A critical interview by Wayne Foster of Steven Johns from the libcom group, about the libcom.org project and the general state of things.
Libcom.org is a constantly expanding online resource that seeks to promote working class self-organisation through publishing news, theoretical texts and historical articles. Site traffic has risen from 25-35,000 visits per month in 2005 to 110-170,000 now and there are now 2,600 active users. The site contains over 7,000 articles ranging from brief reports to full books and has recently benefited from a major upgrade. It’s maintained by a collective of ten people, including Steven Johns.
Steven, It seems to me that Libcom has a narrower political position than other online resources, certainly compared to Indymedia, a-infos or infoshop. According to Wikipedia:
[Libcom is] also influenced by the specific theoretical and practical traditions of anarchist-communism, social ecology/communalism, anarcho-syndicalism, the situationists, autonomist-marxism, council communism, and writers including Marx, Peter Kropotkin, Harry Cleaver, Murray Bookchin and Anton Pannekoek. However, although they include texts from both the Marxist and Anarchist traditions, their project is based around understanding and transforming the social relationships we experience in our everyday lives...
Is this an accurate description? And why did you reject the ‘independent’ approach that is favoured by more neutral resources?
I’m not sure what you mean by ‘independent,’ but yes, I'd say the Wikipedia description is accurate. We are revolutionaries and communists, but we don't think of revolution as a millenarian endpoint and communism as a potential utopia; we see communism as the real living expression of mutual aid, co-operation, self-organisation and resistance all around us, every day. We seek to encourage, publicise and push forward these tendencies where we encounter them.
I suppose by independent I mean that, where as some of Indymedia’s publicity claimed to replace corporate bias with a mixture of supposedly objective reporting and open access on the principle of free speech (within limits), and other sites strive to give value-neutral coverage within ‘the movement,’ Libcom pursues a specific bias informed by the class based theoretical positions discussed above. You make editorial decisions, and argue points on your forums, based on a particular reading of revolutionary politics and this, I think, makes your project quite different.
Right yes I think this is accurate. Partly our site is narrower than indymedia simply because it is smaller, the pool of contributors in particular is far smaller. But yes we do have well-defined political ideas, and a high level of political agreement within our collective. We believe in our ideas so we want to propagate them. At the same time we do not want our site to help air ideas which we think are counter-productive to building working class power. From more obviously reactionary ideas like racism and fascism to other ideas, which are still popular amongst "radicals" but which we believe are not useful, such as Leninism, nationalism and support for national liberation movements, mindless action-ism, etc.
We are not proponents of "big tent" anarchism, especially when we would have to share a tent with misanthropic anti-socials, paedophiles, end-of-the-world primitivist cultists, etc. We also wished to avoid the problems a lot of open publishing sites have with rubbish posted to them like paranoiac conspiracy theories, anti-Semitic Islamist articles, Zionist propaganda, "national anarchism" and "libertarian" capitalism and other assorted shite.
Are there any issues on which the collective does not yet have an agreed political position?
We're a young collective, all in our early to mid-20s, we certainly don't think we have all the answers. We have a very high level of agreement, but there are issues we're still discussing internally to some extent. Mostly the role of political organisations, anti-fascism, syndicalism and the nature of the unions. And the Jews. Ha ha.
It seems to me that in the UK there are currently two contrasting libertarian tendencies. One position owes a political debt to the direct-action eco-activism of the nineties and the anti-capitalist movement, is characterised by a desire to produce publicly visible ‘actions’ and is oriented towards the margins of society. The other pole is more theoretical, emphasises class struggle and workplace organising, and at present is not engaged in confrontational public action. If we imagine a spectrum between these poles then perhaps the Dissent Network, the Camp for Climate Action and the Sack Parliament demonstration would be located towards the former end of the spectrum, and Libcom towards the latter?
In the last few years, relationships between groups at opposite ends of this spectrum have often been antagonistic, and one of the charges repeatedly made against activists who are critical of confrontational protest politics in general, and against the Libcom collective in particular, is that they don’t do anything; they are inactive. But, even without discussing your political activity away from Libcom, it’s obvious from the work that is necessary to maintain the website that there must be few people who devote as much of their time to the development of the libertarian tradition as yourself and others in the collective. So the criticism being made doesn’t concern the quantity of your activity so much as the form that activity takes. Sorry, this question is like a ‘question’ from a Socialist Worker at a public meeting, but what I want to know is why you and your comrades decided to devote so much energy to this form of political action?
