The Tyranny of the Consciousness-Raisers: Leninism, Anarchism and Jesus

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The bourgeoisie came to power because it was the class of the developing economy. The proletariat will never come to embody power unless it becomes the class of consciousness.

– Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967.

I am a recovering anarchist, by which I mean: I am a recovering Leninist… In my imagination I attend meetings of Leninists Anonymous, and just like the mantra spoken by each member at the opening of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I must repeat the phrase: I am a Leninist.

“What madness,” I hear you splutter, “…is this?”

Here is a simple and basic definition of successful Leninism: Leninism is the revolutionary strategy whereby a Party representing the working classes establishes a dictatorship in a region in the name of the proletariat and since they perceive themselves as the genuine voice of the proletarians – whose historic destiny is to abolish capitalism and the state – they allow their government to be referred to simply as a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Once their dictatorship is established there are three remaining tasks. The first is to resist the military intervention of hostile powers. The second is to improve the economy so that the extra surplus can be spent on educating the masses and continuing to repel internal and external hostile forces; the third is to raise the consciousness of the masses to the point whereby communism can be properly established. Improving the economy and the education of the masses are the essential components of the ‘transitional program’ that will inaugurate communism. For Lenin communism could never be established immediately in Russia because of the internal and external pressures on the new State and, more importantly, the fact that the workers were not yet sufficiently mature enough to fully understand where their best interests lay and how to obtain them. They needed first to accept the authority of the Bolsheviks and then they had to be educated.

The first difference between anarchists and Leninists is that the anarchists believe that communism can be established at the moment of revolution by creating a region-wide system of direct democracy – whereby all people are involved in all decisions and those tasked with implementing decisions are subject to instant recall/replacement by peoples’ councils. Lenin was against the anarchists because he thought that a revolution would be swiftly paralysed by such a strategy. The second difference is that anarchists do not organize their groups with an official membership hierarchy – they resist the notion of an official leader.

What Leninism and anarchism have in common is the principle that the proletariat needs to raise its consciousness to such a level that it understands not only the fullness of its power but the necessity of ending capitalism. That is, the working class needs to arrive at either a Leninist or an anarchist consciousness. Both persuasions believe that a ‘violent’ revolution is inevitable – but whereas the anarchists believe that once ‘power’ is seized it will be redistributed immediately to all, the Leninists believe that power needs to fall into and remain in the hands of the Party until society is ready for communism. While the anarchist tendency believes that the sudden emergence of popular direct democracy will contain, or restrain, the malcontents and oppositionists, and appeal to the doubters, the Leninists are not so confident in people and believe that the revolution will have to be defended with a strong Party leadership in charge of military discipline across society – because, of course, when a revolution happens not every single person is suddenly on the side of the revolution.

The key to communism then, is the raising of the consciousness of the masses to such a level that their natural impulses will be ‘communistic.’ The anarchists think this will happen prior to the revolution, then during the revolution and soon after by ‘organic’ means. The Leninists think that while the revolution will both demonstrate the rising consciousness of sections of the working class and express the widespread discontent of the workers in spectacular form that does not mean that they are yet ready – en masse – for communism.

In Lenin’s text, What is to be Done?, he quotes Karl Kautsky:

“Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously. Accordingly, the old Hainfeld programme quite rightly stated that the task of Social-Democracy [revolutionaries] is to imbue the proletariat (literally: saturate the proletariat) with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task. There would be no need for this if consciousness arose of itself from the class struggle.”

Lenin explains:

“This does not mean, of course, that the workers have no part in creating such an ideology. They take part, however, not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians, as Proudhons and Weitlings; in other words, they take part only when they are able, and to the extent that they are able, more or less, to acquire the knowledge of their age and develop that knowledge… Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers… The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is only able to develop trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.” (my italics)

So, education is the key – the question is then: how is it to be delivered? The Leninists would say that education is the task of the professional revolutionaries – they need to educate enough proletarians to be able to seize power so that they can then educate the rest of society. The anarchists are not so sure about this… They also think that activists should attempt to educate the masses, but when it comes to the revolution – when the revolutionary ‘forces’ may even still be in a minority – they hope that the message will quickly spread in an organic way, without the need for the iron discipline of a Party leadership.

This is why a practical fellow such as Slavoj Žižek has little time for the anarchists and declares “I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it.

We can also see that Marx is a Leninist (whoa! Get back in the Tardis!) when he argues that the ‘veil’ of ideology that capitalism generates – which determines that the products of labor have value as commodities and that labor itself is a value and commodity serving the apparently natural processes of capitalism (a notion supported by Christianity/Protestantism) and which leads to all sorts of mystifications – obscures for most people their true social relations and can only be removed when society itself returns the products and direction of labor to the laborers themselves. That is, when all the means of production and all decisions regarding the means of production lie equally in the hands of all the producers.

Marx writes:

“The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e., the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control. This, however, requires that society possess a material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, which in their turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development.”

So, first of all, society needs to get to the capitalist stage because only then is the material basis of global communism essentially established; then society needs to get to a point where enough people realise the simultaneous horror and potential of capitalism that a revolution will occur; then the economy needs to be modernised and transformed. Lenin in 1920, in a speech to the Russian Young Communist League: “You know that… only after electrification of the entire country, of all branches of industry and agriculture… will you be able to build for yourselves the communist society.

So, for Lenin, it is only after the means of production have fallen into the hands of the masses that the masses will be able to learn communism… but until they really know what to do with the means of production it is better for the Party to manage things. So… a strong Party leadership is required for the interim period in which the economy is upgraded and refined and during which the masses will come on board.

