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Reflections on Internet Leftism

Several years ago I ended up in argument with a fellow Toronto activist about "internet presence" and its supposed necessity.  His argument was that communist groups needed to use various "social networking" tools to make themselves viable while my argument was, despite recognizing the importance of using whatever means were available for agitation, that it might be a mistake to treat internet activism as a stand-in for on the ground organizing.  (And yes, I realize the possible irony of discussing this problematic on a blog.)  That is, I was opposed to the idea that organizations were somehow defunct or passé simply because they lacked an internet following.  My contention was that a presence on the internet––particularly because internet presence speaks to a certain level of first world privilege and even the privilege of time to work online rather than organizing in concrete circumstances––is in no way a substitution of on-the-ground agitation and organization.

"I must type out this screed!  I am accomplishing a revolutionary victory!"

Here it is worth citing some examples.  First of all, the CPI(Maoist) lacks a significant and coherent internet presence and yet, despite this, it is leading the people's war in India.  Although this lack of internet presence may indeed produce problems when it comes to expressing its existence, development, and aims to a broader audience, it has not affected its ability to grow in regions where, to be clear, people are not able to access the internet on a regular basis anyhow.  By the same token, when we look at a smaller but still large revolutionary organization (compared to first world organizations) such as the Communist (Maoist) Party of Afghanistan, we also find an inability to plug into "social media" aside from a very small and struggling website.  Nor are CmPA activists online arguing for their point of view, despite being the largest secular revolutionary organization in Afghanistan, especially in comparison of at least one other Afghani maoist organization (who I won't bother to name because the few activists of this extremely marginal group have nothing better to do but troll on the internet) that the CmPA couldn't locate for a long time in Afghanistan, despite their internet presence, due to their marginal status.

What we discover, here, is a disparity between concrete organizing and an (overbloated) focus on internet presence.  And in this disparity, which was the point I was trying to make to this old activist acquaintance, we might learn something about the limitations of social networking. While it is important to note that the tools afforded by various online sites and mediums are indeed useful, and should be treated as part-and-parcel of organizing (not only are these useful for agitation/propagation, they can also bolster on-the-ground campaigns), we should also recognize that such tools may become treated as intrinsically rather than instrumentally revolutionary.  The always immanent danger is that a person or group with significant internet presence may mistake this presence as evidence that they possess revolutionary significance and thus valorize a retreat into internet leftism.

Internet leftism can and does produce the illusion that an active website possesses a significant level of political strength simply because it regularly publishes analyses and debates with other websites that also produce a similar quantity of theoretical engagements.  To claim that this demonstrates the efficacy of organization, without investigating whether this internet leftism communicates to any concrete mass organizing, simultaneously demonstrates the limits of this kind of discourse.  We often discover (and I have been guilty of this) a theory alienated from practice due to the fact that the only practice is internet ideological engagement, a refined version of the "talk-shop".  A theory divorced from any form of revolutionary activity amongst the masses in the social context in which one lives is a theory that cannot thrive on a deep form of social investigation; it investigates only amongst a vague internet population from anywhere and everywhere––it is close to book worship.

While the theoretical engagements of that emerge from internet leftism may not appear as divorced from reality as extreme versions of academic obfuscation––and some internet leftists (though not all) may even demonstrate their scorn for the theoretical work of "petty bourgeois" academics––the content, if not the form, is most often the same.  Moribund theory couched in the right terminology, determined by axioms pulled only from books and other online screeds, stands in for a living theory derived from struggle, distorting one's concrete circumstances.  Perhaps the most asinine variant of this theory is the kind that openly and unapologetically fetishizes internet organizing itself as a stand-in for doing something in the real world, hence the innumerable theories promoting crowd sourcing and social media as revolutionary praxis.

It is in this context that a call for new methods, practices, and symbolic orders makes sense.  The old methods of organizing in the city, town, and region––in the streets themselves, in sites of production and reproduction, in the concrete and messy world that is embodied rather than abstracted online––are treated as old-fashioned a priori.  Clearly this kind of organizing doesn't work if you aren't actually doing it: opportunism is normative because it has been embraced, treated as a fact of nature.  What is actually a retreat is conceptualized as embarking on a new front, a new stage of struggle.

