Tuesday 4 January 2011

On Quitting Socialist Blogging

Can you remember when right wing blogs "dominated" the blogging scene? They bestrode the internet like a colossus, telling anyone who'd listen that blogging naturally leant itself to conservative politics. The left was too thick and too wedded to tribalism to appeal to non-partisan audiences. Not ever being noted for modifying their opinions on the basis of evidence, the right have consistently underestimated the spread and reach of left wing blogging. Just a year ago Guido and Iain Dale were looking forward to an interesting 12 months, but I don't think either of them seriously thought their hegemony was under threat. And now as we enter 2011 Guido has slipped down the Wikio rankings (determined by the number and "weight" of incoming links), and Iain has abandoned the field altogether. Liberal Conspiracy and Left Foot Forward rule the Wikio roost, and Labour List and Labour Uncut are not far behind.

Some might say that Wikio doesn't really matter, and that's right. Audience figures do. If you take Alexa's word for it, Guido's site is currently
ranked 1,698 in Britain. For Liberal Conspiracy and Left Foot Forward it's 4,157th and 10,115th (yours truly is currently 37,784th - well above most of Britain's Trotskyist outfits). So Paul Staines and his sidekick, Harry Cole/Tory Bear still rule the blogging roost. Or do they?

As I have
argued before right wing dominance, such as it was, rested on shaky foundations. Apart from Conservative Home, which doubles up as an online resource for Tory activists, the Guido/Iain model was all about Westminster gossip. Beyond that the next tier of Conservative and "libertarian" bloggers, such as Dizzy Thinks and Archbishop Cramner busy themselves with ephemera, opinion and polemic. Others, like John Redwood 'do' economics, but as a whole tthe right's collective blogging output is within the bounds of conventional politics and opinion. The left, defined here as the most mainstream Labourite to the angriest class struggle anarchist, has a much wider purview. Left bloggers do all of the things right wingers do, and more. The left, collectively, is as much at home deconstructing sexism and racism in the media, and advertising and reporting on protests as it is commenting and critiquing the comings and goings of establishment politics. With the explosion of student protest and occupations a few months ago, the collective network of left blogs not only helped the actions organised by UK Uncut go viral but provided a ready made space for the existing left and newcomers to think and debate the way forward.

Simply put, the left has more to offer internet-travelling audiences. I've said it before: right wing bloggers offer politics. Left wing bloggers offer politics plus.

The change in government and the high profile of the student/anti-cuts movement is pregnant with opportunities for getting socialist ideas out to a wider audience. But, strangely, it's not just right wingers like Iain Dale, Tom Harris MP, and Mr Eugenides who have dropped out since the coalition's formation. The left has been affected too. Splintered Sunrise has gone (though may be back) and Susan Press's Grimmer Up North has closed, ostensibly because Twitter offers more opportunities for engagement. Of the dozen or so Socialist Party blogs I used to promote while I was a member, about half have fallen into disuse. Labour Twitter "celebrities", like John Prescott and Ellie Gellard have seemingly thrown in the towel too, and approximately a third of the blogs covered in new blog round ups over the last year have gone. Is this the normal churn of blogging life? Is something else going on?


As a Marxist it is a truism that social being conditions consciousness. I remember a conversation with a Coventry SP comrade a few years ago. We were talking about political activity and the problem of substitutionism, of, in some instances, far left organisations having to take up the initiation and prosecution of campaigns in the absence of wider public involvement. I can't remember the answer, but one of us asked what happens when things start to move? Would some activists habituated to being "in charge" of campaigns and the routine of stalls/interventions/paper sales find it hard to adapt to circumstances when large numbers of people are getting involved in protest activity, trade union struggle and community campaigning? And if so were they likely to drop out or retreat to specific forms of activity where they feel they're making a contribution?

The hard left are perennial oppositionists and, in practice, the passage from Labour to the Coalition has meant little beyond dusting down a few old anti-Tory slogan. It has, of course, effected mainstream Tory, LibDem and Labour bloggers in different ways, but I find it hard o believe any Trotskyist blogger hanging up their keyboard because the Tories and LibDems got in. Burgeoning anti-cuts activity, however, is a different kettle of fish. Whether the viral shop occupying stunts of UK Uncut or the student protest/occupation movement, both have more or less swamped the far left and bypassed them. For all of the previous hard work the authority the far left has in the wider movement is extremely low. Faced with the prospect of having to build up a party's profile in more activated circumstances, I can imagine some rank and file members of Trotskyist organisations are disoriented by the spontaneity and not having a handle on things, despite the constant emphases their leaderships have historically placed on the likelihood of explosive struggles.

