Sunday, October 20, 2013

Communication technology and revolutionary organization in the 21st century

By Hossam El-Hamalawy

"The following article first appeared in Arabic on the Revolutionary Socialists website, on 29 January 2013. Thanks to Anne Alexander for her help in translating it into English…

Individuals’ belief in a shared goal or political idea does not mean that they constitute an organization. What creates organization or destroys it, is the extent of the ability of these individuals to move in harmony, to coordinate their positions, and the speed of their mobilization: in other words the speed of communication between them in order to achieve unity in action.
When the Marxist tradition deals with the process of building a political party, we find many metaphors and similes from the pages of the military dictionary. This is not surprising as the revolutionary party is like an army. The only difference is that the leaders of the party and the majority of the “officers” are elected by the “soldiers”, and regularly held accountable to the rank-and-file. Apart from this, it is like the army, in terms of structure, tactics and strategy. Thus it is not strange that the greatest influence on Lenin thinking about organization was the German philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz. Whoever imagines that the revolutionary party is a cultural forum or a social club is wrong.
In the 6th century BC, Sun Tzu wrote in his book “Art of War”, that skillful leaders are those who are able to sever communications between the vanguard and rearguard of the enemy army, who can cut the means of cooperation between the enemy’s large and small units, in order to stop the best troops from saving the worst, and to obstruct the officers from rallying their forces.
In wars, the first goal is to destroy or interfere with the enemy’s internal communications network: hunting down the signals corps is always on the list of priorities. The same process is at work in the state’s war on political organizations. If you want to destroy an organization, then you must destroy or damage its internal communications apparatus, whether it is an army, a political organization or even a commercial company.
How can the leaders of an army mobilize their troops? If the leaders of the army decide to deploy their forces, withdraw them, or attack how can the commands and assignments arrive in the fastest possible time with the units on the frontline or in the rear. Once again, what is the first military goal of an army’s strike against the enemy? The answer is simple: the internal communications system. Internal communication is what constitutes any organization – be it an army or a political party – and destroys organization if falls into disrepair. It is what allows the members of the organization to move in harmony and co-ordination. Its absence means fragmentation, decentralization and the paralysis of its leaders.
In the absence of a modern communications system and rapid channels of communication, the political perspectives of the leadership of any organization remain trapped in locked rooms or in papers which no-one reads. The leaders of the organization remain helpless and paralyzed from delivering their perspectives and tasks at the appropriate and required speed. This when a political organization becomes a mere figment of its leaders’ imagination; it becomes incapable of mobilization or movement in any direction, and prone to frequent internal explosions.
Internal communications and Marxist organization in the 1990s
In the 1990s, Marxist organizations were small, consisting of a few dozen cadres concentrated geographically in Greater Cairo.
The cadres met weekly in a cell, which they made efforts to keep secure. At these cell meetings, alongside political discussion and education and the allocation of tasks, any assignments or notices from the leadership were passed on orally by the person in charge of the cell, and the date, time and place of the next meeting were agreed. Every month (or two), the cadres would receive the newspaper of their secret organization in order to distribute it to members, candidates for recruitment and sympathizers.
There were also organizational documents and discussion papers which would reach the membership through the cell meeting. They were issued every few months, and contained reports on general organizational work: failures, achievements and requirements. These papers were passed on to the membership by the cell organizer during the meeting, to be read on the spot. Generally the papers were not left with the members, but read during the meeting, and then collected by the cell organizer to be disposed of later by either burning or shredding.
The cell organizer was the link between the members and the leadership. The small size of the organizations at that time meant that the cell organizer was often also a member of the leadership. Intermediate levels between the membership and leadership (in other words, the middle ranking cadres) did not exist for long periods except among students, reflecting the nature of an organization which was confined to 3 or 4 universities in varying degrees, and did not have genuine roots at that time in the working class.
Telephone communication
The primary mechanism for the allocation of tasks, was, as we have explained above, through oral instructions transmitted at the weekly meeting. If the leadership wanted to transmit an assignment to the membership, the process would take several days until the cell met with the organizer at the appointed day and time agreed at the previous week’s meeting. If the matter was urgent, then a member of the leadership would go to a public phone box and ring the cell organizer at home or on his mobile phone, if available (by the end of the 1990s), and agree a quick meeting. The time and place would be agreed between them without going into details on the phone, which was generally under surveillance. Thus the cell organizer would meet the member of the leadership to receive assignments from the leadership orally.
How did the cell organizer then transmit this to the membership? He would have to pass by the comrades’ homes, one by one, if the matter was really urgent, or wait until the next day, hoping to see the comrades at university, in order to pass on the message verbally.
