Tuesday, 26 April 2011

terminal 5: many-to-many communication & scientific socialism

by Daphne Lawless
26 April 2011

The basis of Socialist Worker New Zealand's initiatives over the last decade has been the recognition that what has been done by the radical left up until now hasn't been working. The evidence of this is that the forces of ecological mayhem, imperial destruction, inhuman corporate/consumerist capitalism do not face a serious challenge from “our side”.

With our recent analysis that capitalism is on a collapse trajectory, we have an argument for why that might be so – we are in a new era in which the strategies and forms of organisation which have served the radical left since the late 1960s are no longer fit for purpose. This of course raises the question of what the new strategies and forms of organisation might be.

It is for this reason that we need to be concerned with building thinking cadre – that is, a framework of activists with the intellectual firepower and daring needed to see into the future and try to determine where our side can best direct its efforts and energies. In this article I want to discuss the terminal 5 initiative as a step forward in this project.

Science and socialism

In 2007, our organisation had a disagreement with our tendency-mates in the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). SWP intellectual powerhouse Alex Callinicos, in one of his contributions to this debate, notably described our contribution as “completely wanting in intellectual and political modesty” (http://unityaotearoa.blogspot.com/search?q=modesty).

This was, we felt, an extremely telling rejoinder. We were being told that in attempting to analyse and offer solutions ourselves, we were being immodest. But we were trained in a political tradition which emphasised the concept of revolutionary daring. Are we to be daring and imaginative as activists, but put our heads down and accept the advice of our “elders and betters” when it comes to ideas? Surely the essence of Marxism is the unity of the two?

In this regard, I have wanted for a long time to resurrect the concept of “scientific socialism”. That phrase came to be used to describe the very mechanical, rigid and inhumane ideology of the Stalinist ruling class of the Soviet Union. But I want to return to the concept of using the scientific method in Marxist political analysis.

The scientific method, put into a nutshell, is a dialectical one: hypothesis → experiment → refinement, confirmation or rejection of the hypothesis.

Among the worst enemies of the scientific process is groupthink – the determination of a group of people to cling to a particular set of ideas, regardless of their objective validity, because they have become important to their identity as a group or as individuals. This can be recognized in left-wing politics as the phenomenon of sectarianism.

It reveals itself in the unwillingness to experiment; in building a group for the sake of having a group, not for what concrete effect it might have on the class struggle; in that group talking big about the glories of past or future revolutions, while in practice restricting itself to endless “activism” and “campaigning” which never bring the glorious day closer at all. (Even worse are those groups which don't bother campaigning and just talk big.)

The grand ideas are never put into practice because – ostensibly – they can't be put into practice in a “downturn” or a “non-revolutionary period”. So no advance is possible in the ideas. They just have to be endlessly copied and repeated and taught to a new generation. This also subjects the group to all the distortions involved when the members are told that new practice or the amendment of existing practice is not realistic - dogmatism, intellectual authority, the right of some people to lead and have opinions and other people to take orders. These are all things that we as Marxists and/or Leninists should shun and avoid.

And yet, “someday soon” this tiny group adhering to ideas which are never put into action will become the leadership of some kind of mass movement, which will spontaneously arise out of the ether. In psychology, we recognize this as escapism – a fantasy world to compensate for not being able to come to grips with the world as it is right here, right now. In the sociology of religion, we might call it fundamentalism, or cultism at worst.

The idea that the last word on revolutionary organisation, tactics and strategy died with Gramsci in 1938, or Trotsky in 1940, or Mao in 1976, is not the language of science. It is the language of religion – or, at best, the language of the mediaeval “scholastics” who endlessly recopied the works of the Greek philosophers without once thinking of testing whether they were true or not. If Marxist and eco-radical ideas mean anything, they must be capable of producing change in the world as we know it, here and now.

The small socialist groups of today may be good at reproducing activist cadre, or campaigning cadre. But their very methods of organisation almost guarantee that thinking cadre will not be produced – except in the Stalinist sense of pseudo-intellectuals who will come up with some high-faluting language to justify whatever the leadership has decided to do.

Scientific community

Part of the scientific method is having a scientific community – a group of researchers working in the same area, who publish their results, test each other's hypotheses, carry out debates (sometimes quite heated) which can only be worked out in the test of practice.

By debate we don't mean the ritualised denunciations of radical sects, which have the same intellectual content as rival churches excommunicating one another, or the banter of football fan clubs. Indeed, the history of science shows that when groupthink and personality conflicts enter the frame, science is damaged – witness the damaging dispute between geniuses of the stature of Edison and Tesla on the best format of electric power transmission (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_Currents).

So the kind of debate we need is not the debate of small institutions of socialists “defending” their variations on the communal dogma from one another. Just a look at the comments boxes of any well-frequented socialist blog can tell you that.

We are not original in suggesting that we need new, broad forums where the radical and ecological left of the 21st century can debate in vigorous but comradely fashion, as opposed to engaging in “sect war”. To some extent, the Socialist Alliance in Australia have done something quite like this with their excellent website LINKS. LINKS isn't a mouthpiece for Socialist Alliance dogma, but a place where different leftist tendencies can seriously put up their analyses and debate them. Just recently, LINKS hosted a thought-provoking debate between different leftists on how we should respond to Nato's intervention in the Libyan civil war.

