Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Friday, November 18, 2005

Blogging: New Commentariat or New Grub Street?

The Guardian on Thursday had an article on the rise of political blogging -in particular on how prominant 'pro-war Left' bloggers seem to be - indeed apparently forming a 'New Commentariat'.

'But what has emerged here is a fully fledged alternative wing of the opinion industry, challenging the primacy of newspaper commentators. All political viewpoints thrive within it, but one has become notably prevalent: the stance generally identified as "pro-war left", of which Harry's Place is an example. It is a line of argument that seems not to have diminished, in stridency or popularity, as the Iraq debacle has worsened.'

As a result most Marxists looking at the 'blogosphere' from outside understandably tend to take the view that bloggers are a bunch of sad, deluded bitter ex-Lefties who sit around on the internet ranting away at the world but doing nothing constructive whatsoever to try and change it. Typical of this viewpoint was this letter in response the next day from Paul Flewers, a Marxist who among other things has edited a collection of essays about the 'Enigmatic Socialist' George Orwell, (which I bought but then infuriatingly almost immediately lost and am as a result still rather bitter about):

'One key feature of internet discussion is just how much of it consists of ignorant and intemperate saloon-bar ranting, as each blogger and respondent rambles on as if he (and it usually is a he) is an expert on the subject and that anyone else's views count for nothing. The weblog phenomenon has done very little to raise the tone of political debate and plenty to lower it.'

Whatever the merits of this argument, and there is a kernal of truth to it, I think it rather misses the main point about blogging - which is that blogging undoubtedly is part of a wider and still ongoing communications revolution. We do not know the consequences of this yet. It is not unfeasible that in the not too distant future almost everyone (in the 'advanced' capitalist countries at least) will have their own blog just as almost everyone has a mobile phone or email address today. Why not? Marxists therefore should not cut themselves off from this wider revolution - just as revolutionaries today do not say, boycott mobile phones - indeed mobiles are essential for the modern revolutionary. How on earth did Lenin and Trotsky manage to organise the storming of the Winter Palace without mobiles?

To me blogging today resembles less a 'new commentariat' (which hints of a new orthodoxy dominated by experts from above) but rather a bottom up led phenomenon which is about the creative use of new technology. A better comparison it seems to me would be to the print revolution that developed in late eighteenth-century Paris and which created what the historian Robert Darnton has called 'Grub Street', the literary underground of the Enlightenment.

This was a world of 'pirate publishers, garret scribblers, under-the-cloak book peddlers, smugglers, and police spies' that emerged as 'ambitious writers who crowded into Paris seeking fame and fortune within the Republic of Letters... instead sank into the miserable world of Grub Street - victims of a closed world of protection and privilege. Venting their frustrations in an illicit literature of vitriolic pamphlets, libelles, and chroniques scandaleuses, these "Rousseaus of the gutter" desecrated everything sacred in the social order of the Old Regime. While censorship, a monopolistic guild, and the police contained the visible publishing industry within the limits of official orthodoxies, a prolific literary underworld disseminated a vast illegal literature that conveyed a seditious ideology to readers everywhere in France.'

In short, there was a profusion of pamphleteering in the run up to the Great French Revolution. There were plenty of dodgy characters around, much of it apolitical and about sex and so on, and most of it was about people trying to just make a living and survive. The comparison with the world of blogging seems to me to be compelling. There are plenty of dodgy bloggers out there, many bloggers seem only too happy to prostitute their blogspace to advertisers and try and make money out of it. Of course, just as there was a lot of money made by publishers out of the explosion in print technology in France at this time - so corporations today are eager to make as much money out of the phenomenon as they can.

Yet, - and this is the point I am trying to make - the new printing technology of eighteenth-century France was used by radical activists to expose and attack the ruling elites of France at the time - just as there are many anti-capitalist bloggers trying to do the same today amid the dross and 'saloon bar ranting'. Marxists should not be afraid of engaging with the rise of blogging - just as radicals in France before the Revolution did not just ignore the potential power of the new print technology. More people reading and writing blogs can only be a good thing in general - particularly if it allows the corporate media to be challenged. In short, the 'pro-war Left' bloggers may well be a new Stalinist style Commentariat. However revolutionary socialist bloggers should see ourselves as following in a different tradition - we should proudly declare ourselves the modern "Rousseaus of the gutter".

For more on Robert Darnton and 'Grub Street', see here, here and here. Edited to add Lenin's Tomb's take on the 'new Commentariat', which is well worth a look.