I think we reflected on our previous political activity and our experiences of the anarchist movement. We looked at the strengths and weaknesses of what people were trying to do, and we considered it in the context of our situation. We had to find a form of activity that was appropriate in the UK in the 21st century at a time of low class struggle.
As I said before, we're young, and we’re very conscious that most of our generation have no experience of collective struggle. Not even any kind of union membership or strike action. The most basic ideas of solidarity which were commonplace 20 years ago, such as not crossing picket lines, are largely unknown to young workers today.
So we think it’s important to get out all the information we can about workers’ struggles, to let people know that in the past and present workers have struggled to collectively improve their lives, their working conditions and their local areas.
That, combined with the fact that there are no mass struggles ongoing in the UK, and that revolutionary anarchist ideas are almost non-existent in British society meant that we decided our time would be best spent in "propaganda" activities – that is, getting out and sharing information, news, and libertarian communist ideas. (It should be noted that people in the libcom group are involved individually in other activities and other political groups like the Solidarity Federation, Antifa, etc as well as being active in their workplaces.)
Some of us tried print publishing – helping out with and then editing Freedom Newspaper, but we became frustrated with the nature of the medium. We would have to scramble to meet deadlines, and expend so much energy just getting the paper done that we would have no time to advertise or try to sell it outside its existing readership. So we basically kept preaching to the converted every fortnight. Also, if we published a really good article one issue, it was read by the few hundred subscribers but then that was it, it was gone.
With online publishing we could slash running costs, attract a massively increased readership, remove the pressure of deadlines and allow all content to remain published permanently. Using the web also means that people who might never see an anarchist publication can stumble across articles on our site – we get 54,000 google referrals a month (plus 6,000 from other search engines). The fact that some of us work in offices is an extra bonus in that we can work on the site while being paid at our jobs!
That’s an interesting point about google referrals (I’m often directed to pages on Libcom when researching topics other than anarchism). I wonder if you could say something about the target audience of the site generally. To what extent are you trying to communicate with and influence the spectrum of political activity that I mentioned above? And to what extent are you trying to communicate with and influence the wider class? How has your approach varied and developed in response to these perceived audiences?
Actually I was googling for a picture of Jeremy off Peep Show to use for a visual joke the other day and got referred to an image on libcom.
But on the subject of your question, we have content directed in two directions. Firstly, and most importantly, at working people generally; secondly at people who would identify as political radicals, activists, socialists or anarchists.
For these aims the site is split into different areas. We have specially formatted content areas, where all articles meet a strict style guide. In the news, thought, organise and history sections all articles are under 2,000 words and are aimed at the educated layperson. So they’re not patronising but they do explain all references to historical figures, acronyms, organisations, ideas and events which aren't well known. Unfortunately, almost all anarchist media outlets take too many things as given and reference the Spanish Civil War, Peter Kropotkin or groups like the CNT without explaining them. To further help understanding we provide a glossary of terms with introductions, and try to interlink articles as much as possible.
Our second set of content areas is directed mainly at politicos, and includes the library and the forums. These have much less stringent guidelines, and in the library articles are included as written, without extra clarification.
In aiming content at workers generally, we hope to let people know about struggles that are going on (news), struggles that happened in the past (history), ways people can struggle collectively to improve their lives (organise) and the ideas which workers in struggle came up with as a result of those experiences to help them fight for a better world (thought). Our broad hope is that in some small way we can let people know that collective struggle and solidarity are not dead, that these things still go on, that workers can and have improved their lives and conditions by collective direct action.
In the library, our more politico-oriented content aims to keep online important theoretical texts and documents which often disappear as smaller sites go offline. We also have a lot of original content, some of which has been painstakingly scanned in by us or our users, which we hope will generally push radicals in a more libertarian, more class struggle-oriented direction. Our hope in the forums is similar; that through discussion and debate libertarian communist ideas can be demonstrated to be the most consistent and sensible for improving the world. That is the "propaganda" aim with the forums anyway, though this is secondary to what we hope can be achieved by sharing information and networking.