A certain disdain for the people is often produced by activity primarily confined to internet agitation, and it is easy to demonstrate that such a disdain exists simply by examining how leftists treat each other, and not necessarily because of an actual line struggle, on sites such a revleft or what have you.  And these are only leftists engaging with other leftists; the people as a whole––those masses we are trying to reach––are treated with disdain because they exist only symbolically, or as objects to be determined and redetermined in whatever argument we're invested in (and yes I am using the we because I am also and often guilty of this practice). This disdain also has to do with the medium: we are engaging with others as if they are disembodied consciousnesses; space is heavily mediated but time is not––we can hammer out an angry reply without having time to second-guess ourselves, without having to engage with someone directly.  Outside of these online engagements, when we deal with the other in day-to-day organizing, only dogmatic Sparts demonstrate this kind of disdain for the masses and other leftists––they've been trolling long before internet leftism even existed!

There is, of course, a certain approach to the mass-line that I have encountered on more than one occasion that, based on the [false] understanding that agitation/propagation is something separate from a mass-line politics, could produce a critique of internet leftism that is dismissive simply by arguing that it is a violation of the mass-line.  That is: the masses are not online and, since internet leftists spend all their time online, they aren't engaged with the masses at all.  After all, if you assume that agitational work is not part of mass work then you will also assume that internet leftism is a violation of the mass-line for the wrong reasons. [Note: I recently encountered one of these flawed approaches to the theory of the mass-line while I was finishing this entry.  Rather than linking to this article now, I plan to address it thoroughly at a later date.]  The online tools afforded to us can put us in touch with the masses but only if they are directly linked to the work we are doing in our concrete social circumstances.  In this way, like a communist newspaper or campaign propaganda if used correctly, they can extend the sphere of influence and become part of a politics that seeks to embed itself in the masses.

Back to my original point.  Internet leftism is not a substitute for on the ground organizing just as a newspaper, a book, or a journal are also not substitutions.  The use of the tools afforded to us by online mediums can definitely supplement our organizational potential, but these tools are also limited just as they are monopolized by the particular privileges of class in terms of access and time––there is not some ideal global village where everyone in the world possesses equal access to online tools and the time to use these tools.  Add to this the problem of translation, the problem of dealing with imperialist fire-walls, the problem of having to devote revolutionary resources that need to be in the streets to online agitation and it may be that those who have the most time to represent themselves organizationally online in a manner that makes them look more significant than they actually are might also be those who are utterly insignificant in the concrete terrain of their struggle (again, the Afghanistan example is salient).

If we think of the Spartacist League as being a good example of how agitation/propagandization becomes a stand-in for a more comprehensive form of organizing––how they have confused the instrumental with the intrinsic––we can understand the meaning and limits of internet leftism.  Interestingly enough, these dogmato-revisionists are disinterested in contemporary forms of social media, still fetishizing the newspaper over everything else.  This obsession with the newspaper is not, unfortunately, driven by the fact that newspaper agitation forces the activist to be in contact with the masses; this is clear because the Spartacists disdain the masses and, at every moment when they have the chance, treat the very people they hope to "convert" (since they are, ultimately, an organization that treats communism as a religion) as ignorant dupes.  Rather, this is simply a fetishization for a particular instrumentality.  The fetishism inherent to internet leftism is similar; it is just an ironic fact that the Sparts, still acting as if they live in 1917, don't realize that they could better operationalize the same tired politics through social media conventions.  And we should know better than to imitate their approach online, assuming we are different simply because we are not annoying people by shoving a newspaper in their faces.  At the very least the Spartacist League interacts with people, however badly, face-to-face.  We should not replicate their practice online.


  1. Dear Mr. JMP

    Thanks for not "naming" of that Afghani Maoist Organization. They are not trolling. It is you who never accepts the facts.
    That organization is the one whom you had mentioned as Principally Unprincipalled Maoists. But, in reality, they are the only Maoist forces who struggle inside Afghanistan. But, your "beloved" C(M)PA has sat in her Ivory tower outside Afghanistan and is Watching "tigers' fight". So, you are defending a Party who has the least (and even no)presence inside Afghanistan. But, Organization of the workers of Afghanistan (MLM-pM) is fighting for New Democratic Revolution inside Afghanistan. So, you are a dogma-revisionist who does not surrender to the facts.