And if it can happen to them, wrapped and coddled as they are by party discipline and perspectives documents, what about lefts outside those organisations? Many have got stuck in (and have abandoned blogging to do precisely this), but there are others who will be all sixes and sevens. What's the point of churning out socialist criticism to a small online audience when the placard and the sit-in gets those points across more effectively? Or, if you're a more mainstream Labour blogger, what could you possibly say to radicalising youngsters when your politics are wedded to 'slow and shallow cuts' and electoralism?

It is possible the shift in the real life 'political being' of activism is working its way through left wing political blogging and might help explain why apparently large numbers are upping sticks. Just as some are inspired and fired up by the movement, others are at a loss on how to relate to it. Therefore no one should be too surprised that at the moment left blogging stands on the edge of the political big time, the casualties from within its ranks continue to mount.

Image Source)


Anonymous said...

"What's the point of churning out socialist criticism to a small online audience when the placard and the sit-in gets those points across more effectively?"

If this is the reality then it's worrying, but the case is strong for socialist blogs to provide theory to back up direct action (in-keeping with the notion of praxis).

What's worrying is the amount being churned out on simply documenting those direct actions (and I'm as guilty as anyone else; it's so easy to do when you're demonstrating throughout the day and beside your laptop by night).

It's a beaten to death subject now, but the debate between Laurie Penny and Alex Callinicos was probably the most important thing either of them have done for a long time (with the exception of the latter on the subject of postmodern theory).

Many people would disagree with me, saying that the two writers regressed into a world of intellectual masturbation (though I'd argue this is no regression for Callinicos) - I'd disagree in the strongest terms, and I'd say further that blogging is the precise host for theory (preferable to mainstream press or even academic journals) to match the direct action of students and workers.

To add to this, socialist blogging is the appropriate host for applying socialist theory to the action that has taken place, and will continue to take place while our government wields it's axe on the most vulnerable of society.

Oranjepan said...

wikio debased its measures after it abandoned ('tweaked') its formula and started trying to measure two things in one over the summer (ie retweets and backlinks).

perhaps I could ask you to address what the rest of the political spectrum has to offer - your personal dualistic right/left divide just isn't relevant to large numbers of overtly conscious political blogs (let alone the vast mass which comprise the overwhelming majority of blogs), or should I take it that you use overlapping definitions to suit?

Jim Jepps said...

I think political blogging is changing in this country for two reasons.

1. The election is over. Quite a few political people were blogging as part of a general election effort. Prescott for instance is very focused on what he uses the net for - and is very good at it partly for this reason I suspect.

That means plenty of blogging aimed at either a change of government or maximising the vote for their people have served their purpose - and I suspect that sometimes this wasn't conscious.

2. Change of government. Despite what people say Labour and Tories are not identical and the shift in policy has thrown some bloggers and energised new ones.

Attack blogs based on how shit the government in have had to undergo a crisis of conscience when the flag was changed, and those who once gallantly put the government line now find themselves criticising the very sort of thing they might well have defended before May.

So - that's my theory. The elections are over, goodbye 'vote for us' bloggers. The situation has changed

P said...

I'm pretty sure most of the great socialists would have used blogging as one of their communication techniques. It used to be said that the first priority of any revolutionary movement was to get their own printing press, now we all effectively have a press at our fingertips.

I think one reason socialist bloggers pack in is very similar to the reason why many other bloggers pack in. It's a discipline thinking of something to write about, week in week out without becoming repetitive. My own blog is full of hiatuses where pressures of work, life and lack of inspiration conspired to prevent the flow of ideas into the etherstream.

Another reason, which may be particular to socialist bloggers, is that when there is no movement, you can be an individual voice, and blogging platforms are very much set up to encourage the individual blogger.

As soon as a genuine movement begins, a question is asked of the blogger: Do I continue to be an individual voice? Am I now a spokesman for my party? Am I a spokesman for the movement?

The answer to the latter questions is generally NO, a voice for a movement needs to be democratically accountable, to have an elected and recallable editorial board, to discuss and debate what line to take in order to properly represent a collective line of thought.

Nobody elected me, nobody can recall me. It's both a strength and a weakness of blogging.

My blog, and most left blogs, is an individual voice, it is not a party blog even if I have loyalties to a party, it is not a voice of the the movement, is a voice that is part of a multitude of diverse voices, united by common affiliation to a class and a craving for social justice and democracy.