Let’s assume though, that the cell organizer was unable to see a comrade. There was no means to communicate the assignment to him except by going to his home in order to find him, or by asking another member to pass on the message.
This form of communication was appropriate for a small organization, where most of the members really knew each other, and who were concentrated in two or three locations (basically in the universities), and could therefore rely on being able to meet almost every day. How did the leadership coordinate work between different locations? It was sufficient to organize periodic meetings on a weekly or monthly basis with the middle-ranking organizers from each campus.
These procedures may appear bureaucratic and extremely slow, and for young activists who are newcomers to organizational work, they seem to have been lifted from the pages of a crime novel, but this way of working was imposed by the very bad security situation at the time. It is also important to keep in mind that there was no upturn in the class struggle in Egypt then, and thus the speed of intervention by Marxist organizations (and of the other political organizations of the period), was slower than that required by conditions today.
It is also worth noting that these security measures during the 1990s were not strictly followed, and lax attitudes existed even then. It is essential to transfer the experience of organizational work in the Nineties to new members today, but we must also emphasize that the idea of the “Super Cadre,” committed to literally all the security measures did not exist in the past, even though it is always important to strive for perfection and and professionalism in our work.
After the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in 2000, the Marxist organizations found themselves in new political circumstances. After being small, isolated groups within a student milieu, which had to struggle to get out into the streets, they found that the solidarity movement with the Intifada, followed by the anti-war movement, and then the movement for democratic change created a space within which they could work on the streets. People from my generation, the generation of the 1990s, whose biggest ambition had been to bring a small demonstration about ten meters outside the university campus before being confronted by the riot police, suddenly found themselves in protests of hundreds and occasionally thousands, roaming the streets of central Cairo, and even organizing a rally in front of the Ministry of the Interior itself in Lazoghly Square in 2005. All of this was like a science-fiction movie for the Nineties generation.
Anti-Torture Protest مظاهرة ضد التعذيب في لاظوغلى
Accompanying this partial opening for political work in the streets was also a widening of the margin for freedom of expression and opinion:
1. The emergence of private newspapers (I do not use the term “independent press”), which were owned by businessmen such as Al-Masry al-Youm. Of course Salah Diab, or Naguib Sawiris and others of their kind did not do this because they were “free-speech revolutionaries,” but as businessmen aiming to make a profit, and who were well aware that the era of [the old state-run newspapers] Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gumhuriya was over, and that there was a market for a more professional press, within the limits of the “red lines” agreed with the regime and the security forces according to changing circumstances and terms of negotiation.
2. The spread of satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera and others meant that [the state TV and Radio at] Maspero had lost its monopoly over broadcasting towards the end of the 1990s. This was followed by the emergence of talk show programs on Egyptian satellite channels (which again cannot be described as “independent” or “revolutionary” media), where the professional standards were higher than on state TV, and which had greater room to convey some aspects of the protests, contributing in turn to widening the space for expression, even if this was not the goal of their owners, who were up to their ears in alliances with the Mubarak regime. Protesters often used the traditional media before the January Revolution in order to communicate with their colleagues in the same sector, and to urge them to move.
Real Estate Tax Collectors' Strike إضراب موظفي الضرائب العقارية
For example, one of the leaders of the Property Tax Collectors and one of the founders of their independent union told me that he joined the sit-in at Hussein Hegazy Street (December 2007) after seeing a news report about it on “Dream” satellite channel. Another of his colleagues from Sharqiyya province told me he joined the sit-in after reading about it in Al-Masry al-Youm, and this experience is repeated in many workers’ sit-ins which became movements in more than one province (such as those organized by the postal workers, public transport workers and the Information Centers workers).
3. The spread of modern means of communications such as SMS messaging on mobile phones, the appearance of blogs and widespread use of email lists and online forums which were used to spread views which neither the state nor private media would publish, and to exchange news, pictures and videos of activities.
Did the political situation and this openness have an effect on organizational work within the Marxist organizations? Unfortunately the development of the organizational machine was too slow. The organizations were hit by a case of schizophrenia. I can assure you that it was not clear to any of the cadres what was “secret” and what was “public”, nor was it clear (in practice, regardless of whatever was written or said about the subject), to the old members, what was the best means to integrate the new members who began to flow towards leftist ideas in these circumstances.
