Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement....and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy.
— “What Is To Be Done?,” “The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats”
Perhaps the defining characteristic of Leninism as a distinct political philosophy is his revolutionary strategy developed in his text What is To Be Done?, published in 1901. In the text. Lenin describes the repressive conditions of the political situation in Czarist Russia at the turn of the century and the potential vectors of revolt at that point from his perspective (which, it turns out, is “objective” and “scientific”! How lucky!). The text describes a backward feudal society completely controlled by the Czar and his police. Surveillance is near total and any attempts at economic blockades or even passive demonstration are met by brutal repression by the royal police force. Furthermore, there was little to no revolutionary momentum or theory coming from Russia at the time, outside of the Nihilist movement
Lenin proposes that the spontaneous self-organization of the working class has as its limit “trade union consciousness” which can only negotiate conditions inside of market society and cannot develop the force necessary to overcome it. The only solution to this problem. Lenin believes, is to form secret, conspiratorial bands which will intervene in the struggle of the working class to beat back liberalism and to help develop an insurrectionary fervor. These groups, called cadres, would be federated with nuclei in the factories. Cadres would report back to the central committee of the Bolshevik Party, which would consolidate the information brought back and decide the strategic course of action at that point. When an insurrection begins, the Party will team with the advanced layers of the working class and their most revolutionary organizations and groups to “seize state power” with which to launch a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
I do not believe that I have straw-manned the position of Lenin, although it is likely that I am inaccurate about some of the details. I have not thoroughly read What is to be Done?, but I have read several sections and I’ve discussed the text with self-described Leninists many times. Furthermore, I have read online overviews and watched short introductory videos. In short. I do not claim to be an expert — so excuse any inaccuracies. Regardless. I believe this to be the basic position Lenin holds.
Remember that the State, according to Lenin, is simply an instrument of class oppression. Thus, once it is used by the Party to obliterate class distinctions, state functions will become totally redundant. The State will ‘wither away.” bringing us to full Communism.
Cadres vs. Affinity Groups: Similarities and Differences
Cadres: A cadre is a tight-knit group of professional revolutionaries who intervene in social movements and working class organizations according to the needs and recommendations of the larger coordinating body (i.e. the central committee). While cadres have relative autonomy because they are federated, they are not expressions of legitimate self-organization. Their membership guidelines preclude free association, while the party structure that governs them enforces ideological hegemony and conformity. Although in “democratic centralism” debate is encouraged individuals are expected to go along with the majority decision. How this is distinct from contemporary bourgeois democracy is unclear to me.
Affinity Groups: The affinity group is the basic unit of most anarchist organizing. especially from currents directly or indirectly influenced by Italian and North American insurrectionary anarchism. Affinity groups are essentially small, closed, informal groups of people who share a common goal, common knowledge and who have come together to directly achieve their goals. “Common goals” can be anything from “smash the windows out of the Niketown” to “make some leaflets before the march” to “hold the banner together.” Affinity groups coordinate and organize themselves autonomously. They intervene however they see fit, but usually with some level of consideration for the plans of larger formations. “Common knowledge” means that each person in the affinity group has a general idea of everyone else’s expectations, temperament, and how they will feel about the action they take following its execution, especially in the event of repression or failure. Affinity groups are normally between 3 and 10 people and come together only for a particular set of actions (ie. informally).
Affinity is developed through discussion and shared experience. Affinity is not short-hand for “friendship,” although it is often the case that people form affinity groups with those they are closest to socially. There are certainly limits to affinity-group organizing, especially in periods of open insurrection when it may be necessary to involve upwards of 100 people in infrastructural attacks (as happened in the December 2008 uprising in Greece), but they are still the basic unit of an autonomous uprisings. Organizing by affinity allows wide sectors of the population to develop critical thinking skills, the confidence to take initiative, and higher capacity to organize and coordinate combative activity, as well as providing for each person’s material and emotional needs.
Self-organization vs. Substitutionism
Anarchist affinity groups, and affinity groups in general, are expressions of autonomous self organization. They do not seek to represent the “interests” of any group of people and they act purely according to the desires of those involved. Affinity group organizing does not seek to over determine the field of legitimate human activity, nor does it succumb to the liberal traps of democracy or formalism. Affinity groups are formed any time groups of people come together to act. This is the type of self-organization seen in Montreal 2011, France 2005, Italy 1977, Algeria 2001, and, of course, Seattle 1999.
