Keith Joseph : Communication on the Left Must Embrace the New Technology

Hawker sells the Revolutionary Woker at a 2003 New York anti-war protest. Photo from asparagirl’s photoblog.

Newspaper Hawkers, Websites, and Plans for Revolutionary Organization

By Keith Joseph / The Rag Blog / April 20, 2009

One of the great curiosities of the revolutionary left is the newspaper hawker. At every protest, at every progressive gathering, at every radical conference they appear. Trotskyites outside (they are never invited inside — apparently they have no manners) with insufferable papers like “The Workers Vanguard,” or “The Militant.” Inside old “new left” Maoists, and their unwitting youthful acolytes, push the latest edition of the “Revolutionary Worker” with insights from their maximum leader. To sell these papers you must be disciplined, you need guts, and a tolerance for abuse—most of the people who you try to sell the paper to refuse it. You must be prepared to hear “no.” I can explain this curiosity—the newspaper hawker and their newspaper — because I was once a newspaper hawker myself.

The newspaper, that marvel of 19th century communication technology, which is today breathing its last gasps under the weight of an unprecedented revolution in communications technology, somehow remains the preferred vehicle for the communication of revolutionary news and analysis by all manner of Marxian sects. Why? Because in an important little essay entitled: “Where to Begin,” and in a follow up pamphlet called: “What is to be done,” V.I. Lenin said a newspaper was necessary to unite the revolutionaries and to organize the impending insurrection. Our modern revolutionaries read Lenin’s essay like a cookbook recipe — what is to be done? Just add water. Lenin’s plan was brilliant in 1901 and we have much to learn from it, but only if we update the plan for the twenty-first century.

First and foremost newspapers are no longer cutting edge communications technology. Secondly, the new technology, most notably the internet, cannot be considered in isolation from new forms of social organization and social space it makes possible. The newspaper and the vanguard party built in the course of writing, editing, publishing, and distributing that newspaper are organizational, communicative, and cultural forms that correspond to one another, and the level of development of the productive forces. In other words, newspapers and top down vanguard parties go together –- but they are completely out-dated forms. So, while plenty of people still read newspapers, we should not use them as organizing tools. To use them today is like using a typewriter instead of word processing, or a television with rabbit ears instead of cable.

Lenin showed — in Where to Begin? and in What is to be done? — that political organization is built around communication technology. He insists that the newspaper is a “collective organizer.” The newspaper, according to Lenin, is supposed to do much more than report the news — the paper is supposed to be a place for revolutionaries to communicate with one another, to explain their practice to one another, to share experiences, and resources, to debate and argue out ideas and analysis — and in this process revolutionary unity is built, revolutionary culture is developed, revolutionary practice begins to become coordinated, and revolutionary organization is built. Most of the sects use their newspaper as self-promotion, they rarely have open discussions and certainly never discuss their practice in a serious way so that it can be critiqued and improved upon. They are more interested in maintaining their little sects as small businesses that can fund the careers of a few so-called leaders.

How can we put Lenin’s plan into effect with modern communication technology and organizational forms? Lenin called for a single newspaper to unite all the small local groups. Today we have a similar problem. We have numerous small local groups and numerous single issue organizations but no way of coordinating activity and experiences while remaining democratic and retaining bottom up structures. We need to learn to use the web as a collective organizer.

Just as the vanguard party and newspaper go together the internet and radical democracy go together. Before the internet organizational democracy was more of an ethical principle than a vital necessity. Before the internet democracy was a drag on expediency, but with the new communication technology openness and democracy are not just principles they are necessities. Openness and democracy are expedients. If we are to build the movement and organization to transform this society we need the unrestrained and self-directed energy and creativity of the majority of people.

The Obama presidential campaign pointed to the possibilities of the internet. Lincoln was a master of newspaper, FDR was the master of the radio, John Kennedy was the first to master television, and Obama was the first politician to use the internet effectively. But the internet is an inherently revolutionary technology that makes radically democratic participation possible. Obama’s campaign merely scratched the surface. We need a period of conscious experimentation with the various tools of the internet, websites, blogs, twitter, social networking sites to find ways to use the net to build revolutionary democratic organization and concerted practice.

The Rag Blog

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7 Responses to Keith Joseph : Communication on the Left Must Embrace the New Technology

  1. Alan L. Maki says:

    In my opinion, this advice is wrong.

    It doesn’t even mention the need for leaflets, either.

    One of the main needs for newspapers, magazines and leaflets by the left involves having person-to-person contact.

    Revolutions and the movements for reforms that should be waged simultaneously with the struggle for socialist revolution require personal contact which includes the need to mobilize people in the streets and in electoral struggles.

    I doubt such struggles can conclude with success if we are thinking in terms of replacing the printed word using newspapers, magazines and leaflets.

    A big part of developing ideas and theory comes from people to people discussion that takes place distributing leaflets, newspapers and magazines.

    Unfortunately, much of that which self-avowed “leaders of the left” are trying to pawn off trying to get us all to support Obama is the result of losing this person-to-person contact with the people.

    This essay goes from one extreme to the other extreme… I am quite sure Lenin would have advised revolutionaries in our modern age to use all methods of communication to the max… especially in this “Marxist moment” we are living through.

  2. Mariann says:

    I agree with Alan — the personal contact generated from leafletting, selling newspapers, or otherwise giving/accepting printed material from one person’a hand into another’s is a key ingredient of organizing. A transaction takes place in which a type of personal bond is formed; that bond can then be built upon. On the other hand, electronic communication can pave the way for getting involved personally. Will some of our former Rag hawkers comment?

