYL, or network model. The industry considered IDMS a much more useful database because it was able to mirror business realities more accurately. There are many instances when there is no “top” or “bottom” that the IMS database was modeled on. And, as far as I was concerned, the last thing the left needed in 1982 was an organization based on a pyramid. I had had my fill of that.

Gladwell tends to shoehorn reality into this schema. It is particularly glaring when he discusses the P.L.O.:

The Palestine Liberation Organization originated as a network, and the international-relations scholars Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Calvert Jones argue in a recent essay in International Security that this is why it ran into such trouble as it grew: “Structural features typical of networks—the absence of central authority, the unchecked autonomy of rival groups, and the inability to arbitrate quarrels through formal mechanisms—made the P.L.O. excessively vulnerable to outside manipulation and internal strife.”

This bit of pedantry obscures the real problem that the P.L.O. faced. It was not doomed because it adopted a network model but because the Arab bourgeoisie decided it was expendable. Since Gladwell is a good buddy of ex-New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who is a past master of obfuscating Mideast realties, I am not surprised that Gladwell follows suit.

I doubt that most people using Facebook or Twitter to publicize one struggle or another view these products as a substitute for traditional organizing. Gladwell simply does not get why they are resorting to such technologies. As A.J. Liebling once said, freedom of the press belongs to those who can buy one. In an age of growing corporate control and monopolization, the Internet provides an alternative to the ruling class’s political agenda.

The Internet has as revolutionary a potential as the Gutenberg press had in the 1600s. Back then a press could be used to churn out tracts that the Protestant rebels could use against the Catholic Church and its allies in the feudal estates. A peasant was no longer at the mercy of the clerical scribes who were the only ones who could turn out printed material approved by the Establishment.

That’s the position we are in today. We no longer are at the mercy of a crappy magazine like The New Yorker that propagandized relentlessly for the war in Iraq. Through the Internet we can spread the word without relying on the high priesthood of the corporate media, like Malcolm Gladwell, Jeffrey Goldberg, Thomas Friedman or Bob Woodward. That, I think, is what disturbs Gladwell more than anything even if he doesn’t admit it.

In my final post in this series, I will discuss social networking, focusing more on the personal rather than political relationships, and the Facebook phenomenon in particular.


  1. Bravo! A timely and informative article.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 18, 2010 @ 12:13 am

  2. I love the mass democracy of the internet…and the social networking stuff is cool shortening the distance between people. But don’t you think that were there to be actual revolutionary upheaval it would be shut off or used to track down and disrupt revolutionaries? It’s like cellphones are pretty cool until you realize that the CIA or whoever can use them as GPS devices to identify and assassinate people. I think we’re lucky to enjoy these things. But I don’t think those of us in the, uh, so-called free world are prepared for how these technologies could turn on us in even more extreme times.

    Comment by ish — October 18, 2010 @ 2:49 am

  3. I must agree with comment #2. A lot of work is being done on stuff like reputation and social-network analysis, traffic analysis, etc etc. Basically the fact that these structures are essentially centralised makes it easy for a potential attacker to find out who is important to a particular network. Although networks don’t have a top, like a pyramid, they have relatively equivalent things: measures of centrality and connectedness, for one. Nodes that are connecting otherwise isolated cliques. This sort of intelligence would be extremely useful for repression.

    Also, I suspect you are underestimating the degree of optimism and hopes some activists are placing on these resources. It’s just a left-wing mirror of the people who can speak of Iran’s Twitter revolution seriously. IIRC Egypt is an instructive example of this sort of thing.

    Finally, from a technical standpoint, it’s just ridiculous that people have to end up resorting to these services instead of controlling their own presence. Twitter’s a sort of centralised, under-featured finger protocol replacement, for instance. Likewise, many social network features would be readily reproducible through appropriate protocols with independent websites. It wouldn’t avoid all the dangers of social network analysis, though it would help some especially given encryption, but at least it would be a start, and it’d make it a lot harder to simply arbitrarily censor things. Social networks are closer to the sponsored press of a protestant German prince than anything in the hands of the people.

    Comment by David — October 18, 2010 @ 3:05 am

  4. Ish & Dave obviously raise valid & ominous points however wouldn’t somebody like Marx were he alive argue that technologically sophisticated forms of repression cannot stave off the sickness and cancer of organically irreconcilable social contradictions indefinitely?

    On the other hand cats like Trotsky envisioned proletarian revolution as no way inevitable — so if certain windows of opportunity for socialism were missed it could well be a future of barabarism, like the eons of repression depicted in Jack London’s Iron Heel.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 18, 2010 @ 4:23 am

  5. In his biography, Nelson Mandela also noted the potential of television as he left prison after some 30 years.

    The main reason the internet wasn’t put under control is because Bill Gates made a huge ‘mistake’ by ignoring it initially, thinking it was just a gimmick. He mentions that in one of his books.

    However, there are still plenty of ways the government could get greater control of it and they may start taking steps to do that.

    Comment by purple — October 18, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  6. The saddest thing is if what passed for liberals and even some leftists today were around then, they’d blame folks like John Salter for not being able to convince whites to embrace civil rights, and encourage us not to ridicule the racists for what they are. It is refreshing to see when there was a time when people on the left actually had some principle. Outside of the blogosphere, sadly, it is lacking today. I look forward to reading what you have to write about the social networking application for advancing progressive politics.

    Comment by TA — October 19, 2010 @ 3:35 am

  7. Yeah, Gladwell is kind of a sophmoric philistine pipsqueak. I don’t know if anyone saw his apology for Jeff Skilling in the New Yorker, who he tried to make out as a victim since the problems at Enron were a “puzzle” that no one could have deciphered, even the CEO. The jury which had to find knowledge and intent, however, correctly saw it in a different light.

    Comment by Tom Cod — December 30, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

  8. […] had my own complaints about the New Yorker in recent years. I found Malcolm Gladwell tendentious on social networking and was appalled by Jill Lepore’s pissing on Howard Zinn’s […]

    Pingback by Fact checking the New Yorker | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 15, 2013 @ 8:06 pm

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