    1. Some points in response to this frustrating and sectarian screed:

      1. CmPA has a presence inside Afghanistan. Revolutionaries visiting Afghanistan have met their members and supporters. Moreover, their presence and struggles can be seen in their mass events. According to those supporters I have met in real life visiting Canada, and those who have gone to visit Afghanistan, the party has always organized coordinated mass events in several provinces at the same time, whose combined attendees have reached in thousands. The very recent anniversary of Akram Yari's martyrdom day was organized in 4 four provinces within Afghanistan. The reports of which and pictures of them are present on the party website. However, other MLM groups including yours only issued a statement on this and could not even organize a small event. (Again, according to people I know who have visited from here to there, and others from there to here.) Indeed, and this is what has always bothered some of us, the WOA has always issued statements and yet, according to those we know who visit us and others who visit them, there has never been any evidence of them doing anything other than issuing statements. Even more unprincipled, is that the *only picture of a demonstration on WOA page*, with people carrying Akram Yari's portrait is a picture of the supporters of the CmPA in a European country. Beyond being unprincipled, this also puts people at risk.

      2. The international presence of your organization has been very sectarian. In your very first online statement, you attacked the CmPA. Here is more evidence of your sectarian attitude: you are casting doubt––trying to foster a false view that you yourself, if you are in Afghanistan, must know is wrong–– on the legitimacy of the CmPA so as to gain legitimacy for yourself. This kind of behaviour is the hallmark of dogmatic and sectarian groups, only harmful to the revolutionary camp. Interestingly enough, the CmPA has never attacked the WOA in its literature. Rather, the CmPA representative visiting Toronto two years ago named all MLM groups in Afghanistan as being part of the secular anti-imperialist revolutionary camp resisting the occupation, of which CmPA is only one albeit the most important and significant one.

      3. In a country like Afganistan, which is colonial-semi feudal, a real communist party is the one that is launching PPW, what the CmPA rightly calls the revolutionary peoples war of national resistance. No MLM organization, including the CmPA have been able to actually launch PPW. If your organization is indeed in Afghanistan (despite being smaller than the CmPA, based on the evidence that is not founded on internet claims but on the social investigation outside of the net), is not a bad thing after all. With all of your bombastic claims, then, I hope you will take your revolutionary responsibilities seriously and prepare and act accordingly. Which would mean shedding your sectarian attitude that––and this is why I was annoyed by your organization from the get go––seems to be your primary function: creating doubt and undermining the legitimacy of other groups. Ironically enough you use the term "dogma-revisionist" without knowing what it means, considering that the dogmatic language and adherence to some Platonic notion of maoism is inherent to your sectarian screeds. Shedding your sectarianism will be useful; only then will you prove to be useful for the revolutionary left in Afghanistan and internationally.

    2. hi, i don't know about the Afghan Maoists, but in the above, you say, "...a real communist party is the one that is launching PPW," do you mean by this only in 'semi feudal and semi colonial' countries, or for everywhere? if that is the case, there are only very few 'real' communist parties, in India and the Philipines only. Neither the Nepali or Peruvian are fighting PPW, ( as far as I'm aware), nor is the PPW anywhere else in the world that i can think of.

      I do not call myself 'Maoist', altho i am sympathetic to some extent. However, I really wonder in countries like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, which have seen so much war, whether for a real communist party to call for another war is really the way forward. This doesn't seem to me to be a formula for success. I don't know what should be done, but I hope you see my point. i could understand perfectly, if one came from those countries, why many people may not support yet another group calling for a new war.

      regarding a purely hypothetical ppw in western countries, such as UK, US, EU countries etc. PPW seems to me to be almost impossible, at least in the classic sense of setting up base areas etc, surrounding the urban centres from the rural etc. be curious to know your thoughts on this. this is why i do not identify as 'maoist', because some of the claims of MLM seem to me to be either impossible, (PPW in western countries) or undesirable (PPW in already war torn countries), the filipino and Indian maoists have been struggling some 40+ years. this is an incredibly long time, and a terrible thing to impose on people living in those areas, and one gets the impression that the peasants and tribals are, in some way, cannon fodder for both state and revolutionary politicians. it is hard to see the Nepalese PPW as much more than a vehicle for some clever politicians to get power, and then screw the peasants over as badly as the other political parties.

    3. Hey, my comments are less edited than my blog posts and I was typing out the above one too quickly. Yes, the context meant Afghanistan and "real party" were poorly chosen words to mean a party with significance in that context, that is capable of becoming the vanguard, in response to the very unprincipled claims made by the other person.

