Issue 186 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Duncan Blackie's attempt (March SR) at understanding the nature and impact of the Internet on the world in general and on the work of socialists and revolutionaries in particular was at the very least uninspired and trod dangerously close to reaction.
The tone of the article was set by the defeatist and uninspiring headline which suggested that all capitalism has to do is notice the Internet exists and then start charging for it. The truth is that for many years big business has tried to achieve just this and failed. If it was that simple then presidential task forces would not be required, companies would do it individually--the brotherhood of thieves only come together when they perceive a threat, and they do perceive a threat.
At its most basic level the threat consists of workers being able to find out almost instantaneously about the struggles of others the world over, and to offer solidarity--witness the bombardment of electronic mail which helped get Boris Kagarlitsky out of jail during the Moscow coup.
More fundamentally the Internet is not just a possible supplement to writing leaflets and holding meetings. It opens up a means of information dissemination which is near impossible to control--the benefits to society of scientists swapping results openly and making information freely available is more than just for general education, it makes vast scientific advances a possibility. Capitalism looks on this with fear alongside the obvious dread of the accessing and manipulation of confidential information. It isn't just the case of the notorious, maligned hackers--though few socialists should condemn their skill at irritating the hell out of many industrialists--texts banned in one country but freely available elsewhere can be placed on the net for anyone to see.
Why, then, does capitalism not just unplug it? Because it needs to maintain the lie that it is the most productive and dynamic system. The internet proves it isn't, social ownership of information proving more productive and dynamic in reality. To shut the net down would prove to millions instantly that private property relations are a brake on the development of society in an extremely dramatic way--so they seek to undermine it, to restrict it, but never have the guts to destroy it.
The information revolution is aptly named, not as a substitution for workers' struggle, but as a historical step on a par with the discovery of machine power. The steam engine did not rise up against feudalism but it was part of the process that destroyed it nevertheless. When the bourgeois media compare the information revolution to the industrial revolution they are being more accurate than they want.
The sort of illusions being sown in the Internet (March SR) are not totally new. The idea that people gaining 'equal' access to information will by itself democratise and transform society was a theme which surrounded the birth of the personal computer (PC) itself. Anyone who doubts the extent of the high hopes originally invested in the PC should look at the history of the Apple Computer Company.
Apple's origins lie in the Californian hacker community which grew out of the 1960s radical student movement. Its co-founders, Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, shared the anti-establishment, anti-war, pro-freedom attitudes of the rest of the hacker community.
This 'electronic populism' was not all hype. After all, Wozniak put $20 million of his own money into staging two huge outdoor rock festivals dedicated to the unfolding promise of the Information Age. But alarm bells should have sounded when Jerry Brown, the governor of California, a man rooted in the West Coast military--industrial complex, could nevertheless declare that 'information is the equaliser and breaks down the hierarchy'.
There is no question that the growth of Apple was phenomenal. The company went from making $200,000 in 1976 to coming within sight of the billion dollar mark five years later.
But like all attempts to change the system 'from within' Apple instead became part of the system and is now just another multinational. Even the way it sells its products has changed.
In 1984 Apple ran a commercial which showed Big Brother (for which read IBM) glowering down from a monumental TV screen, haranguing a pathetic mass of uniformed minions. Suddenly a muscular young woman rushes forward and flings a giant hammer at the screen. it shatters and the enslaved millions are free. The original ideals are still apparent.
Yet only a year later Apple was basing its next commercial around the fictitious story of a yuppie entrepreneur whose PC gives him the freedom to start his own business, selling 'gourmet baby food'! The shift had real material roots. Most ordinary workers cannot even afford a PC, let alone use it to transform their lives.
As Duncan points out, better access to information can only help to destroy the present system if it is linked to workers' struggle and revolutionary organisation. But the new technology can vastly speed up the international awareness of such struggle. In 1917 it took weeks for socialists in other countries to learn of the victorious Russian Revolution.
The first report of the Tiananmen Square massacre came via a fax to French students. Perhaps news of future struggles in China will arrive via the Internet. Except next time it will hopefully be to tell us of a successful workers' and students' uprising.
In your review of books about the American Communist Party (February SR) Black Worker in the Deep South by Hosea Hudson was judged the least interesting. While this is fair, a fuller and more powerful account of Hudson's active life is available in The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: the Life and Times of a Black Radical as told to Nell Irvin Painter (The first edition was more honestly subtitled His Life as a Negro Communist in the South).
This much longer book is based on interviews with the black American Communist activist. It tells the same story of activity on all fronts--the CP was organising voter registration and tenant farmers' unions as well as trade unions decades before the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.
The book's chief interest is its level of detail. At points it reads like a handbook for building a socialist party. For example, Hudson describes party building or 'concentration': 'I mean contacting individual people, making it a regular responsibility. If you see a person seems like he's interested, give him a leaflet to read, a Daily Worker to read, and if he talk interested, not go off and stay two to three weeks before your go back. Go back while he's interested, before he lose interest, to keep cultivating.'
Elsewhere, on writing a rank and file steelworkers' paper, he writes: 'But let the workers write it. Don't you write it. Involve them all the way through. Make them believe that they are somebody. In other words, make them feel that they are doing it, and not you doing it for them.'
Advice given in 1930s Alabama still stands today.
Lindsey German's review of Raphael Samuel's Theatres of Memory (April SR) suggests correctly that while revolutionary socialists would not want to side with Patrick Wright's blanket opposition to heritage as reactionary, neither would we want to support Samuel's view of it as an unqualified good in all circumstances.
We can go further. History Workshop Journal, of which Samuel has long been a key figure, has, with the current issue, decided to drop its subtitle of a 'journal of socialist and feminist historians'. It seems they can no longer agree what socialism means, or, indeed whether they are socialist themselves. This confusion follows through into Samuel's approach to heritage. He sees it as popular history but has no framework for determining whether a fight to save this or that historical artefact, site or document is valid or not. Hence all must be saved.
For socialists heritage, although important, is not enough. Socialist organisation is needed to give direction to what is worth saving and what is not. Raphael Samuel used to understand this and is a worse historian now that he does not.
You published a review of the Joffe memoirs Back in Time in your reviews section (April SR). Unfortunately you listed the publishers as 'PC Literature' rather than ICP Literature. If people would like to obtain a copy of this book please write to the address below.
PO Box 71
Rotherham, S60 1SU
Your special on 'Solidarity and building the unions' (March SR) talked about the experience of different workplaces.
The recruitment to the union is often a difficult task, particulary within nursing where the RCN is eager to set nurses apart from other health workers and when the union officials themselves have become demoralised. But this can be beaten.
As two student nurses from Guy's Hospital in London, we called our own Unison recruitment meetings (from which application forms are still being returned) and successfully encouraged 25 other student nurses to become involved in a march to stop the closure of the hospital's accident and emergency department.
Leading the interest and the anger, which is definitely out there, gives others the confidence and motivation to act. The push from below has shown our Unison representative that people are more willing to fight than ever and need the solidarity of a workers' union.
No doubt you've read all the nonsense about lobster takeaways in Whitemoor prison. Well that never happened and life in the secure units is not and cannot be construed as living the life of Riley!
The truth is that the SSUs are physically and psychologically damaging to whoever is entombed in them. Those of us who used to be in Whitemoor SSU (and are now waiting to see what happens on the escape charges) and the prisoners in Full Sutton SSU are intending with our solicitors to challenge the legality of the secure units in the high court.
Belmarsh Jail cat A unit
Thamesmead, London SE28 OEB
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