At the same time that almost all “youth movements” began to use e-mail, web forums and social networks such as Facebook for rapid communication between their members, Marxist organizations continued to follow the same old methods of communication and the same old organizational forms inherited from the Nineties, with tasks given out orally in face-to-face meetings. The cost of this was heavy in my opinion:
1. It was impossible to keep centralism and democracy together, or to transmit tasks fast enough to keep pace with a changing political situation, in organizations which were broadening their membership and beginning to create a presence beyond the Greater Cairo “ghetto”, through weekly meetings at a time when the new members were getting political news and updates minute-by-minute via the internet and SMS. If a weekly meeting was not sufficient, where would the time come from for members to meet more often, given that they were not full-time organizers?
2. The failure of members of the leadership of Marxist organizations to communicate quickly with different sections led to constant accusations of “extreme centralization” and “tyranny”. The extreme centralization, in my view was caused by the inability of the leadership to simply communicate on a daily basis with the membership. Daily communication at that time (in the old ways inherited from the Nineties), meant at least daily meetings, which was impossible for a leadership whose members were not full-time and who were holding down jobs in additional to their organizational roles. This led to slow and slack decision-making in a changeable political situation, weakness in mobilizations and failure to absorb new members.
Democratic debate in any organization also requires rapid transfer of different views to the rest of the membership, and given the unjustified refusal to use the internet out of fears of the “technological unknown”, printing irregular internal discussion bulletins was not the best alternative. Why should a member even bother writing one of these papers, knowing that it will only be published months later, and printed god knows when, and uncertain whether it will even reach all the membership at all? The absence of rapid channels of internal dialogue is a major cause of internal organizational explosions, splits, frustration for some and their exit from the organization.
In the event of a split or disputes, in Marxist groups, and particularly in the provinces, the first accusation to be thrown at any side in the argument was that of “lying”. Why? It was natural that any organization relying on oral tradition in organizational work, would explode in tensions and accusations when it expanded beyond the confines of the small group which knew each other. It was an inevitable result!
It was also natural that oral transmission of tasks led to misunderstandings. When an organizer from the provinces would go to Cairo to meet the leadership to pass on their perspectives and political debate verbally, it could happen that the leadership would mean one thing while the provincial organizer would understand another, and on returning to the provinces he would transmit it to the rest of the members who would understand something else.
The first practical experiment undertaken by students of sociology is often when the lecturer whispers into the ear of one student and asks him to transmit the message by whispering to the person next to him, until it passes right around the lecture theater, reaching the last student who hears something completely different to what the lecturer said in the first place. Apply the same experiment in an organization to understand the mystery of widespread accusations of lying, confusion and misunderstandings in recent years. This tension will continue, as long as we rely on oral, rather than written correspondence.
4. The years before the revolution saw a political opening in the streets, and Marxist organizations often emerged in the leadership of these mobilizations, but they remained determined to follow the same old methods of organizational work, losing many opportunities to grow. In my opinion, the political and security situation from 2005 onwards would have allowed Marxist organizations to operate publicly, without using these caricatured methods, which sometimes made them the laughing stock of the new activists with a background in work on the streets, not Nineties-style debates behind closed doors.
Some dealt with this like the ostrich who buries her head in the sand, imaging that no-one sees her. Most of the membership was “burned” at that time, and exposed to the security forces because of the work in the streets and use of the telephone to organize that work. The security forces therefore knew the leading member allocating tasks, and the organizer who was receiving the instructions, but other sections of the organization did not know what was happening for reasons of “secrecy”!
Of course it was not possible to go through all the details of discussions or organizational tasks over the phone, and this meant that these organizational tasks or inquiries, or discussions in the provinces had to wait until a member of the leadership could travel to the province or the provincial organizer could travel to Cairo to meet the leadership. Bearing in mind that we are not talking about groups with full-time organizers, requests from the leadership to meet organizers in the provinces were also dependent on the circumstances in the lives of both the members of the leadership and the provincial organizers. The end result was that we were faced with channels of communication with which it was impossible to build organizations larger than a few dozen members without tensions and internal explosions.
5. The organizations of the revolutionary left wasted golden opportunities to grow, leaving the field open to youth movements, parties and campaigns, which took the initiative in using modern means of communication and succeeded in creating a strong political presence within a short time. This was a presence which we knew would not last forever, but these movements were nevertheless able to quickly mobilize and coordinate between their sections in different provinces because of their reliance on the internet, in comparison with the Marxist organizations which had long experience in politics, but which were extremely slow to react to any political development and could not mobilize more than a few dozen members in any protest, despite the growth in membership. The problem was still this: how to communicate with members in order to get them to attend the demonstration? Or how could members quickly reach the people in the center of the organization in order to know position “X” or “Y” or what to do about this or that, or to transfer suggestions or criticisms.
