Posted November 11 on Seattle Indymedia

What is to be done?
Ben Seattle replies to Wilhelmina • 11.Nov.2003


Of all the tasks which are decisive for the
antiwar movement one stands out at this time:
An interactive news site fueled by the energy
of activists and readers is too important
to be left in the hands of social-democracy

The movement for the overthrow of bourgeois rule is at present small, divided, powerless--and very unhealthy. Dominated by reformist and sectarian politics, compromised by unprincipled alliance with bourgeois dominated political trends, split between bitterly competing "marxist" and anarchist grouplets, paralyzed by a crisis of theory which, essentially, makes it impossible to think with clarity about the future, the movement for the overthrow of bourgeois rule is a shadow of the vigorous movement which, a hundred years ago, held out to millions the promise of a better world.

How many today could even imagine that such a movement, so small, so compromised, so divided, so bankrupt in vision, could possibly earn the respect and loyalty of the working class and oppressed and mobilize hundreds of millions around the globe for a struggle destined to end the domination of the planet by the bourgeoisie --and usher in a period in which the capitalist economy is step by step replaced with a different kind of economy, based on the principle: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need?

I believe that such a thing will happen. More than this, I believe our actions today will help to lay the foundations for these events.

The emerging revolution in digital communications

I have sketched out elsewhere an outline of how these events may unfold (see A scenario for the overthrow of bourgeois rule in the US in the middle of the 21st century ). What is important to say here and now is that the emerging revolution in digital communications will prove to be of immense assistance to the self-organization of the working class and oppressed.

The revolution in communications is still young. It is barely ten years, for example, since web browsing with a click of the mouse became possible. Barely ten percent of the world population has internet access and even in the US the majority of the poor are not yet online.

However the immense promise of the revolution in communications is already beginning to make itself felt: the huge mobilization for the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, for example, or the unprecedented size of the worldwide antiwar protests earlier this year--was to a large extent possible because of the relative ease with which activists could communicate with one another--and with a wider audience.

The 1999 WTO protests also coincided with the emergence of the Seattle Indymedia Center and, soon after, a growing worldwide network of Indymedia centers (IMC's).

The network of Indymedia centers typify both the best and the worst of the current crop of interactive news sites.

On the one hand, these sites are making it possible, for the first time in history, for ordinary people to report on newsworthy events before a mass audience in a more-or-less uncensored way. For example, locally in Seattle, the first demonstration that followed the bombing of Afghanistan was organized with help from an announcement in the open newswire.

Children's Crusade

On the other hand, the local Seattle Indymedia center, as well as other IMC's and most similar interactive news sites, suffer from all the serious problems that would be expected from their immersion in a social-democratic political millieu and their dependence on money from liberal donors. This can be outlined with greater precision:


  1. Their immersion in a social-democratic political
    millieu saturated with illusions that the United
    States is a democracy--ie:

    • illusions that the actions of the US
      government ultimately reflect (or can be
      made to reflect) the desires or material
      interests of the majority of the population

    • illusions that existing channels and
      institutions can be used to bring about
      fundamental change

  2. Their dependence on money from liberal donors
    (and sometimes even government grants) in order
    to pay rent, utilities (and sometimes salaries)
    typical of 510(c)(3) organizations (ie: tax
    deductable charities). The constant need for
    money ($3,000 a month) has a powerful, insidious
    and ever-present impact on editorial policies
    which determine what kinds of articles are
    selected for the coveted center column and what
    kinds of articles are filtered out from the newswire.
At present the Seattle IMC is entangled in a host of projects involving obligations they barely understand and which commit the IMC to maintaining a large center and to remain dependent on constant infusions of cash. These various projects were initiated with the best of intentions but at present are a liability and a distraction from what should be their core focus: developing their web site as a place which collects and refines news and commentary with the advice and assistance of their readership.

The IMC's dependence on wealthy liberal donors and government grants acts as an invisible leash. How does this leash work?

> Many left-leaning foundations remain
> hestitant or unwilling to fund media
> work, and the ones that do often are
> leery of backing media endeavors that
> seem overly combative or ideological.
-- In These Times

Were the Seattle IMC to pursue an agenda focused on the need for a political movement independent of all forms of bourgeois political influence and control--this would alienate a stratum of society that exists in political orbit around the left wing of the Democratic Party--and the Seattle IMC would quickly find that the flow of cash it needs to operate would be shut down. Militant activists can understand this--but the participants in this children's crusade cannot: their liberal-labor politics blind them to the simple fact that money always comes with strings attached. Sometimes the strings are legal--and sometimes the strings are invisible.