Gorky was a single socialist voice, a fountain of talented and insightful prose, but it was Iskra, with it's editorial board, its debates and its splits that tied the bolsheviks together through stormy times.

On the smaller scale however, Trotsky talks about how each local revolutionary group carried out its own propaganda work, often separated from the centre - composing their own leaflets and developing themselves as agitators and educators as quickly as each layer of leaders was arrested and exiled.

Blogging makes our movement like a hydra. Even if the News of the World hacks were to succeed in intimidating 'Socialist Unity', there would be many other bloggers pushing out the same message. It's useful for the movement to be represented by diverse voices, where the science and art of writing and reading, acting, thinking and learning can be practiced by individuals and propaganda groups, by tendencies and parties.

All revolutions are verbose, and blogging gives a useful platform for verbosity. Underneath the verbosity, it provides a useful record of how individuals and groups have addressed different issues, how their thinking has developed and changed.

Socialists, almost more than any other political trend, like to feel infallible, so when they are confronted with the ghosts of texts they wrote in other times, they can find the growing realisation that they also have an accountability to their past and future selves deeply challenging. Facing up to this accountability is one of the finest ways to develop learning, and the flexibility to address events you discuss in your post.

Mike Ballard said...

A blog solves the old problem of distribution of the radical press. Distribution use to involve a lot of leg time and then, there was always the commodity barrier, getting the damn thing sold or selling it to a distributor's limited shelf space in order to get it sold.

Keep blogging; but do something with your blog which will promote class consciousness about the condition of being wage-slaves and the necessity for a free association of producers to emerge within the womb of Capital. Provide an alternative vision of how things *could* be, if we got it together and organised to make it so.

And remember these wise words from 1907:

"No bunch of office holders will emancipate the proletariat. The emancipation of the proletariat can only be the mass-action of the proletariat itself 'moving in,' taking possession of the productive powers of the land." Daniel DeLeon,

dizzy said...

Bless, "ephemera, polemic and opinion" - not just politics though.

Alex Dawson said...

Without disrespecting the world and work of the political tweeting-blogger, I think it's important to put things in perspective here.

On the recent top 100 political tweeting-bloggers list on this blog, Alistair Campbell topped the list with 50,000 followers.

50,000 people would not even fill the Arsenal ground.

A lot of coverage is given to Twitter feeds by news organisations and journalists, but on figures like this you can see that, certainly in terms of actual participation, political tweeting is very much a minority and slightly elitist sport. By the same token, general political blogging is very much a small-scale activity that has not engaged large sections of society in any widespread way.

This is not to do down the excellent work that is done - I have often thought about doing a blog myself for my ramblings.

But then I realise that I spend on average maybe half an hour every few days reading a couple of selected blogs (basically here and SU on a regular basis), leave some comments on them and then forget about it.

When would I have time to do a blog justice? I suspect the same can be said of many of us who have things to say, but cannot find time to say it as we are working more and more hours.

Also the internet is still really in its infancy. I think a lot of people thought blogging would give them a wide audience and platform for their views. When they realise that there are thousands of others doing and saying roughly the same thing and that they are not going to get invited onto This Week to display their philosophical genius any time soon, I think despondency kicks in.

Political blogs have not, yet, engaged the public in any large or meaningful way. They may do in the future, but it is wishful thinking to suggest that a single revolutionary blog, or facebook group, or online petition will lead to the education and eventual emancipation of the masses.

But they are useful for sharpening and focusing debate amongst like-minded people and are a threat to those self-appointed political leaders who would seek to control and condition our opinions. So, in the end, blogs are good.

andy newman said...


"I have often thought about doing a blog myself for my ramblings."

At Socialist Unity we are always happy to consider one off articles by guest writers, if you have something to say about a particular topic.

you can send to office@socialistunity.com

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite - not cos I agreed with much of what he wrote, but because it was often interesting - lefty blogs, by Liam Macquade, seems to have vanished too. Why's that? No warning, it's just been deleted.... :(

Phil said...

That's certainly how I see the role of blogs playing out, Carl. The primary audience of blogs like yours and mine are activists engaged to greater or lesser extents in politics in the real world. As far left organisations generally are pretty poor at critically reflecting on what's happening in movements (due to leadership infallibility, loyalty to established positions, strategic horizons limited by small group needs) there is a gap for blogs to play here.

And yes, the sort of theoretical debates we have online are more important than what happens in academic journals. I know, I used to work on one dedicated to social movement theory and very little of it has spilled over into contemporary activism. And these sorts of debates reach out to wider audiences that would never touch a journal.

