Rule number one: It is strictly forbidden for Party members to express personal political opinions or articulate political analyses on Facebook or any other social network.
Rule number three: Tagging fellow Party members in social media posts concerning political, historical, philosophical or cultural issues is also prohibited.
Rule number four: Conversely, Party members are encouraged to promote and share social media posts authored by the Party and its Central Committee.
Rule number five: The use of Party flags or symbols in personal account avatars and images is strictly prohibited.
Rule number nine: The publication of photographs and images taken at Party events must be designed to achieve maximum propaganda value and raise the political consciousness of the event.
These rules for how to behave on social media are excerpted from a recent communiqué of the Italian Communist Party, a neonate organisation that, along with half a dozen others, lays claim to the lineage of the once great PCI founded by Antonio Gramsci. After the fall of Soviet Communism, the PCI split in two: a majority social democratic party, which is currently in government, and a minority Marxist organisation – the Communist Refoundation Party – which remained in parliament until 2006 and has thereafter split along sectarian and factional lines so many times that even I, something of an enthusiast, struggle to keep up with the latest developments.
With its vocabulary firmly stuck in 1950s and its unabashed Stalinism, the new Italian Communist Party is a nostalgia project at best, a grotesque relic at worst. So on one hand these overbearing rules are simply in keeping with the explicit appeal to militants from an earlier era, predisposed to reject new tactics and ideas. In a subsequent post addressed to its critics, the Central Committee quips:
Do these rules bother you? Are you horrified by concepts such as democratic centralism, organisation, discipline? We are glad, because we don’t need people like you.
The document goes on to exhume Gramsci’s panegyric on socialist discipline in The Future City (as opposed to his notes on the same subject in the Prison Diaries), in order to seal with his authority the quelling not of outright dissent, but of public expression and debate.
As is frequently the case in these matters, I wonder idly how Gramsci would feel about his writings being used as articles of faith, as opposed to starting points for a critical engagement with the present. Were he alive today, I like to think that he would search for new answers to some of these old questions, or at least attempt to reframe them. For the problem of how to enforce party discipline in the age of social media is not the exclusive preserve of democratic centralists. Writing last year in The Listener, veteran New Zealand political commentator Jane Clifton noted that
in the old days, party members would doubtless discreetly have a moan over cooling teacups at the electorate AGM about how useless such-and-such a politician was. Now on social media, civil war is played out in public every day.
This permanent state of civil war, for Clifton, represents a negative, corrosive development leading to the ‘systematic vilification’ of political leaders not by opponents, but by grassroots activists inside their own parties.
The Italian Communist Party’s attempt to turn its membership into a disciplined social-media propaganda machine is the obverse of the pundit’s criticism that activists lack basic discipline, and that their public intemperance lowers the level of political discourse. Both attitudes fail to account for the changing nature of political expression and participation in our societies.
When the Central Committee declares that ‘political discussions must be conducted within the structures of the Party’, it overlooks the ubiquitous presence of broader networks, of spaces of debate in which we cannot be expected not to be autonomously political. These spaces are less and less clearly demarcated, and increasingly ‘public’ in the traditional sense of the word, as more and more workplace and family conversations shift to social media. Demanding discipline of the activist or the militant means therefore requiring them to be faithful to the line practically at all times, and even a relatively benevolent precept such as asking them to amplify the Party’s message (rule number four) can become dehumanising when it bleeds into the private, intimate sphere.
The nostalgia for a time when internal dissent was muttered behind closed doors is but the soft version of the Stalinist’s complaint. Never mind that this permanent state of ‘civil war’ is often exaggerated for the purpose of scoffing at the rank and file: even when it is accurately diagnosed, widespread discontent is seldom taken by commentators as a symptom of an inadequate political class. It is the people, rather, who are found wanting.
None of this is meant to suggest that ‘discipline’, properly defined, isn’t a worthy goal for a political organisation, but rather that it is misguided to think of it as a set of constraints on individual expression. A curious, engaged, well-read and articulate militant base is a resource: all the more if it is transparently, publicly so. The challenge, as always, is to find a common purpose, and the means to have a greater say, therefore structures within which to not just conduct debates but intervene on society. Discipline will then be something in which participants are invested: a self-imposed limit that creates the possibility of organisation and action.