Social media and democratic centralism: Opportunities and challenges

Nov 7, 2018

Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of an internal document initially written in late 2015 and formed part of the basis for party-wide discussions in the Party for Socialism and Liberation in early 2016. The document examines the new possibilities and difficulties posed by the proliferation of social media from the perspective of the Leninist party. Ben Becker evaluates the resulting qualitative shifts in mass communication, obstacles to vertical organization, the individualizing tendencies of social media, and other tensions between social media and democratic centralist organizations. It analyzes this latter question by comparing social media with the original “collective organizer” for Leninists: the party newspaper. The final section of the article articulates the new security issues raised by social media. Because there are few works that address this issue in a systematic and action-oriented way, we publish it here as a resource for newer party comrades and others in the struggle as they grapple with the (often frustrating) realities of organizing in such an online environment.


Social media allows us to reach enormous numbers of people in a way that were previously very difficult, or would have at least required considerable resources (for outreach, flyering, phone banking, etc. on a mass scale). That is the exciting and widely talked about aspect of social media work, which we need to strengthen and make full use of.

As revolutionaries who study history, however, we know that mass visibility does not in and of itself lead to revolution. Revolutions are very complicated events in which movements and parties have to be able to “turn on a dime,” to operate in conditions of legality and illegality; they have to be able to survive the state’s sabotage, repression, infiltration, and misinformation.

The Leninist party form has been built specifically to withstand state repression. To have a large and national organization that can reorient quickly, move with political and organizational unity, and maintain the same level of discipline as the state (or even higher), communications and publications in Leninist parties have been vertically organized — from bottom to top and top to bottom. Maintaining these Party internal norms is of maximum importance to defend the organization and preserve its unity in action.

Social media poses considerable challenges to the Leninist party form and the broader socialist movement. It creates unlimited potential for horizontal communications between members, for gossip and innuendo in the movement, and for surveillance on members’ individual lives (level of political morale and activity, moods, finances, romantic endeavors, etc.).

It also creates spontaneity in the Party’s messaging (compared to print publications, which are created, produced, and distributed centrally by relevant leadership). Unlike a newspaper, social media allows members to pick and choose which articles they want to distribute, to objectively write their own headlines above the Party’s headlines, and essentially distribute their own articles, written by themselves or by others, without any Party discussion and feedback.

These challenges do not have easy solutions, but they can be addressed primarily through higher levels of consciousness among comrades about these challenges so that we consciously work together, we consciously build political unity, and we consciously practice democratic centralism.

The amount of time the working class, and all of society, spends on social media is reason enough for the Party to develop best practices and guidelines for its membership. In the span of a few years it has become the dominant form of media, drawing in literally billions of people worldwide and the vast majority of this country’s population. We have already recognized it as essential to all of our organizing work, agitation, and mass communications, but have not yet spoken to its deeper implications, or devised an organizational plan and operating guidelines to match.

The ruling class is highly focused on social media practices in their business operations and in the field of political organization. The ruling class has strict social media guidelines for its leaders and operatives. It also has thousands of paid people who work day and night to promote their worldview and defend their interests online; they use social media as a powerful tool for their ends. Their operatives are held to professional standards of conduct and they tailor their messaging with the intent of effectively persuading millions of people to follow them, donate to them, buy from them, vote for them, etc.

Professional revolutionaries — as distinguished from amateur revolutionaries — must strive to match this professionalism, and in fact go beyond it. Our project of social revolution is a thousand times more difficult and meaningful than their mission (self-promotion and personal aggrandizement) and thus Party members’ online conduct must display higher levels of discipline, humility, and coordination.

Last but not least, security concerns compel us to take very seriously our conduct on social media, which is by nature public and loose.

Social media: A qualitative shift in mass communications

Social media is not just a technological breakthrough. It is a technological shift that has fundamentally and permanently altered social relations in nearly every aspect of life, as well as mass culture and, of course, the means of communication. It is no less significant than the inventions of the printing press, the radio, or television that came before it, and significantly changed the world in their own right.

Social media indeed represents a qualitative leap from these forms on account of its horizontal nature. The computer revolution put publication tools at everyone’s finger tips. Social media, however, has extended the possibility of mass distribution across geographic boundaries, making the individual a de facto media outlet. This has vast potential for carrying out the Party’s strategy to popularize socialism, but presents equal challenges to the Leninist party form.