We know, of course, that there has never been a ‘communist/Leninist/Maoist’ revolution in a region where capitalism is fully developed – where Marx predicted it should appear. Russia was considered by Lenin as industrially ‘backward’ and this is why he saw his prime task as being to accelerate industrialization there – and he gambled in the meantime (and it was definitely a time saturated in meanness) that he could also accelerate the communist education of the masses.

The anarchists, too, think that everyone needs educating and indeed they were way ahead of Lenin in understanding that workers needed to go beyond ‘trade union consciousness.’ In his detailed history of that period, Rudolf Rocker, explains how it was the ‘anti-statist/anti-party-ist’ anarchists associated with Mikhail Bakunin – all expelled from the First International by Marx and his tendency in 1872 – who first came up with the notion of ‘workers councils’ that are able to move beyond the ideological limitations of the unions.

This council system was elaborated at the 1869 conference of the First International by Eugène Hins, who was part of the anarchist/Bakuninist tendency: “By this double form of organization of local workers’ associations and general alliances for each industry, on the one hand the political administration of the committees, and on the other, the general representation of labour, regional, national and international, will be provided for. The councils of the trade and industrial organizations will take the place of the present government, and this representation of labor will do away, once and for ever, with the governments of the past.”

But this grassroots-based democratic strategy was considered too risky for Marx, who favoured a more direct – or Jacobinist,’ as Georges Sorel defined it – seizure of power. Consequently, these anarchist elements were expelled from the International. Ironically for the Marxists, the council idea was reborn in the form of ‘soviets’ in Russia in 1905 and 1917 – but the Lenin and Trotsky moved quickly, and bloodily, to eliminate the autonomy of the soviets and loyal Bolsheviks were soon put in charge.

But I am straying from the point I am attempting to make here. The point is that the anarchists had clear ideas about how and why the consciousness of the workers needed to be raised. As I mentioned, they pre-empted Kautsky and Lenin in their assessment that workers on their own could only achieve a ‘trade union consciousness.’ Bakunin’s ‘spin’ on consciousness-raising was that he emphasised the educative benefits of ‘action,’ but the action had to be prompted by the revolutionaries: “The great mass of the workers… is unconsciously Socialistic… Our object, therefore, is to make him [sic] conscious of what he [instinctively] wants, to awaken in him a clear idea that corresponds to his instincts.”

While Kautsky and Lenin wanted the workers to submit to the wisdom of the revolutionaries, Bakunin wanted the workers to come to their senses through ‘action’: “The liberation of the Proletariat must be the work of the Proletariat itself, says the preface to our general statute (The International). And it is a thousand times true! This is the main foundation of our great association. But the working class is still very ignorant. It lacks completely every theory. There is only one way out therefore, namely – Proletarian liberation through action.” But, in reality, Bakunin goes nowhere near eradicating the role of the ‘professional revolutionary’ or the notion of the ‘leadership/vanguard of ideas.’ Whether socialist consciousness is to be awakened by the work of theorists who encourage education, or theorists who encourage ‘action’… it can be clearly seen that Kautsky, Lenin, and Bakunin agreed: “Socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without.”

What Bakunin actually disagreed on was the need for a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ – or a ‘transitional period’ between revolution and communism – because he saw that phenomenon as a re-creation of the authoritarian State, and he knew that it would be a ‘proletarian dictatorship’ in name only. But the anarchists were indeed confused and this is why they were swept away in 1918. The confusion lay in the problem of consciousness-raising. How can a radical, egalitarian, democratic nationwide or international system of government be suddenly established if the majority of those subject to the new system are not properly conscious of the benefits of communism and the specific ways communism should be established? No wonder that Žižek still insists: “I am a Leninist, if you can grab power take it.”

So, the essence of revolutionary theory is that the vehicle for revolutionary upheaval is the working classes but that they require the correct consciousness to be fully developed in them before communism can be established. The question, then, is whether it is better to raise consciousness to a sufficient level prior to the revolution, or to complete the work after the revolution. The anarchists tend towards the first strategy and so, when it comes to the crunch, and a revolution is successful, the Leninists always win. The only way the anarchists could ever win would be to accept their Leninism – to fully embrace their elitism – and take power on behalf of the masses.

It transpires, of course, that Leninism found out historically that it could never allow communism, as Žižek perhaps unintentionally notes for Mao. And the anarchists, if they had ever been ‘successful,’ would have found out the same thing – because, in our society, and as every cult leader discovers… when can you ever completely trust your ‘children’?

Raising consciousness is a process that must separate the subject from all wrongness, or ‘false consciousness’ as Debord would write, and which must be practised in the heart – and only the raisers of consciousness know exactly what the new consciousness is. In the end, of course, a raised consciousness is simply a new loyalty to another ideology and, more importantly, the proponents of that ideology. As Jesus said:

“Do not assume that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.

“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”

Further references.

Debord, Guy, 1967, The Society of The Spectacle, Donald Nicholson-Smith (trans.), Zone Books, NY 1994.

Marx, Karl, 1867, Capital, A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Ben Fowkes (trans.), Penguin Books, London 1976.

Slezkine, Yuri, 2017, The House of Government, Princeton University Press, NJ.

Peter Harrison wrote ‘The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control,’ and co-authored ‘Nihilist Communism: A Critique of Optimism in the Far Left.’ For work Harrison drives a bus.  Email: