"The revolution will not be tweeted", argues Malcolm Gladwell in a recent article in the New Yorker magazine.
Serious causes require tough, tight organisation, and "strong ties" between activists. The "weak ties" typical of social networking via the internet have many uses, but not that of being able to organise hard battles for change.
Gladwell is an odd source of light for the left. He is a pop psychologist, author of the best-seller The Tipping Point. His prime case-study of a serious cause, the civil rights movement in the USA, may be one he feels strongly about (he is black), but as far as I know he is, politically, nothing more than mildly liberal.
Yet he illuminates at least two current issues on the left.
He demolishes the theory that loose social networking, or activism organised primarily through the internet rather than face-to-face, can be really radical. In doing so he points up why and how AWL must carry through the recruitment drive we have decided on, and forge "stronger ties" than the discussion-circle habits into which we have inevitably slipped in years of lull.
Gladwell cites evidence debunking the myth that big social movements in Moldova and Iran recently were held together through internet social networking. Internet social networking generates "weak ties", not the "strong ties" necessary to pull people into drastic activism. It is good for getting people to do small things that go more or less with the flow. For people to do big things - things which are scary and risky - do them against the flow, and stick to them through rough and smooth, they need "strong ties", in which face-to-face communication is crucial.
They also needs (as Gladwell bluntly puts it) "hierarchical" organisation.
"Hierarchical" organisation - that is, with a structure of committees, organisers, recognised leaders - can be undemocratic or democratic. Democracy is impossible on all but the smallest scale without some element of explicit "hierarchy", i.e. election and delegation of representatives. Without that you get the "tyranny of structurelessness" and the domination of what the anarchist writer Mikhail Bakunin approvingly called "secret pilots".
Not all organisation for radical change needs to be democratic. It depends on what sort of radical change. The Nazi party, Mao's Stalinist movement in China, or the Taliban, achieved change without democracy. All serious organisation for radical change needs to be "hierarchical" (structured). Socialist organisation also needs to be democratic because of the particular nature of our cause. Our cause needs political clarity, and can get that only through democratic scrutiny and debate of ideas.
Gladwell cites evidence that the decisive difference between the civil rights activists who put their lives on the line by activism and those who only sympathised was "strong ties" to others who dared to be active. It was not ideological commitment in the abstract.
At first sight this seems to contradict our idea that a revolutionary socialist organisation is selected by political ideas, and that an important role for personal ties signifies a clique.
But take two people who have "abstractly" the same ideological commitment. The first person is closely tied to comrades in an organisation. Even if she or he is not personally friendly with them, she or he feels a responsibility to stand with and by comrades, and a confidence that comrades will stand with or by her or him, against an often hostile world. The second person has her or his main emotional ties elsewhere. It is the first who will be reliable, active, and effective.
Abstract intellectual conviction and even fluency about socialism is different from absorbing socialist ideas "into your bones", so speak. No-one with a halfway balanced view of their own personal limitations can pursue radical ideas with fire and zest unless they feel linked to comrades who share those ideas and who will reliably back them up and help them sort out problems.
The ties of political comradeship can be and must be strong. The point about cliquism is only that the ties of political comradeship are different from those of personal friendship. (Though there is not a Chinese wall. Every socialist will have comrades whom she or he finds uncongenial, and friends with different politics. But if the ties of comradeship are strong, it is almost certain that the socialist will find many of his or her personal friends among comrades. The member who discharges formal duties in a socialist organisation, but whose "personal" world is entirely centred somewhere else, is rarely effective or reliable).
The trade-union movement too needs its own "strong ties" to operate, those between "brothers and sisters" in the movement, different both from those of personal friendship and the closer ties of socialist comradeship. The trade union where people have come to "feel" the pale word "colleague" as the right one for their fellow-members will not be effective.
Yet some activists today oppose movements like the National Campaign Against Fees And Cuts, or Workers' Climate Action, having even the most minimal membership structure - anything that ties less "weakly" than an e-list or a Facebook group.
Opposition to membership structure makes movements ineffective as soon it is a matter of something sterner than a diffusion of small activities "with the flow". What do the opponents of membership structure think about trade unions? Should the unions just dissolve, to be replaced by individual workers tweeting, texting, or Facebooking each other?
According to myth Stalinist and bourgeois alike, Lenin, in What Is To Be Done?, advocated an authoritarian party structure the better to manipulate the working class into propelling him and his friends to power. Far from it.
Lenin's chief concern there was to build a socialist movement that would be effective. In Tsarist Russia, that meant in the first place a movement where comrades could rely on each other not to expose them to the police, whether through weakness under pressure or through unreliability and amateurism. Strict selection, training, and discipline - "strong ties" - were needed, and with those "something even more than 'democratism' would be guaranteed to us, namely, complete, comradely, mutual confidence among revolutionaries".
That comradely mutual confidence is also needed for us as we work in the British labour and student movements today, in the swirling struggles to come against the cuts and their ups and downs, even if it is a matter of backing each other up in arguments, debates, and activities, rather than protecting each other from arrest and exile to Siberia.
Inevitably it wanes in a period of lull, where not much happens and not much seems to hang on each activity or inactivity. Conditions have changed now. We have to relaunch AWL as an organisation of "strong ties"; and people who sympathise with our socialist ideas and want to make them effective need to develop "strong ties" with AWL, by joining.
• http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell. (Thanks to Ross Gwyther for alerting me to this article).
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