Restructuring, “movementism” and the continued crisis in communication
There had already been a number of developments in the organizational structure of different Left groups before and directly after the revolution, but these created a body without a nervous system in the absence of a rapid, professional communications apparatus within the organization. The scale of what has been accomplished so far, does not measure up to what could have been achieved if the leadership took the issue with the seriousness it required. In the tensions and organizational explosions which repeatedly took place in all Marxist organizations, a common ingredient in their escalation and repetition was the absence of internal channels of communication and immersion in work in the streets – demonstrations, conferences, protests – at the expense of building the organization internally, developing and strengthening its structures while achieving the necessary balance between the two processes.
Outside the central committees of the Marxist organizations, it was hard for the membership to feel that they were part of a coordinated movement or organization, and the principal reason for this was lack of rapid and clear channels of communication which fitted the current circumstances. If the political leadership, for example, decides on a specific position or to mobilize for a particular demonstration, how can this be achieved? Immediately after the leadership meet, they will call or meet a limited number of intermediate cadres, tasking them with calling their colleagues and asking them to attend. This is accompanied by the publication of an event on Facebook and other social networks in the hope that the rest of the membership and sympathizers will see the invitation and attend. Despite this, the number of members which the leadership can reach in telephone calls and quick face-to-face meetings remains very small (a fact which explains the weakness in mobilization for demonstrations and marches in spite of the rapid growth in membership of Marxist organizations). We do not have a channel of rapid and specific communication to reach the membership in Greater Cairo, let alone the provinces.
In the absence of Marxist organizations’ financial ability to pay a number of their leading and middle cadres to work full-time, they remain at the mercy of the day-to-day circumstances of the lives of its leadership and middle cadres. If nothing is accomplished except face-to-face meetings, god only knows when these meetings will be organized and how many comrades will attend. What if we need an urgent statement on a emergency political situation. How will the leadership quickly discuss the decision and draft the statement if its members are absorbed in their daily lives at work? Will the members of the leadership telephone each other individually in order to discuss the matter (in the presence of the security agencies who monitor our phones, of course)? Is a weekly face-to-face meeting of the political leadership enough to direct organizational matters? It is enough if the middle cadres in each section meet once a week or once every two weeks, in order to coordinate their work, while the rest of the time there is no contact between them?
The answer is of course, No! These are all ways of working appropriate to a small organization, composed of a handful of members and concentrated in one province. It is ridiculous to imagine continuing to work in that way, if the organizations of the revolutionary left are serious about transformation into a mass party with a presence across the whole country, and capable of moving in a centralized way and having access to rapid channels of democratic communication.
In my opinion there is no alternative to the generalization of the use of email circulated by mobile devices as a fundamental form of communication.
“Mobiles for all”?
This phrase from one of the MobiNil advertisements during the 1990s provoked sarcasm and laughter from everyone: mobile phones were a luxury and only the Egyptian bourgeoisie could afford them, because of the high prices of the service at the time. But in 2013, this slogan may have become a reality. According to a report by the Egyptian Ministry of Communications issued last May, the Egyptian mobile phone market has reached a saturation ratio of 112 percent, meaning that the number of SIM cards outnumbers the population. This is a general phenomenon in the region. Research conducted by Ericsson indicates that the spread of mobile phones exceeds the birth rate in the Middle East. According to the report, 8 million new mobile phone service subscriptions were registered in various parts of the region between July and September 2012, by contrast the number of children born during the same period was only 1.1 million. The total number of mobile phone subscriptions reached 990 million across the Middle East during the 3rd quarter of 2012, with estimates of a further 600 million subscriptions by the year 2018. The Ericsson report on the Middle East recorded one of the highest rates of mobile phone use in the world, reaching 103 percent of the population during the 3rd quarter of 2012.
Smartphones which can be used to log on to the internet to read mail are no longer the preserve of the elite, and the numbers speak for themselves. Reliance on email lists received over mobile phones must be the basic form of communication between the members of Marxist organizations now.
We sometimes forget that Marxism is simply “scientific socialism”, which analyses the world and history, and provides evidence for action based on scientific grounds. The stunning development of communications technology over the past two decades has had a significant impact on the relations and forces of production, in other words on the base of our society and the world. Is this development not reflected in the superstructure, in human beings’ way of life, and in the way we build political organizations? This is not an invitation to build organization in a virtual world, but an invitation to create scientific socialist organization rooted in the ground, which provides for its members safe, modern channels for its members in different geographical locations to communicate democratically at the speed required by the era in which we live in order to ensure harmony and centralism in action. "

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