On the other hand, cadre organizations see themselves as the legitimate agents of a social clash. They need to control, oversee, and defend the movement against capital which, unfortunately for them, is overrun with “unconscious” masses. Cadres seek to perform a specialized task so that they can substitute themselves for the revolting people. For cadres, unruliness and ungovernability are problems that must be overcome. Cadres must build up legitimacy in working class organizations, usually without revealing themselves, so that they can exercise disproportionate influence over decisions. In this way, they are authoritarian and destructive to any liberatory project.
We could say this another way: Anarchists, as anti-representational catalysts of destabilization and revolt, experience themselves as forms of life incompatible with all domination. The cadre sees itself as the touched-up image of a revolting populace in the theater of political life.
A few thoughts on “armed struggle”
One particular strategy of Marxism-Leninism Maoism, especially popular in the 1970s, is the strategy of the “armed vanguard.” The idea is essentially that a nuclei or cadre will arm itself, go underground, and levy armed clashes with the State. This specialized activity cannot be done by most sectors of the population and will, therefore, nurture awe and respect for the “Revolutionary Organizations.”
This strategy is a strategy of substitutionism, like many Leninist projects. As has been mentioned elsewhere the force of insurrection is social, not military. The question is not quantitative, as in how much damage was done to capitalist infrastructure or how many were killed, but rather qualitative: How deep has the practice of revolt spread in society?
Anarchists do not seek to constitute ourselves as a counter-subject, a counter-state, which will wage war with the existing state and eventually overcome it. Anarchists seek to create a livable and endless state of exception whereby society has made itself completely unrulable.
In recent years, anarchists in some places have adopted the urban guerrilla strategy, language, and esthetic of the Maoists. They insist they are not a vanguard, but words are not enough. Much has been written on the subject and I will not go further into it here.
Recommended reading all available on theanarchistlibrary.org: “At Daggers Drawn,” “Open Letter to the Anarchist Galaxy,” and “Armed Joy.”
“Seizing State Power”
The State exists for its own reasons but Leninists and most Marxists make the argument that the State is simply a tool of the bourgeoisie and that its functions should be taken over by the Party to repress their political opponents. Let’s be absolutely clear about what this means, because Leninists always try to avoid the facts about this situation: In order the repress the bourgeoisie or the “enemies of the revolution/state” — including anarchists and other “infantile” ultra-leftists — the Party wants to become the government.
The “dictatorship of the proletariat” needs very specific things to exercise its control:
Police to round up perceived class enemies,
Courts to judge them in,
Prisons to hold them in, and
A centralized military to defend from outsiders.
It is common for Leninists to critique “the capitalist state,” “racist police,” and the “privatized prison system.” These phrases have the appearances of radicalism. The terms “capitalist,” “racist” and “privatized” seem to be modifying the nouns “state,” “police,” and “prison.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. They are using distinct nouns. Leninists are not against the State, like anarchists are. They are against this state. They are not against police. They are against these police. They are against these prisons. The problem of the State, for Leninists, is an administrative question. In their eyes, the wrong regime holds power.
In this light we can see them for what they are: the most extreme social democrats for a drastically reformed state. The mode of this reform is revolution. That is perhaps the most profound difference between Leninists and Scandinavian-style social democrats who believe in the vote.
In any case, “seizing state power” is an obscene idea in today’s world. The State is no longer the primary impetus of domination in today’s Empire. To add to the directory of independent countries” only contributes to our current asphyxiation. The enemy today confronts us as a set of governing practices dispensed in a permanent state of global counter insurgency, not just as a class of dastardly expropriators. The entire project of constructing People’s governments failed miserably in every single attempt. Even if it was simply the fault of outside forces, that reality is something Lenin’s followers are going to have to account for.
The true contrary of the proletariat is not the bourgeoisie. It is the bourgeois world, imperialist society, of which the proletariat, let this be noted, is a notorious element, as the principal productive force and as the antagonistic political pole... To say proletariat and bourgeoisie is to remain within the bounds of the Hegelian artifice: something and something else. Why? Because the project of the proletariat, its internal being, is not to contradict the bourgeoisie, or to cut its feet from under it. This project is communism, and nothing else. That is, the abolition of any place in which something like a proletariat can be installed. The political project of the proletariat is the disappearance of the space of the placement of classes. It is the loss, for the historical something, of every index of class.
—“Theory of Worlds,” pg. 7
Socialism sucks: All power to the communes!
A critique of Lenin can’t be made in a vacuum Lenin is one of the most famous and respected socialists in the world. I’d like to take some time to shit-talk socialism as a political category and as a theoretical system. I’d like to make the case that socialism is not an alternative system to capitalism at all and that its proponents are not even communists. Socialism is a system of distribution inside of a capitalist economy. Socialism preserves the labor-capital relationship and the alienation of human labor. Socialism even preserves the value-form and the general M-C-M’ formula of capitalism.