Does this distinction not mean that the site is an educational resource for workers generally and a networking tool for those workers who identify as revolutionaries? This distinction seems to involve lapsing back into an activist – and class struggle anarchism can also be activism – mentality, where revolutionary activity centres on converting people to an ideology. This seems in contradiction with communism as a living, every day, expression of mutual aid and resistance?
I would disagree with this because for those of us in the libcom group, the website is our collective activity but we engage in activities outside of it which we would also consider to be part of our "revolutionary activity."
On "activism", I'd like to clarify the terms. A dictionary definition of activism is "The use of direct, often confrontational action, such as a demonstration or strike, in opposition to or support of a cause." This is fine.
What we want to avoid is the situation where people become obsessed with "doing something," even if what they are doing is useless. We can't create mass struggle out of nothing, and we don't support "activistism" which is undertaking elitest small group actions for their own sake.
So is there a contradiction with communism as a living expression of resistance? I don't believe so. Our news and history articles don't end, like so many anarchist texts, with the words "and that's why you should be an anarchist." They outline events, explain a particular issue as it affects workers, describe what workers attempted to do about it, and consider if they succeeded or failed and what lessons other workers can gain from the experience. We believe that the combination of all these experiences logically leads to the adoption of libertarian communism as an idea but most of our site is directed at encouraging and spreading information about collective struggles using direct action – expressions of this living communism.
That said we don't attempt to hide our politics by pretending we're not really revolutionaries or communists in order to be populist. Firstly because this would be dishonest, and secondly because we believe it's important in itself to propagate the idea of libertarian communism, since we believe it holds the best ways for us as working class people to improve our lives. So we do this and provide tools for other libertarian communists with the other areas of our site.
We also want to support networking of a non-ideological kind, based on common interest – by industry, employer, local area, etc. We are making a number of moves in this direction with our new regional, sector and tag content classifications. We have not initiated any specifically industrial projects yet but this is something we are keen to do. For example, we offered to set up discussion forums linked from the old McDonalds Workers Resistance site, but they had problems at their end (I think they were drunk). We have communicated with groups of workers in struggle, for example a striker at a nuclear power station was posting regular reports from his strike, and we helped edit them and put them into a more reader-friendly format.
The forums have been improving in this area recently, with discussions currently ongoing with workers in disputes in the NHS, postal service, local government, and more. We are very keen to develop further in this direction.
I appreciate the examples you give, and I know how difficult it is to catalyse collective struggle in the UK at present, but isn’t this the problem, or the challenge? Isn’t this almost the definition of communist activity?
I understand that much of the site is a resource, a library of information, and I know that libraries are not necessarily spaces where people organise, except librarians. But you have identified Libcom’s role as more than preserving and disseminating information; you’ve argued that it’s also a space for networking and organising. I’m certainly not arguing against holding a rigorous theoretical position, on the contrary; if that position maintains that communism is an achievement of the whole class, rather than the ambition of a politicised section of it, then the structures and networks we aim to establish have to be about connecting people who are alienated from each other, even though they share experience.
Okay, platformists from other sides of the world can talk to each other online and we can say this is networking, or organisation, but they would talk to each other whether Libcom existed or not, and either way it would have little to do with the self-organisation of our class. The old spaces where that happened – the public meeting, the union hall, the shared lunch break, even the local pub – these spaces have been attacked, and I wonder if the internet generally, and Libcom in particular, can help connect people, and enable organisation and networking amongst likeminded members of the same neighbourhood or profession? Amongst people who have similar problems because of where they live and work, and who by connecting with each other can begin to build the structures that can resolve those problems and transform our world?
In terms of meeting spaces, that's totally right. These spaces, in the UK at least, are almost totally gone, especially with regard to any meaningful working class organising. So in a way online resources are an attempt to cope with the loss of those physical spaces, but in another way they have big advantages. The nature of the net means that far more people can potentially communicate across the whole world. You might never meet someone else who works at your company at a street corner meeting, but there is much more opportunity to do so online. It would have been a lot more difficult for workers at Walmart to come into contact with each other without the net whereas lots can discuss things on retailworker.com, for example.
The organise forum is the best place at the moment for people to try to exchange experiences with others. It has been used to a small but significant extent. Recently a London health worker was asking for advice about restructuring in her workplace, another health worker from Northampton explained what happened at his place when a similar re-organisation occurred. Another forum user from London posted about a strike against NHS restructuring in Manchester, and posters from there visited the picket line.