My disagreement with Wilhelmina

In spite of its many limitations the Seattle IMC, like other IMCs and other similar interactive news sites, performs a valuable service for the progressive movement. My direct involvement with the Seattle IMC began in September when I attended an editorial meeting to confront them over the question of whether or not they were serious about keeping their site clean of obvious neo-nazi posts and comments. My comments were then transmorgified thru the typical liberal filter and used to justify a new policy of segregating news about Palestine from other newswire posts (ie: requiring an extra click to read). This was part of the general tendency of the Seattle IMC to retreat from the more confrontational politics of the 1999 WTO protests into coverage of "safe" (ie: relatively non-controversial) local news.

I learned about this new policy when Wilhelmina posted an article by a group she supports titled Bush gives Palestinians a Road Map to Oblivion. (I do not support this group but believe in giving credit where it is due: the article is an outstanding analysis of the efforts of Bush and Sharon to engineer a bloody civil war between rival Palestinian trends.) The Seattle IMC editorial group segregated the "Road Map to Oblivion" article and, in response, Wilhelmina posted a protest of this segregation on the open newswire (see The shameful fruits of Localism).

I joined this thread and said that Wilhelmina was correct to criticize the IMC's policies but added that "localism" was mainly a symptom of deeper problems within the Seattle IMC--and stressed the need to create an interactive news site that was as independent of liberal politics as it was from the right-wing. I stressed the objective necessity of a site controlled by militant activists who understood the necessity of building a movement independent of all forms of bourgeois influence and control. I stressed the need for an interactive site where the articles that appeared in the center column would expose the efforts of the Democratic Party to hijack the antiwar movement--and help activists understand the necessity of building a movement consciously aimed at bringing down the entire system of imperialism--and the class rule of the bourgeoisie with which imperialism is synonomous.

Wilhelmina disagreed with me about the need for an independent interactive news site, calling my proposal "a scheme based on sectarianism and elitistism" without explaining why such a project would be either sectarian or elitist. When challenged to back up her views, Wilhelmina added:

> To me it appears not much different than
> Indymedia, but with more restrictions, and
> the editorial slant of whoever produces it.
> Why should activists throw their precious
> time into building this when there are so
> many more pressing tasks before them, and
> Indymedia already exists?
-- The shameful fruits of Localism

I appreciate Wilhelmina's sincerity. I consider her comments valuable because they cast light on the kind of thinking that paralyzes the left.

A sword in the hands of Spartacus

An interactive news site as I have described would be different from Indymedia in a fundamental way: it would be guided by a different kind of politics. I assert that this would make all the difference in the world. Wilhelmina, unfortunately, underestimates the importance of politics. This is why she reduces politics to "editorial slant" and believes that a site that is serious about being independent from bourgeois influence would be "not much different" from a site mired in a social-democratic swamp.

Revolutionaries understand that media is a weapon. The revolutionary movements of the 1800's and 1900's combined two forms of "information warfare": verbal agitation and printed agitation (ie: leaflets and newspapers and journals) because they understood that the war of ideas is an inseparable component of the class struggle. The revolutionary movements of the 21st century will add a third form of information warfare: interactive news sites where readers contribute, rate and filter all the news (and comments about all the news) that serves the class interest of the proletariat.

But all weapons are guided by one or another kind of politics. A sword, for example, serves the hand that holds it. And a sword in the hands of a Roman soldier will play a different role than a sword in the hands of the slave army mobilized by Spartacus.

Ultimately the creation of an independent interactive news site must be seen as part of the struggle of the working class against the influence of the social-democratic ideology. Passivity in this front of work represents passivity in the struggle against the social-democratic ideology. Such passivity is understandable in the case of activists who lack the bitter experience that would allow them to understand how the betrayal of social-democracy leaves the working class passive and helpless in the face of bourgeois political manuevers. But for those trends which claim to oppose social-democracy, such passivity represents either a profound ignorance or shameless hypocrisy.

Dare we talk about the decisive tasks?

Wilhelmina talks about the precious time of activists and the "pressing tasks" which are supposedly more important than creating a interactive news site that serves the antiwar movement and serves the movement to create a society free from bourgeois rule. Unfortunately, Wilhelmina fails to explain just what those "pressing tasks" are.

