One year in: a self-critique

It is a year since we launched The Black Lamp with our editorial, In Search of New Models. We have published 9 pieces in that time and despite this limited output, it is an instructive exercise to engage in public self-criticism, with our own editorial as the yardstick against which to assess ourselves. We intend to continue this project for atleast the following year, and have set out some thoughts below with regards to the challenges and constraints we face as a small project, and how to address some of these going forward. Needless to say, we don’t have answers to all of these obstacles, but at the very least would like to draw readers’ attention to them.


Internal engagement

When launching we had an editorial group of 5, which has reduced to 4, not through any internal dispute but due to other life commitments. This is perhaps to be expected with a nascent project that is entirely voluntary, which would also explain the relative failure to skill up every editor such that there is less dependence on individuals (a necessity that has been emphasized in several of our published pieces -  for example, the post-mortem of the organisation Labour Transformed). The long-term effect of this is likely to be a disproportionate influence of some editors over others, a pattern which is already manifesting. Whether this situation can be reversed will largely depend on how much time and resource everyone is capable of contributing in the future, and whether those with greater influence are willing to devolve functions. It is both instructive and somewhat alarming to see these dynamics play out in such a small group. Other factors are also at play. We live across multiple timezones and do not have those bonds of solidarity that build through close interaction over many years. We also have diverse - often tangential - political interests, resulting in an absence of generative conversation. Whilst this may be a rather damning assessment, it is merely a reflection of the reality of working together yet living very separate lives. A common alternative is to construct projects based on prior political coherence, but this bottlenecking inevitably limits the openness and exploratory spirit that was a foundational theme of The Black Lamp.

What are the likely consequences of these processes going forward? On one hand, they have thus far not affected functionality. The Black Lamp has little editorial overhead with only 9 pieces published across 12 months. On the other, increased output will be limited by the dependence on less than the entire editorial board. This may all change ofcourse. Individuals may have more time and availability, or others may join the editorial board to expand capacity. However throwing up one's hands and hoping for the best renders us pawns to the stochasticity of life. The Black Lamp is currently a particularly brittle system, meaning that it lacks the robustness to handle any severe system change, be that an internal rupture or exogenous shock. Or put more simply, the whole project goes down if a couple of editors are unable to continue for whatever reason. 

The Black Lamp is currently a particularly brittle system, meaning that it lacks the robustness to handle any severe system change, be that an internal rupture or exogenous shock.

External engagement

One of the drivers for starting The Black Lamp was to create a space for those without platforms to engage in a dialogue as part of a process of developing new models for understanding and interpreting our conjuncture. Thus far success has been limited. Output has been modest, and there have been no responses to published pieces as of yet. The latest Modelling the structure of organisations piece - an introduction to what will hopefully be an original research programme - spurned on a couple of responses that are still in the writing phase. Otherwise most pieces have existed as standalone essays generating some conversation on Twitter, but little more than that. This shouldn’t be too surprising or worrying at this point. The Black Lamp is a completely voluntary project, with no big names behind it or boosting it, and is therefore relying on a somewhat organic approach toward engagement. This is baked into the very approach we espoused in our first editorial - an attempt to move away from thought leaders and toward a more rank-and-file writer and readership. However this limited visibility does reinforce the dynamics discussed in the prior section on internal engagement, whereby those involved in multiple projects and having to live their own lives are less incentivised to dedicate their time to a small publication with a limited following and little feedback for many hours put into the writing and/or editing process. With a modest readership in place, there is every reason to hope the next year will see some incremental increase in engagement that manifests in not just new readers, but new contributors hoping to hash out and clarify their ideas in long form.


It is in terms of content that we can really show some pride in the project so far. What has been published has been rigorously researched and often exploring novel areas of revolutionary thought. Whether in terms of providing reports of existing struggles (such as the droughts in Andalucia), the structure and state of organisations like the DSA, or post-mortems of extinct organisations, these essays have collectively reported on the often lesser understood details of fragments of the wider tapestry of left struggle. This record is important as a reference point for our shared history, which was indeed one of the goals we set ourselves at the outset of this project. Ideally we would have published more of these types of analyses, and hopefully will in the coming year. However this work is some of the hardest to commission or write due to its subject matter. Reporting on concrete processes in concrete organisations exposes writers to potential repercussions that are absent from more theoretical output. Yet it is here, where the concrete is set in the appropriate historical and theoretical context that there is most value. Thinking through those potential repercussions in terms of the stakes involved and how to navigate them is an ongoing question that we hope to engage thoroughly with in the organisational modelling project.

