Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24
Let’s assume that a particular Leninist, Lenny, and a particular Anarchist, Ana, amicably agree on seeking a society in which people cooperatively and collectively control their own lives without anyone owning productive assets or otherwise occupying social positions that convey disproportionate power or wealth.
Lenny and Ana are both anti capitalist, anti sexist, anti racist, and anti authoritarian. They don’t want a few people are in the saddle while most are ridden. And Lenny and Ana are anti sectarian. Yet, Lenny and Ana still have a large difference that provides the focus of this essay.
Lenny says: “I seek classlessness, participation, and self management. But I cannot ignore today’s centers of economic, social, and political power. In our movement, I see our good aims, insights, and potential numbers, but I also see that we have tremendous baggage in the form of horribly destructive residual ideas, habits, prejudices, passivity, hostility, and so on.”
Lenny continues: “We need to deepen our insights and expand our solidarity. We need to enlarge our numbers and energies. Given our current situation, however, I believe we cannot accomplish this task in the same serene manner as how we will daily live in a humane future world. Instead we must struggle relentlessly, always seeking to win. And our choice of means to get things done must fit our conditions.”
Lenny concludes: “It is for these reasons that even while hating authoritarian structures, I nonetheless advocate that our movements should elevate a few advanced leaders into positions of special prominence and power. We need central authority to generate the disciplined unity essential for cohesive action against an implacable foe. I favor establishing a vanguard, not solely because some people accumulate more wisdom and wherewithal and therefore have more developed insights that we can all benefit from, but because most of us need direction from without, and even from above, if we are to escape enthrallment to our residual bad beliefs and bad habits. So do not criticize me as an advocate of dictatorship, hierarchy, or class rule – I hate all that. Do not call me macho, sexist, or racist. I hate all that. You will be accurate if you say that I accept, with a heavy heart, the necessity to temporarily use some of the master’s tools to escape not only the master, but the system that creates masters in any form at all.”
Ana, in contrast, says: “I seek classlessness, participation, and self management. But I cannot ignore today’s centers of economic, social, and political power. I see our good aims, insights, and potential numbers, but I also see that we have tremendous baggage in the form of residual residual ideas, habits, prejudices, passivity, hostility, and so on.”
Ana continues: “We need to deepen our insights and expand our solidarity. We need to enlarge our unified numbers and energies. Given our current situation, however, I believe we cannot accomplish this task in the same serene manner as we will daily live in a humane future world. Instead our choice of means to get things done must fit our conditions.”
Ana concludes: “It is for these reasons that I advocate diverse activism, militancy, study, and organization, relentlessly oriented to winning – even as I also adamantly reject elevating a few advanced leaders into positions of special prominence and power in vain hopes of their providing us with the discipline needed to align and develop. I instead favor self managing mechanisms. I of course see that some people develop unequally and accumulate more wisdom and wherewithal, and therefore have more developed insights we can all benefit from – but I realize that this must be utilized in ways that ensure that we will all find means to escape enthrallment to our bad beliefs and bad habits, including to passivity and obedience, something that elites will never achieve from a position of dominance, nor the rest of us from a position of subordination. Do not criticize me as an advocate of chaos and violence. I hate these. Do not call me anti-structure, I favor it. You will be accurate if you say I choose to address the difficulties that our baggage imposes on us without creating some authority to suppress the negatives because avoiding such authority is the only path by which we can escape not only the master, but also all systems that create masters in any form at all.”
What underlying conflict divides Lenny and Ana? It is not principles. It is views of the current world and what is needed to change it.
Lenny thinks the baggage we all carry in our views and habits is so destructive of our unity that it must be countered by elevating people who best get beyond most of that baggage to positions of power from which they can guide the rest of us, tow us, and even order us past not only external centers of power, but also our own inadequacies. But Lenny recognizes that this choice is dangerous. He knows the new power we elevate may rise to become an intractable enemy of justice. He knows the very existence of this new power may repulse so many who desire full freedom that we can’t reach the numbers we need. Tor Lenny, these are risks we must take, because he is sure that our own egocentrism, passivity, aggressiveness, doubts, arrogances, prejudices, and ignorance – if left uncontrolled – will so fragment, demoralize, and undermine us that they destroy our prospects.
