Let's assume that a particular Leninist, Lenny, and a particular Anarchist, Ana, each sincerely want to attain a truly classless society. They do not represent all Leninists, or all Anarchists, but at least Lenny and Ana amicably agree on seeking a society in which people cooperatively and collectively control their own lives without anyone owning assets or otherwise occupying social positions that convey disproportionate power or wealth.
Lenny and Ana are both sincerely and deeply anti capitalist, anti sexist, anti racist, and anti authoritarian in their long run aims, as well as in their personal lives. They don't want humanity divided up so that a few people are in the saddle while most are ridden. And Lenny and Ana are not sectarian – so each knows the other is sincere. Yet, Lenny and Ana still have a large difference to resolve, and that difference provides the focus of this essay.
Lenny says: "For the future I seek classlessness, participation, and self management. In the present, however, I see today's enormous centers of economic, social, and political power. In our movement, I see our good will and good aims, our insights, and our potential numbers, but I also see that we have horribly destructive residual backward ideas, habits, prejudices, passivity, hostility, and so on."
Lenny continues: "Our task is to deepen our insights and expand our solidarity. We have to enlarge our unified numbers and energies in favor of our preferred new world. Given our current situation, however, I feel that we cannot accomplish this task in the same serene manner as how we will daily live in a humane, liberated, future world. Instead we must struggle relentlessly, always seeking to win. And with thugs now brandishing weapons of communication and coercion, our choice of means to get things done must fit our conditions."
And Lenny concludes: "It is for these reasons that even while hating authoritarian structures, I nonetheless advocate that our movements must 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. I favor establishing a vanguard, not just because some people inevitably develop unequally and accumulate more wisdom and wherewithal, and therefore have more developed insights and perhaps also more courage we can all benefit from, but because most of us, truth be told, 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. And 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 use some of the master's tools, albeit temporarily, to escape not only the master, but the system that creates masters in any form at all."
Ana, in contrast, says: "For the future I seek classlessness, participation, and self management. In the present, however, I see today's enormous centers of economic, social, and political power. I see our good will, good aims, good insights, and potential numbers, but I also see that we have tremendous baggage in the form of residual backward ideas, habits, prejudices, passivity, hostility, and so on."
Ana continues: "Our task is to deepen our insights and expand our solidarity. We have to enlarge our unified numbers and energies in favor of our preferred new world. Given our current situation – and particularly the corruptive and co-optive pressures of today – I feel that we cannot accomplish this task in the same serene manner as we will daily live in a humane, liberated, future world. With thugs now brandishing weapons of communications and coercion, our choices of means to get things done must fit our conditions."
Ana concludes: "It is for these reasons that I advocate diverse activism, militance, study, and organization, oriented relentlessly to winning – even as I also adamantly reject levanting 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 establishing self managing mechanisms. I see that some people develop unequally and accumulate more wisdom and wherewithal, and therefore have more developed insights and perhaps even more courage 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 do 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 endure 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."
So what is the underlying conflict between Lenny and Ana? Oddly, it is not about principles. It is about the 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 and clarity, 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. Lenny recognizes that this choice is dangerous. The new power that we elevate may rise to become an intractable enemy of justice. Short of that, the very existence of this new power may repulse so many who desire full freedom that we can't reach the numbers we need. All this is, for Lenny, a risk we must take, because Lenny is sure that our own egocentrism, passivity, aggressiveness, doubts, arrogances, prejudices, and ignorances – if left uncontrolled – will so fragment, demoralize, and undermine us as to destroy our prospects – even more than the risk of power gone wrong.
Ana sees essentially the same conundrum: how to advance toward a better future despite carrying the bad habits of the present, induced by our oppressive conditions, in our personalities and habits. 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 distort others to even worse results.
The two stances are each plausible, each well motivated, and each could be right – it depends on the world we inhabit. The worst views that hitch along in this debate, however, get really bad.
The worst Leninist – polarized by the desire to defend advocating having 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 initiative 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 opposing left centers of 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 as a slippery slope toward obedience, initiative as a self serving grab for authority, leadership as trying to establish hierarchy, and sharing views as foreshadowing mindlessness. Rejecting centralized power becomes rejecting sharing beliefs and agendas, discipline, and even effectivity.
One attempt at a solution to attaining focus, coherence, and effectivity without giving up participation, initiative, and creativity, 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 decision making principle even if it is well adhered to. But the attempt to find a path, however flawed, does suggest trying to do better.
What about combining three things instead of two: a priority to nurture dissent without denigration, to achieve informed coherence without conformity, and to utilize collective self management without fetishizing particular decision tools?
The first priority implies that when there are disagreements inside 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. The second priority implies that movements should strive to develop participation in defining concepts to guide its practice and especially its vision and program, and that this participation should not be based 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. Participants should – to the extent plausible and case by case – have a say proportionate to effects on them. In general, this leads to federations of units each in part responsible for the whole, but of course with greater responsibility for its own pursuits.
Without belaboring, I think Lenny and Ana can get together – even if not to always work closely with one another. They can certainly to 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. What succeeding at this depends on, however, is both Lenny and Ana recognizing 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. Why care? Because if we look around the world, there are more Lennys in some places, and more Anas in other places, but, all in all, there are a lot of each, and getting together could be very constructive.
Of course, real solidarity goes beyond overcoming just the methodological conundrum highlighted above. There are also matters of prioritization of aspects of life versus preferring a more encompassing approach, and there may be some matters, as well, regrettably, of actual vision. But I suspect if the above conundrum could be transcended, the rest could be, at least over time, as well. Supposing, that is, that both sides could see this as reaching for a new identity all around, rather than as adopting either Leninism or Anarchism.