One criticism that can be made of LINKS, though, is that its very broadness makes it somewhat unfocussed. Yes, the left can debate... but around what problems, and to what end? And who is on the “left”, anyway? Are only people who self-identify as Marxists or socialists welcome? If so, that is itself contrary to the scientific method; the principle that anyone with the insight and track record of research and practice in a field has the right to join the conversation, regardless of their affiliation or personal beliefs.

In contrast, terminal 5 will look to have a clear agenda. The central questions which terminal 5 will be set up to answer are:

Is capitalism in terminal crisis?
If so, what is the next step?
And can anything we do affect what that next step is?

What's in a name?

terminal 5 is, I feel, a very catchy name. Referring to the five “terminal crises” of capitalism that we have identified in our collapse analysis, it sounds almost like a pop band, or some kind of 1970's spy TV show. It sounds exciting. It's a “strong brand”, to use modern marketing jargon. You can imagine seeing terminal 5 graffiti popping up everywhere.

Even better, it's free of the “private language” – or jargon – of the actually-existing socialist left. It is open to a broad conversation with people who don't already agree us. As we have explored above, that's one of the essential points of a true scientific community. Contributors to terminal 5 will not be required to endorse Socialist Worker's analysis – only to be interested in seriously debating the question of whether world capitalism is heading for collapse, with reference to sound evidence.

As the various world crises lurch their way forward, an increasing number of system analysts – not only socialists – are concluding that capitalism can't go on the way it is. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, financial columnist for The Daily Telegraph, could be best described as a “High Tory”, but he has been shocked at the consequences of the financialisation of his beloved capitalist system, and has written several articles showing the short-sightedness of his financial and political leaders. James Howard Kunstler, an American writer, has done something similar, coming from a position that industrial civilisation as a whole is doomed and the best we can hope for is a return to “a world made by hand”.

As a Marxist organisation, Socialist Worker is interested in preserving all the good parts of our high-tech, industrialised, globalised world – but putting them on a humane, socially just, and long-term sustainable footing. We are also determined that the only agency which can bring about this “good catastrophe” (as opposed to the bad catastrophes of global collapse, wars, plagues, Rosa Luxemburg's “mass cemetery”) is the self-activity of working people organised on a global basis. That will be my starting point in debates on terminal 5 with others on the left who dispute the collapse analysis; and others who support the collapse analysis but do not share our eco-socialist, emancipatory vision.

In theory as in practice

I would like to end these thoughts by discussing the question of a website in the broader frame of how a Marxist organisation for the 21st century should operate, which can only make sense in the question of how the world of the 21st century operates.

A simplistic technocratic view of the world would say “the internet has changed everything”. But what has really changed? ARPAnet, the ancestor of the Internet, was developed by the American military as a decentralised network of communication in case the major centres got nuked. Its architecture then became massively useful to not only universities and research centres to swap data quickly and cheaply, but to globalised capitalism as it spread its organisational tendrils globally and needed a way to keep all the sites of production in touch with each other. The socio-economic changes went hand-in-hand with technological process, each driving the other on, as materialists like myself would expect.

The British socialist Tony Cliff said “to defeat an enemy you must become symmetrical to it”. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin once held up the Central Bank as a model of how a socialist economy could work. Both were working on the basis that the highest organisational principle of capitalism was the top-down, vertically organised corporation, and that socialist organisations should learn from that. Simply put, that's not true for globalised capitalism of the 21st century.

The old, top-heavy “dinosaur” model of corporate organisation has become obsolete. New networked models of organisation within the capitalist mega-conglomerates have enabled these huge organisations to move quickly and effectively in response to changing market conditions. A recent article in Wired magazine described how the US army in Iraq – a centralised, top-down organisation if there ever was one – has moved to emulate Wal-Mart's “just-in-time” method of horizontal communication between various cells in the organisation, not just between those cells and the centre (http://www.wired.com/politics/security/magazine/15-12/ff_futurewar).

The Internet has enabled global capitalism and imperialism to become more flexible, less of a dinosaur, able to react more quickly to opportunities and threats on a global scale. But it has also given our side the same flexibility. The Arab revolutions have been organised via Facebook and Twitter, as well as the good hard work of organisations and individuals on the ground. The people of the world cherish their new freedom of communication. When Mubarak's forces shut down Egypt's internet access, “hacktivists” from across the West mobilised to re-open communications.

The top-down, hyper-centralised model of organisation is obsolete for our enemies; therefore, to confirm what Tony Cliff said, it is obsolete for us too. The “one-to-many” model of the traditional capitalist corporation, state or army (with all nodes of communication passing through a centre) is dead in the water; as should be the traditional “Leninist” model of all communication passing through a Central Committee and/or its full-time bureaucracy. That was what was needed in Tsarist Russia when almost all workers were illiterate and the telegraph was the cutting edge of communication technology. Some things have changed.

The new revolutionary movements have to work on many-to-many communication, as facilitated by the Internet. This is how the scientific community works; this is how “crowd-sourcing” works. There is still a role for a co-ordinating and strategy-making “centre”, but as one (particularly responsible) node in a network where every node is capable of communication with every other node.

Hence terminal 5 will be organised on a basis of “user-generated content”, open for all those with something serious to say. This could be a model for how we organise as activists in the dangerous but exciting future ahead of us. This is certainly how cadre get to think as well as act.

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