It is essential for all revolutionaries to adapt their modes of organization to the times they live in. The Party can strengthen itself by creating processes and methods to make the most of social media’s potential while also dealing straightforwardly with its built-in challenges.

That means both making use of social media’s potential for mass communications, while at the same time preserving (and in fact improving and updating) the centralism and “vertical” forms that have proven to be vital for the survival and success of revolutionary organizations. No revolutionary movement can effectively withstand, respond to, and overcome the centralized state without its own “vertical” model — based on the accountability of lower to higher bodies and a well-defined chain of command that allows it, as a whole, to rapidly respond to events, take initiatives and make retreats where necessary.

That is the fundamental challenge facing revolutionaries with social media. It facilitates the spontaneous expression of moods, ideas, and even actions, but a movement based on spontaneity and looseness will never defeat the apparatus of the centralized state (and the corporate media).

Spontaneity and horizontalism

Just as social media can facilitate, almost instantaneously, radical action and mass optimism, it can in equal measure spontaneously facilitate pessimism and cynicism. A revolutionary idea, event, or image can “go viral” and be absorbed momentarily by large sections of the population. A highly useful work of political analysis can take off online and be shared, read, and assimilated in the span of 24 hours among the country’s vanguard fighters. This is clearly an important new aspect of organizing in the modern era.

But just as easily, these progressive and revolutionary contributions can be (and are) followed the next day with new viral content that is imprecise, misleading, or downright reactionary. Out of this free-for-all culture of social media, the working class, and its most self-sacrificing fighters, will not spontaneously arrive at the generalized lessons of the class struggle, in all its complexity, nor will it develop the discerning eyes necessary to spot and combat the different shades of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois ideology masquerading as “radical” from one day to the next.

This sort of challenge — to provide clarity and coherence out of a confusing, tangled mess of various ideological cross-currents — is not new. In fact, the primary task of communists in every era is to weave into the struggles of the working class a far-sighted revolutionary vision and philosophy based on the scientific study of society and history. This has never been simple and easy because bourgeois ideology is always dominant in capitalist society apart from the most exceptional circumstances: that is, the rare moments when the working class en masse comes to the revolutionary conclusion that its future is best secured through the destruction of the existing state.

So social media in that sense accelerates, with a flood of nonstop political opinions and information, the general problem that communists always face. The communists of every era have to grapple with the question of what forms of organization and communication best serve this task in their context. This is where the idea of a “collective organizer” comes in.

The historical development of the ‘collective organizer’

In the founding era of Marxism, in which the proletariat was still in the process of formation as a class, revolutionary ideas were initially spread through high-level theoretical tracts and polemics among the radical intelligentsia and a relatively small substrata of literate, advanced workers. Publishing had advanced considerably from previous centuries, but remained expensive and labor-intensive, which limited the capabilities of the new socialist organizations. The primary method to maintain organizational unity among diverse radical collectives in a given country was the speaking tour. The ideas of the organizational center literally traveled, and arrived, with the lecturer.

The Second International witnessed the popularization (but also dilution) of key Marxist concepts through the rapidly growing and wide-ranging institutions of labor unions and labor parties, aided by the skyrocketing rates of literacy among the urban working class. These institutions produced a mountain of publications: pamphlets, books, newspapers, etc. for a range of audiences. By this point, the evolution of printing technology made the publication process far easier and more accessible for the working class and its organizations around the world.

The publications of the Second International period reflected the diffuseness of their organizations, which had multiple tendencies rather than a single political line. The publications contained widely divergent opinions, constituting a larger ecosystem of socialist thought and debate rather the unified voice of the Party or its leadership.

Russian Marxists at the turn of the 20th century displayed much of this looseness in their publications and Party organization, while also navigating the unique conditions of constant state repression and censorship.

Russia in the preceding decades had seen a major strike upsurge as the industrial working class came to life. Although fighting for immediate economic demands, the workers displayed their power to all sectors of society, and proved in practice to a generation of radicals that this mass activity, rather than targeted terrorism or a return to the countryside, would be key to the coming revolution.

Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1901) was a polemic against those who believed the Party could ride such spontaneous outbursts to a revolutionary breakthrough and defeat the state. His opponents advocated an organizational model where local chapters and collectives retained autonomous newspapers and focused on arousing the proletariat to action with agitation around their immediate economic demands.