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At 7:21 pm, Blogger Ed said...

Hmmm. Well I agree up to a point, but there is a tendency to exaggerate the importance and significance of blogging. I disagree with Flewer's characterisation of blogging as 'saloon bar ranting' (although, clearly there's a lot of that) - there's good and interesting blogging and then there's bad blogging.

However, most blogs have a very limited readership (even the largest blogs don't come close to the circulation/readership/viewing levels of major newspapers and news programmes) and if, as you suggest, the number of blogs proliferates even further, the reach of any particular blog is likely to diminish even further - with more blogs to choose from there's a smaller readership for each.

I don't doubt that blogs are an increasingly important kind of media and do provide for the circulation of ideas that might not, previously, ahve got much of an airing. I just don't think that they herald some kind of communications/media revolution.

One difference that occurs to me between the Grub Street press and blogging, is that there were probably fewer leafleteers than there are bloggers and secondly you have to go actively looking for blogs whereas you could have a leaflet shoved into your hand in the street.

At 8:26 pm, Blogger Martin Wisse said...

Old fogey alert:

I made largely the same argument back in January 2003.

At 5:54 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Ed and Martin - thanks for your comments - I am sure the debate about whether blogging constitutes a revolution in communications or not has been around a long time.

I would however defend the thesis that it is a revolution for two reasons.

Firstly, on the question of Grub Street - it was not the case that subversive literature was just leafletted in the streets and so easy to obtain. On the contrary there was censorship of anti-clerical and anti-monarchical pamphlets. One of Darnton's books is called something like Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-revolutionary France. However, blogging is much more difficult to censor and also anti-capitalist bloggers in general are easier to find I think than getting hold of some cutting detailed critique of Marie Antoinette in 1780s Paris.

Secondly, I think blogging is different because anyone with internet access can set up a blog easily - and without the cost of maintaining a website - that potentially can be read by anyone else - that has got to be some sort of leap forward for humanity.

I am aware that it is easy for bloggers to overstate the significance of it at the moment - but in the future I really think in time kids will grow up and think having their own blog is normal. There are more and more people starting blogs at a quite incredible pace.

What that means - and indeed the existence of the internet in general - for the future of socialism has to be considered I think. The monopoly of companies like 'Blogger' is an issue here, but I think socialists should in general be optimistic about advances like this.

At 6:27 pm, Blogger ejh said...

there is a tendency to exaggerate the importance and significance of blogging

You're not kidding. Basically I think you need to write primarily for yourself, to say things you want to say and help clarify your own thoughts. This applies even to political blogs as well as to the sort I write. If anybody else is reading, it's a bonus.

At 2:02 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi there,

great piece

couldn't see a way of emailing you direct - so i'm gonna ask in the comments

can i pinch this article (with acknowledgements / links) for the site www.socialistunitynetwork.co.uk ?


ps you can email me from the site if you like :)

At 9:27 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Yeah sure, if you like - thanks.
My email address for future reference is histomat@hotmail.co.uk, but I check it irregularly.

At 3:11 pm, Blogger android said...

Interesting. I have rather schizoprenic views about the implications of technology for politics. On the one hand, the argument can be made that the growth of blogging, twenty-four hour news, podcasting etc. etc. represents a higher awareness than ever before of current affairs and "politics" broadly. But on the other hand, so much of the new media has become saturated by consumerism and what is, in most blogs, shallow and uninformed discussion which is more narcissistic than political.

I think both sides of the argument have truth in them. The stress, as you suggest, must be the same as it always has been: Discussion is fine, but it only means anything when associated with political action and an involvement in governance. The figures for this tend to suggest that, in spite of the supposed virtues of new media, political involvement is in decline as post-industrialism marches on.

At 5:25 pm, Blogger Red and Green said...

Paul Flewers has certainly got a bee in his bonnet about blogging, of course there will be an element of ranting but that happens within Marxist organisations as well. As snowball wrote originally whether we like it or not blogging is part of a communications revolution.

Reading some of the Darton article
blogging surely is about how societies can try to make sense of the events that happen within and around them. Any new form of media should be encouraged the commercial media is controlled by the moguls, the alternative media of which blogging is a part is in many ways necessary if we are to get to the real truth of the issues. Read some of the Iraqi bloggers and call them saloon bar ranters if you wish but many times I and others have learned much about what is really going on from them rather than the daily newspaper.

Anyway why not have a place where some can sound off if they so wish? lets all make the most of it whilst the web is still relatively unregulated.