Still, I think that many users of the site could benefit from posting more about their personal situations, and I would like them to a lot more. It's a shame that so much "politics" has become detached from our everyday lives.
Yes, I know you’ve tried hard to avoid perpetuating detached political activity- that almost seems to have been an ambition of the site. How have you gone about this? And what relationships do you have with groups that engage in this kind of detached activity?
In terms of the two broad wings of contemporary anarchism you mentioned, we did used to aim content specifically at "activistist" types in order to engage them. Our listings (of anarchist and direct action groups, spaces, media, etc.) used to be our main effort here. But we decided we couldn’t be bothered. Spending our energies providing the most comprehensive listings for UK libertarian groups we didn't agree with seemed foolish, and we had broken from this wing of the movement a long time previously, so we took them down. Having discussions with them often weren't very productive either. For a while the social versus lifestyle anarchism debate dominated our forums, but it quickly became clear that the individualists and primitivists consistently lost, so they mostly buggered off.
Now we have no engagement or connection with that wing of the movement, and as a whole they certainly seem to have quietened down, and have much less of a profile than previously. I think a lot of people can end up emulating the first set of anarchists they come across. You decide you're an anarchist, then you meet some, see what they do and figure that's what you should do too. Most of us fell into this trap when we first became involved in anarchist politics, through the Anarchist Youth Network.
Partly due to their better use of new technologies like the net, the activistist wing of the movement had a much higher profile than the social anarchist wing. In particular the world's biggest Anglophone site, infoshop.org, plays a big part in defining the anarchism-as-a-hobby approach, and this is very different from anarchism as a method and tendency for improving our everyday lives. We think we have helped reverse this, initially through confrontations on our forums and now just by the prominence we give to libertarian communist ideas. Because we are the biggest anarchist website in the UK, lots of English-speaking anarchists looking to find out more or get in touch with others will now do so via our site.
Yes, I remember those battles on the forums. That all seems very irrelevant now and perhaps that’s a sort of progress, or perhaps we were mistaken to think these arguments were ever relevant to communism as we have defined it?
I’m sometimes worried there is a legacy of these confrontations expressed in the politics of the site. For example, public concern about ecological issues is currently higher than ever, but it seems that Libcom carries little environmental news or debate. Surely, if communists don’t make these issues imperative then we abandon the terrain of discussion, and possible solutions, to lifestylers and reformist and (increasingly) mainstream politicians. Do you think the site’s attitude towards environmental issues is influenced by seeing them as the territory of action-obsessed activism?
No not at all. I don't see environmental issues as the territory of the activistists really – as you say everyone's an "environmentalist" these days. Most of the mainstream media is now quite adequate at reporting environmental news and seems to be getting more and more hard line about it. At one time it was enough for countries to sign up to Kyoto for them to satisfy the press, now it's frequently mentioned that much larger cuts in emissions are needed to stop catastrophic climate change.
Of course the media don't mention the root causes of the environmental crisis – the capitalist imperative to "grow or die", over-production, cost-cutting etc., although they do often lay blame on the oil industry – and there is often a heavy individualist consumer bias. This means that the solutions they propose are not based on working class action but on buying organic, recycling, carbon-offsetting, not flying, etc. There are also corporate media outlets like New Scientist which cover environmental issues very well, far better than we could hope to in the near future, and of course there are the NGOs as well. There is a need to propagate communist ideas about the environment, but as far as news reporting on our site goes it's not a priority for these reasons.
Because of our small numbers we have to prioritise and rather than try to report on lots of things inadequately, we prefer to concentrate on one main area and do it well. For us this area is workers' struggles – particularly self-organised ones. If someone came forward who wanted to regularly contribute environmental news that would be great. Personally climate change was the reason I became interested in politics, and the first article we put in our Everyday manifesto was the entry on the environment. The manifesto will be one of our most heavily-pushed sections when it's complete. It details our analysis of the environment crisis, its causes and what we think we can do about it. We think that capitalism is the cause of the crisis, and the way to solve it is to strengthen workers' organisation in environmentally destructive industries in particular, and all parts of society generally. So we see our coverage of workers' struggles as being very much interlinked with this.
