URL to IRL: Where Does the Funnel End?
Posted by <Ian Campbell> on 2021-09-15
Imagine, if you will, a political radical. Brought up in circles which discuss philosophy and politics online, our hypothetical radical is faced with a multitude of ideas, of systems of thought, systems of government, and an endless supply of reading material which would make even the most hardened reader’s eyes strain and shrivel. They are likely to find themselves picking and choosing from what they are faced with, taking passages from Gentile and Evola, Bakunin and Proudhon, and others in order to envision their more perfect world. They discuss and debate their beliefs with their online friends between matches of various online games, they write short passages in Instagram captions that will inevitably be republished on WordPress as an essay; they find themselves so deeply entrenched in this new, often self-constructed, set of esoteric beliefs that it is hard to imagine a way out. However, the only way out is through -- and the only way through is out. Rather than backing up and following the path which was tread before, the funnel of online radicalization contains a necessary endpoint: the real world.
Where do we often find the online radical when they reappear among us in normal social life? The answer may seem simple: just look at the news. Atomized individuals, often influenced by fascist movements of the past and the hopelessness they find in the present, radicalized in shady online message boards and chat rooms, reappear as terrorists. Taking innocent lives and then often their own to prove a point, to settle a score, to fulfill the role they carved for themselves in the preparation of the future: this is the fate of any poor teenager sucked into the whirlpool of radical politics online.
Now, let us imagine a radical of a different type: one who gravitates toward theories of social cohesion by social change rather than the forceful arm of an omnipresent state; a radical whose envisioned future is one carved out not by great figures, but by an enormous mass of the human population the world over; an online radical who turned to Marx before ever considering taking a turn toward Mussolini. What happens when these radical online spaces operate less like domestic terrorist cells, and more like the radical coffee shops, bars, and bookstores of the older generations? When our new kind of online radical finds that the only way out is through, what comes of it?
I was, at one point, that online radical who stood at the end of the funnel. No amount of memes on social media could satiate my urge to learn, to discuss, to organize in a constructive manner; and so I dove headfirst into real world political spaces just as I did those online circles years before. I’ve experienced firsthand the difficulties, the struggles, the lows; but also the victories, the highs, and the solidarity that’s shared through it all. Granted, as someone so young living in a time relatively bereft of revolutionary sentiment compared to decades past, these lows and highs are admittedly very mild. Regardless, the jump into offline politics has provided me with a plethora of valuable lessons on what online spaces can do better in order to prepare participants for the real world of political action, as well as left me reflecting on the parallels between the hyperconnected world of social media and the spaces and organizations which I’ve found myself involved with offline. The objective of this article is to put the most important of these lessons out there for others to see and assimilate into their own political development.
The first fundamental lesson gained from the transition offline is how to truly “read theory”. “Theory”, as encountered online, is often presented in this very simplistic way: if you wish to learn about this or that subject, one must read this or that particular book or article. In reality, when dealing with theoretical texts (particularly marxist and communist texts, those which deal with the real machinations of historical development) one will be faced with a multitude of subjects aiming toward a coherent analysis. On top of this, a coherent analysis is not a complete analysis. To take a clear example, let us look at the issue of the state and the proletarian revolution: what does any prospective communist read to gain a deeper understanding of the state? Some would answer Lenin’s “State and Revolution”, some would argue in favor of Marx's “The Paris Commune” or “Critique of the Gotha Programme”. Either way, one will quickly find themselves in possession of a syllabus that would rival those of even some of the most prestigious universities. Either way, the prospective reader is faced with a multitude of texts, all in the service of learning the “marxist position on the state”. After reading these texts, however, the reader may find themselves informed but full of questions: particularly questions regarding the contradictions from one text to the next. It is here that we find the differences in how one learns to read theory.
The method of reading one may pick up online would consist of taking texts at their word, accepting them at face value; this simply will not do. That is not to say that it is bad to assimilate the positions which any particular text defends, but rather to say that it would be incorrect to take the positions defended as a completed system. By the former viewpoint, one which prevails online, further writing on this subject marks a break, a deviation from the positions defended before. The question of the state in the marxist analysis presents a wonderful example of how and how not to read because it demonstrates the open-ended nature of the question: the problem of the state presents itself in the midst of revolutionary struggle, and it is only through studying this revolutionary struggle that conclusions can be made. Rather than holding a firm position, the “truly marxist” position which can be used to beat others over the head with during online debates, marxist writings on the state demonstrate the necessity of understanding Marx’s method of analysis. Rather than taking each and every text in isolation, my experiences offline have shown that it is important to understand the text within its historical context as well as understanding its role as part of a whole project.