Maybe these tasks are so pressing that Wilhelmina does not have time to explain what they are? Or maybe these tasks are so sacred that they must be protected by an unspoken taboo against discussing them in public?

It is true that the organization Wilhelmina supports (Communist Voice) includes, in many of its articles, a sentence or two about the tasks of activists: create agitation, help build mass actions, create independent organizations, work to strengthen consciousness about the nature of imperialism, and so on. And this is good, useful and necessary.

But why should any of these worthwhile and necessary tasks be hindered in the least by the creation of an interactive news site that is as independent of the liberals as it is of the right wing?

Rather than acting as a diversion from the pressing tasks-- one might think that it would be the other way around: an interactive news site could help train activists to write agitation, could help build mass actions, could help activists to find one another and create organizations, could help deepen our understanding of the nature of imperialism. Even Indymedia, mired in the swamp of liberal-labor politics, does this in a small way. A site that is militantly anti-imperialist would do so in a bigger way.

There is also another, much deeper, issue here. Some tasks are more important than others. Some tasks are decisive and other tasks are not. The working class and oppressed face the need to confront tasks which are more complex than the tasks that are discussed in the pages of Communist Voice. There is the task of creating a genuinely revolutionary mass organization. There is the task of creating a movement that consciously aims to eliminate the system of bourgeois rule.

These tasks really do belong at the center of our consciousness. All tasks that have real meaning must be linked to these tasks in one way or another. We must work to understand these tasks better--to raise our consciousness about these tasks. Such work would be greatly assisted by an interactive news site that had broken out of the typical liberal-labor swamp. Such a news site, by its choice of center-column articles, by the posts and comments of readers, by the rating and filtering that would allow the concentration of the more useful content--would stimulate the thinking of its audience--and help untangle the existing confusion concerning the fundamental path forward for working and oppressed humanity.

And there is a great deal of confusion to untangle ...

Confronting the crisis of theory

The movement for the overthrow of bourgeois rule will remain small, compromised, bitterly divided, bankrupt in vision and undeserving of the respect and attention of the working class until it recognizes the need to honestly confront the crisis of theory that has left it paralyzed.

The essence of the crisis of theory is that it has become essentially impossible for even serious, militant activists to understand how a modern society would function in the absence of bourgeois rule. We cannot build a movement around a goal that no one is able to understand or describe.

For example: How can we have confidence that an economy not based on capitalist market mechanisms can create a higher productivity of labor (and a higher standard of living for the masses) than exists at present? And what force would prevent a new, corrupt ruling class from coming to power and suppressing the democratic rights of workers (as happened in the former Soviet Union and in China)?

Developing clear answers to questions such as this is one of the decisive tasks at the present time. (For my own theoretical work on these questions please see part 5 and essay 160 of the anarcho-leninist debate on the state.)

An interactive news site that aspired to give activists and readers confidence that another world is really possible-- would both:

  1. help develop (and test in debate) answers
    to these kinds of questions, and
  2. popularize these answers in articles, posts
    and comments read by a mass audience

Evasion and charlatanism

Unfortunately, many groups on the left pay lip service to doing what is important and instead measure their success more narrowly--in terms of their ability to recruit the warm bodies of new activists. These groups disdain to help create an interactive news site and, typically, deny that a crisis of theory exists.

These groups use phrases like "democratic centralism" without having a clue what this phrase would mean in the context of a genuine communist organization. More significantly, they use phrases like "dictatorship of the proletariat" or "socialism" without having a clue what these phrases would mean in the context of a modern society.

Many groups on the left throw these phrases around as if they knew what they meant--but they don't understand these phrases and would be unable to answer the most obvious and basic questions about these phrases--and for this reason would feel threatened by any open, public forum where critics might compel them to explain themselves. Genuine communists welcome an opportunity to explain their views in public. Opportunists, on the other hand have a very different attitude: they fear exposure.

Terms such as "democratic centralism" and "dictatorship of the proletariat" once had a real, living meaning in the context of the struggle of the working class. This was before decades of misuse and abuse of these terms by brutal thugs, charlatans and the just-plain-confused. If words like this, which once authentically described the most fundamental tasks of the working class, are to be reclaimed from the incredible filth that has accumulated over the decades--then these words must be fought for. This means open, _public_ discussion and debate.

But many political trends are afraid of this--in the same way that an animal is afraid of fire.