At 6:15 pm, Blogger minifig said...

i don't think that blogging should necessarily be compared to the mainstream media, and especially not newspapers - i think there are core differences between them.

ed wrote "most blogs have a very limited readership (even the largest blogs don't come close to the circulation/readership/viewing levels of major newspapers and news programmes)and if, as you suggest, the number of blogs proliferates even further, the reach of any particular blog is likely to diminish even further - with more blogs to choose from there's a smaller readership for each"

well, of course, but i think what you also have to bear in mind is that a lot of these new blog writers are also new to world of reading blogs, so as more people are writing, the numbers of readers grows too. it is this proliferation that's one of blogging's main strengths. for example, if a blog writes about something that is offensive, or untrue (in the conventional sense) little is likely to be done to the blogger, since there will be so many of them writing similar things on other blogs.

also, their large number also makes them very different from a newspaper. blogs are not only free to read, but you can also read a few of them to get a variety of different views - something that a newspaper rarely, if ever offers.

i could go on, but if the number of bloggers continues to grow, and i think it is likely - there will a huge change in the way we communicate and this will impact on society. i certianly think that all people, whatever their political views, need to realise that this is likely to be our future and it's worth making use of it while it's still growing.

sorry this is such a long post...

At 11:47 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

I think that is what I was trying to say Minifig - thanks for expressing it better. I have not studied the rate of growth of bloging in detail, but it feels like it is on a steep curve upwards at the moment.

Personally speaking, I only really found out about blogging about a year or so ago, despite having been on the internet for years before. At first I thought they were pretentious and indulgent, but then I started reading some of them, contributed to a friend's one for a bit, and then 5 months or so ago I finally got around to setting one up for myself.

Perhaps all this is just me generalising too much from my own experiences, but I suspect the more people who find out about blogging, the more popular they will be.

Also we have to fit this into what is happening to print media in general - it is slowly being undermined by the internet. Why pay 50p a day for a paper, when you can read it on the internet? And once more people are relying on the internet for news, the proportionate power of the corporate media can and will be weakened.

At 8:52 pm, Blogger Victor S said...

V. good piece, Snowy. One quick point, though, that 'New Grub Street' was in fact the name of the novel by George Gissing satirising those writers who care little for artistic endeavour, favouring instead hack writing for money. The term 'Grub Street' thenceforth has been used as shorthand for any sort of hack writing.

At 4:47 pm, Blogger Caliban said...

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4442988.stm check this out for a practical demonstration of the increasing influence of blogging

At 6:24 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers Caliban - one blog that made the news in that case was this one:


At 11:28 am, Blogger Dave Riley said...

I came across this post on the SUN site --one I have contributed to in the past and I may take you up there as a follow up way of carrying on the thread.

The problems with radical left blogs is that there are so few and when they surface they tend to be insular and inward looking -- that is within the confines of a closed left milieu. There are exceptions -- such as Eli Stephens’ Left I ON The News. http://lefti.blogspot.com/ -- but generally they aren’t all that accessible, at least the ones I’ve come across in my travels. It si similarly the case that they are each isolated fropm one another.

While there are occasional attempts to harnass them into a blog alliance -- indeed I think that was a name used for a time -- there’s a certain individualism demanded by blogging that doesn’t sit so easily with the spirit of collective activism that we embrace. This in part explains, I think, why right wing libertarianism, even of the US Republican type, seems to prosper in the blogoshere.

Nonethless as a blogger with over over 2 years experience who has set up, I guess, about a dozen blogs for various purposes, I think that blogging can have a salient role. One is specifically for varous campaigns or news threads. We’ve also experimented here with them as events listings (like a sort of message board), dynamic short lived focused blogs (such as the 2005 Tsunami)and as adjuncts to various committees. I’ve been promting their use but theres’ an unwillingnes s to experiment and take up the options.

But they can apply to a lot of requirements as they tick a lot of boxes.

I like them anyway -- evn though I’m moving into podcasting more and blogging less. So I’m retooling and rebooting. And podcasting or am,aybe audioblogging has a lot to offer the left with is preference for polemic and focused exchanges. Podcasting is already gnerlaly “more left” than blogging and its only 18 months opr so old. I think we cna have a big impact on that form , much more than with blogging.

Dave Riley

Life of Riley Blog: http://ratbaggy.blogspot.com/
Ratbag Radio:
Skype: dave_r_riley

[blog I podcast I web radio I Mp3 audio]


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