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Challenges of party communication in the 21st century

Should a left-wing organization have a central communication vehicle to disseminate its political positions? And if so, is it possible to structure the activism around such a vehicle? Or in our time, will the individual profiles and social media accounts of the activists themselves be sufficient? Here is a question that quietly lingers in the left-wing world.

Henrique Canary, from Resistência-PSOL

The fact is that, unlike a few years or decades ago, left-wing organizations are no longer characterized by militant work around their own communication vehicle. The world is much more connected than before, and mass communication plays a much more significant role than it did in the times of Lenin’s Iskra and Pravda. Yet, party newspapers are almost nonexistent now. There are many left-wing media outlets, but most of them do not serve as the public expression of a specific current. In general, they function as independent communication platforms where left-wing activist journalism stands on its own. Much more importance has been given to personal profiles, accounts, channels, and blogs, which ultimately serve the purpose of disseminating political positions linked to one organization or another. Furthermore, communication has become much faster, and nobody wants to wait for their organization’s official vehicle to release a position or information to share it on social media. Why not do it autonomously, using other means and providing links to other sources?

Marx and Engels, journalists

For those who engage in activism today, it may seem that the discussion about the need for a party communication vehicle is recent or solely linked to the development of the internet and social media. However, that is not the case. It is a very old debate. Since Marx and Engels, the written word embodied in a newspaper has always been a primary form not only for the dissemination and debate of ideas but also for party organization. Marx and Engels (especially Marx) always dedicated a significant portion of their time to journalistic activity. Marx worked as a correspondent and collaborated with numerous newspapers, through which he sought to popularize his fundamental concepts and analysis of current events. In fact, he sustained himself through journalism for many years, until he largely ceased his collaboration with the press to focus on studying and writing “Capital,” relying on Engels’ financial support. His involvement in publications such as the “Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher” (Franco-German Yearbooks), “Rheinische Zeitung” (Rhenish Newspaper), and “New York Daily Tribune” is well-known. From the foundation of our movement, therefore, our mentors have always been, among other things, communicators.

With the development and cost reduction of technology, even in the 19th century, socialist leaders and organizations decreased their collaboration with liberal newspapers and started to have their own newspapers, which were produced by a dedicated team and used by activists as a daily instrument in their political work. This is the case of “Die Rote Fahne” (The Red Flag), a newspaper founded in 1918 but with roots dating back to 1876. As a magazine, pamphlet, or newspaper, it expressed the political positions of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the Spartacist League, and the German Communist Party, respectively.

Lenin, the theorist of the newspaper

However, it was Lenin who theorized about the subject and framed the newspaper within the broader conception of the party that he developed from the early 20th century.

Even before Lenin, it was already a tradition for different political currents or groups to gather around certain publications, more or less propagandistic, more or less agitational. But Lenin went further. In “What Is to Be Done?”, one of his most famous and important works, the founder of the Bolshevik faction addresses various issues related to party organization, but he reserves the center and conclusion of the debate for the topic of the newspaper. According to Lenin, the Russian revolutionary movement was characterized by dispersion, disorganization, empiricism, economism (syndicalism), and immediatism. Each existing group was dedicated to its own local reality, its parochial tasks, its economic strikes, and partial struggles. What predominated, as Lenin called it, was “craft work,” which meant reactive, amateurish, manual work without a general plan or structure.

It was necessary, therefore, to overcome this localized dispersion and advance towards the real unification of all Russian revolutionary groups based on national politics. The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) had to cease being a loose conglomeration of groups, each reacting in its own way to the challenges of the local reality, and coordinate their actions around a common objective: socialism and the fight against Tsarist autocracy. And the primary instrument of this transformation, according to Lenin, was the newspaper.

Lenin stated that the newspaper should function not only as a tool of propaganda and agitation but also (or above all) as a collective organizer. The revolutionary newspaper should help overcome localism by providing a Marxist analysis of the most important facts of reality and proposing a socialist policy to be applied by the entire organization, regardless of its specific location. Lenin argued that every small fact of workers’ everyday life, every oppression, every tumult, every struggle should be used to demonstrate the necessity of socialism and to organize people around that idea. There were no unimportant topics for the party newspaper. Everything could be used to educate the class and foster its fighting spirit.