The digital fire--and healthy revolutionary cooperation

A decisive step in the development of human civilization was the ability to harness the potential of fire. Fire allowed early humans to stay warm, eat better and greatly extend their range. Fire was also the foundation for modern technology since it made it possible for early civilizations to refine metal.

The emerging revolution in digital communications is introducing a new kind of fire to the world: a digital fire. This digital fire can be thought of as the transparency which is created by a vast number of public exchanges of information --which uncover facts--and which reveal which ideas are powerful--and which are rotten. This fire will be harnessed by activists, and by the masses, to refine what is useful and good--and to burn away everything that is hypocritical and corrupt.

Healthy revolutionary activists are not afraid of this fire: they understand that it can be harnessed--that it is destined to become a powerful weapon to forge a new world. Revolutionary activists will often disagree over important questions--but healthy activists recognize that calm and public discussion of these disagreements is necessary for the healthy development of the revolutionary movement.

That's what they all say

It is possible that Wilhelmina may agree with me that many of the groups in the left have problems similar to what I have described. If so, she would undoubtedly assert that the group that she supports is different.

Naturally.

But it is really a simple matter to prove that one understands that the revolutionary movement needs open, public discussion concerning the nature of the tasks that are truely important.

I invite Wilhelmina to describe her conception of the pressing tasks which are faced by revolutionary activists today. I invite Wilhelmina to participate in calm, scientific discussion of these tasks on this Indymedia thread and the pof-200 list (where I am posting this). Wilhelmina, I believe, has valuable revolutionary experience which (I hope it is clear to readers) I greatly value and respect. But she also may have something to learn.

I would like to see Wilhelmina (or any serious activist who may read this) help develop and participate in a discussion of the tasks that are truely important for revolutionary activists in the early 21st century. Maybe we all have something to learn.

Sincerely and with revolutionary regards,
Ben Seattle
----//-// 11.Nov.2003
http://struggle.net/Ben (my elists / theory / infrastructure)

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============================================================
Comment
by Wilhelmina 11:31pm Tue Nov 11 '03
============================================================

My “reply” to this is contained in my original article and
comments (http://seattle.indymedia.org:8080), as well as in the
various articles and comments I’ve posted over the past few
months. I think they show that Wilhelmina does not underestimate
the importance of politics (Ben lectures that I do). Here I will
only raise one thing:

Ben says he “learned about this new policy when Wilhelmina posted
an article by a group she supports titled Bush gives Palestinians
a Road Map to Oblivion. The Seattle IMC editorial group
segregated [this] article and, in response, Wilhelmina posted a
protest of this segregation on the open newswire”. This is wrong.
(1) The “Road Map to Oblivion” article I reposted was NOT
segregated. (2) My “shameful fruits” article was dealing with the
treatment of articles written by others, and the practical
political effect of this treatment. Thus it seems Ben has
imagined something.

============================================================
The bottom line
by Ben 9:39pm Wed Nov 12 '03
============================================================

First:

The "Road Map to Oblivion" article Wilhelmina reposted was
grouped with four other Palestine articles and the title was
changed from "Road Map to Oblivion" to "More Isreali/Palestine
links" [note 1]. I called this "segregation". This is still how
it looks to me.

Wilhelmina, however, has noted a minor inaccuracy in my post: her
protest was against the grouping of other articles--not her own.

Second:

Wilhelmina believes that she has "replied" to the content of my
criticism in other posts she has made over the past few months.
Unfortunately she is not very specific about what she has said or
where she has said it (she only gives a link to the Seattle
Indymedia front page).

To sum up: Wilhelmina originally claimed that my proposal for an
interactive news site that was genuinely independent--was
"sectarian" and "elitist". When challenged to support this--she
replied that such a project was supposedly a diversion from more
important tasks. When challenged to describe these tasks--she
asserts that she has already done so--somewhere in the thousands
of words she has posted in the last few months.

I believe that readers can recognize this as a non-response.

I assert, here and now, that if Wilhelmina was really working on
the tasks that were decisive for the development of the antiwar
movement and the movement for the elimination of bourgeois
rule--then we would have gotten an answer from her that was of
greater substance.

Ben Seattle
----//-// 12.Nov.2003
http://struggle.net/Ben (my elists / theory / infrastructure)

---[note 1]---
Readers can verify this for themselves by looking at the archived
list of posts at:
http://seattle.indymedia.org/front.php3?page=11
(Note: the page counter in the web address above will change as
more articles are added to the archives. The datetime of the
batched posts is 8 pm, Oct 15)