As for a lack of debate, well on our forums anyone is welcome to discuss the environment. But generally there are not that many discussions about macro political issues, more about smaller things which we could potentially do something about. I think this is a positive sign, since much of the "left" focuses on the latest big political issue, like the war on Iraq, which would be very difficult to influence, and completely ignores the general problems of capitalism in our everyday lives. Often it's only when we have the power to confront these small problems that we can move on to bigger things.
You’ve been involved with this project for several years now, what have been the highlights for you?
Well, the main one has to be our coverage of the struggles against the CPE employment law the French government attempted to introduce which would have allowed bosses to sack workers under 26 for no reason . We had the most comprehensive coverage of this struggle available (in English) anywhere in the world and featured in the Guardian, Washingon Post, BBC, and other places.
We get a lot of emails and forum posts from people saying they appreciate what we do, which is always nice (and a few bad ones, but we like getting them too). As I mentioned earlier the strike reports from the nuclear power plant worker were great. Also, when some people went to a picket at a refuse workers strike in London that they read about on our forums, they saw that one of the strikers had printed a history of another strike of bin workers in Brighton from our site and taken it to distribute to his co-workers.
We've also got in touch with a number of people via our forums that we would probably have never met in real life, which has been great, particularly a few people from Turkey, Japan, Egypt and Israel. That an interview we did with one of our group, a former sex-texter, has been top of google for "sex text" for a couple of years is quite impressive! (Though admittedly we bet most people who clicked on it would be sorely disappointed, especially if they met Jack.)
Another member of our group is a university student, who has seen texts on libcom given on his course reading list, including articles on Hungary 56 and even our whole race archive. We have heard of threads on our forums being widely read, and even being printed and discussed at meetings, and have met people from all over the world who tell us they read the forums and the site.
Current ongoing discussions in our forums about disputes in the public sector amongst postal workers, NHS, local government and civil service staff have also been a highlight for me, and very much reflect what we want libcom to become.
On a lighter note some of the fan fiction posted on our forums certainly livened up a few work days for me as well.
A big "lowlight" was definitely the site getting taken down by a hacker which took a couple of months to get back from. Although it did spur us on to upgrade the whole site to a more secure and much better system.
Could you say a bit more about Libcom’s coverage of the CPE protests in France, the response it received and what the collective learned from the experience?
The protests against the new CPE employment law in France were pretty inspiring. And for us certainly they showed the kind of impact our project can have.
People discussed the first mass demonstrations on our forums and a couple of French speakers began posting short translations of news stories from French sources because there was a lack of coverage in English.
Then we thought we could perhaps set up a libcom blog specifically for the CPE, to which our users could post these news reports, as it seemed like the situation might really blow up. We spoke to the two main French speakers, Alibi and Jef Costello, and they said they liked the idea and would be happy to contribute, so we set up the blog infrastructure on libcom here - http://libcom.org/blog/cpe-france - and these two started posting, with us contributing additional content and technical help.
Alibi did the bulk of the concerted coverage, specifically seeking out and translating large numbers of reports and articles from the mainstream French media and Indymedia, and setting up minute-by-minute coverage of the mass days of action and protest. Jef wrote up a lot of stories and did lots of translation work as well. As things started to take off our blog quickly emerged as the leading English-language coverage and started attracting lots of readers. Many French people and English ex-pats got in touch with us (including one of the original occupiers of the Sorbonne) and started posting regular reports. Reports posted in French were translated, intitally by Alibi and Jef and later on by additional volunteers.
We also set up a photo gallery for the movement filled with thousands of images from demonstrations, assemblies and occupations. We added internal links from the blog to historical background articles elsewhere on our site, about France, the movement of '68 (which the mainstream media kept making inaccurate references to), the banlieue riots of 2005, etc. Discussion also ran alongside in our forums throughout.
Our site traffic went through the roof from about 6-800,000 page views per month to over 1.6 million, the Guardian auto-linked to our blog in every story of theirs about France, it was mentioned in the Washington post, we were interviewed on BBC radio… The whole experience showed what we could potentially achieve, and it made us take the whole website project more seriously. We decided to stop getting so involved in some of the petty arguments in our forums and concentrate on getting together a decent resource.
Most of the other people who helped with the blog drifted away afterwards, but we have all the contact details for the future…
We learned a lot, and also with the new structure of the site it's much easier to group content together like we did with the blog because our whole site is based on tags, which work kind of like a series of blogs (see our pensions tag for an example: http://libcom.org/tags/pensions ).
