History and Communications

A few weeks ago I received a letter from someone who quoted Karl Marx as having once said, “History moves with the speed of communication.” This quote struck me.

We are living in a time when communications are both near-instantaneous and potentially-worldwide for an ever-growing number of people. Something which happens in one part of the world can be reported on or learned about on the same day, even at the same time it is happening.

More significantly, with the advent of the internet, grassroots, labor, progressive, revolutionary and people’s movements can be in direct, immediate contact, in an interactive way, with thousands or tens of thousands people involved. The internet, through email lists and web sites and because it is not controlled by the ruling corporate elite, is becoming an increasingly powerful tool for the building of massive movements for progressive change. Without it, it is highly unlikely that the actions in Seattle last November and Washington, D.C. this past April would have attracted the numbers and had the immense political impact that they did.

It seems to me that this makes it possible for positive change to take place much more rapidly than many of us might think. If it is true that the year 2000 is witnessing a rebirth of the kind of popular, activist, multi-issue movement that we haven’t seen in 30 years in this country, and if history does indeed move “with the speed of communication,” this first decade of the 21st century could well become a time of great historical significance.

After all, it is a law of physics that “things in motion tend to stay in motion.” If the new people’s movement of the 21st century can hold together and keep building and interconnecting, there is no way to forecast how much we can do in a relatively short period of time.

But there’s another way to look at Marx’s quote, which is not so hopeful.

“Communication” is a pretty neutral word. However, the actual practice of communication between organizations, among the groups, constituencies and movements which make up a potentially winning alliance for fundamental change, has left much to be desired over the years. Unless we learn HOW to communicate, genuinely interact and share with each other in a way which builds trust and confidence, our enemies, as they have done in the past, will exploit our differences and divisions and keep us from creating a lasting, united force.

We need to prioritize the “how” of unity-building.

Immanuel Wallerstein, in an essay, “Antisystemic Movements,” published in the Monthly Review book, “Transforming the Revolution,” has written of the need for “a conscious effort at empathetic understanding of the other movements, their histories, their priorities, their social bases, their current concerns. Correspondingly, increased empathy needs to be accompanied by restraint in rhetoric. . . Discussion needs to be self- consciously comradely, based on the recognition of a unifying objective, a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian world. . . Movements will have to devote considerably more energy than has historically been the case to intermovement diplomacy. . . (This will) make possible the combination of daring leaps and structural consolidation which could make plausible a progressive transformation of the world-system.”

This is advice that men, middle-class white men in particular, need to seriously consider and meditate on. It is such men who still tend to be the leaders of many of our progressive and people’s organizations. It is these men whose style of leadership, too often ego-driven and self-absorbed, has held back or made it more difficult for women, workers, people of color and/or young people to give leadership.

We need leaders who work hard, who listen well, who have a sense of humor, who are able to accept criticism without becoming defensive, who feel good about others coming forward to move an organization’s work forward, who don’t have to get the credit all or even most of the time. Such people will be good at the kind of communication that builds the trust and unity which is the cement of a popular alliance that can really change the world.

Perhaps the words of Marx should be re-phrased for our century to read, “History will move with great speed if communication in all its forms is well-practiced.” Let’s make it so!