  3. James Retherford says:

    I appreciate Keith’s effort to provoke this important discussion and agree with his critical characterization of the state of sectarian left “journalism.” But I strongly agree with Alan and Mariann about the absolute necessity of engaging in face time in organizing practice. There is no other way of gaining trust and motivating others to action.

    During my time as editor of The Spectator in Bloomington 1966-68, my first stop after returning from the printer was the corner of Kirkwood and Indiana, right outside Indiana University’s main gate, with a pile of freshly printed newspapers as well as miscellanous SDS and other movement leaflets in hand. Despite the fact that I usually hadn’t slept in over 48 hours, the experience hawking my newspaper on the street was an extraordinary experience — at once humbling, informative, an opportunity to organize and recruit, and a way to earn food money for the next week (this was the only money I ever made from editing The Spectator).

    Trust me, we have nothing like this experience on the Rag Blog. In my opinion, the alienation built into the internet, i.e., the anti-social underpinnings of social networking, is a very serious impediment to organizing a progressive movement for social justice.

    Frankly I do not see a solution within the strict limitations of new technology. For one thing, I dig the feel of paper, the smell of ink. I need the experience of eye contract. These sensual experiences are available only through the “organic” information and communication technologies of the past two-plus millenia.

    If we lose this ability to touch and move others, we are entering into perilous times, fraught with the possibilities of totalitarianism as the new technologies fall under the control of the ruling class.

    James Retherford

  4. richard jehn says:

    If the ruling class ever got hold of the Rag Blog, I would just start up again somewhere else. They’ll never have me, Jim, nor will they ever stifle the things in which I believe.

    I remember that face time, too. My favourite place to sell the Rag in 1967 and ’68 was the southeast corner of Guadalupe and 24th Street in Austin, the sidewalk leading up to the Chuckwagon. I don’t know that I ever influenced anyone especially, since I was but 16 and 17 years old at the time, but who knows? The important thing to me was that I believed in what I was doing, and I still do.

  5. J. Jurie says:

    This is some really fine dialog. We need much more of the same. I wish the author of the article wouldn’t have quit when he did. He was only getting warmed up. We need to talk about the different ways in which the new technology can be used effectively. And, how it can be meaningfully interfaced with the old, like newspapers.

    I’m among those who still think there’s a need for “hard copy” of various forms.

    An ongoing conversation with the new SDSers where I am is that they do “tabling” with little or no literature. I suggest that their table ought to be a visual feast of all sorts of pamphlets on all sorts of topics, but it’s outside their range of experience, they don’t know what I’m talking about…it’s become a lost art form.

  6. Keith says:

    I am glad we can discuss this. I think that there are a few different and overlapping issues here. 1. Newspapers in general, 2. newspapers as organizing tools 3. the effectiveness of new communication technology for critical journalism and organizing.

    First, I doubt that newspapers will exist in ten years. I don’t think that there is much that can be done about that. People don’t ride horses on city streets anymore even if they really like to ride horses (the smell, the feel etc). So the question is how do we relate to that inevitable social transformation (Marxists used to call it “progress” but progress has a bad name these days.

    I think that the way to deal with it is to try to get in front of it, to anticipate it.

    I will get back to that, but I wanted to say something about newspapers as organizing tools and the “personal touch” of face to face contact. I know that this will be provocative but I think that on-line relationships are often deeper and more intimate. I also think that the face to face, or newspaper to hand contact is a relatively “primitive” way of communicating (it certainly doesn’t impress “today’s youth”).
    I have a number of friends who I have never met “away from keyboard” (AWK) but I have deep discussion about politics and philosophy were we share links, and websites, you tube clips while we discuss things. Have you ever seriously talked about Marx at a dinner party? It is a better on-line discussion.

    Even if we grant that face to face conversation is a better way to make an initial contact (I am not convinced it is) maintaining that contact is much more effective through list serves and social networking sites — these are genuinely labor saving tools (the labor of organizing).

    Third the internet is a far more democratic medium. Five people commented on this article and responded to each others comments, and the author of the article is now engaged in the dialog as well as an equal. In a newspaper format it would all have to go through an editor who would pick one or two “letters to the editor.”

    I was born in the early 70’s so I am in an interesting position generationally speaking. The new technology does not come easily to me, I have to work a bit to master it, but I also do not have the same commitments that some older sisters and brothers have to the older technology like newspapers (the key thing is to remember that newspapers, chalk boards, pens, etc are all technology too).

    I think that we need to really keep an open mind towards these new developments and try to find ways to use them to organize and communicate and keep in mind the danger of turning into a reactionary. William Buckley the great conservative propagandist said that a conservative “is someone who yells ‘Stop!’ at history.” I submit that history is speeding up a bit now and it is a good thing, and liberals, progressives, and revolutionaries should see it that way.

  7. Alan L. Maki says:

    I would emphasize that this discussion should not be one form of media over another but how to integrate on-line with person to person contact.

    My personal opinion is that the main reason we are not influencing the direction of this country at this particular time when we are living in what I call a “Marxist moment” is that we don’t go out door-to-door with leaflets, newspapers and newsletters in hand talking to our neighbors.

    And where people work, very few bulletin boards even have anything of a political nature posted.

    Here is what I do:

    I get a few people together and from time to time we write letters to editors about an issue… each takes up a different point or perspective of the same issue or problem.

    We then take the letters and photocopy them asking people to get involved… we distribute these door-to-door and at factory gates and at selected supermakets.

    From there we try to get e-mail addresses and we each have business cards with either our web sites or blogs listed.

    Try it, you will be surprised at your results… we often create a petition or open letter for people to sign and we often have peace vigils and tabling.

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