In addition to unifying the political positions of the organization in a vast and diverse country, working with the newspaper should result in the creation of a network of worker correspondents who would provide the living material (articles, reports) with which the newspaper would be made. Moreover, party meetings should be guided and organized around the topics raised by the newspaper. The reports should be read and discussed in the meetings so that the workers would understand that their lives were the same throughout Russia and that they all faced the same common enemy: Tsarism, the bourgeoisie, the church, and the landowners.

Lenin’s conception proved correct, and the Bolshevik faction was primarily built around the work of agitation, propaganda, and organization with the newspaper. In fact, the history of the different phases of the party before the October Revolution can be told through the newspapers: the Iskra period (The Spark – 1901-1905), fundamentally marked by propaganda and the attempt to overcome political and territorial dispersion; the period of agitational newspapers after the 1905 revolution (Vperiod [Forward], Proletari [The Proletarian], Novaia Jizn [The New Life], etc.); and the period of Pravda (The Truth – 1912-1917), characterized by mass agitation and the struggle to influence the entire Russian working class towards the seizure of power. It should be noted that working with the newspaper as the center of party activity was not exclusive to the Bolsheviks. Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, Trudoviks, independent activists, and even liberals also rallied around their own newspapers. Trotsky, for example, was a member of the RSDLP but did not belong to any of the warring factions and always sustained himself as an independent journalist. Throughout his activism, he wrote for various newspapers, and his coverage of the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913 even managed to “break out of the echo chamber,” if we can use this expression for that time.

After seizing power in Russia in 1917 and the establishment of the Third International in 1919, the newspaper was included as part of the party conception and became a mandatory feature for any organization aspiring to be a member of the Communist International. As a rule, the foundation of a communist party in any country began with the establishment of a newspaper, which could be more focused on agitation or propaganda depending on the stage of organizational development. In very small organizations, the newspaper served more as a propagandist and educational tool. In larger and more solid organizations, it functioned as an agitator and organizer. Foundational groups that did not have a newspaper were required to have one, as without it, they were not accepted into the Third International because it was considered that they were not engaging in substantial political work.

The revolutionary socialist newspaper throughout the 20th century

Thus, the history of revolutionary organizations throughout the 20th century is intertwined with the history of their newspapers. Taking the Brazilian example alone, we have the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) and its newspaper A Classe Operária [The Working Class]; the Trotskyist opposition led by Mario Pedrosa and As Lutas de Classes [Class Struggles], later succeeded by Vanguarda Socialista [Socialist Vanguard]; the Antifascist United Front of 1933 and its newspaper O Homem Livre [The Free Man]; the Marxist Revolutionary Organization of 1961 and its Política Operária (POLOP); the Internationalist Socialist Organization and its famous newspaper O Trabalho [Labor/Work] (affectionately nicknamed O Balho by the broader activist vanguard) in the 1970s; Democracia Socialista [Socialist Democracy] and Em Tempo [In Time], which shook the dictatorship by publishing the list of torturers under the military regime; Convergência Socialista e Democracia Operária [Socialist Convergence and Workers’ Democracy], later renamed Convergência Socialista [Socialist Convergence], also in the 1970s and 1980s. And many other examples.

Over the years, with the adaptation of many revolutionary organizations (including Trotskyist ones) to bourgeois democracy and the reformism of the Workers’ Party, newspapers gradually lost their prominence in party work until they ceased production altogether. The PSTU [Unified Socialist Workers’ Party] maintains a thread of continuity with the past through the publication of Opinião Socialista [Socialist Opinion], sometimes in print and sometimes in electronic format. However, publications like O Trabalho and Em Tempo, which played such an important role in the reorganization of the socialist left after the military dictatorship, no longer exist for many years. This reflected that these organizations had indeed abandoned the struggle for consciousness, which is the essence of revolutionary activity. Of course, having a newspaper is not proof of the revolutionary character of an organization. However, its absence is a rather serious symptom that should raise doubts about the strategy and program of a political current.