It certainly was an impressive demonstration of the potential of the resource and of what can be achieved when a project maintains high standards.
I have two very different questions in response to your answer. The first is practical and the second, sadly, is very hypothetical.
Firstly, I think it’s worth noting that Libcom is ‘good.’ It’s such a simple point that it could be easily overlooked in an interview like this. The site looks good and navigates well, links work, articles are usually illustrated and the text is generally of high quality. Crucially, the project has continuity; it’s something you’ve persevered with over a number of years. While there are other examples of enduring, high quality websites and publications, sometimes radical political publishing emphasises message over any aesthetic concern. With Libcom the aesthetic arrangement of the site seems inseparable from its political purpose?
Thanks for the compliments! Actually our upgrading of the site is still ongoing, so things will continue to improve from a user point of view.
But yes we do think aesthetics and design are important. Firstly for practical concerns like ease of use and accessibility for those with sight problems, and secondly because people value information more when it's in a tidy and attractive format. Sad it may be but people are more likely to read, and to trust, articles if they are on a site which looks good as opposed to some geocities page with giant text all over the place and a horrible colour scheme.
I mean, look at CrimethInc. They're essentially a bunch of badly dressed drop-outs with shit politics, but have a very high profile because they print sexy looking books and use loads of romantic sub-situationist beatnik imagery. Class struggle politics aren't as "boring as fuck" but a lot of class struggle media and publicity is.
My hypothetical question is about how Libcom might be part of a major social movement in the UK. Let us suppose a general strike; a mass confrontational movement of students, unemployed and workers. Let’s imagine that the offices of the Daily Mail are burned to the ground. That during a strike by radio technicians the odious Nicky Campell has been dangled from the top floor of Broadcasting House. That George Monbiot’s article, ‘Why the protesters need a global parliament (possibly with me in charge),’ is never printed because the workers refuse. But let’s suppose that the uprising is not yet at the revolutionary stage where these proletarians start to run the economy, and the media, on a self-organised basis.
In this situation, the Libcom collective would have the experience, technical ability and profile to be a pivotal source for news, discussion and argument. You have discussed Libcom as a response to a period of low struggle, but how do you envisage its role in a time of intense struggle?
Hmmm it's difficult to envisage this. This isn't really a scenario we've thought much about, due to it not being likely in the near future. But of course we have to plan for it, since it's what we want!
Independent media pushing a consistent working class line would be equally, if not much more important in a period of intense class struggle such as that you describe. I think we can take as given that this scenario will be a little in the future at least, and due to the escalation in class struggle we would have more people helping out with the site and more contributors.
Our aim is to strengthen libcom's content and reporting abilities in different regions and industrial sectors. If things with the site keep going as planned, ideally by the time of such open conflict we will have core groups of people in lots of different countries and across all main industrial sectors. These people will contribute news and analysis mainly from their areas and their sectors and libcom will be a good place to go to see all the latest struggles in your locale, industry or company, and developments elsewhere in the world.
In events such as those you list above, things would be happening on a minute-by-minute basis and due to ease and rapidity of use the forums would be widely used as a space to discuss events as they happened and learn from each other. Libcom editors and contributors could quickly convert information from forum posts into news stories for more casual visitors.
Workers occupying their workplaces could post about it, or more commonly site users who know of different occupations or who live near them can post about them. Other site users can then either directly give advice and share experiences with the occupiers – partly by providing links to other articles on libcom about similar events past and present – or could indirectly give it to local users who can visit the occupation with printouts of articles and forum posts with messages of support.
There would be lots of other websites with open publishing where people could post about state or police attacks on occupations instantly. The role of a site like libcom would have another dimension as well. We could help co-ordinate interventions from libertarian communists to try and push the insurrection beyond occupying workplaces, towards taking control of the whole of society and re-organising it in our own interests. I believe we could help do this in much the same way as we do now – by providing a space in which people can collectively organise face-to-face meetings, pickets, the co-authorship of leaflets, etc. – but just speeded up several orders.
