Discussing why the old Italian socialist movement had failed so badly in and after World War One, Antonio Gramsci saw it as having been dominated an oratorical culture, lacking the theoretical depth for which a stronger stream of written debate would have been needed.
Registering the difficulties facing the internationalists in Germany in World War One, Rosa Luxemburg noted ruefully that her comrade Franz Mehring was interested only in literary efforts, not in getting out onto the streets and into the factories to agitate by word of mouth.
Gramsci was not dismissing speeches, and Rosa Luxemburg did not think that articles and pamphlets were useless. Each argued only that a one-sided culture limited the left.
Discussing the harmful effects on the left of a one-sided culture dominated by Facebook and smartphones, I argued that the “root of [the problems is] not technology but defeats for the labour movement... [etc.]”
Bruce Robinson (Solidarity 316) presents me as “explain[ing] the problems as individual failings” and “psychology”, and “calling on activists to leave Facebook”. The reader probably gets a picture of me as a old sourpuss scratching away with my quill pen.
I use Facebook. I no more want to suppress new technologies than Gramsci wanted to stop Italian socialists making speeches, or Luxemburg wanted Mehring to stop writing articles.
Gramsci’s understanding of the broad social and historical reasons for the “oratorical culture” in Italian socialism didn’t oblige him to say: “Ah well, there are big social reasons why the comrades don’t read. And anyway there is no absolute barrier to acquiring complex ideas by oratory alone. No point urging individuals to read. Go with the flow”.
Equally, Luxemburg wasn’t obliged to conclude: “It’s just history. No point urging anyone to get out and agitate”.
Understanding the roots of Facebook culture in “recent developments in capitalism”, likewise, does not debar us from urging our comrades to read and to talk face-to-face when we see them relying on Facebook to learn about world news — or inform themselves about debates, or sending people Facebook messages about activities as a substitute for actually talking with them to explain and motivate.
Bruce writes that it is “utopian” to think that “an upturn in class struggle [will] drag internet activists from Facebook into the streets”. He surely can’t mean that. Is the only upturn in class struggle we can hope for an increase in “likes” on left-wing images and pages on Facebook?
When those who now find face-to-face politics, or “heavy” political reading, too much, and who prefer to limit themselves to “knocking around on social media with people who broadly think the same way”, find the confidence to come on the streets, they will want more than a Facebook status as their intellectual sustenance and their active contribution.
The sustenance they’ll find, and the channels for activity they find, will depend on how many individuals we have “dragged from Facebook into the streets” (and the meetings, and the study groups) in advance, to create an active and educated on-the-streets socialist movement.