Ana sees essentially the same conundrum: how do we advance toward a better future despite carrying the bad habits of the present, and despite that we must overcome a relentless foe. But when Ana weighs the relative merits and debits, she comes up with the opposite answer. For Ana, as risky as it is to try to institute future relations in the present with flawed people who will at times conflict, denigrate, betray, and resign – it would be even riskier to enshrine a few seemingly “advanced” people into positions that will suppress some difficulties but will distort others into even worse results.
The two stances are each plausible. Each is well motivated. Each could be right. It depends on the world we inhabit, including our own attitudes and habits. The worst views that scurry along in this debate, however, get really bad.
The worst Leninist – polarized by the desire to defend the act of advocating a center of power and influence – starts to lose track of the simple truth that centers of power and influence are a problem. He begins to extend his support for elite power as a temporary expedient to see it as a permanent good. The worst Leninist is so worried about popular inadequacies distorting popular initiatives and creativity, that he begins to not just dislike needless centrifugal differences, but to fear initiative and creativity per se. He starts to label the free choices of free people, chaos and disloyalty, utopianism and naiveté.
The worst anarchist – polarized by the desire to defend the act of opposing left centers of excessive power and influence, starts to lose track of the fact that disunity and lack of clarity in struggle is a problem, and begins to see agreement among many actors as a slippery slope toward obedience by many actors, initiative as a self serving grab for authority, exercising initiative as trying to establish hierarchy, and sharing views as foreshadowing mindlessness. Rejecting centralized power becomes rejecting sharing beliefs, agendas, discipline, and even effectiveness.
One attempt at resolution has been to claim the virtue of combining centralism and democracy. This approach was ill conceived, even when meant sincerely, because centralism is not on the plus end of the decision spectrum in any event, and democracy is far from a universal worthy decision making principle even if it is well adhered to. But that attempt to find a path, however flawed, raises the possibility of trying to do better.
What about combining three things instead of two: 1) prioritizing nurturing dissent without denigration, 2) prioritizing achieving informed coherence without conformity, and 3) prioritizing utilizing collective self management without fetishizing particular decision tools.
The first priority implies that when there are disagreements in a movement that shares overarching aims and principles, all sides should respect and seek to understand the reasons for disagreement and find avenues of mutual respect and exploration of contending views.
The second priority implies that movements should strive to develop participation in establishing and using concepts that will guide practice and especially participation in defining vision and program, and that this participation should be based not on following orders, but on serious consideration and deliberation.
And the third priority implies that there is no one right procedure to arrive at all decisions, but there is a right guiding norm which is that participants should – to the extent plausible and case by case – have a say proportionate to effects on them.
Can Lenny and Ana can get together – even if not to always work closely with one another? Can they be part of a large bloc of efforts, with mutual respect, if they both subscribe to the above three priorities and agree on structures to abet fulfilling them? Can both Lenny and Ana work to mitigate and reverse the worst inclinations among their respective activist communities – leninists and anarchists?
In short, can Lenny and Ana – and others – recognize the need for arriving at a patient and at least a somewhat new set of behaviors and practices, including jettisoning some past views they have championed. Hopefully each Lenny and each Ana will feel it is worth investigating this possibility.
If we look around the world, there are more Lennys in some places, and more Anas in other places. But the important recognition is that there are a lot of each, and being mutual respect and cooperation could be very constructive.
Of course, comprehensive solidarity would go beyond overcoming just the methodological conundrum highlighted above. There are also matters of prioritizing particular aspects of life versus preferring a more encompassing approach, and there may be some matters, as well, of actual vision. But I suspect if the above conundrum could be transcended, the rest could be as well.