      As for PPW, I think it is the only revolutionary strategy that can work anywhere. Of course it takes particular forms in particular contexts, but history has proven that insurrection is ludicrously romantic and impossible. I think your assumption that PPW is "impossible" is based, perhaps, in a very wrong understanding of PPW. What is more impossible is the assumption that protracted legal struggle will result in a spontaneous uprising, where the masses arm themselves and the party that has helped ignite this takes control, capable of defeating a state armed to put down insurrections. PPW assumes that if the above is only a 1% chance (since the only time it worked was in 1917 Russia and failed in every other context), then we should focus also on the 99 other methods of revolutionary strategy. The problem is, nobody except those thinking through PPW have theorized revolutionary theory particularly in the context of the centres of capitalism. Every time people speak of "strategy" they really mean "organization" and simply assume the method that doesn't work. If you want to speak of "cannon fodder" then the only alternative to PPW, aside from just accepting capitalism or believing in a productive forces analysis, is insurrectionism which has always resulted in the state slaughtering the insurrectionists *and* is basically endorsing allowing the masses to become cannon fodder.

      I have written a lot about this on this blog and others have also spoken of this debate.

      Moreover, the Nepalese PPW did work in establishing duel power and strategic equilibrium. Its failure was not the strategy but the gap that emerged between strategy and ideology, the rightist line ending up being enshrined. Otherwise PPW did work. The only other option is surrender to capitalism.

    4. you say of PPW ' I think it is the only revolutionary strategy that can work anywhere.' I don;t see it working anywhere, apart from the most backward, non industrial, tribal areas. In india, say, Maoism is powerful only in backward areas, in the jungles, not in Delhi, Mumbai etc. Likewise, the Nepali Maoists couldn't crack Kathmandu valley. It may be that i have a wrong conception of PPW. recommend to me a book or article that will remedy that, and i;ll look at it.

      frankly tho, i get the impression that many western maoists hold the theory of PPW, but there is very little that is solid about their plans for it, as they don;t have mass support. It is never quite believable, at least with the people i've met. I could be wrong tho. I don;t share your analysis of Nepal entirely, as surely a part of the reason for a rightist line coming into leadership was that PPW could not crack Kathmandu valley.

      i don't myself have a strategy of how the revolution should take place, ie insurrection or PPW or any other. thanx for your considered response.

    5. Part of PPW *is* building mass support; you're conflating it just with the military aspect. Work on this area can be found on the two articles written by PCR-RCP available on their website (there are others in french but only two in english), as well as an earlier article by Action Socialiste that is also on the same website. I wrote an article about it on this blog (can't remember the title, but you can find it in the search), and connected articles: the ones on Gramsci, and the one on Leibknecht's examination of Militarism.

  2. interesting article. this is the problem with the net, it is impossible to know, from just the website itself, how much weight a particular party or group has. Generally, most western leftist groups have quite good websites, but not so much support, while many asian ones have a lot of support, but not so good websites. regarding the CPI Maoist, i suspect that they may have websites in local languages, and may prioritise that over English. which is fair enough.

    regarding the comment above, I would be curious to know about Afghan Maoist parties, but just from websites, written in bad english ( not criticising, English is the imperialist language and lingua franca at the moment in the world) , it is really impossible to tell.

    i think that, while internet activism is important, most people do not look at things unless they already have an idea of what to look for, or a prior interest in that subject. there is no particular reason, say, one should look for websites on jazz fusion or the kabbalah, unless one is already interested in that, or for that matter, any other subject. I suspect, tho i dont know for sure, that the majority of people who read MLM sites are already activists or have an interest in MLM, just as the majority of people who look at Jazz or Kabbalah sites are already interested in those things. nothing can replace activism, a website can function in place of printing a newspaper, and is cheaper and easier to do. that is all, it seems to me.

  3. here is an example of a 'movement' that only exists online: the international pan islamic party of proleterian islam. can't tell whether this is a joke or not.
    on the far right, there were some articles about the supposed 'dark enlightenment' neo-reactionary movement, associated with the philosophy Nick Land.
    the second is an article from a right wing ( as in conservative, not fascist) paper in the UK. i post these as they are examples of a seeming inability to tell what is real and what isn't just from looking online. I am pretty sure neither of the above 'movements' exist in any way apart from the internet.


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