Gramsci and Mailing Lists

I read Gramsci's essay 'On Education' a little while ago. The ideas in the following quotation may be relevant to the question of the organisation, role etc. of the marxism-list and other email-lists:


"A type of deliberative body which seeks to incorporate the technical expertise necessary for it to operate realistically has been described elsewhere, in an account of what happens on the editorial boards of some reviews, when these function at the same time both as editorial committees and as cultural groups. The group criticises as a body, and thus helps to define the tasks of the individual editors, whose activity is organised according to a plan and a division of labour which are rationally arranged in advance. By means of collective discussion and criticism (made up of suggestions, advice, comments on method, and criticism which is constructive and aimed at mutual education) in which each individual functions as a specialist in his own field and helps to complete the expertise of the collectivity, the average level of the individual editors is in fact successfully raised so that it reaches the altitude or capacity of the most highly-skilled -- thus not merely ensuring an ever more select and organic collaboration for the review, but also creating the conditions for the emergence of a homogeneous group of intellectuals, trained to produce a regular and methodical 'writing' activity (not only in terms of occasional publications or short articles, but also of organic, synthetic studies).

"Undoubtedly, in this kind of collective activity, each task produces new capacities and possibilities of work, since it creates ever more organic conditions of work: files, bibliographical digests, a library of basic specialised works, etc. Such activity requires an unyielding struggle against habits of dilettantism, of improvisation, of 'rhetorical' solutions or those proposed for effect. The work has to be done particularly in written form, just as it is in written form that criticisms have to be made -- in the form of terse, succinct notes: this can be achieved if the material is distributed in time, etc.; the writing down of notes and criticisms is a didactic principle rendered necessary by the need to combat the habits formed in public speaking -- prolixity, demagogy and paralogism. This type of intellectual work is necessary in order to impart to autodidacts the discipline in study which an orthodox scholastic career provides, in order to Taylorise intellectual work. Hence the usefulness of the principle of the 'old men of Santa Zita' of whom De Sanctis speaks in his memoirs of the Neapolitan school of Basilio Puoti: i.e. the usefulness of a certain 'stratification' of capabilities and attitudes, and of the formation of work-groups under the guidance of the most highly-skilled and highly-developed, who can accelerate the training of the most backward and untrained."

[ Elsewhere in the essay Gramsci emphasises the fact that writing and study are forms of work: ]

"Many people have to be persuaded that studying too is a job, and a very tiring one, with its own particular apprenticeship -- involving muscles and nerves as well as intellect. It is a process of adaptation, a habit acquired with effort, tedium and even suffering."


It seems to me that such collective activity as described by Gramsci above would be extremely useful, for most of the reasons he states. Mail-lists are, or have the potential to be, a near-perfect medium for this sort of activity.

So the questions that arise are:

1. Do mail-lists like 'marxism' currently work in this way? Do they serve to elevate the thinking of all subscribers to the level of the most 'advanced', do they 'think collectively', and do they train subscribers in "regular and methodical writing activity"?

2. If mail-lists do NOT work in this way, and if they could be made to work better by changing their rules (both the rules of participants' behaviour and the computerised algorithms which define how a "mailing list" works), then how should those rules be changed?

Carrol suggests limiting posts to 1 every 3 days or so. I don't know about this; I suspect the damage to the list caused by the slowing- down and stifling of discussions would outweigh any beneficial effects.

I'm attracted to the idea of somehow making contribution to discussions COMPULSORY. The range of topics being simultaneously discussed could be limited by the moderator, to compensate for the increase in volume and to allow more disciplined concentration on the matter at hand.

Compulsory participation would, obviously, create serious new problems, the most important of which relate to the fact that many of the subscribers either don't have the spare time to contribute frequently and meaningfully to the list, or else are rather new to Marxism and so feel 'out of their depth' debating more knowledgeable and experienced people. And, for any given topic there will be people who simply have nothing to say about it.

However, the way it currently works (as far as I can tell) is that a subgroup of subscribers generate almost all the posts, while the majority of subscribers seldom or never post to the list, and end up treating it as a spectacle. Everyone must have experienced the huge difference that *actively discussing or debating* with someone, versus passively reading an article, makes to their understanding of the topic. We spend our whole lives being talked at, by teachers, politicians, the media and so on. It's stultifying, and it creates a bad habit (passive reception of information) that a mail-list like this could help to break.

So, in many ways I would like to see near-universal participation, with all subscribers being forced to articulate and justify their thoughts. I'm not sure, however, how to get around the major problem of time constraints. Limitation of threads may be one way, but it still leaves unaddressed the problem of people who would not have enough time even to post to one or two threads per day, or even per week.

There's a knee-jerk self-deprecating response to discussions about things like this: it says that mailing lists, newsgroups and so on are "trivial", "unreal", "entertainment", a "diversion", "irrelevant" to the fight for socialism. I don't think such accusations are true now -- this list has been of tremendous value to me, even though I hardly ever post to it -- but they're not entirely untrue either. And I suspect there *is* a way of organising electronic collectives so as to make those accusations entirely untrue. I just don't know what that way is.

Paul Sexton