Phil said...

Oranjepan, it depends how you understand right and left. If you go from the basis of first principles - essentially an idealist approach - then left and right makes little sense, particularly in an age when a number of Labour MPs are indistinguishable from LibDems and Tories.

But at the centre of my politics is the labour movement. I believe Marxism represents the clearest expression of its interests. So the positions allies and opponents take up makes sense in terms of left and right as long as that is taken as an expression of politics to the relation between labour and capital. If you don't like that definition, tough.

susan press said...

Grimmer Up North just became too much to do after day at work writing....it had also run out of steam. And I decided to call it a day rather than not give it time needed. Blogs have a shelf life.
I may do another in the future..

Phil said...

Yes, the election has changed the situation for a lot of mainstream bloggers, Jim. Just look at the juvenile swear bloggers of the "libertarian" hard right - many have dropped like flies now their ideological bedfellows are in Whitehall. But I think something more is going on for leftists - especially when I purposely didn't include those blogs set up with the express purpose of electing someone.

Jim Jepps said...

I think there's an important point there about quality (as distinct from readership). Most political blogs aren't worth reading - and that holds true on the left as much as other trends.

One thing that does concern me though is while Tory or Labour blogs are happy to see themselves as part of one 'family' regardless of political differences left blogs tend to be very insular - not just ignoring those who are not on the left but also ignoring those who are from the 'wrong' part of the left - only really recognising their party affiliates and those they want to attack.

For me that feels like a reflection of the political realities of the left's sectarianism and I'd like to see a little more cooperative spirit on the left blogs in 2011

Phil said...

River, I bet Marx and Engels would have been inveterate bloggers.

I have done some thinking about blogging and party discipline before - see this one, for example.

On responsibility, because you're a SP member not only will comrades in your branch hold you responsible for your blogging thoughts, but also others on the far left will approach you as a SP blogger. Unless you make explicit what your own opinions are some will just assume they're that of the party as a whole. You may be an individual voice, but you'll be treated as a representative of your organisation anyway.

It's different for socialists who are members of the Labour party. Only but the most numbskull Spartoid would suggest Labour lefts are responsible for the Iraq war or the pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment. So we are "free" of immediately being interpreted through the party identity prism. But there is still that same responsibility toward the organisation as a whole. The criticisms I make of the Labour leadership are not extraneous - there part and parcel of what I consider to be my political project. And I know if I cross a line comrades will pull me up on it in real life.

Also, coming back to what Carl said atop this comments pile and with reference to your Gorky example, no one is an island. Party publications should, in theory, be the distillation of its collective experience (I don't think many far left papers and journals are, but that's another debate). My blog, your blog, Carl's blog, whoever's, have the potential to be distillations of our experiences as activists-participants in the labour movement. Each is a particle, a neuron if you like, of our collective intelligence. Through each other's writing we recognise ourselves, the movement, and the problems/potentialities in front of it.

Phil said...

TGR, that might be the case for some bloggers. The internet is littered with blogs that last a few months before their authors found something interesting to do. But when this natural rate of churn is high and you have a cluster of relatively well-known names dropping out, you know something's afoot.

Phil said...

I have no problem with that, Mike. I am a socialist. I would like to live to see the beginning of the building of socialist society. To this end I think what left blogs do best - provide a space to reflect, criticise and discuss - is the biggest contribution it can make to our movement's self-awareness. There are more things blogs and bloggers could do to act cohesively and in concert, which is why events like this Saturday's Netroots are so interesting and vital.

Phil said...

Oi Andy, don't you know it's bad form to canvass for contributions from a comrade in another comrade's comment boxes? ;)

You're right though, Loz. We are about four years behind the Americans where it comes to the impact and readership of political blogging and though the big ones there are an order of magnitude more influential than anything British blogging has, it is still a minority pursuit.

While a mass audience would be nice for left blogs it's the quality of the audience that matters most. My readers are mostly activists of one left stripe or another. I know what I write will be viewed by people who've been stuck in a kettle, do the grinding work of organising union recognition, are stuck into party political activity, and are engaged in the tough work of building an anti-cuts movement. What is said, what is highlighted, what is criticised, and what is argued can influence, encourage and aid activists, who in turn provide material for those who blog. It's a locked-in dialectic of theory and practice.

Phil said...

Anonymous, Liam Mac left blogging suddenly for personal reasons. That's all I'm prepared to say about the matter and I hope comrades will respect his decision by not speculating further.

Phil said...

