VI. But wait, isn’t that Leninism?
I admit that what I just argued for sounds a lot like What is to Be Done, by the Russian revolutionary VI Lenin. Lenin advocated that revolutionary intellectuals have a responsibility to share Marxist theory with workers so that intellectuals will not dominate the party. I know a lot of people justifiably do not like What is to Be Done because it is associated with a Leninist practice that has justified all sorts of authoritarian nightmares. I don’t blame people for this. There is no excuse for the flaws in Lenin’s practice.
But just because Lenin did something does not automatically make it wrong – or right. To frame the argument that way is dogmatic. After all, Lenin also advocated for small groups of revolutionaries to actively intervene in struggle to challenge the hegemony of reformists in the movement, to eliminate obstacles to the insurrectionary energy of the working class. Some anarchists in Seattle today do exactly the same thing, basing their practice on Bonanno instead of Lenin. Does that make these folks secret anarcho-Leninists? Should we be suspicious of them because they have the self-organization necessary to put out well-made and timely leaflets that rip apart reformist arguments and encourage rebellion? Or because they publish and distribute attractive newspapers? Or because they intervene in demonstrations to back up the most militant people in motion and to prevent movement cops or peace police from holding back the upsurge? Lenin did all of these things too at various points in his life. All that means is that some anarchists happen to agree with him on these few points, while rejecting the more authoritarian aspects of his practice. We need to stop getting stuck on what happened or didn’t happen in 1917 and focus on what is to be done now. Studying history is important, but only if it is used as a weapon to defeat oppression and authoritarianism today.
At the same time, I am definitely NOT advocating a return to authoritarian and outdated Leninist organization building. The main problem with this approach is that it maintained a division between mental and manual labor. Capitalism creates this division – academics, scientists, philosophers, inventors, and capitalists create new ideas, and then workers carry them out in production. Historic Leninist parties reproduced this dynamic – Party leaders claimed to have the correct “science” that could guide the movement, and the workers in their orbit were the shock troops who would carry it out.
This completely corrupted the real, emancipatory aspects of science – constructing knowledge by experimenting in practice and learning from successes and failures. It embraced the authoritarian aspects of bourgeois science – passing down the results of past experiments as dogma to be memorized and implemented in order to produce results – and in the case of Soviet of Chinese state capitalism, that meant producing profits.
I saw this at play the other day when I went to a socialist meeting about ongoing labor struggles in Seattle. It was a really interesting meeting, with rank and file waterfront workers speaking out against racism on the job and highlighting the need to go beyond the limits of labor law. The room was full of rank and file union activists, many of them part of socialist parties. I raised the suggestion that union workers could resist ruling class attacks on us if we opened up our struggles to the rest of the working class, welcoming nonunionized and unemployed workers to participate as equals. In other words, when teachers are under attack, we could form rank and file groups of teachers to fight back against these attacks, but could welcome our students and their parents and other working class people to join our labor struggle as equals, making it a struggle about working class control of education, not just about our narrow contractual issues. When Longshore workers are under attack, they could form rank and file groups to fight back, but could welcome port truckers and other working class people to join them and to collectively plan actions to shut down the port to fight against the capitalists who are attacking all of us. Some people in the room came up to me afterwards and said they agreed with what I was saying.
However, one particular activist came up and said that my proposal would not work because the union activists would not be able to trust that the rest of the working class people there would have the intelligence and training necessary to struggle in an effective way that would not put everyone at danger. She mentioned Occupy Seattle as an example, saying that the movement was too uncoordinated and leaderless, and that she didn’t want to march side by side with people who might get her killed because of reckless tactics. ( To be clear, she was simply representing her own view, not necessarily her party’s.)
In response, I kept trying to explain how people in the movement know what we are doing, that we are developing increasingly sophisticated ways to organize, mobilize, and resist repression, and that we are teaching ourselves to do this without any condescending saviors. She did not recognize any of this… to her, if we didn’t have decades of experience in party and union training, we were not equipped to even participate in labor struggles, let alone co-lead them. This is a perfect example of condescending Leninism.
However, I’m worried that some people in the movement might just dismiss her as an old white socialist, instead of systematically defeating her arguments in both theory and practice. One of the most obnoxious and dangerous effects of this kind of Leninism is that it can produce an ugly mirror reflection – a tendency to reject all organization, all leadership, and all education as authoritarian.
If we go down this route we will never learn from any past experience, and we’ll be doomed to reinvent the wheel each movement upsurge, because we will scatter when the burnout, internal movement drama and gossip, pressures of working class life, and repression drive us out of the movement. We should not fetishize experience, but we should not dismiss it either – sometimes movement elders have learned it through a lot of painful mistakes, and even if they can’t always draw the necessary conclusions from those mistakes, we should learn from them so we don’t have to make them ourselves. Avoiding past mistakes frees us up to make new mistakes instead, so we can focus on experimenting today with what works and what doesn’t, advancing our theory and practice.
In my view, this socialist is right about one thing: noone should march into battle with anyone they don’t trust. And you should not trust anyone who you do not think is capable of thinking clearly under pressure. In fact, I think I saw a poster making the same point in the Wildcat anarchist space.
Where she goes wrong is her top-down, party leadership-focused view on how to build these capacities for intelligent action under pressure. She can’t see how people are learning how to do this through other forms of self-organization.
I reject the polemics thrown against the anarchists on May Day – that they are all privileged white boys, that they drove immigrant workers out of the struggle by putting people at risk, etc. There were many economic refugees active in the downtown May Day “general strike” activities, especially youth who walked out of their schools that day. However, it is a fact that the majority of the people down there were young. There were relatively few people there with their children. I think there is something to be said for the argument that oppressed people of all ages will only join a movement like this in large numbers if they are confident that the movement is organized enough to get their back if there are ICE raids, police violence, fascist attacks, etc. It is not enough for us to say we will get people’s backs, we need to show and prove it, and that takes more serious organization that we have right now. This is a point that several comrades have been trying to make for months, and I don’t think it’s being taken seriously enough.
Of course, we can’t push this point too far – working class economic refugees in Anaheim are rising up without any clear public organizational formation backing them (though this should not be seen as “spontaneity”, since there are probably deep networks in the community of self-organization that are hard for those of us on the outside to see).
Ultimately, people will struggle and will rise up without organizations or leaders initiating it. They will learn through struggle. But organization and working class leadership can help catalyze this process, which in turn makes this leadership no longer necessary because it becomes generalized throughout the working class, until the entire working class becomes “the vanguard”. That would be a revolution. Occupy claimed to be a “leaderfull, hence leaderless” movement. It also claimed to be the 99%. Both are goals, not realities, and we are deluding ourselves if we think we’ve gotten there already.
[This is part of a 10-part essay from the blog of our comrades in the Black Orchid Collective. More parts to follow. You can post comments here or to the discussion here: http://blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/between-the-leninists-and-the-clowns-avoiding-recklessness-and-professionalism-in-revolutionary-struggle/ -a.]