The remaining pieces we’ve yet to mention have been somewhat more theoretical. The Viability guided decision making piece would fit right at home in the modelling organisations project, with its attempt to apply Stafford Beer’s viable systems model (VSM) to organisations, with the specific intention of identifying a parameter space in which organisations are capable of reproduction (where examples of parameters might be membership numbers, engagement etc). Elsewhere we published a piece on the ability of food systems to reproduce themselves, again applying a system theoretic framework to understand agricultural practices in the global food system and how that system’s ability to reproduce is compromised by capital accumulation. Finally we published a Marxological piece critiquing the work of Kohei Saito. There was an ongoing back and forth with the author on this piece to attempt to tease out the practical consequences of what some may construe as Marxological minutiae. Although these consequences are not always immediately obvious, and it is important to excavate theoretical works without the need for justification, for this particular publication we feel it is important to answer the “why should we care?” question that many readers might understandably have. 

It is where the concrete is set in the appropriate historical and theoretical context that there is most value.

The most common theme running through what The Black Lamp has published so far is the necessity of thinking about systems and how they reproduce and interact. It is no surprise then that the language of cybernetics and systems theory has come up again and again. Others might prefer to phrase these questions in terms of dialectical processes but we feel that we can avoid the mystifying baggage of the language of dialectics without losing any of the appreciation of how systems interact and are in a constant state of flux, and how viewing them from multiple vantage points yields a better understanding of the world we live in. This route of demystification was set out in the founding editorial, and the tension between accessible clarity and rigorous analysis has remained constant. If engagement is a measure of how successful our approach has been, then we have likely failed. However, with the other factors that affect engagement that we considered above, it is possibly too soon to say.

Existential questions

“There is so much unconsidered and naïve presupposition, so much evasion, illusion, and delusion, brazen mismatches between what people actually do and what they think they do, between the story they tell themselves and the reality of their impact on the world, between the grandiosity of their ambition and the misery of their actuality.” (EndNotes Collective).  

It is no surprise that the EndNotes 5 essay, “We Unhappy Few” has been quoted in multiple pieces published in The Black Lamp, dealing as it does with the logics and constraints that face the revolutionary wishing to engage in political organisation in a time of confusion. The law of sunk costs casts a long shadow across the history of political projects, moreso now than ever. There is a wry irony in our having to face these same existential questions and justify our own existence. Despite its modest output, a great deal of effort went into starting this publication, and therefore it feels out of the question to consider shutting it down after one year, despite seemingly failing to achieve many of the targets we set ourselves, and facing the same organisational failings that we set out to critique. The necessity of this self-critique is to grapple with some of these questions. Is there a mismatch - a delusion - between what we are actually doing and what we think we are doing? This project has a small output, engaged with by a small readership. It is not a necessary weapon in any future revolutionary fracture. Yet that does not diminish the quality of the essays published thus far, and if we are to continue we must do so with a level of humility that recognises the scale of the disjuncture between the tasks of the current moment to which there exists no clear answer, and the most modest contributions we have made - or indeed can make - via this publication. 

Is there a mismatch - a delusion - between what we are actually doing and what we think we are doing?

Shifting tack somewhat, the most common criticism levelled at The Black Lamp has been why start some publication rather than join a revolutionary political organisation? Although some of these questions will be addressed in an article this year, it is worth noting that there is no agreement on this question amongst the editorial collective. Certainly the minimum overhead in running The Black Lamp - both in terms of resource and effort - has meant that we have been free to pursue multiple political projects (indeed there is no reason to assume this has been the primary project for any individual either - something that may contribute to the issues raised above with regards to internal engagement). However, in justification of this project, a relevant quote comes from the volumes of Open Marxism:

“For, in Marx’s view, it is impossible to develop an effective political tactic without a concrete understanding of the particular situation in each country, the unique constellation of forces and the diverse forms of hegemony (to use Gramsci’s term). Any simple minded derivation of political tactics and goals from the abstract account of Capital alone must lead to an abstracted and irrelevant, even dangerous political tactic.” (Fracchia and Ryan)

In Fracchia and Ryan’s essay, the authors argue that the conceptual analyses in the volumes of Marx’s Capital “represents only a first but necessary step in Marx’s scientific project. The next step in that project is the move to the concrete presentation of the various, really existing bourgeois societies.” In however modest a way, this is the project that we are engaged in, and why The Black Lamp is ofcourse political in the simplest sense of how we go about collective decision making, and the information and analyses we have with which to make those decisions. This is the main justification for keeping this project alive for another year, before reassessing whether it is still viable, both in terms of organisational reproduction, and attempting to understand the world we inhabit.

Moving forward

With that it is worth setting some targets for the following year. Firstly an increased output, an increased variety of authors, and an increased variety of topics would be welcome, particularly with more concrete engagement with world. At an organisational level attempting to reinvigorate the editorial collective is necessary to ensure running The Black Lamp remains tenable.

It has been both a stimulating and frustrating year, as one might expect in any nascent project. We’d like to thank our contributors and readership for their support, and anyone with their own critique of The Black Lamp is always encouraged to get in touch and publish with us.

 Works cited

1. EndNotes Collective. “We Unhappy Few” in EndNotes 5. EndNotes Collective, 2016. P.27

2. Fracchia J., and Ryan C. “Historical-Materialist Science, Crisis and Commitment” in Open Marxism Volume II: Theory and Practice. Pluto Press, 1992, P.63.