What is the role of journalism in revolutionary change? Spring Magazine spoke with Hossam El-Hamalawy–a journalist, photographer, and member of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists–about revolutionary journalism, the role of social media, and prospects for socialism in the 21st century.
Traditional media, including on the left, is often based on small numbers of journalists producing content for everyone else. But you’ve argued that for socialist media, “Correspondence with the site is not a luxury or only the responsibility of the small number of comrades who run the site, but should continue to be the task of the largest possible number of comrades in the movement, if not all of them.” Why is the production of socialist media so central for revolutionary organization?
The whole reason why we strive to build a revolutionary organization in the first place is the hegemonic ideas of the ruling class. No ruling class can dominate the masses with force alone. There has to be a hegemonic arm that bombards the public, day and night, with propaganda that normalizes class oppression and theft. Obviously, the intensity of oppression would differ from society to another, depending on the wealth of the elites and how confident they are. “Hard power” repression is a function of how intense the class struggle is in general.
As revolutionaries, we must engage in battles, not just on the ground and picket lines, but also in the realm of ideas. We strive to build an organization that will be a counter-hegemonic force, that can refute ruling ideas, that disseminates visuals of dissent, that acts as the “memory of the class” as Trotsky put it. More or less, you have to create a media apparatus that counters the “mainstream” pro-status quo consensus.
One of your insights in “what is to be done: the website as organizer” is that the website represents not only a technological advance that allows more rapid communication than print publications, but that this has organizational implications for revolutionaries: “The arrival of reports and updates for the site around the clock translates organizationally into the presence of revolutionary correspondents on the ground getting involved with events…the paper will be a complementary, rather than a central, organizing publication.” How does the production and distribution of online and print media help build movements and revolutionary organization, and how does the website serve as organizer?
In the age of instant messaging and fast internet connection, you cannot continue to depend on a print publication to answer quickly the questions that arise during the struggle. Revolutionaries on the ground will still act as “correspondents” feeding the “central organ” of the revolutionary party with reports and visuals. The rate of update of the website will reflect the organization’s strength on the ground as well as its geographical presence. For example, if you find tons of updates coming from X province, then you know that you have members in that province who are engaging in the different fights in that specific province. If you don’t find any reports on Y province on your website, this means you do not have members there or you have members whose communication channels with the centre is blocked, due to “technical” reasons or “organizational” reasons which you have to tackle. The website will also serve to generalize the experience of different groups you have on the ground, and will have a wider outreach that could amount to millions of views—something very difficult to achieve with a print paper in our age.
Many activists are used to writing or posting photos on their individual social media profiles, but may not consider themselves revolutionary journalists and may lack the confidence or political motivation to contribute to a socialist publication. What makes the collective process of socialist media different from individual posts, and do you have any advice on how to gain skills and confidence in revolutionary journalism?
Pooling in the efforts of such individuals into a single site (or a single platform on social media) helps centralizing the movement and helps provide a complete package of ideas not just news updates to the reader. Readers will visit your site to watch visuals of protests and news updates, then they will find commentary, historical precedents, similar experiences of struggle in other parts of the world, etc.
You made another insight a decade ago about the role of multimedia: “Newspaper journalists care about written content, but comrades who are correspondents for the site should pay special attention to audio visual content alongside written reports about the events they are involved in. Photographs and videos are not a luxury, but it is the duty of every comrade involved in a event to make efforts to take photographs or film it on a mobile phone. In general, the movement must pay special attention to passing on skills in photography and training in the secure use of email and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to as much of the membership as possible.” Since then there’s been an expansion of multimedia—including Instagram and Tiktok—but also increasing corporate control and censorship. Why is it important for revolutionaries to “visualize dissent” and how can we make the most of multimedia?
I wrote extensively on the power of visuals in this article, which I hope your readers will browse: https://roarmag.org/essays/egyptian-revolution-visualizing-dissent/
But you raise another important question, which is corporate control of the platforms we are using. We have seen indeed social media platforms censoring revolutionaries on all sorts of issues, most notoriously Palestine. Some sincere revolutionaries advocate leaving the social media platforms and migrating to alternative open source activist(ish) platforms that spring up every now and then. But to be honest I think this is a futile strategy. There is no point in migrating to a platform, where you’ll find yourself and five or six other people you know on it, while billions of people continue to use FB, Instagram and other corporate platforms. I think we should:
1- Continue to produce content that could be disseminated as widely as possible in the current corporate controlled social media platforms which has access to wider layers of society than the “closely-knit” alternative platforms.
2- Campaign strongly against the corporate censorship and lobby the management to be more transparent about their “algorithms”.
3- Continue to depend on a “website” to host all the content you wish to write about freely, so as not to be under the mercy of social media.
With the pandemic and lockdowns a lot of organizing has shifted more online. You’ve previously explained that 21st century revolutionaries need to have “one foot in cyberspace and one foot on the ground.” Why do we need this balance?
There is always a danger in extremes. Meaning, If you are only on the ground, you risk being a dinosaur who cannot keep up with the rapid technological changes around you that regulates in many ways the tempo of class struggle. And on the other extreme, if you are only cyberspace, then you easily lose touch with reality. There is a dialectical relationship between the two, and you always have to balance them together.
When revolutions break out it’s easy to see the relevance of revolutionary organizations. But as you explained at a panel discussion on the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring, “the major lesson that we should have learned from the first wave of the Arab revolutions is that we need to be organized, and we need to be organized way in advance before the revolutions break out.” Why do revolutionaries need to organize when revolution is not yet on the agenda, and how do we connect reforms in the present with future revolution?
You have to be organized prior to the revolution, because when the revolt breaks out you will find that your enemies are organized enough to either smash this revolt or diffuse it. You will never be a “majority” prior to the revolt. This is the law of hegemony. But at least if you manage to create a substantial presence in the working class prior to the uprising, you will be in a better position to influence the course of events once the tide changes.
The Egyptian Revolution saw an eruption of movements against oppression, an explosion of culture, and the power of workers to topple a dictator. But this was crushed and the gains brutally reversed. Having lived and organized through the hope of revolution and the despair of counter-revolution, what are your thoughts on the prospects for socialism in the 21st century?
The question of socialism in our century is not an intellectual/philosophical one that we can debate. We don’t have this luxury. The planet is literally dying. In two generations’ time the human race may not even continue to exist thanks to the destructive forces of capitalism. Our revolution was catastrophically defeated indeed, but demoralization is a luxury we cannot afford at this critical stage of existence. I will continue to organize and organize and organize till the last breath I have. It’s either “Socialism or Barbarism”!
Featured image: Photo composition showing a smart phone, a megaphone and a press ID with people protesting on the sides.