Monday, December 16, 2013

A case of magical thinking

The following text appeared on the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) on Dec 5, 2013.
“Today,” Marsden said, “the WSWS is the recognised and authoritative voice of revolutionary Marxism. With a monthly readership in excess of two million, it has more followers than the Left Party in Germany, Syriza in Greece, the New Anti-capitalist Party in France, the Pabloite International Viewpoint, and the two largest pseudo-left tendencies in the UK, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party, combined.” [1]

The speaker was Chris Marsden,  National Secretary of the Socialist Equality Party of Britain. 

While it is not uncommon for small groups on the left to imagine that their influence extends far beyond their small membership rolls - a belief that contains a grain of truth when it comes to left wing groups – Marsden’s statement must count as a case of magical thinking in a class by itself.  Now there is no question that the World Socialist Web Site has been very successful in building a large readership.  But there is also no evidence that this readership has been translated into a viable movement with significant influence.  Undoubtedly some modest growth has occurred since the economic crisis of the past five years has given a boost to most groups on the left.  But to maintain that the WSWS “has more followers than the Left Party in Germany..or.. Syriza in Greece.. or the New Anti-capitalist Party in France” is to stretch reality to new frontiers altogether. According to the WSWS their group in Germany, the Partei für Soziale Gleichheit (Socialist Equality Party or PSG), received a total of 4,840 votes in the September 2013 Federal elections. [2] The official election returns show that the Left Party of Germany received a total 3,755,699 votes, or about 8.6% of the total cast. [3]  The PSG therefore received a little more than one-tenth of one percent (0.12 %) of the votes cast for the Left Party.  But perhaps this comparison is unfair.  After all the PSG is a small party and did not contest elections in every state while the Left Party did.  Let us then compare the PSG’s result in the state of Berlin, where presumably it has its largest base, to that of the Left Party.  According to the PSG’s own figures they received a total of 976 votes in Berlin. The Left Party of Germany received a total of 333,148 votes, or about 18.7% of the total votes cast in that state. [4] Comparing the results in Berlin, the PSG received a little less than three tenths of one percent - 0.29% of the vote that was obtained by the Left Party.  That’s a bit better than their nationwide percentage, but hardly impressive.  Out of all the parties that were officially contesting seats for the Bundestag in the 2013 elections, the PSG came in dead last, behind such outfits as the Marxist Leninist Party (MLPD) which received  24,219 votes and a group called The Violets for Spiritual Politics which received a total of 8,211 votes. 

Marsden’s use of web site statistics to convince his readers of the unparalleled influence of the WSWS brings to mind a phrase long attributed to the art of interpreting statistics, that there are “Lies, damn lies and statistics.”  If you cherry pick the right numbers, you can make statistics mean anything you wish them to mean.  One wonders therefore why, in assessing the influence of the WSWS, Marsden stopped with the monthly readership of the WSWS.  Why not cite the yearly readership of the WSWS?  If we go by the reported monthly readership of the WSWS being 2 million, then the yearly readership must be approximately 24 million.  That is just about the total number of votes received by the two leading parties contesting the German elections, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD).  Therefore it makes just as much sense to say that the influence of the WSWS is comparable to the influence of both major parties combined.  Those are the kind of absurdities that follow when playing the game of cherry picking your data to fit your agenda.

While Marsden’s strategy of aggregating the monthly statistics is clearly arbitrary – he could have just as easily selected the weekly statistics - he is also guilty of making a false assumption to justify his claim, namely that each “hit” on a web site translates into one distinct individual.  As anyone with any familiarity with web site statistics knows, that is hardly the case.  The number of unique visitors to a site is always far less than the number of  hits over a given period. 

But even if Marsden’s figures were completely accurate and there are indeed two million unique visitors to the WSWS every month, how does he explain the poor showing of the PSG in the 2013 Federal elections?  Granted that votes obtained in a Federal election may not be an accurate gauge of a group’s influence, it is still probably the most important figure available for estimating the relative strength of political parties.  And the PSG itself has cited its election statistics, both in the current election and in past elections as proof of its growing influence.  (See for instance our comments about the PSG’s claims in previous elections.)[5] The PSG and the WSWS in general have a history of denying reality.  When it comes to assessing their election results, every slight uptick is deemed to have great significance whereas every downward trend is simply ignored.  Thus in their article on the significance of the PSG’s intervention into the 2013 election, the author states that,

“.. the party gained a limited but significant support base. The party was able to increase its vote total from 2,957 in 2009 to 4,840 this time.” 

Yet in the same article he also notes that, 

“In Berlin, 976 voted for the PSG, 444 less than in 2009.” [6]

Why is the former fact deemed “significant” while the latter is not? As Julius Caesar said,

“Men willingly believe what they wish.”

He might have added that self-deception is no good for anything, least of all in politics. And a movement that encourages magical thinking is a movement doomed to irrelevance.

Alex Steiner, Dec 15, 2013