What will be telling Jim is seeing who turns out at the Netroots event in London this weekend. There are people from the centre left, some feminists, and a few Blairite-types involved. If I could afford it I'd certainly be going. But would I have been the only Marxist in the village? I strongly suspect there'll be a no show from the Trotskyists.

And Susan, before anyone else collars you, any time you fancy battering out a blog post you're more than welcome to have stuff featured here.

Oranjepan said...

Thanks for the reply, Phil, I think you have a couple of important and interesting points to make which are worth a bit of further investigation.

Power politics can be defined in a variety of ways other than labour/capital, so discussion of the cause and effects of how society is divided is, as you say, influenced by our choice of which political prism we personally choose to filter it through.

My concern is also that this has a big impact on the ability of commentary to detract from or encourage activism, so 'navel-gazing' (to use the perjorative preffered where I usually hang out) is criticised as the hurdle which actually holds blogs back.

I think the organised media started to recognise what this means in the blogging age and has reasserted its dominance by better catering to it's audience: the left through more niche groups, the right through more assertive voices (neither of which is totally incompatible with Murdoch's preferred term, 'greater balance', although opposite perspectives give different implications).

However this still leaves many outside the defined boundaries of left and right on any particular issue who reject the standardised models on offer.

So my question, to a self-describing Marxist sociologist (who clearly understands his theorised political model), is how you'd characterise the extraneous sections and whether it is actually more helpful in the meantime to belong to them or to spans within the thatleft/right divide.

If so, is it more of a help or a hindrance to bind yourself and your opponents to historically contingent and personalised ideological labels like 'Marxism', 'Trotskyism' and 'Thatcherism', 'Blairism' or 'Brownism' - ie does this aid the progress of debate, or does it leave you fighting past battles over and over again?

And isn't there much to be learnt from the types of new audiences those sections can attract and the ways in which they do so?

Or, more simply, how much polarization do you think is good for society?

skidmarx said...

"50,000 people would not even fill the Arsenal ground."
Actually the Arsene stadium is regularly announced as being full to capacity when there are thousands of empty seats.

ModernityBlog said...


It would be nice to see a resurgence of socialist blogs, but it seems unlikely in Britain, given its continued decline and the intellectual stagnation which Last Century's Left has bequeathed.

Admit it, even the Carnival of Socialism had problems finding people to host it on a regular basis...

ModernityBlog said...


Which is peculiar and a bit annoying given the resurgence, hopefully, of Anti-Toryism...

Jim Jepps said...

Oh! As it's been mentioned Carnival of Socialism is up and going again. We've had two good December editions and we have another coming up - so if anyone wants to volunteer to do the one after that go to C of S to do so.


Sorry Phil!

A broader point about carnivals is that many of them are struggling and I think in the light of new technologies like rss and the growing use of feeds they may all die out soon - or transform.

I'm currently thinking about what kind of developments would be useful for blog carnivals that keep the inclusive spirit.

Phil said...

No problem, Oranje. The antagonism between labour and capital isn't the only social conflict of note, but it conditions (and is conditioned by) all the others. How that relates to this blog is self-evident - I write about the state of the far left, socialist strategy, the labour movement, political issues and whatever takes my fancy. I don't think I bash people over the head with clunky use of terminology (though I reserve the right to use 'comrade' promiscuously).

While some writers pick and choose from the ideological grab bag I like to think my opinions are pretty consistent and joined up. The same is true of other socialist bloggers which is why, admittedly in my own opinion, a lot of the best blogging comes from this quarter. So no, I don't think labels are much of a hindrance, particularly when it captures the core essence of someone's politics. And labelling ourselves doesn't polarise society - if that happens its the result of far deeper processes than what the far left are saying and doing.

Phil said...

I think we're seeing an insurgent left online Mod, borne aloft by the anti-cuts movement. I think some of the most interesting and strongest analyses of what's happening now is being done outside the organised Trotskyist left. I guess I would say that. But it's true: set the output of the two aside and the former come out head and shoulders above the latter. The big disadvantage blogging has is the individual activities of the blogger and perhaps a few readers are informed by those analyses. For the left groups there's a collective to carry their strategy out.

Phil said...

I'm interested in doing a Carnival, Jim.

I don't think there's any reason why the spirit of the times should be against it. It's always been a problem to keep it sustained for long periods for all kinds of reasons.

Jim Jepps said...

Mid Feb Phil?

I like it anyway and am keen to see it carry on.

modernity said...

Maybe you could have a Carnival of Socialism on the theme of leftovers...

As in those useless placemen from New Labour that currently run the LP?