Lenin envisioned another model based on a different understanding of the relationship between spontaneous and organized activity. In Lenin’s view, revolutionary Marxists could celebrate spontaneous activity only as an expression, in embryonic form, of the potential for conscious and directed class struggle. In fact, the purpose of Marxism was to wage a fierce struggle against spontaneity, because without the guidance of socialist ideology and leadership, the working-class movement would inevitably fall captive to bourgeois ideology and set its sights on its immediate demands alone. Lenin’s concept of maintaining a distinct organization that would introduce revolutionary socialist ideas into the spontaneous workers’ movement was not elitism, as anti-communists have long claimed. To the contrary, it was a call for Marxists to stop pandering to the workers, and instead draw working-class leaders into such an organization of highly dedicated revolutionaries, whose job was to constantly process, synthesize and respond to the range of political and class struggles taking place around the country.

For Lenin, this would take place through a national newspaper, the new “collective organizer.” While locally run newspapers could certainly have a place in socialist agitation, the main deficit of Russia’s movement was the absence of a national publication to bring out the general political line, demands, and vision of the movement. Localism in fact disarmed the activists and workers, narrowed their political vision, and left them unequipped to deal with the complexities of struggle against the state.

By engaging dispersed revolutionaries and workers with the same material, involving them in the process of assessment, and providing them in written form with the synthesized experiences of their comrades in other cities, a truly united national organization of revolutionaries could be organized.

The newspaper and democratic centralism

With all members bound to a common and central newspaper expressing the organization’s political line, they all knew that regardless of one’s location, a comrade in another city or town truly shared their vision and organizational model. While the Party had always practiced democracy in its meetings, congresses, editorial discussions, and in the election of leaders (including editors), this new type of newspaper form is what introduced centralism in a practical sense.

As all local chapters would respond to the instructions of the national newspaper, and promote it, the newspaper would provide a means to root out various forms of amateurism and arbitrariness, requiring the discipline of lower bodies to higher bodies — an absolute necessity to build an apparatus that could contend with the hierarchical state and its agents.

The cornerstone of Lenin’s new organizational form were the cadre members, professional revolutionaries who became experts in class struggle and became forged together through years of common activity and shared sacrifices. Just setting up an underground distribution network for the paper itself was one such shared experience that helped build the organization’s professionalism and capabilities.

The organization that took shape around Lenin’s proposals–the Bolsheviks–indeed developed a unique character compared to the organizational form of the Second International parties. In the revolutionary crises triggered by the mass destruction of World War I, only the Bolsheviks were able to seize and hold power. When the Third International was formed, inspired by the Russian Revolution, its member-parties replicated this aspect of the Bolshevik organizational form. The centralized national newspaper, functioning as the voice, or organ, of the Party leadership, was replicated in communist parties around the world.

Newspaper technology is well-suited for the vertical relationships that characterize democratic centralist organizations. At least until the computer era, printing a newspaper required considerable economic resources, human power, a physical center, as well as well-defined distribution networks. In short, printing and distribution was a major undertaking that required an organization to centralize its collective financial and human resources.

Newspaper production, at least when functioning in a healthy way, also included a period of democracy–when articles were discussed, reviewed, and edited by the comrades involved in the work and elected to lead it–followed by a period of centralism, when the publication was printed and all members were obligated to defend it even if they were not in full agreement with every article.

The realities of newspaper printing also had a built-in enticement for individual activists and revolutionaries to join organizations. Given that individuals and small groups could not easily set up their own newspapers (or at least not ones with significant distribution) to be part of a political project with any sort of national visibility required linking up with others.

In a way, the radical printing press was practically synonymous with the radical organization itself. That is why state repression was so often directed at shutting down and confiscating independent printing presses. From the attacks on abolitionist presses in the mid-1800s to the attacks on labor unionists in the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair, organizations could be essentially silenced without their presses.

In Tsarist Russia, such raids on independent presses were a major impediment to consistent publication, forcing radicals to go through processes managed by state censors. Lenin’s national paper, Iskra, helped alleviate the problem by printing abroad.

What is our collective organizer?

Today, the Party’s websites and social media pages perform functions that more closely resemble the “collective organizer” than the Party’s newspaper. When members, or other individuals, want to know what the Party’s perspective is on a given issue, they go to these sites rather than waiting for the newspaper. These sites post content far more frequently and centralize the disparate experiences of the class struggle (in our branches and around the world).

