Knowledge, education & revolutionary organisation in the networked age

It used to be that revolutionary organisations had a monopoly on revolutionary knowledge. That was one of the reasons people joined and worked with them.  But now anyone who can use google can access vastly higher quality information on revolutions than I could in 1980's Dublin by going to SWP meetings or buying left papers.  

When I first got involved in revolutionary politics the internet existed but with almost no one on it outside of computer science college students.  There was little or nothing in the way of anarchist writing online.  Back then one of the big deals about going to college was that I had access to loads of information in the library that I otherwise would have had no way of accessing.  I did Botany but it was the fact that I had access to a couple of dozen books on the Russian revolution in the college library that was really important to me and I read them all.

If I wasn't in college I'd have had almost no access to any but the most mainstream histories of the Russian revolution and, through the couple of left wing bookshops, leninist propagandist accounts that told little or nothing of the complexity of that revolution.  I could and did go to London where there were anarchist bookshops but all the same the information available to me through google and, with a wait of a few days, through Amazon is magnitudes more detailed and accessible.  

This is very significant for the formation and shaping of revolutionary organisations today.  Back then public meetings and debates on the Russian revolution were genuine sources of information that were not available through any other means.  A good few WSM educations in the early 1990's consisted of one or the other of us getting a book out of the library and presenting a summary of what it said.  For sure the process was flawed but back then even a tiny revolutionary organisation like the WSM (it had 5 members at that point) could play a genuine educational role week after week. This significantly added to the benefit of joining a revolutionary group for anyone interested in ideas.

Today it is very different.  Any book still in print can be obtained within days (through Amazon) if not seconds (if you have a Kindle or other e-reader).  Youtube is packed with high quality political documentaries and lectures.  Wikipedia will give you an instant summary of any significant historical event that would have taken months to piece together. 

This makes it very much more difficult to get people to go to public meetings on knowledge based topics like the Russian revolution. It also makes internal eductional discussions based on the latest book I've happened to read very much less attractive.  The greater access to knowledge is a gain but the weakening of the gaining of knowledge as part of a collective revolutionary endeavour is a significant loss. One important effect has been to push political debate on these questions away from public view and instead limit it to arguments at parties or internal high level educational sessions whaich may be hard for novices to access.

There are no easy solution and wishing for yesteryear is no solution at all. On this topic I think most of the old knowledge based lectures of the left are simply dead and gone. There are exceptions

1. Celebrity - thousands of people recently attended lectures by Noam Chomsky in Dublin where by all accounts he presented a narrow fragment of what any of them could have read in his books. Chomsky though has the status of a star so people were more than willing to travel and que to see him at the end of a vast hall.

2. Controversy - The feedback forms for the last Dublin anarchist book fair showed many people came to hear Laura Agustín speak on Sex Work as Work. Again it was possible to read what she has to say in very much more detail online but clearly the controversy around the ongoing Sex Work & Feminism debates meant that many wanted to be there in person.

3. Eyewitness accounts - There remains a significant attraction to hearing about a major event from someone who was actually there. This is not what it once was, in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution left groups tended to do meetings based on 'Eyewitness Egypt' which often didn't amount to more than a brief visit from one of their members. That may lure people along but they are liable to go away disappointed.

4. Common purpose - for routine small meetings this is what is most important - not so much the knowledge being imparted but the ability to gather with others of a very similar mind to discuss its ramifications.

5. Common development - very similar but in this case the attraction also being that its part of an ongoing process.

It is the exceptions of 4 & 5 where the revolutionary organisation retains its greatest relevance, our internal educationals in particular bring together people of common purpose in a project of common development. As a WSM member I have taken part in educationals on that basis with other people who are still members for up to 23 years. That is a process of collective development that can not yet be substituted for. The difficulty however is that it is hard to include new members in that process precisely because its based on such a long history.

Beyond those exceptions I think the left needs to (and is) transforming its methodology for theoretical discussions to ones that are more attractive than the standard lecture. We have been experimenting with this through the Conversations about Anarchism format in which small groups discuss a number of pre set questions. World Cafe discussion formats are also becoming more common. Both of these attract people not on the promise of knowledge to be delivered but rather on giving them a chance to discuss their own views with other like minded individuals.

Can that sort of set up be the same sort of recruiter for revolutionary organisation that the old styles lectures once were? Almost certainly not. Part of the reasons lectures recruited was because of the hierarchical relationship they set up between the party expert and the listener. Built into that relationship is the concept of the party as something better than you to be learned from and thus aspire to. The loss of that is of course a positive rather than a negative as it set up from the start a very counterproductive relationship.

But the new style is a challenge because participants still tend to look on the host organisation as being responsible for creating a fulfilling experience. We are becoming better at staging events that fill that need but I'm concerned that this is on the basis of creating a narrow layer of highly skilled facilitators whose relationship with the participants may not be that different from that of the experts of old but may be even less transparent.

This post is the first of what I hope will become a large series of post around the problems of modern revolutionary organisation.  A lot of these postes are going to be quite rambly as they are first drafts of ideas where I don't want the need to edit to stand in the way of publication.  This post is the result of thoughts that came to me cycling to work flowing out of recent conversations and experiences. In other cases I will be writing about the experiments the WSM and other movements I'm involved in have been making. To get some background perspective on where I'm coming from read either or both of the very long pieces I've written in the last couple of years that have looked at theory around this question in the context of my own experiences.
The WSM & fighting the last war - a reply to James O’Brien
Kicking off the 2011 Revolts in the age of the Networked Individual

I'm very interested in engaging other people in these posts so please do post comments and please do engage on an ongoing basis by checking back regularly or following me on Twitter.   When I have some time I'll create a tag ( its Networked revolution) for these pieces and for pieces already wiritten that I think are relevent to this discussion to make it easier to pull up an index.

WORDS: @Andrew Flood


A great piece - looking

A great piece - looking forward to reading more in the future.

Some input from my own, limited experience... Here in Dundee, we have set up our own branch of the Anarchist Federation in the last 12 months. Our membership is small. But what we have done is start recording the audio of our meetings and putting them online, so that even if the on-the-day attendance is very small, we are not discouraged because we later see many more people in the virtual audience engaging with the material. Also, we are aware that some people who might be interested in coming along, but who are possibly intimidated by the unknown, will get more of a sense of what they can expect if they listen to past meetings. Finally (although I suppose perhaps this point has always applied in a more general sense) we are trying to address topics which we know people outside of the traditional radical left are going to be sharing links about on social media to try and engage new people; so, for instance, in the weeks after Thatcher's death, we held a meeting about Thatcher and put it online for people to start sharing.

Good observations. Spot on. I

Good observations. Spot on. I too am looking forward for the next rambling. :)

–Kim Keyser

Andy What about a list-serve


What about a list-serve similar to Marxmail's latest 100?

Only with the headers under the emails and each one numbered so a series may be quickly saved without renaming.

Professor rat

 OK I've started putting some

 OK I've started putting some previous articles and blogs relevent to thus topic together under a Networked revolution tag

This article from Micheal

This article from Micheal O'Flynn might be of interest:


Been thinking about this for

Been thinking about this for a while now, and it's good to find someone to share my doubts and opinions. Looking forward for your next update!


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