The challenges of party communication in the 21st century

It is worth noting that the emergence and massification of the internet from the second half of the 1990s brought about a revolution in communication, including party communication. It represented a paradigm shift, similar to the popularization of newspapers in the 19th century, and compelled all left-wing organizations to adapt to the new reality. Many organizations diversified their communication apparatus, creating websites and utilizing electronic distribution systems such as social media, email lists, and other mechanisms. This was an important and correct step because the focus should not be on fetishizing the medium itself. The Leninist conception does not reside in the specific media used but in the content: a centralized communication vehicle. Thus, left-wing organizations attempted to adapt, with varying degrees of success.

However, the internet itself evolved. On one hand, the period of relative democracy and freedom of navigation came to an end. Open networks and non-algorithmic mechanisms were replaced by closed networks and algorithmic mechanisms, with greater control over circulating information. Never before have so many people been connected, and at the same time, information traffic has never been so controlled, primarily for commercial but also political purposes.

Simultaneously, there has been behavioral fragmentation within online networks. Collective and institutional profiles and channels have gradually been replaced by individual counterparts: my profile, my channel, my account, and so on. Never before have so many activists produced so much content, yet party communication has been sidelined.

This new reality poses a challenge for socialist leftists who want to engage in the struggle for hearts and minds. Like 120 years ago, the question arises: what is to be done? Should we abandon party communication and rely on fragmentation as a means of reaching people? Should we maintain a singular and rigid communication vehicle at the expense of individual initiative among activists?

The issue is complex and does not have an easy solution. At first glance, it seems that a modern socialist organization should adapt to the new reality of the internet and social media, without relinquishing the organized struggle for consciousness. Therefore, a mediated solution is necessary.

The solution lies in a hybrid communication system with the following characteristics:

1) The political organization should maintain a centralized communication vehicle adapted to the new reality, with branches on the most important social medias.

2) At the same time, the organization should encourage the creativity and individual initiative of its activists, who should actively participate in the online space through their own accounts, profiles, and channels. There should be no “authorized” or “unauthorized” profiles designated by the leadership. The production of content should be as free as possible.

3) Close collaboration should be established between individual accounts, mandates, public figures, action fronts, and the central body of the organization. This creates a kind of communication ecosystem where the rhythm and content of the political contestation are determined by the central body, which, in turn, consists of a professional team that is fast, autonomous, dynamic, and attentive to the political reality and the mechanisms of social media.

4) The collaboration mentioned above should not only involve one-sided dissemination by activists of what is produced “from above.” We do not merely want followers and sharers of links. The central body of the political current should serve as an instrument of political centralization and internal democracy. Thus, activists should write, produce content, engage in journalistic coverage, create memes, and venture into the realm of analysis and politics, and all of this should find an outlet in the central body of the organization. This would revive the profoundly Leninist idea of a “network of correspondents,” adapted to the reality of the 21st century. The central body of the organization should be a truly collective construction, not an imposition from the leadership. If this occurs, despite the profound changes in reality, the central body of the organization can fulfill the role of the “collective organizer” that Lenin spoke of.

In essence, neither should we relinquish centralized political struggle through a communication body nor inhibit the individual initiative of activists. It seems that this would be a necessary adaptation to confront the challenges of political struggle in the 21st century, a period in which the far right and fascism have made significant inroads into social media, contesting every inch of ideological terrain.

Certainly, the thesis developed above does not answer all questions, especially those of a technical and professional nature. It also does not take into account future changes in the internet in general and social media in particular. All of these aspects are part of the work of the organization as a whole, and especially its leadership, which must be attentive to changes in reality and react as quickly as possible to maintain the delicate balance of this hypothetical communication ecosystem.

We must adhere to some good old principles in terms of organization and party building. However, it is also important to trust and invest in the activism of the younger generation, which is more dynamic and connected to the current reality. After all, the future belongs to them.