This is not to say the print publications do not play similar roles. The broadsheet newspaper is not the main and central Party voice, but it is a centralized tool for outreach and agitation, planned and targeted for the Party’s direct intervention into developing movements. It provides a common identity and line to our interventions regardless of what city we are in. The books also can play the role of a collective organizer insofar as they can draw large sections of the membership into common study groups and ideological discussions, refining and deepening the distinct political line of our organization.

Social media is not naturally a collective organizer

Because the website and social media pages require frequent updating to remain attractive, and have no limits for the amount of content they can hold, this undoubtedly introduces certain weaknesses in comparison with the classic “collective organizer” of the newspaper. The traditional party newspaper form communicated clear organizational priorities to members and other readers. It makes this clear in what is put on the front page, what is the subject of the editorial, which articles get prominent coverage and which do not. Some of these benefits of the newspaper can be retained within the website form with an appropriate layout, and the consistent publication of PSL statements and editorials. The launch of Liberation School helps the Party promote those in-depth works of analysis that it wants to feature.

But conveying organizational priorities is somewhat harder to do naturally through social media, where posts are simply listed chronologically or based on algorithms we can’t control or even fully determine (and are in fact selectively manipulated by major corporations). An article or statement that is highly important to the Party leadership and editors may get significantly less attention than one of lesser importance. It may get less attention because its headline is not as snazzy or its subject matter is not directly related to the current news cycle, the latest quirk in the algorithm, or because our members and readers have less familiarity with it.

In the traditional Leninist newspaper as the Party’s collective organizer, the front page story would be carefully selected. All members would know to read the article that was placed on the front page, and when they went out to distribute it, they would be compelled to explain its importance to others. Moreover, in distributing the paper, they would be distributing all of its articles, not just a few that most appealed to them personally.

By comparison when members today go to our website or social media page, they may skip right past that article— especially if it does not immediately appeal to their personal curiosity or personal interests. They may not distribute/share it simply because they assume their friends will not relate to it. This is a problem. If we do not set up conscious and deliberate methods to counteract these trends, social media can actually impede the ability of the Party leadership and publications team to centrally organize the membership through its publications. It can lead to compartmentalization–with certain comrades only promoting articles on certain issues–rather than encouraging unity and a communist attitude towards supporting all struggles of the oppressed.

Let’s consider another scenario, which in fact is quite common and has political implications that are easily overlooked. Let’s say the Party has posted an article about a police brutality case where the officer has actually been indicted after a large protest. The article is titled “People’s struggle forces indictment of killer cop in New York City,” and this is its emphasis, showing people that protesting can in fact make a big difference. At one place in the article it also says, “Of course, we should not expect justice from the capitalist courts–the struggle must continue.” Consider if a Party member shares the article with the caption, “Don’t expect justice in the capitalist courts!” In effect, they have changed the headline and emphasis of the article, contradicting the comrades who developed and decided it in the writing and editorial stages. The organized and accountable process of the Party (in this case the publication stage) has been overridden in the last stage of distribution.

Or consider if the comrade writes as a caption or tweet, “I’m so tired of protesting about something that should be so obvious!” This is an understandable sentiment, but it has actually flipped the spirit of the original article. Instead of an encouragement to continue the struggle, it reflects exhaustion and discouragement. Probably nine-tenths of one’s followers and friends will not click on the article itself (even those who “like” or “favorite” it). Has the comrade promoted the Party’s line or undermined it?

There is not an easy and scripted solution to this challenge, but it calls for comrades to be more vigilant and conscientious readers–to truly think through the Party’s orientation and emphasis in the articles they share.

Social media, in short, offers many opportunities for spontaneity to enter into the publications and distribution process, and therefore into the struggle to raise revolutionary consciousness. Because each member can create and instantly distribute content to the movement, the Party and the public, they are in essence a media outlet unto themselves. To overcome the spontaneity and individualism of this, making sure that the organization’s publications and political line shine through, requires conscious, deliberate and organized activity.

The best safeguard is of course to use social media in coordination with other comrades, so that talking points and captions are, even if personalized to a degree, completely consistent and unified.

Systems that are easy to censor

An additional reality is that the means of production in social media are privately controlled. They are fundamentally in the hands of our class enemies, who can and will use these powerful tools against the people’s movements and to disorient the population–or even pull the plug on social media services entirely if they get out of hand.