Capitalism is a set of social relations whereby wealth is extracted from human activity. The general formula for this relationship, one that is vague enough to account for many types of capitalist management and distribution, is Money-Commodity-More Money (M-C-M’). In this setup everything is subjected to the demands of the economy. It’s also important to remember that capitalism developed in the terrain of many other imbalanced social relations, including patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity. I am not going to go too much into the details about capitalism here, but others have offered compelling and full analyzes of the revolutionary mode of production.
Socialism is extreme reformism
Socialism is a system of government that radically re-defines the legal regime of property (most obviously from “private” to “public”). Capitalists are no longer allowed to hold property and they are repressed for trying. The representatives inside of the Party control the property. But we know that there is a huge difference between “public property” and “no property.” Under socialism, the M-C-M’ equation is preserved and the capitalists are replaced with bureaucrats inside of the Party. This is a well-known critique of socialism even among “ordinary people.”
If we are still compelled to work by factors outside of our control where we are still producing wealth and value for others to enjoy, and we still must suffer the boredom and misery of industrial metropolitan society, aren’t we still living under capitalism? Socialists (including Leninists and other authoritarians) are quick to point out the standard of living of the masses of citizens in socialists countries but this begs a question: is socialism simply a welfare state on steroids?
Socialization and the legal regime of bureaucratic capitalism
Capitalism as a mode of production is composed of different parts. The most obvious parts include the working humans and those who oversee the extraction of value from their behavior (these people almost always profit from that behavior, but I suppose that’s not necessary). Capitalism is reproduced because people keep behaving in ways that produce value. This is, of course, a tautology. The community of capital is why there is capitalism. Everyday life under capitalism is capitalism. The only way to destroy capitalism is to destroy the value-form and all relations of exchange through the negative projects of collective self-negation and communization.
Is this a quantitative question or a qualitative one? All things indicate to me that socialism is, in fact, capitalism in its nicest possible form.
Until it can be illustrated that socialism is something other than a redistribution of wealth, it should still be considered an element of capitalist accumulation and political economy.
Furthermore, it is an apparent strategy of authoritarian politics to equivocate the meanings of the people,” “the state,” or “the party.” These keywords are deeply coded, but they all mean the same thing: small groups of people controlling others, often by pretending to be on their side.
To quote from a particularly popular iconoclast—
A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “i, the state, am the people.
A few tentative conclusions
Anarchy and Leninism are distinct. There is an ocean between the tension of anarchy and the positive political program of Marxist-Leninism.
Anarchy is the destruction of all authority, the destabilization of all control, the unruly indulgence of lust and passion, the Dionysian explosion of Life and excess. The anarchist sprints forward infinitely past the tyranny of the “possible” and toward living life to the fullest. The anarchist seeks to develop the material solidarities to provide for one another’s emotional, mental, spiritual and physical needs in the present tense, so that we may launch a counter-attack against everything that has made us ashamed of our bodies and our dreams and so that we may encounter worlds we never considered before.
The positive project of Marxism-Leninism seeks to impose a new world of Order. They seek to construct a reality of scientific coherence whereby the current categories of society may fully realize themselves. For the Leninist, life is always elsewhere. Although they speak of communism, they aim to build a new socialist government. The Leninist believes so little in the human capacity to self-organize and in the capacity of individuals to take their lives into their own hands, that they command strict adherence to a Party of technocrats and intellectuals.
In any case, the relative irrelevance and lack of traction among young people toward Lenin should be relieving for anarchists. In this context, we shouldn’t trap ourselves into identitarian ghettos. Insurrection is a social event. In the coming years, we may find allies in strange places. That being said, we should collaborate with other groups on our own terms as distinct autonomous partisans with our own ideas about how struggles should move forward. Our collaboration with Leninists should be contingent and relative to our level of affinity with individuals on a limited scope for specific purposes. We should work with them informally whenever possible for the mutual gain of all. This general strategy, of course, rewards the anarchist spirit more than the Leninist tendency, as Leninists tend to hesitate initiating meaningful radical intervention in the social clash.
Although we should not back down from critiquing authoritarian socialists, we should recognize their relative weakness in the current context. It can be important for anarchists to establish the autonomous space for anarchy by distancing themselves from the Left. While that is important, we shouldn’t focus too much energy on defining ourselves in a positive sense — the better to recuperate our efforts! There is an entire social terrain to find accomplices and friendships. We should focus on building those necessary complicities in anticipation of the social clash with domination. Once we have established the necessary distance between anarchist spaces and the Leninist Parties, we should shift to a general strategy of ignoring them completely. when it comes to organization, except for when we may be able to work together.