Finally, I think that in near-revolutionary situations political ideas have much more immediate relevance. I mean currently disagreeing on whether the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War should have joined the government, or whether the Bolsheviks should've crushed the Kronstadt uprising seems quite detached from day to day reality. But at a time of intense struggle there are big opportunities for the working class, and there are also terrible mistakes that can be made. If workers fail in carrying through a revolution afterwards we face the most terrible retaliation in terms of mass arrests, torture, massacres, etc. - "Those who make revolutions halfway only dig their own graves." We think that we have learned the most important lessons of history, and with a tight political line in the editorial group will be able to resist the inevitable onslaught of authoritarian "revolutionary" groupings in a way that I don't believe many more open publishing or less strict sites will. A lot of them could be subject to takeovers by potentially very large and well-organised Leninist parties, or even "anarchist" groups which will try to repeat the errors of the past and lead workers back into wage labour.
And how would you avoid replicating the undemocratic centralism of hierarchical politics?
Well we, the group who run the site, are a directly democratic, non-hierarchical organisation. Of course, monopoly over information gives a group power over others, so even if the group was non-hierarchical there would be a hierarchy. But we don't have a monopoly on any kind of information, and nor are we ever likely to – such is the nature of the internet in particular.
Yes but I think what I mean is that… I know one website will never have a monopoly of information in a revolutionary situation, any more than Rupert Murdoch has a monopoly of information in a capitalist economy, but there are clear issues about how a widely referred, established website with a large audience, considers its responsibility to be participatory and democratic. Sure I could start up a geocities site with big text and a horrible colour scheme, but that doesn’t get rid of the problem anymore than a scratchily Xeroxed A5 leaflet neutralises The Sun.
Right OK, well we are democratic in that all decisions about the site are made democratically by those of us who run it. If libcom got a lot bigger then the group running it would obviously be bigger as well, which would mean the politics of a larger number of people would be represented. Everyone is able to participate in our site by posting content, using our forums, putting things in their personal blogs or user profiles. But as for the site as a whole we don't fetishise "democracy," it's not meant to be run entirely by its users. We always take comments on board from our users and try to make changes to match what people request, but we don't feel we can open the site up completely. If we became completely run by our users we could easily fall victim to a takeover by Trotskyists, or potentially even fascists. But by running our site democratically amongst ourselves we can put our politics into practise, and actually argue consistently for direct democracy and equality, and against hierarchy and undemocratic ideas such as "democratic centralism."
And I think you and your comrades do a great job of running it, and I know that on your forums wherever possible you try to debate (even with some of our more eccentric comrades) rather than ban posters. But, comrades, there is one outstanding stain upon your reputation, one undemocratic, shameless act of bureaucratic violence, one example of the tyranny of centralism that the world must know about… ‘Enrager’; various historical connotations, it’s interesting, it suggests a tradition of workers struggle rather than a branch of ideology, and it’s got a whole sexy foreign angle going on. You got rid of that for ‘Libcom’? For ‘Libcom’ FFS!
The name "enrager" was our old name, which we changed in 2005. We changed it for various reasons but mainly because no one could pronounce it right. It was supposed to be in a sexy French accent: imagine it whispered in your ear by Audrey Tatou or Thierry Henry, wearing a scarf on a cobbled street, with flipped vintage cars barricading it. Instead, pronounced "en-rage-err", it's more like Rik refusing to clean his People's Poetry off the bedroom wall.
You have a point with its historical tradition (in the French enragés) as opposed to a political ideology, but it wasn't a well-known tradition many people feel any affiliation to, and "enrager" has a very obvious angry vibe. We wanted to move away from the typical feel of anarchist media which matches a lot of negative stereotypes, using angry, violent, macho imagery and terminology to a more neutral feel.
And finally someone browsing a website called "enrager" which is obviously a site for political radicals, or possibly just angry anti-social people, from work isn't great. I know I got quizzed about it in a previous job. Something called libcom could easily be some new media, communications or PR website you have a good reason to be spending all day on!
The answers in this interview represent Steven's personal opinion. While the finished interview has been approved by the rest of the group, it doesn't necessarily reflect their ideas in their totality.
Interview by Wayne Foster for Proletarians Against the General State of Things. And edited version of this interview appeared in Freedom, Anarchist News and Views.
After their coverage of the CPE protests in France, Libcom’s annual hosting costs increased from £50 to £1,000. They fund this by their membership dues and from donations from users and supporters. In 2007 they want to publicise the site with sexy looking leaflets and stickers, and a small donation can help them continue and expand their project. In order to donate please go to http://libcom.org/notes/donate