In a few weeks times, I have a book coming out – Fascism – which tells the story of the far right in the 1920s and 1930s through the eyes of its militant opponents – socialist feminists such as Klara Zetkin, those jailed by fascism such as Antonio Gramsci, queer Marxists such as Daniel Guerin shocked and horrified to see the insurgent working class of Red Wedding submit to Nazi rule. The book is a wholly-rewritten second edition of an older book, published by the same people (Pluto Press) back in 1999 Over the next few weeks I’ll publish some pieces here celebrating the anniversary of the first edition, explaining why I wrote it, and conveying something of the reception it had.
What I want to do here is contextualise the 1999 edition in a different way. For even before the book had been published, I’d begun (in about 1995) posting key chapters online. And I thought some readers might enjoy it if I gave a flavour of what the online left was like in the last five years of that decade.
The first thing you need to grasp is that the online left was vastly smaller than it is today. Most left groups had a presence, but they used it to simply post online material which had been written off-line and was mainly accessed in a newspaper or magazine which you could buy in a paper copy – from street stalls or from one of the leftwing bookshops (Housmans, News from Nowhere, Bookmarks, etc).
I’m going to talk about the political tradition to which I was then attached – the SWP and its international affiliates – not because they were at the vanguard (actually, they were relatively slow to migrate online) but only because these were the sites I was following closest.
By far the best website in the International Socialist tendency was run by an Australian Marxist Rick Kuhn. Unlike everyone else, it had actual content: links to the Communist Manifesto and to sound files of the Internationale (in an mp3 format, Kuhn advised, “requires special software”).
The “Contemporary Material” took you to an early list of all the IS newspapers and magazines which also published online. And to, my own favourite bit, a page in which Rik wrote about Marxists who’d had a fascination with bird-watching:
There were also, as I’ve said, a number of pages in which left-wing newspaper made their content freely available. I don’t think anyone yet had – or could have – worked through the problems this would cause for the same left groups.
Papers were being written to be sold. They were supposed to be self-financing. Once all the content was online, and as the membership of the group which spend time on line increased from 10 to 50 to 90 percent – the nature of reading changed. You stopped giving money in order to “buy” a newspaper, but rather as a kind of solidarity donation. “I’ve already read the paper, thanks, but here’s 50p anyway to subsidise its writing”.
Back in 1998, the position of Socialist Worker was that it could be advertised but not read online, eg here:
Although within a couple of years, the paper gave in and published its online as well as on paper:
In the 1990s we didn’t have youtube, or social media. The internet was predominantly text. Logging on was done at computers rather than through phones, and through land-based telephone cables. So that you could pick up the phone in a house and not know if anyone else was online, and find out only from the clee-clew-cler of a computer connecting.
Where the left did post material online, we tended to do so in the same way that groups was advertise an event locally – ie by announcing here is some content, advertising its presence, and inviting people to access it.
The more interesting leftwing projects tried to get away from that model and create a sense of community and participation.
The left was well represented in various Yahoo groups. There was an online IS discussion group for some time in the 1990s – and, if I remember correctly, an instruction in the SWP’s Party Notes that members should stop participating in it.
Dissident SWP members and SWP-exes tended to congregate on the discussion boards at Urban75 (until around 2013, when those discussions moved to social media) or at Socialist Unity Network, although that didn’t get going till about five years later.
Finally, since what I’m really interested in is the late 1990s, it’s worth recalling how widespread was the belief that all of this online malarkey was doomed.
Articles in the press laughed at the launch and hyping of e-commerce sites and predicted that the largest websites would never turn a profit. Or predicted a universal online censorship.
There was even a website you could click on if you were looking for the last page the last page on the internet.