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Voices and the New Mirror

Front page of Iskra, circa 1901. http://sputnikimages.com/media/5700854.html

Lenin became a leader as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, when revolutionary consciousness in Russia was at a high point. A statement credited to a group including Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, Pavel Axelrod, Julius Martov, Vladimir Ilyich (Lenin) and his younger brother Dmitri Ilyich Ulyanov, read “we are passing through an extremely important period in the history of the Russian working-class movement…The past few years have been marked by an astonishingly rapid spread of Social-Democratic ideas among our intelligentsia, and meeting this trend in social ideas is an independent movement of the industrial proletariat…”

This comment was published in September 1900 by the editorial collective of the newspaper Iskra (Spark). Lenin and his comrades formed this publication amidst intense repression from the Tsarist regime, and a high degree of “disunity” on what we might call “the left.” The collective shared common interests with “several organizations of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, as well as of separate groups of Russian Social-Democrats.” In addition to those who were united around Social-Democracy, the broadly-construed “left” also included the right wing tendency of “trade unionism,” and the left wing, whose tradition of “terror” had provoked the military crackdowns.

Revolutionary consciousness was high among all these different groups, but they all worked independently to bring down the monarchic ruler of Russia, and some had radically different visions of what to do on the other side of that horizon. It was in the middle of this “disunity” that Lenin started his newspaper. Its staff was united in the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, whose majority would go on to lead the revolution. The objective of Iskra was to fulfil multiple functions: it would be a space to elaborate a “consistent ideology,” and thereby draw “lines of demarcation” between the Party and offshoot tendencies. The second function of Iskra was to “achieve an organisation especially for the purpose of… delivering our newspapers and periodicals regularly to all parts of Russia. Only when such an organisation has been founded…will the Party possess a sound foundation and become a real fact, and, therefore, a mighty political force.”

The content published in Iskra was subordinated to an end outside the essential purpose internal to writing. Developing a material organizational structure was the primary undertaking of the newspaper. Producing and distributing the newspaper to members of the proletariat across Russia would require a network of active, mobilized comrades, embedded within workers’ communities, study circles and other mass organizations. This network of mobilized revolutionaries united in theory and trained in militant organizing would constitute the skeleton of the revolutionary Party.

Meanwhile, in the West, instead of a brutally oppressive monarchic state, the left has had to contend with the more insidious apparatus of liberal soft power. Despite a long tradition of leftist newspapers, journals, and magazines throughout North America and Europe, the absence of a legitimate (in the eyes of the people) revolutionary worker’s Party–even any organized left movement–proves the failure of those projects to overcome the same obstacles Lenin and his comrades faced.

We can blame quite a lot on counter-revolutionary state programs: when they are not assassinating leaders or violently attacking organizations, intelligence organizations have always been used as a counter-revolutionary measure. The CIA was heavily involved in all forms of culture, funding anti-communist intellectuals and propaganda outlets. Although the Americans have exerted a disproportionate impact, all national intelligence services controlled by the bourgeoisie have a history of undermining attempts to organize around socialism.

The state’s forces are powerful, but necessity demands that we find a way to overcome them and build a worker’s Party that exists as a “real fact.”

The reportage of outlets content to play within the bounds of the liberal regime have arguably been more useful to the cause of revolutionary socialism than any of the attempts to relaunch Iskra and speak as a legitimate worker’s Party. By the second half of the 20th century, local newspapers with a progressive-reformist political line abounded. All this punk ethos has to offer is a bourgeois alternative to the bourgeois mainstream. Despite their limits, the “alternative press” should be appreciated for its role in the facticity of the present-day left–for better or for worse. What distinguishes “bourgeois journalism,” no matter how critical it is of the regime, from Lenin’s revolutionary project is that the former takes writing as an end in itself. The newspaper is not being used as a means to construct something that will surpass it in historical significance. Iskra was never about writing, it was about organizing, and its medium as a printed newspaper is the matter by which the two are joined.

The Mirror was one of two anglophone alt-weeklies published in Montreal, this one from 1985 to 2012 and freely distributed to a circulation of 70,000 at its height. By comparison, Now Toronto publishes over 500,000 newspapers per week, and the Georgia Straight an average just under 120,000 [citation needed]. In Montreal, the two anglophone newspapers (Hour and The Mirror) existed alongside the two francophone (Voir and Ici). Hour and The Mirror both folded in 2012; Ici in 2009; Voir lives on as a blog. Cult MTL has inherited the mantle from the Mirror, with former columnist Lorraine Carpenter stepping up as editor-in-chief. Its thin broadsheet is symbolic of Montreal’s equally thin cultural nourishment. In the early 90s, Voice of Montreal seeded here, but recognizing its outsized ambition, it was re-named Vice and moved to New York City.

Montreal is the cultural centre of the country, whatever Toronto’s worst excesses might want you to believe. Those who live here know that the city’s value is not determined by the amount of capital moving through its institutions, because there’s certainly little enough of that. The agglomeration of scenes feels perched on the edge of relevance, slacking prone atop a vein of latent energy, belied by the lack of any achievement. Montreal is a cultural capital in the national context, with a developed art scene in all forms of media, and across languages. It also has a revolutionary spirit that the world recognizes. No socialist media has been able to combine the spirit and the culture, and attain either a meaningful degree of local relevance, while simultaneously bringing that spirit to a broader national or international audience.

The culture industry still has the potential to be employed as a tactical means to build an organization with a greater ambition than perpetually producing further content. The culture industry needs to be put to work in the service of the revolutionary subject. As Canada’s de facto centre of both class consciousness and cultural prestige, the task is to re-appropriate that apparatus toward the same end Lenin used his newspaper to accomplish: building the material structure of a revolutionary Party, and turning it into a “real fact.”

Schopenhauer wrote that in the experience of the sublime through music, the audience can temporarily dissolve the boundaries of their ego and feel as though one with the world-spirit. These moments of dissolution is the most one can hope for in an existence whose precondition involves suffering. No other aesthetic form rivals direct connection with the totality of creation. The Voice of Montreal was purely aesthetic, a sonic gesture empty of linguistic content.

When we combine voice and language, it becomes something other than purely aesthetic. It might come in the form of the poetic, where the sounds and meaning of the words play out their aesthetic dialectic; or the prosaic, where the aesthetics of sound become subordinate to those of language. In the latter case, the voice is no longer important: what matters most is the meaning of the words. The Voice of Montreal was neither poetry nor prose, but something akin to music: its legacy is a rhythm that still lingers online. Nothing was ever said in those pages; it was no more than an aesthetic experience. Whether good or bad, I leave to the reader to judge; what I say with conviction, is that pure aestheticism is escapism. The mirror reflects, holding onto nothing; there is nothing to be aestheticized. Reflection, rather than articulation, is the ideal model for media instrumentalized to revolutionary ends: The New Mirror.