“Reading theory” is, therefore, not an act of learning what is right or wrong, but following the method of the author to their conclusion. Along the way there will be bumps in the road; coming back to the example of writings on the state and the contradictions which exist between them, it is important to know that they are a product of exercising the historical materialist method. Whereas the Marx of 1848 could declare that the proletariat would need to seize the state in order to implement its rule, the Marx of 1871 and the Lenin of 1917 would both emphasize that the bourgeois state must be smashed while a proletarian state (which would no longer be a state in the proper sense of the word) would exist only so long as class antagonisms still existed. These contradictory positions can only be understood as belonging to the same project of constantly clarifying the questions which arise in the movement of the working class; only the experiences of the revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune, and the Russian revolution of 1905 could allow revolutionaries like Marx and Lenin to draw lessons from them and clarify positions. Thus, the search for “marxist positions” in these texts, as understood online, is a moot point: the only marxist positions which can be taken are derived from experience and not the whims or wills of the marxists themselves. This method must be understood and accepted by the reader in order to understand the significance of the positions set forward in the text the reader wishes to study.
The second fundamental lesson which I have learned from transitioning from online to offline politics is precisely how an organization can operate in an effective manner, suffering as few crises as possible. Online organizations are a hallmark of being an online radical: the Liberty Socialist Front (Instagram handle @libertysocialistfr) comes to mind as an example. This is not to belittle its existence, its goals, or its presence online; I merely point it out because it is an organization which was conceived on Instagram and persists through its online presence. However, many organizations like this have a tendency to fall apart. One can only form so many true communist revolutionary parties before the constant quarreling and splitting would become demoralizing. Such a problem befalls very real, very offline organizations just as much — one need only look to the history of the communist movement for a history of organizations splitting and dissolving over various quarrels. Disagreement will always be inevitable, and debate will always be heated. What is most important, is understanding that all involved are on the same page on a fundamental level: this is precisely the purpose of a uniting program.
The program of an organization, I have learned, is essentially its backbone. All activity and debate are guided by this principle of unity around the program or platform, and the strength of an organization can often be tested by its program. The program requires adherence and obedience, while also allowing plenty of room for open debate on topics which have not yet been added to any programmatic explanation of the organization’s views. Thus, a healthy organization rests on two factors: the strength of its program and the open nature of debate within the organization.
The first point is something which political social media does not prepare participants for: the unity which is found in the program as the basis for all organizational activities and organizational unity. Incorporating the lessons of the past, framing them through a marxist lens — it is the task of communists to turn evolving expositions of pressing political issues into a coherent political platform. Taking position on the platform, agreeing to adhere firmly to the principles which are set out in it: this is what is often missing online. This is a key source of organizational instability within online political communities.
The second point, on the openness of debate, is something which the atomizing nature of social media distorts and mangles. When political beliefs — adopted without an historical understanding of the positions taken — are taken to be the ideology of the individual, then debate is often not the method of contributing to the common goal but the means of winning others over to his or that ideological system. This is not to suggest that debates for the sake of winning over the convictions of others are not important, but without the organizational unity which a common platform provides then these debates are not the healthy process of coming to a common position; these are battles for the very heart of the organization. As such, the platform-less online organizations suffer an endless plethora of splits all because the members wish to see such organizations take on their own positions as correct. In this case, an old joke about Trotskyists repeats itself in a never-ending cycle; place four Trotskyists in a room, and within the hour they will come out having formed five separate organizations.
How should organizing be handled then, if the current situation remains ineffective? The answer to the organization question mirrors the solution to the issues presented in the study of theoretical texts, and shows the link between the two quite clearly. Just as theory must be understood as contributions to a continuous whole, an organization must be understood as a continually evolving entity with a self-destructive end: the success of the communist movement will eventually mean the abolition of the need for communist organization, just as it means the abolition of class society. The platform unifies the organization and creates a strong base upon which theoretical study, development, and debate can take place. These debates cannot only be limited to internal discussion: the example of late 19th and early 20th social democracy shows the necessity for discussion between organizations. As a prime example, Lenin’s “State and Revolution” would not exist without the polemics between Anton Pannekoek and Karl Kautsky.
These are what I consider to be the most important lessons learned in making the jump from internet circles, in which heated debates may take place while participants are engaged in an equally heated Slayer match in Halo 3, to real world political spaces, in which meetings are transcribed as they occur and serious research is presented to all participants in order to enrich all involved. That’s not to say that these are the only lessons, nor do I have all the answers that may present themselves in the course of moving into offline politics; rather, these are what I believe to be the most difficult and perspective-shifting experiences to grasp and integrate. In elaborating these lessons here, sharing the generalizations from my own experience, I hope that I can provide a solid basis on which those interested in moving their own politics offline can prepare themselves for the difficult — yet infinitely rewarding — journey which lies ahead of them.