Such drastic steps can have disastrous consequences for the ruling class. When Hosni Mubarak pulled the plug on Twitter, it enraged larger sections of the Egyptian society and compelled more to go to the protests and see what was going on for themselves. But the major tech companies have now developed, at the behest of governments, sophisticated techniques to censor certain content, and have shown a willingness to shut down profiles and pages that are deemed “national security threats.”

This suggests that while the Party makes the most of the current political “freedom” to engage in conventional mass communications through social media and email, it must also study the methods and experiences of contemporary radicals operating in more adverse political conditions.

Security issues and vulnerabilities

The security dimensions of social media are of primary importance. The FBI, DHS, NSA, local police agencies and private security contractors have entire divisions and departments focused on social media intelligence-gathering as their full-time jobs. Practically all intelligence-gathering operations, and a huge amount of prosecutions, rely on social media.

Because social media is “public,” the even nominal constitutional safeguards that exist in other forms of communication are of little utility on social media. These agents can easily create fake profiles, “friend” people in the Party or movement, and then accumulate vast amounts of intelligence. These agents have a personal and careerist motivation to invent and exaggerate threats, to “find something” that can be actionable or put into an intelligence product to impress their superiors.

Every member of the Party and the movement should conduct themselves on social media with the expectation that their activity there is not private. This is so even for the general populace, but magnified enormously for members of the PSL, an organization that orients itself towards the sharpest points of political struggle in a variety of social movements. There is clear documentary proof, as well as loads of personal experience, that speak to the amount of time and energy police and “counter-terrorism” agents have used in tracking, infiltrating and sabotaging the movements that the PSL has been centrally involved in: the anti-war movement, the Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, etc. That these movements were not engaged in criminal activity and were almost entirely non-violent is of little consequence to them.

When the state investigates or sabotages an organization or movement, what sort of information are its agents interested in? Everything. Above all, they look for personal vulnerabilities, internal weaknesses, and nascent contradictions between members, or with others in the movement, which can be exploited. In addition, they are looking for sensational language and imagery that can be distorted and manipulated into a potentially criminal offense, used to justify larger investigations, or simply saved to demonize the organizations’ members at a later point.

Here’s a scenario: If an intelligence agent goes to an event of an organization and then adds a good deal of its members on Facebook, what could they gather? Once they have added two or three members, they could soon become friends with the rest (based on their “shared friends”). By simply monitoring their pages over a short time, tracking “likes,” comments, images and other activity just one person could identify:

1. Who hangs out with who, effectively mapping the organization
2. One’s personal routine, including regular whereabouts
3. Who is the most active, who is inactive, who is popular and influential
4. What issues and struggles matter most to which members
5. Who is dealing with financial and family problems
6. Who seems personally frustrated or depressed
7. Who is politically demoralized (this can be surmised simply by the absence of posts that coincide with the organization’s initiatives, or indirect passive aggressive content)
8. Who appears to have “divided loyalties,” functioning in a friendly way with individuals who are hostile to the Party (for instance, an ex-member who was expelled)

Just as a member can easily detect all the above information about the members of our own branches, we can detect it about other branches and others in the movement. So can the state. The reality is that individuals now naturally give away this information about themselves quite freely.

There is no simple solution to this problem as long as members use social media. The important thing is to use one’s page to project unity, solidarity and revolutionary optimism; to consistently post articles and events involving the organization; and generally to avoid hints of internal contradictions and personal weaknesses. While many people in society use social media as an online diary, as is their prerogative, all comrades must ask themselves: as a revolutionary, do I want the state to have my diary?

Once you are identified as an organizer and revolutionary, everything you say and do–online or in person–will be seen as a representation of your values, your political identity, and the organization(s) that you represent. While social media has taken media and publications out of the exclusive hands of the bourgeoisie — yielding far more opportunities for poor and working-class people to promote and publicize their views–it still promotes petit-bourgeois and individualist notions of “private ownership” of the content one creates. We must make full use of social media’s possibilities while guarding against such sentiments.

Like all technologies, social media platforms themselves are not inherently good or bad, or progressive or regressive. Instead, it is the political and ideological contexts in which they are situated that, to a large extent, condition the limits of their use. By identifying the challenges and opportunities they present, we can most effectively wield their power, while not succumbing to spontaneity, losing sight of our organizational norms, or becoming over-reliant on them in our organizing work.